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Nicea comes before Chalcedon

Here's a christological motto to live by: Nicea comes before Chalcedon.

What do I mean by this?  I'm glad you asked.

It's common in christological debates to begin by thinking of the Council of Chalcedon, 451 AD (btw I'm not guaranteeing the quality/accuracy of the wikipedia links).  There a two-nature christology was hammered out in which

We confess that one and the same Christ, Lord, and only-begotten Son, is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation (ἀσυγχύτως, ἀτρέπτως, ἀδιαιρέτως, ἀχωρίστως; inconfuse, immutabiliter, indivise, inseparabilter).

And so, typically, thinking on the Person of Christ begins with a consideration of these two natures, humanity and divinity, which subsist in the one Person without confusion or change (upholding the integrity of Christ's genuine humanity and divinity) and without division or separation (upholding the unity of His humanity and divinity in one Person).  Yet is this really where our thinking should begin?

Chalcedon is pretty universally regarded as a good ring-fence - defining the bounds of orthodox christology.  But ring fences do not make good foundations!

So where should we begin?  Well note that Nicea comes before Chalcedon.  It was in 325 AD that the Council of Nicea considered the identity of Jesus of Nazareth.  And crucially Nicea declared what the Scriptures clearly teach - that Jesus of Nazareth is 'of one being with the Father' (homoousios).  Now here's the crucial thing - Nicea does not simply say 'the eternal Son' is 'of one being with the Father.'  This is of course true, but Nicea says more than this.  It is the Jesus who was born of the virgin Mary, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, who is declared homoousios with the Father.

Now why do I say that this was a necessary assertion from Nicea?  Well, starkly put, who cares if the eternal Son is God if we can't say the same of Jesus of Nazareth!  It's Jesus of Nazareth who says 'If you've seen me you've seen the Father.' (John 14:9)  It's Jesus of Nazareth who says 'Son your sins are forgiven.' (Mark 2:5)  It's the Man Jesus who lives our life and dies our death.  If salvation is truly from the LORD then it has to be Jesus 'born of the virgin Mary and suffered under Pontius Pilate' who is declared fully God.  Nicea necessarily and clearly does this.

And what does this mean?  It means that before we've even gotten to Chalcedon we've affirmed that the Person of Jesus who is fully man and fully God exists entirely within the circle of divine fellowship which constitutes the being of God.  Jesus the Man is of one being with the Father.  If we could not affirm this then the revelation of Jesus would not be the revelation of God (contra John 14).  If we could not affirm this then the salvation of Jesus would not be the salvation of God (contra Mark 2).  But no, Jesus and the Father are one - not simply 'the Son' and the Father.

Why am I labouring this?  Well I have a sneaking suspicion that the christology story most people have in mind is a little different.  My fear is that people think the order of things goes something like:

1) we all know what divine nature is (some kind of essence probably!)

2) then (at Nicea) we insist that there is a trinity of Persons who we ought to confess as divine (and therefore in equal possession of this God-stuff)

3) then (at Chalcedon) we turn our attention to this pesky issue of how Jesus (who looks very different to our assumed conception of God-stuff ) is made up of God-stuff and man-stuff.  And it's pretty freaky, and a mystery, but hey orthodoxy demands it so we'd better confess it.

It's caricature obviously but does that kinda vibe resonate with anyone else?  It's a theological journey that treads this path:

Being of God (divine nature) => Trinity => Christ (two nature christology).

Or to put it even more crudely: "We all know God's essence is a load of 'omni's; then (weirdly enough) we affirm that these omnis are parcelled out equally among Three Persons and then (strangeness of all strangenesses) we declare that one of the Three not only has a God-nature (defined by these omnis) but also a man-nature (that's really very unlike His God-nature as defined by the omnis)."  I confess that I have seen a lot of this kind of thinking in my own theology in the past.  And it's pretty awful to be honest.

When we begin by looking through the wrong end of the telescope we are left looking at the human Jesus but this humanity is actually a problem - a barrier. True revelation of God lies behind the humanity (which is all we ever encounter of Christ) and so Jesus has actually concealed rather than revealed God.

But... Nicea comes before Chalcedon.  This is not just true chronologically, it should also be true in our theological method.  Nicea teaches us that our doctrine of the being of God; the trinity; and christology must be held together.  These three concepts must mutually inform each other or else all three will be misconstrued. The Being of God is the relationship of the Three.  And these Three are One not only as Father, Son and Spirit but equally (and crucially) as Father, Incarnate Son and Spirit.  In this way divinity, trinity and christology are held together.  Go here for another post of mine on Nicea.

The divine nature is precisely the communion of the Three - a communion that is in no way compromised by the incarnation.  Jesus is fully God because He is the Son of the Father and the Anointed One with the Spirit.  It is no wonder that He is so often identified as 'The Christ, the Son of God.'  Christ's deity consists in these relationships and is never diminished by taking flesh.  Thus His full humanity in no way contradicts His full deity.  The Man Jesus exists fully and without remainder within the circle of divine life.  Chalcedon upholds the full integrity of Christ's humanity, the complete perfection of His divinity, the absolute unity of His Person.  What Chalcedon does not say, and what it must never be made to say, is that there is a humanity to Jesus that is beyond the divine homoousios.  Nicea has for all time assured us that the Man Jesus is within the circle of triune fellowship which is the divine nature.

And this is the heart of our Christian hope. It means that the Christ I encounter in the gospel does reveal the very nature of God; He really is offering me the salvation of God and, through union with Christ, He really has brought me to participate in God's own life. (2 Peter 1:4). If we lose this, we lose everything.


17 thoughts on “Nicea comes before Chalcedon

  1. Dev

    shouldn't the circle of Jesus of Nazereth fill up the 'being of God' circle? - for the fullness of God dwells in Christ bodily

    also hasn't there been a misinterpretation of 2 natures - like Jesus has 2 costumes as opposed to Jesus is actually entirely IS God & Man?

  2. glenscriv

    Hi Standing,

    I'm no monophysite but I can see why the diagrams would suggest that! Sorry about that. But let me assure you I reject Eutyches whole-heartedly. The human nature does not dissolve into the divine the way a drop of honey dissolves into the ocean! We must reject this. And I find one of the strengths of Chalcedon is that the full integrity of Christ's humanity is upheld. He is not a hybrid - His Person is not the result of the fusion of two natures. The failure of monophysitism is precisely that Christ's humanity is in danger of being lost - swallowed up in a pre-conceived notion of 'divine nature.' (And this is I'm guessing why my diagrams remind you very much of this! That'll teach me to try to diagram Christ's person!)

    But I'll try to salvage the diagrams by saying this: the 'being of God' that I'm thinking about is not what a monophysite (or a Nestorian) thinks of as 'the divine nature.' And I think that's the key to maintaining Christ's humanity - 'the being of God' is that which has already been defined (at Nicea) in terms of communion. (It's an ousia of Persons in homo-ousios - and you can't be 'homo' with yourself - it's a being in communion). Thus for Jesus of Nazareth to exist within this being of God is not for His humanity to be dissolved into a divine nature, rather it is for the Man Jesus to be that very same One who from the beginning has been Son of the Father, Anointed with the Spirit, and who continues to be Son of the Father and Anointed with the Spirit as this Man. In this way the humanity is not compromised/attenuated/side-lined/locked off from the divinity.

    But yes, Eutyches fails because he can't give a convincing account of the genuine humanity of Jesus. In this sense Chalcedon's 'without confusion' and 'without change' are absolutely vital. We must insist upon the full, genuine, undiminished, concrete humanity of Jesus (an instinct which Nestorius rightly had but wrongly pursued). What I'm saying is that Nicea has already told us that 'Jesus of Nazareth is homoousios with the Father' (in other words this full, concrete humanity exists within the being of God - hence the circle illustration).

    I guess the point of my post is to say that Nicea has already given us the tools with which to think through Christ's full humanity and full deity. He was born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate and is of one being with the Father. If we think through His humanity and divinity in *these* terms it can prove more fruitful than beginning with an abstract concept of 'nature' which actually Chalcedon never defines for us anyway!

  3. glenscriv

    Yes the size of the 'being of God' circle was a tricky one. Col 2:9 might make you draw it the same size as the Jesus circle, you're right. I dunno... maybe the pictures were a mistake! The point I want to make is simply that there's no left-over bits to Jesus. His man-ness is not locked off from His God-ness. There aren't two natures co-existing in Him (bleagh - Nestorianism!) - there is full humanity and full divinity coinciding in Him.
    And this is what I think you're getting at with a rejection of 'two costumes.' "Nature" can be a really unhelpful category - and most unhelpfully of all Chalcedon doesn't even tell us what one is! Again this is why I think we need to spend more time with Nicea first. And we need to see, as you say, that Christ is *entirely* God and man. And whatever definition of 'nature' we come up with ought to be one that respects that.

  4. irishanglican

    Interesting? But I find it much better, to stay on common and solid ground...the Oecumenical Councils themselves!
    Note, at Ephesus (431) Mary was declared the Theotokos, the Mother of God...very important doctrine in the Christological truth! And before Chalcedon.

    Fr. Robert

  5. Dan Hames

    Hi Glen,

    Is this miaphysitism? I think Wikipedia tells me it is, but you've not used the word. I've not even heard it before!

    But I like what you're doing.


  6. Glen

    Thanks S2C

    Hi Dan, I hadn't heard of miaphysitism until last week either. Suffice it to say I've been thinking these kinda thoughts before I ever learnt about such labels. So I'd be extremely wary of owning that title. I, likewise have not read beyond the wiki-sphere on this.

  7. glenscriv

    Father Robert, Thanks for dropping by - I'm sorry you've been languishing in my spam filter for the last fortnight! I'm glad to now release you!

    Yes, Mary the 'God-bearer' (as opposed to simply the 'Christ-bearer') is another very striking way of asserting my point - the baby Jesus is not simply united to God the Son, but *is* God the Son.

  8. irishanglican


    Hey mate, ya might want to check out some of posts on what is better termed: Miaphysite (mia-one). Simply miaphysite is the doctrine that Christ has one united nature out of two: divinity and humanity. Here we have the aspect of St. Cyril's (Alexandria) - The one nature of God the incarnate Logos/Word. (The Oriental Orthodox Church, British, Coptic, Syriac are Miaphysite and do not go with Chalcedon). I am very close to Orthodoxy, but this is an open question for me right now. I have got hammered by a few on this

    Fr. Robert

  9. glenscriv

    Fr. Robert - I remember reading with interest GI Prestige's 'Fathers and heretics'. There he recounts that Nestorius supposedly rejoiced in Chalcedon's formula just prior to his death as the vindication of his own position! Pause for thought anyway...

  10. irishanglican


    I would always hope that I am pliable in God's hands for change? Some think I am too willing for Not really, I just feel theology and the study of God changes me I hope! I have drawn back some from Orthodoxy, but more from the standpoint of continued study.

    By the way, thanks for your thoughtful, theological posts! I am well into my 50's, but still "thinking"..and I hope prayerfully.

    Fr. Robert

  11. Pingback: Jesus and Trinity – Trinity and Jesus [repost] « Christ the Truth

  12. Timothy Ezat

    Thank you for this. Written in 2008 but I saw a re-post on your twitter account few days ago, so hope you don't mind me making few comments. (and please don't feel obliged to respond, they are just comment)

    I just wonder if our christological motto should be: 'Chalcedon affirms Nicaea' rather than 'Nicaea comes before Chalcedon'. Here are some thoughts:

    1. a) I think you agree that many, sadly, are, only familiar with the line you have posted at the start of your post from Chalcedon (We confess that one and the same Christ, Lord, and only-begotten Son, is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation) without reading what come before and after.
    As you know Chalcedon does not attempts divert attention from Nicaea, but to affirm it. Right at the beginning it affirm 'we decree that the exposition of the right and blameless faith of...the blessed Fathers, assembled at Nicaea... be prominent... (it is) sufficient for complete knowledge and conformation of orthodoxy...(it) sets forth the Incarnation of the Lord who receive it faithfully.' The faith of Nicaea was to them the foundation of Christology (the same is true in the case of both Cyril and Nestorius), but Chalcedon became necessary because some have attempted 'to set aside foolish utterance through their own heresies...daring to corrupt the mystery of the Lord's Incarnation.'
    The corruption is, precisely, the denial of the title 'Theotokos'. Hence, even if Nestorius rejoiced in Chalcedon's formula, Chalcedon, for its part, dreaded Nestorius' Christology.
    2. The Nicene Christology you propose is that of Cyril. And surly Cyril was a more reliable interpreter of Nicaea than Nestorius. Cyril stand between Nicaea and Chalcedon, Thomas G. Weinandy argues that Chalcedon, apart for clarifying some linguistic confusion in Cyril’s theology, affirms, and is faithful to, Cyril’s Christology.
    Chalcedon, like Cyril (and Nicaea) taught that, the one and the same Lord who is homoousios with the Father according to the Godhead is, ‘homoousios with us according to the Manhood'. This coupled with the affirmation of Mary as Theotokos, and the employment of the Cyrillian 'self-same' phraseology makes Chalcedon one with Cyril. (cf. Thomas G. Weinandy, Cyril and the mystery of the Incarnation, in, the Theology of Cyril of Alexandria).

    I agree with you that we should not start with the ‘natures’, that is what Nestorius did, by starting with the humanity of Jesus. We are to start, like Cyril and Nicaea, with the Word became flesh –divine downward movement.

    To start with Chalcedon’s ‘two natures’ is to repeat Nestoruis’ mistake. Chalcedon, as we have seen, starts with Nicaea and, only then, moves to ‘two natures’. Further, to start with Nestorius is to put a man (a mere man, a dead man) between God’s revelation and us)… for example, Nestorius renders Christ words of institution of the Last Supper as, ‘this (not my divinity, but) my body, which is broken for you.’ Cyril on the other hand sees the blessed bread and wine not ‘of mere flesh (God forbid!) or flesh of a man hallowed by connection with the Word in some unity of dignity…but the personal, truly vitalizing flesh of God the Word himself.’

    So, first, I guess that I am affirming your point that understanding the connection between the two is crucial.
    But in my opinion, if we want to encourage ordinary Christians to have Nicene as the basis for their Christology then, Chalcedon and Ephesus and Constantinople needs to be upheld and embrace. They have been joined to Nicaea in becoming the grammar of orthodox theology. They together do draw a line between orthodoxy and heresy.
    Further, phrases such as Theotokos and the teaching of the Eucharist as the place where the living Lord feeds his church from his living flesh and blood needs to be embraced… these were all part of a correct understanding of Christology, hence apart from them all we have is words in the air.
    If what I am saying is true then I want my Christological motto to be; ‘Chalcedon affirms Nicaea’ :)

  13. Glen

    Hi Timothy,

    I think I agree with pretty much everything you write here. I'm not at all wanting to diminish Chalcedon, just to put it in the context of Nicea. As you rightly point out Chalcedon itself puts itself in that context so I perhaps should have made more of that point.

    I'm not at all wanting to say that Chalcedon is unimportant - sorry if I give that impression. Just wanting to correct a pop-theological mistake of people who begin their christological thinking with abstract 'natures' and not with trinitarian categories.

    In Jesus.

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