Church History Series 1, Post 13: The Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon

The Council at Chalcedon is important for both Christological and Ecclesiological reasons.  Although there is much that could be said about the time leading up to the council and the council itself, I hope to have provided some of the main points here.

The Christological Dimension

Ephesus did not finally settle matters.  Although St. Cyril had won that day and all but a small minority came to accept the council and the term “Theotokos,” some still harbored some suspicions.  All of this broke out again in a case involving Eutyches, who had been deposed for claiming that “after” the Incarnation, there were not two natures in Christ and that Christ was not even “consubstantial” or “co-essential” with the rest of humanity.

Dioscoros, patriarch of Alexandria, reinstated Eutyches and condemned and deposed Flavian, patriarch of Constantinople.  Dioscoros had earlier denounced Pope Leo I, as well.  The council that reinstated Eutyches was held in Ephesus in 449.

With the new emperor, Marcian, however, things changed.  Marcian, who thought Flavian and Leo were right, called for an ecumenical council.  The council gathered at Chalcedon, just outside of Constantinople, with an attendance of over 500 bishops.

At this council, Dioscorus was removed from office and Leo’s Tome on Christ was read and debated.  After papal legates convinced some hesitant bishops that Leo’s position was the same as Cyril’s, just couched in different language, the Tome was accepted.

The heart of the matter was how to understand “from two natures” and “in two natures.”  Eutyches did not want to say “in two natures.”  He feared being Nestorian.  Bishops at the council, despite ruling against this, were concerned that Leo might also be Nestorian in his emphasis on the two natures.  Were these natures not joined in one person?

The bishops were seeking to articulate and defend the heart of the Rule of Faith—One Lord Jesus Christ, both God and man.

Some bishops continued to be concerned that the council was reverting to Nestorianism, and a schism ensued that exists to this day.  Today, the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, the Armenian Orthodox Church, and the Syrian Orthodox Church are “non-Chalcedonian.”  Recent dialogues, however, have shown great promise.

Canon 28 of Chalcedon:

Canon 3 from the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople said, “The bishop of Constantinople, however, shall have the prerogative of honor after the bishop of Rome because Constantinople is New Rome.”

Canon 28 of Chalcedon clarifies this, “Following in all things the decisions of the holy Fathers and acknowledging the canon, which has just been read, of the one hundred and fifty bishops beloved of God (who assembled in the imperial city of Constantinople, which is New Rome, in the time of the Emperor Theodosius of blessed memory), we also do enact and decree the same things concerning the privileges of the most holy Church of Constantinople, which is New Rome.  For the Fathers rightly granted privileges to the throne of old Rome because it was the royal city.”

Some Background for Understanding the Significance of these Canons

The Quartodeciman controversy, which was solved after Irenaeus wrote to Pope Victor I, had been a schism within Rome itself.  Rome did not have a single bishop to which all Romans had to submit on all issues until about 60 years later, in 250.

Eastern bishops did not appeal only to Rome’s bishop, when they would appeal for help.  For example, after being exiled from Constantinople in 404, John Chrysostom appealed to Pope Innocent as well as Venerius of Milan and Chromatius of Aquileia.

Even in the West, things were not so straightforward.  In the third century, Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, understood Peter the apostle to be the source of episcopal ministry in general.  He claimed all bishops are successors of Peter.  Although the East did not know of Cyprian’s Latin writings, they held to a similar viewpoint—the power of the keys, is ultimately given to all bishops (as it was given to all disciples).

Another North African example occurred in 418, when the bishops rejected the idea that one man (the pope) could decide to reinstate a priest that a synod had deposed.

Many early writings hold Rome and Rome’s bishop in high esteem, but we need to be careful not to think that the papacy as it exists today is what it was then.  Certainly, not even the Christians in communion with Rome would have accorded Rome the kind of powers she has today.

Christianity had aligned her governing structure parallel to that of the Roman/Byzantine Empire.  This resulted in five major centers, whose bishops came to be called “patriarchs”: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.  In addition to these five major sees, Cyprus had its own independent bishop, called a metropolitan (rather than patriarch).  Cyprus was a holdover from the pre-Constantinian Church structure.  In hindsight, the ecclesiological cracks might be seen already with the dispute over canon 28 of Chalcedon, but at the time, this was seen as a difference but not a fissure.  It will take much more than this to send Rome on her own trajectory apart from the other patriarchates, or depending on your perspective, the other patriarchates on a trajectory that would not see the pope as the bishop of all bishops but rather as the first among equals, the chairman of the board, if you will.

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