Decisive Moments:  How a Horse Saved Orthodoxy

29 April 2024 by Wes Bredenhof

white horse kicking while man on ground
white horse kicking while man on ground

The Council of Nicea was decisive for addressing Trinitarian heresies.  But following this meeting, other heresies continued to infect the Church.  In today’s instalment of this series, we’ll look at how heresies regarding the doctrine of Christ were addressed. 

In the late 300s and into the 400s, controversy raged about the relationship between the divinity and humanity of Christ.  The fact that he was both God and man wasn’t so much in dispute.  It was more about how these natures interacted.  So, for example, we find Nestorius in Antioch.  He taught that the human nature of Christ is separate and distinct from the divine nature.  Bishop Cyril of Alexandria exerted himself against this teaching.  Both Cyril and Nestorius had large groups of followers. 

The Council of Ephesus was convened in 431 to sort this out.  It was actually the initiative of Nestorius.  He was convinced that an ecumenical council would see his teaching vindicated and Cyril convicted as a heretic.  It was supposed to be a meeting of the minds, but half the minds didn’t appear and they were the ones supposed to vindicate Nestorius.  Consequently, Nestorius was roundly condemned.  But he and his followers met separately and returned the favour.  They condemned and excommunicated Cyril and his followers.  All of this history resulted in the establishment of a “Church of the East,” which includes the Assyrian Church.  To this day, this church remains Nestorian, along with several others in the East. 

Things blew up again with a monk from Constantinople by the name of Eutyches.  He taught that, after the incarnation, Christ had only one nature.  It was a single nature composed of a mixture of the divine and human.  Eutyches compared it to mixing wine with water.  Once the two are mixed, they become indistinguishable from one another.  This teaching didn’t go down well with the archbishop of Constantinople.  He banished Eutyches for what he was teaching.  Nonetheless, Eutyches had his supporters and among them was Emperor Theodosius II.  With such friends in high places, Eutyches seemed to be secure.

However, Theodosius went for a fateful horse ride on July 28, 450.  He was thrown from his horse and died.  And with his death went the royal approbation of Eutychianism.  Without our equine friend’s divinely ordained bronco moment, church history could have turned out quite differently! 

The sister of Theodosius, Pulcheria, was next in line to the throne.  She was a supporter of the orthodox view of Christ’s two natures, and not only her, but also her husband Marcian.  Her husband became the new emperor and he fairly quickly convened another ecumenical council to settle the issue of Eutychianism and other Christological heresies. 

This council began in Chalcedon (in modern day Turkey) on October 8, 451.  Debate was intense and deep regarding the person of Christ, particularly his two natures.  After much discussion, the Council of Chalcedon agreed on what has become known as the Chalcedonian Definition (sometimes called the Chalcedonian Creed).    

The Definition famously says that Christ is to be acknowledged in two natures, “unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.”  The first two of these adverbs are directed at Eutychianism and the latter two are directed at Nestorianism.  Simply put, the Son of God is one person with two natures, human and divine.  Those two natures are always together after the incarnation, but we must also distinguish between them.       

The Chalcedonian Definition was readily accepted in the Western Church, but only very slowly in the East.  Today, the substance of the Chalcedonian Definition can be found in the Athanasian Creed, particularly in articles 31-37.  We also find the essence of it in article 19 of the Belgic Confession.  It speaks of “…two natures united in one single person.  Each nature retains its own distinct properties…these two natures are so closely united in one person that they were not even separated by his death.”

This bit of church history is important for two reasons.  First, we can see how God worked to preserve the truth of who Christ is, also so that truth could be transmitted down to us.  If it is eternal life to know the Son of God who was sent into the world (John 17:3), then it’s vital that we know him rightly.  Second, both the Council of Ephesus and the Council of Chalcedon are vital background to something coming further down the track.  They contributed to a growing divide between East and West, something that eventually resulted in the Great Schism of 1054 – I plan to look at that in a couple of instalments from now.