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Kingdom Civics

The Chalcedon Definition

These founding documents of the Kingdom of God teach us how we ought to carry out our calling to seek first the Kingdom of God...

Founding Documents (9)

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us – that which we have seen and heard we proclaim to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 1 John 1.1-3

One Person, two natures

As the fifth century unfolded, two false teachings began to gain traction which threatened the Church’s understanding of the redemptive work of Christ, whether it could, in fact, be efficient for our salvation. The first of these was Nestorianism, associated with the name of Nestorius, preacher at Constantinople (ca. 351-451 AD). While it’s not clear that Nestorius himself taught this heresy, it circulated and was condemned under his name.

Nestorianism held that Jesus Christ existed in two distinct persons in one human body. He was perfect God and He was perfect Man. These two persons were separate and unmixed, and in this the teaching of the Nestorians was contrary to the orthodox understanding that in the one person our Lord Jesus existed in two inseparable natures – human and divine. It should not be hard to see that, unless Jesus were both God and Man in one Person, He could not accomplish our redemption. The implication of the separateness of His deity and humanity is that He existed as a human being sui generis, that is, not at all one like us, and therefore unable to redeem us, that is, to fulfill righteousness for us and to pay the debt incurred by our (like His) flesh.

Eutyches, a monk in Constantinople (378-454 AD) taught an opposite false teaching. He insisted that, following the incarnation, Jesus existed in only one nature, and that this nature was unique and had not continuity or consubstantiality with our human nature. Once again, to confess this would be to deny the efficacy of Christ’s saving work, because, again, He would not have shared in our human nature.

In 451, therefore, bishops were summoned to Chalcedon in Asia Minor to address these false teachings and set the record straight.

The Chalcedon Definition

After condemning both heretical views, the assembled bishops first affirmed the faith as expressed by the Council of Nicea and reaffirmed by the Council of Constantinople. They then added their own attempt to maintain the Biblical teaching of the true nature of Christ with what has come to be called the “Definition” or “Formula” of Chalcedon:

Wherefore, following the holy Fathers, we all with one voice confess our Lord Jesus Christ one and the same Son, the same perfect in Godhead, the same perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man, the same consisting of a reasonable soul and body, of one substance with the Father as touching the Godhead, the same of one substance with us as touching the manhood, like us in all things apart from sin; begotten of the Father before the ages as touching the Godhead, the same in the last days, for us and for our salvation, born from the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, as touching the manhood, one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way abolished because of the union, but rather the characteristic property of each nature being preserved, and concurring into one Person and one subsistence, not as is Christ were parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son and only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from the beginning spoke concerning him, and our Lord Jesus instructed us, and the Creed of the Fathers has handed down to us.

Now that’s a mouthful of theology!

Two main points are here advanced to preserve the Biblical and patristic understanding of Person of Jesus Christ and, with that, His perfect redemptive work on our behalf.

First, the insistence on referring to Mary as Theotokos – Mother of God. Devotion to Mary was beginning to gain ground in the Church during this time, and some feared that this was too strong a term and might elevate Mary more than was justified. The council, however, rightly understood that, in fact, Mary was the “mother of God” with reference to the incarnation of Jesus Christ. He was true Man by virtue of being born from her womb; He was true God – and, hence, Mary His mother – by virtue of the work of the Holy Spirit.

Second, the council selected language to prevent the separating of the two natures of Christ from one another – all those “without” phrases. Jesus was one Person consisting of two distinct but inseparable natures, God and Man – “the distinction of natures being in no way abolished because of the union…”

In preserving the orthodox teaching about Christ the council also ensured that no mistaken teaching could prevail – typically, some version of salvation by works – to challenge the Biblical understanding of the redemptive work of Christ. Such teachings have arisen since the fifth century, of course, and it is good for Christians in every generation to understand that, when it comes to heresy, there is nothing new under the sun. Those which threaten the Church in any age have been previously dealt with and condemned.

Focus on God

Thus the bishops at Chalcedon added a final and important clarifying document to those we have previously noted. It is significant that all these founding documents of the Kingdom of God – from the rules of faith through the creeds and this definition – focus on the nature of God. The first Christians understood that you could not advance the Kingdom of God if you did not understand God aright. Any varying from the teaching of Scripture would lead to a dead-end of heresy and false religion. It was very important to get this right, so that subsequent generations of Christians could be clear about God – Who He is, what He has accomplished for us, and what He is doing in the world at this time.

These founding documents of the Kingdom of God, based as they are on Scripture and focused as they are on God, teach us how we ought to carry out our calling to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness: Know the Word, and do not go beyond it; and look to our forebears to guide us in understanding its meaning for our lives in the Kingdom.

Are your Bible reading and study practices what they ought to be? For a concise overview of how to study and apply the Bible, go to our book store and order a copy of Text to Transformation.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
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