A short version of this article appeared this month in the Prophecy in the News Magazine. This is the longer version. Hope you enjoy learning about the incarnation, the debate over “how God could become a man,” and how the various formulations were at fault for the great schisms in the Church.
CHRISTMAS, THE INCARNATION, AND THE
“Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14)
The True Meaning of Christmas Divided Christianity 1,500 Years Ago
When we think of Christmas, we tend to think of family, of coming together, of unity – often despite major differences that separate those who share ancestry. At Christmastime, we reflect on our familial roots and most of us rejoice that we belong to a family. And those fortunate enough to have kinfolks like myself, despite geography and hard feelings that can keep families apart, come together for a few days at year-end. The Christmas Spirit fills us with compassion and we find a way celebrate the holiday and even to “make peace” with those relations.
It is a theological paradox that what began the Christian faith – the birth of Christ and His incarnation specifically – also was at the root of the first (and so far, permanent) worldwide separation of Christians. Those of us who study the Scriptures ought to know a bit about the history of the Church also. So, take ten minutes to acquaint yourself with this dramatic moment 1,500 years ago that set the stage for the next millennium and a half of the Christian Church. It is what “became of Christmas” – at least theologically – to firm up the beliefs of our faith.
The History of How We Came to Believe in the Nature of Christ’s Incarnation
Four hundred fifty years after the birth of Christ, the Church separated itself into three major sub-faiths. The division centers on one major issue: how can we explain Yahweh (the God of Judaism) becoming Man in Jesus Christ? How could the divine and the human come together to create one person, Jesus of Nazareth? Did the two natures (one divine and one human) combine to form the Savior of the World? Was the incarnation of God in Man, in fact, a union of divine and human? Or was it merely two distinct “persons” that only appeared to be one person? If Jesus was one person who had both truly human and truly divine natures, can we overcome the illogic of the notion that an infinite God (who fills the Universe with His presence), could become a finite human being (existing in one place at one time), and be subject to the challenges of human life upon this earth? This mystery, the mystery of the incarnation, came to confound the leaders of the Church.
When Christianity became the “state religion” of Rome after Constantine embraced it to bring unity to the Empire, almost all Christians affirmed the complex doctrine of the Trinity. With the Nicaean Creed of 325 A.D., at the behest of Emperor Constantine, Church bishops gathered from around the Christian world and voted (almost unanimously) that the Godhead consisted of three eternal persons forming one God, the “three-in-one.” Jesus was fully divine and fully man. Furthermore, the Council affirmed that Jesus Christ was the second person of the Trinity, the LOGOS, the eternal Son of God, who created Heaven and Earth. Interestingly, at the time, the doctrine of the Trinity was a unifying factor in the life of the Church overcoming the heresy of Arianism. The final vote at Nicaea was 314-2 in favor of the Trinity. 99.36% agreed. Needless to say, such unity is unprecedented in our day.
However, for 125 years, the Church remained uneasy about some wording in the creed confirmed by the Church’s global leadership at Nicaea. There was still some work to do. This unresolved mystery of incarnation led to another global church council at Chalcedon in Anatolia (today’s Turkey) in 451 A.D. In essence, the minds of Christian elders were unsettled about the exact manner of how Jesus could be both human and divine at the same time.
Where is Chalcedon? When Did It Become a City?
Chalcedon was situated just south of the Bosporus Strait between Europe and Asia in the city Istanbul. Only 17 miles long, this wide river provides the passageway between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Additionally, the Bosporus is the dividing line between Europe (Bulgaria to the north) and Asia (Turkey to the south). Only 80 driving miles separates today’s Iznik, Turkey (ancient Nicaea) from what is today a suburb of Istanbul, (ancient Chalcedon). While we often think of Jerusalem as the center of the world, it might be this location that lies at the center of the world. No doubt this was a key reason for calling the Council at Nicaea and later at Chalcedon. Despite the hardships of travel in the ancient world, bishops from up to a thousand miles away would attend.
Chalcedon was originally a city officially founded in 780 B.C. in what was then Bithynia. Some scholars insist that its history extended to almost 3,000 B.C. Regardless of that, the name of the city actually derives from the fact that it lies on a relatively flat and unattractive plain. Looking to the Northwest, the city of Byzantium was founded about 15 years later. Chalcedon was named the “city of the blind” because, according to an ancient historian, you would have to be blind to settle there when the beautiful and mountainous Byzantium dominated the view to the northwest. For opponents to what became the Chalcedonian Creed, the name of the city no doubt became an ironic symbol of the decision of the Council! It was based on their wording of the Creed as they did – that led to the three-way split of the world’s largest faith, Christianity into these groupings (including their respective subdivisions) down to this day:
- First, the Assyrian Church that was dominant to the far east of Jerusalem and influenced peoples in India, Central Asia, the Mongols, and in China. The Assyrian church survives in parts of Syria, Iraq, Iran. It was nearly destroyed during “ethnic cleansing” by the Ottoman Turks during WWI, concurrently with the Armenian and Greek genocides of the same era. Many came to reside in Tbilisi, in Georgia, and became Russian citizens.
- Secondly, the Oriental Orthodox that includes the mystical Coptics in Ethiopia, Egypt, Arminian, India, and in Syria until recent ISIS’ persecution led most to leave this region. Egyptian Coptics continue to be severely persecuted to this day.
- Thirdly, Eastern and Western Orthodoxy (the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches (represent Eastern Orthodoxy today while Western Orthodoxy consists of Roman Catholicism, the Anglicans, Anabaptists, and Protestant churches). While the Roman Church was overwhelmed by German barbarians at the close of the fifth century, the Eastern Church centered in Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) survived another 1,000 years before Islam conquered it in 1453.
Why Was the Wording of the Chalcedonian Creed So Complex?
“For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him” (Colossians 1:16-19).
“For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9).
For those of us alive today who believe in the inspired Word of God, Paul seems to keep it simple and to the point. But what to us seems obvious is no doubt influenced by the fact we learned to accept the incarnation just as we were taught. We didn’t challenge “how it is worded” because we assume our faith always held to the definition of the incarnation we know now (or assume we know now!) Nevertheless, we generally misstate what the incarnation means if we should try to explain it.
When studying the issue of Christology and seeking to understand the basis of the Creed hammered out at Chalcedon, all sorts of strange words and concepts surface. One of these is hypostatic union. Hypostasis conveys that there are two natures exist together – in reality, their substance exists – within the person of Jesus Christ. Part of the trick is understanding the word substance in the context of Chalcedon. Biblically speaking, hypostasis and substance mean ousia in the Greek (to indicate a person or prosopon in Greek), and not an “essence” (that which lies beneath the “person” and composes the person), which is an abstraction.
Then there are the words, monophysite, dyphosite, and even more obscure, miaphysite. The vast majority of Christians follow the dyphosite position – there are two natures but one person. This includes Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Protestants. The natures are unified in the person of Christ but neither dilute or corrupt the other. This equates to the Chalcedonian interpretation which became the Church’s Christological Creed. Monophysite asserts there are two distinct natures which are not united and remain distinct in the same person. This is Nestorianism (see below for my elaboration). And then there is Miaphysitism. In this position, the two natures are “compounded” together but without mixture, without confusion, and without corruption. Although not “Chalcedonian,” Dyphosites generally don’t quarrel too much with Miaphysites. The Oriental Church (Egyptian Coptics being the most memorable today) are Miaphysites. Perhaps we need a semantic magnifying glass to tell these latter two “sites” apart.
THE CHALCEDONIAN CREED
We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, 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; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.
The nature of language, specifically the differences in Greek and Latin, led to some of the confusion. In Greek, the concept of existence does not imply a “substance” so much as “a state of being.” The word “consubstantial” (which is our English equivalent) sought to teach that Christ was both of the same “substance” as God the Father and the same “substance” as humanity. But substance was not about “material” or what something is made of. So, attempting to explain the paradox, the Creed emphasizes that the nature of the Son of God and of the “god-man” Christ, were united in the same person (one and only one person); and yet, the two natures were not corrupted in any sense when one and only one person came into being in the womb of Mary. The natures did unite, but without one being emphasized at the expense of the other. Thus, in English, the Creed uses the language of “inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.” It underscores the union of the two natures without compromising the purity of either nature (the essence of what is divine and what is human both remained intact – thus, Christ was not a demigod nor “semi-man”). The two natures, all properties undamaged, existed concurrently – which is to say, in subsistence.
To appreciate what the Creed was “getting at,” we need to understand that most bishops sought to repudiate the teaching of Nestorius, the Bishop of Constantinople (just across the Bosphorus!) who insisted there were two distinct natures in one person. The human and divine were divergent. God was in Christ, but the human aspect of Christ was never incorporated into God.
If the distinction is lost on you, you’re not alone. It is difficult for modern thinkers to grasp the concepts argued at Chalcedon. But Nestorius tell us more about his views. In so doing, we can see where he went astray.
Part of the story of Nestorius is rejecting the idea that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, so bear the title, the “Mother of God” (or more accurately the “Bringer forth of Christ”). In Greek, this title was Theotokos. While Protestants do not “venerate Mary” as do Catholics, we are in fact Chalcedonian Christians and thus, we affirm Theotokos when we acknowledge the Virgin Birth as referenced in Isaiah 7:14. Mary did birth God.
In Nestorius, if we look closely, we might discern just a trace of Gnosticism – that matter and substance are corrupt in some sense and cannot contain divinity. Chalcedon affirms that Mary did bring forth an incarnated Yahweh. God became man. Opponents to Nestorius considered his view too close to “Adoptionism” (to which many modern-day denominations subscribe). This view sees the human Jesus filled with God’s Spirit in a unique way at one point in His adult life, perhaps at His baptism by John. Thus, it seems God incarnated into humanity only metaphorically, not in reality.
Finally, the other “ism” rejected by Chalcedon was the obtuse word but simple idea, Eutychianism, that saw Christ’s divinity overwhelming His humanity, like a drop of water in an ocean. This view essentially repeats the error of Gnosticism, supposing that we do Christ a favor by distinguishing between the Jesus of history with the Christ whom we worship. Christianity makes no such distinction. We worship Jesus Christ as God – Yahweh in the flesh – fully God – fully man.
Conclusion: Was the Church Making a Fuss Over Nothing?
In conclusion, it is easy for us to wonder why the Chalcedonian Creed could be the source for the major divisions of Christendom. Indeed, it is difficult to paraphrase the Creed in more modern language as I have attempted to do, without stumbling over subtle connotations that the patriarchs of the Creed would consider “heresy.” Moreover, one might suggest the church could have bypassed the dispute altogether, if it had left well enough alone. Given that the Trinitarian creed settled on at Nicaea did not split the Church, perhaps human logic had found its limits.
But going further, what the bishops accomplished at Chalcedon was not worth the cost. By seeking to improve on what the Bible said explicitly (as cited in the Pauline passages above), the unity of Christendom was made dissolute. Chalcedon forever illustrates the difficulty of applying human logic to divine truth. This does not mean that we should not bring our mind to the matter of understanding the mystery of the Gospel. But we should accept that there is a mystery. The Church suffers and winds up going many different directions when we overthink what the Bible teaches.
And lastly, it might be worth recognizing that the divergence happened at the geographic center of the world, thus symbolizing that when the Council at Chalcedon ended, the Church departed in different directions, both geographically and metaphorically. The bishops left the “suburb” of Byzantium following three major distinct paths which have never subsequently converged – not since the Dyphosites won the day in the midst of the fifth century A.D. on the banks of the Bosphorus.
 Arians believed that God the Son was created at a certain point in time by God the Father and thus subservient to the Father. The Son was not eternal and was not equal to God. The heresy lingers in a few groups today, but was substantially eliminated after Nicaea.
 To be fair, when the council began, out of 314 bishops, 17 opposed the notion of the Trinity. Constantine threatened them with excommunication and the opposition melted from 17 to 2.
 In our day, the heads of these two enormous churches would meet for the first time in 1,000 years, ironically, in Cuba. Patriarch Kirill with Pope Francis met in February, 2016, stating that they “were not competitors but brothers.” (Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2016/02/12/pope-francis-patriarch-kirill-roman-catholic-church-russian-orthodox-church-meet/80278172/.)
 Edward Gibbon dated Rome’s fall to September 476, but most historians suggest Rome declined rather than fell over many decades.