Dn. Michael Hyatt · January 17, 2009
What was settled at Chalcedon served as a watershed for future doctrinal controversies even up until today. Dn. Michael reminds us that truth matters.
Dn. Michael Hyatt: Good morning. Well, today I want to get to the Fourth Ecumenical Council. Wow, this is really a watershed. First of all, when we finish this, we’ll be more than halfway done. But this is really one of the most important councils. You know there’s a sense in which Chalcedon represents the apex of the work, and what comes afterwards is a further exposition of the work that was done at Chalcedon. Although I think the Fathers at Chalcedon would’ve seen their work as building upon the work of the first two ecumenical councils and even the third. But there’s a lot of history here, and I was really hesitant as I was working this up. I thought, I can just see their eyes glazing over now. So, I thought what I would do is jump ahead to the conclusion this morning, kind of start with the end in mind and give you some observations that, as we go through the history, I think will stand out and be more pronounced for you if you’re aware of what to look for on the front end. These really aren’t unique to Chalcedon, but they’re going to come out in a more pronounced way here.
One of the things I think we’ve seen with Arius and Nestorius and a lot of the other heretics is that acting independently is usually a bad idea. It’s usually a bad idea, and that’s why St. Peter says, for example, that no interpretation of Scripture is given by private interpretation but it’s designed to be interpreted within a community. And that’s why St. Paul will say things like “hold fast to the traditions which you were given.” We were looking at the verse earlier, but in I Corinthians 10, that [which] was written before was given for our instruction. So, the idea of thinking independently which is such a hallmark of American sociology and really kind of our heritage at least in this country with the Protestant Reformation, it’s really esteemed: to act independently, to think independently, and I think there’s safety in numbers, though. Whenever we have a theological idea that we think is creative, as Orthodox Christians, we’re best to check it against what the Church has taught and make sure that we’re in line with what the Church has taught.
Another thing I think by way of conclusion is that trying to protect the Church, acting to protect the Church is also usually a bad idea. It often leads to heresy as well: to think that somehow, “Wow, I’ve got to correct the Church. I’ve got to fix what’s broken.” And I thought of this passage this morning in I Chronicles 13. Just to give you a little historical context, the Ark of the Covenant had been stolen by the Philistines. David decides to bring it back, so he gets a group of guys, and they go to this threshing floor where it had been kept. Uzzah, one of David’s men, puts out his hand to hold the Ark for the oxen had stumbled. So they got the Ark on this cart, and the oxen stumble. Uzzah thinks the Ark is about to tip over, and so he reaches out to steady it. Verse 10: “Then the anger of the Lord was aroused against Uzzah and he struck him because he put his hand to the Ark and he died there before God.”
You know, that’s tough. That’s a tough thing because when you think, “Whoa gosh, he was just trying to help.” Well, God doesn’t really need our help, particularly when it’s done out of order. It’s a graphic word picture, really. And what we’re going to find today is that Eutyches, one of the heretics [who] was prominent in the council of Chalcedon, was essentially trying to correct the Church and protect the Church from a fresh outbreak of Nestorianism. But he was doing it independently, acting independently and not really in concert with the rest of the Church.
The other thing to look for as we go through this is that novelty is usually a bad idea. Coming up with something new, you know, and again, in American culture today, boy, do we esteem the new. Things get remarketed as “new and improved.” I mean, we even do it in our own publishing company: “new and expanded.” There’s more interest in the new than what’s old. So that today in the book publishing world, just to speak out of my experience, something that’s about 90 days old is like last week’s bread. It’s stale. Nobody’s interested in it. And that preoccupation with novelty gets people in trouble through the history of the Church when they try to come up with a new way of explaining something. Better to act within the confines of what’s been revealed than to come up with a new and novel way to explain it.
A fourth thing is that theological precision is important. Now that sounds so foreign to us today. Actually, it probably doesn’t today to us Orthodox, but to our culture it’s very foreign. Theological precision is important. Our culture [has] basically caved in, even Christian culture, to relativism that says, really the only absolute is God and Jesus, and if you believe in that everything else is pretty much preference. Here you are as a Christian, you’re going through the great cafeteria of life, and you can kind of pick and choose what you want to believe. And you can custom-make a religion specifically for you. You know, if you like contemporary worship, you can pick that and put that on your plate, and maybe you like a little liturgical garnish on the side so maybe they have a special service that has a more liturgical flavor to it. Maybe you like drama in the middle of church, so you can find a church that does that or a super good kids’ program or all these different things are kind of seen as preferential. The important thing is that you find something that makes you happy, that meets your needs, because, after all, you’re the center of the universe and everything revolves around you. And that’s an idea that was really foreign in the history of the Church.
This stuff mattered because Truth mattered. We’ve talked about it again and again, but Jesus didn’t say in John 14: “I am the way, the preference, and the life.” He said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” He made a claim to absolute truth, and he wasn’t ashamed to state what it was. Well, today, unfortunately, when we say something is true, it doesn’t necessarily mean by implication that something else is false, and it’s almost seen as arrogant. We see this on the talk shows. When somebody makes an absolute claim on Larry King, you know, a Christian claim, then it’s almost like a scandal, like “Who are you to make that kind of claim? You’re saying that Jesus was God? You’re saying that if you don’t believe that, you won’t go to heaven?” And even Christians sometimes get confused with that, and you often hear this kind of tap dancing and back pedaling to try to get an answer that’s more palatable to our modern culture. Now, I’m not advocating that we make these claims in arrogance, obviously, but theological precision is important because truth is important. And we have to reassert that in our culture, and we have to stand as witnesses to that truth in our culture.
Those are just a few conclusions before we get into the introduction. So it’s a little a backwards. [Are there] any comments on that before we get into the history of Chalcedon? Yes?
Q1: I do think that’s one of the major weaknesses of the American Episcopal Church [which] has fallen into this hesitancy to proclaim that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. It’s come up again and again in modern readings, and I’ll say that with their new presiding bishop, and I just think that it’s pertinent to point that out today because it still exists. It’s very real even though we’re looking at the history of the Church.
Dn. Michael: Yeah, and it happens in a lot of denominations and [it] happens… Frankly even the Orthodox have been guilty of it at times, you know, when they’ve participated and some have compromised the faith, like in the World Council of Churches and other ecumenical bodies. We sometimes forget our roots. But the challenge is: in our lives, in today’s culture, we have to do what St. Paul said when he said, “Speak the truth in love.” Now, it’s easy for me to love you and keep quiet, and it’s easy for me to lambast you with the truth and make you feel rejected because of my arrogance or whatever. It’s very difficult, and I would maintain that it takes the spirit of God to do both of those things: to humbly speak the truth, but to do it in love. And more importantly, and I think as Orthodox Christians, all of this stuff that we’re studying in the councils is about the Incarnation, but that word has to also become poured through the filter of our lives as well. We have to live the truth, not just speak it.
I like that quote, though he wasn’t an Orthodox saint, St. Francis of Assisi says, “Preach the Gospel always, and, if necessary, use words.” I mean, our lives do speak volumes, so it’s not just that we can give the assent to it, but we have to speak it and live it and have the love. We don’t have to face that deadly choice of: well, to be loving means I have to compromise the truth or I have to throttle it down, pull it back, cloak it, so that it will be acceptable. But the alternative to that is not to just be this belligerent kind of bulldog that I’m going to speak the truth no matter what and you’re going to either accept it [or not]. You can do both of those by the grace of God simultaneously. Other comments?
Q2: I think it’s all so important that when you’re speaking that truth that it’s not my truth, it’s his truth. Because I think in a world where you live when it’s my reality against your reality, it’s God’s world and God’s reality we’re talking about. So I think that’s important, too.
Dn. Michael: Yes. Well, that’s a foreign concept to post-modern Americans and Europeans because we tend to think that there is nothing that exists outside of our experience, so it really is just your version of the truth versus my version of the truth, and they’re both relative. So yeah, there is something higher beyond our experience. It transcends our experience and transcends our perception of reality, but there’s the reality itself.
You guys ready for a little history lesson? Like most of the councils, after the Third Ecumenical Council—again: where Nestorianism is condemned, Pelagiansim was condemned, the doctrine of the Theotokos which was not invented in that council but was affirmed by that council was reinforced. That council didn’t end the debate, surprise, surprise, surprise. It’s like I said before: it’s whack-a-mole. It’s just, you knock it down and then it appears somewhere else, and that’s what happened here. So, there was a conflict, a theological conflict, between the Patriarchs John of Antioch and Cyril of Alexandria. And it’s important to understand this conflict, because this really framed the debate going forward. Cyril claimed that John, his opponent, was Nestorian. In other words, Christ was essentially two beings, had a double personality within this person we call Christ. As I said before, sort of a theological kind of schizophrenia, that there were these two people existing within Christ.
John claimed that Cyril was Apollinarian: that Christ had a human body but a divine soul. This is one of the best parts of the history of the Church when it works the best is, there was a Bishop Acacias, who stepped in to mediate and actually reached a compromise in 433. And just to put this back in historical context, Ephesus was in 431, the council of Chalcedon is 451, and the compromise they reached here was in 433. So everybody breathed a sigh of relief, and said “Great! Cyril and John are reconciled. Nestorianism is put to death, that’s the end of it. We can get on about the work of evangelism and the work of the Church.” But Satan had a different plan, and he always does to assault the truth. There seems to be no rest. Just as you get something nailed down, it pops up again.
And so what happened here is that the works of two long-dead theologians, Diodorus of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia, were translated into Syriac, and this revived the whole teaching of Nestorianism. It’s hard to believe there are people around reading that stuff, but they did. The patriarch of Constantinople intervened and condemned these two theologians which only made their teachings spread more. So, it’s read throughout the East. And then after the death of Cyril in 444, there’s an old monk from Constantinople named Eutyches. Eutyches began teaching a subtle variation of the traditional Christology, and he claimed he was a follower of Cyril, but like so many heretics, he wanted to protect the true faith from the other heretics.
So he kind of rose up as the defender of the Faith. He’s going to protect the true faith and particularly he wanted to protect the Church from a new outbreak of Nestorianism. And he wrote Pope Leo I back in Rome a letter and basically said that this is what he was going to do, cloaked of course in the appropriate language of humility and so forth. But his heresy had its roots—and this is where I talked about theological precision, so bear with me, hang with me—in a confusion over the Greek word, “physis.” What’s that sound like? Physical? So, it was really over that particular term. Cyril had taught that there was only one physis in Christ. The problem was that he understood that word to be equivalent to the Latin term, “persona,” or “person.”
Okay, this is a big deal: person, nature. Those two things. A lot of confusion about that terminology, and it really took that council to hammer this out and get clear on it. Most of the Greek theologians would have understood the word to be “nature,” so that when Eutyches was talking about one physis, he was talking about one nature. There’s another heresy we’re going to get into in the next council after this: Monophysitism: one nature. Essentially, Eutyches was teaching that doctrine: there were two natures before the Incarnation, but after the Incarnation, one nature. So, it’s almost like Christ wasn’t, as Chalcedon would define, fully human and fully divine, but he was this kind of mix of the two: a superhero. More than man, but less than God.
He was so popular though, this monk, he was second in popularity only to the patriarch, and so his teachings spread rapidly. You know, if you think about it, it was a more rational explanation. I mean we’re familiar with the superhero legends and all that goes about in our culture. What’s the new TV series? Heroes? I’d like to have superhuman powers. It’s much more difficult to maintain kind of the limits of revelation and say, “Well, the Scripture and the Fathers speak of Jesus being fully God and fully man, and we don’t really understand how those two really fit together, but we have to stubbornly maintain the mystery.”
It’s like the doctrine of the Trinity. Like I said before, God is one and God is three, simultaneously. The math doesn’t work, but this is what’s been revealed, what the Fathers have affirmed, and it’s important for us to maintain as well. So, in a local council in Constantinople—and this is where it gets interesting politically: In 447, Eutyches was denounced as a heretic. So they hold this council and say, “This guy’s teaching is spreading. We know he’s off base.” So they condemn him as a heretic. However, the emperor, Theodosius II—the guy who, by the way, had called the last council, the son of Theodosius the Great—and Dioscorus, the Pope of Alexandria, didn’t accept the condemnation of the council because they said Eutyches had repented and confessed his orthodoxy. So Dioscorus held his own council, and he reinstated Eutyches, and this of course created immediate controversy, because you have these different groups acting independently: one condemns, one reinstates. What are the people to believe? People like us, what were they to believe?
So they call another council. The emperor calls a council in Ephesus in 449 to settle the matter. This is referred to later in Church history as the Robber Council for reasons I’ll give you in a minute. But the Pope had received letters that convinced him that Eutyches was in the wrong and that his condemnation in 447 was just, so he writes to this council, meeting in Ephesus—not an ecumenical council, by the way; later condemned and not believed really by anybody—but instructing them to condemn Eutyches. However, he left the matter of punishment open to the council. So the council meets in 449 with 130 bishops present. Dioscorus presides at the command of the emperor, and he doesn’t allow any of the opponents of Eutyches to speak. He and the bishops ignored the directive they had gotten from the Pope, and there was near unanimous support of Eutyches. So the papal representatives leave in a huff. They go back to Rome, and the Pope declares the council invalid and dubs it a “synod of robbers,” because these bishops had come in, taken control, disrespected him, disregarded his directive, and just did what they wanted to do, which was to support Eutyches. So that created a potential for a schism between the East and the West.
This is where it gets interesting. Dioscorus excommunicates the Pope for his refusal to accept the decision of the council, and now the situation is going south, fast. So the Pope continues to call for a new council, but the Emperor Theodosius, who had been in on the Robber Council, who had actually called it, he refuses to budge. So now we have this stalemate, you know. The Pope wants a council, the emperor says no. They’ve got their horns locked. Well, things turned dramatically when the Emperor Theodosius dies and Marcian, who is a staunch supporter of Leo the Pope, is elevated to the throne. So Marcian agreed to call a new council. Oops for Eutyches. Now he’s in trouble. The Pope had requested that the council meet in Italy, but Marcian didn’t think that was a good idea because it probably would’ve even furthered the schism. So he agreed to let the Pope preside, but they wanted to have it in the East. And so, initially, they were going to have in Nicaea, but at the last minute it ends up getting moved to Chalcedon which at the time was kind of a suburb of Constantinople, and it even exists today just outside of Constantinople.
So, Marcian asks the Pope to preside in person. He couldn’t attend so he sends a representative—I won’t give you his name; big long Latin name—to preside in his place. And this is an important thing for us to know, too. Leo sends a letter condemning the council of 449, the Robber Synod, and he gives an exposition of the correct doctrine of the Incarnation, and this would be known from this point forward as the Tome of Leo. And if you ever read it, it’s not that long. He does have a lot of citations from the Fathers that make it really long, but the essence of the letter would probably be reduced to a four- or five-page letter. It’s very succinct. From this side of the council we look at it and say, very Orthodox, very precise in his language, and really a seminal work in the history of the Church and for the doctrine of Christology.
So, anyway, the council meets. Over 500 bishops attended. Leo said that 600 bishops attended. Just to put that in perspective: the First Ecumenical Council, somewhere around 318 bishops? So this was a well attended sort of super-council. Everybody wanted to be there to see how this was going to turn out. So 500 bishops attend. The Pope, by the way, doesn’t attend, but he sends this guy to preside. This is probably the one council that’s the most cited by Christians of all stripes. Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics look at it as authoritative. It’s probably the most-cited council of Protestants as well, and, of course, then you have the Oriental Christians who don’t accept it, and they point to it as well. This council didn’t last very long, by the way. It started in October 8, 451, and it ended on November 1, 451. So, really less than a month.
But the council begins with the trial of Dioscorus. However, by the end of the first day, the emperor who was present got really frustrated. It was like, okay, you can go through this trial and condemn Dioscorus, but could we just get to an Orthodox statement of the Incarnation? You know, where’s the beef? Let’s get it right down to the doctrine that’s in question, and let’s get a fresh statement of the Incarnation. So the Fathers refused. They said that the creed from the first and second councils was sufficient. There didn’t need to be a new creed. There didn’t need to be a new statement. They felt that Leo’s Tome was also a sufficient exposition of the teaching.
So the second day of the council ends with the bishops shouting out, and this is recorded in the minutes of the council, “It is Peter who speaks through Leo. This is what we all believe. This is the faith of the Apostles. Leo and Cyril teach the same thing.” So, they kind of saw that as the end of it. So then they got on to the business of the trial. And by the way, somebody brought up one time: Did the Fathers feel the need to sort of bend to the will of the emperor and did he exercise undue influence at these councils? I don’t think so, because basically they politely said, “Okay, look: what Leo said, and we want to get back to the trial.” So they went back to the trial and the emperor sits there with no more, really, than he had when he came in.
So the council continues with Dioscorus’ trial, but he refused to appear before the assembly. Probably a bad idea. As a result, he’s condemned unanimously and all of his decrees were declared null, including reinstating Eutyches. And Marcian the Emperor responds by exiling Dioscorus. All the bishops are then asked to sign their assent to Leo’s Tome. They thought that would be it. You know, this guy’s done the heavy lifting, this is the work. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here. Let’s just all sign onto what Leo said. The problem was that a group 13 Egyptian bishops refused—Whew—saying that they would assent to the traditional faith, but they felt like Leo’s explanation was novel and they weren’t going to sign onto it. As a result, the emperor’s commissioners decided that a creed would indeed be necessary or a decree would be necessary, and so the Fathers begin working on one. How many of you have read this decree from the council of Chalcedon? Meditated on it? Thought about it?
Well, I’m going to read it to you. Okay, this is not that long, but it’s pregnant with meaning. It says, “Following the holy Fathers…” See, they’re really distancing themselves from novelty: We’re not making up something new here. We’re following the holy Fathers. God’s revelation in history is consistent, and we’re just standing in the main stream with what the Spirit of God has done in the history of the Church. “Following the holy Fathers, we unanimously teach…” This isn’t our idea, this isn’t just Leo’s idea. This is the council of the whole Church.
Following the holy Fathers, we unanimously teach and confess one and the same God our Lord Jesus Christ, the same, perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity.
So they’re affirming both natures.
...the same truly God and truly man, composed of rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father as to his divinity and consubstantial with us as to his humanity. Like us in all things but sin, he was begotten from the Father before all ages as to his divinity and these last days, for us and for our salvation, was born as to his humanity of the virgin Mary, the mother of God (or the Theotokos).
So you didn’t just have the third council affirming that Mary was Theotokos, but the fourth council affirms it as well.
We confess that one and the same Christ, Lord, and only-begotten Son, is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion…
This is going to be the thing that is the defining mark of the Orthodox going forward. Acknowledging two natures without confusion, change—you know it wasn’t that one nature was changed into something that it wasn’t. He didn’t become a superhero. Division or separation. It wasn’t separated like what Nestorius taught. It wasn’t blended together like the Monophysites were going to teach, but:
...two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation. The distinction between natures was never abolished by their union (you know, remained fully God and fully man), but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person and one hypostasis.
So, you’ve got this distinction between person and nature. So, as Orthodox Christians, when we talk about Jesus Christ, we say one person in two natures. Not two persons in one nature. Not one person in two natures that are almost persons, but “one person, two natures” without confusion, without change, without division, without separation. So you think, “Great! They’ve got this clear definition now. It’s succinct, it’s elegant. Everybody will buy into this.” No. It created almost immediate schism. The Egyptian bishops repudiated the work of the council, saying that the acceptance of the two natures was tantamount to Nestorianism, kind of a confusion over the terminology again, not really fully understanding what the Fathers meant by “nature,” and imputing to that term a whole set of things that the Fathers didn’t understand, but this is the origin of Oriental Orthodoxy or Coptic Orthodoxy.
And the Coptic Orthodox remain divided from the Orthodox Church to this day, and they reject the work of the council to this day. Although, if you listen to modern Coptic Christians talk, they basically have affirmed what Chalcedon taught, but without accepting the teachings of Chalcedon. It’s very confusing. I read, for example, the Coptic Pope and the last Latin Pope got together and came out with a joint statement that, if you read it, is very orthodox in terms of its Christology. And of course our perspective as Orthodox is: “Well, if you believe everything that Chalcedon taught, if you believe what you’re now saying, then why not just become Orthodox? Just accept the teachings of the council and become Orthodox.” But it’s more convoluted than that, because they condemn as heretics those [whom] we esteem as saints, and they esteem as saints those we condemn as heretics, so it’s tough.
Again, to go back where we started: acting independently [is] usually a bad idea. Novelty is usually a bad idea. Trying to protect the Church like Eutyches thought he was doing: probably a bad idea. But the truth is important and theological precision is important. I mean, we rest today on the work of this great council and benefit from it. Comments? Robert?
Robert: Ever read anything about the political background that also divided the Egyptian bishops at the time from the over-emphasis of the Greek Church on that part of the world?
Dn. Michael: Well, some. Interestingly I went to the Orthodox Wikipedia. What’s that called? Orthodoxpedia, something like that? But it’s Orthodoxpedia or something, but anyway, but that website if you go to it, it’s basically been taken over by the Oriental Christians, because when you go look at the Council of Chalcedon, they even have a disclaimer at the top: this is an Oriental Christian perspective, so they give all that political history, which I scanned through. Is there something you wanted to hear from it?
Robert: No, I’ve talked with some Armenian Orthodox before and seen Pope Shenouda, and it’s interesting if you do ask them: “Do you believe that Jesus is fully God and fully man…”
Dn. Michael: One person, two natures?
Robert: They say yes. But they won’t affirm the council, and then we have this thousand years, or actually 1500 years of history, since this took place, and it’s hard to put it back together now, but I keep hearing that we’re real close. I’ve heard that for years, that they’re real close.
Dn. Michael: I have, too. Anybody else? Yes?
Q3: Do the Coptics affirm that we are orthodox? Do they recognize that?
Dn. Michael: I don’t know. That’s a great question. Stephen, do you know?
Stephen: My experience in going to Manchester, there’s an Antiochian church about a few miles from the campus. Probably 60-70% of the population of that church is Egyptian. Now, they will come and be at the services and a part of the Liturgy. They will not go forward to take Communion, obviously, but they allow their children to be baptized there, and so all of their children do go forward and receive the Eucharist at the end of the service. So it’s a really interesting dynamic there.
Dn. Michael: Yeah. That is interesting. Okay, anybody else? Robert?
Robert: Just part of what I had read about the political problem that they had back in that period of time was that the bishops were always being appointed from Greece over that area. In fact, even in Antioch. And I’ve heard it was the Antiochian Church which was the first church which was to reject the Greek bishop [who] was planted there, and they said, “We want our own.” And so, behind the scenes, there was this sort of turmoil over always having to have Greek bishops.
Dn. Michael: Well, there’s no question that the politics plays into all this, and when you read the history, frankly, it’s easy to get discouraged. And I would just say that you have to remember that Jesus said that it was expedient for the Church that he go to the Father because he would send them the Holy Spirit that would guide them into all truth. And despite the fallenness of man, despite all these political gymnastics and people doing their best to derail the work of God, still the Holy Spirit moves in history—I know you weren’t saying anything contrary to that, but I’m just saying as you read these politics, I think you have to remember that the miracle is that God works through that and preserves his Church and preserves the truth. And he’s done so to this day. You know, it’s a miracle that with all the stuff that Satan threw at the Church, that fallen man threw at the Church, that it did survive. But it did, despite all of that stuff that happened. Okay, thank you all.