PODCAST: The Christological Debates to the Council of Chalcedon, Part 1 (History of Christianity #189 with Daniel Whyte III)

This is Daniel Whyte III, president of Gospel Light Society International, with the History of Christianity Podcast #189, titled, “The Christological Debates to the Council of Chalcedon [KAL-SEH-DON], Part 1.”

When I became a believer in Jesus Christ, I somehow had the false idea that Christianity began when I got saved. I had no concept of the hundreds of years of history that Christianity had gone through since the time of Jesus Christ over 2,000 years ago. I have found that many believers, young and old, have the same false idea. The purpose of this broadcast is to dispel this notion by sharing with listeners the history of Christianity from the ministry of Jesus Christ all the way up until the present day in an easy-to-understand format. You don’t have to worry: this is not a lecture. This is a look at the basic facts and figures of Christian history that every believer and every person needs to be aware of.

Our Scripture for today is Luke 3:21-22 which reads: “Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened, And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from Gregory of Nazianzus [NAA-ZEE-AAN-ZEEN-AWS]. He said: “No one has yet breathed the whole air, nor has any mind entirely comprehended, or speech exhaustively contained, the being of God.”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “The Christological Debates to the Council of Chalcedon [KAL-SEH-DON], Part 1” from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

The question of the divinity of the second person of the Trinity (and of the Holy Spirit) had been settled by the Councils of Nicea [NY-KEE-AH] (325) and Constantinople (381). Although the conversion to Arianism of some of the Germanic people beyond the borders of the empire, and their subsequent invasion of Western Europe, brought about a brief resurgence of Arianism, this eventually disappeared, and Christians were in basic agreement on trinitarian doctrine. But there were still other issues that would cause sharp theological disagreement. Foremost among these was the question of how divinity and humanity are joined in Jesus Christ. This is the fundamental christological question.

On this question, there were in the East two different currents of thought, which historians have conveniently labeled the Antiochene [AN-TEE-OH-KEEN] and the Alexandrine–although not all those who followed the Alexandrine way of thinking were from Alexandria, nor were all the Antiochenes [AN-TEE-OH-KEENS] from Antioch. Both sides were agreed that the divine was immutable and eternal. The question then was, how could the immutable, eternal God be joined to a mutable, historical man? At this point, the two schools followed divergent paths. The Alexandrines, like Clement and Origen centuries earlier, stressed the significance of Jesus as the teacher of divine truth. In order to be this, the Savior had to be a full and clear revelation of the divine. His divinity must be asserted, even if this had to be done at the expense of his humanity. The Antiochenes [AN-TEE-OH-KEENS], on the other hand, felt that for Jesus to be the Savior of human beings he had to be fully human. The Godhead dwelt in him, without any doubt; but this must not be understood in such a way that his humanity was diminished or eclipsed. Both sides agreed that Jesus was both divine and human. The question was how to understand that union.

As one now looks back at that question, it appears that the way it had been posed made it impossible to answer. In the preceding generations, guided mostly by earlier Greek philosophy, Christian theologians had come to define God in terms of contrast with all human limitations. God is immutable; humans are constantly changing. God is infinite; humans are finite. God is omnipotent; human power is limited. God is eternal and omnipresent; humans can only be present at one place in a particular time. When divinity and humanity are thus defined, the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ–the presence and full union of the divine and the human–becomes a contradiction. (I have said elsewhere that it is like asking someone to produce hot ice cream. One can melt the ice cream; one can mix the ingredients; one can put both ice cream and something hot on the same plate; but one can never produce ice cream that, without ceasing to be ice cream, is hot.) The only solutions to such a quandary, when matters are posed in such terms, are to declare that the divinity and the humanity are not really joined in one–which was the Antiochene way of thinking–or to be willing to have the divinity overwhelm the humanity, overcoming its natural limitations–which was the Alexandrine position.

In the West, such questions did not create the same stir. For one thing, after the Germanic invasions, there were other urgent matters that required attention. For another, the West simply revived Tertullian’s old formula–that in Christ there were two natures united in one person–and was content to affirm this. Thus, the West played a balancing role between the two factions in the East, and for that reason would come out of the controversies with enhanced prestige.

The first stages of the controversy began even before the trinitarian issue was settled. One of the defenders of the Nicene position regarding the Trinity, Apollinaris [UH-POL-EH-NAR-IS] of Laodicea [LAO-DEH-SAY-AH], thought that he could help that cause by explaining how the eternal Word of God could be incarnate in Jesus. This he attempted to do by claiming that in Jesus the Word of God, the second person of the Trinity, took the place of the rational soul. Like all human being, Jesus had a physical body, and this was activated by the same principle that gives life to all human beings. But he did not have a human intellect. The Word of God played in him the role that the intellect or “rational soul” plays in the rest of us.

Although this explanation seemed satisfactory to Apollinaris [UH-POL-EH-NAR-IS], soon many began to see flaws in it. A human body with a purely divine mind is not really a human being. From the Alexandrine point of view, this was quite acceptable, for all that was needed was that Jesus really speak as God, and that he have the body necessary to communicate with us. But the Antiochenes [AN-TEE-OH-KEENS] insisted that this was not enough. Jesus must be truly human. This was of paramount importance, because Jesus took up humanity so that humankind could be saved. Only if he really became human did he really save us. If any part of what constitutes a human being was not taken up by him, that was not saved by him. Gregory of Nazianzus [NAA-ZEE-AAN-ZEEN-AWS] (one of the Cappadocian Fathers) put it this way:

If any believe in Jesus Christ as a human being without human reason, they are the ones devoid of all reason, and unworthy of salvation. For that which he has not taken up he has not saved. He saved that which he joined to his divinity. If only half of Adam had fallen, then it would be possible for Christ to take up and save only half. But if the entire human nature fell, all of it must be united to the Word in order to be saved as a whole.

Next time, we will continue looking at “The Christological Debates to the Council of Chalcedon [KAL-SEH-DON].”

Let’s pray.


Dear friend, simply knowing the facts about Christian history without knowing the One on Whom this faith is based will do you no good. If you do not believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior, may I encourage you to get to know Him today. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Just believe in your heart that Jesus Christ died for your sins, was buried, and rose from the dead by the power of God for you so that you can be a part of the church in this life and in the life to come. Pray and ask Him to come into your heart today, and He will. Romans 10:13 says, “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Until next time, remember that history is truly His story.