Healing the Wounds of Chalcedon

Bavly Cost- June 2015- http://www.theologues.com/

Editor’s Note: We called out to some people on the Internet to see if we could get the history of the Chalcedonian controversy as told by those on the other side – the Oriental Orthodox. The Oriental Orthodox separated from the rest of the Church in the 5th century and to this day it’s a matter of debate as to why. Bavly Kost, a Coptic Christian, lays out the history of the issue, what misunderstandings may have cause the schism and what both sides are doing to heal today.

The Council of Chalcedon met in 451 A.D in Asia Minor and the council’s ruling was an important step in further clarifying the person of Christ. However, in order to understand and appreciate the events of Chalcedon, a quick review of the century prior to the council is needed.


The first council, which met at Nicaea in 325 A.D, was convened for many reasons (dating of Easter etc), one being the attempt to resolve the dispute between Arius and Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria. Arius taught that- “There was a time when the son of God was not”, which is to say that the Son of God has a beginning like all human beings. This idea was defeated by Alexander and his Deacon at the time, Athanasius. The Council proclaimed that Jesus is Truly God, and Athanasius– for the next half century– wrote and defended this teaching. In 381 A.D, another council took place in Constantinople, which had become the new capital of the Roman Empire. This council addressed Apollinaris’ claim that, “Jesus’ divine nature had displaced His human mind and will”. According to Apollinaris, Jesus is not fully human. Following this we had Nestorius separate the nature and wills, essentially making Jesus two persons sharing one body. Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria at the time, coined the term, “One Nature of the Incarnate Logos (God) (Greek=Mia physis tou Theou Logou sesarkomene)” to combat the Nestorian teaching. Following Nestorius, Eutyches, a monk from Constantinople, also denied that Jesus is truly human, saying, “Jesus’ human nature was absorbed by His divine nature”. Through his teachings, Eutyches thought he was upholding the teachings of Cyril and those who came before him. This leads to the council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D and, inevitably, the breakup of the Church.

Dioscorus, Bishop of Alexandria, in 449 A.D, had acquitted Eutyches of any wrong teaching at a gathering that took place in Ephesus, which would forever be infamously referred as the “Robber Council”. The emperor Theodosius the 2nd called for the council and Dioscorus was made to preside over the council. With the political tide changing and a new emperor enthroned, Marcian called for another council in 451. The Council of Chalcedon began with reading the minutes of Ephesus II. Dioscorus appeared in the first few sessions of the council. Dioscorus said that if Eutyches says and believes what is against the Church, only then does he deserve condemnation. Dioscorus made an appeal to the writings of Cyril, his teacher, as holding the truth about the person of Christ.

The Root of the Issue

Many historians claim that the Alexandrian bishops thought that Chalcedon was parting from the teachings of Cyril and made an appeal to the Nestorian teachings.

Many historians claim that the Alexandrian bishops thought that Chalcedon was parting from the teachings of Cyril and made an appeal to the Nestorian teachings. The language used sounded like a breakup of the natures in Christ. The famous Cyrillian formula was never used in the council and this angered many of the Alexandrian bishops. The Cyrillian formula, quoted above, was already accepted by all the churches in the East and West. The belief that Jesus had one nature out of two was declared orthodox in the council of Ephesus. Only in thought can we speak of two natures in Christ. This Cyrillian understanding was not used in the final drafting of Chalcedon and this angered many of the Alexandrian Bishops. The council, unfortunately, was tied to a lot of politics that had developed through the last century. Alexandria had lost its weight to the new Roman capital Constantinople and was playing third fiddle on the hierarchy list. The Alexandrian’s wanted to assert their role in the empire, and many forces wanted to send a clear message to them.

The final outcome of the council was the exile and excommunication of Dioscorus, not on account of doctrine, but rather for administrative reasons. The council went on to declare that Christ is in two natures; He is Truly God and Truly Man, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably, and inconfusedly, The divine and human natures of Christ are distinct yet united in one person. This co-existence of Christ’s two natures is called the hypostatic union based on the Cyrillene formula. The hypostatic union is maintained by the Alexandrian bishops who thought the council of Chalcedon moved away from this understanding.

The Situation Now

As a Coptic Theologian living in the 21st century, and for anyone who comes from the Oriental family of churches this issue has become insignificant. Both churches have met countless times in the last 50 years, and have declared that the events that took place in Chalcedon should not be used today as a way to ostracize each other’s churches. With the advancement of technology, we can clearly see that misunderstandings and political tides were major factors in the decisions that took place in Chalcedon. The final agreed upon statements between both churches (1993) have pushed for the following:

In the light of our agreed statements on Christology as well as of the above common affirmation, we have now clearly understood that both families have always loyally maintained the same authentic Orthodox Christological Faith, and the unbroken continuity of the Apostolic tradition, though they may have used Christological terms in different ways. It is this common faith and continuous loyalty to the Apostolic Tradition that should be the basis of our unity and communion.

Both families agree that all the anathemas and condemnations of the past which now divide us should be lifted by the Churches in order that the last obstacle to the full unity and communion can be removed by the grace and power of God. Both families agree that the lifting of anathemas and condemnations will be consummated on the basis that the councils and Fathers previously anathemized or condemned are not heretical. (Bold is my emphasis)
Theologians from both sides have come together and agreed on the idea that we hold the same language and understanding on the nature of Christ.

Theologians from both sides have come together and agreed on the idea that we hold the same language and understanding on the nature of Christ. His Grace Paulus Mar Gregorios, Fr. John Romanindes, Father V.C. Samuels, Fr. John Meyendorff and countless others have signed these agreed statements and have concluded that the divisions and barriers that have kept us separate for 1500 years need to be removed. Fr. Georges Florovsky spoke about VC Samuels saying his theology is Orthodox and true to the Apostolic Church. Many on the ground level are already doing this with many priests marrying and communing each other without requiring them to be “re-baptized” or chrismated, with the permission of the local bishop. However, on the synodal level, the final step towards full union remains, which is the lifting of the anathemas by the bishops of the respective churches. With this hope, we pray that the church may be united, and using the words of Christ as a reminder, we recalled the Gospel of John, hapter 17 v.21, “That they all may be one, as you, Father, are in Me, and I in you; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.”