Essay / Theology

The Fifth Council: Trinitarian Christology

Chalcedonian christology is hard enough: one person, two natures, three strikes you’re out. But post-chalcedonian christology? Who has time for that kind of thought project? Once you’ve decided that the theology of the early church can help you think through a biblical doctrine of who Jesus Christ is, you might be persuaded to study the council of Chalcedon, but most introductions to christology stop after that fourth council.

But about one hundred years later, there was a remarkable ecumenical council. I think the fifth council is a crucially important piece of theological history, because it takes the two-natures christology of Chalcedon and places it in a trinitarian context.

Constantinople II took place in the year 553 under the emperor Justinian. Its main order of business was to re-affirm all that had been taught before at councils, beginning with the teaching of Nicaea and proceeding through Chalcedon. However, the participants at Constantinople II were especially concerned to re-affirm Chalcedon in a way that guarded it against misinterpretations. Because Chalcedon had been so clear about excluding radical Eutychianism and making a clear distinction between the divine and human natures, it had become possible for some thinkers to misinterpret the Definition as teaching a pseudo-Nestorian doctrine. For this reason, the heresy especially anathematized at Constantinople II is not a new one, but simply Nestorianism again, and the false teachers condemned were not church leaders actively propagating their doctrines at the time, but writings from the past called “The Three Chapters.”

The documents of the council report how the bishops in attendance listened to a reader rehearsing the teaching of Theodore of Mopsuestia:

When all the blasphemies in his works were exposed, we were astonished at God’s patience, that the tongue and mind which had formed such blasphemies were not straightaway burned up by divine fire. We would not even have allowed the official reader of these blasphemies to continue, such was our fear of the anger of God at even a rehearsal of them (since each blasphemy was worse than the one before in the extent of its heresy and shook to their foundation the minds of their listeners), if it had not been the case that those who reveled in these blasphemies seemed to us to require the humiliation which their exposure would bring upon them. All of us, angered by the blasphemies against God, burst into attacks and anathemas against Theodore, during and after the reading, as if he had been living and present there.

The blasphemies under consideration were of a Nestorian sort, since by this time Theodore was recognized as the father of Nestorianism, and the concern of Constantinople II was to ensure that such ideas could find no shelter under Chalcedon, as its series of vigorously anti-Nestorian anathemas shows.

What positive soteriological insight was the motivating force at this council? The answer is simple: Cyril’s insight, as stated at Ephesus, that the active subject of the incarnation is the eternal Logos. If Chalcedon could be misinterpreted in a Nestorianizing direction, then Cyril’s christology would be marginalized, and much of the debate at this council was between a group of very strict Cyrillians who emphasized the unity of the hypostasis of the hypostatic union, and a group of dyophysites who emphasized the distinctness of the two natures in the union and worried about Cyril’s influence.

The day belonged, however, to the bishops who believed that Chalcedon and Cyril go together, support each other, and speak with one voice. In the words of G. N. C. Frank, these bishops “argued for the inner cohesiveness of Cyril’s thought and the Council’s intention. These Cyrillian Chalcedonians represented the majority of bishops at Chalcedon. … Finally in 553 at the Council of Constantinople [II], however, it was this Cyrillian Chalcedonianism which prevailed.”

“Cyrillian Chalcedonianism” (or for that matter “Chalcedonian Cyrillism”) is a mouthful, but it is what the fathers of Constantinople II meant when they said “we accept the four holy synods, that is, of Nicaea, of Constantinople, the first of Ephesus, and of Chalcedon. Our teaching is and has been all that they have defined concerning the one faith.”

In one sense, the accomplishment of the fifth council is purely conservative, gathering up the preceding tradition and declaring it to be one coherent teaching. But in another sense the fifth council represents progress beyond Chalcedon because it argues that the right way to interpret Chalcedon is in a broader Cyrillian context. Doctrinally, that means that a strategic emphasis on the distinction of the two natures of Christ must be situated within a primary commitment to the doctrine of the Trinity, and the resulting confession that the second hypostasis of the Trinity is the personal center of the hypostatic union.

The positive theological achievement of the fifth council was to make explicit and thematic once again the trinitarian theology that has been the background of all orthodox christology. There were three ways it did this: by bringing christological and trinitarian terminology together, by giving priority to the person in christology, and by telling the long story of salvation. These three moves flow naturally from each other.

1. To begin with the terminological accomplishment, there are fourteen anathemas issued by the council, which begin (rather oddly, until one sees the logic of the entire project) by re-asserting the doctrine of the Trinity. Nobody was denying the doctrine of the Trinity in the debates around the council, so the most likely reason for re-affirming it in the first anathema is simply to get the technical language stated up front. The fifth council seeks to bring together christological and trinitarian uses of the word “person” in order to make it clear that the person on the cross is the Son of God.

2. The second person of the Trinity is the one person of the incarnation. Everything hangs on the univocal use of the word “person” in the two contexts, as is appropriate for a theological project committed to Cyril’s insight into the identity of the incarnate one. The two natures from Chalcedon are still recognized, but the fifth council emphasizes the one person.

3. Granting priority to the person of the incarnation forces the next move, which is the re-introduction of the long story arc of the incarnation, beginning in heaven and tracing the long descent from the Son’s eternal begetting to his birth from the virgin Mary. This restoration of the trinitarian background of the long story-arc of descent and incarnation accounts for the pride of place given, in the second anathema, to the “two nativities” of the Word of God, “that which is before all ages from the Father, outside of time and without a body, and secondly that nativity of these latter days when the Word of God came down from the heavens and was made flesh.” Thus the clear categories of Chalcedon, with their tough logic articulating how the divine and human natures of Christ do and do not relate, are given life and sense by the doctrine of the Trinity, the priority of the person, and the long story of Christ’s descent from heaven.

That’s good theologizing! Anybody who makes the trip to the fourth council ought to check out the fifth.

This is the seventh in a series of posts on the christology of the ecumenical councils. Here are the others:

The value of conciliar christology
The Council of Nicaea in 325
The Council of Constantinople in 381
The Council of Ephesus in 431
The Council of Chalcedon in 451.
One Step Beyond Chalcedon

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