Drama at the Dominican House

This Saturday, I went to a conference on “the promise of Chalcedonian Christology” at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. The conference focused on the history, causes, and effects of the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon held by the Church in 451 AD.

The talk titles intimidated me a bit going in:

“The Soteriological Grammar of Conciliar Christology”
“The Promise of Chalcedonian Christology for the Poor”
“Aquinas’s Chalcedonian Christology and its Reception”
“Unpacking the Chalcedonian Formula: from Studied Ambiguity to Saving Mystery”
“‘The Sum Total of our Faith: To Know Christ in the Father, Christ in the Flesh, and Christ in the Participation of the Altar’ (Baldwin of Ford): Insights from High Medieval Christology”
“The Grammar of the Two Natures”

But if I thought the discussions might be dry—given titles with words like “formula” and “grammar”—I was wrong. The history of the council is exciting! Around the time of Chalcedon, some church leaders had gone astray in their teachings on the nature of Christ. This was a big deal. There was no sense of “well, you have your truth and I have mine, so long as we all are nice to our neighbors that’s the main thing.” It mattered very much to the Church that the bishops taught true words about Christ—the true Word himself—to their flocks. It mattered so much that they physically fought over it. During the Second Council of Ephesus—which came just before and was a major impetus for Chalcedon—the presider, named Dioscorus, tried to depose Archbishop Flavian of Constantinople and another church leader for supposedly teaching the incarnation incorrectly. When Flavian opposed him, Dioscorus stirred up a mob that fatally wounded the archbishop. A representative from Rome, who later became Pope St. Hilary, just escaped the council with his life and reported the disaster to Pope Leo, who then condemned the council.

The fight threatened the unity of the Church and even the empire. Pope Leo wanted to call another council to set the record straight, but Emperor Theodosius II refused, partly because he sided with Dioscorus. But then Emperor Theodosius died, and an orthodox Christian named Marcius became emperor. With Leo’s permission, Marcius convened the council at Chalcedon.

Politics were certainly at play, but Chalcedon was really about the Church’s teachings on the nature—or natures—of Christ. The bishops faced the question that Christ put to his disciples: “But who do you say that I am?” Was Jesus truly son of God and son of man? Did he have one sort of hybrid nature, meaning that he did not truly share in our human nature? Or did he have a fully human nature and a fully divine nature? Could both natures be contained in one person? Could Mary properly be called Theotokos—mother of God—or was she only mother of the human side of a sort of divided Christ?

After lots of arguing and fighting and praying, the council ended up essentially affirming the Nicene Creed (you can read the Nicene Creed here, and the Chalcedonian definition here). They did not need or intend to invent new doctrines about Christ—they sought instead to confirm and clarify the orthodox faith in response to the new heresies and confusions. They confirmed that Christ is:

. . . to be acknowledged in two natures [human and divine] . . . the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten God, the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

The conference talks brought up many interesting points, they traced the reception and influence of Chalcedon through the centuries, and they stirred up debate between the presenters and attendees. Some of these discussions went over my head, but they all combined to create an overwhelming impression of the drama and even excitement that lies in the Church’s orthodoxy. It reminded me of some passages in G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and so I revisited that book after the conference. Chesterton perfectly captures the impression I had, so I’ll let him take it from here:

. . . it is exactly this which explains what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfilment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious. The smallest link was let drop by the artificers of the Mediterranean, and the lion of ancestral pessimism burst his chain in the forgotten forests of the north. Of these theological equalisations I have to speak afterwards. Here it is enough to notice that if some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe. A slip in the definitions might stop all the dances; might wither all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs. Doctrines had to be defined within strict limits, even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties. The Church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless.

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom — that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.

–from the “Paradoxes of Christianity,” Chapter VI of G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy

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