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Christological Controversies and the Chalcedon Definition (G.G.)

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This is an opinion article from a user of WikiChristian.

By Graham Llewellyn Grove, February 2007

The following is an 800 word essay answering the question: Discuss the Christological controversies and the Chalcedonian definition. How was the problem resolved?

In the fifth century significant arguments arose over the precise nature and relationship of the divinity and humanity of Jesus. Christians of these times, such as Leo I of Rome, believed that the very core of the gospel was at stake[1] and that misunderstandings about the nature of Jesus would significantly damage our understanding of salvation. These disputes were partially resolved by convening councils of church leaders. At these councils, general agreement in doctrine was established. This doctrine was not universally accepted however, and a number of splits emerged that still exist today[2].

One of the first major Christological disputes following Arianism was regarding the teachings of Nestorius. He taught that it was incorrect to give Mary the title theotokos or "God-bearer", and instead she should only be described as christotokos or "Jesus-bearer"[3]. Nestorius did not deny Christ's deity, but he taught that in Jesus Christ there were two separate persons, one human and one divine. His opponents believed that in Jesus there was one person, with both a human nature and a divine nature. A church council was held in Ephesus where Nestorianism was refuted in the strongest terms and Nestorius was exiled. Some of his followers continued in his teaching to some extent, remaining out of communion with the wider church[4]. These churches continued to exist through the centuries and are today found in modern day Iraq, Iran and India, collectively known as the Assyrian Church of the East.

In the decades following the Nestorian controversy, another argument arose, spearheaded by Eutyches of Constantinople. Eutyches taught a form of monophysitism; that in Christ, the human and divine natures combined into one single nature, where his "humanity was absorbed by his divinity like a drop of wine in the sea."[5] To Eutyches' adversaries, this denied Jesus’ humanity and contained hints of docetism. Leo I strongly argued against this, noting that for Jesus to be "pierced with nails and yet open the gates of paradise to the robber's faith" showed that Jesus had distinct divine and human natures[6]. The dispute resulted in Theodosius II calling a general council, at which Eutyches' supporters strategically dominated the proceedings and monophysitism was affirmed. However, Theodosius II died shortly after and another council was convened in Chalcedon, just 2 years after the previous one. This well attended meeting aimed to find a unified understanding of Jesus’ nature and end the controversy. The previous council was called a "robber's council" and the teaching of Eutyches were repudiated and he was exiled.

At the council of Chalcedon a statement of faith was developed reaffirming the two natures of Christ: "We confess our Lord Jesus Christ…truly God and truly man." The hypostatic union, that is, the two natures of Christ being united in one person was an important feature of the Chalcedon Definition: "Christ… is acknowledged in two natures... without separation... the characteristic property of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person." Many of the leading Christians in the regions around Egypt, Syria and Armenia did not accept this and today belong to the Eastern Oriental churches[7]. These churches never accepted the strict teachings of Eutyches[8], but instead teach a modified form of monophysitism known as miaphysitism, where Christ has one nature which consists of two unified natures. The majority of church leaders, however, agreed with the statement of Chalcedon and this understanding of Jesus underpins the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant churches of today.

At one level, these arguments appear to be over semantics[9]. It may be that there was an element of misunderstanding between Christian leaders. They may not have shared identical understandings of the Greek words for substance (ousis), person and entity (stasis) and this may have contributed to the disputes. Today some of these terms and arguments may appear ambiguous. However, at a deeper level, these understandings of Christ have a bearing on our comprehension of God and salvation. Leo I addressed these issues in his Letter XXVIII with significant Biblical references. He argued, for example, that John’s Gospel clearly shows us that “the Word” was both “God” and equally became “Flesh”. Ultimately, if Jesus' human nature is emphasized to the detriment of his deity, then how could he have lived a sinless and perfect life on our behalf? Conversely, if Christ's divinity is emphasized to the detriment of his humanity, then how could he have taken our punishment?

The Christological controversies of the fifth century caused significant disunity in the church. The controversies have never been completely resolved, however a generally, but not universally, accepted definition was formed at the Council of Chalcedon. Its importance lies in the way it has reinforced a firm belief in both Jesus' humanity and divinity. Not only is this biblical, but it also gives us a clearer understanding of his saving grace and his relationship with us.


  1. Leo The Great. Letter XXVIII: Part I
  2. Gonzalez J.L. The Story of Christianity. 2 volumes. (San Francisco: Harper-Collins Publishers, 1984). Volume 1:251-265.
  3. Wright D.F. The Lion Handbook: The History of Christianity. 2nd ed, editor: Dowley T. (Oxford: Lion Publishing, 1990). 179-186
  4. Gonzalez, Story of Christianity. 251-265
  5. Wright D.F. History of Christianity. 179-186
  6. Leo The Great. Letter XXVIII: Part IV
  7. The Oriental Orthodox Churches include the Coptic Orthodox Church, Syriac Orthodox Church and Armenian Apostolic Church
  8. Pope Shenouda III. The Nature of Christ. (Ottowa: Dar El-Tebaa El-Kawmia, 1985)
  9. Braaten C.E. and Jenson R.W. Christian Dogmatics. 2 volumes. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984). Volume 1:505

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