For nearly 1500 years, the language of Christology has been shaped by the idiom of the Council of Chalcedon and its landmark definition of the Christian faith. Though some have dissented from the language and theology of this council, most Western and Eastern churches uphold the Chalcedonian definition and its claim that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man, consubstantial with God and with humanity. The language and theology of “two natures” in one person or subsistence remains the dominant way of expressing the biblical doctrine of the incarnation.The trajectory of Christology and theology after the council was and continues to be shaped by this formula of unity according to person but diversity according to nature. The debates surrounding the definition of Chalcedon revolved around two questions: what doesit mean for Jesus, who is genuinely human, to be God? And, what does it mean for Jesus, who is genuinely divine, to be a human?
Background – Ontology
Both of these questions are closely tied to the subject of ontology. In as much as these questions inquire about the biblical testimony concerning Jesus’ identity, they also require an answer to the question, what does it mean for anything to be a thing? Or, what does it mean to give an answer to the question, “What is it?” Such questions are those often investigated under the banner “ontology.”
There is no one definition of “ontology,” but broadly speaking, ontology concerns two sorts of “what” questions, namely, the question of what something is, or essence, and the question of what exists, or existence.
In this way, because it asks “what” questions, Christology is closely tied with ontology. However, there has yet to be significant investigation of the Bible’s teaching as it pertains to ontology and of the implications that such teaching would have on our Christology. Now, there has been much discussion concerning the philosophical commitments of those present at Chalcedon and prior to it and even discussion concerning their ontological commitments. However, this discussion has been almost entirely descriptive. To the best of my knowledge, there has been no attempt to think prescriptively about the Bible’s teaching as it pertains to ontology and how that would or should shape our Christology.
For example, Christopher Stead’s significant monograph, Divine Substance, surveyed the understanding of “substance” up to the fourth-century. However, Stead is not directly concerned with the ontology of the fathers nor with its biblical propriety. Rather, he asks, “How did the concept of substance develop in Ancient Greek philosophy and how did this concept influence Christian theology in the first four centuries AD?” His book is properly a discussion of the development and metaphysical application of what I will call below an Essentialist ontology rather than a discussion of this ontology per se.
Since Stead’s monograph, there has been significant discussion concerning the philosophical and so ontological commitments of the different parties in the Christological controversies of the late 4th and the 5th centuries. Hans Van Loon’s monograph The Dyophysite Christology of Cyril of Alexandria is an extensive investigation of the terminology and philosophy of Cyril. A decade prior, John Zizioulas took up the question of ontology in relation to the Cappadocians, arguing that they offer a unique ontological vision of being as communion. However, Zizioulas’ work does not address the Christological implications such an ontology would have, and his interpretation of the Cappadocians has come under serious criticism since its publication. More importantly, earlier this year, Johannes Zachhuber argued in a monograph The Rise of Christian Theology and the End of Ancient Metaphysics that the philosophy that would be adopted as “Cappadocian” by later theologians was as concerned with unity or the universal as its Greek predecessors. However, Christian theology did invoke an ontological revolution, Zachhuber argues, but only as later theologians attempted to work out Cappadocian philosophy in response to Chalcedonian Christology. As a result, the connection between existence and essence was severed, and newfound significance was attributed to the particular or the individual. Though Zachhuber’s work suggests that the Biblical teaching has ontological implications, he does not explore this question. His work is, once again, concerned with description.
In spite of the significant discussion around the philosophy and ontology of the Trinitarian and Christological controversies in the 4th and 5th centuries, and beyond, the literature has not taken up the prescriptive task of asking how the bible’s teaching might shape our ontology and how this would impact our Christology. It is this question that I intend to take up in my research. The goal of my work is to identify the nature of the 5th century fathers’ ontological commitments and to evaluate how consonant these commitments are with the Bible’s teaching. I will be focusing particularly on the definition of Chalcedon.
Doing this will have three major research components. First, I will need to identify what ontological commitments are evident at Chalcedon. Second, I will need to identify what, if anything, the Bible has to say concerning ontology. Finally, I will need to synthesize my findings in these two areas.
Part 1 – Identifying the Ontology of Chalcedon
To identify the Ontology of Chalcedon, I have first attempted to identify a baseline or default ontology in the philosophy of the time. Because of their continuing influence in the 4th and 5th centuries, and the clear influence of Aristotle on the theology of this period, I have chosen to discuss the thought of Plato and Aristotle to establish this baseline. In spite of the clear differences in their philosophy, including Aristotle’s explicit rejection of Plato’s theory of forms in his Metaphysics, I have followed many others in identifying a shared core of ontological commitments that shape their thought. I am calling this core ontology Hellenistic Essentialism. I identify four central commitments of Hellenistic Essentialism:
- First, some properties are essential, and some are accidental: that is, particularising properties not shared by objects with the same essence are not part of the essential definition of that thing; they are accidental. For example, that a particular horse is brown is accidental to the essence of that horse.
- Second, essential attributes or properties, those shared by all particulars with the same essence, point to a defining essence.
- Third, the defining essence is the fundamental reality of the object and so is the proper object of knowledge, not the accidental features.
- Fourth, no distinction can be made between essence in its epistemological or metaphysical dimension. The epistemological dimension is the abstract definition, for example, a triangle is “a shape with the three sides.” Its metaphysical dimension is the way the actual properties of an object indicate its “whatness” and how essence causes these same features. No distinction can be drawn between these two dimensions, therefore the answer to the question “what is it?” may be given in terms of the abstract definition: to say something is “a triangle” is to say “it is a shape with three sides.”
Using Hellenistic Essentialism as a heuristic tool, I have sought to consider the theology leading up to Chalcedon and at Chalcedon itself in light of these four diagnostic features. First, I considered the theology of the 4th century as it concerned apophaticism, the homoousion, and Cappadocian theory. In each case, I have been able to argue that there are strong indications of Hellenistic Essentialism present. Second, I considered the thought of Apollinaris, Nestorius, and Eutyches. Third, I investigated the 2nd letter of Cyril to Nestorius, the letter of Cyril to John of Antioch, and the Tome of Leo. At Chalcedon each of these documents was declared orthodox and exemplary of orthodox Christology. Finally, in light of these three documents and the Acts of Chalcedon itself, I then investigated the Chalcedonian Definition. In this way, I believe I have been able to sketch the ontological commitments leading up to and codified in the Definition of Chalcedon. I have attempted to show where the definition and the documents pertaining to it diverge from Hellenistic Essentialism and where they are in agreement.
Part 2 – Identifying the Ontological Implications of Scripture
The next major component of my research is to investigate whether or not the Bible has anything to say about ontology. To do so I will have to address several methodological issues. The most significant issue is, perhaps, hermeneutics and its relationship to theology, or what my thesis will consider to be the “biblical teaching” and how that will be determined. Because of the many different interpretative approaches that may be and have historically been adopted towards the Bible, this part of my thesis is best considered as one reading strategy set against other strategies. As I will use the term, “Biblical teaching” will refer to the unified voice of the 66 books of the commonly acknowledge canon as it concerns the questions of “ontology.” Assuming as this does that there is a unified voice to be found in Scripture and that this voice is God’s, my approach to Scripture falls within the broad movement known as theological interpretation.
I intend to use three strategies to identify what, if anything, the Bible has to say concerning Christology. First, I intend to investigate the meaning of the term “God” in texts that indicate God is one and that Jesus is God. That is, in classical Trinitarian theology and Chalcedonian Christology, the term “God” in such statements is treated as the answer to a “what” question. That is, to say “Jesus is God” is to answer the question, “what is Jesus?” However, recent works have suggested that the primary sense of the term “God” in the 1st century historical context and, perhaps, the Biblical context, is not a “what” but a “who.” This approach is seen perhaps most prominently in Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the God of Israel.
Second, I intend to investigate the sense in which Jesus is said to be a man. Often the statement “Jesus is a man” or “a human” is considered in essentialist terms, such that Jesus has the essential properties or fulfills the abstract definition for humanity. However, this is not the only way to treat “what” questions. I intend to ask how the Bible treats “what” questions like this.
Finally, I intend to identify how the Bible would address, if at all, the four diagnostics I have identified for Hellenistic Essentialism. As an example, there appears to be an initial disparity between the way the Bible treats contingent or accidental events, such as the fall of humanity and the crucifixion of Christ, in comparison to the way Hellenistic Essentialism would treat such events. Gotthold Lessing and Emmanuel Kant both posited that the accidental events of history cannot tell us anything about the universal truths of reason, with the corresponding emphasis upon the value of reason. This tenet is completely consistent with Hellenistic Essentialism. However, the Bible appears to suggest that the universal truths of reason cannot tell us about the contingent events of history, with the corresponding emphasis that the latter may just be what is most significant to know.
The final part of my research will be to bring the analysis of Chalcedon’s ontology into conversation with the results of my analysis of the Biblical teaching, asking how the Bible would lead us to evaluate Chalcedon’s Christology and where it might lead us with its own ontological claims.
As I see it, two possibilities present themselves. The Bible may be neutral when it comes to questions of ontology, permitting us to bring different ontological paradigms to explain its content. On the other hand, the Bible may have something to say concerning our ontology, ruling out certain ontological conclusions or presenting an alternative ontology. Whatever conclusions are reached in my research may have far ranging implications. For example, Chalcedonian Christology is often considered the starting point for contemporary Christian discussions of ontology, such as in the work of Cornelius Van Til and John Frame and in recent logical treatments of Christology, such as Timothy Pawl’s In Defense of Conciliar Christology and James N. Anderson’s Paradox and Christian Theology. If the Biblical teaching is seen to be incompatible with the ontology of Chalcedon, this will raise questions concerning the nature of theological development, the authority of church councils, and the relationship of tradition to Scripture and of both to the task of theological construction today. If the Bible is silent on ontological issues, this opens the door for theologians to adopt contemporary approaches to ontology in their approach to Christology, Trinitarian theology, and beyond. This may alleviate some issues presented by classic ontology but may, perhaps, create its own issues. Whatever the conclusion of my thesis is, our understanding of ontology has significant implications for how we think of the tasks of theology, ethics, exegesis, and theological education.
In its historical dimension, I believe my research also sheds light on the interaction between theology and ontology in the 5th century.
These are the questions this thesis intends to ask: is Chalcedon shaped by an essentialist ontology and to what extent? If so, is such an ontology compatible with the Chalcedonian and later Christian commitment to the normative teaching of the Bible? And, finally, does the Bible teach essentialism, a different ontology, or is it completely neutral on this question?
What I Have Accomplished
This year I have concluded the first part of my research, writing an initial draft concerning the ontology of Chalcedon. My conclusion from my research thus far is that Chalcedon and the theologians who contributed to its definition depart from Hellenistic Essentialism in a significant way. However, there remains significant continuity, enough that it is right to call the ontology of Chalcedon essentialist. I have begun my research for the next significant part of my thesis, investigating the Biblical claims as they concern ontology.
My Goals for Next Year and Submission
I intend to devote the rest of this year and 2021 to this question and to begin the synthesis of the historical and biblical aspects of my research. I intend to have a solid draft of Part 2, considering the Biblical teaching concerning ontology, completed by the end of 2021 with significant progress made in Part 3, the synthesis of Part 1 and 2. I hope to have a solid draft in place by the beginning of the 2022 college year, submitting the project by the end of term 4.