Commentary on the Council of Chalcedon

Daniel J. Castellano (2007)

By 434, the Nestorian controversy had been settled between the Antiochenes and St. Cyril with a creed of union that clarified orthodox doctrine:

Before the worlds begotten of the Father according to the Godhead, but in the last days and for our salvation of the Virgin Mary according to the Manhood; consubstantial with the Father in the Godhead, consubstantial with us in the Manhood; for a union of two natures took place, wherefore we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord. According to the understanding of this unconfused union, we confess the Blessed Virgin to be Theotokos, because the Word of God was incarnate and made man, and through her conception united to Himself the temple He received from her. And we are aware that the words of the Gospels, and of the Apostles, concerning the Lord are, by theologians, looked upon some as applying in common [to the two natures] as belonging to the one Person; others as attributed to one of the two natures; and that they tell us by tradition that some are of divine import, to suit the Divinity of Christ, others of humble nature belonging to His humanity.

This creed, unlike St. Cyril's earlier anathemas, unambiguously teaches two natures in Christ. Nonetheless, appealing to other language where Cyril preached "one incarnate nature" (meaning one reality, not a mingling of the divine and human), the Alexandrians, led by their bishop Dioscorus (who succeeded Cyril in 444), affirmed that the two natures of Christ became one nature after the Incarnation. This theory came to be called Eutychianism, after the monk Eutyches of Constantinople, who in 448 complained to Pope St. Leo that Nestorianism had revived, mistaking the assertion of two natures for the Nestorian heresy. The Alexandrians and other defenders of Eutyches later came to be known as Monophysites, since they asserted one nature in Christ.

St. Flavian, Bishop of Constantinople, hoped to settle the controversy between Eutyches and his Antiochene opponents by holding a synod in 448. At the synod, St. Cyril's letters, which had been approved at the Council of Ephesus, were read once more, and it was concluded by all present that Christ remained in "two natures" after the Incarnation. The elderly Eutyches retired to his monastery, alleging that he had been misrepresented. He acknowledged before witnesses that Christ was "of two natures" hypostatically united as perfect God and perfect man. He objected to the creed of union's expression "consubtantial with us in the Manhood", arguing that Christ's humanity is substantially different from ours, since He is without sin. The envoys summoned to invite him to the synod attested that Eutyches also denied that Christ had two natures after the union.

When Eutyches finally appeared before Flavian, he assented to the formula of union of two natures, yet he would not answer the question: "Do you acknowledge two natures, Lord Archimandrite, after the Incarnation, and do you say that Christ is consubstantial with us according to the flesh; yes or no?" The monk instead read a statement of his own belief "in the Son's incarnate advent of the flesh of the holy Virgin and that He was perfectly made Man for our salvation."

When urged that Christ must be consubstantial with us in our humanity, since his human nature derived from that of the Virgin Mary, Eutyches assented to this formula, which he nonetheless considered strange. He clarified that Christ's body was that of God, though human, and that he had feared the "consubstantial with us" formula would be a denial that Christ is the Son of God.

After reservedly assenting to these points of doctrine, Eutyches finally answered the central question explicitly: "I confess that our Lord was of two natures, before the union; but after the union, I acknowledge one nature." This statement was not immediately condemned, since an orthodox interpretation was possible, as in the case of St. Cyril, who merely wished to assert a single palpable reality of the incarnate Christ, not to deny the essential distinction between natures. Eutyches would not assent to the formula of two natures after the union, since Cyrus and Athanasius had never used such language. Neither would he anathematize those who did not use this formula, since that would be to anathematize the Fathers of the Church.

As was mentioned at the synod, Eutyches' position was not self-consistent, since he denied both the existence of two natures after the union and that the two natures could co-mingle. The truth of the latter is self-evident to a monotheist, who understands that divinity is utterly transcendent and altogether dissimilar to humanity. The impossibility of co-mingling rendered impossible a fusion of human and divine natures qua natures. This is why the Fathers of the Church had found it necessary to assert that Christ was united in his person or hypostasis. It is true that many, including Cyril and Athanasius, had used language suggesting that there was but one "nature" after the Incarnation, but here "nature" was clearly not used in the sense to imply a fusion of the divine and human essences, which all explicitly declared to be impossible.

Eutyches' error was to take the language of the Fathers at face value, even when such an interpretation would involve a logical contradiction with their other utterances, and with monotheistic theology. His error was one of intellectual simplicity, and the synod's patience with him reflected the bishops' esteem for his character. His fear that the holy Fathers would be posthumously anathematized was misplaced, since their writings admitted of orthodox interpretation, and they never denied the orthodox doctrine which the synod's formula stated more explicitly and with greater consistency of language. By refusing the synod's formula even after it was explained to him, Eutyches was formally guilty of heresy, though his intentions might have been orthodox, and he was certainly guilty of disobedience. The synod consequently excommunicated him.

Eutyches again appealed to Pope St. Leo, who had met his earlier plea with a kind response. This time, Eutyches explained the situation more clearly, saying he had refused to anathematize those who did not affirm two natures after the Incarnation since that would have condemned St. Athanasius and St. Cyril, as well as several popes, whom he quoted from documents later determined to be Apollinarian forgeries. He submitted completely to the Pope's judgment, "declaring that in every way I should follow that which you approve." Pope Leo determined, consistent with what we have seen, that Eutyches was ignorant, and urged his repentance.

St. Leo's Tome (449)

Eutyches did not repent, but instead considered himself rehabilitated by Dioscorus, the Patriarch of Alexandria, who still reckoned his authority superior to that of Constantinople. The monk continued to spread his error, and the Pope was prompted to write to Flavian in response to the synodal acts against Eutyches that he received. This letter to Flavian came to be known as St. Leo's Tome, and would be adopted at the Council of Chalcedon as a clear statement of orthodoxy on the matter of the Incarnation.

St. Leo's response to the news of the synod against Eutyches shows that he had not earlier appreciated the gravity of the situation: "What had previously been kept secret now became clearly revealed to us." Eutyches was revealed to be "very rash and extremely ignorant." What might have been dismissed as inculpable foolishness acquired a morally grave nature when the monk refused to accept the counsel of the bishops. Addressing a sort of proto-Protestantism in Eutyches' profession that he followed only the Scriptures, St. Leo exposed the true nature of ecclesiastical disobedience and private interpretation of doctrine: "They do not refer to the sayings of the prophets, nor to the letters of the apostles, nor even to the authoritative words of the gospels, but to themselves."

St. Leo mocks this would-be interpreter of Scripture as not having even the most elementary understanding of the universal Christian creed. Christian orthodoxy is safeguarded in the baptismal profession of faith, "I believe in God the Father Almighty and in Jesus Christ His only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary." Since God is both Almighty and Father, then the Son must be co-eternal with Him, because God begets God. Thus Arianism is simply refuted. This same eternally begotten Son of the Father was also born in time of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. This birth in time, distinct from His eternal begetting from the Father, was designed to restore humanity and free it from the power of death and the devil. Conquering the devil, "the originator of sin and death," was possible only if our nature was made that of Him "whom sin could not defile, nor could death hold down." He was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin, yet her virginity was untainted by his conception or birth.

The point of St. Leo's argument is to assert the reality of Christ's human nature even after the Incarnation; indeed, this was the very purpose of the Incarnation. His argument is principally directed against Eutyches' equivocation on whether Christ was "consubstantial with us in our humanity," but it also bears on the question of two natures. For St. Leo, it suffices to assert the Christ is both fully human and fully divine to prove the two natures. Eutyches, as we have noted, agreed that Christ was perfect God and perfect Man, yet illogically denied the necessary conclusion that he possessed both human and divine natures.

The accusation that Eutyches mitigated the humanity of Christ is repeated in St. Leo's Scriptural argument that a truly human child was born the Messiah, as prophesied to Abraham and Isaiah. By declining to affirm unequivocally that Jesus' human body had the same "reality" or substance as his mother's, Eutyches was ignoring the clear testimony of Scripture.

Addressing the possible objection that the intervention by the Holy Spirit may have prevented Christ from adopting the nature of his mother, St. Leo cites Scripture as plainly affirming that Christ was born out of her. A miraculous conception is still a conception, and the nature of conception is such that the one conceived receives the substance of his flesh from his mother. So, although the Holy Spirit caused the Virgin to become pregnant, it was still a true pregnancy, and therefore the flesh of the child derived from that of the mother.

Christ thus retained the proper characteristics of both natures in His Incarnation. The natures were united in one Person, who could both die and be incapable of death, according to each of His natures, so there is no paradox. He possessed both natures in their fullness, and his lack of sin did not diminish his humanity, but on the contrary perfected it.

A doctrine on original sin follows, affirming that man had been stripped of his immortality through the devil's trickery, and God was seemingly forced to alter His judgment on mankind, now condemned to death instead of glorification. Yet, since God is unalterable, He willed a secret plan by which man could be saved from perishing and fulfill his original divine purpose.

The Son of God therefore descended from Heaven and entered time, yet without abandoning His Father's glory. By adopting human nature, the invisible One became also visible, and the Eternal One became also temporal, subject to the law of suffering and death. These are not contradictions, since we are speaking according to each of His natures, which are both whole and inviolate. Apart from this unprecedented order, there was also an unprecedented kind of birth, since the Virgin gave flesh to the Child without experiencing concupiscence. St. Leo is an early witness to St. Augustine's doctrine that the concupiscence of sexual desire in fallen humanity is always materially sinful. Since the Virgin conceived without desire, and was herself without blemish, it follows that the Lord could assume the nature of humanity without the guilt of original sin. This explains how Christ became true man, though without sin.

We note that St. Leo's lucid explication of the Incarnation vindicates the Augustinian theory of original sin (which is really that of St. Paul), and practically requires the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception or something quite similar. As St. Leo's Tome was acclaimed throughout the Eastern churches accepting Chalcedon, it is unseemly that the later schismatics should reject these doctrines as they have developed in the West.

St. Leo proceeds to expound that the union of natures, though real (as opposed to Nestorianism), nonetheless is such that neither nature is deformed. God, of course, is unchangeable in His Divinity, and human nature does not cease to be human because it is honored by the Divine Presence. The pope also anticipates the later heresy of Monothelism, when he affirms that each nature has an activity proper to it. "The Word performs what belongs to the Word, and the flesh accomplishes what belongs to the flesh." The Alexandrians might mistake this assertion for Nestorianism, if they interpret this to deny that the Word (the second Person of the Trinity) is the proper subject of the acts of the flesh. In the present context, St. Leo is simply affirming (as logic would require) that the divine nature (which he calls the Word) accomplishes only what is proper to divinity.

The confusion of Nestorianism and Eutychianism or Monophysitism owes partially to the fact that the "Word" may refer equally to the one Person of Christ who is both true God and true man, or to the divine nature, which is but one of two natures in Christ. This is because God, considered as God, is perfect Unity without division, so there is no real distinction between His Person and His Essence or Nature. The person of Christ is properly a Divine Person, not human, though his human nature is complete with a rational intellect and will.

St. Leo continues with Biblical citations proving that the humanity and divinity of Christ pertain to the same person, and how each nature retained its integrity. It certainly does not pertain to divine nature to weep for a dead friend, nor does it pertain to human nature to call him back to life, to use but one example. Thus in all instance where Scripture says the Son of God performed some human act, such as suffering or death, the term "Son" refers to the Person of Christ, acting through his human nature only.

The resurrected Christ appeared in a tangible body, the same that was crucified, only now glorified, in order to prove definitively the reality of his humanity, as well as his divinity. St. Leo further argues that St. Peter's confession that the Christ and the Son of the Living God are one and the same is the essential Christian faith, so that to believe in only of his natures is insufficient for salvation.

St. Leo's argument seems to be directed against the idea that Eutychians deny either the humanity or the divinity of Christ. In fact, they do neither, but assert that the two natures are somehow merged into one, yet without mingling. The current line of discourse is probably aimed at Eutyches' equivocation regarding the "consubstantial with us" formula. Thus the pope explicitly accuses Eutyches of denying the humanity of Christ.

The necessity of believing in Christ's humanity and divinity lies in the fact that the gifts of the Spirit are received through Christ's blood. As a historical note, we observe that St. Leo cites 1 John 5:6-8 omitting the Johannine Comma, thus serving as an early Western witness against its authenticity.

The Pope expresses astonishment that Eutyches' statement, "I confess that our Lord was of two natures before the union, but I confess one nature after the union," was not immediately condemned. Though we have noted that the latter clause might be generously interpreted in an orthodox sense, using "nature" to mean "reality," St. Leo rightly points out that the first half of the statement is absurd, affirming that Christ had a human nature before the Incarnation. St. Leo urges the bishops of the East to condemn this statement, and to obtain a sincere confession from Eutyches, who should anathematize the false doctrine. If he repents, he should be fully pardoned and received into the Church, as Christians should seek to show mercy rather than to condemn. This last note by Pope Leo shows that, despite the severity of language used in theological disputes of this time, the Christians of that age fully understood Christ's exhortation to mercy. Unlike those of our own age, they also clearly understood that mercy can be administered only when there is true repentance, and that the truth of the faith is not to be compromised for the sake of diplomacy.

Robber Council of Ephesus (449)

St. Leo's letter to Flavian was intended to decide the doctrinal question, and a new synod was to impose judgment against Eutyches much as the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus enforced a papal judgment against Nestorius. This new council, also to be held in Ephesus, was convoked by the Emperor at the behest of the Alexandrian patriarch Dioscorus. Due to the short notice, Pope Leo was able to send only one bishop, one priest, and a deacon to represent the West.

The Alexandrians had entered the fray in 448, when they demanded of Domnus, the bishop of Antioch, to condemn Ibas, Bishop of Edessa, as a Nestorian. Taken at face value, the writings of Ibas were in fact Nestorian, as he refused to refer human attributes to the Divine Person, and they would later be condemned as such by the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553. However, Ibas used such language only to avoid confusion of the two natures, and he was personally orthodox, having anathematized Nestorius. The bishop of Antioch acquitted Ibas, and referred the matter to Flavian of Constantinople.

When St. Flavian not only declined to condemn Ibas, but also took the measure of anathematizing Eutyches for holding a view similar to that current among the Alexandrians, the outraged Egyptians demanded a new trial from Emperor Theodosius II. This would come in the form of an ecumenical council to be held at Ephesus in 449. Before the council had even convened, Dioscorus took the initiative of declaring Eutyches absolved, claiming superiority over the Bishop of Constantinople, since Alexandria never recognized that patriarchate's pretensions at establishing itself over the rest of the East.

The council, consisting of 127 bishops (and eight by proxy) met at Ephesus on 8 August, 449. The emperor decided to make Dioscorus the president, practically guaranteeing an outcome in favor of Eutyches. Dioscorus refused to have St. Leo's dogmatic letter read, and decided that there would be no inquiry of the question of faith. Instead, the council would pass judgment on whether Flavian acted justly in excommunicating Eutyches. The orthodoxy of Eutyches was established by his assent to the Nicene Creed, to which nothing could be added, as explicated at the Council of Ephesus of 431. Flavian and the other accusers of Eutyches, on the other hand, were found guilty of adding to the creed, and therefore ought to be deposed. Neither Flavian nor the other judges of Eutyches were allowed to vote, since they themselves were on trial.

The council absolved Eutyches by a strong majority (over 100 out of 135 bishops), over the protests of the papal legate and Flavian's party. Some bishops later complained that their votes had been obtained by threat of violence by the military and by thuggish Egyptian monks (strange as it sounds, fanatical lay monks armed with clubs were commonplace in Egypt). Even Domnus of Antioch cast a vote in favor of Eutyches and condemning Flavian. Ibas, Domnus and other Antiochenes were deposed, while Flavian was sent into exile, and he died within a year.

This putative ecumenical council, ratified by the emperor but rejected by the Pope, created an unprecedented division in Christendom. The Eastern Roman Emperor, with the Patriarchs of Alexandria and Jerusalem, opposed the Patriarchs of Antioch and Constantinople, who enjoyed the support of the Pope and the Western Roman Emperor. The ecumenical status of the council was rejected by many churches in the east, and practically all of the Latin Church, due to the blatant use of coercion through threat of bodily harm, as well as the fact that the papal legate was ignored. The latter consideration held extra weight, since the legate represented not only Rome, but by proxy the entire Western church, as no other Latin bishops were able to attend. This reduced the Second Council of Ephesus to a regional synod, and one of dubious legitimacy at best.

The council had not actually voted in favor of Eutychianism or Monophysitism, but rather condemned those who would impose additional requirements of faith beyond the Nicene Creed. In practice, Dioscorus, with the support of the Emperor, effectively persecuted bishops who opposed Monophysite doctrine, not only by deposing them, but also with exile and physical violence. Thus, on the pretext of imposing doctrinal neutrality on the question of the nature(s) of Christ, a persecution on the basis of such doctrine took place.

Pope Leo condemned the "robber council" (an epithet which has endured) in the strongest terms, and urged the Emperor of the East to convoke a new council, this time presided by the papal legate. Theodosius II did not assent to the request, but in 450, the emperor died in a riding accident. His sister Pulcheria, who was sympathetic to the pope, succeeded him, and her husband Marcian took the throne. A general council under the Pope's leadership was scheduled for September 451 in Nicaea, but this was postponed a month and moved to Chalcedon.

Early Sessions of the Council of Chalcedon

The success of the Council of Chalcedon was guaranteed not only by the favor of the Emperor and the leadership of the Pope, but by a sea change in opinion caused in no small part by the circulation of St. Leo's Tome, which had been suppressed at the Robber Council. Even Anatolius, the new bishop of Constantinople who had been chosen to replace Flavian by the Monophysite party, was converted to the doctrine lucidly explained by Leo. As we have noted, much of the controversy came from a confusion of words, and the clarity of St. Leo's Tome helped many to judge that Eutyches' doctrine was in fact incompatible with the apostolic faith. For this reason, the letter of Pope Leo to Flavian is to this day regarded with acclaim by Christians of diverse sects, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant.

An invitation to the Council was sent to all metropolitan bishops, and, as if to establish the Council's legitimacy beyond any doubt, it had an unprecedented attendance of 600 bishops, which would remain a record for any ecumenical council of the first millennium.

The first order of business was to investigate the Robber Council, the Acts of which were read in full. It was determined that Flavian and his party had been unjustly deposed, and many felt that it would be just for Dioscorus' party to be deprived of their vote, just as they had denied the vote to their opponents at Ephesus. In the end, the Council at Chalcedon showed greater mercy than the Monophysites, denying the vote only to Dioscorus himself.

Next, St. Leo's Tome was read to the synod, and it was received with exultation. Rome once again had not failed to be a rock of orthodoxy, and many exclaimed that St. Peter had spoken through Leo. The Council accepted the letter as orthodox.

The trial of Dioscorus and his associates followed, and several of the patriarch's subordinates testified to a host of abuses that made him unfit to be bishop, even apart from the abuses of the Robber Council. Dioscorus was deposed, but among his associates there were many who were pardoned or judged orthodox, though having been led astray by partisanship or verbal misunderstanding.

Definition of the Faith

Having accepted St. Leo's interpretation of the doctrine of the Incarnation, the Council issued a definition of faith, which re-affirms its commitment to the Nicene Creed, which remains "inviolate," and is "sufficient for a perfect understanding and establishment of religion". Thus the decrees of the Council are not to be understood as defining a new creed, but rather offering an authentic interpretation of the faith expressed at Nicaea.

The Council explains that the expanded creed professed at the First Council of Constantinople was not "introducing anything left out by their predecessors, but clarifying their ideas about the Holy Spirit." In fact, the Constantinople creed adds language directly from Scripture, the Apostles' Creed, and other early creeds.

The Council of Ephesus adopted the letters of St. Cyril against Nestorius as properly interpreting the Nicene faith against a heretical distortion. In a similar vein, St. Leo's letter concerning Eutyches is adopted as a doctrinal definition.

These definitions are not regarded by the Council as additions to the Creed, but interpretations of the Creed to correct misunderstandings. The Council has harmonized the conviction of all the early ecumenical councils that it is impermissible to add anything to the Nicene faith with the practical necessity of elaborating on this creed so that it is properly interpreted. Not only are these facts not in tension with each other, but they actually complement one another.

Since we have formulated these things with all possible accuracy and attention, the sacred and universal synod decreed that no one is permitted to produce, or even to write down or compose, any other creed or to think or teach otherwise .

It is precisely because the Council has given an expanded, detailed explication of the Creed that it is unacceptable to find the Nicene Creed inadequate. The Nicene Creed, properly interpreted, is a sufficient expression of faith. We now turn to the doctrinal definition itself, expressed in declarative form.

So, following the saintly fathers, we all with one voice teach the confession of one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and a body; consubstantial with the Father as regards his divinity, and the same consubstantial with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects except for sin;

The first part of the definition reaffirms that there is one Son (against Nestorianism), perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, complete with a rational soul (against Apollinarianism). The formula of the creed of union between St. Cyril and John of Antioch is used: "consubstantial with us as regards his humanity." This means that, being truly human, he has the same human essence that all humans have, though he is numerically distinct from other humans. Consubstantiality with the Father in His divinity, on the other hand, entails numerical unity with the Father, since it is only possible for there to be One divine being. This is why the Arian, who rejects consubstantiality between the Father and the Son, is forced to choose between the errors of ditheism or the non-divinity of the Son, opting for the latter. Lastly, the Council observes that consubstantiality with us in our humanity does not exclude the fact that Christ was unlike us with regard to sin. As St. Leo observed, Christ's sinlessness does not detract from his humanity, but perfects it.

...begotten before the ages from the Father as regards his divinity, and in the last days the same for us and for our salvation from Mary, the virgin God-bearer as regards his humanity; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being;

The doctrine of the Incarnation expressed in the Nicene Creed is clarified, as the Son is eternally begotten from the Father with regard to his divinity, but born of the Virgin Mary as regards his humanity. Since he is one and the same Christ, the Blessed Virgin truly deserves to be called "God-bearer" (Theotokos), and is thus the Ark of the New Covenant.

Since Christ is the only-begotten Son, there can only be one Son in both these human and divine natures. The natures themselves, being the essences of what it is to be human or divine, do not change in any respect simply because One person exists in them both. The human and divine natures are as radically distinct as they ever were. Somehow, through an unspeakable mystery, a single Person (prosopon) and subsistent being (hypostasis) was able to adopt the properties of both natures as His own.

...he is not parted or divided into two persons, but is one and the same only-begotten Son, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ, just as the prophets taught from the beginning about him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ himself instructed us, and as the creed of the fathers handed it down to us.

The unity of Christ as a single only-begotten Son is the explicit teaching of the prophets, of Christ Himself, and the Nicene Creed. Nowhere in any of the sources of revelation is there an explicit depiction of two Christs or two Sons; this error coming about from mistaken theological inferences of a later era. This declaration of faith reaffirms that the Council only hands down the faith that was received. Although the Council's principal aim was to oppose Eutychianism, this definition concludes with a strong refutation of the opposite error of Nestorianism.

As observed earlier, the Council did not see its definition as adding to the Nicene Creed, but rather preserving its integrity, and so it reaffirms in the strongest terms that no other creed is permissible to a Christian. It is not that there is anything magical about this formula, but rather that it accurately and fully expresses the apostolic faith, so that any attempt to obscure it or replace it is suspect. In particular, the Council warns against removing elements of the Creed that might be scandalous to converted Jews or pagans. Unity of doctrine in essential matters of faith is Christ's gift to the Church, so the Council sees itself as obligated to insure that all Christians are able to receive this gift, which is why it insists on a single creed.

Some esteemed commentators, most notably Cardinal Newman, have argued that the Council of Chalcedon's Christological definition is an early instance of the principle of doctrinal development. Unlike earlier controversies, there was hardly any consensus among the early Church Fathers regarding the union of natures in Christ, and several venerable Fathers seem to have held the Eutychian doctrine. In some instances, the confusion may be only apparent, as even St. Cyril, who unquestionably held the doctrine of two natures after the Incarnation, can be cited in places as appearing to hold the opposite view. Ironically, the Monophysite party in Egypt strongly identified themselves with the position of St. Cyril, whom they interpreted badly.

Even after making appropriate allowances for misinterpretations and ambiguities of language, it still seems probable that more than a few Fathers of the Church believed in something resembling Monophysite doctrine more than that of Chalcedon. If this is the case, we need not accuse these Fathers of heresy, nor do we need to invoke a principle of development to explain Chalcedon. The Council itself clearly did not see itself as developing a new doctrine, but merely clarifying the ancient faith expressed at Nicaea. If even some venerable men may have held a Monophysite opinion, they did so in an innocent way, not realizing that such a view, carried to its logical conclusion, would undermine the orthodox faith. Since they did not assert these views in a way that forced orthodox doctrines to yield, their erroneous opinion did not compromise the integrity of their faith. It is only when Eutyches asserted this error at the expense of clearly orthodox doctrine, as with his denial that Mary is Mother of God, that the error became intolerable and a doctrinal definition was necessary.

Clearly, the bishops of the fifth century had a different understanding from modern Catholics about what constitutes a doctrinal development. The Nicene Creed could be amplified by the Council of Constantinople, and dogmatically interpreted by the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon in elaborate detail, yet without contradicting the universal belief that nothing should be added to the Creed. In similar fashion, the Church could require that Scripture be interpreted in an orthodox manner, without thereby adding anything to Scripture. This contrast with the modern way of speaking about doctrinal development does not imply that Newman's theory was incorrect, but only that it is anachronistic to apply this type of thinking to the bishops of the fifth century.


The bishops' esteem for the earlier Councils extends to canonical matters, as they affirm that the canons of all previous synods remain in force. This may apply not only to ecumenical councils, but to regional synods insofar as their authority permits. The Robber Council does not have any authority, even as a regional synod, since its decrees were the result of coercion and violence. The bishops' attitude toward earlier canons is typical of the Roman concept of law, where laws were presumed to remain in force until a successor explicitly abrogated them. While accepting this principle, the Council will nonetheless issue canons that modify earlier decrees.

The Council addresses the perennial problem of simony, particularly in the form of selling ecclesiastical positions. This canon mentions a distinction between those who are ordained: bishops, chorepiscopi, presbyters, deacons, and other clergy, and those who are merely appointed to some office, such as managers, legal officers, wardens, and other ecclesiastical officials. We note also the presumption that monks are lay people, not clerics.

A chorepiscopus is a bishop with rural jurisdiction, as contrasted with the traditional identity of a bishop with a city. As early as the third century, efforts were made to subordinate them to the city bishops. The Synod of Laodicea (380) ruled that chorepiscopi ought to be replaced by priests, but the Council of Chalcedon still acknowledges their lawful existence.

The distinction between ordained clerics and ecclesiastical officials is not insignificant, as the third canon of Chalcedon makes clear that clergy should not manage property or other worldly affairs unless it is unavoidable. This concern for purity made necessary the appointment of lay administrators and financial managers.

Concerned with distinctions of authority, the Council forbids monks to interfere with ecclesiastical or civil matters, or to found monasteries without the bishop's authority. Monks are to submit to the bishop, and remain peacefully praying and fasting. This decree is probably targeted against the Egyptian monks who threatened to dominate the Alexandrian Church and were responsible for the outrages of the Robber Council.

The Council explicitly reaffirms earlier canons, requiring clerics to remain in their dioceses, and forbidding ordinations at large, without specifying jurisdiction. Clerics and monks are forbidden to pursue military service or civil office. This is the orthodox sense of separation of church and state, referring to distinction of office and independence of action, not to a lack of interaction between civil and ecclesiastical authority.

The independence of the clergy is further asserted by requiring clerics to resolve their disputes first before their bishop or a provincial synod. Disputes with the metropolitan may be brought before the patriarch (then called "exarch", in analogy with civil government) or with the see of Constantinople. The fact that the see of Constantinople is mentioned separately is not an assertion of jurisdiction over the other patriarchs, but results from the inappropriateness of referring to the patriarch of the imperial city as an "exarch".

As always, the canons of the early ecumenical councils are written from an Eastern perspective, and apply to the West only to the extent that they are applicable and accepted by the West.

The synod forbids clerics henceforth to be re-appointed to more important cities, though it retroactively allows some such clerics to retain their new positions.

When paupers relocated, they were required to bring an ecclesiastical letter authorizing their settlement. The Council specifies that such letters ought to be "letters of peace", distinct from "letters of commendation" which attest to a person's character and suitability for a position. Since paupers have no reputation that can be verified, it is inappropriate to send them with a letter of commendation, but instead the cleric should simply request that the pauper be received peaceably.

The coincidence of civil and ecclesiastical provincial boundaries makes it possible for clerics to effectively split ecclesiastical provinces in two by requesting civil authorities to reapportion the civil provinces. The Council forbids bishops to make such requests, and anyone who has achieved the status of metropolitan by virtue of such reapportionment is to be regarded merely as honorary metropolitan, since there can only be one metropolitan in an ecclesiastical province.

Clerics and lectors are allowed to move to another city only if they have the authorization of their bishop. Lectors apparently are not considered clerics in the proper sense.

Lectors and cantors nonetheless are bound by vows, and only some provinces permit them to marry. Those who do marry must henceforth not marry heretics. The Council recognizes that some have already done so, and even baptized their children among heretics. Acknowledging the validity of such marriages and baptisms, the Council requires that the children be brought into the orthodox Church, and that no further children be baptized among heretics. The children of lectors and cantors may not marry heretics or Jews or pagans, unless the prospective spouse agrees to convert. Since lectors and cantors play an important role in church worship, it is especially scandalous for them to have families of mixed communion. Public liturgy is the external measure of communion with the orthodox faith, so it is unseemly for its ministers to be the husbands or fathers of heretics. This canon tacitly attests to the widespread problem of heresy, and to the fact that paganism was by no means extinct in the Eastern Empire.

The fifteenth canon forbids any woman under age forty to become a deaconess. The term translated as "ordained", cheirotoneisthai, has the literal meaning of "choose by a show of hands". The Council of Nicaea expressly declared that deaconesses do not receive ordination in the sense of imposition of hands, and are regarded as laity for all purposes, though their names are to be included in ecclesiastical rolls.

The role of the deaconess is imperfectly understood, in part because the status of the minor orders and ecclesiastical offices were not systematically or uniformly defined. The high age requirement (Tertullian gives a limit of sixty) suggests that the deaconesses were a formal ministry of widows, who had long played important roles in the Church. If the order of receiving communion is to be regarded as a clue to their status, they generally received after deacons, but before subdeacons and minor orders. This exalted status does not prove that they were a minor order, but perhaps only that their office was more ancient than the order of the subdeacon.

There never appears to have been any suggestion that the deaconess was similar in function to a deacon; the similarity in their names is sufficiently accounted for by the vagueness of diakonos, which simply means "server" or "assistant". Deacons assisted the bishop, but deaconesses assisted at a lower liturgical level. The Apostolic Constitutions (4th cent.) expressly state that "the deaconess gives no blessing, she fulfills no function of priest or deacon," but she acts as an intermediary between the clergy and female congregants. For reasons of propriety, she assumed the deacon's role during the baptism of adult women, but was forbidden to distribute sacraments or preside over assemblies, such practices being consistently condemned as abuses.

Like the lector and the cantor, the deaconess was a liturgical office bound by a vow, so certain standards of purity applied. Since the status of widow appears to have been essential to the deaconess, it was impermissible for her to marry afterward.

Virgins, instead of becoming deaconesses, consecrated themselves to the Lord through religious vows. They are analogous to monks, being lay people consecrated to religious life and taking a vow of celibacy.

Roman law prohibited secret association, presuming that a legitimate society would have no need to keep its organization a secret. This principle is now applied to ecclesiastical law.

The Council adds its authority to a canonical requirement that provincial synods should meet twice a year.

Ecclesiastical order is to be respected when making allegations against a superior. If a cleric accuses a bishop or a layman accuses a cleric, these charges are not to be admitted until the accuser's credibility is investigated. This protects ecclesiastical superiors from being at the mercy of slanderous subordinates.

The twenty-eighth canon was rejected by the Pope, as the see of Constantinople sought to aggrandize itself further, establishing itself above the sees of Alexandria and Antioch, and amassing the dioceses of Pontus, Thrace, and the missions to the pagans in the Balkan regions, even in areas historically pertaining to Rome. Not only did this canon upset the traditional ranking of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch as the three great apostolic sees, but it invoked a novel principle that sees ought to be ranked according to the temporal distinction of the city, as though the authority of the Roman pontiff derived from the dignity of that city, rather than his status as the successor of Peter.

Although the title of Patriarch was not established until the sixth century, the reality of such a position existed from the early Christian era, when the three great apostolic sees of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch, ranked in that order, were universally acknowledged to have a special dignity, and commanded the submission of several ecclesiastical provinces. Following the ancient canonical principle of one bishop per city, each province was to have only one metropolitan bishop (or archbishop, in the West) who commanded the obedience of the bishops in that province. Some provinces were autocephalous, meaning they elected their own head without outside interference, but other provinces were obedient to one of the three apostolic sees. The Archbishops of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch had the unique privilege of commanding the obedience of other metropolitans or archbishops in the same way that these were obeyed by bishops.

In the fourth century, the bishop of Constantinople came to be recognized as a fourth patriarch (though this term was not yet used), having command of the metropolitans in the province of Asia (now Turkey). Rome acknowledged this elevated status, but would not recognize the see's expansion into other territories or its claim to be higher in dignity than Alexandria or Antioch. As the provincial divisions of the Church reflected the boundaries of civil provinces, and the patriarchates matched the boundaries of civil dioceses (though the Pope governed all the dioceses of the West), it seemed natural to many that the ranking of the patriarchal sees should mimic the civil order. Thus the bishops of Alexandria and Antioch came to be known as "exarchs", in distinction from the bishops of the imperial cities of Rome and Constantinople. Rome accepted the terminology, but would not accept any change in the ordering of the apostolic sees based on civil dignity, since the dignity of these sees did not derive from civil matters.

The fifth and last of the great patriarchates was that of Jerusalem, acknowledged by the Council of Chalcedon, and granted a territory formerly pertaining to Antioch. In the first century, the Church of Jerusalem was naturally among the most venerable sees in Christendom, but the exile that followed the failed Bar Kochba rebellion in 132 resulted in the destruction of the Jewish Christian community. A new church of gentile Christians was later formed there, but it lacked continuity with the original church. Thus the Church of Jerusalem was not recognized as one of the great apostolic sees until the pilgrimages of the fourth and fifth centuries revitalized the church, resulting in its status as an exarchate or patriarchate. Later, when the five great sees came to be known as patriarchates, with none to be added to their number, the term "exarch" was reserved for an intermediate rank, of one who commanded metropolitans yet was not a patriarch.

The last canons deal with the status of bishops as affected by the Eutychian controversy. Pope Leo restored those bishops who were unjustly excommunicated, and suspended judgment against those Egyptian bishops who would not yet accept St. Leo's Tome until they were appointed a new Archbishop of Alexandria whom they could follow.


The new bishop of Alexandria, Proterius, accepted the doctrine of Chalcedon, but this peace was short-lived, as he was murdered in 457 and replaced by a Monophysite. The Alexandrian church existed in open schism, sometimes alternating control of the see, and eventually having dual bishops of rival factions. The Monophysite faction, which was more numerous, came to be known as Jacobites, while the orthodox faction were called Melchites (Royalists) since they followed the doctrine endorsed by the emperor. After several tumultuous centuries, the Jacobite faction came to dominate practically the entire Alexandrian Church, and other Christians of the Coptic rite in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and Nubia (Sudan). Thus all Coptic churches are Monophysite in doctrine.

The Syrians and Armenians also are Monophysite in doctrine, as are some of the churches in India. These churches reject the appellation "Monophysite", though they proudly affirm that Christ had one incarnate nature, regarding this as the orthodox faith.

The Monophysitism of the Coptic Church (and other non-Chalcedonian churches) is distinct from that of Eutyches, whom they regard as a heretic. For this reason, the Copts give only partial recognition to the Robber Council of Ephesus, since that conventicle exonerated Eutyches. Claiming to follow the doctrine of St. Cyril and Dioscorus, they reject Chalcedon and consider Pope Leo to be a heretic by virtue of the doctrine expressed in his Tome. Despite this harsh stance, their doctrine is not far removed from that of Chalcedon, correctly considered. We cite their current doctrine, as expressed by their pope Shenouda III:

As a result of the unity of both natures-the Divine and the human-inside the Virginís womb, one nature was formed out of both: "The One Nature of God the Incarnate Logos" as St. Cyril called it.

We have already shown how the formula of union between St. Cyril and John of Antioch, among other writings, prove that St. Cyril explicitly assented to the existence of two natures. In cases where he referred to one incarnate nature, as discussed previously, he was emphasizing that Christ is a single being, not a composite entity.

The Copts reject Eutyches as a heretic since he allegedly claimed that the Christ's human nature was absorbed and dissolved in the Divine Nature, effectively denying Christ's humanity. The Copts affirm a single incarnate nature that is both fully human and fully divine. They deny that such a union entails a mingling of natures, invoking the analogy of ignited iron, which preserves the natures of both fire and iron, yet is a single entity.

It is clear that the Copts use "nature" in different senses, sometimes to mean "hypostasis".

Just as we say that the human nature is one nature consisting of two elements or natures, we can also say about the Incarnate Logos, that He is one entity of two elements or natures.

This may be understood in a thoroughly orthodox manner, much as Cyril used "nature" both in the sense of "hypostasis" and in the ordinary sense of "nature".

More explicitly, the Coptic pope affirms:

It is One Nature (one entity) but has all the properties of two natures.

Here we have an explicit confession that the Copts mean "hypostasis" or "entity" when they speak of "One Nature", as did St. Cyril. The Copts, unlike St. Cyril, strongly and consistently object to the terminology "two natures" since to them it implies two distinct entities. They will admit a virtual distinction of two natures in Christ, meaning that he possesses all the properties of each nature perfectly, but they rightly reject the idea that there are two distinct beings, Christ the man and the Christ the Word. They also object to language saying that Christ performed certain acts "by his human nature" or "by his divine nature" since that seems to imply two distinct beings. When Chalcedonian Christians make such statements, of course, we are making a formal distinction; in reality, there is only one Christ who acts, either humanly or divinely.

The difficulty of the doctrine of the Incarnation is such that both Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians can seem to be asserting heresy either by emphasizing the unity of Christ's Person and Being to the point of seeming to imply a mingling of natures, or by emphasizing the reality and completeness of both natures to the point of seeming to create two Christs. Once each side understands the other's terminology, there is no theological basis for division between Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians on the question of the number of Christ's natures. Both groups reject the errors of Eutyches and Nestorius, but the Copts are erroneously perceived as advocating Eutyches' error, while the Copts mistakenly accuse the Chalcedonians of being Nestorians.

The Copts nonetheless may have a genuine point of theological disagreement on the matter of the number of wills in Christ, but this is a separate issue that would be treated at the Third Council of Constantinople (680-81).

© 2007 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved.