Why the Council of Chalcedon is (still) my favourite ecumenical council

As a final question to my students in “The Seven Ecumenical Councils in Historical Context”, I asked which council was each person’s favourite. Votes came in for Nicaea, Ephesus, Constantinople II, and Chalcedon. I affirmed that I still prefer Chalcedon. One student asked who the greatest theologian we’d read in the course was. I’ll save that for another post…

Why do I still like the Council of Chalcedon after all these years?

  1. I like the Chalcedonian definition of the faith, which I’ve translated here. It did not solve the Christological can of worms opened by Nestorius by any means, and potentially just opened up another can and poured the new worms on top of the Nestorius-Cyril worms. But I still think it is beautiful and balanced, so long as interpreted correctly.
  2. The Council of Chalcedon empowers theologians like St Maximus the Confessor to do wonderful stuff. That’s reason enough for me.
  3. I like Pope St Leo the Great and his theology. It’s nice to see traditional Latin Christological formulations showcased at an ecumenical council and enshrined as dogma. As I’ve said on a lot of job applications, I am a Latinist (I can certainly do Greek as well, but my interests and deep knowledge tend more to Rome than Athens).
  4. This might be 3a, actually — whether you like Leo or not, it’s an historically interesting fact that traditional Latin Christological formulations from Hilary of Poitiers and Augustine of Hippo are enshrined in an ecumenical council. The councils are usually dominated by eastern/Greek concerns, eastern/Greek formulations, eastern/Greek bishops, and eastern/Greek ideas. This, at least, makes the Council of Chalcedon an interesting object of study.
  5. So much evidence survives. For someone who wants to dig into the primary sources for ecclesiastical history, Chalcedon has them in abundance.
  6. The actual transpiring of the council is interesting, even entertaining, to read. The acts of the council have embedded in them both the acts of the Second Council of Ephesus (449) and the portions of the acts of the Home Synod of Constantinople of 448 relevant to Eutyches.
  7. The flurry of activity leading up to the council survives, documented chiefly in Leo’s letters.
  8. The fallout from the council is interesting to read about — monks take of Jerusalem! Bishops get killed in the streets over this! It’s crazy stuff. Historically interesting, whether morally appropriate or not.

I think any other reasons would come in as subsidiaries to these. But these are the reasons why the Council of Chalcedon of 451 is my favourite ecumenical council.

Council of Chalcedon, from St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

Beauty

Winchester Cathedral – not my dad’s old parish!

Recently, we have been worshipping at the parish where my dad was priest in my teenage years. Various thoughts have assaulted me, and I thought I’d share two of them. First, the experience of worshipping surrounded by beauty, second, getting plugged back into the liturgical tradition of Anglicanism after years of exile …

In the January 31 episode of the Ad Fontes podcast, Onsi, Colin, and Rhys discussed beauty. You can listen to it here. Beauty is not, ultimately, necessary. Beauty is not a transcendental. And most churches today avoid spending extra money to be beautiful, echoing Judas Iscariot — could this money not be spent on the poor? Nonetheless, most Christians admit that beauty in worship and worship spaces is desirable, if oftentimes financially unattainable.

One point that was made was that no one has been wholesale converted through beauty. Sure, Malcolm Guite’s atheism was cracked by John Keats while visiting Keats House in Rome — but Guite was raised by Christian parents and no doubt had so much Gospel hidden in his heart that it was this that brought him to the living Word behind the words of Keats. Rod Dreher was converted from atheism to Rome by Chartres Cathedral. Yet, once again — he will have needed the ecclesial community of the Roman Catholic Church and the teaching of the church to make a full conversion, I imagine.

Those are the two counterexamples I know, but they nonetheless highlight to us the importance beauty of our experience of God. God has created a beautiful cosmos and is Himself simultaneously everywhere within this cosmos, ordering it aright and thus accessible through its beauty, and beyond it by far. And he, the creator God, has created us in his image. In Tolkien’s vocabulary, we are subcreators.

Making beautiful things is what we do. It’s part of living for God’s glory, showing Him His glory, and living out our existence as beings shot through with His glory.

Now, back to church the Sunday before that podcast episode dropped.

My three-year-old son is irrepressible. He cannot be stopped. Throughout the entire church service, he sat on my knee, rarely taking a break from talking, with a pause to have a snack and many attempts from me to keep the volume down.

At one point, this unstoppable force looked across the aisle from us to the many stained-glass windows flanking the nave and said, “Is that Jesus?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Why?” he asked.

“To remind us that Jesus came to rescue us.”

“Why can’t we see through the window?” (This query was repeated later.)

“By making a window out of stained glass, we can see the picture of Jesus but still have the daylight filling the room. The light shining through the window reminds us that Jesus is the light of world, sort of like what Abbot Suger of St-Denis says.”

I don’t expect my sons to get the references to people like Abbot Suger. But I think it’s worth sprinkling conversation with these references to point them to big world of knowledge that awaits.

A while later, he looked to the front.

“Is that Jesus, too?” he queried.

“Yes, that’s Jesus, too,” I answered.

One of the windows on the walls of the apse portrays Jesus and the little children.

I think it’s great that my wee men go to church and hear hymns, hear sermons, hear prayers, hear the Scriptures read. I have no doubt it is good for their spirits to have these come to them. And I know that they don’t just wash over them. The four-and-a-half-year-old is particularly good at remembering tiny references we thought he wasn’t listening to. He is our listener, our watcher, our observer, taking it all in and synthesising the world into knowledge.

Nonetheless, I also love that we can go to this place of beauty where the light shines through, where Jesus shines down on us (most of the windows are of the Lord, in fact), and we ourselves are drawn by the beauty into His true, eternal Beauty, whether we are three or thirty-eight.

I just finished teaching my students about iconoclasm, and there’s something of St John of Damascus in all of this, about participating in Christ through encountering His image, not to mention my reference to Pseudo-Dionysius via Suger of St-Denis (Denis = French for Dionysius). We can meet with Jesus with the help of these images, seeing His beauty made manifest for us in the stained glass.

Maybe the expense is worth it?

This January I’ll be teaching The Historical Context of the Seven Ecumenical Councils

Boy, that’s possibly the longest title I’ve given a blog post yet! But it’s true! This January I’ll be teaching “The Historical Context of the Seven Ecumenical Councils” for Davenant Hall (the Davenant Institute’s teaching wing). If you’re already excited enough, you can register for the course here. If you need more convincing, read on…

Do you believe in the Trinity? Do you believe that Jesus is fully God and fully human, perfect and entire in each, without getting it all mixed up and turning him into a divinised man or a man adopted by a god or a god who merely uses a human body like an avatar or something?

Do you kiss icons?

If you have an answer to any of these (yes, no, what?), then the outcomes of the Seven Ecumenical Councils should interest you! These seven councils met between 325 and 787. All were called by emperors. All dealt with church-rupturing theological issues. All also dealt with some canon law, except for 5 and 6, so a special council was called after number 6 that we call the Quinisext Council. It’s exciting already, isn’t it?!

These seven councils were admitted by the imperial church to provide the dogmatic boundaries for orthodox thought and worship. They come to be considered as having universal jurisdiction in doctrine and canon law. These seven, and only these seven, hold such a status in the Eastern Orthodox Church. These seven plus a bunch of later ones hold such a status in the Roman Catholic Church. Three of these, if I understand aright, are embraced by the Oriental Orthodox. And I’m not sure if the Church of the East formally embraces any of them, but they espouse the doctrine of the first two.

Protestants tend to explicitly endorse the first four, but I see no reason not to embrace five and six as well, whereas many Reformed Christians reject the seventh because of its acceptance and promotion of holy images (icons). I, personally, accept all seven. I’ve been told that I am what they call, “based”.

These seven councils are:

  1. Nicaea (325): Jesus is of one substance with the Father
  2. Constantinople (381): Reaffirms Nicaea and pushes towards the full divinity of the Holy Spirit
  3. Ephesus (431): Jesus is only one person, fully human and fully divine
  4. Chalcedon (451): Jesus exists in two natures, one human and one divine
  5. Constantinople 2 (553): Jesus’ two natures come together in what we call the “hypostatic union”
  6. Constantinople 3 (680/1): Jesus has two wills
  7. Nicaea 2 (787): Images of Jesus and the saints are good

In my class, we are going to explore the events leading up to and the aftermath of each council. Some of them had some pretty crazy stuff going on at them (particularly Ephesus and second Constantinople), so we’ll look at how (or how not!) to run a church council. We’ll look at why these seven but not other ones (why not Serdica in 343? Why not the Lateran Council of 649? What about the council of 869?). And we’ll examine the writings of one major theologian associated with the teaching of each council.

It’s going to be a fun ride, and hopefully it will help you appreciate even more the glory of the Most Holy Trinity and the Person of Jesus Christ our Saviour and His work of redemption in becoming man.

The Gospel is Jesus, so these questions matter.

You can sign up here.

And for a foretaste, check out my December 16 lecture, “The Christmas Councils”.

Council of Chalcedon, from St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

The Christmas Councils

In two weeks, I am giving the Davenant Fellows lecture. My title is, “The Christmas Councils: Upholding Christ’s Humanity in the Ecumenical Councils, 451-787AD.” The official blurb and registration are here–it’s free! You don’t need to have watched my lecture from last December, entitled “Christmas and the Cross in the Ancient Church” and about Sts Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, but this one does pick up the chronology where that one left off. It’s on YouTube at this link.

This lecture will cover the period of the last four ecumenical councils (I’ll be teaching all seven for Davenant Hall this January — you can register here — it’s not free), but the focus will actually skip the Fifth Ecumenical Council, the Second Council of Constantinople of 553. In good, Protestant sermon fashion (or like a five paragraph essay), I’ll have three main points to explore:

  1. Leo the Great and the Council of Chalcedon (451)
  2. Maximus the Confessor (d. 662) and the Third Council of Constantinople (680/1)
  3. John of Damascus (d. 749) and the Second Council of Nicaea (787)

Each of these men articulated the theological vision that was approved at the respective council. And each of them was fighting to maintain a full vision of the humanity of Christ, a humanity at risk of being swallowed up by divinity in Eutychianism in Leo’s day, a humanity at risk of being diminished to having no will in Monothelitism in Maximus’ day, a humanity at risk of being detached from history and becoming a mere point of dogmatic assent in Iconoclasm in John of Damascus’ day.

The teachings of this era in church history help us orient our hearts and minds to the God Word Incarnate with ramifications for our worship, our ethics, and our witness to the world around.

Jesus is the Gospel, so it matters if we get these things right or not.

Register for the lecture for free here.

Register for my 10-week class starting the week of January 10 here.

Watch last year’s December fellow’s lecture here.

Justin Martyr on baptism

Relevant to my last post, here’s some undigested Justin Martyr (c. 150):

I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”1894 Now, that it is impossible for those who have once been born to enter into their mothers’ wombs, is manifest to all. And how those who have sinned and repent shall escape their sins, is declared by Esaias the prophet, as I wrote above;1895 he thus speaks: “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from your souls; learn to do well; judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow: and come and let us reason together, saith the Lord. And though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white like wool; and though they be as crimson, I will make them white as snow. But if ye refuse and rebel, the sword shall devour you: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”1896

And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the laver the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone. For no one can utter the name of the ineffable God; and if any one dare to say that there is a name, he raves with a hopeless madness. And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed. (First Apology, ch. 61)

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

My latest on YouTube — More on Liturgy!

In my latest YouTube video, I include a long quotation from Richard Hooker while discussing liturgical worship.

Hooker as quoted in the video:

The end which is aimed at in setting down the outward form of all religious actions is the edification of the Church. Now men are edified, when either their understanding is taught somewhat whereof in such actions it behoveth all men to consider, or when their hearts are moved with any affection suitable thereunto; when their minds are in any sort stirred up unto that reverence, devotion, attention, and due regard, which in those cases seemeth requisite. Because therefore unto this purpose not only speech but sundry sensible means besides have always been thought necessary, and especially those means which being object to the eye, the liveliest and the most apprehensive sense of all other, have in that respect seemed the fittest to make a deep and a strong impression: from hence have risen not only a number of prayers, readings, questionings, exhortings, but even of visible signs also; which being used in performance of holy actions, are undoubtedly most effectual to open such matter, as men when they know and remember carefully, must needs be a great deal the better informed to what effect such duties serve. We must not think but that there is some ground of reason even in nature, whereby it cometh to pass that no nation under heaven either doth or ever did suffer public actions [419] which are of weight, whether they be civil and temporal or else spiritual and sacred, to pass without some visible solemnity: the very strangeness whereof and difference from that which is common, doth cause popular eyes to observe and to mark the same. Words, both because they are common, and do not so strongly move the fancy of man, are for the most part but slightly heard: and therefore with singular wisdom it hath been provided, that the deeds of men which are made in the presence of witnesses should pass not only with words, but also with certain sensible actions, the memory whereof is far more easy and durable than the memory of speech can be. (Hooker, Laws, 4.I.3)

Ancient Christian Worship

Yesterday I made this video, but I wasn’t able to promote it on my blog. More shameless self-promotion for my upcoming Davenant Hall course, “Christianity Before Constantine”. Enjoy!

The importance of the second century

My latest offering on YouTube complements yesterday’s blog post. Yesterday, I argued for the relevance of second-century Christianity for today. In my YouTube video, I argue for the importance of the second century as its own historical moment, highlighting six areas worth considering, the first three of which are intimately connected:

  • Canon of Scripture
  • Episcopacy
  • Rule of Faith
  • Liturgy
  • Asceticism
  • Theology

Also, these guys:

  • St Ignatius of Antioch
  • St Justin Martyr
  • St Irenaeus of Lyons
  • St Clement of Alexandria
  • Tertullian

Our second-century moment

‘Orans’ figure, Catacombs of Santa Priscilla. 3rd/4th c.

Many people are comparing our current cultural moment to the final decades of Roman rule in the western Empire and the first century or so thereafter (in order to evoke both St Augustine (d. 430) and St Benedict (d. 547) as guides). There are parallels. But some people are also putting forward the argument that we are living in a second-century moment, at least as far as Christianity in the wider culture is concerned.

This has its parallels as well.

First, the government isn’t really persecuting Christians in the West (despite what some of the fear-mongers will tell you). Instead, for the first time since 312, they frankly do not give a care what Christians believe and desire. We have become a non-issue for them. Although there has been a narrative created of the pre-Constantinian world being one of unrelenting persecution, for most of the second century, Christians were not systematically persecuted, and only occasionally. Persecution is a big hassle, so the government needs to have itself a goal before engaging in one.

Second, the religious map of the world around is becoming more and more pluralist. Now, this doesn’t mean we’ve arrived at the pluralist utopia promised back in the ’90s. No, people are not interested in Christianity as one equal option among many. They’ll express such an idea, but if your Christian conviction leads you step out of line on a specific issue dear to the culture’s heart, you’ll find out just how rigid and puritanical everyone still is. That said, the actual religious landscape is increasingly varied due to the unchurching of many white people on the one hand and the arrival of newcomers to the West who bring with them their own religion. When I lived in Toronto, I visited a massive, stone Hindu Mandir besides a little shopfront Buddhist temple. Alongside these are homegrown New Age manifestations and the organisation of humanism into a new religious movement. The religious landscape of the Roman Empire was itself a smorgasbord, as the excavations at Dura Europos show us (3rd-century Syria).

Third, the internal world of Christianity has been seeing (for quite a while) the return of old heresies, of Gnosticism both explicitly and implicitly. Gnosticism here can be defined as an impulse towards salvation through knowledge about facts and things, gnosis, as opposed to knowing God (which is a personal reality); an impulse towards esotericism, towards secret knowledge; an impulse towards dualism; a rejection of the material world as truly good; a deep spirituality that relativises the place of Christ and thus diminishes him — a cosmic Christ consciousness that I participate in is a lesser thing than Christ as God.

And besides these, versions of Pelagianism, Nestorianism, Arianism, and Apollinarianism are appearing. They may not be second-century, but their attempts to drown out the symphony of orthodoxy with their own discordant monotony is the same.

None of these parallels is exact, of course. As a historian, I could start pulling each one apart. But to the extent that they hold, what I think they can do is help us frame our attempts to be and make disciples of the living Lord Jesus in our cultural moment. And they also highlight the second century as a place for us to go in forging an ancient-future Christianity, as an important period for the sources of the ressourcement.

To that end, my friend Brian and I will be giving a series of lectures this fall specifically on the second century and how its resources can help Christians today.