Christology is one of the most important doctrines in all of theology, and also one of the most difficult. The standards of proof here are high, because the claims —that this man is God, one of the Trinity, the eternal Son— are so outrageous. It is incumbent on all Christians, I think, to be able to make a clear declaration of who Jesus Christ is directly from Scripture. No matter what the great theologians may have said, no matter how early the early church may have made a clear confession that Christ is God, a serious Christian faith requires a direct view of Christ’s deity and eternal sonhood in the Bible itself. That, of course, is what all those great theologians and church fathers were insisting on anyway.
But there’s a lot of theological heavy lifting to do in the doctrine of christology, and I for one am grateful for any help I can get from the great tradition. Sure, every generation has to see the truth for itself, but life is too short to spend it re-inventing the christological wheel.
So every now and then, to get our bearings in christology, it’s worth taking a moment to rehearse the specific judgments rendered by the councils in the time of the undivided (or at least less divided) church. The ecumenical councils were gatherings of bishops from all over the Christian world in the early centuries of the church. They are fascinating historical events to study, rich in geopolitical intrigue, forceful personalities, dense argumentation, and intellectual drama.
The maneuvering and posturing that went on in some of them, on all sides apparently, is not always an edifying subject of study. No wonder the sixteenth-century Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England said of the ecumenical councils that “forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and word of God, they may err and sometime have erred, even in things pertaining to God.” Because of the all-too-human fallibility of the councils, the Anglican confession perfectly expresses the authority which can be conceded to the councils: “Things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of Holy Scripture.” That’s a good statement of the relative, always blessedly relative, authority of theological tradition.
There are seven councils normally considered as ecumenical councils of the undivided church, running from Nicaea in 325 through five others to Nicaea II in 787. After that seventh council, the great schism between Eastern and Western churches made fully ecumenical gatherings impossible, which has led the Eastern Orthodox churches to consider the age of the seven councils as closed (though I suppose they could have some more if they had a mind to —but it would be a pretty schismatic mind), while the Roman Catholic church has continued to declare ecumenical councils in a series currently numbering twenty-two.
The first four councils, reaching a climax at Chalcedon in 451, have long held a special doctrinal status for most branches of Christendom partly because of the completeness of christological doctrine that the Chalcedonian Definition is felt to have achieved. In the late sixth century, for example, Pope Gregory the Great (ca. 540-604) claimed, at least rhetorically, that the sequence Nicaea-Constantinople-Ephesus-Chalcedon had a quasi-canonical status: “Just as the four books of the holy gospel, so also I confess to receive and venerate four councils.”
The authority of the councils is surely closer to what the Thirty-Nine Articles claim than it is to what Gregory claims for them, but on any account, theology that knows how to honor its fathers and mothers ought to make itself intimately familiar with what the ecumenical councils taught. Christology is hard work, and Chalcedonian guidelines are a great help.