The Council of Chalcedon
The Council of Chalcedon, also known as the Fourth Ecumenical Council was a meeting of Christian leaders in the Roman Empire which established the mature expression of Christian faith known as Chalcedonian Orthodoxy. Held from October 8 to November 1, 451 at Chalcedon (a suburb of Constantinople), it attempted to resolve the issue of how to express the concept of Christ as being both fully human and fully divine.
Following the lead of Pope Leo I, the council sought a middle path between the extremes known as Nestorianism and Monophysitism, ultimately settling on a formula that affirmed “two natures in Christ without confusion, change, division, or separation.” In addition to its theological decrees, the council issued a large number of disciplinary rules governing church administration and authority, including its twenty-eighth canon, raising the See of Constantinople to a position of honor and authority equal to that of the Rome. This rule, however, was rejected by the papacy.
The council initially resulted in a major schism, especially in Egypt and the East, as many refused to accept its teaching of “two natures.” These were condemned by the Calcedonian faction as Monophysite heretics. Among those who reject the Council of Chalcedon are today’s adherents of Oriental Orthodoxy, who consider themselves Miaphysites, not Monophysites, and are now accepted as orthodox by Catholic and Eastern Orthodox authorities.
What happened at the Council of Chalcedon?
November 1, 2018
The Council of Chalcedon was the fourth ecumenical council. In 451 AD, leaders from all of Christendom gathered to define the incarnation of Christ once and for all.
Within the lifetime of the apostles, some Christians were already having a hard time reconciling Jesus’ divinity with his humanity (2 John 1:7). Was he only partially divine, or only partially human? Was Jesus even human at all?
The implications of these questions were huge: the answers could affect whether Jesus had the power to forgive sins and offer eternal life. Without a real human body, could he really die? If he didn’t die, the wages of sin remained unpaid (Romans 6:23) and their faith was in vain (1 Corinthians 15:17).
Establishing Jesus’ divinity
At the First Council of Nicaea (325 AD), more than a century before the Council of Chalcedon, the church declared that God the Father and Jesus the Son were “consubstantial” (of the same substance), clarifying that Jesus was in fact divine in the same way that God is divine.
The wording of the Nicene Creed specifically condemned Arianism, a heresy which professed that Jesus wasn’t “of one substance” with God, and therefore not fully divine. However, it neglected to address the human aspect of Jesus’ identity, and so the theological pendulum swung the other way: new heresies emerged suggesting that Jesus wasn’t fully human.
Even well-meaning church leaders like Nestorius attempted to logically explain the incarnation, but failed to do so without presenting new heretical ideas. The church ruled against these flawed explanations, but still needed to come up with an explanation that everyone could agree on. At the same time, some of these disagreements were sowing discord between the eastern Christian churches (Constantinople) and the western Christian churches (Rome).
The Chalcedonian Definition
At the Council of Chalcedon, the church explicitly defined the relationship between Jesus’ divine nature and his human nature, and how they manifested in his being. They determined he was “truly God and truly man,” and that he is “like us in all things, sin apart.”
The council’s complete statement is known as the Chalcedonian Definition or the Chalcedonian Creed. Here’s what they stated:
“Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all unanimously teach that our Lord Jesus Christ is to us One and the same Son, the Self-same Perfect in Godhead, the Self-same Perfect in Manhood; truly God and truly Man; the Self-same of a rational soul and body; co-essential with the Father according to the Godhead, the Self-same co-essential with us according to the Manhood; like us in all things, sin apart; before the ages begotten of the Father as to the Godhead, but in the last days, the Self-same, for us and for our salvation (born) of Mary the Virgin Theotokos as to the Manhood; One and the Same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten; acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He were parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ; even as from the beginning the prophets have taught concerning Him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself hath taught us, and as the Symbol of the Fathers hath handed down to us.”
The Chalcedonian canons
The council also established 27 new canons (church laws). They later added a 28th, and some collections show 30 canons. (The “additions” are the last three.) life without the consent of his master.
Jesus is truly God, truly man
Today, Christians readily accept that Jesus is fully God and fully man—that there is a hypostatic union between his divine and human natures. Without the Council of Chalcedon’s decisive creed, the church may have continued working with disparate definitions and struggled to maintain orthodoxy.
As the church ruled out conflicting ideas of who Jesus was, the Chalcedonian Definition was inevitable. But it was also essential, and without it, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross would be ambiguous. Knowing that Christ is fully God and fully man, we can fully trust in the salvation he offers through his death and resurrection.
Learn more in Michael Bird’s online course, What Christians Ought to Believe.
What was the significance of the Council of Chalcedon?
Question: “What was the significance of the Council of Chalcedon?”
Answer: The Council of Chalcedon met in AD 451 in Chalcedon, a city in Asia Minor. The council’s ruling was an important step in further clarifying the nature of Christ and the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. The council also laid the groundwork for one of the most significant events in ecclesiastical history—the Great Schism.
In order to appreciate the significance of the Council of Chalcedon, we need a little background. Debate about the person of Christ arose prior to the first Council of Nicaea in AD 325. A man named Arius had taught the false doctrine that the Son of God was a created being and that He was of a different substance (heteroousios) than the Father. The Council of Nicaea sought to unambiguously define the relationship between the Father and the Son. The council said Jesus was truly God. Yet the opponents of the deity of Christ did not simply give up after the Nicene affirmation. But faithful Christians like Athanasius continued to defend Christ’s deity, and, in the end, truth triumphed over error.
After Nicaea came the Council of Constantinople in AD 381, which rejected the teachings of Apollinaris, who said that Jesus’ divine nature had displaced His human mind and will. According to Apollinaris Jesus was not fully human, a teaching that 2 John 1:7 warns against. Later, Nestorius said Jesus had two separate natures and two wills, essentially making Him two persons sharing one body. This teaching was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in AD 431. And ten years later Eutyches also denied that Jesus was truly human, saying Jesus’ human nature was “absorbed” or swallowed up by His divine nature. This led to the Council of Chalcedon, which only lasted from October 8 to November 1, 451.
The Council of Chalcedon anathematized (cursed) those who taught that Christ had only a single, divine nature and those who taught a “mixture” of His two natures. The Council produced the “Chalcedonian Definition,” which affirms that Christ is “the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man.” He is “consubstantial [homoousios] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood.” Jesus Christ is “to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably” (quoted from http://www.carm.org). The divine and human natures of Christ are distinct yet united in one Person. This co-existence of Christ’s two natures is called the hypostatic union.
By affirming that Jesus Christ is one Person who is both divine and human, the Council of Chalcedon made it easier to identify error. The Chalcedonian Definition affirms the truth that Jesus Christ is fully divine and, at the same time, fully human. He is both the Son of God (1 John 5:10) and the Son of Man (Mark 14:21). Jesus, the Word incarnate, assumed perfect humanity in order to save fallen humanity. He could not have saved us unless he was fully God and fully man.
The Council of Chalcedon was also significant because it ratified the creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople. And it condemned the false doctrines of Nestorius and Eutyches. The council affirmed the single personality of Christ and the authenticity and perfection of both His natures, human and divine.