“Flying the Envelope” — the Chalcedonian Definition


In previous blogs we have looked at the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed in their historical contexts and noted that creeds are primarily documents for their times, even though they have timeless application. Creeds not only summarise the church’s position on scriptural doctrines, they also delineate the boundaries of what constitutes truth with respect to heresy. Statements of faith such as the Chalcedonian Definition of AD 451 are open to misunderstanding if they are viewed out of historical context, and also if their original purpose is misunderstood.

Let’s consider an analogy. Pilots talk about flying within a performance “envelope.” This envelope is a plot of speed limitations versus load factor or “g force” limitations. The tighter a turn or manoeuvre, the higher the g loading. A given g loading at higher speed imposes greater stress on the airframe. There are maximum g loadings for different speeds and there are also ultimate speed limitations. If the aeroplane flies too slowly, the wings will stall and the aircraft won’t maintain flight. If it flies too fast, such as in a high speed dive or manoeuvre, it will impose unacceptable strain on the airframe and risk structural failure. So every aircraft has an “envelope” plotted with these airspeed and g-loading limitations. Provided you fly within the envelope, the aircraft will hold up. As soon as you push the boundaries of this envelope in a manoeuvre, you risk disaster.

Theologising can be like that. In our limited human state, we can never fully understand who and what God is (Psa 147:5, Isa 55:8-9) but the Bible is very clear on the limits of speculation regarding him and his works. For example, any discussion of God’s freedom and omnipotence that leads to the conclusion that God is free to sin if he feels like it, has crossed a boundary into heresy. It’s outside the envelope of truth. Christians over the centuries and today have differed in how they understand God’s sovereignty with respect to the free will he has given us, and various positions within the “envelope” have been espoused. But as soon as a position makes God the author of sin, or allows him to lose ultimate control over his creation, we have left the envelope of scriptural truth. The same analogy may be helpful in understanding how the orthodox doctrine of the two natures of Christ came to be expressed.

The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of AD 381 affirmed both the full deity and the real humanity of Christ, against Arianism on the one hand and Gnosticism and Docetism on the other, but at this stage theologians had not really explored how deity and humanity were united in Jesus Christ. Since New Testament times, the church had held that Jesus Christ was both divine and human, as for example in the writings of Ignatius around 100 AD:
“There is only one physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering and then beyond it, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Ephesians 7:2).
The atoning work of Christ required him to be fully human, to experience temptation, suffering and death and yet to do so without sin, indeed to bear the wrath of God on behalf of all humanity. Only the divine Son could achieve this. As Athanasius (c296-373) expressed it,

You must understand why it is that the Word of the Father, so great and so high, has been made manifest in bodily form . . . He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men . . . the renewal of creation has been wrought by the self-same Word who made it in the beginning . . . What else could He possibly do, being God, but renew His Image in mankind, so that through it men might once more come to know Him? And how could this be done save by the coming of the very Image Himself, our savior Jesus Christ? (On the Incarnation)

But whilst orthodox Christians agreed that Scripture taught the full humanity and full deity of Christ, they disagreed as to precisely how this should be understood. By the fourth century there were two dominant schools of Greek Christian thought, those of Alexandria and Antioch. Alexandrian theologians conceptualized God as a “personal nature,” the Word, who united with inert flesh without actually changing. Christ had only one nature, the divine Word. The divinity and humanity of Jesus were held together by a “transfer of properties” from the divine Word to the human Jesus, enabling expression of divine miraculous powers in human flesh. Unfortunately, Alexandrine theology tended to under-rate the importance of the human soul in Jesus. The Antiochenes, in contrast, stressed the humanity of the Christ of the gospels. Antiochenes believed that Christ had a true human soul and identity and that after the incarnation the two natures, human and divine, although joined in one Person, were still evident. Thus the Word became a whole, complete human being, body and soul, without discarding his divinity. Their difficulty was defining how the two natures were joined and laid them open to the charge of splitting the person of Christ into two.

An “extreme” Alexandrian, Apollinarius of Laodicea, believed that separation of the divine and human in Christ would negate salvation, because a fallible human Christ could not redeem mankind. He denied that Christ had human free will because that would make the Word changeable and able to sin; instead, the Word took the place of a human mind in Christ, eliminating “contradictory wills and intelligences.” Apollinarius was condemned at the council in Constantinople in 381. Non-trinitarians such as Christadelphians appear to confuse mainstream Trinitarian doctrine with Apollinarianism and attack that, rather than orthodox Trinitarianism.

The Antiochenes emphasised “two natures” Christology and the necessity of Christ’s human intelligent soul. Gregory of Nazianzus pronounced, “What has not been assumed cannot be restored; it is what is united with God that is saved.” He meant that if Christ were not fully human, body and soul, he could not redeem the whole man, both body and soul. Theodore of Mopsuestia denied that the Word was the soul of Christ, arguing “He took not on a body but a complete man.” Theodore viewed Christ’s humanity as complete and independent, undergoing growth in knowledge and being tempted. Nestorianism was a fifth century school of thought that, in opposition to Apollinarianism, and in an attempt to emphasise the humanity of Jesus, stressed the two natures in Christ to the point where Christ was effectively seen as two persons in one body. It may not actually have been quite as extreme as this, however, since much of what we know of this teaching was written by its opponents. The next crisis came in 448 over the doctrines of Eutyches, who taught a confused, extreme, almost Docetic form of Alexandrianism. He maintained that Christ’s humanity was totally absorbed by his divinity and only had the appearance of humanity.

How Christ’s nature is viewed obviously affects the way his atoning work is understood. The Alexandrines insisted that only a perfect Saviour, the divine Word, could be effective. The Antiochenes stressed that only those aspects of humanity borne by Christ could be saved. Alexandrines accused Antiochenes of adoptionism and of dividing the person of Christ into two. Conversely, Antiochenes denounced the Alexandrines as teaching “confusion” of the two natures and of denying the reality of Christ’s human nature. They couldn’t see that they were each contending for the same principles, but with different emphases. (Hmm . . . does that still happen in the church today?)

“So intent was each upon securing for itself the victory, that it would not stop to enquire whether its opponents did not after all believe what they said they believed.” ( Sellers, R.V. Two Ancient Christologies. (London: SPCK, 1954), 203)

Millard Erickson proposes that there are six basic heresies concerning the person of Christ and all departures from orthodox doctrine are variations of one of these. (Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 673).

  • Denial of the genuineness of Jesus’ deity (eg., Ebionism)
    Denial of the completeness of Jesus’ deity (eg., Arianism)
    Denial of the genuineness of Jesus’ humanity (eg., Docetism)
    Denial of the completeness of Jesus’ humanity (eg., Apollinarianism)
    Division of Jesus’ person into two (eg., Nestorianism)
    Confusion of the two natures of Jesus (eg., Eutychianism)

In earlier blogs we saw that the Apostles’ Creed (c 150 AD) was written to oppose Ebionism and Docetism and that the Nicene Creed was written to oppose Arianism. By the mid fifth century it was high time for another creedal statement, to counter Apollinarianism, Eutychianism and Nestorianism. In other words, these heresies were clearly “outside the envelope” of scriptural truth, but the boundaries of that envelope needed defining. The fourth ecumenical council at Chalcedon in AD 451 reaffirmed the creed of Nicea/Constantinople and condemned both Nestorianism and Eutychianism.
The Chalcedonian Definition of Faith is not primarily a first-principles dissertation on who Jesus is so much as a definition of the boundaries beyond which lies what Jesus is not. It demonstrates that the moderate forms of Alexandrine and Antiochene theologies were fundamentally equivalent and complementary, despite their different emphases. There was room for both within the “envelope.” However, the extremes of Apollinarianism, Eutychianism and Nestorianism stepped outside that envelope. The Definition helps to safeguard against overemphasising Jesus’ divinity to the exclusion of his real humanity, and safeguards his divinity against an overemphasis on his humanity.

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach people to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable (rational) soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God,* according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather 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. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chalcedonian_Definition)

*The expression “Mother of God” in the context of the Definition needs to be understood not as advocating the worship or veneration of Mary, but a statement as to Who was born of her; not just a man but the incarnate Son. In other words, the incarnation occurred in Mary’s womb, not before or after.

Taken in context, the Definition outlines the boundaries of the “envelope” which embraces the scriptural truths about the humanity and deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, within which we may fly safely, and outside of which we manoeuvre to our peril.


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