Christological Definition at Chalcedon and Theories on Human Nature

by Providence Crowder

Defining God was by no means an easy undertaking by the Church.  For the Christian, any God that did not include the person and work of Christ was no God at all.  Be that as it may, from the very inception of the Church those who identified themselves as Christians became mired in theological debates concerning the nature of God the Father and his Christ.  As different opinions and interpretations of scripture arose, biblical exegetes and apologists confronted head on the questions with regard to the substance of God and the divinity and humanity of Christ.  Eventually the Church safeguarded a Trinitarian theology, God as one substance and yet three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and a Christology maintaining that Jesus Christ, the second person of the God head is both fully divine and fully human, within the definitions of the Christian dogma that was to be universally accepted by all Christians.  This became the orthodox[1] faith of the Christian Church that overruled all other hermeneutical perspectives concerning the nature of God and identity of Jesus Christ.

Beginning with the fourth century, ecumenical councils[2] became effective means to address specific theological challenges for the Church.  The councils also took measures to preserve the apostolic traditions believed to be passed down through the earliest church.  By the fifth century, the Church, through the councils, had adequately defined, re-defined, and defended various articles concerning the faith.  In its definition, the Council of Chalcedon upheld the Christology of the earlier councils, the First Council of Nicaea and the First Council of Constantinople, in which Arianism[3] and Apollinarianism[4] were condemned.  The council also affirmed the decision made by the third council, the Council at Ephesus, to anathematize “Nestorius the Juidaizer.”[5] 

Christology was again revisited at the Synod of Chalcedon to respond to Monophysitism, the doctrine alleging that “in the incarnate Christ, there is only one nature, not two.”[6]  Monophysitism placed Christ’s nature once again at the forefront of the Christological debate.  Because the previous definitions and creeds of the preceding councils had seemingly left room for interpretive error, the Council of Chalcedon took measures to preserve both Jesus’ divinity and humanity.  The Church was also forced to attend to the anthropological questions and debates concerning human nature and sin that arose as the Christological debates began to subside. 

 

 

The Definition of the Council of Chalcedon

            Eastern Roman Emperor, Marcian, called an assembling of the bishops in 451 AD to decide on the Christological controversies that had arisen since third council at Ephesus had ended.  Monk Eutyches  of Constantinople had began to advocate a Christological view later termed  “Monophysitism”[7] in response to the teachings of Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople.  Nestorius in his doctrine was said to “divide in two the person of Christ.”[8] Nestorius’ teachings had been anathematized at the third ecumenical council; however, Monk Eutyches, began teaching that in the Incarnate Christ, there was only one nature, not two.  Where Nestorianism divided the person of Christ into two, Monophysitism combined the natures of Christ into one.  The orthodox position of the Church had maintained that Jesus Christ was one person with two natures; human and divine.  Both positions, Nestorianism and Monorphysitism, were rejected by the Council of Chalcedon, along with Monk Eutyches and other proponents of Monorphysitism, such as Pope Disoscorus. 

The Council came to condemn the teachings of both Nestorius and Eutyches in large part due to “the Tome of Pope Leo the great,”[9] a letter that had been read at the Council in which Leo specifically addressed Eutyches’ Christology.   In the letter, written by Leo to St. Flavian, patriarch of Constantinople, Leo expounded upon the “Christological doctrine of the Latin Church,” namely that “Jesus Christ is one Person, the Divine Word, in whom are two natures, the Divine and the Human, permanently united, though unconfused and unmixed.”[10] Based on Leo’s Christology, which was overwhelming supported by the bishops as orthodox and “in agreement with the Holy Fathers,”[11] Leo condemns Monorphysitism as unorthodox.  The bishops of the council accept Pope Leo’s letter as “a type and rule of faith in which all churches were bound” [12] and “an Apostolic sentence which he put forth.”

Enduring the controversies of Monorphysitism and the heresies that came before it, the Council of Chalcedon developed a definition of the faith in which all of Christendom should adhere to.  The declaration specified the manner in which Christ should be understood, using an “alpha privative,” a prefix that specifies negation or absence,[13] before each descriptor in an effort to provide as much clarity as possible. The Definition of Chalcedon declared: “We teach. . .Christ-Son, Lord, only-begotten is in two natures; and we do this without confusing the two natures, without transmuting one nature into the other, without dividing them into two separate categories, without contrasting them  according to area or function.”[14]  With this definition, the heresies of Arianism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, and Monorphysitism were sufficiently refuted with the full support of the bishops of the Church.  The Definition of Chalcedon was the last agreed upon Christological definition between the churches in the East and in the West.  After centuries of Christological controversies had begun to subside, the Church turned to deliberate theological anthropology in relation to human nature and sin.

Theories on Human Nature

            “The chief controversies of the first four centuries . . . concerned the nature of God and the person of Christ; and it was not until these Christological questions were well upon their way to final settlement, that the Church turned its attention to the more subjective side of truth,”[15] namely human nature and sin.  Human nature can be defined as “the sum of qualities and traits shared by all humans.”[16]  In Christian theology, believers have generally agreed that the sin of God’s first created being, Adam, has had an adverse affect on human nature.  Christians also agreed that sin had separated mankind from God (Isa. 59:2) and sin ultimately produced death (Rom 6:23).  Although Christians shared this common ground, divisions arose among believers who held opposing ontological views on human nature similar to what transpired during the Christological controversies; hence, the Church sustained yet another lengthy debate.  Gaining a proper understanding on human nature and the affects of sin on that nature were necessary undertakings for Christian theologians as they were substantively linked to salvation. 

Two prominent Church leaders, British Monk and ascetic[17] Pelagius and Saint Augustine of Hippo, engaged in a rigorous anthropological debated on whether human nature was permanently stained by sin, making sin inherent to all, or whether human nature was merely influenced by sin, making sin a choice by all.  Pelagius’ in his exegetical analysis produced a doctrine of Free Will, arguing that human nature had not been weakened or changed by sin; and Augustine’s yielded the ontology of Original Sin, asserting that human nature had been changed by sin, and man inherently had a fallen nature, a sin nature.   

            Pelagius, in direct opposition to Augustine, believed that “a man is, by the knowledge of the law, assisted towards not sinning.”[18]  He further believed that “all men are ruled by their own free will and everyone is submitted to his own desire.”[19]  Pelagius was infuriated with Augustine, whose teachings on Original Sin he asserted “destroyed human responsibility.”[20]  He further believed that if God gave a moral command, no one is able to say that keeping that command is inherently impossible.  Pelagius argued that God’s grace did have place; however, “the agent of the moral action’ was necessary.[21]  Pelagianism, so named after its originator Pelagius, emphasized that, “the soul had fallen into sin, but by no fault of God or nature, but by man’s own free will.”[22] However, a man, once converted from sin is able, by his own effort, to be without sin if he so chooses.  That ability to not sin and live a moral and righteous life is the grace that God extends to mankind.[23]

Pelagius wholly rejected the concept of Original Sin, arguing that “if God created souls anew at birth, God would be unjust to impute Adam’s sin to them.  Adam harmed mankind only by his example.”[24]  He further rejected the need for infant baptism, as Augustine had proposed, asking the question “When could the soul of an infant have contracted the guilt, which, unless the grace of Christ should come to its rescue by baptism, would involve it in condemnation.”  Pelagius’ views gained popularity for a time within certain Christian communities, and his historical significance was such that he had demonstrated the power of intense moralism in exegesis and in life.[25]  Though he was well respected and his contributions to Christian theology were great, Augustine strongly disagreed with Pelagius’ dogma and preached vigorously against Pelagianism citing as the reason:

The struggle with Pelagianism was thus in reality a struggle for the very foundations of Christianity; and even more dangerously than in the previous theological and Christological controversies, here the practical substance of Christianity was in jeopardy. The real question at issue was whether there was any need for Christianity at all; whether by his own power man might not attain eternal felicity.[26]

 Augustine asserted that Pelagianism was the daughter of legalism[27] and advocated a salvation based on man’s works, not the grace of God.  He suggested that “in emphasizing free will, the Pelagian’s have denied the ruin of the race and the necessity of grace.”[28]  

Augustine’s apologetic works on Infant Baptism and exegetical writings on Original Sin placed him at odds with Pelagius and Pelagius’ followers.  One major premise conveyed by Augustine in his polemics against Pelagius: in denying that Adam’s sin was imputed to all, it could be argued that Christ’s death could not make atonement for all.    Furthermore Augustine contended that if man is able by his own free will to live a sin free life, what need is there for grace?  “Without grace there could be no faith, no act of goodwill; the catastrophic consequences of Adam’s fall have made humanity corrupt and selfish, locked into a sinful social tradition:  therefore grace is needed more than external instruction.[29] 

Augustine’s polemic work expounds on why grace is necessary and insists that if a man is able, by his own might, to become righteous, then the cross is of no effect:

I take the instance of a man who has died in a region where he could not hear of the name of Christ. Well, could such a man have become righteous by nature and free will; or could he not? If they contend that he could, then see what it is to render the cross of Christ of none effect, to contend that any man without it, can be justified by the law of nature and the power of his will. We may here also say, then is Christ dead in vain? Forasmuch as all might accomplish so much as this, even if He had never died; and if they should be unrighteous, they would be so because they wished to be, not because they were unable to be righteous.[30]

 Augustine argued, what the law could not do through works, Christ has done by grace.  To avoid the confusion Pelagian had caused in his use of the word “grace,” Augustine noted in his treaties against Pelagian that what the historic church meant by grace was not that man was created with the capability not to sin, but that by adoption, we have been made new creatures, freed from the penalty of sin through Christ’s atoning blood.[31]

Augustine used the Pauline doctrines extensively in his exegetical justification for infant baptism quoting that “By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; by which death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12).   Adam, according to Augustine, was endowed with a free will, but he used his free choice for sinning. [32]   Had Adam not sinned, he would not have been “divested of his body, but would have been clothed with immortality and incorruption.  That corruption is passed on to all of Adams descendants, including infants, who are in need of baptism and redemption.[33]  Augustine’s doctrines were “very influential in the course of subsequent theologies, and his biblical exegesis molded that of the Western Church in the early middle ages.”[34]

The Augustinian and Pelagian controversy is characteristic of the schism between the Church in the West and the Church in the East, of whom failed to reach an agreed upon ecumenical doctrine concerning human nature and sin, as they had agreed upon definitions during the Christological debates.  Like Pelagius, “the East laid especial emphasis on free will and similar to Augustine, the Church in the West dwelt more intensely on the ruin of human race and absolute need of God’s grace for salvation.”[35]  However, Eastern and Western ontology on human nature had an” inheritance that was common to all.”[36]  For neither did the theologians in the East “forget the universal sinfulness, need of redemption and God’s gracious influences,”[37] nor did Western theologians “deny the self-determination or accountability of men.”[38]  All of the rudiments of the “composite doctrine of man were everywhere confessed; but they were variously emphasized, according to the temper of the writers or the controversial demands of the time.”[39]

Inevitably, many arose who one-sidedly emphasized one element or the other of the Church’s teaching as to salvation.[40]  What had become apparent through the Augustinian and Pelagian controversy was that one-sided tendencies on either side of the theological anthropology debate lead to heresy, which drove the Church into more controversy and forced the Church to define the doctrines of free will and grace in their mutual relations.[41]  In the West, at the 2nd Council of Orange, the Church had established a creedal statement concerning human nature.  The Church affirmed that “all inherit the guilt of original sin.”[42]  In the East, however, no such agreement or creedal declaration had been made among the leaders, and there was no such standard explanation on human nature.[43]  The idea that mankind was predisposed to sin was a palatable in Eastern thought; however, the notion of inherited guilt was generally rejected.[44]  The fall of Adam in Eastern thought was not as catastrophic as was regarded in the West; thus, the schism persists, even today. 

Conclusion

            Since its inception, the Church had been mired in theological debate and controversy, from issues ranging from the nature of Christ to the nature of mankind.  Of necessity, the Church faced head on methodically challenging portions of scripture and deliberated antithetical hermeneutical assessments in an effort to refute heresy and maintain the unity of the faith.  At the Council of Chalcedon, the Church had developed a universally agreed upon theological definition that was binding on all of Christendom.  This council’s definition represented the last agreed upon ecumenical doctrine between the Western and Eastern churches. 

Nearing the end of the Christological debates, the Church then turned to discuss theological anthropology after the Augustine and Pelagian controversy erupted.  Concerning human nature, Saint Augustine of Hippo promoted his teachings on Original Sin and man’s need for God’s redeeming grace in order to obtain salvation and righteousness, teachings that were adamantly opposed by British Monk Pelagian.  Pelagian taught his treaties on Free Will, emphasizing man’s choice and capability to live a morally perfect life, an ability given by God’s grace.  The controversy between these two well respected church leaders epitomized the schism that continued to grow between the East and the West.  Though the Church in the West had eventually formed an agreed upon creedal statement concerning human nature, the East maintained diverging opinions concerning the matter.  The Church has accomplished a great deal within the first few centuries and took to the task of forming a firm Christian theological foundation for generations of believers to come. 


[1] A religious system, right belief, as contrasted with heresy. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), s.v. “Orthodoxy.”

 

[2] Assemblies of bishops and other ecclesiastical representatives of the whole world whose decisions and doctrine, cultus, discipline, etc., are considered binding on all Christians. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005),  s.v. “Oecumenical Councils.” 

 

[3] The principal heresy which denied the full Divinity of Jesus Christ, so called after its author, Arius.  Arius appears to have held that the Son of God was not eternal but created before the ages by the Father from nothing as an instrument for the creation of the world. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), s.v. “Arianism.”

 

[4] Apollinarus the Younger denied explicitly the presence of a human mind or soul in Christ.  While this enabled him to stress the unity of Godhead and flesh in the person of Christ, it carried the implication that Christ’s manhood was not complete. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Apollinarus.”

 

[5] The Fourth Ecumenical Council, General Introduction. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second series, Vol. 14. Christian Library. Heritage Edition, Version 8, (Rio, Wisconsin: AGES Software).

 

[6] The Sixth Ecumenical Council, The Sentence Against the Monothelites. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second series, Vol. 14. Christian Library. Heritage Edition, Version 8, (Rio, Wisconsin: AGES Software).

 

[7] Monophysitism is the doctrine that in the Incarnate Christ there is only one nature, not two. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Monophysitism.”

 

[8] The Third Ecumenical Council, Historical Introduction. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second series, Vol. 14. Christian Library. Heritage Edition, Version 8, (Rio, Wisconsin: AGES Software).

 

[9] The letter sent by Pope Leo I to Flavian, Patriarch of Constantinople expounding with remarkable clarity, precision, and vigour the Christological doctrine of the Latin Church. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Tome of Leo.” 

 

[10]The Fourth Ecumenical Council, The Tome of St. Leo. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second series, Vol. 14. Christian Library. Heritage Edition, Version 8, (Rio, Wisconsin: AGES Software).

 

[11] The Fourth Ecumenical Council, General Introduction

 

[12] Ibid.

 

[13] Paul Livermore, “BHT512NE: The Formative Era: The Patristic and Medieval Church, Controversy and Politics in the Church,” 24th ed. (Northeastern Seminary, 2010), 78.

 

[14] The Sixth Ecumenical Council, The Sentence Against the Monothelites.

 

[15] Saint Augustin, St. Augustin’s Anti Pelagian Works, Introductory Essay on Augustin and the Pelagian Controversy, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First series, Vol. 5. Christian Library. Heritage Edition, Version 8, (Rio, Wisconsin: AGES Software).

 

[16] Farlex, The Free Dictionary, www.freedictionary.com, s.v. “Human Nature.”

 

[17] Greek term applied by the Greek philosophers to moral training, often with the connotation of voluntary abstention from certain pleasures; it denotes practices employed to combat vices and develop virtues and the renunciation of social life and comforts for the adoption of painful conditions for religious reasons.  Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Asceticism.”

 

[18] Saint Augustin, St. Augustin’s Anti Pelagian Works, The Proceedings of Pelagius, Chapter 3. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First series, Vol. 5. Christian Library. Heritage Edition, Version 8, (Rio, Wisconsin: AGES Software).

 

[19] Ibid, Chapter 5

 

[20] Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Augustin of Hippo.”

 

[21] Saint Augustin, St. Augustin’s Anti Pelagian Works, A Select Bibliography of the Pelagian Controversy.  Introductory Essay on the Augustin and Pelagian Controversy.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First series, Vol. 5. Christian Library. Heritage Edition, Version 8, (Rio, Wisconsin: AGES Software).

 

[22] Ibid

 

[23] Saint Augustin, A Treatise on Nature and Grace, Against Pelagius.

 

[24] Saint Augustin, St. Augustin’s Anti Pelagian Works, A Select Bibliography of the Pelagian Controversy.  Introductory Essay on the Augustin and Pelagian Controversy.  

 

[25] Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters, (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2007), s.v. “Pelagius”

 

[26] S Saint Augustin, St. Augustin’s Anti Pelagian Works, A Select Bibliography of the Pelagian Controversy.  Introductory Essay on the Augustin and Pelagian Controversy.  

 

[27] Ibid.

 

[28] Ibid.

 

[29] Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Augustin of Hippo.”

 

[30] Saint Augustin, A Treatise on Nature and Grace, Against Pelagius.

 

[31] Saint Augustin, A Treatise on Nature and Grace, Against Pelagius.

 

[32] Saint Augustin, St. Augustin’s Anti Pelagian Works, A Select Bibliography of the Pelagian Controversy;  Introductory Essay on the Augustin and Pelagian Controversy. The Theology of Grace.

[33] Saint Augustin, St. Augustin’s Anti Pelagian Works, A Treatise on Forgiveness of Sins and Infant Baptism, Chapter 2.

 

[34] Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Augustine of Hippo”

 

[35] Saint Augustin, St. Augustin’s Anti Pelagian Works, A Select Bibliography on the Augustin and Pelagian Controversy.

 

[36] Ibid.

 

[37] Ibid.

 

[38] Ibid.

 

[39] Saint Augustin, St. Augustin’s Anti Pelagian Works

 

[40] Ibid.

 

[41] Ibid.

 

[42] Livermore, 82.

 

[43] Ibid, 83.

 

[44] Livermore, 83.

Comments

  1. Very interesting read…

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