For Discussion: The Theological, Historical and Cultural Significance of Chalcedon’s Christology
What follows is a lecture delivered by His Grace Bishop Maxim on March 19, 2009 at Loyola Marymount University on the topic "Who do people say I am? True God and True Man: Chalcedon’s Christology in a Postmodern World." Bishop Maxim was the featured speaker along with His Eminence Archbishop Hovnan of the Armenian Church, Western Diocese. The symposium was sponsored by the Huffington Ecumenical Institute. For more information on the event, click here.
Theological, Historical and Cultural Significance
Who do people say I AM?
True God and True Man:
Chalcedon’s Christology in a Postmodern World
Chalcedonian Christology is a quintessential ingredient of the continuing liturgical-dogmatic-ethical life of the Church. Ever since then, the Church has constantly re-received and transmitted this Christological truth—“one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ”. In fact one can go even further and make the point that the Chalcedonian definition of Christ entailed not only a vertical perspective (consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead), but also a horizontal perspective of the people of Israel to which Jesus belonged as Man (consubstantial with us according to Manhood). Without any doubt, Chalcedon brought about a helpful integration of ‘theology’ and ‘economy’, of transcendence and immanence. Being God, and belonging to a certain historical era and generation, Christ accepted what was the de facto human context as his own context . Thus Christology inevitably implies Ecclesiology and even Sociology.
For these reasons I propose to deal with my subject in the following way: First, I will try to point out Chalcedon’s major theological issues in the historical life of the Church. Second, we will look at the present day situation and see what opportunities these issues provide for the Churches and society. Finally, we will also try to identify ways in which the Chalcedonian Christology can operate today with its theological, historical and cultural dimensions. Without going into the subtle, nuanced formulations of Chalcedon’s Definition—for this is the most beautiful dogmatic/doctrinal text of all Ecumenical Councils—we will attempt to present the significance of Chalcedon in a way that is accessible to a wider audience.
I A Quick Look at History
It is not possible for this presentation to offer a detailed historical analysis of the Concilium universale Chalcedonense (=Fourth Ecumenical Council), which, given its importance, deserves a separate monograph. That Council, held in the city of Chalcedon, near Constantinople, in 451, is one of the seven ecumenical councils accepted by the Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and many Protestant Christian churches. However, it is the first Council not recognized by any of the Oriental Orthodox churches, in spite of the fact that it was designed to heal the growing Christological division. The Chalcedonian creed was written amid controversy between the western, eastern and oriental churches over the meaning of the Incarnation. We must, however, know a few historical facts.
- The Council of Chalcedon was a courageous and quick response to the “Robber Synod” of 449, and was aimed at overturning its decisions. That gathering, dubbed the “Robber Synod” by Pope Leo of Rome, had articulated an extreme Alexandrian Christology. The bishops at Chalcedon disclaimed the council of 449 and deposed Patriarch Dioscorus of Alexandria for his role in that gathering.
- It is commonly held that the Council of Chalcedon was more or less a ‘Cyrillian’ Council; it followed his theology and thus continues the Third Ecumenical Council.
The Chalcedonian Definition includes the main expressions from the Formula of concordance in 433. It also uses Flavian’s homologia, and the Tomos of Pope Leo. So it is a synthesis of Alexandrine, Antiochean and western Christological elements in the Definition, but this synthesis was produced completely within the framework of Cyril’s Christology.
- However, we must not forget that Chalcedon’s principal aim was to condemn monophysitism and to exclude the possibility of an asymmetrical monophysite interpretation of Cyrillian Christology.
The Fathers of the Council could have chosen either the formula ‘out of two natures’ (ἐκ δύο φύσεων) or the formula ‘in two natures’ (ἐν δύο φύσεσιν), and they chose the latter. The reason for this was that the Cyrillian formula ἐκ δύο φύσεων did not clearly indicate the existence of a full humanity after the union.
In addition, Dioscorus had used this formula at the Council of 449, which had rehabilitated the monophysite Eutyches. Thus, when the Fathers of Chalcedon had to choose between ‘Dioscorus, who denied the two natures in Christ, [and] Leo, who argued that there are two natures’, they unanimously chose the latter, and this led them to adopt the expression ἐν δύο φύσεσιν.
- But the latter developments have also made the entire matter even more complicated for the following reason:
The distinction between φύσις and ὑπόστασις, affirmed at the Council, was too new and revolutionary in the theology of incarnation to not provoke different interpretations and misunderstandings. The Council’s definition thus gave rise to a couple of persistent questions, which have bedeviled theologians up to the present day. One of the problems lied in the fact that Eastern Mesopotamia did not posses Greek conceptual tools. They could not understand what the Council’s distinction was between nature and person/hypostasis.
Those who rejected Chalcedon—namely, the anti-Chalcedonian ‘monophysites’— thought that the Christologies of Cyril and Chalcedon were incompatible. According to them, there was no distinction between nature and person/hypostasis, at least on the level of economy, hence their dismay at the Council, which had ostensibly restored the heresy of Nestorius by attributing two natures to Christ.
We cannot now investigate their reasons for opposing the Council in details. We know that when the Definition was to be signed, unfortunately the bishops from Alexandria—although they accepted the faith—did not put their signatures. They simply stated “we don’t have our patriarch”. He should sign it first and then us. When we come back to Alexandria we will elect one and let him sign it first. There were those who were disingenuously hiding behind this in order to avoid signing the definitions of Chalcedon. When they got back to Alexandria, the schism occurred because the Orthodox elected their own bishop Proterius, while the other party elected another. That’s how the schism took place, and how the monophysite Church emerged. It happened initially in Alexandria, then in Antioch, Jerusalem and Ethiopia. These are the four Churches: the Coptic in Egypt, the Ethiopian, the Syrian in Syria and India and the Armenian Church with its roots in Lebanon.
The creed became standard orthodox doctrine, while the Coptic church of Alexandria dissented, holding to Cyril’s formula of the oneness of Christ’s nature as the incarnation of God the Word (μια φυσις του Θεου Λογου σεσαρκωμενη) . This church felt that this understanding required that the creed should have stated that Christ be acknowledged ‘from two natures’ rather than ‘in two natures’. This miaphysite position, often known as "Monophysitism", formed the basis for the distinction of what we call the Oriental Orthodox churches – the Coptic church of Egypt and Ethiopia and the "Jacobite" churches of Syria and Armenia. Over the last 30 years, however, the miaphysite position has been accepted as a mere restatement of orthodox belief by the Eastern Orthodox Church and by the Roman Catholic Church.
II Theological significance
So to the question: what is the existential meaning of its Christology—related to the problem of the overcoming of death—we can answer by analyzing the four adverbs of the Definition: ἀσυγχύτως, ἀτρέπτως, ἀδιαιρέτως, ἀχωρίστως.
Fr John Meyendorff holds that these “four negative adverbs, while they condemned the two contrary heresies of Nestorius and Eutyches, excluded any pretention to explain fully in human terms the very mystery of the incarnation”. It is true that this Creed, being an extraordinary theological and philosophical achievement, does not exhaust the whole truth; neither does it detract from the personal character of this revelation. These verbal confessions refer to the living Person of Christ, and the Church through them ‘receives’ above all a Person and not ideas. However, beyond this apophatical aspect, they offer a solid basis for further theological meaning. Metropolitan John Zizioulas, in his lucid study, “’Created’ and ‘Uncreated’: The Existential Significance of Chalcedonian Christology” elaborated the meaning of two of these words: ἀσυγχύτως (without confusion) and ἀδιαιρέτως (without division).
Let us try here to see the significance of ἀτρέπτως, unchangeably and ἀχωρίστως, inseparably. The first of these adverbs ἀτρέπτως means that, in Christ—theologically, anthropologically, cosmologically and ecclesiologically—there was no change between the two natures, per se. The essence of the natures (so to speak) did not change. Their otherness is completely respected and preserved. So, anthropologically, man remains completely man, and not god, and vice versa; cosmologically, the created nature remains created, and not uncreated, and vice versa. On the other hand, ἀδιαιρέτως refers to such a union, being perfect and absolute, where nothing can separate them because of the hypostatic union (as opposed to “union of natures”). By preserving the two natures after the Incarnation, Chalcedon safeguarded the precious concept of otherness! We shall see below how important this aspect is for us today. Speaking existentially in terms of person and nature, Chalcedon affirmed both unitatis and alteritas, communion and otherness. This is the accomplishment of these apophatic formulations.
Chalcedon provided the Church with a terminology capable of protecting the faith from both Nestorian and monophysite aberrations. By stating that the one person of Christ is one hypostasis, it demonstrated its determined opposition to Nestorianism.
On the other hand, by saying that this hypostasis is known in two natures, not only in a divine but also in a human nature, it showed that it is unacceptable to confuse Christ’s natures, to jeopardize his consubstantiality with the Father and with us, or to undermine the fullness and integrity of his humanity after the union. The Theanthropic “bogocovecanska” reality of Christ does not represent a mere episode of human history but the ontological basis of its salvation.
III Postmodern Cultural and Existential Significance
Chalcedonian Oros [Definition] presents Christ as the Savior of the world, as a cosmic Christ. However, it is not because Jesus Christ brought a model of morality or a teaching for humanity; it is because He himself incarnates the overcoming of death, because, in his own Person, the created from now on lives eternally. This was a profoundly eucharistic approach to the Chalcedonian Christology, since the reception of Christ by the people of God always takes place in the event of communion. Eucharist was not of course the focus of Chalcedon. But it is widely admitted that the Eucharist occupies the central place in Christology .
- So, we deal here with the existential meaning of Chalcedon: Who is Christ? What is Christ for me (per me). It is critical for the theology to regain its existential meaning and purpose, and to cease from being alien to the agonizing questions of contemporary man.
The problem lies in the fact that, because of alien theological terms that we have adopted without much discernment, contemporary man’s answer to the Lord’s question: “what do men say about who I am?”, is either, A) that Christ is of no interest to him because He cannot help him out of his miseries, or, B) that Christ has placed upon him an unbearable burden which has completely weighed him down. Very few are those who recognize Christ today as “meek and of a humble heart”, or as the good Samaritan—being “consubstantial with us according to Manhood”—who “pours oil and wine over man’s wounds”. Maybe Christ loved sinners ‘more’ than others.
Our ecclesial communities should expand Christ’s prayer at Gethsemane to the whole world, offering themselves to the world instead of imposing themselves on it .
We live in an age of individualism. In our so-called civilization, everyone thinks only of himself; this attitude is not limited to the “secular” world, but is also present among Christians. Individualism has crept in and each one of us tries to be reconciled with God by himself, on his own. He forgets his brother or looks at him as an object of his criticism and blame and forgets that the meaning of the spiritual life, the fulfillment of our salvation, exists in this receiving of our brother.
- CHALCEDON AND THE INCULTURATION OF THE GOSPEL. But in spite of this general wisdom of Chalcedon’s Christology—which we must always bear in mind—its theological content acquired, over the course of history, a very important sense. This sense is mainly associated with the life of the Church as manifested in culture, in arts (iconography, architecture), and in parish life (cf. Yannaras on transformative power of this truth)… One can go even further and conclude that Chalcedonian (and of course Post-Chalcedonian) Christology influenced the whole process of the inculturation of the Gospel. One can speak about the “cultural” epistemology proposed by Chalcedon which has an indisputably “incarnational” basis.
- CONTEXTUAL MANIFESTATION. So, what is the contextual manifestation of the eternal Christological/dogmatic content(s) of Chalcedon? History has offered various responses to it, and we note just a few: the Russian Christology of kenosis, so evident in iconography; the Theanthropic Christology of fr Justin Popovic, the “asymmetrical Christology” of George Florovsky, or the “Pneumatologically conditioned Christology” of John Zizioulas… On the basis of this Christology, for instance, St. Gregory Palamas develops an authentic and real hesychast anthropology. Only Christ is the key which enables us to come to God without losing ourselves—our otherness. He enables human self-realization without destroying the God in us and without abolishing the human. The Mystery of Christ is not just a dogma of our Faith but also a great gift of God—the Way in which God, as the Land of the Living (Psalm 26:15), gives Himself to man and accepts man in Himself, without abolishing either.
As St Maximus stated, “for the Word of God (Christ) and God wants always and in all things to accomplish the mystery of His embodiment.” All the above mentioned Christological expressions are faithful to Chalcedon, because they are also grounded on the four adverbs (ἀσυγχύτως, ἀτρέπτως, ἀδιαιρέτως, ἀχωρίστως). Inculturation inevitably involves the Incarnation of Christ, be it in forms other than, and in addition to, the historical one. “Always and in all things” (continuously and everywhere) indicates that there is no race and no culture to which the Word of God can be unrelated. It is critical for the Logos (both the eternal Word and the theological word) to regain existential meaning and purpose.
- LOGOS INSEPARABLY CONNECTED WITH PNEUMA. Yet, what makes this “true God and True Man” (qeo\j a)lhqw½j kaiì aÃnqrwpoj a)lhqw½j) an inclusive corporate personality, that is, Someone who takes part in all human agonies and weaknesses. It is another divine person, about which Chalcedon doesn’t speak—the Holy Spirit who works with Christ. Christ relates to people’s culture by the Holy Spirit, because Logos is inseparably connected with Pneuma. For now, we can say that “the Spirit allows Christ to enter again and again in every culture and assume it by purifying it, that is, by placing it in the light (or one might say under the judgment) of what is ultimately meaningful as it is revealed in Christ.” Theology must not simply speak about God, but invite people to His Body, for Christ is not an individual, conceivable in isolation: He is “the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom 8.29).
So, communion with the personal being of God through Christ in the Spirit is the primary service which the Church can render to every person and to all humanity in the modern world.
- AN “EXISTENTIAL” CHRIST. With the help of these theological principles, drawn from a study of Chalcedon’s Christology, we can make the following points in regard to the arts. We should emphasize that Orthodox iconography depicts Christ as a full man, as opposed to the monophysite depiction! This God-man realism was also applied in architecture, as Hagia Sophia in Constantinople testifies. Within this broader theological and existential context, Christian art went beyond the dilemma of anthropological maximalism or minimalism or beyond any symmetry in Christology! This is expressed throughout Byzantine architecture and iconography (Hagia Sophia, Pantokrator, Hora ton zoonton etc.).
So, a Byzantine icon of Jesus Christ always indicates Christ’s eternity (as the Pantocrator, “the Same through all Ages”), but, at the same time, the expression in Christ’s face (gaze, eyes…) reveals his participation in human agonies and weaknesses. Gazing at Him we might say that this is an “existential” Christ Who, having become man, lives through the antinomies of human existence, through time and difficulties, through passions and suffering. This is a Christ Who does not wish to be separated from human beings; He is descending to their level, taking upon Himself all human troubles and conditions (la condition humaine—the human condition) —everything except sin. In the Orthodox iconographic depiction of Christ’s face (eyes), we can see a complete sympathy for us humans, which culminated in the Cross and in the Resurrection.
- TRUE SENSE OF BEING HUMAN. Our postmodern time demands a respect for otherness (personal distinctiveness and identity)! However, this otherness remains in tragic isolation; nothing is as dreadful as the “other” without the inseparable union with somebody else. How can the Chalcedonian dogma help in this situation?
Respect for otherness is ‘covered’ with four Chalcedonian terms: ἀσυγχύτως, ἀδιαιρέτως, ἀτρέπτως (unchangeably) and ἀχωρίστως (inseparably). Being inseparably united with us, Christ of Chalcedon identifies Himself with all of us. Not only does He simply bear man’s infirmities but also He takes on responsibility for all these. He took this responsibility on the Cross exactly because He was the one who was paying for the sins of others. He did not simply bear the infirmities of others but He paid for them. And, what is valid for Christ is valid for all of us.
This leads us to the next important aspect of this unchangeable and inseparable unity. We, too, are invited to ‘receive one another.’ What does it mean to receive our brother? Simply to tolerate him? Because this is the point where many times we stop. This is not the meaning of ‘receiving.’ Receiving means I receive him within me and I become one with him–like receiving food. And what happens when we receive food? One element of its nature becomes part of our body. It is assimilated by our body, transformed and becomes one body with us. I tried to make this section a bit more succinct. A definition of ‘receiving’ and an example of human relations might help.
- Chalcedon doesn’t address the ecclesiological dimension of the Mystery of Christ. However, Christ is inseparably connected with the Church, which is supposed to be the body of Christ, the very presence of the Divine gift to the world in each place. In our particular situation today, our divided Churches are called to receive from one another and indeed to simply receive one another. This raises all sorts of fundamental ecclesiological questions, since the highest point of unity in this context is that of mutual ecclesial recognition and not simply agreement on doctrine.
It now seems only to be a matter of when, rather than of if, the restoration of full communion between our Churches, which has been sadly interrupted for centuries, will occur.
In this presentation, we tried first to identify ways in which the Chalcedonian Christology could operate today. It is obvious that there are different Christological approaches among the Churches today concerning the application of this Chalcedonian model. Yet, there are positive developments which allow us to hope that this model can be of use today. In concluding, let me be more specific. There are so many fields in which Christology can be realized, in order to curtail the prevailing individualism in society, to overcome Hindu-inspired spiritualism,to curb the growing psychologism, to transform the culture, and to answer questions of bioethics and modern biotechnology.
I believe that the Chalcedonian Christology is holistic and not totalitarian. Christ appeared with his “parousia” (presence, visitation), and not with his ousia , by springing from an event of communion. The consequences are really astonishing. It is Triadic Grace in action: when we say Χριστός, we mean the “anointed one”, anointed of the Father by the Holy Spirit.
Where can this Christology be helpful? Pluralism is a tremendous opportunity. Instead of having one uniform Christology (e.g. patristic), we should cultivate a vision of the Christological transformation of the world in a Neopatristic way; that is what Neochalcedonianism offers in order to fulfill and clarify the Fourth Ecumenical Council. The Chalcedonian view of Christ contains many elements that can be helpful for our situation, if we view them theologically and make proper use of them. I believe these are the crucial points where this vision can help modern man:
- Instead of Spiritualism we have a Theanthropic realism Богочовечански реализам; Christ as the Church, Hora ton zoonton: to see, hear, feel, touch, and know Him! (The first epistle of John, which contains this eschatological orientation, begins with the triumphant proclamation that "the life was made manifest, and we saw it…," "that which we have seen and heard," "that which we have looked upon and touched with our hands," etc.)
- Cult, ritual, Sacrus and sanctus = Liturgy. Hagia Sophia as a master work of Chalcedonian Christology. There are aspects of Church life that are so deeply bound to this Christological Definition that they cannot operate without reference to the Chalcedonian vision, such as hymnography, iconography, architecture…
- Cosmic ecology: The central point of our Faith is Christ as the Land of the Living, as the Living Space, which God was well pleased to give us in order that we may live eternally in Him, with Him, around Him, before Him, together with Him, and with one another. In our times, humanity faces many problems, including greater and greater ecological problems, which threaten human living space. Thus, this topic of Christ as the Land of the Living is very pertinent for today.
- Asceticism: self-denial (αυταπάρνησις). Nobody is as personal, nor as unique as Paul who said: ‘it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2,20)
- Prophesy: Christ’s presence is always a judgment, “krisis of this world” (Gospel of John).
The word of the Church ought to be the word of love, of the “kenosis” or “self-emptying” of the Cross, and of understanding. It is a Christological message that should strike the existential “chord” of man, of which he has so much need in the tragic dead-ends of this life. Beyond biochemistry, He existentially strikes our inner chord, our genes, the logoi of beings, as St Maximus says (beginning with Chalcedon, he developed an amazing Christology). Modern man, our neighbor, is fiercely tried and gripped by anxiety in the face of an uncertain future. He needs an outstretched hand; he needs to be opened toward communion and community. This opening of man to God—the opening of history to the Future, of earth to Heaven – is the message of Chalcedon. It should also be our message and our faith.
Here is the famous text of the Chalcedonian definition.
We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.