A note about Monophysites

I was surprised to find David Talbot Rice having written the following in Art of the Byzantine Era:

The Egyptian Christians had broken away from the Orthodox persuasion of Constantinople after the Council of 451, as a result of disputes as the true nature of Christ, and Alexandria had become the centre of a heresy known as the Monophysite. According to this, Christ had but one nature, the divine, and the Virgin was in consequence always designated as Hagia Maria, ‘Saint Mary’, for it was not accepted that she could be ‘Mother of God’, or ‘Theotokos’, as she was called in the Byzantine world properly speaking. (28)

You may wish to absolve Prof. Talbot Rice by observing that 1963 was well before the invigorating work of, say, Sebastian Brock on Syriac Christianity or Alois Grillmeier on Christology, but, in fact, there was already solid work on what these people actually believed, and even translations of their own works into modern European languages such that even in 1963 there is no reason why an academic who spent his career studying Eastern Europe and the Middle East should get the Monophysites so wrong as in the above quotation.

I also wish to be on the record that I greatly appreciate and admire the work of David Talbot Rice. He was probably better at what he did than I am what I do, and I have read with profit his little book Russian Icons, and I am already learning a lot about art and art history from Art of the Byzantine Era.

Nevertheless…

What is wrong in the above?

Almost everything, in fact. We must move backwards, for the last is perhaps the worst error to make, at least in terms of simple ignorance. The movement called ‘Monophysite’ was and is a conservative Cyrillian reading of Christology; that is, deeply indebted to St Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444). Their rallying cry was, ‘One incarnate nature of God the Word!’ — a phrase from St Cyril. The term Theotokos is eminently Cyrillian — this is the word that the Council of Ephesus in 431 was fought over. The entire purpose of the title Theotokos is to secure the full Godhead of Jesus. The infant carried in St Mary’s womb was fully God. God the Word was in Mary from the moment of conception when the Spirit of God overshadowed her.

Second, and this is an understandable error (I guess), the mainstream of this movement does not, in fact, believe that Jesus Christ has one nature that is only divine. Certainly, that is a way of reading the term ‘Monophysite’, and it would certainly rank as a heresy. Moreover, it is the very thing that Eutyches may have believed (I am still fuzzy as to what exactly he thought he was saying), that led to his condemnation at Chalcedon in 451. But, although the Coptic Church and the rest of the Monophysites reject Chalcedon, they also reject Eutyches.

What they actually believe

Monophysites, that is, the Oriental Orthodox — Coptic, Ethiopian Tewahedo, Syrian Orthodox, and Armenian Churches — believe that Jesus is God the Word incarnate. He is also fully man, contrary to the teaching of Apollinarius of Laodicea who denied Jesus a human psyche/soul/mind. However, he has one nature, one will, and one action. This is because he is a single, fully united person — hypostasis in the Greek.

There is a union between the divine and human in Jesus according to hypostasis (kat’hypostasin). The result is that what we can say about the divine Christ we can say to the human. Christ’s divine activities are predicated of him as a man and vice versa. Accordingly, they reject any teaching that says he has more than one nature. If there are two natures, so argue people like Severus of Antioch, there is no longer a hypostatic union but, rather, two hypostases (or persons) — this is what Nestorius got condemned for in 431.

Very, very briefly, this is what the Monophysites believe.

Prof. Talbot Rice’s passage above is also why living members of these churches reject the term ‘Monophysite’. Used properly, it can certainly designate what they believe (see Lebon, Le Monophysisme Sévérien). But usually it is used improperly, of a belief that there is only one divine nature in Christ, which is completely contrary to everything their forebears fought for in the fifth and sixth centuries. They mostly use the term ‘Miaphysite’ today, although I have not used it in this piece…

More on Monophysites!

Lebon, J. Le Monophysisme Sévérien. Louvain, 1909. This is an early but still helpful examination of what Severus of Antioch and Philoxenus of Mabbug, two of the great Monophysite theologians, taught.

His Holiness Pope Shenouda III (d. 2012) wrote many little books, and his book The Nature of Christ should help clarify further the historical path of Coptic Christology.

Common Declaration of Pope Paul VI of Rome and Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria on Christology

The Christology of St Severus of Antioch details the teachings of one of the greatest Monophysite theologians of all time.

copticchurch.net is a great resource as well.

Middle Eastern Christianity is complicated

His Holiness, Pope Shenouda III (d. 2012), Coptic Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria and All Egypt

I am giving a talk in a few days about the relevance of Leo the Great’s letters for the modern Middle East. The basic argument is: the Oriental Orthodox still reject Leo’s theology and the Council of Chalcedon, however nuanced their official positions may be, based upon ecumenical joint declarations about Christology. The root of the schism between the Miaphysites and the imperial church (whose descendants are Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant) is the acceptance of Leo’s Christology at Chalcedon in 451.

What I want to find are stats on the different churches of the Middle East. Naively, I imagined that it was not necessarily so bad. There are the main focus of my investigation, the Oriental Orthodox: Coptic Orthodox, Syrian/Syriac Orthodox (“Jacobites”), Armenian Apostolic, as well as the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox. They are also in communion with the Indian Orthodox Church. And I knew there was also the Church of the East, formerly misleadingly called “Nestorian”. The other main churches I knew about are the Eastern Orthodox, particularly the Antiochene Orthodox and Georgian Orthodox, although I did visit an Eastern Orthodox church in Cairo that was under their own patriarch in Alexandria.

The destabilising element, however, is the West. First: the Church of Rome. I knew there were so-called “Melkites” in communion with Rome as the result of a simultaneous union with Rome and schism within the Antiochene Orthodox Church. I also knew about the Chaldean Catholics in Iraq, themselves of a similar event in the Church of the East. And I knew that the Maronites are in communion with Rome. Plus, of course, western Rite Roman Catholics. The Church of Rome’s attempts at reunion in the 17th and 18th centuries seem to have resulted in some members of most of the historic churches of the Middle East joining them, but some not.

It gets more complicated, of course, because Anglicans have tried similar things as the Roman Catholics, seeking to enter into full communion with indigenous churches that are of apostolic origin with episcopal structure. And some of them go for Anglicanism, others don’t. So even more schism. This is not to bring in the many splinters of Protestantism familiar to any of us from the West.

I have to admit at this point that it has grown vaguer because I found it very hard keeping all of the different historic churches of the Middle East in order. Many of them have very similar names, for one thing. Others I had never heard of. But they exist, and they seek to live out the Christian life faithfully in often trying circumstances, whether we think of Daesh/ISIS in Iraq or civil war in Syria or non-government-sanctioned moments of persecution in Egypt or the memory of attempted genocide on Armenian and Assyrian Christians by the Ottomans.

What all of these faithful followers of Jesus have in common is an apostolic lineage. All of them can trace their bishops through succession back to the apostles, just like the Bishop of Rome or of Canterbury — mind you, Archbishop Welby can trace his succession back to Augustine of Canterbury, and from him to Gregory the Great of Rome. But that sort of thing is how it works for most of these churches as well — they can trace their bishops back to a missionary bishop who was connected with an older church, and the chain goes back to the apostles.

When I think about this, the apostolic succession argument, even if I were to fully embrace it, it clearly not quite strong enough to convert me out of Anglicanism. First, we tend to think that we have apostolic succession, certain denials thereof by the Church of Rome notwithstanding. Second, whose apostolic succession to choose? Roman Catholicism? Eastern Orthodoxy? Oriental Orthodoxy? The Church of the East? All of them have a tendency to say that their own form of Christianity is nothing but the pure tradition handed down by the apostles. This is actually an important point I want to consider in a later post.

Anyway, the Middle East is complicated, not only for the above but also because we Protestants are there bringing new and different approaches to the faith, from Anglicanism and Methodism to Pentecostalism. Perhaps the saddest part of this is the fact that so much of the complication arose from attempts by the Roman Catholic Church to restore Christian unity centuries ago.

How might we do better today?

Review: Christ in Christian Tradition, Vol. 2, part 1

Christ in Christian TraditionChrist in Christian Tradition by Aloys Grillmeier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first part of the second ‘volume’ of Grillmeier’s magisterial history of Christology. The first volume takes the reader up to the Council of Chalcedon in 451. This part of volume 2 takes you from Chalcedon to around 532. This volume is largely devoted to the history of the unfolding post-Chalcedonian controversy — the perception, reception, and rejection of the council and its two-natures formula.

A few moments and figures get detailed analysis of their Christology, but nothing as in-depth as vol. 1. I think that the really in-depth studies of figures such as Severus of Antioch are in part 2 of volume 2.

The sweep is grand, and Grillmeier brings up some important points for the period that I think we often overlook. One point is the way the ‘Henotikon’ of Zeno was itself largely unknown in the West and interpreted in two different ways in the East, right up to the end of the reign of Anastasius — that is, those who think that abandoning this document spelled the end of any hope of eastern reconciliation have grossly overestimated its ability to hold pro- and anti-Chalcedonian forces together. They were already moving apart in the East, especially since many anti-Chalcedonians such Philoxenus of Mabbug and Severus of Antioch rejected the ‘Henotikon’, anyway.

I say this not to read Grillmeier’s book as teleological — that Chalcedon ‘had to’ triumph in the end. But it is a major corrective to ongoing treatments of the material that seem to think that a Miaphysite triumph would not have spelled schism and disaster as much as the Chalcedonian triumph did. People were using the same words in different ways with no interest or, at times, ability, to realise this fact. This can only lead to ruin, especially when you throw Latin into the Greek controversies, let alone the bulky Syriac-speaking population of the dioecesis of Oriens.

Anyway, that is the sort of historical treatment we find. Grillmeier wants to get beyond emperors this and popes that to the documents that reveal to us the ideas of the wider association of bishops, monks, and clergy. Thus, he uses Emperor Leo I’s Codex Encyclius as a means to discern how eastern bishops in 458 perceived the council of seven years earlier.

Grillmeier also corrects over-reading Emperor Anastasius as a Miaphysite. It becomes clear from the documents under discussion — often quoted at length, often paraphrased — that his support for the ‘Henotikon’ was not tied to any support of the more extreme Severan agenda. Indeed, the emperors emerge as a particular kind of force in geo-ecclesiology in this book — before Justinian, they do not enforce their own views, but use documents drafted by bishops to attempt to find some kind of compromise (e.g. ‘Encyclical’ of Basiliscus, the ‘Henotikon’ of Zeno), or gain the opinions of bishops on fractious issues (e.g. ‘Encyclical’ of Leo I), or councils (Marcian at CP, several local councils of Anastasius, early councils of Justinian, a planned council by Vitalian [who never became emperor]). They seek unity and see themselves as arbiters of unity within the imperial church, working alongside the bishops who are the ones who set the correct interpretation of the faith.

They are often compromisers as a result. A figure like Anastasius cannot afford to be unshakeable in doctrine the way Athanasius, Ambrose, Leo, or Cyril was. Too much is at stake. For him, it is not doctrinal purity but unity of the imperial church that matters; the content of doctrine is set by the specialists. He simply seeks the best specialists and tries to enforce their judgement.

This book also sees that the watchword for orthodoxy in the West was always and ever Chalcedon — not that no Latin ever wrote anything interesting in Christology in these years. Indeed, there is much of interest here still from the later years of Leo and especially the interpretation of Leo by Gelasius I. But anyone or anything that implies either a rejection of Chalcedon or fellowship with those who reject the council is immediately anathema to the Latins. This is to be kept in mind for the sequel to the events discussed here.

Finally, Grillmeier shows himself a man of his times, with the buoyant atmosphere of ecumenism in the 1980s. He often talks about the relevance of the different measures to find or enforce unity, or statements drawn up, to the modern situation of ecumenical dialogue. Alas, the great ecumenical experiment has petered out, by the ongoing liberalisation of the Protestant mainline and the ongoing support of every ancient ecclesial communion for its own heritage — I am thinking here of the statements made by Pope Shenouda III in favour of monenergism that remind us that, whatever the joint statements on Christology say re Chalcedon, the disputes of the seventh century live on in the twenty-first.

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The suffering of the impassible God 1: St Gregory of Nazianzus

Council of Chalcedon

One of the beautiful doctrines of the ancient church is the communicatio idiomatum, the teaching that everything about Christ’s divinity can be stated about his humanity and vice versa. It leads to startling statements like, ‘One of the Most Holy Trinity was crucified and died for us!’ Philosophically, it is a means of maintaining the unity of Christ in light of the fullness of his humanity and the fullness of his divinity.

The doctrine is important because of the fact that Jesus is affirmed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 as possessing two natures but in a single person. This language of two natures is a fifth-century development, and it took a couple of centuries until St Maximus the Confessor (580-662) fleshed it out beautifully and magnificently after St Leo the Great’s use of such language in 448 had already rent the fabric of the church in two.

Nevertheless, there are hints of Leo’s insight already in the late fourth century. Thus St Gregory of Nazianzus (320-390):

Everything glorious in Scripture concerning the Son, you should apply to His Deity, that nature in Him which is non-physical, far above sufferings; everything lowly in Scripture concerning the Son, you should apply to His condition as the God who took our nature upon Him, humbling Himself for your sakes and was incarnate (we may as well sake ‘became Man’), and afterwards was glorified. (Third Theological Oration, 17, trans. Nick Needham, Daily Readings: The Early Church Fathers, 12 March)

St Gregory, however, is a bit subtler than Leo’s Tome. St Leo straightforwardly says that the humanity suffered, the divinity wrought miracles. St Gregory, on the other hand, posits everything about the humanity still to the divinity — in His incarnation as a human. And remember, St Gregory of Nazianzus is he who wrote, ‘What has not been assumed has not been saved,’ demonstrating that he believes in the fullness of Christ’s humanity.

Christology: Life and dogma

Council of Chalcedon

Aloys Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition, Volume 2, Part One:

The formula and teaching of Chalcedon absorbed the attention of the old imperial Church, whether we look at Emperors, Popes, bishops, the monks or the theologians, or finally the mass of Church people. Yet, both before and after the Council [of 451], there was a life inspired by faith in Christ which neither needed the formula of Chalcedon for its existence, nor was directly enriched by it. This was because the Church possessed and lived the content or the matter of this teaching, namely, faith in the one Christ, true God and true man, even though it was not expressed in more advanced philosophical terms. Such faith drew its vitality from a picture of Christ which could not be fully comprehended in the formula of 451 about the person of Christ. This is shown by the fact that the content, though not the formula, of Chalcedonian faith was actually the common property of the opposed parties in the post-Chalcedonian era. (p. 4)

This sort of statement is always of interest to me. The idea is that in the proclamation, the kerygma, and the living of the Christian faith, there is a latent, inherent orthodoxy that does not always find expression in the conciliar and dogmatic formulae, and it can be found in the lived faith of the Church before any council has drawn up any document.

It is related to the argument that I’ve heard from numerous Eastern Orthodox sources, such as Andrew Louth, that the church’s prayer life and liturgical encounter with the mystery of God was ultimately Trinitarian from the outset, and what was lacking was the formal articulation of Trinity in dogma. I’m willing to accept this thesis; I am interested in seeing it proven in scholarship, however. Any suggestions?

Back to Christology. Is Grillmeier correct? I suspect that is the point of the book I am about to read. So I’ll see. But Paul Parvis, when I took his Byzantine Theology course in Edinburgh, argues that people don’t fight over nothing. So pro- and anti-Chalcedonian forces, despite Grillmeier or Lebon or other modern(ist) readers, actually did disagree, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI would disagree with the late Pope Shenouda III, if they ever crossed dogmatic swords of monothelitism (Shenouda was a clear-cut monothelite).

So my questions, as I start thinking more theologically than whatever it is I’ve been recently are:

  • Did the Mia/Monophysites and Chalcedonians actually agree? Is there harmony between Severus of Antioch and Leo the Great?
  • Is the lived faith of the church implicitly Trinitarian and Chalcedonian, even if it does not always articulate said faith in the same way? What is the scholarship on this question?

William Lane Craig and heresy: The need for greater historical awareness amongst evangelicals

Council of Chalcedon

In seeking to clear Dr William Lane Craig of the stain of heresy as spread through rumour, Kevin Harris interviewed Craig over at the Reasonable Faith Podcast. Unfortunately, what Craig outlines in the interview is, in fact, Apollinarianism, and not something inspired by it — not even Cyrillian Christology. His defence in offering this Christology is that he sees it as a mere possibility, stating:

By offering this model I suggest that this is not at all logically incoherent, and moreover that this is a biblically faithful portrait of Jesus as well.

Craig’s position is this:

What I suggest is:

  1. We agree with the Council of Chalcedon that in Christ we have one person with two natures – human and divine.
  2. The soul of the human nature of Christ is the second person of the Trinity, the Logos. The human nature of Christ is composed of the Logos and a human body.
  3. The divine aspects of the Logos are largely concealed in Christ’s subconsciousness so that he had a waking conscious life that would be typical of any human being and that like the mass of an iceberg submerged beneath the surface so in his divine subconsciousness there lay the fullness of divinity. The waking consciousness was typically human.

Those are the three planks of the model.

The problem with these three planks is that planks 2 and 3 contradict plank 1. Plank 1 rests on the Council of Chalcedon, and that council states that Jesus is ‘perfect in humanity’ with ‘a reasoning soul and body’. The Chalcedonian Definition goes on to say, ‘the property of each nature [is] preserved, coming together into a single person [prosopon] and a single subsistence [hypostasis].’ If the soul of the human nature of Christ is the Logos, then Jesus does not have a human soul. That is a necessary aspect of having a full human nature; that is one of the properties of human nature as indicated by the Chalcedonian definition. That Christ is ‘perfect’ in his humanity means that his humanity is complete.

Craig elucidates his position as follows:

Apollinarius’ original view was that Christ didn’t have a complete human nature. He had a human body but he didn’t have a human soul. He didn’t have a human nature. As a result he wasn’t really truly human. That calls into question the reality of the incarnation and also the effectiveness of Christ’s death on our behalf since he did not share our nature.

What I argue in my Neo-Apollinarian proposal is that the Logos brought to the human body just those properties which would make it a complete human nature – things like rationality, self-consciousness, freedom of the will, and so forth. Christ already possessed those in his divine nature, and it is in virtue of those that we are created in the image of God. So when he brought those properties to the animal body – the human body – it completes it and makes it a human nature. Against Apollinarius, I want to say that Christ did have a complete human nature. He was truly God and truly man. Therefore his death on our behalf as our representative before God was efficacious.

What he describes is honest-to-goodness Apollinarianism. The reason Apollinarius doesn’t give Jesus a human soul is because the divine Logos has taken the place of the human soul in Jesus. This is exactly what Craig is saying. As soon as the divine Logos takes the place of the human soul in Jesus, Jesus does not possess a complete human nature, even if Craigs wants to say that he did.

Craig is explicitly concerned in the interview with ensuring the unity of Christ, that the divine and human natures of Jesus are essentially two persons in the one body (‘Nestorianism’ as we call it). This is Apollinaris’ concern:

Whoever teaches that there are two types of reason in Christ, I mean the divine and the human one, acts as if he were able to engrave letters in a rock with a finger. For if each type of reason is in control of itself because it is motivated by the aspiration unique to its being, it is impossible for two reasons whose strivings are set against each other to exist with one another in one and the same subject, since each performs according to the nature of its will — for each is self-moving. (Frag. 150, quoted in H. Drobner, The Fathers of the Church, p. 265)

To deal with the fact that a human nous and a divine nous, or human and divine hegemonika, could lead to something like Nestorianism, Apollinaris came up with the idea that the divine Logos took the place of Jesus’ human nous. This is what it means when we say that Apollinaris denied Jesus’ full human nature — he takes away the human soul and replaces it with the divine principle. And this is exactly with Dr Craig has done.

I see here the ongoing problem of evangelicalism. Rather than immersing ourselves in the tradition, and sorting out what Chalcedon means, or what the ‘Neo-Chalcedonian’ resolution of the council meant 100 years later, or what St Maximus the Confessor meant a century after that, we look at the problem of the two principles in Christ — a human nature and a divine nature — and try to come up with a solution to the problem. What Dr Craig proposes here is exactly what I had once thought up about a decade ago, although he does it with better philosophy and more nuance.

Although I am sharply opposed to his reading of Leo the Great, a good starting place for any evangelical looking at Christology is Robert W. Jenson, ‘With No Qualifications: The Christological Maximalism of the Christian East’, in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity by Kenneth Tanner & Christopher A. Hall. Here you get a taste of the Christological thought and trajectory of Greek theology from Justin Marty (c. 155) to Maximus the Confessor (d. 662). This piece, part of my introduction to patristics and ‘paleo-orthodoxy’, had a great impact on me and my vision of the absolutism of Christ’s divinity held in tension with his humanity.

I’m not saying that Craig is not a clever man, nor that he is bad at philosophy. His bibliography demonstrates a thorough engagement with modern and contemporary philosophical movements. But he seems to be bad at historical theology. Not wanting to cast aspersions, since I don’t know his bibliography, this interview reads as though Craig had read a summary of what ‘Chalcedonianism’ is, what ‘Apollinarianism’ is, and what ‘Nestorianism’ is without having actually read a single Chalcedonian, Apollinarian, or Nestorian document. Perhaps I am wrong, and it is the brevity of the interview that is the problem. However, if that is the case, then I fear that Dr Craig has woefully misunderstood his reading of the Church Fathers.

Craig is right that we need to safeguard orthodoxy against Nestorianism. Unfortunately, he has offered us, at least in this piece, something that is Apollinarianism. There is tension and mystery in all orthodox theology. We hold the tension that somehow God is three persons with a single essence/substance, that the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty, but there are not three almighties but one almighty. There are ways of elucidating the doctrine of the Trinity, and some of them are orthodox (Augustine, the Cappadocians) while some of them are not (Oneness Pentecostals).

Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, possessing a rational human soul and a human body, but is also the Second Person of the Trinity. There is a tension to this, and orthodoxy is maintaining a balancing act between Nestorianism and Apollinarianism. It is seeking to affirm the fullness of his humanity and of his divinity at the same time. Jesus Christ must have an actual human mind in order to be human. To have a divine mind that is pretending to be human is not to be human; the great anti-Apollinarian statement of Gregory of Nazianzus holds true, ‘What has not been assumed has not been healed.’ If Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, does not have a soul of the same nature as man, if all he has is a human body and a divine soul masquerading as human, then he is not just like me except without sin. He is completely different from me. A full human nature requires a full human psychology, not the parade or show of one.

I could go on, and maybe I will in a future post, giving sign-posts for evangelicals on Christology. But here is yet another reason why people like me feel like we are increasingly on the fringe of the evangelical world as well as presenting the need for a robust evangelical ressourcement as called for by D. H. Williams, Robert E. Webber (‘Ancient-Future Faith’), and Thomas C. Oden (‘paleo-orthodoxy’).

The Council of Chalcedon today

The Council of Nicaea
Council of Nicaea, St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

Glancing over their calendar of upcoming services, I noticed that today the local Eastern Orthodox church was celebrating the Divine Liturgy in honour of the Fourth Ecumenical Council — the Council of Chalcedon of 451. A happy coincidence is that I was typing up notes from old notebooks yestereven, and I found this from Philip Jenkins’ book Jesus Wars:

If only because of the other paths that could so easily have been taken, these debates give the mid-fifth century an excellent claim to be counted as the most formative period in the whole history of Christianity. Much recent writing stresses the earlier Council of Nicea (325) as the critical moment in defining the beliefs of that faith, the critical dividing line between early and medieval Christianity. In reality, the struggle even to define core beliefs raged for centuries beyond this time and involved several other great gatherings, any one of which could have turned out very differently. (pp. 18-19)

As it turns out, I was no big fan of Jenkins’ book and ended up not finishing it. Nonetheless, the Council of Chalcedon was a big deal, is a big deal, and will continue to be a big deal for time to come. Not only that, it’s a major reason that I am where I am today. Jenkins is right to point us beyond Nicaea to the other ‘ecumenical’ councils as defining moments in Christianity — and Chalcedon has ended up being one of the biggest defining moments.

You may be surprised to read that. Indeed, several years ago I wrote a post about how Chalcedonian orthodoxy is not really that controversial. We mostly think of Chalcedon like this: Jesus is fully man and fully God. The end.

The thing is, the affirmation of Nicaea at the ‘Second Ecumenical’ Council at Constantinople in 381 established the fact that God is Jesus, that Jesus is homoousios — consubstantial — with the Father. The church within the Roman Empire also rejected a fellow named Apollinaris whose teaching subverted the full humanity of Jesus.

The question that arose in the fifth century was not, ‘Is Jesus fully God and fully man?’ but, ‘How is Jesus fully God and fully man?’ Dietrich Bonhoeffer may have been right in his Christology, and asking such questions was not necessarily the right thing to do — but they were asked. Once asked, a question cannot be unasked. And once answered, however imperfectly, it cannot be unanswered. The church had to come up with an answer that was both philosophically coherent and biblically faithful.

No mean task.

Now, you may be partisan to a different ecumenical council. That’s fine. Allow me to explain why Chalcedon is such a big deal.

The Council of Chalcedon is such a big deal because it was not universally accepted.

The Council of Nicaea, after the conversion of the Homoian (‘Semi-Arian’) barbarian kings in the Early Middle Ages, has become universally accepted (we set aside modern heretics who have resurrected Homoian and Arian thought). This is part of why it’s a big deal. Along with it, First Constantinople of 381 is also usually tacitly accepted, because a version of its creed is the one that even the ‘Nestorian’ Church of the East recites at the Eucharist.

After First Constantinople, the next council in our list of ‘ecumenical’ (or ‘universal’) ones is Council of Ephesus of 431. It is rejected by the Church of the East. That should make it a big deal like Chalcedon. And it is a very big deal, and I recommend you get to know it. However, the Council of Chalcedon is somewhat larger a deal because the Church of the East’s roots lie beyond the Roman Empire. Its story, little known to us in the West, is a different story. It is a story worth knowing, with its own contours living in the Sassanian Persian Empire, then under the Caliphate, and reaching as far East as China — but it is a different story.

You see, the Council of Ephesus was accepted by the Latin West, the Greek East, the Copts, and some amongst the Syriac-speaking world. Although there was division in its aftermath, in 433 things were patched up by the Bishops of Alexandria and Antioch in a document known by its first two words in Latin translation, ‘Laetentur caeli.’

In other words, the Church of the Roman Empire, in which Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, as well as Copts, Syrian Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox, find their heritage, came to accept Ephesus. As did the church in Armenia.

This is why the Council of Chalcedon is such a big deal. Yes, the Church of the Empire formally accepted Chalcedon. But many of her bishops in the Greek East fought against. Some emperors tried to bury it and ignore it. Justinian called a Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553, the Second Council of Constantinople, to try and deal with the divisions surrounding Chalcedon. He also issued various edicts beforehand, trying to find ways of framing theology that would both affirm the doctrine of the Council of Chalcedon and reconcile the growing Mono-/Miaphysite movement. Similar attempts at interpretation and framing of the Fourth Ecumenical Council also led directly to the Sixth Ecumenical Council, the Third of Constantinople, in 681.

Depending on which side of the many refractions of Chalcedon and its reception or rejection you found yourself on, you could end up imprisoned, or with your tongue cut out, or exiled to Petra, or stripped of ecclesiastical rank, or elevated to the episcopate, or given charge of a monastery, or any number of various situations, good or bad. You could find yourself in schism with Rome. You could find yourself in schism with Constantinople. You could find yourself hiding out in a monastery in Constantinople making Latin translations of the Greek acts of the Council of Chalcedon.

You might write a very long theological treatise defending certain aspects of Chalcedon. You might write a series of theological tractates excoriating Chalcedon and Pope Leo, whose theology it approved, for heresy. You might compile a set of miracle stories proving Chalcedon true. You might compile a set of miracle stories proving Chalcedon false.

The Council of Chalcedon is one of the most significant events of the Late Antique Church, and we need to realise that its teaching and the reception of that teaching has shaped and moulded the lives of thousands of people for 1500 years.

I believe that understanding the theology and fallout of Chalcedon, skimmed over above, is especially important for western Christians today. First, most of us would agree with Chalcedon if we knew what it taught; many of us are members of ecclesial bodies that affirm the Christological teaching of the Council of Chalcedon. By knowing who we are, what we believe, and why, we can live confidently in a world increasingly unmoored and harbourless.

Second, the world is not boxed off as it once was. The Internet makes it easier to encounter our fellow Christians from the eastern churches who reject this council. Understanding Chalcedon makes it easier for us to understand and love them. Furthermore, as war, terror, extremist Islam and secular (including economic) unrest shake the foundations of peaceable life in the Middle East, Middle Eastern Christians are finding their way West.

Some are Chalcedonians in direct, unbroken descent in the Greek tradition, such as the Antiochian Orthodox Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Some are Miaphysites who reject Chalcedon and teach that Jesus has one nature, one will, and one energy — the Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahedo, Syrian/Syriac Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic Churches are amongst them. Some are ‘Nestorian’, such as the Assyrian Church of the East — many Iraqis who flee West belong to this church. There are other groups with a messy relationship with Chalcedon, such as the Chaldean Catholics, who are in communion with the Pope but try to accept both Theodore of Mopsuestia (the great teacher of Nestorius, condemned at Second Constantinople in 553) and Cyril of Alexandria (the great nemesis of Nestorius, victor at First Ephesus in 431).

Christian history is not dry and dusty and irrelevant. For the Christians of the Middle East, it is a living, breathing reality that permeates their lives. By coming to understand it better, we can love them better.