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Dorothy L. Sayers and The Council of Chalcedon 00:00:0000:00:00

Dorothy L. Sayers and The Council of Chalcedon

Reading Time: 4 mins

Good theology is the most practical thing you can have.

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who have fallen asleep in a history class, and those who lie about it. But in all seriousness, this is precisely how history is often viewed, isn’t it? “History is boring. History is bunk,” said Henry Ford. “It’s just one damn thing after another,” said historian Arnold Toynbee.

However, as author and apologist Dorothy L. Sayers wisely observes, the one thing that cannot be said of the church history is that it is dull. Quite the opposite. “The drama is in the dogma,” Sayers was fond of saying.

At center stage of the divine drama of history is the person and work of Jesus Christ. All of history is indeed a stage, and in Jesus’ incarnation, God becomes the main player. God, the Divine Playwright, one-ups Stan Lee’s Marvel movie cameos, because the eternal Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. As the divine drama unfolds, jubilation soon gives way to tragedy. The man born to be king, as Sayers calls Jesus, died a bloody, gruesome death on a cursed tree. Yet hidden beneath this tragedy is triumph. Jesus’ cross is the great reversal of history: the innocent dies for the guilty, and God and sinners are reconciled. And then, the most joyful, unexpected, happy ending ever known to man occurs. Jesus walked out of his grave for you and for everyone. Indeed, the drama is in the dogma and history.

We can watch this drama unfold and trace the plot of church history by the way Christians throughout the centuries have answered Jesus’ question to his disciples in Matthew 16: “Who do you say that I am?”

When the Council of Chalcedon opened on October 8, A.D. 451, the spotlight was on this query: who is Jesus Christ? Chalcedon met to address, affirm, and assert the orthodox doctrine of the two natures of Christ over and against the Christological heresies taught by Eutyches.

Eutyches and his followers (later known as Monophysites) taught that the divinity of Jesus swallowed up his humanity, “like a drop of wine in the sea.” Or to use another analogy, that the divine nature of Christ absorbed the humanity of Jesus into itself, like a sponge soaking up water.

When the Council of Chalcedon opened on October 8, A.D. 451, the spotlight was on this query: who is Jesus Christ?

This was, in part, a reaction to the heresy of Nestorius (later known as Nestorianism), which was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431. Nestorius taught a separation of the two natures of Christ, like two boards glued together, such that there was no personal union of God. Erring within the opposite ditch, Eutyches taught a commingling of the two natures of Christ, such that there were no longer two natures, but one nature in Christ.

Luther rightly observed that fallen man is like a drunkard, stumbling from one side of the hallway to the next. Eutyches erred in the opposite direction, moving from the Nestorian separation of the two natures of Christ to mixing and confusing the two natures of Christ. The Council of Chalcedon condemned the Eutychian Christological heresy as a denial of both the perfect divinity and the full humanity of Christ.

In addition to condemning the Eutychian heresy, the bishops at Chalcedon drafted an orthodox confession of the Scripture’s teaching on the two natures of Christ. According to this confession, Jesus was “born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

The key to this confession is in the adverbs: inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably. Like a good fortress wall, these words confessed the truth of Scripture’s teaching on the two natures of Christ, and protect against errors that would divide the personal union of Christ (Nestorianism), mix the two natures of Christ (Eutychianism), change, or confuse the divine and human nature of Christ. Reading this confession from the Council of Chalcedon, you can hear echoes and refrains of the Athanasian Creed:

For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and Man of the substance of His mother, born in the world; Perfect God and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood; Who, although He be God and Man, yet He is not two, but one Christ: One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking the manhood into God; One altogether; not by confusion of Substance, but by unity of person.

To be sure, the language, doctrine, and history of these Christological debates is complex. It was not, however, an irrelevant, meaningless squabble over words. On the contrary, words and definitions matter. Or to say it another way; good theology is the most practical thing you can have. Dorothy L. Sayers is quick to point this out to anyone who thinks this whole controversy a trivial pursuit.

It is not true at all that dogma is hopelessly irrelevant to the life and thought of the average man...The central dogma of the incarnation is that by which relevance stands or falls. If Christ were only man, then he is entirely irrelevant to any thought about God; if he is only God, then he is entirely irrelevant to any experience of human life. It is, in the strictest sense, necessary to the salvation of relevance that a man should believe rightly in the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Unless he believes rightly, there is not the faintest reason why he should believe at all. (Letters to a Diminished Church, 54)

Good theology is the most practical thing you can have.

The Council of Chalcedon also teaches us something valuable about the way we believe, teach, and confess Christian doctrine. When it comes to declaring and defending Christian doctrine, the work of Christians is twofold. Error and heresy must be condemned. The truth and the orthodox faith must also be confessed in love. Far from being dull, drab, and boring, the drama of church history is in the dogma. The joy is in the gospel, the good news that was confessed at Chalcedon, that Jesus Christ - true God and true man - came to save us.

Dorothy L. Sayers was right. “It is the dogma that is the drama - not beautiful phrases, not comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to lovingkindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death - but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world, lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death. Show that to the heathen, and they may not believe it, but at least they may realize that here is something that a man might be glad to believe.” (The Whimsical Christian, 1978, 27-28).