Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Christological Heresy and the Council of Chalcedon

What follows is a paper I just finished for my Christology class. We were given a handout of the Confession of Faith of the Council of Chalcedon and told to write a 5-page paper on how each one of the emphasized phrases in the creed refutes one of eight Christological heresies. It was a helpful exercise because it helped me to organize and distinguish between these heresies in mind (they all tend to run together). It also helped me to appreciate how careful the Council Fathers were in choosing every single word in the creed. Of course, since this paper is only 5 pages, I could only give a brief presentation of each heresy. But, I have also linked each one to New Advent, where you can learn more. All of the information found in this paper was taken from my class notes.

Pax Christi,
- - - - - -
Creeds are exceptional weapons against heresy because each one is a synthesis of what the Catholic Church believes, and the sentences that comprise them are deliberately worded and filled with meaning. Such is most certainly the case with the Confession of Faith of the Council of Chalcedon, the fourth Ecumenical Council of the Church. It reads as follows [emphasis mine]:
Following, therefore, the holy fathers, we confess one and the same Son, who is our Lord Jesus Christ, and we shall agree in teaching that this very same Son is complete in his deity and complete—the very same—in his humanity, truly God and truly a human being, this very same one being composed of a rational soul and a body, coessential with the Father as to his deity and coessential with us—the very same one—as to his humanity, being like us in every respect apart from sin. As to his deity, he was born from the Father before the ages, but as to his humanity, the very same was born in the last days from the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, for our sake and the sake of our salvation: one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-Begotten, acknowledged to be unconfusedly, unalterably, undividedly, inseparably in two natures, since the difference in the natures is not destroyed because of the union, but on the contrary, the character of each is preserved and comes together in one person and one hypostasis, not divided or torn into two persons but one and the same Son and Only-Begotten God, Logos, Lord Jesus Christ—just as in earlier times the prophets and also the Lord Jesus Christ himself taught about him, and the symbol of our Fathers transmitted to us.
In this creed we have the refutation of at least eight different heresies: Sabellianism, Docetism, Arianism, Adoptionism, Ebionism, Gnosticism, Apollinarianism, and Nestorianism. What follows is a brief summary of each heresy, along with an explanation of how this heresy is contradicted by each highlighted phrase in the Chalcedonian creed.


Sabellianism is a form of Modalism, that is, it attributes no distinction in personality within the Trinity. More specifically, Sabellianism asserts that the one God manifests himself in three ways: as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. As a result, Jesus is merely a manifestation of the Father in his role as “Redeemer.” He is not nor does he possess a distinct divine Person.

The Chalcedonian creed contradicts this teaching when it says that the “one and same Son, who is our Lord Jesus Christ…is complete in his deity.” The Sabellians, in declaring that Jesus is only a mode or manifestation of the Father, essentially deny the divine Personhood of the Word in Jesus Christ. In saying that the Son is “complete in his deity” the council affirms the full divinity and Personhood of the Son in opposition to this heresy.


This heresy, the word for which comes from the Greek dokeo, “to seem,” asserts that God did not actually become man in Jesus Christ. Instead, he only appeared to take on human flesh, and Jesus only appeared to die on the Cross. This then makes the humanity of Christ nothing more than a phantasm.

Docetism is opposed in the creed when it states that “this very same Son,” who was just shown to be complete in his deity, is “complete—the very same—in his humanity.” In other words, Jesus Christ is just as fully human as he is fully God. Of course, this strikes at the heart of Docetism which, in stating that Jesus only appeared to be human and to die, denies His real and complete humanity.


Arianism is perhaps the most insidious of all the Christian heresies. As St. Jerome reports for us, “The world trembled and groaned to find itself Arian.” Named after Arius, an Alexandrian priest of the early fourth century, this heresy holds that the Son was created ex nihilo (“out of nothing”) and by the will of the Father. As the first and the greatest of all the creatures, the Son is a sort of demiurge who mediates between God and all creation.

The Council of Nicaea had already declared in its creed that the one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God is “begotten, not created, consubstantial [Greek Homoousion] with the Father.” Chalcedon reaffirms this when it states that the Son, Jesus Christ, is “coessential with the Father as to his deity.” This means that the Son is of the same essence as the Father, regarding his divinity. Thus, the Father and the Son are both equally God, and Arianism, which makes the Son only a creature, is contradicted.


This heresy, introduced by Theodotus in the late second century, declares that Jesus was just an ordinary man until his baptism by John, through which he finally became the adopted Son of God. The implications of this are great. This means that there was a time when Jesus was not God, and his sonship is not unlike our own, when God adopts us as sons through baptism.

In response to this, Chalcedon affirms instead that the Son “was born from the Father before the ages.” What this means is that Jesus’ sonship does not come in time, or at a certain point in his human life. Instead, his sonship is eternal and timeless, for it is predicated of him in virtue of his union with the Word, who was “born from the Father before the ages.”


The Ebionites were an early sect of Jewish Christians who still held to the precepts of the Mosaic law. Eventually, they fell into heresy, denying the divinity of Christ and his Virgin Birth. To the Ebionites, Jesus was the greatest prophet, but he was still just a prophet, and he was born like every other man.

Ebionism is confounded in the Chalcedonian creed when it reaffirms the teaching of the Council of Ephesus that Mary is “the Mother of God.” Of course, if Mary is the Mother of God, and Jesus is her son, then Jesus is God. Thus Ebionism, which denies the divinity of Jesus, is itself denied.


There is such variance and pluralism within Gnosticism that it is nearly impossible to narrow it down to one defined set of beliefs. But, generally speaking, most Gnostic sects share the belief that matter and the created world are evil, and that all things, including “Jesus” and “Christ” and “the Word” either come from or are themselves one of at least thirty aeons, or divine powers emanating from the Propator, the “first father” of the Pleroma. For example, matter is attributed to the passion of Sophia in her attempt to know the Propator, and Christ and the Holy Spirit are aeons emanating from the conjunction of the aeons Aletheia and Nous.

However, Chalcedon declares that he who was born of the Virgin Mary is “one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-Begotten.” In other words, “Christ” and “Son” and “Lord” are not themselves distinct aeons of the Propator. Instead, Jesus is at the same time Christ, Son, and Lord. Furthermore, he is not one of many begotten of the Father. He is the “only-begotten.”


Named after his founder, Apollinarius, a bishop of Laodicea in the late fourth century, this heresy teaches that the human soul, intellect, and will were subsumed by the divine nature upon the union of the two natures in Jesus Christ. The Logos supplants these human distinctives and fuses, or mixes, directly with the flesh of Jesus. As a result, Apollinarianism tends towards Monophysitism, or the belief that Jesus only had one nature. In this case, that nature is divine.

Chalcedon blatantly denies this when it states that “the difference in the natures is not destroyed because of the union.” It doesn’t get much clearer than that! There is no overtaking of the human nature by the divine. There is no tertium quid. Instead, the union of the two natures in Christ is such that both are fully maintained. They are not destroyed.


Nestorius, the fifth-century Patriarch of Constantinople, created this heresy when he began teaching that there were two prosopon, or “persons” in Jesus Christ. The human prosopon is separate from the divine prosopon (their union being of only a “moral” or “psychological” kind), and what is predicated of one cannot be predicated of the other, or of the two when working together. There is no communication of idioms.

There is nothing more counter to this then what is said towards the end of the Chalcedonian creed: each nature of Jesus “is preserved and comes together in one person and one hypostasis, not divided or torn into two persons.” There is one Person in Jesus Christ—the Word, the Son, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity—and in him the two natures of Christ are united.

And so it is that the Confession of Faith of the Council of Chalcedon summarizes, in two verbose and content-rich sentences, the true teaching of the Church, in opposition to nearly all of the prominent heresies that came before it. By analyzing these heresies, and the many distinct phrases of the creed, we were able to discover its utility in responding to the various misconceptions of Christ. But, these misconceptions are not confined to a bygone day. Unfortunately, many of the heresies addressed here exist in some form or another still today. The weapon of old has yet many more battles left to wage.


josephking said...

wow, I didn't know there was such a thing as "christology".

phatcatholic said...

Really? You're missing out my friend! Start here:

Pax Christi,

James said...

Are you using Fundamental's of Christology by Fr. Roch O.Cist?

Beth said...

An EXCELLENT summary! I'm a Lutheran pastor and I'm printing this out for use in my own catechism teaching!

phatcatholic said...

I'm happy to be of service to you!

tmr beste said...

this is great. I am always looking for a book that summarizes the heresies and have been stumbling through with making notes myself. Yet, always wondering what heresy I am missing. So, this will do nicely for my collection.
As an aside, I just took my first class at the seminary also and am pondering whether I should press on.

phatcatholic said...

"tmr" ... the best thing to do is take it one day at a time. It will all work itself out, as long as you live each day the best you can and keep a heart open to the promptings of the Lord.

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