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Eastern Christianity From Nicaea to Chalcedon Alexopoulos, Lampros


The main task of the Council of Nicaea (325) was, on the one hand, the unanimous condemnation of the Arian heresy by all members of the Council. On the one other, the unanimous acceptance of a common and binding theological basis for the restoration of the unity of the bishops of the East. The first was achieved after long synodical procedures and discussions between the various theological groups. The second was founded on the baptismal symbol of the Church of Caesarea in Palestine, which was significantly improved after theological objections, with the addition of clearly anti-Arian terms, and was accepted after the various interventions of the emperor Constantine. The Council of Nicaea was motivated by the Trinitarian debates caused by the views of Arius (256-336). The purpose of the council was to clarify the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity as completely as possible and to faithfully express the teaching of Scripture. Arius wished to make the relation of the Father to the Son comprehensible. He and his followers equated the limits of their understanding with the limits of reality: what they could not conceive, could not therefore be. They held that the Father and the Son were of similar substances, but Jesus did not share in the same divine substance of the Father, He was not fully divine in the same way as the Father. Furthermore, Arius denied both the personality and deity of the Spirit. He considered it to be an impersonal causal agent, definitely not divine, operating as the power by which God the Father worked in creation. Although Arius’s views were condemned by the Synod of Alexandria in 321, the spread of Arianism made it clear that the Apostles’ Creed was no longer sufficient to protect orthodoxy. The Council of Nicaea, however, did not put an end to the controversies, but only gave the parties a new rallying point, initiating a half century of theological turmoil that was marked by political interference and changing fortunes for Athanasius of Alexandria and his supporters (the Orthodox party) and Arianism. In 381, one hundred and fifty bishops met in Constantinople, at the Council summoned by the emperor Theodosius I, with the view to declare the faith of the Nicene Creed in its original form, as the sole legitimate religion in the empire, and to condemn all forms of Arianism. The controversy between the parties at Nicaea and Constantinople raged over the proper term to express the kind of substance that the Trinity shares. The debate focused on the terms homoiousios and homoousios. Though the words look very similar, both meaning “of the same substance” they were poles apart in what they conveyed about the nature of Jesus. The difference was whether the Son is of the same or a similar substance with the Father. The Orthodox party favored the term “homoousios”, “of the same essence,” to describe the relation of the Son to the Father. This term identified the Son sharing the same essence with the Father as uncreated and essential in His existence. The Arian party preferred the term “homoiousios”, “like the Father” or “of a like essence with the Father.” Christology hence was the main concern. At the request of the Archbishop of Constantinople Nestorius, Emperor Theodosius II called together all the major bishops of the Eastern and a few of the Western Roman Empire to meet at Pentecost of 431 in Ephesus, in an effort to resolve the Christological question. Nestorius, who had been trained in the theological tradition of the school of Antioch, was reluctant in calling the Virgin Mary “Theotokos” (Mother of God) and preferred to speak of her as “Christotokos” (mother of Jesus as the one united with the Logos). Nestorius’s opponents accused him for detaching Christ’s divinity and humanity into two persons existing in one body, thereby denying the reality of the Incarnation. Accusations against Nestorius had focused on the claim that he divided Christ and was affirming two Christs and two Sons, a man and God, by considering the union of man and God in Christ as merely an external union. One of the main opponents of Nestorius, besides Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria (376-444 CE), was the influential monk Eutyches of Constantinople, whose opposition to the teachings of Nestorius led him to an equally extreme, although opposite view. He promoted an extreme Monophysite (i.e. one divine nature) teaching which denied that Christ is co-substantial with humankind. Eventually, Emperor Marcian and his wife Pulcheria summoned a Council which met at Chalcedon in 451. The Council of Chalcedon was directed at the Nestorian and Eutychean heresies, which, although concurred with the Nicene Creed, they however worked out the deity of Jesus Christ in false relation to His humanity. The error of Nestorius and his teaching was the failure to unite the two natures in one person. Each nature represented separate persons in some way possessed by the man Jesus. Eutyches and his teaching drew the opposite conclusion: the human nature was subsumed by the divine nature, producing thus a hybrid and unique kind of nature. The Council of Chalcedon affirmed the unity of Jesus’s person and the duality of His natures, as well as His identity with the divine substance and pointed to four principles for an accurate understanding of Jesus: deity, humanity, the unity of one person, and the distinction of the two natures. These define the boundaries of orthodoxy.

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