Chalcedon and Dramatic Unity

Reading in Alister McGrath’s wonderful anthology, The Christian Theology Reader, I came upon Leo the Great’s “Tome,” written in 449 and affixed in an appendix to the “Definition of Faith” produced by the Council in Chalcedon in 451. In his Systematic Theology, Vol. I, Jenson tears into this document, arguing that it dissolves the acting unity of Christ’s person. Perhaps because of the Tome’s inclusion as a hermeneutic key to Chalcedon, the Council failed to placate the drifting Oriental churches, which rejected the conciliar authority and broke with the churches of the empire.

Jenson acknowledges that Chalcedon marked a true conceptual advance for “connecting the Trinitarian and Christological discussion terminologically: as there is one divine nature in three hypostases, so in Christ there are divine and human natures in one hypostasis” (130). However, the true point of contention regarding the person of Jesus was how those natures subsisted in one person: Egyptian and Syrian (now known as the Monophysite, or “one-nature” churches) rejected Chalcedon because it seemed to dally dangerously with the Nestorian separation of the natures. As Jenson notes, Chalcedon is only unproblematic “if we don’t read it too closely”: the text carefully reaffirms Nicea’s affirmation of Jesus as “homoousion” with the Father; it reaffirm’s Ephesus’s rejection of Nestorius in designating Mary “Theotokos,” or “God-bearer.”

Nonetheless, just where it broke new theological ground, Chalcedon left things rather in a muddle: Jesus is “acknowledged in two natures, without confusion […] This distinction of natures is in no way abolished on account of this union.” That “distinction of natures” is a quote from Leo’s Tome, which elaborates the distinction further: “Each nature performs its proper function in communion with the other; the Word performs what pertains to the Word, the flesh what pertains to the flesh. The one is resplendent with miracles, the other submits to insults.”

Chalcedon is vague; Leo is indisputably problematic. Athanasius demonstrates the fundamental problem with attributing distinct agency to either of the natures, rather than to the single hypostasis. Writing of the miracles of Jesus in a letter (also included in McGrath’s anthology), he insists,

These are not events occurring without any connection, distinguished according to their quality, so that one class may be ascribed to the body, apart from the divinity, and the other to the divinity, apart from the body. They all occurred in such a way that they were joined together […] He spat in human fashion; but his spittle had divine power, for by it he restored sight to the eyes of the man blind from birth […] He cured by his mere will. Yet it was by extending his hand that he raised Peter’s mother-in-law when she had a fever (4.7).

His point is straightforward: Jesus as depicted in the Gospels is a dramatic unity; he is a single person (the traditional, though now somewhat misleading, translation of hypostasis). There is no clear-cut way in which to distinguish Jesus’ “divine” actions from his “human” actions, because some of his most dramatic demonstrations of divinity occurred in and through the most emphatically fleshly gestures, whether spitting, or breaking bread, or taking the hand of a little girl.

I’m certainly no authority on historical theology, but given what I know of Nestorianism, Leo’s argument strikes me as within a shade or two of that heresy.


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