Local News: The Presbytery of the Mississippi Valley (PCA) will be meeting at Twin Lakes Camp and Conference Center in Florence, Mississippi on Tuesday, November 5. To learn more about this meeting, go to www.msvalley.org
This week, 1,562 years ago, the Council of Chalcedon came to a close. Chalcedon, the fourth ecumenical council of the early church, was convened to address the controversy of how Christ could be both God and man. The council’s conclusion, based on the apostles’ testimony in the Bible, is that Christ had two natures—both a human nature and a divine nature. This was to counter those who’d said that Christ was only partly divine or partly human.
1. Recap of the Council of Chalcedon
According to Phillip Schaff’s classic book, Creeds of Christendom Vol. 1, Chalcedon specifically addressed the controversial teachings of Eutyches and Nestorius.
It is true that the Church Fathers use much philosophical, non-Biblical language to articulate the “hypostatic union”—a divine and human nature uniting at the incarnation in the one person, Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God. Many have criticized it on those grounds, arguing that the early church “added to Scripture” to arrive at its doctrine of Christ the God-Man. However, as Schaff noted, the church wasn’t intending to exhaustively probe the depths of how God could become a human being.
Such a mystery is past finding out. Rather, as had been the case at the Nicene Council, the first ecumenical council, Chalcedon’s goal was to merely erect a boundary that would distinguish orthodoxy from unorthodoxy. The council, as Schaff explains, “indicates the essential elements of Christological truth, and the boundary lines of Christological error.”
Not every church at the time accepted Chalcedon’s conclusions. The Monophysite, or “Non-Chalcedonian” churches—the church of Egypt, Armenia, Ethiopia, and Syria, for example—rejected the language of the council and to this day are separated from the broader Eastern Orthodox communion. It’s not so much that the Monophysite churches reject the truth that Christ is fully God and fully Man. They do, however, reject Chalcedon’s language explaining how Christ is both God and Man.
2. Summary of the Council’s Christology
“Christology” is a theological term, which means “study of Christ”. Historically, it’s hard to overstate the significance of the Council of Chalcedon’s articulation of who Christ is. As Schaff summarized, there are seven key themes that arise from Chalcedon:
A. A true incarnation of the second person in Godhead. God’s Spirit didn’t simply come upon the man, Jesus, at his baptism. From the moment of conception, human nature and the divine nature met together in the person of Jesus. To hammer this point home, Chalcedon calls the Virgin Mary “Theotokos”, which, when translated into English means “God-bearer”. Jesus didn’t “become God” at some point in his earthly life, but was both God and Man at the moment of the Incarnation. Jesus derived his human nature, not his divine nature, from Mary, and yet because she gave birth to God Incarnate—a single person with two natures—it is accurate to say that she was the “Mother of God”. The divine nature in Jesus didn’t overshadow or eliminate the human nature, nor did the human nature eliminate the divine. In Christ, there was, to quote Schaff, “an actual and abiding union of the two in one personal life”.
B. The precise distinction between “Nature” and “Person”. Further elaborating the first point, this means that Jesus took human nature upon himself. In doing this, as Schaff explains, “he redeemed, not a particular man, but all men as partakers of the same nature”.
C. The God-Man as the result of the Incarnation. Christ was described as not being a “double being” with “two persons”, one human and the other divine, but as being a single person “both divine and human”. As Rev. Lane Townsend, formerly of Toomsuba Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) likes to explain it, Christ is not 50% man and 50% God, but 100% God and 100% man.
D. The duality of the natures. At this point, Chalcedon explained that there is no confusion of the natures, meaning that the divine nature remains forever intact and distinct from the human nature, and the human nature remains forever intact and distinct from the human. Nevertheless, these two natures unite in one person, living one life.
E. The unity of the Person. As Schaff explains, “The union of the divine and human nature of Christ is a permanent state resulting from the incarnation, and is a real, supernatural, personal, and inseparable union… The two natures constitute but one personal life, and yet remain distinct.”
F. The whole work of Christ is to be attributed to his person, and not to the one or the other nature exclusively. This means that when Christ died, his whole person was involved—both his human nature and divine nature. When he rose from the dead, his whole person was involved, both the human nature and divine nature. As Schaff explains, it was his human nature which made it possible for Christ to succumb to suffering and death, and yet it was his divine nature which gave Christ’s suffering and death infinite merit and value. Similarly, when Christ rose from the dead, he was raised as one person. The risen Christ hadn’t shed his humanity. He remained fully God and fully man, his human nature having been raised from the dead.
G. The “impersonality” of the human nature of Christ. Schaff explains that this doctrine, worded somewhat confusingly, means that “Christ’s human nature had no independent personality of its own, besides the divine, and that the divine nature is the root and basis of his personality”.
Summing up the Council, Schaff states: “The Council of Chalcedon is far from exhausting the great mystery of godliness, ‘God made flesh’. It leaves much room for a fuller appreciation of the genuine, perfect, and sinless humanity of Christ… and for the discussion of other questions connected with his relation to the Father and to the world, his person and his work… Within these limits, theological speculation may safely and freely move.”
3. Why Chalcedon matters
With all of the highly technical wording of so much of the Chalcedon creed, it is easy to miss how relevant the truths being communicated are and always will be. “Wasn’t the early church just being nitpicky?” is a thought that, if we’re honest, has likely crossed our mind at some point or other. Today, there is such an emphasis on being “practical”. We often are just as concerned that our religion “work”, that it tangibly improve our day to day life, as we are that it be “true” in the abstract.
That Christ was both human and divine is not just some speculative theory for theologians to sit and pontificate about; it is an immensely practical doctrine. It is at the core of the Gospel itself. The Church Fathers insisted that Christ had to be fully human to atone for the sins of humans—“He was made like his brothers in every way, yet was without sin”—and that he had to be fully God in order for his death on the cross to be of infinite value, able to atone for the sins of the whole world.
As Luther’s Catechism says, “No creature could make satisfaction for our sins. Only Christ, true God and true Man, could do that.” If we get away from the truth of Christ being “true Man” and “true God”, the Gospel is in jeopardy. Thank God for the Council of Chalcedon.