From Chalcedon to Anselm

Robert D. Crouse, 1997

NOTE: This article is part of a conference report of the Atlantic Theological Conference (Christology: The Mission and Person of Jesus Christ, ed. Greg Shepherd), and available from St. Peter Publications.


The definition of Chalcedon, in 451, and the arguments of the associated Tome of Leo, constituted a turning-point in the history of Christian thought about the person and work of Christ; on the one hand giving an authoritative resolution of debates which had engaged fathers and heretics since apostolic times, on the other hand involving problems of interpretation and implications which would occupy the attention of theologians all through the subsequent centuries.[1]

The language of the definition is necessarily precise, succinct and highly technical:

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body, of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from his sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer;; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized IN TWO NATURES, WITHOUT CONFUSION, WITHOUT CHANGE, WITHOUT DIVISION, WITHOUT SEPARATION; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the Fathers has handed down to us.[2]
In its clear insistence upon the duality of natures, divine and human, each complete in its own integrity, and the oneness of Christ's person, the definition had particular reference to the fifth-century heresies of Monophysitism and Nestorianism, which denied, in the one case, the duality of natures, in the other case, the unity of person. But those two fifth-century heresies summed up, in fact, the whole complex history of pre-Chalcedonian christological debate, which involved always a vacillation of emphasis between the divinity and humanity of Christ, in such a way that to affirm the one seemed to involve a denial of the other.

Thus, if the Ebionites were inclined to regard Christ as simply a great religious teacher, the Docetists were inclined to deny his humanity altogether, while certain other Gnostics thought of him as a kind of intermediate being, neither absolutely God nor truly human. If the Arians denied the true divinity of Christ, regarding him as first-created, the Apollinarians denied the true humanity, supposing the divine logos to take the place of the rational element of the human soul.

Monophysites, considering the human nature to be totally subsumed and "divinized" by union with the divine, thought it improper to speak of two natures in Christ, while Nestorians, holding the two natures to be independent, emphasized the duality in such a way as to deny the unity of Christ's person. Monophysites and Nestorians thus represented the extreme forms, respectively, of Alexandrian emphasis upon the divinity and Antiochene emphasis upon the humanity. Against all such one-sided positions (heretical precisely in their one-sidedness), the definition of Chalcedon affirmed uncompromisingly both sides: both the duality of natures and the unity of person.

Thus, Aloys Grillmeier, the outstanding modern historian of Chalcedon, sums up the significance of the definition as follows:

If the person of Christ is the highest mode of conjunction between God and man, God and the world, the Chalcedonian 'without confusion' and 'without separation' shows the right mean between monism and dualism, the two extremes between which the history of christology also swings. The Chalcedonian unity of person in the distinction of natures provides the dogmatic basis for the preservation of the divine transcendence, which must always be a feature of the Christian concept of God. But is also shows the possibility of a complete immanence on which the biblical doctrine of the economy of salvation rests. The Chalcedonian definition may seem to have a static-ontic ring, but it is not meant to do away with the salvation-historical aspect of biblical christology, for which, in fact, it provides a foundation and deeper insights.[3]
I think we can go even further than Grillmeier on this point, and argue that not only is the Chalcedonian definition thoroughly consistent with what he calls "the salvation-historical aspect of biblical christology"", but also represents the culmination of a tradition of doctrinal development in which the basic considerations were always soteriological, that is, always concerned with what the efficacy of the work of redemption must imply about the person of Christ.

Thus, whether one thinks of Irenaeus and Tertullian against Docetists and other Gnostics, Athanasius against Arians, the Cappadocian Fathers against Apollinaris, Cyril of Alexandria against Nestorius, always the essential point of the orthodox tradition is that only God -- true God -- can work redemption, and does so by taking upon himself human nature in its wholeness. And if the language of the definition has what Grillmeier refers to as a "static-ontic ring", that is because only the precise technical language of scientific theology could express exactly, and thereby safeguard the essential religious truth of the Incarnation.


Grillmeier finishes his book on Christ in Christian Tradition with an epilogue, entitled, "Chalcedon -- End or Beginning?" While the definition of Chalcedon appears as a certain conclusion to controversies, there is, in fact, a long and complex history of christological debate for centuries after Chalcedon, in both the Greek East and the Latin West. For various reasons, both political and religious, the repercussions were less immediate in the West than in the East, but for both East and West, the formulations of the Council posed problems of interpretation, and implications which would be centuries in the working out. The formulas were essentially occidental in origin, resting upon a long-familiar tradition going back to Tertullian, a tradition enriched by the contributions of St. Augustine, and finding its fullest explication in the Tome of Leo. The Christian East accepted those definitions always with a measure of hesitation, and continually strove, if not to avoid them (as with the Henotikon of Zeno, 482), at least to interpret them in a "Neo-Chalcedonian", i.e., "Cyrillian", or Monophysite direction, as with the theology of Leontius of Byzantium, and the imperial policies of the Emperor Justinian.

That tendency (and we must emphasize that we are speaking of a tendency in interpretation rather than a denial of Chalcedon) found remarkably little echo in the West, even in circles where one might have been inclined to expect it. John Scottus Eriugena, for instance, full of enthusiasm for Greek patristic thought, especially Pseudo-Dionysius and Maximus the Confessor, and seeing the doctrine of the Incarnation the central point of his theological and spiritual system of exitus and reditus, shows no awareness of "Neo-Chalcedonian" interpretations, and apparently knows nothing of Cyril of Alexandria. He relies heavily upon Maximus, who, opposing monothelites and monergists, was, as von Balthazar remarks, "a champion and even a martyr for orthodox christology as the Council of Chalcedon defined it".[4]

The fifth, sixth and seventh ecumenical councils (II Constantinople, 553; III Constantinople, 680-81; II Nicaea, 787) were all in some sense christological councils, all concerned in some way or another with problems of Monophysite tendencies. For instance, II Constantinople fostered a "Cyrillian" interpretation of Chalcedon, in the vain hope of reconciling separated Monophysite Christians; III Constantinople condemned those who argued for one will (i.e., divine) in Christ, or one operation -- positions which would deny the integrity of his human nature; and II Nicaea condemned the iconoclasts, on the grounds that their rejection of images representing Christ betokened a denial of his true humanity. Byzantium, while remaining true to the letter of the Chalcedonian definition, manifested always, throughout its history, in its political theology and in the character of its spirituality generally, the "Neo-Chalcedonian" standpoint which emphasizes the "divinizing" of the natural, and is therefore uneasy with the Chalcedonian duality of natures.


The first important Latin interpretation of Chalcedon is the tractate by Boethius, Contra Eutychen et Nestorium, probably written in 512, as Boethius meditated upon questions posed by certain oriental bishops in a letter to Pope Symmachus.[5] Boethius' tractate, much read and commented on in the Middle Ages, was particularly important for its clear exposition of the Monophysite and Nestorian alternatives, and its precise definitions of the terms involved. What is meant by "person"? Boethius answers: "person is the individual substance of a rational nature". What is meant by "nature"? "Nature is the specific property of any substance".[6]

Thus, Christ is understood to be one individual rational substance (i.e., one "person"), possessing the specific properties (or "natures") of both divinity and humanity. Thus, "in him", says Boethius, "nature becomes double and substance double because he is God-man (homo-deus) and one person since the same is man and God. This is the middle way between two heresies...."[7] And as with his patristic predecessors, so too with Boethius, soteriological considerations are paramount: both the Monophysite and Nestorian positions preclude the possibility of human salvation, because they both deny, in their opposite ways, that humanity, qua humanity, is taken into God.

The Chalcedonian definition, in the Boethian understanding of it, remains standard for Latin Christendom throughout the Middle Ages; but even the precision of Boethius left certain questions unresolved, notably questions as to the manner of the union of natures in Christ. Peter Lombard, in the twelfth century, in that most successful of medieval theological text-books, his Libri sententiarum, says that there are three opinions, all of which, he says, can be found in St. Augustine: 1. The Son of God assumed a man; 2. The Word of God was clothed with humanity; 3. The person of the Son composed a human nature, of soul and body, taken separately.[8] These opinions were matters of extended debate throughout the scholastic era, and the long history of that very technical discussion must remain outside the limits of our paper today. The importance of that debate lies chiefly in fuller clarification of the use of the term "person" in christological doctrine, a matter by no means irrelevant to our modern approaches to Chalcedon, impeded as they often are by very different - perhaps mainly psychological or moral - references of the term "person".


For the medieval doctors, as for the Church Fathers before them, christological discussion had always a soteriological dimension. Nowhere is that fact more evident than in the works of St. Anselm, De conceptu virginali, Epistola de incarnatione verbi, and above all, Cur deus homo. Jaroslav Pelikan, in his book on Jesus Through the Centuries says of Cur deus homo, that

more than any other treatise between Augustine and the Reformation on any other doctrine of the Christian faith, Anselm's essay has shaped the outlook not only of Roman Catholics, but of most Protestants, many of whom have paid him the ultimate compliment of not even recognizing that their version of the wisdom of the cross comes from him, but attributing it to the bible itself.[9]
Anselm's essay is, in fact, thoroughly biblical and traditional in its substance: all that is really new is the attempt to cast the argument in the form of "necessary reasons". His position assumes and rests firmly upon Chalcedonian christology, serving to bring out more sharply the soteriological dimensions of that christology. Most twentieth-century criticism of the argument arises chiefly from cultural prejudices and lacks theological seriousness. The one serious theological criticism, found in Gustav Aulén's very influential Christus Victor and elsewhere, is that Anselm makes of redemption a human work. But such a criticism involves overlooking Anselm's Chalcedonian presuppositions: for him, redemption is seen as the work of the Deus-homo, the God-man. For Anselm, as for Chalcedon, both sides, the divine and the human, are crucial. It is the Son of God, in his human nature, who is offered to pay the price which fallen man can never pay.[10]

For Anselm, and for medieval theology generally, the definition of Chalcedon is not only about christology, narrowly conceived. It is about christology, but because that is so, it is also paradigmatic for the whole relationship of human to divine and of nature to grace in every context. The principle of unity and duality in Christ had implications worked out in many spheres, theoretical and practical, in theology and political theory, in devotional practice, in architecture and iconography, etc. For instance, the remarkable development of devotion to the sacred humanity of Jesus, fostered initially by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and powerfully promoted by St. Francis of Assisi, owed its theological foundation to Chalcedon. In political theory, in debates about the relationship of temporal and spiritual powers in the structure of medieval society, the formulae of Chalcedon were explicitly called upon as principles.[11]

Perhaps the finest statement of the broadest implications of Chalcedon would be St. Thomas' great pronouncement, that "grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it".[12]


1. The most useful modern studies of this history are A. Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition: From the Apostolic Age to Chalcedon 451 (tr. J. S. Bowden, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1965); A. Grillmeier and H. Bacht, Das Konzil von Chalkedon. Geschichte und Gegenwart, II (Würzburg: Echter-Verlag, 1954), especially section VII, "Chalkedon und die abendländische Theologie von 451 bis zur Hochscholastik", pp. 763-939. Still valuable, especially for extensive consideration of the Greek Fathers and Eriugena, is J. Bach, Die Dogmengeschichte des Mittelalters vom christologischen Standpunkte, Part I (Frankfurt/M: Minerva reprint, 1966). Also generally useful is J. Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1985).

2. Translation from H. Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1947), p. 73.

3. Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition, p. 491.

4. H. U. von Balthazar, Kosmische Liturgie. Maximus der Bekenner, quoted in P. Piret, Le Christ et la trinité selon Maxime le Confesseur (Paris: Beauchesne, 1983), p. 23.

5. The Latin text of the tractate, with English translation, is published in H. F. Stewart, E. K. Rand, S. J. Tester, Boethius, The Theological Tractates, The Consolation of Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1978); on the christology, cf. A. Trapè, "Boezio teologo e S. Agostino", in L. Obertello, ed., Atti. Congresso internazionale di studi boeziani (Rome: Herder, 1981), esp. pp. 21-24.

6. Boethius, Contra Eutychen, ed. cit., IV, p. 93.

7. Ibid., cf. Trapè, op. cit., p. 23.

8. Peter Lombard, Libri sententiarum, III, dist. VI.

9. Pelikan, op. cit., pp. 106-107.

10. For more detailed criticism of Aulén's argument, see my essay "Atonement and Sacrifice: Doctrine and Worship. St. Augustine and the Fathers", together with Gavin Dunbar's response to that essay, in G. E. Eayrs, ed., Atonement and Sacrifice (Charlottetown: St. Peter Publications, 1990), pp. 24-40; and W. Hankey's essay, "St. Anselm and the Medieval Doctors", in the same volume, pp. 41-62.

11. See, e.g., the classic work in this field, E. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies (Princeton, Princeton Univ. Press, 1959), esp. pp 78, 128-129.

12. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I, 1, 8, ad 2.

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