Introduction and summary

I. Understanding the past

The rationale for this section of the lecture. In section II, I'm going to present the first four councils as they are generally seen in the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and mainline Protestant traditions as a generally logical development of doctrine which reached a final resolution at Chalcedon. The problem with such a presentation is that it appears to foreclose on the value of ecumenical dialogue with congregationally structured churches, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, and other Christians who reject these councils. So I want to do a little "meta-history" which recognizes the limitations of presenting history in this way.

I. Historians can't simply represent what has happened in the past. This is so for at least three prominent reasons:

A. Millions of different things happen at every second around the world. Some of these things are of worldwide importance, some other of these things may be of importance for some purposes, and most of these things are of little importance. Historians interpret the past through criteria of importance. Different historians will have different criteria of importance. For instance, church historians will be concerned with generally different things from those which interest military historians, economic historians, constitutional historians, and so on.

B. Even the important things that happen, happen in a highly complex, conceptually opaque fashion. Historians will impose organization on the data. For instance, they may assemble all the data relating to the character of a particular historical person in order to write a biography, or they may assemble all the data relating to a particular institution in order to write its history. In this way they reconstruct history.

C. Historians generally tell a story. They do other things besides tell stories, and a few historians have tried not to tell stories, but generally they have a story to tell. The demands of story-telling force historians to think of the historical evidence according to certain narrative conventions, such as character, situation, conflict, resolution, and so on. (See Hayden White, Metahistory.)

In telling the story of the first four councils, I'm doing three things: —
a. Deciding that the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the person and natures of Christ are important;
b. Organizing the material around Councils of the Church; and
c. Telling a story in which conflicts arise and then are resolved at a succession of Councils.
In all three of these things, I'm not just representing the past but interpreting the past. But historians are supposed to interpret the past, not just represent it.

II. Here are four ways to deal with the past:

A. Ignoring it. This always has its advocates. "History is bunk," said Henry Ford.
B. Chronicling. A chronicler records events in chronological fashion. Typical are medieval monastic chronicles, composed by monks who record things of importance for their monastery. Some may be of worldwide significance, such as a large military invasion. Others may be about the weather, or a brother monk's health. (Today, parish histories are often written in such a way.)
C. Antiquarianism. Antiquarians will typically do much broader and more intensive research than chroniclers do, but they aren't particularly interested in the global historical implications of their research. They simply find things of the past interesting. (Small-town museums and the "antique road show" on PBS are contemporary examples.)
D. Historiography. Historians are supposed to be prepared to relate the events, persons, and situations of the past to wider global realities, and to be aware of the complexity of interrelationships.

This is why it's impossible to tell the story of the first four Councils, or anything else, in a way that's free of historiographical presuppositions.

II. The basics of the first four councils

I. The Trinity

A. Nicea. The debate was whether the Logos, the Son of God, was created (Arianism). Nicea concluded that, on the contrary, the Son was "of the same substance with God the Father". In dispute were a number of apparently conflicting Scriptural passages. Some seem to speak of the subordination of the Son, others of the equality of the Son. In the end, though, it seemed clear that a Christ who effects redemption and is a proper object of worship, must be God.
B. Constantinople. The debate which raged from the late 350s through the 370s was whether the Spirit was created ("pneumatomachians") or was God. Athanasius wrote against pneumatomachians in the Nile delta area; Basil and the two Gregorys wrote against pneumatomachians in Asia. They argued from the following:
a. Particular passages of Scripture. For instance, I Cor 2:11-12 indicates that the Spirit searches the depths of God; but no creature can search the depths of God. I Cor. 6:11 speaks of the Spirit as sanctifying, which is an office of God.
b. The general tenor of Scripture. There is a developmental revelation of God. The Old Testament reveals one face of God; the New Testament reveals the Logos; and the New Testament looks forward to the activity of the Spirit in the life of the Church.
c. The experience of the Spirit. The great fourth-century theologians were ascetics who experienced the Spirit in the spiritual life of their communities.

Reflection on the Trinity. The Cappadocian theologians developed language to show the unity of God (against polytheists) and the threeness of God (against Judaism). They took two words that had often been used interchangeably for God's nature — "hypostasis" ("independent existence") and "ousia" ("essence") — and distinguished them. Each of Father, Son, and Spirit they called a "hypostasis". Their common deity they called the "ousia". They described the Trinity as a "perichoresis" or dance; there are three equal partners in the dance, but only one dance.

II. Christology
The categories of the debate. Where the west, historically, was often particularly interested in what Christ did — his obedience, his passion and death on the Cross and his resurrection — the east, historically, was particularly interested in who Christ was — his personhood and nature. As a result, the West has often situated the atonement in the work of the Cross, whereas the East has often situated the atonement in the Incarnation. The great christological controversies which ravaged the East 350 to 451 (and later) engaged the West relatively little.

In the christological controversies, all parties agreed on the deity of Christ. Their question was how to connect the deity to the humanity.

Review the chart of Alexandrian and Antiochene tendencies. Alexandrians, who were mainly interested in the inner spiritual meaning of Scripture, were also mainly interested in the deity of Christ. Antiochenes, who were interested in the historical dimension of Scripture, were keen to give equal weight to the humanity and deity of Christ.

Apollinarians in the 350s (who were Alexandrians in their christology) decided the way to make the connection was to understand the Logos as taking the place of the human mind of Christ. We'll discuss this further in our March 13 tutorial when we read Gregory Nazianzen's letters against the Apollinarians. Gregory argued that if Christ didn't assume our full humanity in the Incarnation, then our full humanity wasn't redeemed.

Nestorians in the 420s (who were Antiochenes in their christology) went so far in trying to protect the full humanity and full deity of Christ that they seemed to posit two different persons inhabiting the same body. They denied that Mary was "the mother of God" since they radically distinguished the God part of Jesus from the human part of Jesus; Mary was the mother of the human part of Jesus but not the mother of the God part of Jesus. They were condemned by Ephesus 431 which affirmed the unity of the person of Christ.

Eutycheans in the 430s and 440s (who were extreme Alexandrians) went so far in emphasizing the deity of Christ that they affirmed that Christ had only one nature after the Incarnation. The implication was that the humanity was dissolved into the deity. They were actually vindicated at a Council called by the emperor at Ephesus in 449; but this Council is not counted as one of the Ecumenical Council.

Emperor Theodosius II, a strong Alexandrian, who had convened Ephesus 449, died of a riding accident in 450. His sister Pulcheria, an Antiochene, took the throne. She threw out the Alexandrians from the imperial court (some of whom were lynched by mobs) and re-opened communications with Pope Leo I (a critic of the Alexandrians). She called the Council at Chalcedon, which ruled against the Alexandrians.

The doctrine of Chalcedon is called "the hypostatic union" of Christ. In the one hypostasis, Jesus Christ, there is a union of two natures, God and human, without separation and without confusion. The "without separation" clause represents a condemnation of Nestorianism; the "without confusion" clause represents a condemnation of Eutycheanism. (Read the whole Chalcedonian definition.)