The Christology of Chalcedon distills from Scripture both the mystery and reality of the God-man.
“The important point does not concern who Christ was, but what he did.”
“I disagree. If he wasn’t God, what he did was ineffective.”
“You’re both wrong. Our emphasis should be on Christ’s humanity. We’re in danger of losing him amid the jumble of theological words. Let’s get back to the simple Jesus.”
These and other common views show how important it is to discern the biblical view of Christ. Early students of the Bible debated the alternatives for centuries. Finally at the city of Chalcedon in Asia Minor they hammered out a statement (A.D. 451) that has stood up to the examination of centuries as the best summary of what Scripture says on the relation of Christ’s deity and humanity.
Contemporary discussion necessarily deals with that statement, so it is reasonable to ask: How faithful to Scripture is the conclusion of Chalcedon that Jesus is true God and true man in one person?
We need first to refresh our minds as to what Chalcedon said and why. Underlying the work of the council was the pastoral concern to establish that God and God alone can be the author of our salvation.
It is not fair to interpret this as a speculative or abstract formula even if it may sound that way to us after so many centuries. The council addressed itself to a single disputed question developed in the earlier debates: How are we to hold together the two crucial dimensions of Jesus’ reality, the divine and the human, in his own single, personal life? Even as today, there was widespread agreement that God and man had come together uniquely in Jesus Christ but no consensus about how this should be understood and articulated.
Drawing on the Scriptures and the patristic traditions, echoing them verbally in almost every clause, the church leaders of Chalcedon sought to provide the language that would transcend current disagreements. They wanted to avoid the view that brought God and man together without actually uniting them, as well as the view that saw the two natures fused together in such a way that left Jesus neither truly God nor truly human. They wanted somehow to safeguard the integrity of the natures, without sacrificing the unity of Christ’s person. They proposed, therefore, a formula in which we would think of a personal union of the two natures not confused in any way. Jesus Christ was understood to be unique; in him had occurred a wonderful union between God and man, so that he was truly God and really man, manifesting all the characteristics essential to each nature.
Chalcedon saw clearly that it was God who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, and that our redemption depends on Jesus being both God and man. He is not God, pure and simple, raised up above all human limitation, and at the same time not merely a man, simply a human example or great prophet. In his person we can see God giving himself to us, and we see man in an ideal mode.
Function versus Being
Let us consider the major grounds for questioning the biblical nature of this confession. A basically simple objection is voiced by Oscar Cullman. He maintained that the New Testament presents the person of Jesus in functional and not in ontological categories: it tells us what he does, not what he is. No information pertaining to the nature or being (the sphere of interest of ontology) of Christ beyond history was given there. By contrast, so Cullman argued, functional Christology is the only kind that exists in the New Testament.
Few scholars today would agree with Cullman. One does not have to be a scholar to notice how often and in what varied ways Jesus was accorded divine status. This observation does not appeal to an exegetical opinion about a single text such as Philippians 2:6–11. Other texts actually call Jesus “God” (e.g., John 1:1; 20:28; Hebrews 1:8–9). He is given the Old Testament name for God, “Lord,” which indicates that Paul sees him sharing the majesty, authority, and worship of the one true God. Even if initially Jesus was understood more in terms of his redemptive activity, it is obvious that almost immediately if not simultaneously, thought was given to his essential nature as well. This process took place even early in the New Testament, and certainly not after New Testament times. Chalcedon says that he who saves us is none less than God in the flesh. The insights of Chalcedon do greater justice to the biblical text than does Cullman’s theory.
And yet it is surprising how most modern interpreters, though they realize this intellectually, still gravitate toward functional explanations of Christ’s person, as though he were basically the revelation of godliness rather than the incarnation of God. The explanation of this does not lie in matters purely exegetical, but in the whole tenor of modern sensibility. What is really the matter with traditional Christologies, as Schubert M. Ogden puts it, is this: “Instead of asking, rightly, about the meaning of Christ for us, for our own self-understanding as human beings, it asks about the person of Christ in himself, in abstraction from our existence.” Unfortunately for Ogden, this is also what is the matter with New Testament thinking. It too shows a keen interest in the identity of Christ, and sees him as incarnate God. And it does so just because it is also deeply concerned about the meaning of Christ for us and our salvation.
Skepticism Toward the Bible
The next objection to Chalcedon’s way of reading the New Testament is at once more radical and more complex. Cullman after all only asked us to read the text in a slightly different way, and did not aspire to reconstruct it according to a daring theory.
But in New Testament criticism now in vogue almost everywhere, the text is certainly not left as it is, but its historical and theological claims are subjected to radical critique and revision. An entirely new picture has been drawn about how Christology developed in a series of definable historical stages, a picture that calls Chalcedon into question in an ambitious manner. First, we are told, there was a view of Jesus that hardly thought of him as Messiah, and certainly did not suggest he was God incarnate. From a simple functional Christology, we are told, an understanding of Jesus emerged that explained his “being”—an “ontological” explanation of him (from the word ontus, participle of the Greek verb “to be”). This stemmed from Gentile church experience in the period after the New Testament had been written.
While admitting that some New Testament verses support Chalcedon’s formula, this new perspective denies that it is the best or only way to judge the matter. In fact, it questions whether it is true to the preaching of Jesus or represents a normative or unifying strand in the New Testament. For much contemporary Christology, the pre-Easter Jesus is the ultimate criterion of all Christology. And this pre-Easter Jesus is created out of post-Easter Gospels critically reconstructed so that Jesus makes few solid claims to deity. What Chalcedon has gotten hold of represents later pious interpretation that lacks historical basis. Although one could, I suppose, choose to endorse Chalcedon even in this framework of critical scholarship, it would hardly be plausible, and in fact few do so.
In these few lines I will probably not persuade those convinced of this approach that it is badly mistaken. It is a veritable nest of assumptions, each requiring close attention. The radical distrust it displays in the genuineness of the Gospel materials is basic to this reconstruction of the Jesus story, and is an enormous topic in itself. I can only express my opinion that this “skepticism of the wise,” as J. A. T. Robinson calls it, is unnecessary and at odds with the basic evidence pertaining to the Jewishness of the material and other marks of its authenticity. Furthermore, this historical pessimism may be attractive precisely because it affords the opportunity to evade the Christology Chalcedon reaches. The idea is profoundly disturbing and unacceptable to some that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact the incarnation of the Son of God, and not merely a myth or a “faith experience” of first-century Christians. Therefore a criticism that effectively disposes of this disagreeable result has much to say for it.
One way to show that Chalcedon is basically right is to refer to the resurrection of Jesus, which, everyone admits is the great Christological moment in the New Testament. In that event God vindicated Jesus by delivering him from death and giving him glory, and the explosion of New Testament Christology was touched off.
What was later thought and said about Jesus was only the unfolding of the meaning of that act of God. It would not be necessary to posit a gradual evolution over a period of many decades to explain it, even if we could do so. For what insight into Christ’s person is qualitatively higher than the recognition that he has ascended over all things and possesses all power in heaven and earth? Is the preexistence of Christ, which seems to trouble moderns so deeply, all that much more difficult than his exalted postexistence? Is even calling him “God” all that different from falling at his feet to worship him? Why does the miraculous conception of Jesus occasion such embarrassment when the Resurrection is acknowledged? The Resurrection itself is sufficient to raise the possibility of an eternal dimension in the person of Christ, which is what Chalcedon is pointing to; and the Resurrection is integral to the story and cannot be eliminated.
I think we can go even further. The Resurrection has implications also for our understanding of the earthly career and claim of Jesus before Easter. If his life was so free of divine and messianic elements, why was he killed and how was he vindicated? It makes sense to look to the historical Jesus in the pre-Easter situation for intimations of his remarkable person. Neither are they difficult to locate in the importance Jesus attached to his own ministry as the hinge on which the eschatological shift of the ages turned, and in a host of claims both implicit and explicit by which he explained his mission. It seems most reasonable to think that Jesus issued an emphatic if complex claim about his person during his lifetime, and placed it in God’s hands for any future confirmation and verification.
All I can hope to achieve in this brief comment is to indicate that as a reading of the New Testament, the Christology of Chalcedon is a very plausible interpretation even today when critical tools are razor sharp. At the very least we can trace its confession of Jesus as human and divine to the Resurrection, and without undue credulity back even to the beginning of the story.
New Testament Diversity
A different objection, but related to this last approach, is voiced by James Dunn who is much impressed by the diversity he finds in New Testament theology in general and Christology in particular. How can it be right, he asks, to hold out as normative such an interpretation as Chalcedon’s when there are strata in the New Testament that do not express themselves that way? Admittedly, some passages portray Christ by a model that involves the Incarnation. But what of those that do not? How can it be wrong to stay with insights other than the one picked out by Chalcedon, even if they seem “lower” by comparison?
Dunn makes a good point that can be appreciated only by those anxious to uphold each nuance of the biblical witness and to defend the rights of conscience in its interpretation. If a person can affirm the Christology of Luke but is unable to feel comfortable in the Christology of John, surely we can be thankful for this much faith and applaud it.
At the same time, theological reason calls on us to understand how the data fit together, and asks whether some key might not fit so complex a lock. Chalcedon claims to set forth just such a model or paradigm of Christology so as to disclose the mystery of the person of Christ profoundly and comprehensively. It tells us that this is the best angle for viewing the material as a whole, without slighting any of its parts.
No doubt Chalcedon assumed a conceptual unity in the New Testament that many would not grant from the outset. We would prefer to see what kind of unity there is after doing the investigation. On the other hand, we should not resist scriptural unity, if that should appear at the end of our deliberations. Dunn himself sees a strong measure of unity in New Testament Christology: Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead, brought God and man together, and was now the divine power of God, a life-giving Spirit. Such a view would seem very close to the position Chalcedon espouses.
Myth and the New Testament
Earlier on I voiced my suspicion that the reason some wish to overturn the notion that Chalcedon is biblical lies at a deeper level than strict exegesis. The most fundamental objection, one that goes a long way to explain why other objections are attractive, is due, of course, to demythologizing. That the New Testament contains a Christology of the Chalcedonian type (which even Maurice Wiles admits), does not mean that today we can accept such a foolish and incredible view.
Can we doubt that the deepest objection to Chalcedon and to the New Testament has little to do with exegesis, and much to do with modern intellectual history! Not having modernity to contend with, Chalcedon was able to read the New Testament quite straightforwardly, taking due note of its information concerning Christ’s person, and constructing the formula before us. But students at Chalcedon were locked into a mythical mode of thinking that is not possible for those today who are unwilling, as Ogden puts it, to sacrifice their modernity to their Christianity. Emancipated from such a framework ourselves, it is simply impossible to accept these concepts. The way Chalcedon and John the Evangelist were able to think of God as Ruler over the world and of Christ as the descending Redeemer of a ruined race is just not on modern man’s agenda. They know these things to be mythical and intend to treat them as such.
We can now also appreciate why functional categories in Christology are so attractive. Modern theologians can allow that in Jesus God has revealed something of his character and will. They can speak of God’s activity in Jesus and of his true humanity without having to get involved in mythical thinking. They simply read Christological statements as if they were value judgments about the way we experience the presence of God through Jesus, and not as though they were metaphysically true. This approach, developed in Ritschl and continued in Bultmann, is still influential today (and all the more where it is not recognized).
I do not wish to make light of the contextual factors making the doctrine of the Incarnation difficult for thinkers today to believe, but rather to say what those factors are. Our topic is Chalcedon and the New Testament, not hermeneutics or the philosophy of belief today. From this perspective I think it is necessary to conclude that Chalcedon is more faithful to the New Testament than most of those who complain about its interpretation. As we know from modern hermeneutics, the reader’s situation can radically affect what he or she hears in the text. This is surely true of modern critics of Chalcedon, for whom intellectually a nontraditional Christology is required. The New Testament and the creed both take the Incarnation to be fact, not myth, and therefore not a candidate for demythologizing. Critics programmed to reject the Incarnation as fact have no recourse but to strike out in novel directions.
An excerpt from the “Definition of Faith” set forth at Chalcedon, A.D. 451:
We … confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ; the same perfect in Manhood; truly God, and truly Man, in all things like unto us without sin; … and in these latter days for us and for our salvation, born of Mary the Virgin Mother of God according to the Manhood … existing in two natures without mixture, without change, without division, without separation; the diversity of the two natures not being at all destroyed by their union, but the peculiar properties of each nature being preserved … not parted or divided into two persons, but one Lord Jesus Christ.
The Crucial Issue
A great deal is at stake theologically and existentially in this question. Although we may find debates surrounding Chalcedon dull and wearisome, the issues are far-reaching. Has salvation been wrought for us by God or not? That was the issue then as now. Christology is wrapped up with our doctrine of salvation: Did he who was rich become poor for our sakes? Did God give up his only Son for us all? Is there life in the risen, exalted Lord?
If there is no Incarnation, there is no Trinity, and no salvation. In essence, that has been the theological consensus for nineteen centuries. Although we like to call “progressive” those theories about Jesus that adopt a functional interpretation, surely they are regressive. They correspond roughly to what the Jews of Jesus’ day expected—a Messiah who somehow would bring salvation near, but not one who was equal to God in his person. At this point the New Testament leaps into incarnational thinking and revolutionizes the received doctrine of God.
Chalcedon saw this plainly, and followed in this direction. I do not see how we can be biblical in our thinking and not go along. After all, Chaldecon was a serious effort to express the New Testament. It is true that we must decide how we want to express the meaning of Jesus for our day, and that we need not feel bound to the exact language of Chalcedon (as it was not bound to exact scriptural phrases). But we cannot avoid facing the same texts they faced or confronting the same truth they contronted. How we say it is our affair, but what we say is not.
The formula of Chalcedon is a precisely worded statement that identifies the deepest and most essential truth about Jesus Christ for the church. But we must not forget that it is an interpretation of, and not a replacement for, the New Testament. We must therefore always keep it integrated with the complete Jesus story. It neither says, nor claims to say, everything that should be said about Christ.
Furthermore, what it says it couches in terms we must keep linked with the salvation history from which it drew the truth in the first place. If the Chalcedonian formula were detached from the New Testament account, it would be vulnerable to manipulation by those who wish to connect it to a framework of their own.
Relation of Christ’s Deity and Authority
Jesus’ witness and example represent more than a merely human ideal because of the divine lordship of Jesus, which undergirds the validity of his claim. It is astonishing the way modern theologians who have abandoned the doctrine of the Incarnation continue to speak about Jesus’ moral importance as though it still possesses the authority it had before. Langdon Gilkey noticed it in the sixties in respect to the “death of God” school, and Dennis Nineham has pointed it out in the “Myth of God Incarnate” circle. Theologians of such schools like to go on respecting Jesus’ authority even after the logical reason for doing so has been removed, as if his status as a moral teacher were somehow unaffected by the denial of his metaphysical uniqueness. So they go on insisting how perfectly Jesus reveals God to us until it dawns upon them, as it has upon Nineham, that Jesus is no more than one of many remarkable people. Far from a freak development, this is the logical outcome of purely functional thinking about Jesus. It will not do to treat Jesus as Lord of the universe unless he actually is.
Of course, the ethical insights of ordinary humans are significant and very often valid. I am pointing out only that the New Testament and Chalcedon place the person of Jesus and his ethical authority on a much higher plane. Because he is the incarnate Son, his teaching about love for the enemy is permanently valid, the standard for all human existence. So when he gave up his life for us, we are not merely seeing the heroic willingness of a Jewish martyr to put other people first, but God in action dealing with his enemies. Only in this way can we understand the depth of the love of God and the ultimate position of the ethical norm portrayed.
We cannot dispense with Chalcedon. Granted, it belongs to no sacred tradition beyond legitimate criticism. But it grasps the central thrust of the New Testament in a magnificent way, and brings us face to face with the Lord.
Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.
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