Sunday, September 27, 2009

on Chalcedon: Your Television Has Two Natures

On the Council of Chalcedon

Imagine a television, turned on. If you view it one way, from the perspective of something very close, one sees a collection of flickering pixels. From a more distant point of view one sees a moving picture. Both perspectives are essentially correct. Neither elaboration is more important than another. They are the same material simultaneously serving two functions. They are not separable and are not collapsible one in terms of another: the picture is not “just” moving pixels, and the pixels are not “just” a disintegrated picture. They are distinct realities occupying the same space and time. One television, two natures. This is the nearest I have ever come to understanding the articulation of the council of Chalcedon, and I’m probably wrong. But thankfully, Chalcedon was mostly a functional decision anyway, putting all disputes in their proper place rather than ultimately resolving them.

First, it answered the question left open by the Nicean council: If Jesus Christ the human is indeed fully God, how was this accomplished? Jesus Christ was composed of two natures, one human and one divine. This solidified the orthodox position by closing the gap Nicea had left – it meant that the church could now more clearly tell heretic from orthodox. One could not now claim the Gnostic position, for example, by claiming that the Jesus that was fully God was the spirit of God inside Jesus of Nazareth – and still claim to uphold the essential position of Nicea. Such positions were now more soundly refuted, and their concomitant dismissal of the material world, forever a trend in the Hellenistic thought with which Christian thought was now to be enmeshed, became itself a heretic position. Life in this world would be forever after, at least by strictly orthodox thinking, implicated in the life of the next world.

Chalcedon did not eliminate heresies, of course, but it did narrow the field of truth that could creditably be called orthodox – a process begun centuries earlier; Chalcedon certainly did not begin or end this trend, but did surely punctuate it. And while Chalcedon did unify the natures of Christ, it certainly also helped begin the division of the nature of the church. With the division between heretic and orthodox more firmly established, Christianity could begin developing that which it has had ever since: two orthodoxies. While the Latin West considered Chalcedon to be the final and practical resolution of the troublesome philosophical question, the more Hellenized East considered the same council a wonderful source for further contemplation – and called four more councils over the centuries to do precisely that.

Yes, this means, as Noll rightly puts it, that the God of the Hebraic thought-world had finally made it to the Hellenized thought-world – but simple translation did not erase the cultural and political differences of East and West – and indeed might have made further division possible. Because Constantine’s goal was not completely realized, even in Chalcedon: a united Christianity did not unite the failing Empire, as we can see in the delayed acceptance of Chalcedon in the East and the weakened Christianity that allowed later Islamic triumph in Africa.

Yes, says history: we’ll unite around this issue, but we’ll unite in different ways. And the stones that build the temple of accord become the missiles hurled in later civic splits. One brick, two natures. The agreement about the humanity and divinity of Christ was not agreement about divine and human will, and Monotheletism cooled relations between West and East. God represented as man in Jesus Christ did not equal God represented in other ways. The road to the Great Schism had begun.

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