Wednesday, July 11, 2007

It happened at Chalcedon

I have sometimes been asked by Roman Catholic friends why, exactly, I do not believe that the one holy catholic and apostolic church is the church of Rome; or some have put it the other way: if the church wasn't broken when Luther posted his debating points on the church door at Wittenburg, then when?

From where I sit, it looks pretty clearcut: it happened at Chalcedon. Let me explain why I say that.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
The ancient churches around the world founded by the apostles remained united for centuries afterwards, to the extent that we boldly confess in our creed that we believe in a church that is one (united), holy (of God and pursuing the things of God), catholic (worldwide and all-inclusive), and apostolic (with the same message of Christ brought by the apostles).

There were many ancient churches founded by the apostles, and these churches were in fellowship with each other in the early days of the church. Five of these churches had special prominence and gained reputations as centers of Christianity in their regions. Here is a brief introduction to the five major Christian centers of the ancient and undivided church.

Rome - The world's leading city in that day. Peter and Paul were instrumental in its eventual conversion to Christianity, and Rome was the place of their deaths. Home of some important early Christian writers. While all Christian churches produced martyrs, Rome may have had more than its share of confessors of the faith as it housed the throne of the pagan emperors.

Alexandria - Founded by Mark, the author of the second gospel and a disciple of Peter. Birthplace of monasticism, producer of the renowned writings of the Desert Fathers. Center of Christian scholarship in the early church. Home to an impressive number of the great Christian writers and leaders of the first four centuries.

Antioch - Founded by Peter and well-known to Paul; this may have been Luke's home town. The place where followers of Jesus were first called by the name Christians; base for an impressive amount of missionary work.

Constantinople - Early Christian origins. Distinguished itself during the Christological and Trinitarian controversies of the early church. The Nicene Creed in its present form was finalized in Constantinople (excepting the later Roman addition of the phrase "and the son" to the article on the Holy Spirit, an addition which is not universally accepted).

Jerusalem - All the apostles and also some family relations of Jesus founded this church, mother of all other churches. Home of the first church council, place of the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The birthplace of the church. Flourished for centuries (when not under siege) as a base for both Jewish and Gentile Christians. Held a leadership position in the earliest church.

There were other centers of Christianity which were accorded a great amount of respect, such as Ephesus and Nicea. Some of these smaller centers also had apostolic origins. The point in the sketch of the five great ancient centers is not to limit apostolic Christianity to these five sees, but to recognize the status they held in the early church.

If you start with this or a comparable thumbnail sketch of the ancient church, you can then find an objectively meaningful answer to the question of when the church's operation changed from the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church: it happened at Chalcedon. The Council of Chalcedon in the year 451 A.D. saw the division of the apostolic churches. Alexandria and Antioch, though apostolic, were no longer recognized as part of the church by the other sees due to their disagreements with the decrees of Chalcedon over the finer points of how the divine and human natures coexist in Christ. According to the western churches, the church was no longer perceived in the same way as "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic", but now was defined in practice as "those who agree with the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon." It was quietly assumed that no one who was truly apostolic could have legitimately disagreed with these findings on the subtle interrelation of human and divine nature -- no more than they could have legitimatly disagreed with the earlier councils affirming that Christ was crucified under Pontius Pilate. I think that was the fundamental mistake that led inevitably to the now-common practice where we recognize Christian unity and limit fellowship by fine points of doctrine which may not be clearly taught anywhere in the teachings of Christ or the apostles.

So the year 451 A.D. was when the western church changed its own perception of the church. The decisions of Chalcedon were seen as the defining and unarguable arbiter of membership in the church. The phrase "one holy catholic and apostolic church" could no longer be used of any single church body beginning in that year: the apostolic churches were no longer in fellowship.

There have been no truly ecumenical decisions since then. There have been no truly ecumenical councils since then. All the doctrinal developments since then have been regional or sectarian. That is not to say that nothing worthwhile has happened; a great many accomplishments have been made all around. But the most necessary accomplishment has not happened: the reunification of the apostolic churches around the world. Earlier I said that, reviewing church history, there is an objectively meaningful answer to the question of when the church's operation changed from the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. I was careful not to say that the church's identity changed, but its operation. We are all the church by identity, whether or not we recognize that in our thoughts, words, and actions. The church is still holy, catholic, and apostolic -- and we are still one in Christ whether we recognize each other or not.

Until the apostolic churches speak with one voice, there is no single voice who can speak for the one holy catholic and apostolic church. But to unravel the mess we are in, we have to go back beyond Chalcedon, back to the source. We have to recognize one catholic Christianity wherever we find what is holy and apostolic.


Chris Jones said...

Dear Weekend Fisher,

I don't think the Church was definitively "broken" at Chalcedon. If it were broken at Chalcedon, it would have been broken just as much twenty years before at Ephesus, or 125 years before at Nicaea. Whenever the fulness of the Apostolic faith is at risk, those who are faithul to that Apostolic faith must make a stand, and say definitively "this is our faith; those who teach otherwise are teaching a false Gospel."

Every time there is such a definitive moment in the history of the Church, there is a division in the Church. Even with the council of the Apostles in Acts 15, there were those who did not accept that decision and went their own way. They endured, as their own "church" (the Ebionites) for several centuries. Likewise the Arians after Nicaea and Constantinople, the Assyrians after Ephesus, and the Copts and Armenians after Chalcedon, all split off into their own churches.

But that does not mean that the Apostolic Church herself was in any way truly divided. The true Church continued to hold the apostolic deposit of faith in its fulness. It is not that the true Church is defined as "those who agree with Chalcedon"; rather, the true Church is the community founded by Christ which proclaims and guards the faith of the Apostles in its entirety. Chalcedon is one witness among many to what that faith is.

We can describe the Church as "those who agree with Chalcedon" as well as "those who agree with the Apostles"; and "those who agree with the Scriptures"; and "those who agree with Nicaea"; and "those who agree with Augustine, and Ambrose, and Athanasius, and Gregory Nazianzen, and Basil, and Maximos, and John Damascene". Those are all ways of saying the same thing.

Weekend Fisher said...

Historically, your argument that Chalcedon is different just doesn't stand; in fact the examples you bring simply reinforce my original point. Those who broke away at Jerusalem were rejecting the apostolic teaching. The Arians did not take away any of the great ancient centers of ancient apostolic Christianity. Not so with Chalcedon: that's when the apostolic churches broke fellowship with each other, and when the "holy catholic and apostolic church" could no longer refer to one undivided visible church body.

Mark said...

Dear Weekend Fisher,

A book I recently read (on planes ... which seem the best places for reading for me these days) a book I read seemed to directly impact what you are considering here.

More here

LPC said...


What you say is interesting.

I have been thinking of your post and I recall what an Anglican internet friend said...

He asserts that the apostasy spoken of by the Scripture had to occur as it was predicted in Scripture. His thesis (or I think also his church's thesis) is that the church gradually slumped into apostasy so that in the end the anti-Christ might be revealed. Obviously he believes that those who deny the Gospel as understood by the Reformers are the apostates and the Reformation is the coming out from that.


Brandon said...

The argument seems to depend crucially on taking the Five Sees as the apostolic sees; if, for instance, we take 'apostolic' in the more general sense you note exists, Ephesus had already seen a rupture among apostolic centers, since neither the Parthians (who became the Assyrian Church of the East) nor the Armenians, both recognized as apostolic in the more general sense, accepted it. The difference between these and the Pentarchy is juridical and administrative: the Armenians were subject to the bishop of Caesarea, who was subject to the bishop of Constantinople; and the Parthians were subject to the bishop of Antioch. But arguably this has nothing to do with their apostolicity as such. So, assuming that the general form of the argument is a good one, the argument can only go through for Chalcedon (rather than Ephesus) if we focus on not apostolic churches but apostolic churches with specially recognized jurisdictional primacy. One can make the same argument for Ephesus being based on fine points of doctrine as for Chalcedon; and one can just as well see it as a division of apostolic churches. I'm not sure why you put such emphasis on primacy of jurisdiction, so I don't know why it's Chalcedon rather than Ephesus that is taken as the division point.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Brandon

Actually I turned over the idea of some other councils for awhile because of the issues of smaller breakaways. I pondered whether a breach between the five communities with "specially recognized juridisdictional primacy" (as you put it) would harm Christian unity more if they should disown each other, compared to the harm done if the five of them should stand together against (say) the Parthians. And the more I pondered it, the more I became convinced the answer was a plain and unequivocal yes. The size and importance weren't the only considerations, but they're not negligible ones either as if we were working in a vacuum instead of with real earthly community. The fact that the Christian community recognized itself in these five sees also played a part in the effect on the Christian community when these split several ways. So I really don't doubt that a breach between Rome and Alexandria and Antioch was far more momentous for Christianity as a whole than a breach that affected relatively few congregations. The breach between Rome and Alexandria and Antioch was just as worthy of special notice as a major history-changing breach as when Rome and Constantinople went their separate ways several centuries later.

I also pondered the content of the councils, whether the findings were incontrovertibly apostolic. Chalcedon was the first ecumenical council where the findings were questionable on apostolic/catholic grounds. I'll say fairly plainly that I sympathize with the Copts and think their miaphysite view was rejected without a fair hearing as monophysite (which it isn't). I think it's quite possible the Copts have at least an equally viable interpretation to the one formed at Chalcedon. I'll also say plainly that I think the less-solid, less-apostolic grounds of Chalcedon was exactly why the apostolic church broke at Chalcedon.

Take care & God bless

Weekend Fisher said...

Another example occurs to me about how to make my point clear. Consider the effect on the U.N. if Liechtenstein broke away, denounced the U.N. as invalid, and went on its way. Now consider the effect on the U.N. and its credibility if the U.S. and China did the same.

Antioch and Alexandria leaving were two of the big boys on the block leaving. Not making a direct comparison of either of them to the U.S. or China, obviously ...

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF