Christology and the Chalcedonian Box

Christology, the branch of theology dealing specifically with the second Person of the Trinity, has lately been the source of much personal meditation. It all started a couple of years ago when I preached on the Incarnation (you can listen to a slightly modified version of this sermon on the podcast here). More recently, there was vigorous debate in my Sunday School class when I asked the class to describe how exactly the fulness of Deity could dwell in bodily form (Col 2:9). So, when I found a link to a lecture about the natures and person of Christ, I set aside an hour to listen and learn.

From this lecture I learned about the Chalcedonian Box. I’m not sure who came up with it, but it is a nice visual aid that helps to clarify our understanding of the incarnation. And, as the lecturer Fred Sanders said, you can’t put God in a box… unless you’re a clever theologian. The box is supposed to provide the boundaries for our discussions about Christ. If you want to remain orthodox, you cannot go outside the box. I don’t intend to provide all the detail from the lecture, but here is the box and some explanation of its meaning:

Only clever theologians can put God in a box

Since you’re probably not going to listen to those lectures, let me explain each of the borders:

The Top: The Nicene council declared the Arians to be heretics. The Arians essentially argued that since Jesus was begotten, he was created, and since he was created, he isn’t fully God. The council rightly argued: only God can save us. If Jesus wasn’t God, he can’t save us. Therefore, Jesus is fully God.

The Bottom: The council Constantinople I declared the Apollinarians to be heretics. The Apollinarians argued that Jesus was essentially a meat puppet (my term, not theirs) possessed by the second Person of the Trinity. They argued that Jesus did not have a soul. Therefore, Jesus did not possess a complete human nature. The council rightly argued: that which is not assumed is not healed. In other words, if Jesus assumed only the flesh of a man, only man’s flesh can be saved. But if Jesus was to save the souls of men, he must have had a soul. Therefore, Jesus is fully human, possessing both the flesh and soul of a man.

The Left: The Ephesus council declared the Nestorians to be heretics. The Nestorians argued that Jesus was two persons: Jesus the man did things that God couldn’t do and Jesus the Deity did things that man couldn’t do. For instance, when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the man part of Jesus wondered where Lazarus was while the God part of Jesus later raised him from the dead. The council rightly argued for what is called the Hypostatic union.  Jesus could not have been two persons because such a belief sabotages the fullness of the incarnation and, necessarily, human salvation. Therefore, Jesus is one person.

The Right: The Chalcedonian council declared the Eutychians to be heretics. The Eutychians argued that at the incarnation, the Divine nature (Godhood) and human nature (manhood) mixed to become a new nature (something like Godmanhood). The Eutychians did not explain how the merging of a finite human nature with an infinite divine nature could in any way affect the divine nature and create the third category. The council rightly argued that the two natures must remain distinct. What Christ was he remained, what he was not he became. Therefore, Jesus has two natures.

That is the chalcedonian box: the things we can say with certainty about the Incarnation. As long as you stay within those bounds, you are orthodox. Within the box you must develop your own understanding of how the incarnation actually works. You can contemplate how Christ can be both God and man, and how two natures exist in one person. Like all good frameworks, the box frees you to meditate, philosophize and reason on this subject without fear of being a heretic.

I have personally found the study of this box, or more precisely the study of these councils and heresies, to be extremely beneficial. I’ll have more to say about my teaching on the incarnation soon, maybe even correcting what I’ve taught in the past, but for now I hope you can mediate on these things for your edification.

Leave a Reply