In their book The Story of Creeds and Confessions: Tracing the Development of the Christian Faith, Donald Fairbairn and Ryan Reeves ask the question, “Do we climb up to God for salvation or does God come down to save us?” This was the question that the early church kept coming back to throughout the centuries due to the frequency of heretical teachings that would arise.
The Arian controversy was the first major heresy that the early church had to engage with. Arius stated that the Divine Son, the Word, was a created being and thus not equal with the Father. The Council of Nicaea, which came to its final form in 381 helped clarify that the Divine Son was in fact equal and present with the Father from all eternity. Why is this distinction so crucial? Because if the Divine Son was a created being, he would not be God and thus he would not be able to come down to save us.
Fast forward to 451, another Council had been called. This time not to create a new creed, but to clarify the Nicene Creed. So rather than calling it the Chalcedon Creed, the church has historically called it the “Definition of Chalcedon”. The Council wanted to specifically hone in on who exactly came down to save us.
It is common for people to accuse theologians – or even the church – of nitpicking certain words and phrases. People even find it odd that we would recite creeds or confessions in our services. We must take words and phrases seriously, because if we don’t, we could be affirming or confessing something false about God. And to have a false belief about who God is can have severe implications for our understanding of how He came to save sinners.
The early church had to “nitpick” words and phrases because even one word could determine whether one is talking about a totally different God than that of the Bible. Historic creeds and confessions give us biblical guardrails for how we think about God and his redeeming plan of salvation. They help us remember that the church has been thinking about these questions about God and salvation from the very beginning.
At Chalcedon, like Nicaea, the church was dealing with multiple heresies. Through a look at two heresies, a quick pitstop at the phrase “bearer of God”, and a glance at how the definition is framed, we’ll travel down the road to Chalcedon.
To an outsider, Apollinaris wouldn’t seem like a heretic. He was friends with Athanasius (a key defender of Nicaea), and affirmed the Nicene Creed. He understood the equality of the Son with the Father and that it was truly God who came down in the incarnation.
However, as he thought more deeply about what it meant to be fully human, his conclusion diverged from Christian orthodoxy. If to be fully human, he thought, was to be a spirit (immaterial) enfleshed (material), then the Divine Son, the Logos, only needed to be enfleshed with a human body, since the Divine Son was already a spirit. So, in Apollinaris’ view of the Incarnation, the Son only took on human flesh and not a human mind/soul. This is problematic because sin effects not only the human body, but also the human mind/soul. We need a Savior that took on all of our nature so that every part of us can be saved.
Although Apollinaris believed that God did need to come down to save us, his view of the Incarnation did not allow God’s salvation to extend as far as needed so that He can save us completely. Or in other words, as Fairbarin and Reeves conclude, “…the Logos must have assumed, and did assume, a human mind as well as a human body when he came down and was incarnated to accomplish our salvation.”
Whereas Apollinaris affirmed the full deity and partial humanity of Christ, Nestorius’ Christ was not God. According to Fairbairn and Reeves “Nestorianism put our salvation in the hands of one who was not fully God. Arianism did this by arguing that the Son was a creature. Nestorianism did this by arguing that even though the Son was above the hard line and equal to the Father, Christ was a creature, a graced man, rather than being God the Son himself.”
What Nestorius and others who were on his side were trying to argue was that the Divine Son was a person and Christ was another person (ie. two distinct persons). Therefore, when it comes to the Incarnation, the Divine Son was said to indwell the human Christ, like how the Holy Spirit indwells believers.
“The central issue,” Fairbrain and Reeves put forth, “was the personal continuity of the incarnate Logos with the earthly man Jesus.” To make the central issue more clear, they ask these questions: “Are the Logos and the man distinct persons who can be counted together as a single presentation because the Logos indwells the man? Or “is the man Jesus the same person who has always been the Father’s Son?” To say it yet another way, “is Christ a graced man, a divinely inspired man? Or is he the one, true, eternal Son of God himself?”
This last question they ask is, “what does the Chalcedon definition clarify?” The man Jesus is the eternal Son of God himself. If he was not, then God did not truly come down to save us and the divinely inspired man would be trying to lead us up to God.
I hope you can begin to see the importance of being clear in who we believe came to save us. These clarifications matter and it is good to see that from the earliest beginnings of the church, they sought to think carefully and biblically about these issues.
Now that we have a little bit of an understanding of the context surrounding the need for the Chalcedon Definition, let’s see what it says:
We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and the same perfect in manhood; the same truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and the same consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages from the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days the same, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the God-bearer, according to the Manhood;
one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being preserved, and concurring in one and the same Son and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ,
as the prophets from the beginning have declared concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.
The first part of the definition affirms the full deity and humanity of Christ: “…the same perfect in Godhead and the same perfect in manhood; the same truly God and truly man…” The second part deals with the terminology of natures and persons. Affirming that Christ is the same person in the Logos but in two natures, truly human and truly divine: “…to be acknowledged in two natures inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably…”
The definition can also be organized by three framing statements which are highlighted in the definition. These three statements clarify that Christ is not two distinct persons but rather 1.) Christ is the Divine Son (Lk. 4:41; Jn. 1:34, 11:27), 2.) The Son who has been with the Father from eternity as the Son is the Christ (Lk. 2:49, Jn. 5:19-20, 17:5), and 3.) Christ is the same one who has always been the Word/Logos (Jn. 1:1-18)
A vital word throughout the definition is the word “same.” It is used 8 times throughout. The full continuity could not be more clear between the Divine Son and the man Jesus. These are not two distinct persons but one person with two natures (divine and human).
There is one line in the definition that might make Protestant ears cringe: “…born of the Virgin Mary, the God-bearer…” This line did not come without controversy in the forming of the definition. Though the attention Mary was getting by some in the 5th century was excessive and leaning toward Mariolatry, the title God-bearer or “Theotokos” in Greek, was an important line to keep because the emphasis was not so much on Mary but on who the one she gave birth too was. This was an affirmation that the man Jesus, whom the Virgin Mary bore, was in fact God Himself and thus Mary was the God-bearer. On this all Bible-believing Christians can heartily agree.
So what does the Chalcedon Definition confess? It confesses and affirms that the man Jesus who assumed our humanity was and is God the Son, equal and the same Word that was with the Father from eternity. The Son assumed a human nature in the Incarnation as the man Jesus Christ. This is good news because it means that God truly came down to redeem all of our fallen humanity (body, mind, soul). Praise be to the God-Man Jesus Christ who saves His people to the uttermost!
The Story of Creeds and Confessions: Tracing the Development of the Christian Faith (Donald Fairbairn & Ryan M. Reeves)
The Cruelty of Heresy: An Affirmation of Christian Orthodoxy (C. FitzSimons Allison)
Credo Podcast Interview with Matthew Barrett and Bobby Jaimeson