by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd
We sometimes take for granted the Church’s understanding that Jesus is both fully God and fully man. However, this wasn’t always such a slam-dunk. Early on, it was heavily debated. There were people who cared very deeply about the Church, who disagreed about the Person of Jesus.
Who is Jesus Christ, what's His relationship to the Divine, and just how human was He? The 4th Ecumenical Council marks the point where various leaders of the Church came together to clarify an answer to these very questions.
This Sunday, we remember the Fathers of the 4th Ecumenical Council held at Chalcedon (a city in Asia Minor) held in 451 AD. That council ratified the creed we recite at every Divine Liturgy. But it also clarified the question for the Eastern Orthodox Church on how we understand the Person of Jesus Christ in two natures—as both God and man. But for us, it all begs the questions, “What difference does it make?” & “Why does it matter?”
We need a little background to appreciate the importance of the Council of Chalcedon. From very early on, people had questions about the Person of Christ. A few years before the 1st Council of Nicaea in AD 325, a man named Arius taught the false doctrine that the Son of God was a created being and that He was of a different substance, or nature than the Father. The Fathers at the Council of Nicaea tried to clearly define the relationship between the Father and the Son. So, they affirmed that Jesus was “truly God.” In spite of this declaration, the Church still endured even more chaos regarding what the implications were if Jesus was truly God, and the pendulum swung in the other direction. Thus, other teachings popped up, threatening the unity and harmony of the Church, and had negative consequences for the persons who believed them.
So, after Nicaea came the Council of Constantinople in AD 381, which rejected the teachings of Apollinaris, who said that Jesus’ divine nature had displaced His human mind and will. According to Apollinaris Jesus was not fully human, a teaching that 2 John 1:7 warns against (“Many liars have gone out into the world. These deceitful liars are saying Jesus Christ did not have a truly human body. But they are liars and the enemies of Christ”). Later, Nestorius said Jesus had two separate natures and two wills, essentially making Him two persons sharing one body. This teaching was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in AD 431. And ten years later Eutyches also denied that Jesus was truly human, saying Jesus’ human nature was “absorbed” or swallowed up by His divine nature. This led to the Council of Chalcedon, which only lasted 25 days, from October 8 to November 1, 451.
So, the Council of Chalcedon stated that those who taught that Christ had only a single, divine nature and those who taught a “mixture” of His two natures were anathema (accursed, given over to destruction). The Council produced the “Chalcedonian Definition,” affirming Christ as “perfect in Godhead—and also perfect in manhood at the same time; truly God and truly man.” Jesus shares the same substance, essence, or nature with the Father according to the Godhead, and yet He also shares the same substance, essence, or nature as humanity.” Christ’s two natures don’t mix together to form a third kind of nature because that would abolish both His divinity and His humanity. Jesus Christ is to be acknowledged in two natures, which are not to be confused with each other, nor are they exchanged one for the other, and yet they also can’t be separated from each another. Christ’s two natures, divine and human, are entirely distinct, yet united in one Person. The Bible is full of evidence that Jesus’ first disciples understood this to be true. Jesus isn’t merely someone who is a lot like God, or someone who has a very close walk with God. For instance, Titus 2:13 refers to Him as “our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus.” In Colossians 2:9, saint Paul says, “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form.” And also, in John 1:14, we’re told “And the Word (the Son of God who was there before the beginning of time) became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” There are many passages throughout the Bible showing us that He is truly God and He is truly human.
So, when the Fathers of the 4th Ecumenical Council affirmed that Jesus Christ is one Person with two natures—both divine and human—they made it easier to identify error. He’s both, the Son of God (1 John 5:10) and the Son of Man (Mark 14:21). The Son of God, the Word, who was from before all time, took on human flesh through His mother Mary, assuming perfect humanity as Jesus, in order to save fallen humanity. He could not have saved us unless he was both fully God and fully man, showing us that it’s possible for us (through Him) to submit our human will to the divine will, becoming one with Him.
It’s important for us to remember the two things that are set as the heart of the Orthodox Church’s theology. These two things help give us the root from which everything else in the Church springs forth. The first is what we believe about God as three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The second is what we believe about God’s Son, the Word, taking on human flesh…one Person, having two natures, divine & human. We hold these two understandings so dearly, that we remind ourselves of them every time we hold our hands in position to cross ourselves. Every question about our Faith and Life and the direction we choose…to do what we do…is answered through our understanding of one or the other, or both of those certainties.
This comes to the two questions we asked near the beginning of this article, “What difference does it make?” & “Why does it matter?” When we bless ourselves in the sign of a cross, with our fingers held this way, we constantly remind ourselves what difference it makes and why it matters. It’s an icon of the loving ministry of each of the members of the Trinity, and of that love’s ultimate expression in God’s Son, Jesus, allowing Himself to be crucified on a cross. It also reminds us of Jesus’ instruction to His disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Taking up our own cross—dying to our own self-absorption (putting our human will into submission to the divine will) in order to offer selfless love—is our way of participating in God’s love. A constant reminder of these themes—the Trinity, the two natures of God’s Son (human and divine), and God’s way of the cross—is how we Orthodox Christians successfully navigate our way through life, because those themes are the image of what authentic love looks like.