*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 8th of October 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Today is the 1,570th anniversary of the calling of the council of Chalcedon! Maybe you know all about this 4th ecumenical council and if you do, I have a suggestion as to how we might think about it. Or maybe, the Council of Chalcedon means nothing to you, and I’d like to convince you that some of the things that might seem boring are more important than you think.
So- a few things first:
Ecumenical councils were the way the early church sought to make theological decisions for the whole church. “Ecumenical” comes from the Greek word for “universal”. And these councils sought to gather bishops from all around the world to make decisions. As I’ve said before- this is good news! Why does the church believe and teach what it does? Not because of secretive cabals with backroom deals. We can read the proceedings of the events and know what the church believes and why.
Unfortunately, the church has a hard time being ecumenical and universal. The first 7 councils are usually called ecumenical although the church of the East (that’s Syriac Christianity) bounced after two councils. The Oriental Orthodox Church (they are the Eastern Miaphysites) left the group chat after 3 councils, and the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox stuck together for 7 of them. The council at Chalcedon was the 4th- so it united the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches but remember that many Christians in the Middle East and East don’t recognize it. This is important because when we say “ecumenical” we mean majority, not universal.
Secondly, while we see these as really important events there were many, many Christians for whom the proceedings of the council were irrelevant. Let me give you an example. If you were to walk around in the late 400s and ask: how do the two natures of Christ co-exist in one person. For someone to be orthodox, they would need to respond:
perfect in deity and perfect in humanity…in two natures, without being mixed, transmuted, divided, or separated. The distinction between the natures is by no means done away with through the union, but rather the identity of each nature is preserved and concurs into one person and being.
If someone asked you to explain the two natures, would you have nailed that definition? Probably not. So why does this council- and theological distinctions- matter at all?
I’ll answer this in two parts.
- Say it with me- Lex orandi, lex credendi. The law of prayer is the law of belief. That is, how we pray, talk, worship, etc… effects what we believe. The words and ideas we use about God effect our belief in God. So what we say about Jesus matters. And what was decided at the council and the words used matter.
- And the question at Chalcedon was really important: when we say Jesus is both God and man we want to make sure we uphold what the Bible teaches about his humanity and divinity. The Councils of Nicea and Constantinople asked the question about Jesus’ relationship to God the Father and the Trinity. This council dealt with the inter-workings of Jesus himself and how his divinity and humanity are united such that his life, death, and resurrection have their human and cosmic significance.
And while it’s popular to name the baddies (Arius, Nestorius, Eutyches) these men were usually scapegoats for the winning side to demonize their opponents and paint a picture of inevitability for the winners. Listen to historian Diarmaid McCulloch on how this council worked: “The main concern at Chalcedon was to persuade as many people as possible to accept a middle-of-the-road settlement.”. And that’s what Chalcedon did. Sometimes Ecumenical means middle of the road- and that might make it less exciting, but the significance doesn’t change. That’s why we still talk about this Council of Chalcedon 1,570 years after it opened on the 8th of October in 451.
The last word for today comes from Colossians- going to the old King James for the fun of it:
Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 8th of October 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who enjoys “Middle of the Road” the kitsch Scottish pop band, he is Christoper Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who enjoys “Middle of the Road” the Pretenders song on the album “Learning to Crawl” Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.