Unity Across the Chalcedonian Divide?

The Council of Chalcedon in AD 451 came after decades of intense christological conflict and represented an attempt to finalize what orthodox christology could and could not say about the incarnation and the relationship between Christ’s human and divine natures. The Definition of Chalcedon famously set forth that the incarnate Christ exists “in two natures” that must be maintained “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” These phrases came to define the limits of orthodox christological reflection and speculation in the minds of both East and West, but they do not represent the end of the story. 451 represents not only a decisive word in the developing christology of the church, but also represents the first schism in church history – a schism that remains unhealed to this day. Not all churches accepted the christological definition posited by Chalcedon. As a result, there developed two distinct traditions within the Orthodox world: the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian, generally referred to today as Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches.

When “the Word became flesh,” there was a union between the divine nature of God and the human nature common to mankind. The question is not whether two natures are involved in the incarnation, but what the relationship between these natures is after the moment of incarnation. In order to understand the disagreement between the two sides responding to Chalcedon, it is worth briefly summarizing the two christological errors Chalcedon sought to mediate against.

Eutychianism essentially taught that Christ’s human nature was swallowed up in his divine nature. As a result, there was really only one nature present in Christ, as the natural humanity joined to God by the incarnation of the Word was annihilated by its association with the divine nature, like a drop of vinegar in the ocean. While one could argue there is literally a drop of vinegar in the ocean, it has lost its natural integrity in such a way that it would be impossible to actually discern the vinegar in the midst of the ocean’s waters. Similarly, in a Eutychian understanding, the integrity of Christ’s humanity is undermined, meaning that the incarnation fails to actually incorporate humanity in any meaningful salvific sense since the savior is no longer truly human. The sacrifice of the God-man no longer heals human sin because he is no longer truly human.

Elsewhere, Nestorianism taught that in the incarnation the Word associated or conjoined himself with a distinct human person. The result is two subjects in Christ, a “he and he” instead of one person. If the Word is conjoined to a human person and not a human nature, then the incarnation is incomplete. If the Word does not truly become enfleshed in humanity, then the sacrifice cannot be salvific because the one sacrificed is merely a man in close association with God, not the God-man himself.

Chalcedon sought to avoid either of these errors by emphasizing the unity of Christ’s natures in terms of being “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” This is an attempt to avoid the Nestorian gap between God and man and the Eutychian melding of the two into one without any regard for the integrity of either.

For many Chalcedon was received, and continues to be seen, as a success, if perhaps in need of certain nuanced explication at times (especially in subsequent ecumenical councils). For those who rejected Chalcedon, it was seen as a failure that left the door open to Nestorianism by failing to adequately emphasize the unity of Christ as one person. The resulting division led to the non-Chalcedonians being called “monophysites” for their assertion that Christ exists in “one incarnate nature” and Chalcedonians being called “Nestorians” for their assertion that Christ continues to exist in two natures even after the union. Neither of these epithets accurately reflects the beliefs of either side, a fact that has become increasingly apparent in the last century or so thanks to ecumenical dialogue as well as theological work relating to Chalcedon.

The question remains however: what separated the two sides in the first place? And does that principle of division still hold water today? At the risk of being reductive, the conflict may be boiled down to disagreement over the phrase “in two natures.” While the debate is certainly more than these words, it is not less than them. This phrase is almost certainly the original wording of the council, although examples exist where the phrase reads “from two natures.”[1] Whether this is merely a later emendation meant to appease non-Chalcedonians, or a reflection of how debate over the wording that was still being worked out at the Council itself is ultimately not important – either scenario indicates the importance of this phrase for the disagreement between the two sides. While the non-Chalcedonians affirm that Christ comes “from two natures,” the incarnate Word “becoming flesh” from the union of the two distinct natures, human and divine, they could not accept “in two natures” for fear of the implications such a formula held for Christ’s unity. To deny the unity of the incarnate Word, as seen in the brief summary of Nestorianism above, would undermine the entire incarnation and its salvific effects for humanity as the gap between man and God would be left unbridged.

The typical slogan to summarize the non-Chalcedonian position is that they believe in “one nature of the Word of God being incarnate,” a phrase used by St. Cyril of Alexandria. This phrase, carrying with it the patristic weight of no less than St. Cyril (known to posterity as Alexandria’s Pillar of Faith and Seal of All the Fathers), serves as a clear summary of the non-Chalcedonian position. In it, the unity of Christ is clear and secure. The Word, being incarnate in human flesh, is by no means understood as divided within himself or somehow a conglomeration of two distinct properties or modes of being. That is well and good, and thus far not even a staunch Chalcedonian would object. However, does the declaration that this united Christ is in “one nature” not imply some kind of confusion between the divine and human natures?

Within Cyril himself, there is a hint that this is not the case. As John McGuckin has pointed out, Cyril at times can use “physis” (nature) virtually synonymously with “hypostasis” (person).[2] It is also abundantly clear that for Cyril, the “one nature” that is championed by non-Chalcedonian theologians is not a monophysite misunderstanding of the union between God and man in Christ. A more recent trend of referring to the non-Chalcedonian position as “miaphysite” helps distinguish it from the monophysite position (such as Eutychianism) that both Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians condemn. The term comes from the Greek phrase for “one nature” that Cyril famously used. The basic difference between the Greek words from which we get the prefixes “mono-” and “mia-” can be expressed in the contrast between the English words “only” and “one.” While “mia” is the Greek word for one, “mono” implies the idea of “only” or perhaps “unique” or “solitary.” A miaphysite understanding, then, is not the same as a monophysite misunderstanding of the union between God and man in Christ. As Cyril says:“[The Word] did not change himself into flesh; he did not endure any mixture or blending, or anything else of this kind […] He made [that flesh] his very own, and not soulless as some have said, but rather animated with a rational soul, and thus he restored flesh to what it was in the beginning.”[3] The union is not one that destroys one or the other nature, and not one that results in a compromise or change in either nature. Thus the “one nature” that results from the incarnation cannot be understood in a monophysite manner which would contradict these statements by Cyril himself.

In later christological debates, terms like “nature” and “person” became crystallized as technical theological terms. In Cyril’s own writings, which would come to play a major role for both sides of the debate, these terms were not as clearly defined. So to say that Cyril advocated for “one nature” means something slightly more complicated than it may mean for a staunch Chalcedonian in later years. Specifically, the fact that there is a clear example of “nature” and “person” being used interchangeably within the very phrase that would come to be so beloved by the non-Chalcedonians suggests that the phrase need not be interpreted in a way that excludes Chalcedonian theology. This is also historically warranted, based on the reality that Cyril is venerated in Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches, and, what’s more, he is commonly appealed to by both sides as a patristic witness to their respective christological positions. One could argue Cyril simply held two flagrantly contradictory positions that were revealed to be incompatible by later interpreters, but his own writings and theological thinking prove to be too clear and careful to support such a claim.

That theological overlap extends beyond the linguistic and vocabulary considerations mentioned above. Both Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian positions are capable of interpretations which are not mutually exclusive. To say that Christ exists in two natures as the Chalcedonians do is not to posit a plurality of persons within the one Christ, as non-Chalcedonians fear. Non-Chalcedonians must concede that the Chalcedonian position itself militates against a plurality of persons both by utilizing the language of divine and human natures (rather than persons) as well as its insistence within its famous quadrilateral that those two natures exist not only inseparably but also without division. It is clear, then, that the Chalcedonian position taken in good faith does not posit a plurality of persons, and actively and forcefully defends the unity of Christ in its dogmatic formulation.

Neither side of the debate sought to create a fractured Christ or downplay the reality of the divine and human natures meeting together. Miaphysites and Chalcedonians are in fact united in firm rejection of both monophysitism and Nestorianism. Miaphysitism can perhaps be characterized as orthodox christology emphasizing the unity of Christ in the divine person of the Word, and Chalcedonianism can perhaps be characterized as orthodox christology emphasizing the integrity of the two natures which are united together in Christ. Both of these emphases are biblical and patristic. Both of these nuances also militate against monophysitism and Nestorianism even though they express the orthodox position in different ways.

The animosity that has at times existed between Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Christians over christology is lamentable because the actual theological differences between the two systems of christology are at a broad level negligible. This is not meant to deny that any real distinction exists between theologians of each camp or that the two systems are identical in every way. It is simply to suggest that these two ways of approaching christology are not actually irreconcilable on the basis of both linguistics and theology.

In conclusion it is perhaps fitting to hear the words of former Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, a miaphysite communion, describing the incarnation using Chalcedonian vocabulary:

Thus He who is eternally God the Son, consubstantial with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, became perfect man, consubstantial with us, unchangeably and inseparably, unconfusedly and indivisibly. God the Son united to himself hypostatically manhood, taken from the Holy Virgin, which was endowed with a rational soul… The one Lord Jesus is thus perfect God, the Same being also perfect man, with the single exception that He is absolutely sinless. Jesus Christ is one and only Son, being composed of the two natures which continue in Him without reduction or division … He is one Hypostasis, one Prosopon, and one Nature incarnate of God the Son … The ‘one’ here refers to the unity, not to any reduction, as is sometimes erroneously construed.[4]

Lukas Stock is a student at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, AL studying for a Master of Divinity degree. He holds a BA in Pastoral Studies from Moody Bible Institute and an MA in Biblical and Theological Studies from Moody Theological Seminary.

  1. Richard Price and Michael Gaddis, trans, The Acts of the Council of Chalcedon: Volume 2 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2005) 204 n.52.

  2. John A. McGuckin, “St. Cyril of Alexandria’s Miaphysite Christology and Chalcedonian Dyophysitism” Ortodoksia 53, 2013, Ortodoksisten pappien liitto & Itä-Suomen yliopiston filosofisen tiedekunnan ortodoksisen teologian koulutusohjelma (Kopijyvä Oy, Joensuu 2013), 33-57; 38.

  3. St. Cyril of Alexandria. On the Unity of Christ trans John A. McGuckin (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1995) 54-55.

  4. Tesfazghi Uqbit, Current Christological Positions of Ethiopian Orthodox Theologians Orientalia Christiana Analecta 196 (Rome: Pontificii Instituti Studiorum Orientalium, 1973) 185-186.


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