It’s not that the gathering at Chalcedon, an ancient seaside town in today’s district of Istanbul, Turkey, was a mess. The problem was that the council was called with the reluctant assent of the Roman pope, Leo I (also known as St. Leo the Great), by Emperor Marcian to clean up a mess left by a similar meeting, the Second Council of Ephesus in 449. That one ended up getting called a latrocinium (Latin, robbery) by Leo, giving rise to its historical nickname, the Robber Council.
At more than a millennium’s remove, it is difficult to understand the problems at Ephesus and the need to repair them.
Let it suffice to say that slogans simplifying complex philosophical debates—all Christological, meaning concerning the natures of Christ—were in the mouths of the populace. The untutored people marched in opposing bands through the streets chanting slogans for one position against another. Worse, this was all caused by unruly behavior by those charged to be teachers and models, the bishops. If nothing else, it makes ecclesiastical disputes of the 20th and 21st centuries seem exceedingly tame in comparison.
Briefly, Ephesus was called by Emperor Theodosius II and led—in the absence of the Roman pope—by Alexandrian Pope Dioscorus I, who essentially seized the meeting and expelled anyone who disagreed with him. There were accusations, shouts to “burn” members of various parties, and proceedings that exceeded even the heated antics of the British House of Commons.
The minutes of the first session—during which most of the fireworks were set off—are lost, but those of the second survive. The upshot of the disputations was that whatever Dioscorus agreed with was approved, patriarchs and bishops who disagreed were ordered deposed, and the voice of papal legates went unheard, since they were effectively expelled at the outset. When news reached Rome, it is not difficult to imagine how Leo thought the council had been hijacked (or “robbed”).
The central idea at issue at both Ephesus and Chalcedon was whether Christ has one nature or two.
Monophysitism, or doctrine of one nature, argued that when Jesus Christ was conceived there was an indivisible union of the divine and human, involving the divine and eternal Son or Word of God and the human son of Mary. The Chalcedonian declaration, which stands today as almost universally accepted Christian doctrine, insisted that, to the contrary, in Christ there come together two natures in one person and one hypostasis (most commonly translated as one “subsistence,” a technical term to avoid both the terms “substance” and “essence”).
Who cares, right? Did anyone really intimately know the natures of Christ?
Of course, intermingled with these lofty debates were disputes over the territory and prerogatives of certain bishops. Particularly contested was the place of the bishop of Constantinople as head of the church in the “New Rome,” from which the eastern half of the Roman Empire was now ruled. Ephesus was an East-leaning council favorable to the see of Constantinople as second to Rome; Chalcedon was West-leaning, favorable to Rome, with no seconds in mind.
The seeds of a schism that would take 500 years to occur were planted in these councils.
Both councils debated the role of Mary, which was a matter of immense local pride to the inhabitants of Ephesus, where tradition held that Mary and John the Evangelist made their home before John was exiled to Patmos.
The dispute about Mary was mostly about whether she should be called “God bearer” (Gk., Theotokos) or Mother of God (Meter tou Theou). Added to the confusion was the unfortunate poor translation of Theotokos into Latin as Mater Dei: the distinction being that Mary, who was not divine and eternal, could not have been the true mother of the divine nature of Jesus Christ. Ephesians of the fifth century leaned, naturally, to the loftier Mother of God for their local heroine.
Incidentally, the modern Anglican, Catholic and Lutheran use of “Mother of God” is meant to convey Theotokos. It’s a linguistic error, I know, but just you try to reword the Hail Mary and see what happens to you.
In the end Chalcedon settled on a declaration that in part states:
Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all unanimously teach that our Lord Jesus Christ is to us One and the same Son, the Self-same Perfect in Godhead, the Self-same Perfect in Manhood; truly God and truly Man; the Self-same of a rational soul and body; co-essential with the Father according to the Godhead, the Self-same co-essential with us according to the Manhood; like us in all things, sin apart; before the ages begotten of the Father as to the Godhead, but in the last days, the Self-same, for us and for our salvation (born) of Mary the Virgin Theotokos as to the Manhood; One and the Same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten; acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He were parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ; even as from the beginning the prophets have taught concerning Him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself hath taught us, and as the Symbol of the Fathers hath handed down to us.I hope that makes things crystal clear.
Soon such lofty hair splitting gave way to other concerns as Rome collapsed and the West found itself awash in brutal tribes that had marched from the Russian steppes and beyond to pillage and rape in the Greco-Roman city culture, or civilization, of the Mediterranean.
The Middle, or Dark, Ages had begun.