Council of Chalcedon

 All religions have historical origins: this means that they were initiated by human beings. The question that arises is: Were the originators of religions human beings with extraordinary qualities or extraordinary (divine) beings in human form? The answer will depend on one’s world view.

In the twentieth century, most people exposed to the results, and touched by the framework, of science would tend to think that whether it was Moses or Buddha, Vedic sages or Christ, they were all human beings; enriched, for sure, by some visions of the beyond, but still only human. But the traditional view is that these were divine beings who had incarnated to bring the message of the heavens to creatures here below.

In non-theocratic states, these are matters of opinion on which good and reasonable people might differ. But there was a time – as it still is in some places- when holding opinions contrary to what the authorities hold to be true would simply not be tolerated.

Consider the case of the Nestorius who suggested that Christ was not born intrinsically divine, but that divine nature came to him. Nestorius was vehemently opposed by Eutyches who went on to say that the human and divine natures were mingled into a single nature in Christ as Logos. Thus Christ’s body (Corpus Christi) was not of the same substance as of any other mortal. This doctrine came to be called monophysitism, and it did not sit well with the Catholic Church. An ecumenical council was convened to resolve the Heresy of Eutyches. Known as the Council of Chalcedon, it met on 8 October 451, a little over 1550 years ago.

Minutes of the meeting are part of Church history, and they don’t speak well of  the participants. They yelled at one another, using language unbecoming of the clergy. But, since each side was thinking it was speaking on behalf of God, it was felt that abusive language is what the enemy deserved: it was the least they could do on behalf of God.

But eventually, both the Nestorian and the Eutycheian doctrines were declared to be heresies. It was adopted as the Gospel truth that the two natures – divine and human – found perfect union in Christ who was thus both man and God: a sort of theological unified field theory. This became the official Christological doctrine. Any deviation from this would, from now on, result in excommunication.

During the other sessions many other matters were discussed. It was during this council that rules were passed by which the clergy were prohibited from engaging in trade,  monks and nuns were denied permission to marry, and punishments were spelled out for those who conspired against bishops. There arose misunderstandings between the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox, especially as to who was to be the supreme head of Christianity, but the former accepted most of the resolutions of the Council. Eutyches went into exile. His ideas were revived in the sixth century by a monk named Jacob who propagated it far and wide. Jacobite churches sprang up in various countries such as Armenia and Egypt.

Most practitioners of religions go through the prescribed exercises of prayer and sacrament, paying periodic homage to the symbols of the tradition, with little knowledge of, and less interest in, the doctrinal foundations of their religion, let alone their historical origins. And yet, sectarian divisions have been the hallmark of all religious traditions, often degenerating into ugly and mutually hurtful behavior. It is difficult to understand or explain this in evolutionary terms.

October 8, 2013


Published by:

Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.

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