Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

During the early centuries, the Church was rocked by two major Christological controversies. Debate broke out in the early fourth century when Arius charged Bishop Alexander of Alexandria with heresy and went on to claim the begotten Son, precisely because he is begotten, must have “had a beginning of existence.” Hence the Arian slogan, “there was when [the Son] was not.” For Arians, the Son is a creature—a very exalted creature, to be sure, but a creature nonetheless. At the Councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381), the Church decided against Arius, insisting on the remarkable truth that the “begetting” Father and the “begotten” Son are the same substance (homoousios), equal in divinity, power, and glory.

Nearly a century later, Nestorius sparked the next controversy by denying the Marian title Theotokos, “bearer of God.” Nestorius’s intentions are still disputed, but his opponents charged he divided Jesus in two. For Nestorians, some episodes and experiences in the life of Jesus are purely human, others divine. The Gospels don’t narrate the life story of a single subject, but the double life of a divided divine-human.

To protect the transcendent Godness of the Unbegotten, Arius introduced a gap between God and Jesus. As the late theologian Robert Jenson put it, Nestorius had similar motivations but moved the gap a notch, from the Father-Son relation to the divine-human relation in the incarnate Son. In 451, the Council of Chalcedon closed the Nestorian gap as Nicaea closed the Arian one. Chalcedon affirmed that Jesus is “at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man,” forming “one and the same Christ” in whom the two natures exist “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” In the union of the Son with human nature, “the characteristics of each nature [are] preserved and [come] together to form one person and subsistence.” But Chalcedon didn’t shut down Nestorianism as emphatically as Nicaea had shut down Arianism. The Coptic and other Eastern churches rejected Chalcedon and were branded heretics. The resulting schism remains unresolved to this day.

Chalcedon is often viewed as a compromise creed, fusing Cyril of Alexandria’s insistence that the “one person” of Jesus is the divine Logos with Pope Leo’s emphasis on the duality and integrity of the two natures. In his recent book The Humility of the Eternal Son, Princeton’s Bruce McCormack argues that Chalcedon instead marked the triumph of Cyrillian Christology. The preamble to Chalcedon states its agreement with the decisions of the Council of Ephesus (431), which had an emphatically Cyrillian orientation. Chalcedon cites “blessed Cyril” and claims the creed is in continuity with his views. The Chalcedonian Formula itself uses Cyrillian phrases like “one and the same” and “the same,” and states the “only begotten Son of God . . . became human and was crucified,” implying the Cyrillian view that “person of the union” is identical to the eternal Logos. For Cyril and Chalcedon, the subject of the Gospel events isn’t a person constituted by the union of divine and human, but rather the eternal Son living in the flesh. The Council even uses the Cyrillian term henosis—“making-one”—to describe the union. As McCormack puts it, “only one concrete existence remains” in the incarnate Son, since the human nature is real only “in the concrete existence of the Logos.”

McCormack’s case for a Cyrillian reading of Chalcedon is compelling. For McCormack, that means “the shortcomings of Cyril’s Christology are the shortcomings of the Definition as well.” As he sees it, the problem is the assumption that the Son who becomes flesh is simple and impassible and thus incapable of entering into a real, reciprocal relation with his own humanity. The interaction between divinity and humanity is “realistic in one direction only,” from the Logos who commands and uses his humanity as a kind of instrument. This creates an internal tension. On Cyril’s theory, human properties can only be assigned to the Logos, since he’s the only subject of the incarnate Son. Yet because the divinity of Jesus is impassible and simple, “human properties cannot be ascribed to the Logos.” But if Jesus’s hunger, thirst, sorrow, fear, and anguish aren’t really the experiences of the Logos, whose experiences are they? The ironic result is that, directly contrary to Cyril’s and Chalcedon’s intentions, Jesus the man “has a troublesome tendency to become a subject in his own right.” Given divine impassibility and simplicity, Cyril’s single-subject theory of incarnation creeps toward the Nestorian two-subject Christology he abhorred.

It’s not surprising that the Protestant McCormack feels free to follow Calvin’s lead in critiquing ecumenical creeds. It’s more surprising that Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov also finds Chalcedon wanting. Though he regarded Chalcedon as a “dogmatic miracle” that headed off the extremes of Nestorian and Cyrillian Christologies, Bulgakov viewed the Formula as “a preliminary definition, incomplete, inexhaustive, awaiting continuation,” since, in McCormack’s phrase, it doesn’t offer “positive explanation of the ontological conditions that made hypostatic union possible.” For Bulgakov as for McCormack, Chalcedon doesn’t end theological exploration, but gives it a new foundation.

These days, “retrieval” is all the rage, as theologians recover, explain, and defend traditional creedal and theological formulae. It’s an impressive and edifying movement that has dispelled caricatures and confirmed the impressive subtlety of pre-modern theology. Still, if retrieval becomes the be-all of theology, theology is in danger of being reduced to an antiquarian, archaeological enterprise. All theology is historical, but theology cannot be only historical. Having retrieved with all possible care, theologians must reflect on what they have retrieved, and be willing to criticize and refine hallowed creedal and confessional formulae if they are internally incoherent, incomplete, or in some way inconsistent with Scripture and the gospel. Retrieval is a theological good, but there must be life beyond retrieval.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles