The Christology of Chalcedon

The Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) opposed the two extremes of Eutychianism and Nestorianism (the former failing to distinguish between the two natures of Christ, the latter failing to unite the two natures). Chalcedon is not the definitive statement that closes the door on every subsequent inquiry into the nature and person of Jesus of Nazareth. If anything, it opens doors for further reflection. It is unfortunate that many, including John Hick, dismiss it. That Jesus is both human and divine is the major contribution of the Confession. How this can be is, admittedly, not clearly defined by Chalcedon. In its own historical context as well as ours, the Chalcedonian Confession makes a substantial contribution to New Testament Christology by encapsulating what the Scriptures affirm regarding the person of Jesus.

The Confession reads:

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance [homoousious] with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer [Theotokos] one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized IN TWO NATURES, WITHOUT CONFUSION, WITHOUT CHANGE, WITHOUT DIVISION, WITHOUT SEPARATION; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person [prosopon] and subsistence [hypostasis], not as parted or separated into two persons [prosopa], but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and as our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the Fathers has delivered to us.

It is true that philosophical terms were used to describe what the Chalcedonian Fathers believed New Testament witness intended concerning the person of Jesus. However, in the Greek autograph of Chalcedon (there was also a Latin translation) virtually every word can be found in a standard Koine, (common) Greek lexicon. More significantly, given the subject matter and theological expertise of the authors of Chalcedon, it is an amazingly simple document in its brevity and ordinary phrasing. The fact that the Confession was set in common language is due to the concern for “contextualizing” the orthodox message. R. H. Fuller makes a valuable contribution along these lines.

If the church was to preserve and proclaim the gospel in the Graeco-Roman world, it had to answer in terms of an ontology which was intelligible to that world. . . . We must recognize the validity of this achievement of the church of the first five centuries within the terms in which it operated. It is sheer biblicism to maintain that the church should merely repeat “what the Bible says”—about Christology as about anything else. The church has to proclaim the gospel into the contemporary situation. And that is precisely what the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedon formula were trying to do.
Reginald H. Fuller, The Foundations of New Testament Christology, pp. 249-250.

A very important concern is not whether philosophical jargon was used, but if what was ascribed to by Chalcedon accurately reflects the New Testament writers’ beliefs about Jesus. It simply isn’t fair, therefore, of John Hick to claim that Chalcedon has “no clearly spelled out meaning attached to it” (The Metaphor of God Incarnate: Christology in a Pluralistic Age, p. 48). By the same line of reasoning, one could assert that Hick’s entire book The Metaphor of God Incarnate has no clearly spelled out meaning, since it does not have an exegetical commentary and English lexicon attached to it. Yet when one reads a book, it is taken for granted that the meaning of words, sentences, and ideas don’t require such explication. So it is with Chalcedon. It means what is says and says what it means. Behind each of the more important terms used in the Confession lies a particular semantic domain, yet it is left to the reader to have in place the range of meaning attached to a given word that is in keeping with the original intent. This is true of any document, regardless of its age. To say the Chalcedon Confession is without specific meaning because we are chronologically removed some 15 centuries is historically naïve and linguistically irresponsible.

Though couched in the Greek language and thought of the day, the Christology of Chalcedon is theologically and intellectually “un-Greek,” in that it brought challenges to Greek culture to accept something that could not be fully comprehended. This demonstrates the Fathers’ commitment to the New Testament testimony. Hence, “the Chalcedonian Fathers were accepting, and giving conciliar authority to, what had had its place in the Church’s Christological thought from earliest days” (R. V. Sellers, The Council of Chalcedon, p. 217). 

Moreover, uniting God and humanity was anathema to Greek thought, particularly with the well-developed strains of Gnosticism in 451 AD. The material world was considered intrinsically evil and various levels of mediation were posited between God and humans. There were plenty of mediators (more specifically, emanations), none of which were thought as being fully divine and fully human simultaneously. Though there is considerable metaphysical baggage from Greek philosophy in the Chalcedonian Confession, the overarching concern was fidelity to the New Testament witness of Jesus of Nazareth. C. Gunton’s remarks are entirely appropriate.

To say that the symbol of Chalcedon is couched in the conceptuality of its time—what other conceptuality could it have used?—is not to deny its candidature for truth, and in two senses: as an accurate summary of what the New Testament says about Jesus and as the truth about who Jesus is.

Colin Gunton, “Using and Being Used: Scripture and Systematic Theology,” in Theology Today (1990) 47:231

Therefore, the Chalcedon confession is a summary of the inspired, authoritative teachings of New Testament Scripture where there are no absurdities. Complexities may abound, but contradiction is nowhere present.

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