What happened at the Council of Chalcedon?
The Council of Chalcedon was the fourth ecumenical council. In 451 AD, leaders from all of Christendom gathered to define the incarnation of Christ once and for all.
Within the lifetime of the apostles, some Christians were already having a hard time reconciling Jesus’ divinity with his humanity (2 John 1:7). Was he only partially divine, or only partially human? Was Jesus even human at all?
The implications of these questions were huge: the answers could affect whether Jesus had the power to forgive sins and offer eternal life. Without a real human body, could he really die? If he didn’t die, the wages of sin remained unpaid (Romans 6:23) and their faith was in vain (1 Corinthians 15:17).
Establishing Jesus’ divinity
At the First Council of Nicaea (325 AD), more than a century before the Council of Chalcedon, the church declared that God the Father and Jesus the Son were “consubstantial” (of the same substance), clarifying that Jesus was in fact divine in the same way that God is divine.
The wording of the Nicene Creed specifically condemned Arianism, a heresy which professed that Jesus wasn’t “of one substance” with God, and therefore not fully divine. However, it neglected to address the human aspect of Jesus’ identity, and so the theological pendulum swung the other way: new heresies emerged suggesting that Jesus wasn’t fully human.
Even well-meaning church leaders like Nestorius attempted to logically explain the incarnation, but failed to do so without presenting new heretical ideas. The church ruled against these flawed explanations, but still needed to come up with an explanation that everyone could agree on. At the same time, some of these disagreements were sowing discord between the eastern Christian churches (Constantinople) and the western Christian churches (Rome).
The Chalcedonian Definition
At the Council of Chalcedon, the church explicitly defined the relationship between Jesus’ divine nature and his human nature, and how they manifested in his being. They determined he was “truly God and truly man,” and that he is “like us in all things, sin apart.”
The council’s complete statement is known as the Chalcedonian Definition or the Chalcedonian Creed. Here’s what they stated:
“Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all unanimously teach that our Lord Jesus Christ is to us One and the same Son, the Self-same Perfect in Godhead, the Self-same Perfect in Manhood; truly God and truly Man; the Self-same of a rational soul and body; co-essential with the Father according to the Godhead, the Self-same co-essential with us according to the Manhood; like us in all things, sin apart; before the ages begotten of the Father as to the Godhead, but in the last days, the Self-same, for us and for our salvation (born) of Mary the Virgin Theotokos as to the Manhood; One and the Same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten; acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He were parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ; even as from the beginning the prophets have taught concerning Him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself hath taught us, and as the Symbol of the Fathers hath handed down to us.”
The Chalcedonian canons
The council also established 27 new canons (church laws). They later added a 28th, and some collections show 30 canons. (The “additions” are the last three.) The Chalcedonian canons are as follows:
- The canons of every Synod of the holy Fathers shall be observed.
- Whoso buys or sells an ordination, down to a Prosmonarius, shall be in danger of losing his grade. Such shall also be the case with go-betweens, if they be clerics they shall be cut off from their rank, if laymen or monks, they shall be anathematized.
- Those who assume the care of secular houses should be corrected, unless perchance the law called them to the administration of those not yet come of age, from which there is no exemption. Unless further their Bishop permits them to take care of orphans and widows.
- Domestic oratories and monasteries are not to be erected contrary to the judgment of the bishop. Every monk must be subject to his bishop, and must not leave his house except at his suggestion. A slave, however, can not enter the monastic life without the consent of his master.
- Those who go from city to city shall be subject to the canon law on the subject.
- In Martyries and Monasteries ordinations are strictly forbidden. Should any one be ordained therein, his ordination shall be reputed of no effect.
- If any cleric or monk arrogantly affects the military or any other dignity, let him be cursed.
- Any clergyman in an almshouse or monastery must submit himself to the authority of the bishop of the city. But he who rebels against this let him pay the penalty.
- Litigious clerics shall be punished according to canon, if they despise the episcopal and resort to the secular tribunal. When a cleric has a contention with a bishop let him wait till the synod sits, and if a bishop have a contention with his metropolitan let him carry the case to Constantinople.
- No cleric shall be recorded on the clergy-list of the churches of two cities. But if he shall have strayed forth, let him be returned to his former place. But if he has been transferred, let him have no share in the affairs of his former church.
- Let the poor who stand in need of help make their journey with letters pacificatory and not commendatory: For letters commendatory should only be given to those who are open to suspicion.
- One province shall not be cut into two. Whoever shall do this shall be cast out of the episcopate. Such cities as are cut off by imperial rescript shall enjoy only the honour of having a bishop settled in them: but all the rights pertaining to the true metropolis shall be preserved.
- No cleric shall be received to communion in another city without a letter commendatory.
- A Cantor or Lector alien to the sound faith, if being then married, he shall have begotten children let him bring them to communion, if they had there been baptized. But if they had not yet been baptized they shall not be baptized afterwards by the heretics.
- No person shall be ordained deaconess except she be forty years of age. If she shall dishonour her ministry by contracting a marriage, let her be anathema.
- Monks or nuns shall not contract marriage, and if they do so let them be excommunicated.
- Village and rural parishes if they have been possessed for thirty years, they shall so continue. But if within that time, the matter shall be subject to adjudication. But if by the command of the Emperor a city be renewed, the order of ecclesiastical parishes shall follow the civil and public forms.
- Clerics and Monks, if they shall have dared to hold conventicles and to conspire against the bishop, shall be cast out of their rank.
- Twice each year the Synod shall be held wherever the bishop of the Metropolis shall designate, and all matters of pressing interest shall be determined.
- A clergyman of one city shall not be given a cure in another. But if he has been driven from his native place and shall go into another he shall be without blame. If any bishop receives clergymen from without his diocese he shall be excommunicated as well as the cleric he receives.
- A cleric or layman making charges rashly against his bishop shall not be received.
- Whoever seizes the goods of his deceased bishop shall be cast forth from his rank.
- Clerics or monks who spend much time at Constantinople contrary to the will of their bishop, and stir up seditions, shall be cast out of the city.
- A monastery erected with the consent of the bishop shall be immovable. And whatever pertains to it shall not be alienated. Whoever shall take upon him to do otherwise, shall not be held guiltless.
- Let the ordination of bishops be within three months: necessity however may make the time longer. But if anyone shall ordain counter to this decree, he shall be liable to punishment. The revenue shall remain with the œconomus.
- The œconomus in all churches must be chosen from the clergy. And the bishop who neglects to do this is not without blame.
- If a clergyman elope with a woman, let him be expelled from the Church. If a layman, let him be anathema. The same shall be the lot of any that assist him.
- The bishop of New Rome shall enjoy the same honour as the bishop of Old Rome, on account of the removal of the Empire. For this reason the [metropolitans] of Pontus, of Asia, and of Thrace, as well as the Barbarian bishops shall be ordained by the bishop of Constantinople.
- He is sacrilegious who degrades a bishop to the rank of a presbyter. For he that is guilty of crime is unworthy of the priesthood. But he that was deposed without cause, let him be [still] bishop.
- It is the custom of the Egyptians that none subscribe without the permission of their Archbishop. Wherefore they are not to be blamed who did not subscribe the Epistle of the holy Leo until an Archbishop had been appointed for them.
Jesus is truly God, truly man
Today, Christians readily accept that Jesus is fully God and fully man—that there is a hypostatic union between his divine and human natures. Without the Council of Chalcedon’s decisive creed, the church may have continued working with disparate definitions and struggled to maintain orthodoxy.
As the church ruled out conflicting ideas of who Jesus was, the Chalcedonian Definition was inevitable. But it was also essential, and without it, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross would be ambiguous. Knowing that Christ is fully God and fully man, we can fully trust in the salvation he offers through his death and resurrection.
Learn more in Michael Bird’s online course, What Christians Ought to Believe.