History of the Catholic Church – The Council of Chalcedon (Story Series Ep8) [Part 1]
The Word, The Flesh and God
“It is Peter who says this through Leo”
The history of the council of Chalcedon is filled with intrigue! We must work our way through the two years leading to it slowly – in three posts. We will visit Constantinople, Ephesus, Rome, and Nicaea before we finally reach Chalcedon. A bishop was beaten by soldiers, and monks! He died. Someone almost excommunicated all the bishops of a province, nay, he attempted to excommunicate the Pope!
The Roman empire in the East passed from emperor to empress to emperor again.
Why the council? Yet another error concerning the Incarnation of the Word of God.
Happily, Pope St. Leo the Great, with the aid of grace and of the Blessed Prince of the Apostles, settled the doctrine once and for all in an epistle which has come down to us as the Tome of Leo.
First, the Synod at Constantinople – 448 AD
In the year 449 AD, Dioscurus, bishop of Alexandria, in a council which has come down through history as the “Robber Synod”, executed the unprecedented. He beat up Flavian, bishop of Constantinople.
Flavian had held a synod of his suffragans to settle some matters of discipline. During this synod, one of his suffragan bishop Eusebius of Dorylaeum raised up the case of a certain abbot of a monastery in Constantinople, Eutyches, who had been preaching heresy concerning the Incarnation.
Eutyches wrongly interpreted the words of St. Cyril’s treatise against Nestorius on the Incarnation. Cyril taught that the Divine Person on the Son of God had two natures – Divine and human. Nestorius taught that Christ had two personalities, human and Divine, and that when Christ suffered the Divine Person left and only the Human suffered. He was justly condemned.
Eutyches pursued his error, beyond the Catholic mean, to the far right. He taught that there was only one nature in Christ. The Divine. According to his error, the Divine Nature ‘swallowed’ up the human nature of Christ. A consequence of this error is this: that God in His Divinity suffered during the passion of our Lord. But it is not possible for the Divine to suffer. If it were, and this leads to the incontrovertible conclusion that not only the Son but the Father and the Holy Ghost suffered as well, since in the Blessed Trinity there is but one Divine Nature.
Flavian summoned Eutyches. The abbot, ninety years at the time, came with an entourage of 100 monks and some imperial guards. The council requested him to clarify his doctrine or outright renounce them as error.
“These things surpass me”, he said, “I cannot split Christ into two. What I teach is what Cyril, hammer of Nestorius, taught”.
Flavian condemned him as a heretic, stripped him off his abbey, and his priestly duties. He forbade him from teaching and forbade others from going to him as well.
The Emperor Theodosius II, and Dioscurus of Alexandria, both present at the synod, did not support the judgment of Flavian. Eutyches appealed to Rome. Theodosius wrote in his support.
Pope Leo received the appeal with surprise. He replied the emperor informing him of his complete ignorance of the entire proceedings. The pope wrote to Flavian as well.
“We desire”, he wrote, “to know the reasons for your action, and that all the documents should be sent… Would you then, beloved brother, hasten to tell us the whole story as fully and as lucidly as possible, as you ought to have done already … to say what this new thing is that contradicts the old belief, and which you have seen fit to punish with so severe a sentence.”
Flavian sent the acts of his synod and an exposition of the errors of Eutyches to the pope. It was clear. Eutyches was in the wrong. The pope confirmed the judgment of Flavian, although he blamed the error of Eutyches to “a lack of skill in these matters rather than malice”.
This response of the Pope to Flavian was no ordinary letter. It was a dogmatic letter. In it Pope Leo expounded once and forever the doctrine of the Incarnation. It is popularly called the Tome of Leo. We shall peak into its content when we gather with the bishops at Chalcedon further on.