Review – The Council of Chalcedon by R. V. Sellers

The Council of Chalcedon by R. V. Sellers offers the sort of historical treatment for which beginning historians yearn. Clear in its analysis, lively in its prose, and enlightening in its use of source languages, Chalcedon integrates pleasurable reading with useful instruction. It alternates between narrative, describing the events leading up to and following from Chalcedon along with the significant persons, and analysis, examining the theology of key documents.

Sellers describes the Chalcedonian theology as consisting of two principles: Christological confession and Christological inquiry. By Christological confession he means the declaration that Jesus Christ is “one and the same” with the Logos who assumed humanity, and by Christological enquiry he means the attempts to explain the relationship of human and divine in the incarnate Christ. Sellers affirms that the three major schools of Christological thought – Antiochene, Alexandrian, and Western – all had maintained these two principles, though in differing emphasis,and that at Chalcedon these three schools met in their theological maturity.

The Alexandrians, whose chief exponent is Cyril, were influenced by an Incarnation-centric soteriology that stressed  the divinization of humanity through its union with Godhood. As a result, their accent fell on the oneness of Christ, that in him a real union between human and divine had taken place. On the other side, “Fundamental to the thought of the Antiochenes is the doctrine of the essential difference between God the Creator and man the creature: over against God in his immortality, incorruptibility and impassibility is set mortal, corruptible and passible man” (162). The Antiochenes, then, focused on Christological enquiry and insisted that one continue to recognize (only in thought, though) the distinction between human and divine, lest one “confuse” Christ and make of him a tertium quid, neither truly human nor truly divine. Over against both Eastern schools, Pope Leo’s Tome exemplified the developing Western conception of sin and redemption in juridicial-penal terms that led to the recognition of Christ as Mediator between God and Man. Thus, the Tome kept the two principles in balance, confessing two natures in one person (duae naturae in una persona).

Sellers exposits the Chalcedonian Definition according to the two Christological principles; rather, it seems his study of the Definition led him to recognize in it those two principles, through which he then chose to read the theology of this period. He argues that Chalcedon’s purpose was not primarily negative, to refute heretics, but rather positive, to explain clearly the Nicene faith in such a way that contemporary heresies would be excluded. He argues that the authentic reading of the creed is “in two natures” (εν δυο φυσεσιν) rather than the more common Alexandrian “out of” (εκ), a choice that would cause ecclesiastical turmoil in the East for decades to come.

Crucial to understanding Chalcedon is grasping the force of the single word “recognizing” (γνωριζομενον) in “recognizing two natures.” Contrary to the claims of their critics, the Chalcedonians never declared that one could divide Christ into two agents, Jesus and the Logos, and attribute some actions to one and other actions to the other. Rather, in the various acts of the single God-man one can perceive both true Godhood and true manhood. It is the person who does miracles, though Godhood is at that time clearly displayed; it is the person who dies on the cross, though manhood is then exhibited. This principle of attributing the characteristics of either nature to the whole person has come down in theological history as the communicatio idiomatum, the sharing of attributes, and explains how the Fathers could have said so adamantly, “God died,” while still believing in impassibility. Sellers sees the completion of Chalcedon’s Christology in Leonitus’ later theory of enhypostasis: “The manhood, therefore, has its existence, not separately, as if it were that of another Person (hypostasis) beside the Logos, but in the Person (hypostasis) of the Logos…. There is in Christ one agent, the one Son of God made man, a divine-human person, whose are all the actions all the time” (xvii).

This review focused mainly on the theological aspects of The Council of Chalcedon, but the narrative portions are equally valuable. Readers should note, however, that this book was written in 1953; some details or points of interpretation may have been superseded by more current research. In particular, Sellers demonstrates a strong desire to generalize and harmonize. I question whether one can so neatly distinguish among the soteriologies (much less Christologies) of the Westerners, Antiochenes, and Alexandrians. It may be better some of his classifying statements as indicators of general trends or as describing certain prominent spokespersons. In addition, it is interesting to note that on Sellers’ reading, there were no heretics – save perhaps Nestorius and Eutyches – in this era of Christological disputes. Even the monophysites are pronounced orthodox. If one were to combine Sellers’ conclusions with those of certain recent historians questioning whether Nestorius and Eutyches were actually heretics, one might come to the ironic conclusion that in this age of attack and defense, of excommunication and counter-excommunication, of banishment and recall, of shouts of orthodoxy and cries of heresy, there were really no heretics at all. Such is the mind-boggling world of church history.

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Published in: on June 13, 2010 at 7:22 am  Leave a Comment  
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