Christological Controversies to Chalcedon (451)

Key Points During this time

  • Each of the four ecumenical councils contributes a distinct piece to the Christian doctrine of the incarnation, functioning to preserve mystery within certain parameters.
  • The Antiochene and Alexandrine theological traditions differed in significant ways, producing different interpretations of Nicaea that were difficult to reconcile and triggered widespread Christological controversy.
  • The backgrounds and circumstances of the Christological controversies demonstrate the shifts occurring in how major religious conflict would be handled in the late empire. The consequences would include deposition of leaders and condemnation of entire traditions.
  • The clash between Nestorius and Cyril in the Council of Ephesus (431), the results of which were played out further in the “Robber Synod” of 449 and the Council of Chalcedon (451), highlighted the terms of debate between the Word-flesh Christology of Antioch and the Word-man Christology of Alexandria.
  • Chalcedon established a compromised definition, affirming the two natures (human and divine) in the one person of Jesus Christ.
  • Chalcedon and its canons impacted the church’s understanding of the role of ecumenical councils, the relationship of monks to the ecclesial hierarchy, and underscored the tensions between Constantinople and Rome as prestigious sees.

Summary of events

The ecumenical councils of the early church sought to clarify Christian beliefs about God and Jesus Christ. In particular, the first four ecumenical councils affirmed both God’s essential unity and the Trinity; they affirmed the unity of Jesus in one person and his duality in two natures, human and divine. Ostensibly, the councils attempted to preserve a large degree of mystery in the Christian understanding of the divine, while guarding against apparently extreme positions. The Councils of Nicaea (325) and Chalcedon (451) are especially significant watersheds in the process—Nicaea laying the crucial groundwork, and Chalcedon culminating a lengthy process of discussion regarding the implications and boundaries of the Nicene formulation. The process involved numerous factors, including strong personalities, theological exploration through debate, specialized terminology, and the politics of church and empire; yet the church believed the power of God to be active in the process.

The process was complicated by diverse understandings of divinity and of Jesus Christ, especially those of the Antiochene tradition, typified by Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius, and the Alexandrine tradition, typified by Cyril of Alexandria, Eutyches, and Dioscorus. These two traditions were distinct in a number of ways. As their representatives disputed the best ways to describe the incarnation, bishops and emperors alike felt compelled to achieve unanimity of belief. The ensuing controversies resulted in great difficulties, including imperial enforcement of orthodoxy, the depositions of bishops, the condemnation of dissenting branches of the church, and lasting estrangement between those branches. A broad consensus of belief was achieved by the Definition of Chalcedon (451), held by much of the church in East and West to be the definitive interpretation of Nicaea. Yet it was unable to contain those of a more miaphysite persuasion, who have been routinely called “monophysites;” and those with an even more striking dyophysite leaning (so-called “Nestorians”) had previously been alienated from the fold by the Council of Ephesus (431). Chalcedon was important not only dogmatically, but also had conciliar, monastic, and constitutional aspects that achieved lasting impact in the church.


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