Chalcedon and the State of Modern Theology: Or, Why My PhD Matters

The Teleioteti Podcast – 1/2023


Hey, my name is James. I write books under the name J. Alexander Rutherford and run the website, where I am working to produce resources that will build Christ’s church through faithful, thoughtful ministry. I address theological and pastoral concerns from a Biblical worldview.

This is the first of several podcasts I have planned that will discuss themes developed in my written work. In this episode, I want to argue that several significant issues in contemporary theology can be traced back to the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD—in this way, this will also be a defence of the practicality of my PhD thesis, for those who think it is waste of time.

I am deeply committed to the principle that theology is for the church. For that reason, I often express anti-academic sentiments—yet I am a PhD candidate and have been in the academic world for nearly 8 years now. So, I am asked, what in the world does my research offer the church—or am I just wasting my time?

For the last 3 years, I have asked myself this question many times. Setting out to do a PhD was not something I ever wanted to do, but God very clearly led Nicole and me to this place. So I have returned to that question over and over again: Why in the world does God have us here in Australia? Is the PhD a waste of time—is God’s work in us something facilitated by my PhD study but completely separate from it? God has done much in and through us during our time in Australia, so there may be something to this. However, I don’t think it is the answer. I carefully chose a PhD topic that would be relevant to the church. As these things go, my topic has changed significantly over the years, yet God has worked through the changes in my topic to bring about something genuinely helpful for the church.

My research has concerned the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD—where a whole bunch of Christian leaders in the early Church got together under the oversight of the Eastern Emperor, Marcian, to hash out issues concerning the incarnation of our Lord. I originally wanted to look at Chalcedon because I kept on running into problems with contemporary approaches to theology and had a hunch that Chalcedon held the key to understanding why, or at least was important for understanding why these problems existed. That hunch has proven accurate.

What Happened at Chalcedon

Go back with me 1600 years. You may have heard of the council of Nicaea in 325 AD: this council is known for the Creed it produced, the Nicene Creed. The story goes that conflict arose in the Alexandrian church between the Bishop, Alexander and a priest (or Presbyter) named Arius. Eventually, the issue threatened the unity of the empire and Constantine perceived the value of convening a council to address the issue. This was the first council convened by an Emperor, and it involved a large number of Christian leaders from across the empire. The Nicene Creed didn’t solve the problem, and the Roman Empire was in turmoil for the next 60 or so years. The emperors after Constantine alternated between favouring the so-called Arians or their opponents. The details are intriguing and messy, but I want to point out something Nicaea did which will have immense ramifications in the next century.

 The Christian leaders at Nicaea perceived that they could not secure the condemnation of Arius and like-minded individuals by producing a statement containing merely biblical words. Arius would freely subscribe to everything in the Bible—giving it his own interpretation. What was necessary, they thought, was vocabulary drawn from the world of deeper theological reflection, of metaphysics. Metaphysics had become a significant area of Christian theology in the prior two centuries. From this toolbox of philosophical and theological reflection, the church leaders at Nicaea employed the term “consubstantial,” meaning of the same substance, to describe the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. They knew Arius could not accept this word.

 There were serious problems with the word they chose, yet it achieved their purpose. However, it had a recent history associated with false teaching: it most readily meant that God the Father and God the Son shared the same material reality, something the early church leaders were eager to deny. Because consubstantial was a metaphysical word with a metaphysical history, theologians after Nicaea defended the word by giving it new metaphysical content. Thus, by the end of the 4th century, Christian orthodoxy—right Christian belief—was associated not only with the explicit statements of Scripture but also the metaphysical doctrine of consubstantiality. I don’t think the church leaders in the 4th century could have imagined the ramifications of this development.

Fast forward several decades, the year is now 431 AD. Recently, the monk Nestorius had been promoted from a monastery near Antioch of Syria to the role of Archbishop in the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople. Very quickly, Nestorius clashed with the Imperial family and others about Mary—particularly about the appropriate way to speak about Mary’s relationship to Jesus. Soon, Cyril, Archbishop of Alexandria, was drawn into a literary battle with Nestorius over the proper way to speak and think of Christ’s incarnation. The Emperor, Theodosius II, convened a council in the city of Ephesus to deal with the matter. This council is notoriously complicated and divisive, but I want to draw your attention to a more subtle development. Beneath the noise and confusion surrounding the council was a decision made by the church leaders to enshrine the Nicene Creed of 325 AD as the measure of Christian orthodoxy. The 7th canonical decree or canon of Ephesus I declared that no new creeds could be made other than the Nicaean Creed. Remember that by the end of the 4th century, Nicaea had been given a thoroughly metaphysical interpretation. Do you see the significance?

After Ephesus 1, a thoroughly metaphysical statement of the Christian Doctrine of God was the measure of Christian orthodoxy. If this wasn’t apparent to the church leaders at this time, Chalcedon would bring this out into the open.

Much happened in the following years, but I want to jump now to 448 AD. Every year in Constantinople, Archbishop Flavian would hold a local council, a Home Synod, which would deal with church business in the city and its ecclesial province—the territory over which Flavian had authority. At this council, a Bishop named Eusebius brought charges against a prominent monk named Eutyches. He claimed that Eutyches was guilty of heresy, of denying Christ’s humanity. The Home Synod ended up finding Eutyches guilty and deposing him of his position. However, Eutyches was an influential man, and the way he spoke of Jesus’ incarnation was built on the weighty tradition of church leaders like Athanasius and Cyril; his language, especially Cyril’s phrase “the one nature of Christ incarnate,” resonated with bishops and priests throughout the empire. For this reason, Eutyches’ condemnation did not sit well and soon threatened the unity of the empire, so Emperor Theodosius II again convened a council in Ephesus in the following year, 449. Like Ephesus I, Ephesus II was embroiled in controversy. In short, the council found in favour of Eutyches and deposed Flavian, Archbishop of Constantinople. In the process, they alienated Pope Leo of Rome. Few were happy with the results of this council; Leo would call it “The robber’s synod.” Rumours circulated that votes were secured by threats of physical violence. Stories spread about monks with weapons threatening to beat bishops who dissented.

If Theodosius lived much longer, this may have been where things ended. However, Theodosius died in a horse-riding accident shortly thereafter. His sister Pulcheria married a military man, Marcian, who, as Emperor, quickly set out to fix the Robber’s Synod of 449. He convened a new council at Nicaea, clearly intending it echo the first council of Nicaea—creed and all. However, his plans were thwarted by military conflict. The council was moved to the city of Chalcedon, and the bishops quickly resisted his demands to produce a new statement of faith. However, after much soft coercion from the imperial officials, the church leaders created a “definition,” or explanation, of the received doctrine. The Definition of Chalcedon was explicitly not a creed, for Ephesus I had forbidden new creeds. It was, instead, an application of the Nicene Creed. To address new false teachings, the church leaders followed the example of Nicaea and its interpreters, offering not an exposition of Scripture but a metaphysical explication of biblical principles. In doing so, they explicitly called the Nicene Creed perfect and the sole measure of Christian orthodoxy. To be a Christian in good standing after Chalcedon meant not only believing certain things clear in Scripture, or even direct applications of Scripture, but an extensive metaphysic developed to explain Biblical doctrines in the midst of controversy.

The Identification of Metaphysics with Orthodoxy

The church leaders at Chalcedon could not have imagined what would result from this. Before Nicaea, Christians (for good and for ill) were free to explore metaphysics and philosophy because orthodoxy wasn’t tied to such things—at least not yet.

There is another story here, how this philosophical reflection often became a straitjacket to theology, as was the case with Arius and others, but that is not our story at the moment.

After Chalcedon, a basic metaphysic was considered essential to the Christian faith. For this reason, to teach the faith, to even be a pastor, meant being able to engage with contemporary philosophy and grasp ontological and metaphysical concepts. To do this, one needed to be well-educated: even today, such understanding is restricted to those with extensive post-secondary education. In this way, theology began to be the domain of the intelligentsia, the academic and social elite.

Theology was not only associated with philosophy, but theology and so the knowledge of God began to be treated as an intellectual science like philosophy, concerned with universal, abstract truths, not the historical facts and narrative by which the Bible introduces us to our God. Heresy was also treated as an issue that could receive a universal treatment—as if a Creed could ferret out false teachers—but Nicaea itself proved the difficulty of this task. In order for the Creed to have its desired effect, the church leaders had to go above and beyond what Scripture said and even use a word that was itself associated with false teaching—a classic case of the ends justifying the means. False teachers began to be treated as if the issue was false teaching, which, biblically speaking, is merely a symptom of the true problem, bad character. Bad character is not addressed by confessions, for those with bad character are willing to lie and manipulate a confession of faith for their ends.

Chalcedon was part of these developments, yet Chalcedon at the same time proved the futility of them. At Chalcedon, the church leaders were committed to the Bible, so they refused to abandon the incarnation, despite the problems it created with their tradition. However, they were not willing to budge on the metaphysical tradition, so they doubled down and produced a document that married the metaphysics of Nicaea with a metaphysic compatible with the incarnation. What become clear in the following centuries was that these two metaphysical systems didn’t work together. The result was division where there ought to be unity and the elevation of the intelligent over those with Christian character.

Conclusions: The Lasting Impacts of these Developments

After Chalcedon, several themes have shaped Christian ministry and theology.

First, Orthodoxy has been defined not as Biblical teaching held by those with who profess faith and manifest Godly character but by subscription to documents that reflect upon, apply, and often expand upon Scripture. To reflect upon, apply, and expand upon Scripture are not in themselves wrong—this is what we do when we preach—yet there is immense danger when these reflections take on a life of their own and take the place of Scripture as the standard of right belief. This danger is compounded when right belief is detached from right living, and judgments are made about one’s orthodoxy apart from the fruit produced by faith. As James puts it, faith—no matter the content—without works is dead.

The second theme that has shaped Christian ministry and theology since Chalcedon is that our knowledge of God is treated as if it were a collection of statements—nothing like our knowledge of persons. It would be obvious to everyone that I didn’t know my wife if my knowledge of her amounted to a series of statements that could be as adequately written on a word doc as held by me, statements such as: Nicole was born in 1994, she has two sisters, she married me in 2015, she has three children, etc. How much more would this be the case if I merely described her character: Nicole is honest, loving, kind, and generous. These things are true, yet are hardly sufficient to account for the way I know Nicole. If we think long enough about it, we realise that our knowledge of persons cannot be captured by any number of such statements. We must know things about someone if we truly know them, yet we could go our entire lives without expressing a fraction of the things we know about them—without putting these things in words—and we would still know them. Indeed, if we spent our entire life writing down every single thing we could say about our spouse or close family members, we would find that knowing these things is not the same as knowing them. Knowing persons is not the same as knowing statements of truth, and our knowledge of persons cannot be reduced to a set of truth statements—no matter how large the set is. Do you see the problem as it pertains to theology? If knowing God is treated as a matter of knowing things about God only, then we begin to treat God as a philosophical object—as a set of truth statements—rather than a person. This has been a significant implication of theological developments coming out of Chalcedon: God is treated as largely unknowable, and what can be known about God is defined in terms of truth statements. However, the Bible tells us we can know God—indeed, it claims that unbelievers know God. Critically considering the theological developments leading through Chalcedon, as my research is doing, allows us to diagnose and—I pray—undo the problems in these developments.

The third theme that has shaped Christian ministry and theology since Chalcedon is that theology and, therefore, pastoral ministry began to be treated as the domain of the elite, of those who were socially, financially and intellectually accomplished. If pastoral ministry involved pointing people to God, leading them in obedience to him, and upholding orthodoxy, then pastors should be those who are equipped to do these things. If knowing God and being orthodox involved knowing and defending a metaphysical system, or at least being able to understand this system, then pastors must be able to do so. In the ancient world—and our world is not so different today—it takes money, opportunities provided by good social standing, and a significant amount of intelligence to understand and defend the metaphysical doctrine of God developed in the 3-4th centuries and beyond. Pastors tended to be, and still tend to be, drawn from those who have the money to afford post-secondary education and the skills to succeed in the academic world. Most denominations in the West require formal education for the pastorate, anywhere from a bachelor’s degree to a PhD. However, the Bible makes no such requirements: because of theological developments that are not themselves implied in the Bible, we have vastly restricted the pool of potential ministers of the Gospel. No longer can uneducated fishermen, tax collectors, and zealots be tools in God’s redeeming hands.

These three developments are directly connected to the events leading up to and following Chalcedon. By untangling what exactly is going on at Chalcedon, I hope my research will show that in critical ways, by using the tools of ancient philosophy to defend the faith, many in the early church began to identify philosophy with the faith.

If you are interested in reading more about Chalcedon and these developments, or if you are interested in learning more about  Teleioteti, please check us out on the web at If you would like to see more resources like this produced, please consider praying for us or supporting us financially.

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