The Early Church and the Creeds Module

What Christological issues did the Council of Chalcedon meet to address?

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the “Chalcedonian Definition”?

The Council of Chalcedon was the fourth ecumenical council of the Christian Church, held in the year 451. The main purpose of the Council was to resolve doctrinal disputes which had arisen concerning the nature of Christ, although a number of other doctrinal and disciplinary issues were also debated and resolved.

In the early years of the Christian church, the principal area of theological dispute was the nature of God the Father and his relationship to Christ the Son, which manifested itself mainly in the heresies of Docetism, Gnosticism and Arianism. Later the dispute moved to the nature of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity as a whole. However, in the early 5th Century the main area of dispute had become the nature of Christ the Son.

There were two main schools of thought, the “Alexandrian school” which stressed the unity of the two natures of Christ, and focused more on the deity of Christ and the “Antioch school” which tended to stress the distinction of the two natures of Christ and focused more on the humanity of Christ. Appolinarius, the bishop of Laodicea, believed that Christ is God and He is “homoousios” with God the Father. Christ was one person with one separate existence or hypostasis and one nature. He stated that Jesus has a human body and soul but does not have a human spirit. Christ is the Divine Logos. Christ never sinned like a human. In one of his letters Appollinarius wrote:

“We confess that the Word of God has not descended upon a holy man which is what happened in the case of the prophets. Rather the Word himself has become flesh without having assumed a human mind – that is, a changeable mind, which is enslaved with filthy thoughts- but which exists as an immutable and heavenly divine mind”[1]. Thus Appolinarius held that Christ was one person with one separate existence (hypostasis) and one nature. This theology was rejected at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

Some critics of Appollinarius stressed that Christ is fully Man as well as fully God. They stated that while the Appollinarian view affirms the full divinity of Christ, it denies the full humanity of Christ. They thought that ultimately this could lead to the denial of the full incarnation and therefore redemption and it was similar to the Docetic view of Christ. An example of this point of view is Gregory of Nazianzen who wrote in a letter

“Do not let people deceive themselves and others by saying that (Christ) …. Is without a human mind. We do not separate the humanity from the divinity.”[2] In this letter Gregory of Nazianzen used the term “theotokos” (God bearer) to refer to Mary.

Another opponent of Appollinarius was Theodore of Mopsuestia who held that Christ was one person with two “hypostases” and two natures. Therefore, in the incarnate Christ there are two natures, human and divine which come together to form one person or “prosopon”. He considered this view made sense of human sufferings and temptations of Christ which otherwise would have been merely “play-acting” by Christ or alternatively it would imply that Christ was vastly inferior to God the Father and lead directly to Arianism. His views were a challenge to the mainstream Alexandrian tradition of the church.

These ideas were further developed by Nestorius who became Patriarch of Constantinople. He was opposed to the views of Appollinarius and denied that the term “theotokos” could be applied to Mary because a human being (i.e. a creature) could not give birth to the Creator. This was blasphemous. God himself cannot have a mother. The two natures of Christ should be separated. Nestorius began to preach against the word theotokos and all it implied and his theology became known as the Antochian doctrine of incarnation.


In opposition to the theology of Nestorius was the bishop of Alexandria, Cyril who was an astute manipulator of the politics of the church and the state at this time. With the support of the pope Cyril wrote a letter to Nestorius, together with twelve anathemas which were not clearly worded, for example:

“If anyone in the one Christ divides the persons after their union, conjoining them with a mere conjunction in accordance with worth or a conjunction effected by authority or power, instead of a combination according to a union of natures, let him be an anathema

The result was bitter rivalry between Nestorius and Cyril which was only settled by the “Formulary of Peace” finally agreed by both sides in 433. This declared that:

“Christ was perfect God and perfect man, consisting of rational (human) soul and body, of one substance with the Father in His Godhead, of one substance with us in his manhood; so that there is a union of the two natures; on which ground we confess Christ to be one and Mary to be the mother of God.”[3]

Meanwhile Eutyches, the extreme of the anti-Nestorian school, stressed the divine nature of Christ to the point of neglecting the human aspect. Eutyches and his followers that Christ has only one true nature (Monophysite), i.e., the divine one, after incarnation. God was born Theotokos, and God was crucified and died. The opponents of Eutyches refuted this by stressing that Christ has two natures instead of one, in one Person. In the Tome of Leo in 449, Pope Leo 1 criticised these views and most especially Eutyches' rejection of Christ's true humanity.

"(Eutyches) did not realise what he ought to believe concerning the incarnation of the Word of God ..... We could not overcome the author of sine and death, unless (Christ) had taken on our nature and made it his own, whom sin could not defile or death retain ...... Thus there was born true God in the entire and perfect nature of true humanity, complete in his own properties, complete in ours (totus in suis, totus in nostris)[4]

After some more struggle between the Eutychian party and its opponents including the Second Council of Ephesus the Council of Chalcedon was held in 451. The Eutychian theology was condemned and the Tome of Leo was elevated to a position of authority as a statement of Christological orthodoxy. It rejected the contentions of Appollinarius of “one nature, one person and one hypostasis” and also those of Nestorius of “one person, two hypostases, two natures” and decided in favour of “one person, one hypostasis, two natures”.

However, the Council also pronounced on a number of other issues, including one that was completely unacceptable to Pope Leo which was the establishment of the primacy of Constantinople in the East and it was rejected by Leo. This led to a delay in the ratification of all the proceedings of Chalcedon. This delay meant the Definition lacked authority and it was rejected in the East. This led to a split between the Eastern and Western branches of the church and the establishment of a strong Monophysite church, based mainly on the theology of Eutyches.  

Thus the Definition provided a certain definition of orthodoxy, leaving little room for argument about the person, hypostasis or nature of Christ and this is one of its strengths. But it is also one of its weaknesses as the language was too dogmatic to secure universal acceptance. The resistance to acceptance was violent at times and there have been many years of a search for reconciliation, between East and West. But at the time of the Church Fathers, the positions were too entrenched and the pronouncements of several Emperors who lacked theological sophistication, achieved little.

The problem was mainly over the use of certain language in the Definition, and the use of the words “physis” and “hypostasis” or person and nature. The phrase which became the centre of contention was “in two natures”. Those who argued against the Definition wanted to change this to “out of two natures”.[5] The Antiochenes affirmed that two natures after the union. This was assumed by the West but the Alexandrians distrusted this as “dividing the Christ.” So, the Definition was a clearly balanced attempt at a compromise but as a compromise it was ultimately doomed to fail because of the difficulty of understanding the divine from the perspective of human beings with the limitations of human language.

The limitations of terminology have perhaps been accepted in the recent discussions between the Monophysite and Chalcedon churches. The Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Severius, commenting on a paper by Prof J. Karniris who used the words of a thirteenth century theologian Gregory Bar Hebraeus “I am convinced that the dispute of Christians among themselves is not based on essentials but on words and terms. For all Christians confess that Christ our Lord is perfect God and perfect man without mixture or confusion of the natures. While one refers to the union (of the natures) as “nature”, another calls it “person” and a third “prosopon”.[6]

That it is really God who is revealed and at work in Jesus is one fundamental of Christianity which Chalcedon sought to preserve and that Jesus was truly human and therefore able to relate to us and ultimately save us is the other fundamental issue. Perhaps the other issues at play in Chalcedon is the difficulty of understanding the divine nature from the perspective of human beings and the limitations of human language.

Books Consulted

Barclay William: The Apostles’ Creed 1998

Ed. Bettenson Henry: Documents of the Christian Church 1963

Ed. McGrath Alister: The Christian Theology Reader 1993

Young Frances: Making of the Creeds 1991

Websites consulted

Developments in Christology in the Early Church History on

Christological Issues Addressed by the Council of Chalcedon on

[1] Appollinarius “Letter to the Bishops at Diocaesarea” in Documents of the Christian Church ed. Henry Bettenson

[2] Gregory of Nazianzen in Documents of the Christian Church ed. Henry Bettenson

[3] Formulary of Peace in Bettenson

[4] Leo 1 Letter 28 to Flavian in Bettenson

[5] Frances Young Making of the Creeds

[6] The Early Church and the Creeds Module