July 17, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Early Church: Chalcedon affirms Christ has two natures in one person

John F. Fink(Fifteenth in a series of columns)

It should be clear, if you’ve been reading this series of columns, that disagreements over doctrine were common during the early Church.

These disagreements even turned to violence, as happened after the monk Eutyches began to teach that Christ’s divine nature absorbed his human nature so that his human body was different from other human bodies. This heresy became known as Monophysitism.

What to do about this? Why, call another council, of course, which Emperor Theodosius II did in 449. However, he and Eutyches both lived in Constantinople and were friends, so Theodosius invited only Eutyches’ supporters to Ephesus. This did not include Pope Leo I, who was to go down in history as Pope Leo the Great.

Pope Leo had three representatives at the council, but it turned out that they spoke only Latin and could neither understand what was being said in Greek nor make themselves understood. They had with them a letter from Pope Leo, his so-called Tome, which they planned to read.

When Bishop Dioscoros of Alexandria began to defend Eutyches, Pope Leo’s representatives called for his abandonment from the proceedings. Thereupon, Dioscoros shouted for the imperial commissioner, who ordered the doors thrown open. The provincial governor entered with a crowd of monks and toughs who roughed up Eutyches’ opponents.

Dioscoros forbade anyone to leave until all 170 bishops signed the official acts exonerating Eutyches and deposing his opponents. Some of the bishops were induced to sign blank sheets of paper to be filled in later.

Naturally, Pope Leo refused to recognize the council’s proceedings. He wrote to Emperor Theodosius insisting that he call another council to right the injustices of what the pope called the “robber synod.” The emperor ignored him.

But then Theodosius died in 450 after falling from his horse while hunting. The new emperor, Marcion, was persuaded to call a new council in Chalcedon, directly across the Bosporus from Constantinople, in 451. Marcion also thought that the pope, rather than the emperor, should preside at Church councils, and he invited Leo to do so. But the Huns were invading Italy at the time, so Leo thought it best to stay there.

The Council of Chalcedon reversed the decisions made at Ephesus in 449; tried Dioscoros for what he did at Ephesus and found him guilty; stripped him of his authority in his diocese and of the exercise of the rights and privileges he received at his ordination; and condemned the teachings of Eutyches.

Pope Leo’s representatives read Leo’s Tome at the council, as they had hoped to do at Ephesus. It asserted that “he who became man in the form of a servant is he who in the form of God created man.” It said that the divine and human natures were united in Christ.

Once again, though, the council brought division rather than peace. Monophysite local Churches, which said that Christ had only a divine nature, became prevalent in Syria and Egypt, while Nestorianism, which said that Christ was two persons, prevailed in Persia.

Today about 10 million members of Eastern Churches trace their origins to the Nestorians and the Monophysites. †

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