Yesterday we looked at the events leading up to the Council of Chalcedon. Today we will look at the Council and its outcome.
In 451, Emperor Marcion and Empress Pulcheria called for a council to convene in Chalcedon, a small town within sight of Constantinople. More than five hundred bishops attended, almost all of them from the part of the church from the eastern empire. With Attila the Hun invading the western half of the empire, bishops from the Western church were unable to attend the council. Apart from the danger of traveling, they were facing a massive power vacuum left by the retreating Roman forces. Still, Leo, bishop of Rome deeply understood the significance of the decision of the council. He sent a letter, known as Leo’s Tome, which argued that Christ had two natures in one person. While he was absent from the deliberations, Leo’s views provided a guiding voice at the council.
the two parties
In addition to the heresies we looked at yesterday, there were two main factions dividing the majority of the church: the Antiochenes, based in Antioch, and the Alexandrians, based in Alexandria.
When looking at the question of how Jesus could be both God and man, the Antiochenes tended to emphasize Jesus’ humanity, sometimes at the expense of His divinity. This school of thought argued that without being fully human, Christ could not have saved humanity. Many teachers within this camp focused on the human example we see of Jesus in the Gospels.
The Alexandrians emphasized Christ’s divinity and His unity of person. They tended to allow His divinity to overshadow, or in some cases, completely overtake, His humanity. Their teachers saw the Jesus in the Scriptures as a divine encounter between God and man. Christ was our teacher of divine truth.
While both sides agreed that Christ was human and divine, they disagreed over how the church should understand and teach that union.
the council meets
Obeying the emperor’s command, the bishops gathered in Chalcedon and met in October 451. They listened to the various positions, eventually siding with Leo’s Tome. They collectively agreed that Christ had two natures in one person, thereby rejecting Eutychianism. They affirmed that Christ was fully God and fully man. In many ways, it was easier for the council to say what wasn’t true of Christ. By simply stating that Jesus was fully God and fully man, in one person, the bishops affirmed what they saw in the Scriptures and restrained themselves from saying more than the Bible had made clear.
Some disagreed with the decision of the council. Several groups continued to affirm that while Christ was fully God and fully man, He had only one nature. This idea became known as Monophysitism. Immediately after the Council of Chalcedon, we see the first of three major schisms in the church. At this point, some of the Eastern churches broke off and remain independent to this day. While they agree with the rest of the church on every other critical issue, the Coptic Church of Egypt, Ethiopic Church, Lebanese Church, Maronite Church, and Armenian Church continue to believe Christ had one nature, not two.
Not only did the council result in the first schism of the church, the seeds were planted for the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Church in 1054. The immediate issue was resolved, but tension remained between a church divided not only by distance but cultures as well.
In spite of this, the Council of Chalcedon was an enormous victory. The bishops came together to affirm what the Scriptures said of Christ and restrained themselves from going beyond that. In doing so, they protected the message of the gospel for future generations.