Noll, Ch. 3: The Council of Chalcedon (451 CE)

Chapter 3 continues on from chapter 2, in discussing the Council of Chalcedon of 451. In fact, the meeting in Chalcedon was the fourth of the so-called “ecumenical councils” of the early church, after Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), and Ephesus (431). The two in the 300s were really devoted to the question of how to talk rightly about the relationship between the Son and the Father (or, in common parlance, “Jesus and God”). The two councils of the 400s dealt with the question of how to understand the relationship of Jesus’s humanity and his divinity – the “human-ness” and the “god-ness” of Jesus.

You may already have had some questions about these matters, but I found the chart on p. 63 to be very helpful. I’d use it as a resource if I were teaching this book. A couple of other notes on the chapter:

  • Noll is right to emphasize on page 65 the growing importance of Mary for Christianity. People have different theories about why people at this time might have been looking for other intercessors between themselves and God. My own theory has to do with the growth in the size of the church buildings and the ceremony of the Christian liturgy (worship rituals). Both of these, as they grow, can conspire to make Christians feel very small and insignificant; as Jesus is exalted and is physically far away (for example, as the bread and wine on the altar at the front of a very big church), then it makes sense that people would feel distanced from him. And as a result, they might feel the need for a new mediator.
  • He is also right that there were political conflicts between the various patriarchates (p. 70). Constantinople and Alexandria seem to have had a particular rivalry. If you want to see another manifestation of this, Google “John Chrysostom Synod of the Oak,” and you’ll get to read about an event decades before, when Cyril of Alexandria’s uncle was the Patriarch in Egypt, and that rivalry again reared its ugly head.
  • On p. 71, in the section about the council’s “Theological Significance,” Noll says that the “Definition” of Chalcedon sought to find a balance between various extremes in expressing the identity of Jesus. As a teacher and now colleague of mine once said, this balance-seeking is an important task in Christian theology; in fact, most “heresies” arise from well-intentioned overemphasis on one side of an argument that needs balance.
  • I had not thought about the terminology that was settled upon at Chalcedon as an example of cultural “translation” from Christianity’s originally Jewish world into its Greco-Roman surroundings. There are all kinds of ways we still do this in Christian circles (see the discussion on chapter 12), but this example was a new one to me. You might want to talk about it in your group.

A link that might be helpful is Leo’s Tome, referred to on p. 69: https://www.ewtn.com/faith/teachings/incac1.htm

Here are some questions to respond to:

  1. Look at the chart on page 63. Based on your understanding of the chapter, does the community of your religious background have a Christology more like Alexandria or more like Antioch? Are such questions even asked in your religious community? If not, how does this affect the way you have read about this debate?
  2. It may be surprising to Protestants to realize how important language about Mary was to this debate. Do you think such an emphasis in the debate was appropriate? What role do you believe Mary should play in the life of Christians?
  3. The Chalcedonian debates tied into matters of church politics (Alexandria versus Antioch). Are “political” struggles inevitable in the church? Do they help reveal true Christianity or do they serve to distort it?
  4. The Christological debates highlighted the importance of the humanity as well as the divinity of Christ. The conclusion was that whatever aspects of humanity that Christ did not take on, his death could not redeem. What aspects of being human is it hard for you to imagine Christ “taking on?” Is it comforting or disconcerting to believe that He did so?
  5. One result of Chalcedon was divisions in Christianity which persist until the present day. Were the issues discussed at Chalcedon worth dividing over? Why or why not? Are there issues today that could cause schism that will not be resolved 1500 years from now?

Image credit for Vasily Surikov’s “Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Council_of_Chalcedon

Suggested next click: Chapter 4

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  1. Pingback: Curriculum: Mark Noll’s Turning Points (3rd ed.) | CHEF

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