Controversies about Christ in the early church, part IV: The divine swallowing the human and the fourth council’s “four fences”

Cross of the Coptic Church, mistakenly called a “monophysite” church

This post follows from “Who do you say that I am: Controversies about Christ in the early church,” , and

So now we’re in the run-up to the fourth council: the council of Chalcedon. The major issue here was this: Eutyches was abbot of a large monastery. He was a strong supporter of Cyril, who had started to fight the Nestorians. This Eutyches was not going to compromise his position against Nestorius: he eliminated all possibility of a werewolf-Jesus by saying Christ had only one nature: his divine nature.

Remember the orthodox position: from the moment the 2nd person of the trinity became incarnate, this divine nature or person also possessed a human nature.

But how did Eutyches explain our salvation if Christ had only a divine and not a human nature? And was this divine nature still going to be encased in flesh, like a docetist position—a “cloak” of humanity?

It seems from his contemporaries that for Eutyches, Christ’s humanity was totally absorbed or swallowed up in divinity.

At Chalcedon, in 451, which condemned Eutyches, Eutyches declared that Christ was of two natures before the incarnation, but only one after. Huh? Two before? This raises the question: When did the incarnation happen? There was some time when there was a fully, plain old human Jesus, before God came and joined to that human.

The problem here is that this is adoptionism. You have to believe that at the very moment Christ was conceived, the incarnation took place.

For many Christians in the East, there was no problem with the one-nature view. BUT if you do teach one divine nature in Christ, rather than two, then you will invite the belief in a docetic Jesus, a God who walks around with a cloak of humanity; or, it is too easy to think of Jesus in an Apollinarian sense; that he didn’t have a human mind, just the body and soul.

The Eutychians would have said his humanity was real and complete, just totally swallowed up.

This time it was a Pope in Rome, Leo I, who attacked Eutyches. Later this belief system was called either Eutychianism or Monophysitism. The Monophysites. Mono means one, of course, and physis means nature.

The document Leo wrote on the orthodox faith, the Tome of Leo, became known for its clarity and precision. It was regarded as the best statement of this question of Christ’s nature(s), and it became the foundation for the creed or “definition” that came out of the Council of Chalcedon in 451:

Christ is one in his person, w/out any division, without separation; his two natures, while distinguishable, are inseparably joined, so Jesus is totally human and totally divine. That was the settlement of the council of Chalcedon.

The actual wording is one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” These four “withouts” are referred to as the “four fences of Chalcedon.” They can be understood not as a precise definition of the relationship between the divine and human in Christ, but rather as limits to orthodoxy, beyond which Christians cannot stray and remain in the truth. What lies within those fences is still mysterious!

The final post in the series is here.

One response to “Controversies about Christ in the early church, part IV: The divine swallowing the human and the fourth council’s “four fences”

  1. This is an awesome summary and resource, I found it really helpful.


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