Whose theology was triumphant at Chalcedon?

I was recently going through some notes about the period 451-565, and I found this quotation from PTR Gray, ‘The Legacy of Chalcedon: Christological Problems and Their Significance’, The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian:

The West was happy enough [with the Council of Chalcedon], but then Chalcedon seemed to be enshrining what they traditionally believed. The Antiochene bishops could, if they put it artfully, claim that they were vindicated. For the rest in the East, three little words — ‘in two natures’ — made Chalcedon a monumental disaster. (222)

With its approval of Leo the Great’s Tome (Ep. 28) and its christological definition (read my translation!) engineered by imperial delegates and papal envoys, Chalcedon is a triumph of western Christology above all else — despite RV Sellers’ demonstration of how it steers a course between the perceived ‘extremes’ of the Alexandrian and Antiochene positions (themselves not as clear-cut at the modern historian would like to have it), or the idea of Grillmeier that Chalcedonian theology is the natural growth and trajectory of Christian theology. To the followers of the trajectory of Athanasius-Cyril (such as Severus of Antioch or TF Torrance), this is not immediately apparent.

But to the student of Chalcedon who sits down to read the great Fathers of the western Church, it becomes clear almost immediately that Chalcedon’s theology — whatever political purposes it may have served Marcian, whatever fallout it may have had, however it may have been interpreted immediately or in the Age of Justinian or in the 20th century — however we view it in those ways, was western.

I just finished the Fathers of the Church translation by Roy J. Deferrari of On the Sacrament of the Lord’s Incarnation by St. Ambrose of Milan.* In many of his works, St. Ambrose is very clearly following eastern examples — his On the Holy Spirit and Hexaemeron owe much to St. Basil, his anti-Arian polemic is very much Athanasian — but when he discusses the idea of Christ’s natura, it becomes evident that we have a fully western writer before our eyes, someone who would have been chuffed over the Council of Chalcedon.

Fresco of St. Ambrose in Sant'Ambrogio, Milan (photo by me!)

In the first place, he uses Matthew 16 as a defence of Christ’s divinity; this passage is one of Leo’s pivotal passages in the Tome. But that alone could have been used by any eastern exegete. Shortly after his use of Mt. 16, however, he sounds highly Chalcedonian and dangerously Nestorian:

Thus, He died according to the assumption of our nature, and did not die according to the substance of eternal life; and He suffered according tot he assumption of the body, that the truth of the assumption of the body might be believed, and He did not suffer according to the impassible divinity of the Word which is entirely without pain. (Ch. 5(36), p. 232)

He uses a Leo-worthy antithesis (or perhaps Leo uses Ambrose-worthy antitheses) in 5(39):

Therefore, He was immortal in death, impassible in His Passion. For just as the sting of death did not seize Him as God, hell saw Him as man. (p. 233)

One of the most ‘dyophysite’ passages is:

Why do you attribute the calamities of the body to divinity, and connect the weakness of human pain even with divine nature? (5(41), p. 234)


For in the form of a servant there was the fullness of true light; and when the form emptied itself, there was the light. (5(41), p. 234)

He closes his discussion on this topic saying, ‘So the nature of the flesh and of divinity could not have been the same.’ (6(61), p. 243) This, the preceding, and a number of other passages point to a strong tradition of two-nature Christology within western Christianity that pre-dates Chalcedon. However, there are also passages later in Ambrose’s treatise that struck me as peculiarly Cyrillian.

I would argue that western two-nature Christology usually sounds ‘Antiochene’ but can at times sound ‘Alexandrian’ on the grounds that western theology is composed in Latin. While Syriac theology has words that serve as perfect parallels for their Greek counterparts in technical jargon, Latin theology does not. Thus, natura and physis do not have an exactly overlapping semantic range. This means that in duobus naturis does not (necessarily) mean en duo physesin.

To prove this thesis, I have a lot more work to do, scouring Latin philosophical writings and uses of natura and the TLL, but I believe that it is true, and it is part of the key of setting Leo and Chalcedon free from the misconceptions that surround what occurred, as Latin theology was translated into Greek and, thus, lost in translation.

*I think it would be better titled ‘On the Mystery …’ since that is what sacramentum means.


2 thoughts on “Whose theology was triumphant at Chalcedon?

  1. I think this post actually gives the Byzantine church a position of strength, because their view of Chalcedon as an infallible council certainly is not because they are culturally eastern. In other words, they are accepting something that is not nessecarily native to their theological tradition, which to me speaks volumes of how authoritative Chalcedon actually is, with all due respect to the Copts etc…

  2. This is a good point! I think the Byzantine Church did a good job in the long view — that is, looking at all eight ‘ecumenical’ councils — of maintaining the tension between Christ our God and Christ our Brother, Son of God and Son of Man, and their willingness to accept Chalcedon (whether politics ‘foisted’ it upon them or not) is part of the strength and flexibility of the Byzantine synthesis.

    Sadly, the Copts and Syrian Orthodox who have many strengths both ascetic and theological were like Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone, the unbending tree on the banks of a river unwilling to move and ended up broken in the flood.

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