Volume 3 - Issue 2
Can we dispense with Chalcedon?By Gerald Bray
The problem stated
It should come as no surprise to discover that the Chalcedonian Definition, and in particular its relevance both to the teaching of Scripture and contemporary thought, occupies a large place in modern christological discussion. A confession which has been the touchstone of orthodoxy for fifteen centuries cannot lightly be ignored or abandoned. Yet increasingly there are voices raised calling for either a complete overhaul of the traditional formula, with the object of devising a new statement more in line with current theological ideas, or—more frequently—a recognition of a theological pluralism in the area of christology in which no one statement of faith could be claimed as definitive. Recently these voices, which are often backed by an impressive biblical and theological scholarship, have extended the debate to the church at large, and it would now seem that a thorough reassessment of Chalcedon’s significance for the life of the church, possibly leading to a downward revision in its status, will not be long delayed.
If the Chalcedonian Definition is to be defended, one must begin with a consideration of its relationship to Scripture.
From the purely historical point of view, it is clear that the framers of the Definition believed themselves to be standing in a tradition of exegesis going back to the apostles themselves. The accusations of philosophizing which are levelled against them today are by no means new, however. Throughout the fourth and fifth centuries, the orthodox party had to contend with an opposition which accused it of deserting the plain words of Scripture in favour of a semi-Platonic construction.
Philosophical influences were present, of course, but they were not nearly as decisive as is generally assumed. Great care was taken to find scriptural support for every statement, and although there was often a tendency to allegorize, there is little or nothing in the Definition which cannot be supported, even now, from a biblical text. Even its most vehement detractors usually accuse the Definition only of selective exegesis and conceptual or pre-suppositional error; given the assumptions of the council, even they will usually agree that it was a masterpiece of dogmatic definition.1 The real force of modern objections lies elsewhere.
First, it is claimed that Chalcedon endorsed a formula which is untrue to the meaning of Scripture. At the heart of this argument lies the contention that Chalcedon thought in ontological terms, whereas the New Testament picture of Christ is largely or even exclusively functional. There is widespread agreement here that the transition from functionalism to ontology was made in the passage from a Palestinian Jewish to a Hellenistic milieu; the chief problem is to determine when this took place. Oscar Cullmann has argued that it was a post-biblical development, an idea now widely shared, in England at least; but R. H. Fuller traces the shift to the New Testament itself,2 and Martin Hengel puts it back to the very earliest period of Christianity.3
Functional christology rests on a number of presuppositions which give it its validity in the eyes of its exponents. First of these is that the New Testament is the record of the divine plan of salvation (Heilsgeschichte) of which Jesus was the divinely-appointed agent. Some functionalists see this in a basically orthodox light, and speak of the Son’s pre-existence and so on; others do not. In any case, it does not really matter. What counts is what Jesus did, not who he was. Functionalists assume that the work of Christ—whatever may be its relationship to empirical history—was the culmination and fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy and Jewish messianism. The exegetical key (which Chalcedon, of course, ignored) lies in the titles given to Jesus. By examining their significance, and the way in which the New Testament writers selected and conflated them, we may arrive at some understanding of what the Christ-event means for salvation.
On this view, all talk of the person and natures of Christ is beside the point, whether or not it is true. The Chalcedonian fathers arrived at their conclusions because they looked at texts from an ontological standpoint. But many passages, it is claimed, present a picture of Christ which is more accurately called ‘subordinationist’ or ‘adoptionist’. At Chalcedon these were either reinterpreted or ignored, with the result that the council cannot justly claim to have faithfully transcribed all that the New Testament says about Christ. Furthermore, the eclipse of Jewish apocalypticism, at least in the Hellenistic world, deprived the Christian theologians of the knowledge necessary to appreciate the background and meaning of the New Testament. With their essentially non-historical and non-relativistic approach, it is only natural that the framers of the Definition should have read the Bible as if it were a contemporary document, and read all their own presuppositions into it.
A second objection, which overlaps with functionalism, but is not identical with it, is the contention that Chalcedon betrays a confusion of thought-categories. This means that the Definition draws no clear distinction between the physical-historical frame of reference on the one hand and the metaphysical-mythological frame of reference on the other.4 Of itself, this confusion does not make Chalcedon unbiblical, of course, since the Scriptures are themselves confused at this point. But while Scripture, as the record of Heilsgeschichte, is necessarily mythological, Chalcedon is mistakenly so. According to this line of thinking, the fathers of the council were concerned to present a rationally justifiable account of the Christ-event, but made the mistake of treating New Testament myths, like the story of the virgin birth, as straightforward historical fact. Chalcedon began with the premiss that all christology must inevitably begin ‘from above’, with God. Because of this, the Definition necessarily stressed the divinity of Christ as essential to his nature and tacked on the impersonal humanity, if not quite as an afterthought, then at least as a secondary matter of lesser importance. The equilibrium between God and man which the Definition claimed in theory was thus compromised in practice, and made orthodox christology incurably docetic at its root.
As long as most men were prepared to believe in a world in which supernatural beings were more real and powerful than natural ones, Chalcedonian christology, though imperfect, was nevertheless an effective instrument for conveying the Church’s faith. The explosion of the traditional world-view however has destroyed its usefulness and it ought now to be scrapped as out of date.
But is it really necessary to revise our estimate of Chalcedon in the light of intellectual developments in the past two centuries? Is it true that the Definition reinterprets Scripture from an alien philosophical perspective with the result that it has produced a narrow, one-sided and docetic christology? Where does the ontological understanding of Christ come from? It is the answers to these questions which will determine the future course of our christology in the light of modern philosophical developments.
The appeal to Scripture
As we have already indicated, the authority of the Chalcedonian Definition rests ultimately on its claim to be a comprehensive analysis of biblical teaching. By ‘comprehensive’ we do not of course mean that it claims to be an exhaustive statement of everything Jesus did and taught—even the Gospels do not claim that much—but rather that it is inclusive of every factor necessary to do justice to the New Testament picture of Christ. It must also be said that the validity of our enterprise depends on the assumption that there is fundamentally only one picture of Jesus in the New Testament, whatever the diversity of approaches. This of course is precisely what is not agreed today, but without it, Chalcedon’s own claim to rest on the consensus of Scripture ought probably to be ruled out as invalid from the start.
It may however be argued that this is an extreme view, that in fact the different currents in Scripture are logically connected and led to the ontological development of Chalcedon either by a random (but nevertheless understandable) choice of alternatives or by an inner logic present in the kerygma from the beginning. It should not be forgotten, however, that from a purely Chalcedonian standpoint, both these views, however much they may differ from one another, are equally insufficient to do justice to its position with regard to the New Testament evidence. No doubt a Chalcedonian would prefer Martin Hengel’s belief that the transition from a functional to an ontological Christology occurred in the wake of the Easter-event to Oscar Cullmann’s insistence that such a transition is not to be found in the New Testament at all. But it must also be remembered that even Hengel’s view inevitably drives a wedge between the teaching of Jesus and the thought of the early church, an idea which is basically foreign to Chalcedon. Hengel tries to make the wedge as thin as possible, and insists that the theological reflection of the pre-Pauline church was both necessary and inevitable, but we are still some distance from the Chalcedonian position.
The main reasons for this, I would submit, are presuppositional and concern questions of general critical method. Nowadays virtually all students of christology begin with the assumption that Jesus of Nazareth was a man who had, or thought he had, a special mission from God. What that mission was is hard to say, but it conflicted with contemporary secular and religious authority and he was eventually crucified. From this bare historical minimum some scholars have built up more or less conservative positions, including a belief in the resurrection as an historical event, and even, in a few cases, an acceptance of the incarnation as the ultimate affirmation of christology.5 But even the most conservative of these thinkers makes such a development necessarily post-resurrectional. Jesus himself may have said and done any number of things which would act as a catalyst in this process, but whoever arrived at the conclusion that Jesus was God did so by putting two and two together. Whether one thinks the final answer they got was three, four or five then becomes a matter of scholarly opinion, and immaterial from the Chalcedonian standpoint.
Modern reductionist tendencies, the so-called ‘christology from below’, together with a reluctance to pronounce any of Jesus’ sayings as incontrovertibly genuine, have produced an intellectual climate in which the Chalcedonian Definition has no logical place. But were the fathers of the council therefore wrong in their assumptions and theological method? Does the New Testament really support modern critical theories in the way that their defenders claim? Here the crucial question is whether the New Testament shows signs of theological development into an ontological position. The Chalcedonian fathers might have agreed that it does, but they would have located this in the teaching of Jesus himself. It was Jesus who made the fundamental change from a functional to an ontological Christology, not his disciples or the early church. The apostles, on this view, were the transmitters of a teaching which they had received from Jesus; they were not creative theologians in their own right.
Now it would be hard to deny that the prima facie New Testament evidence lends support to this second view. Not everyone would agree, of course, but as long as considerable allowance is made for theological developments within the early church colouring the narrative, it is probable that the majority of scholars would be prepared to grant this much. Many indeed would go a good deal farther and grant that the historical Jesus claimed for himself such divine prerogatives as the power to forgive sins, while leaving open the question of his claim to ontological divinity.6
Traditionally research of this kind has concentrated on the synoptic Gospels, because of widespread doubts as to the historical reliability of John. These doubts have now diminished considerably, although it is probably still true to say that most scholars believe that the ontological bias of the fourth Gospel represents a modification of the original tradition.7 If this is true, then Chalcedonian christology, which relies heavily on the fourth Gospel, is derivative and does not represent Jesus’ self-understanding.
Ontology in the Gospel of John
I should like to begin an investigation of this Gospel’s evidence with some words of Barnabas Lindars: ‘John, with his unerring capacity to pierce through to the inner meaning of the primitive logia, has the unique distinction of bringing to expression on the basis of them the deepest and most compelling interpretation of Jesus’ self-understanding before God.’8 This statement represents perhaps the most conservative scholarly opinion today. But is it really tenable? Are not many of the ‘primitive logia’ themselves so shot through with ontological assumptions that it is inconceivable for them to have existed otherwise?
Let us take, for example, the story of Nicodemus. In spite of many difficulties there would appear to be little reason to doubt the essentially authentic character of this story—the awareness of a time before hostility between Jesus and the Pharisees had polarized into open warfare, the use of characteristic Semitic sayings like ‘Amen, amen, I say unto you,’9 the intense Jewishness of the argument and Jesus’ description of himself as Son of man all tell in its favour. Nicodemus perceived Jesus to be ‘a teacher come from God’ (Jn. 3:2), which in effect meant that Jesus was a man of the same class as himself (cf. verse 10) but with special power to perform miracles. This is not good enough for Jesus however, who promptly begins a long discourse on ontology, first in general terms and then, with increasing concentration, focusing on himself. Nicodemus is led on by stages, but the final result is never in doubt. The whole story anticipates the conclusion in such a way that it does not seem possible that it could be a modification of anything. There is in fact nothing very extraordinary about it before verse 13, but it would be strange if this verse is a later addition put in by John, since it is the logical climax to the whole story. There is no question of a progression from a functional to an ontological christology, but only from a universal ontology to a particular one. Yet such a ‘Greek’ idea would hardly have been intruded into a conversation with a Pharisee! From the start, moreover, Jesus was busily scrapping Nicodemus’ presuppositions, not building on them—a fact which only confused him, and contributed further to the general incomprehension surrounding Jesus and his teaching.
The possibility that John constructed the Nicodemus story according to a preconceived plan is diminished when we look at the story of the woman at the well, which is completely different in every way except the ontological implications of Jesus’ words. The woman, struck by Jesus’ willingness to speak to her, inquires of him the reason for such unusual behaviour. Jesus sidesteps the question, as usual, and tries to focus her mind on his person (verse 10). When she misunderstands him completely, Jesus shifts his ground to the woman herself, by putting his finger on her past life. Now the woman is truly shaken, but she does no more than call Jesus a prophet, and asks him the most awkward—and at the same time the most obvious—theological question she can think of. Again, Jesus leads her into an ontological consideration—God is spirit and therefore desires spiritual worship. The woman, however, has still not got beyond the fact that Jesus knew her past life. But, in her understanding, the man who would reveal such things was the Messiah—could this be Jesus?
Even after Jesus admits this, however, she is still only half-convinced, and has seen nothing beyond the aspect of Jesus’ teaching which directly affected her. The villagers, however, pursued the matter further, and eventually arrived at the confession that Jesus was the saviour of the world. Many would no doubt agree with Cullmann that this is still a functional, not an ontological confession, but on what was this based? Certainly not on post-Easter reflection, but on Jesus’ teaching which, if it bore any relation at all to what he said to the woman, was essentially directed towards an ontological understanding. It seems probable, in fact, that the villagers confessed Jesus the saviour as a person, without any very clear idea—and certainly no experience—of what this would mean in practice. The absence of an explanation just where one would most expect it, only confirms this view.
The story of the woman shows us clearly that christological titles, although Jesus was prepared to accept them, could not adequately convey the full extent of his message because of the limitations of the thought-pattern in which they were embedded. This is a theme which recurs later in the Gospel (e.g. 7:25–31). As we see from chapter 1, there were many people who were only too ready to slap a messianic label on an unusual figure, and this ties in well with what Josephus and others tell us of this period in Palestine. Thus Jesus could only publicize his claim with caution—a feature of his ministry which is amply confirmed in the Synoptic tradition, and in Mark in particular.
Jesus’ attitude to christological titles was therefore hesitant, but this is still a very long way from the attitude of John the Baptist, who not only refused to apply them to himself, but refused to use them in his descriptions of the coming one as well—an indication that John did not regard them as suitable for him either. Instead, John describes his mission at length in ways which indicate that he was expecting someone more than the popular version of the Messiah; indeed that the one expected was none other than God himself (1:23). Later, anthropomorphic terms become more prominent, but there is still much to indicate that we are not to think of a man in the ordinary sense (1:30). It is only when Jesus appears that the connection becomes clear, but the build-up cannot fail to raise questions which go far beyond the range of a functional christology.
The appearance of Jesus at this point in the Gospel turns our attention once more to his role. Both here and throughout the Gospel we are reminded of his favourite self-description, Son of man, and most would agree that this is an authentic touch. Our problem is to discover whether it is functional or ontological in meaning. Considered as a title, huios tou anthrōpou is vague and obscure, the more so because it was not developed by the early church. Lindars claims that John was unique in this respect, but while he talks freely of his bringing out the inner meaning, etc., he stops short of crediting John with an ontological understanding of the term. This hesitation would seem to be unnecessary, however, from a consideration of John 5:25–27. Here the Son of God is identified with the Son of man in a way which Lindars claims makes it necessary to understand the latter as the figure of Daniel 7:13. If this is correct, then it is testimony of the greatest importance. The Danielic Son of man was a heavenly figure whose functions on earth were extensions of his heavenly being; they were not its cause or justification (e.g. through obedience). The same point is made in John 3:13–16, with eyen greater clarity.
Furthermore, this understanding of Son of man cannot have been a purely Johannine insight. The independent witness of the synoptic Gospels makes the connection with Daniel explicit at the trial of Jesus (Mt. 26:64; Mk. 14:62; Lk. 22:69). The priests clearly understood Jesus’ remarks as blasphemy, and it is well known how difficult it is to account for Jesus’ condemnation if this is disregarded. If this is so, however, we have two independent witnesses to the fact that Jesus himself claimed to be the divine Son of man and that this was meant to be understood ontologically and not merely functionally.
Ontology—Hebrew or Greek?
The scandal and incomprehension which greeted Jesus’ remarks can in fact only be understood on the basis of Hebraic ontology. It is doubtless true that the Jewish concept of the Messiah was essentially functional, at least in mainstream Judaism, and this was inevitable given their concept of God. It is surely not necessary to remind ourselves that at least from the time of Moses, Hebrew religion had had a strong ontological base—not only was God the Absolute Existent, but there was a radical and unbridgeable separation between him and man in their respective natures. This did not preclude a certain functional unity of course—God was frequently portrayed in the Old Testament in anthropomorphic terms, and his voice spoke through human agents—but never was there any suggestion that God and man might or could be one. This rigid separation moreover carried through to all the many phases and branches of Judaism and nowhere, as far as I know, is any earthly figure apotheosized. Even those who come closest, like Enoch and Elijah, are carefully distinguished from God in his essence.
Now had Jesus been content to fit into this pattern, he might well have evoked scribal curiosity, after the manner of John the Baptist, but he would hardly have attracted the ontological interest which they evidently had in him. The root of the problem seems to have been that Jesus called God his father. There is no reason to doubt the historical accuracy of this and, in a sense, it is true that the Old Testament portrays the relationship of Israel to God as that of a son to his father. There is therefore no a priori reason why Cullmann should not be right to say that Jesus innovated only in individualizing this concept and applying it to himself.10Unfortunately, this possibility recedes dramatically when we look at the reaction Jesus provoked. No-one valued the special position of Israel more than the scribes and Pharisees, and if this was what Jesus meant, no-one was in a better position than they to appreciate it. It is quite untrue to Scripture to suggest that their opposition to Jesus was from the beginning so intense that they were incapable of seeing so obvious a point.
It is quite clear however from the sequence of events in John 5:14–18 that this is not the kind of sonship Jesus had in mind. His was not a sonship of legal inheritance, but of essence—a familiar Semitic idiom, strange only in the context of a man claiming to be related to God in this way. The following verses make the intimacy of the relationship even plainer. However much these verses may lend themselves to a functional interpretation, I would submit that verse 21 is decisive for an ontological viewpoint. Here the construction ‘As the Father … so also the Son …’ establishes identity of action; what is true of the Father is equally true of the Son. But the phrase ‘to whom he will’ makes it plain that the Son is both equal to the Father and autonomous—an impossibility unless he is also God. Moreover, this is not a theological construction grafted on to Jesus’ original words—it is implicit in his whole concept of Sonship from the beginning.
It was when they realized this fundamental difference about Jesus’ claims that the Jewish leaders had him arrested and put to death. This was their solution to the ontological problem of Jesus—no man could be God, therefore he was a blasphemer. The early Christians, however, were faced with a problem scarcely less serious. For how could one accept a Hebraic concept of deity and yet still affirm that the man Jesus was God? At one extreme was the possibility that Jesus was not a man at all, but God in a borrowed body. At the other extreme was the view that Jesus was not really God, but merely some kind of divine man. Both these views were put forward in antiquity, but neither one, in its pure form at least, was the basis of any major heresy. The reason for this was that the problem for Greek minds lay elsewhere.
Jewish Christians had trouble accommodating a God-man, but their difficulties were as nothing compared with those of the Greeks. The Jews, after all, began with the right concept of ontological divinity, an idea which was largely missing in the Greek world. Greek Christians in fact were fighting two battles at once—on the one hand, they had to fight for a Hebraic conception of God; on the other, they had to keep the God-man Jesus intact.
Greek paganism, it is true, had no difficulty with divine-human intermediaries. Greek mythology and philosophy were both rooted in an ontological hierarchy of beings graded from top to bottom and shading into one another rather like a vertical rainbow. So god-men existed quite happily in the intermediate zone, but in principle divinization was possible for anyone, and the philosophical practice of Apathy, for instance, was designed to hasten the process.
The Hebrew God, however, did not fit this chain of being at all. (Marcion disagreed, but he was a unique case.) But many Greeks refused, or were unable, to abandon their philosophical ideas. So, the Hebrew God was put at one end of the chain, with an absolute barrier between his essence and any created thing. But because God was unique, he was alone at the head of the chain, with all creation lower down. Because of his absolute separation, he could not communicate directly with this creation, but needed a mediator (mesitēs). This mediator was like him in every way, except that he was created. As such he could move down the scale, make himself a little lower than the angels and become man, in order to raise man again to the number two spot in the hierarchy. This, essentially, was the philosophical background of Arius which led to his peculiar form of subordinationism. As a heresy it was very subtle, especially since there were many biblical texts which appeared to support his subordinationist position.
Arianism was by no means the only ancient heresy, of course, but it was the one which proved most difficult to refute. Not only did the orthodox party have to maintain the complete ontological otherness of God, which Arius was so concerned to assert; it also had to argue for the full divinity of the man Jesus in a way which would command full biblical support. They did this by relying heavily on the Gospels, especially John. The prologue to the fourth Gospel showed that there was more than one hypostasis in God. We cannot pause to examine the logic of trinitarian doctrine, but eventually equilibrium was established between the unity and the diversity within the Godhead in a way which avoided any suggestion of Platonic emanation. This was sufficient to condemn the subordinationism of Arius, but it left open the problem of the hypostatic union.
The Chalcedonian solution
Given that the second person of the Trinity was a pre-existent divine hypostasis, how could he be the man Jesus at the same time? Everyone agreed that God and man had come together in Christ, but it was impossible to agree as to how this had occurred. Every solution proposed seemed to lead either to dualism, in which God and man came together (synchōrēsis) without actually uniting, or to a tertium quid, in which the fusion of God and man produced a being who was neither the one nor the other but contained elements of both. The former solution safeguarded the distinction of the natures while sacrificing the unity of the person, the latter held up the unity of the person but compromised the separation of the natures. The first of these views was propounded by Nestorius, the second by Apollinarius, and later, in a somewhat different form, by the Monophysites of Alexandria.
The Chalcedonian solution to this dilemma was as follows. The divine and human natures were distinct and could not be confused in any way. Each nature was complete in itself and obeyed its own internal laws. The divine nature was eternal, the human nature assumed in the incarnation. Jesus, who was only one person, was therefore divine. On the other hand, his humanity was not a veil covering this divinity, in the way that ancient philosophy imagined the flesh to be covering the soul. All such dualism was ruled out by the virginal conception—usually called, mistakenly, the virgin birth—by which the divine hypostasis became man in the womb of the virgin Mary. Mary was therefore of necessity the Theotokos, or God-bearer. Nestorius had protested against this on the ground that Mary was not the mother of Christ’s divinity, but although this was certainly agreed to in principle, Nestorius’ preference of the title Christotokos for Mary could not be admitted because of its implied dualism. The union between God and man was such as to preclude the independent existence of the manhood—which is the meaning of Leo’s phrase ‘impersonal humanity’.
Furthermore, the two natures, though united, continued to possess the characteristics proper to them, which is why Jesus was portrayed in the Gospels as experiencing human suffering yet at the same time raising men from the dead, or walking on water. No attempt was made to explain this further—Chalcedon contented itself with the mystery that Jesus was one person ‘made known in two natures’. R. V. Sellers has pointed out the significance of this gnōrizomenos (made known) for understanding the true meaning of the Definition, and claims that it goes a long way towards answering many modern objections to the doctrine.11 Chalcedon did not claim to know how the hypostatic union occurred in terms of biology or genetics—such knowledge was in any case beyond human understanding. What it did claim was that the empirical, historical Jesus was a God-man, and that it had established, in the light of Scripture, the boundaries within which this perfect union must be seen in order to avoid compromising the evidence.
Is this solution still valid today? If so, is it still necessary? This is the question which most modern theologians, even those who are prepared to accept Chalcedon in its context, are now raising. Let us examine some of these objections to see whether they are in fact as cogent as their proponents claim.
- Probably the most damaging modern objection to the Definition is the charge that it is fundamentally docetic. According to this way of thinking, it is impossible to be fully a man and yet God at the same time. Chalcedon tried to give equal weight to both, but in fact erred on the side of the divine nature. The Chalcedonian Christ is accused of being less than fully human because (a) he is sinless; (b) he is genetically absurd; (c) he lacks a human personality.
These objections arise, however, because their proponents have a defective understanding of what human nature is. In fact, it is precisely because of this defective ontology of man that a functional christology has seemed to be necessary. Those who take this line define humanity empirically—what I am, man is. But that is not the biblical view of man at all. In the Bible, sin, for example, is not a part of human nature but a corruption of it; its present universality is the result of inheritance by common descent, but it is not inherent in man’s nature. It is true that solidarity with the human race requires descent from Adam, but Jesus had this through his mother. We all know what problems the Church has had over the question of Mary’s sinfulness, but I would suggest that this was adequately nullified by the word Theotokos in the definition and by the almost contemporary statement in the Athanasian Creed which speaks of the hypostatic union ‘not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God’. The power of the greater assumed and consequently overcame the weakness of the lesser substance. This is not docetism, as is so often alleged, but the very opposite. Christ was not a freak, but the firstborn of a new creation, the prototype of the perfection to which every Christian aspires. The Chalcedonians did not take themselves as the norm of humanity, but Christ, the second Adam. Their concern was not to make him ‘one of them’, but to make themselves some of his.
The genetic argument is more difficult, particularly as the council was quite unaware of modern biology. Nevertheless, they clearly believed that the virgin birth was a miracle and that it did not impair Jesus’ humanity. Adam, after all, had not come into being by the procreative process, nor bad Eve. Natural procreation may be normal in our experience, but it is not necessary for humanity. Nor should we forget his uniqueness—Jesus was fully man, but he was certainly not merely man. One might possibly draw the analogy of dual nationality, where a man might have two distinct identities and yet remain the same person. When he is with us, we may assimilate him to ourselves, even to the point where we are surprised if we discover that the same person speaks a different language and carries within him a completely different set of cultural references. Such a man, of course, is neither a schizophrenic nor an impossibility; it is merely that we have failed to grasp the complete situation. So it is, on a different level, with Jesus. The fact that his Father is ‘foreign’ in some sense to us, does not exclude him from full participation in our life as one of us; it means rather that we must broaden our horizons to accommodate someone who is both like us and different at the same time.
The argument that the Chalcedonian Christ lacks a human personality is sheer misunderstanding. Leo the Great described Christ’s humanity as ‘impersonal’ simply in order to emphasize that Jesus was never a mereman—in other words, that as God and man together, he was not a split personality. Of course, we must also pay attention to the meaning of the word ‘person’ which means simply an ‘autonomous individuality’, within which there is a wide range of variable characteristics composing the personality. These can and do change—sometimes quite drastically—without, however, compromising the objective existence of the individual concerned. Jesus’ personality was provided for by the insistence that he had a human soul and a human will—though this second point was not clarified until later.
The failure of a christology based on principles like these may be seen from the case of John Robinson. Robinson is as insistent as anyone could be in stressing the humanity of Jesus in empirical terms. For him, Jesus is not God incarnate but a God-filled human personality. Nevertheless, Jesus is still unique. Why? Because it is through him that we perceive God. As Robinson has written: ‘It is in Jesus, and Jesus alone, that there is nothing of self to be seen, but solely the ultimate, unconditional love of God. It is as he emptied himself utterly of himself that he became the carrier of the “name which is above every other name”.’12 But this is thoroughly docetic. Why? Because a functional christology like Robinson’s finds itself invariably in an ontological impasse. It tries to re-emphasize the humanity of Jesus by stripping him of his Chalcedonian divinity, but at the same time it wants to reassert that Jesus revealed God as no other man has ever done. In practice, of course, this is only possible by overcoming the humanity, which can only be a barrier to the perception of God. The more perfect the divine revelation is, the more the humanity is superseded, until it vanishes entirely. The Chalcedonian position is nothing like this—Jesus’ humanity in orthodox thought is not a barrier but a means to the perception of God.
Those who take Robinson’s line, if they are consistent, must eventually see that Jesus’ humanity does not and cannot disappear, from which they conclude that he was not unique as a revealer of God, since other great men have achieved remarkable degrees of self-abnegation. This line, recently propounded by John Hick and Dennis Nineham, among others, makes Jesus but one more extraordinary man, and is the end of Christianity as a distinctive, coherent religion. Yet it must be remembered that The myth of God incarnate is not a freak development, but the logical outcome of a functionalist christology.
- The second major objection to Chalcedon concerns its supposed out-of-date Hellenism. According to this argument, the Definition was a fine thing in its day, but now with new philosophies and new cultures we need a new statement of faith.
Superficially this sounds very plausible—it is all a question of translation, we are told, of the need to find dynamic equivalents for ideas which are no longer current. Unfortunately, this point of view ignores the fact that the Definition presents us with a thought-world which claims eternal validity and relevance. We are too ready to assume that modern equivalents can be found for terms like ‘person’, ‘nature’ and ‘substance’. We forget that the early Christians did not just slide into Platonism—on the contrary, they were all too acutely aware of the dangers of doing just that and fought to keep as close to the Bible as possible in their terminology and expressions. It is true, of course, that words like ousia, physis and hypostasis were used in Greek philosophy, but not in the same way. Likewise other terms simply had to be invented, like homoousios, or borrowed from quite different disciplines, like prosōpon. Christian dogmatic concepts may have been expressed in words taken from the surrounding culture, but they do not depend on it.
We have already argued that the ontological quest of the early church arose from an Old Testament view of God. In the same way, the need to express the reality of the incarnate Christ arose from, and was governed by, New Testament requirements. Chalcedon did not adopt philosophy; it took some basic philosophical words and forged a theology based on Scripture. Its logic is a systematization of the logic inherent in Scripture, not a philosophical corruption of primitive texts. For that reason, although it may be simplified for mass consumption, it can never be replaced. Ontological christology is part of the biblical revelation which cannot and must not be compromised in the name of historical and/or cultural relativism.
Conversion to Christ today can only mean what it meant to our ancestors—that we must put on a new mínd and a new heart as men and women transformed by the transcendent power of the Christian gospel. This is the reality which is enshrined in the Chalcedonian Definition which will stand unchanged and unsurpassed as long as Christian faith endures.
1 Thus Maurice Wiles, ‘Does christology rest on a mistake?’ in S. W. Sykes and J. P. Clayton, ed., Christ, faith and history (Cambridge, 1972), pp. 3–12.
2 The foundations of New Testament christology (London, 1965).
3 The Son of God (London, 1976).
4 One of Wiles’ key points, op. cit.
5 E.g. W. Pannenberg, Jesus, God and man (London, 1964).
6 So H. Schlier, TDNT, under ‘Amen’; E. Fuchs, Studies of the historical Jesus (London, 1964), p. 36; G. Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth (London, 1960), p. 57, etc.
7 I. H. Marshall, The origins of New Testament christology (Leicester, 1977).
8 B. Lindars in B. Lindars and S. S. Smalley, ed., Christ and Spirit in the New Testament (Cambridge, 1973), p. 60.
9 See H. Schlier, TDNT, under ‘Amen’.
10 The christology of the New Testament (London, 1959), pp. 275–290.
11 The Council of Chalcedon (London, 1953), pp. 216ff.
12 Honest to God (London, 1963), p. 74.
Gerald Bray is research professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, where he teaches history and doctrine. He is a minister in the Church of England and the editor of the Anglican theological journal Churchman.