Lesson 6: Controversies and Creeds: Chalcedon and Beyond


Almost as an overreaction to Nestorianism, Eutyches and others began to speak of one nature in Christ after the Incarnation. Christ is of or from two natures with the human nature being absorbed into the divine, therefore losing its full integrity. Monophysitism = Mono (one) + physis (nature).

Like Arianism, Monophysitism follows the Hellenistic tendency to try to place Christ as a middle term between the transcendent God and man. He no longer shares our nature, yet his divine nature is different from the Father's because now is has absorbed a human nature.

Catholic Response:

The Church insisted that when the Word assumed a human nature the human nature retained its integrity throughout. St. Ignatius (d.107): "Christ was a 'perfect man'" (meaning complete, fully human).

The Council of Chalcedon led by Pope St. Leo the Great in 451 A.D. affirmed that Christ has not only homoousious (of one nature) with the Father, but also homoousious with us. To avoid false interpretations of how the two natures, divine and human, are united in Christ, Chalcedon declares: "We confess that the one and the same Christ, Lord, and only-begotten Son, is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation. The distinction between the natures was never abolished by their union, but rather the character proper to each of the other was preserved as they came together in one person and one hypostasis."

The "four adverbs" teach much -- without confusion, change, division, or separation. Against monophysitism, the two natures are not confused or changed into one another. Against Nestorianism, the two natures are not divided or separated. The two natures are distinct but united. And they are united in "one person and one hypostasis." This is the origin of the term hypostatic union. It is a personal union -- the union of the two natures in the one person as opposed to the affective union held by Nestorius.

Chalcedon does not explain how it is possible that the two natures exist in the one person; it simply says that this truth must be held or the Gospel itself would be changed.

Monothelitism / Monergism:

The same tendency revealed in Apollinarianism and Monophysitism -- a distrust of giving too much weight to the human nature in itself. In the case of the Monothelites, Christ has two natures, but only one will, the divine will. Monothelitism = Mono (one) + thelema (will). In the case of the Monergites, Christ has two natures, but only one activity, the divine activity. Monergism = Mono (one) + ergos (activity / energy). These heresies attempt to follow the letter of Chalcedon and yet neglect its spirit. They spoke of the actions of Christ as theandric = theos (God) + andreios (man). The divine and the human were so much one that Christ's actions were divino-human in character. This heresy pushed this unity too far over on the side of the divine, making Christ's humanity to be a mere dumb instrument for the divine to operate through.

Catholic Response:

There is a true human will and a true human activity in Christ. Christ's full humanity freely cooperates as a rational instrument of the Word. In other words, his human will perfectly conforms to his divine will and yet retains its integrity as a human will. Otherwise, sanctity, or conformity to God's will, would mean the loss of humanity for all human beings. St. Maximus the Confessor was the great defender of the two wills in Christ. Among many arguments, he pointed to the Garden of Gethsemane in which Jesus prayed, "not my will but thine be done." Here the human will of Jesus shows its full integrity by freely conforming its will to the divine will. The Third Council of Constantinople in 681 A.D. affirmed St. Maximus's doctrine and taught that Christ's human will does not resist or oppose but rather submits to his divine and almighty will. This council extends the four adverbs from Chalcedon to the two wills of Christ and to the two actions of the natures.

Pope Martin I and St. Maximus were both exiled by the Emperor for their resistance to the Monothelite doctrine. Maximus truly deepens the Chalcedonian insights and those of St. Cyril. He teaches that Christ is of (from) two natures, as St. Cyril says, and that he is in two natures, as St. Leo says; and that the two natures is Christ. More precisely, he says that in Jesus we see the two natures "from which, in which, and which is the Christ" (Epistle 15, PG 91, 573 A). Maximus extends the Athanasius fire-iron example with the example of a burning sword: it is fire and iron and each acts as itself within and as the one sword. The one sword both burns and cuts.

Maximus' doctrine on the mystery of the person of Christ has immense spiritual fruit. As the proponent of orthodoxy he maintains the full sense of Christ as our example precisely as the Eternal Son who has assumed a human nature. Instead of making him more human in order to be easier to follow or tilting the scale to his divinity to assure his worth in following, he shows how the fullest expression of human nature occurs in the Person of Christ when the human nature is most perfectly conformed to the divine nature. In Christ, this conformity occurs through the union in the person of Christ, the hypostatic union. Christians do not have the hypostatic union, but they do have the moral union of love, or the bond of affection (spoken of by Nestorius, but which he falsely applied to Christ and not only to us). This is how the Church speaks of the deification or divinization (theosis in the Greek) of man. 2 Pet. 1:4 says that "we have been made partakers of the divine nature."

Some Theological Reflections:

Most of the Christological heresies show an inability to grasp the utter distinction between the human and the divine natures in Christ. In other words, most view the two natures in competition with each other (a "turf battle") and thus try to settle it by separating the two natures altogether as in Nestorius or denying the integrity of one of the natures. But this envisions the divine and human natures as sharing the same level of existence -- totally contrary to the doctrine of creation. God is perfect existence itself, the pure act of being, who freely chooses out of love and wisdom to bring the world into existence out of nothing. So there is an utter distinction between the divine nature existing as pure being itself and any created nature existing in its limited mode of existence -- i.e. as an apple, as a man, etc. Simply put, the divine and human natures of Christ -- as well as God and man in general -- exist in a non-competitive relationship. Thus Christ can be fully God and fully man (perfectus Deus et perfectus homo) yet be one.

* Some parts of Lessons 4-6 are borrowed verbatim from notes from my friend and mentor Dr. William Riordan, who teaches at Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, MI.

Reading Assignment

Roch Kereszty, O. Cist., Jesus Christ: Fundamentals of Christology, 201-210 (Part II Historical Christology, Ch.2 (last part))
CCC 467-483

Writing Assignment

Write a two-page essay in which you analyze the shifts from Nestorianism and Monophysitism to Chalcedon and from Monothelitism to St. Maximus the Confessor. Include a separate two-page reflection on how your knowledge of Christology as covered in the first six lessons shapes your understanding of the Christian life.

Suggested Reading

Christoph von Schonborn, God's Human Face: The Christ Icon (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1994).
Andrew Louth, Maximus the Confessor, (New York, NY: Routledge, 1996). Includes a thorough introduction to Maximus' theology and a plentiful selection of Maximus' own writings.


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