Council of Chalcedon Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Council of Chalcedon settled the controversy in the early Christian Church concerning the person of Jesus Christ, declaring that Christ is one person with both a human nature and a divine nature.

Summary of Event

The Council of Chalcedon, the Fourth Ecumenical Council of the early Christian Church, was the culmination of the debate concerning whether, during the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, he was human, divine, a mixture of each, or fully each at the same time. This debate was a result of the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea in 325 c.e. At Nicaea, not far from Chalcedon, the council decided that Christ was both complete God and complete man but did not clarify how that could be possible. The Nicene Creed condemned Arianism, the teaching of Arius in Alexandria that Christ was created by God the Father out of nothing and was therefore neither God nor man. The Nicene Creed was reaffirmed by the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 381 c.e. Eutyches of Constantinople Flavian, Saint Leo I, Saint

Bishops resolve questions regarding the nature of Jesus Christ at the Council of Chalcedon.

(Library of Congress)

The issue was then confused by Apollinarius (c. 310-390 c.e.), the bishop of Laodicea in Syria, who said that Christ was human in body and soul but that his mind (human spirit) was replaced by a divine Logos (word). This position was condemned at Constantinople in 381. Then came Nestorianism, which overly emphasized the humanity of Christ and was condemned at the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431.

The next to enter the debate, and whose views precipitated the calling of the Council of Chalcedon, was Eutyches of Constantinople. Eutyches was a pious presbyter and the leader of a monastery of three hundred monks near Constantinople. He strongly opposed Nestorianism, which had been condemned in 431 c.e. Although reluctant to leave his monastery, Eutyches was drawn into the controversy by the Alexandrians, led by Cyril of Alexandria, who had led the opposition to Nestorianism. Eutyches held partially to the already condemned views of Apollianarius. He believed that Christ was human in body, soul, and mind but that his humanity was still subordinate to his deity. In reality, Eutyches believed that Christ had only one nature, which was divine; in other words, the body of Christ was the body of God. Eutyches was strongly opposed and eventually deposed and excommunicated by Saint Flavian, the patriarch of Constantinople in a local council in 448. For this council, Eutyches had left his monastery for the first time in many years.

In 449 c.e., a new council was held in Ephesus, the infamous Robber Synod, or Council of Robbers. This meeting, in which many delegates carried weapons under their cloaks, reinstated Eutyches and thereby “robbed” Christ of his humanity. Patriarch Flavian denied the authority of this council and was deposed as patriarch. Soldiers were called in to enforce the council’s decision. Flavian was severely beaten and died soon thereafter. This meeting is not recognized as a legitimate church council.

At this point in the controversy, Leo I, bishop of Rome (the first of that office to be called pope), entered the debate. He was brought in by a letter written by Flavian shortly before his death. Leo seemed surprised by the seriousness of the controversy, assuming that the issue had been long settled, and by the accusations against Eutyches. Because Eutyches was a priest and a respected monastic leader, Leo had regarded him as a man of honor. However, when informed that Eutyches believed that Christ had only a divine nature, he described Eutyches, in his response to Flavian, as “very rash and extremely ignorant.”

Leo’s response was his famous “Tome,” (449; “The Tome of Leo,” 1899), a letter in which he referred back to the Nicene Creed as the definition of orthodoxy. He defined heretics such as Eutyches as those who use their own ideas rather than established truth. “The Tome of Leo” established the basis for the decision at Chalcedon by explaining in many ways, from the Virgin Birth to the Resurrection, how Christ had to have a complete human nature as well as a divine nature. Flavian died soon after receiving the “The Tome of Leo,” and it eventually was taken to the Council of Chalcedon by three of Leo’s leading aides. Their task was to secure the correct decision at the council. Leo at first had opposed a council, fearing a repeat of Ephesus in 449 c.e. and hoping that his letter would settle the issue.

The council was originally scheduled to meet at Nicaea in September, 451 c.e. It was rescheduled for Chalcedon in October to be closer to Constantinople. Both Roman emperors, Valentinian III in the west and Marcion in the east, issued the call for the council. Their interest was primarily religious, and therefore political, unity.

“The Tome of Leo” was specifically mentioned in the final decrees of the council. Eutychianism was condemned, and Eutyches himself was eventually deposed and exiled shortly before he died. The final decrees began by stating that Christ had come to bring peace and, therefore, that all Christians should agree on doctrine and that an official council had the authority to define that doctrine. The Creed of Chalcedon did end the major debate on the person of Christ, although Eutychianism was not entirely stamped out, by declaring,

Our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father as regards His divinity, and consubstantial with us as regards His humanity.

Significance

Both the church in the Western Roman Empire, which became the Roman Catholic Church, and the church in the Eastern Roman Empire, which became the Eastern Orthodox Church, accepted the decision at the Council of Chalcedon. That decision survived centuries of controversy, including the Reformation of the sixteenth century. It has remained the orthodox Christian position on the person of Jesus Christ.

However, two variations of Eutychianism also remained as minority positions. In Egypt and Palestine, Monophysitism, meaning one nature, became a powerful force. Byzantine emperor Justinian (r. 527-565) tried to win them back to the Creed of Chalcedon and was assisted by a scholarly monk, Leontius of Byzantium. The Monophysites refused to be reconciled. Their ideas remain active in the Coptic, Ethiopian, and Armenian churches.

The second variation was Monotheletism, meaning one will, which tried to reconcile Monophysitism to the Creed of Chalcedon by stating that Christ completed his work of redemption through one divine-human will. It began in Armenia and Syria in 633 c.e. Many bishops believed that this position was in agreement with the Creed of Chalcedon. Monotheletism even gained the support of Pope Honorius, Patriarch Sergius, and the Byzantine emperor Heraclius. However, the Sixth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 680 debated and rejected Monotheletism and anathematized many of its adherents, including Pope Honorius.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Council of Chalcedon.” The Ecumenical Review. 22, no. 4 (October, 1970). Gives a detailed doctrinal evaluation of the issues involved in the Council of Chalcedon and of the final decision.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gray, Patrick. The Defense of Chalcedon in the East. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. H. Brill, 1979. Focuses primarily on the aftermath of the Council of Chalcedon in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Percival, Henry R. The Seven Ecumenical Councils. New York: Edwin C. Gorham, 1901. A historical and theological analysis of the Council of Chalcedon within the context of the seven major church councils between 325 and 787 c.e.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sellers, R. V. The Council of Chalcedon. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1953. A thorough historical and doctrinal study of the council and the full debate concerning the person of Christ.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stevenson, J. Creeds, Councils, and Controversies: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church a.d. 337-461. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1966. Includes many documents relating to the Council of Chalcedon, including the Tome of Leo that formed the basis of the final decision of the council.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wand, J. W. C. The Four Councils. London: The Faith Press, 1951. Published on the fifteenth century anniversary of the Council of Chalcedon to commemorate the end of the four councils that are recognized by the Church of England.
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