A Generous Heresy: Rejecting Chalcedon

Amanda has done a wonderful job here of unpacking some issues regarding the use of Chalcedon in our churches today. The issues raised are appropriate, but I found myself wondering what this might mean for me, being someone who rejects Chalcedon.

I want to be clear about my position. My position isn’t clear. I do not reject Chalcedon because of some perceived heresy that I see within it. I don’t see a theological bogeyman that needs to be confronted or rejected. What I do see is an irrelevance.

Chalcedon is irrelevant because of the following: 1) It builds on earlier assumptions from the three earlier councils, which I also reject. Such outsourcing of theology is rejected by me. 2) The councils did not originate out of some sort of pastoral concern, but out of a felt need on the part of church leaders to control and streamline what is taught. Such hegemony is rejected by me. 3) The way in which the councils have been used as a measuring stick for orthodoxy has created “others” who weren’t “others” before the council. Such dualism is rejected by me. 4) The arguments and assumptions used to form Chalcedonian standards are rooted in a pre-modern, Greco-Roman worldview. While I affirm every culture’s right, nay, NEED, to enculturate the gospel, what I reject is the calcifying of the gospel as being necessarily understood through any particular cultural understanding. Which is exactly what Chalcedon has done.

Let us show our work. As noted by Amanda, the council of Chalcedon in 451 largely dealt with the debate between those who thought Christ’s divine nature overshadowed his human nature and those who thought the reverse. My assessment of this is: What difference does it make? Theologically and spiritually, it makes very little difference in the living out of the gospel and God’s mission. Why then the big fuss? Because politically, it made a large difference.

You see, it was inferred that the relationship between the church and the empire was typified by the relationship between Christ and God. Thus to emphasize one over the other would have implications for the politics of the day more than the day-to-day of the church. Ergo, I reject a notion that only serves only to divide the church and to legitimate a political position.

Further, the language of Christ’s two natures, while taken for granted by Chalcedon, is a Greco-Roman construct. Homoousios vs. Homoiousios is not Biblical language. It is simply one culture’s way of framing the earlier Hebraic faith. I oppose Chalcedon because it gives the appearance of divine approval to an outsourcing of theology to a 4th and 5th century Greco-Roman group of people who admitted no agenda, but clearly had one.While claiming to affirm a certain level of mystery, Chalcedon only does so after it has already said more than it should have.

Further, why does Christ have to be both Divine and Human? Or more to the point, if scripture only approaches this teaching narratively, why do we insist on understanding it mathematically? Economically? Through a Roman lens? Is it not enough to understand Jesus as being fully human, yet paradoxically doing and saying things only God could say and do? Why not let many theories abound?

Here’s a secret: most Christians today are not Chalcedonian compliant. Most Christians I know, apart from official doctrine, hold a modalistic view of the Trinity. Yet we still claim the old heresies as our own. Here’s a bombshell – I think Pelagius was way more right than Augustine. I have affinity for ebionite Christianity. I don’t particularly like Arianism, but I approve of all of those Barbarians as Christians, not heretics.

I may be the most heretical member of Political Jesus, but I am a committed Christian with an extremely high view of the scripture. But my view of such high authority does not pass on to a high view of the councils. My faith, as much as it is possible for me, tries to acknowledge the traditions of our faith history, but I do my best to understand my faith through the lens of my culture interpreting the words of the 1st century Hebraic faith of Jesus. Not understanding our faith through the lens of our culture, the lens of the enlightenment reformation, the lens of Latin theologians, the lens of Greco-Roman councilors, viewing a 1st century faith of Jesus. That looks like heresy to me.

But don’t worry, I have a generous view of heresy. It is what we all are, if we are honest.


21 thoughts on “A Generous Heresy: Rejecting Chalcedon

  1. Charles

    Would I be too greco-enlightenment-modernist-yadda-yadda if I asked if the important question is not whether or not Chalcedon is political, exclusionary, or culturally-embedded, but whether or not it is correct?

    If “let many theories abound” is the answer (which, as Amanda pointed out, was part of what Chalcedon in fact did), then where DO you draw the line between Christian and non-Christian? Gnosticism is also a viewing of a 1st-Century faith through a (substance dualist) cultural lens; so is gnosticism not heretical in your view? By affirming your Christian commitment with a statement of your high view of scripture, doesn’t that exclude those with a low view? Aside from drawing your line around a bigger circle, how are you not doing the same thing as the councils?

    1. Optimistic Chad Post author

      no, I don’t think you are too anything. You are right to ask the question of correctness from your perspective. And If I were to answer you, I would likely say that I affirm most of Chalcedon in some way. However, judging the correctness of such a post-Biblical argument, that honestly could have gone in a different direction, is not really my place. We can all have our theories, but to cannonize such theories, as Calcedon does, goes further than I am comfortable with.

      Personally, I don’t draw lines between Christian and non-Christian. As I see it, the church is a community of orthopraxy, not orthodoxy. The discipleship of Jesus, allegiance to God, the community of believers, these make someone a Christian, not what they believe about natures, trinity, or even authority.

      1. Charles

        “Personally, I don’t draw lines between Christian and non-Christian. As I see it, the church is a community of orthopraxy, not orthodoxy.”

        Isn’t that a contradiction, since the line between orthopraxy and heteropraxy would be your line between Christian and non-Christian?

        Being a psychologist, a lot of the theology talk around here goes over my head, but one issue that I focus on in psychology is that of definition. When a researcher studies associations between religiosity and mental health, for example, the definitions of “religion” and “mental health” with which that person works will have a profound impact on the outcome of the study.

        No matter what criteria one uses to define one’s terms, all definitions are divisive and exclusionary, as they separate what is “inside” the category (for example, a mental illness) from what is “outside” the category (a personality quirk that is strange, but not an illness, like enjoying the taste of Spam*). Even if one goes with a flexible “family resemblance” (a la Wittgenstein) or “fuzzy category” (a la Rosch) approach without sharp boundaries, there remains a point at which the object in question is no longer part of the “family.”

        In this case, the question is the (possibly fuzzy) boundary surrounding the category of “Christian.” Arguing that certain ecumenical councils weren’t fuzzy enough is not the same thing as claiming to have no boundaries. From the perspective of cognitive psychology, one who lacks conceptual boundaries would be entirely unable to think.

        *Those who like the taste of pickle-flavored potato chips, on the other hand, are clearly dysfunctional.

        1. Charles

          (If that came across as severe, that was not my intent. I get that these kinds of questions do not lend themselves to simple answers. As a personal example, the other day I was having a discussion with my wife in which we tried to figure out what precisely the difference is between an opera and a musical. So I am not arguing that it is easy to find a clear and solid “line” that can serve as our conceptual boundary-marker. Except for the ability to pronounce “shibboleth,” of course; that we can always trust.)

          1. Optimistic Chad Post author

            Charles, I like you.

            I didn’t find it severe at all. I guess if we are defining things as concise as possible, here is my take.

            As far as defining who is in and who is out, humans tend to be lousy judges. For my part, I judge myself on the basis of well I follow what I understand Jesus to be teaching, believing as I do that he represents God in multiple fashions.

            There are certainly things I think are dangerous beliefs, but I would rely more on God to make the decision on who is a heretic and who isn’t.

            If pushed, I suppose I could come up with some heresies of my own, but returning to the original post, overthinking and outsourcing our theology, to the detriment of unity and creation of outcasts, is not worth valuing over right behavior.

  2. Amanda

    re: 3) The way in which the councils have been used as a measuring stick for orthodoxy has created “others” who weren’t “others” before the council. Such dualism is rejected by me.

    I think that is why I liked Coakley’s article (referenced at the bottom of my post). She says that one of the things that history books forget to mention is that the council at Chalcedon really didn’t want to write a new creed. All they wanted to do was reaffirm the Nicene Creed. Maybe that’s why there is this flexibility in Chalcedon that is not seen in the other creeds?
    She also notes that in the West, the Church has approached Chalcedon as a ‘measuring stick’ of orthodoxy, but in the East, not so much.

    So my question, are you reacting to Chalcedon, or are you reacting to how it has been used? If it is the latter, then how about trying to use it from a more Eastern perspective?

    edited to add: I agree that we all are, in our own way, heretics about something 🙂 I can’t help but think that a little bit of heresy might be a good thing? It keeps us talking, it keeps us thinking, it keeps us from getting to arrogant.

    1. Optimistic Chad Post author

      To your point, Amanda, I can very much sympathize with this. I agree that much of what has been done in the name of unity many times finds itself as a divisive tool. I also affirm the flexibility of Eastern thinking here, where Chalcedon can be seen as sort of a “ballpark” answer instead of the final one. And you would be correct for most. For my part however, I reject Nicea along the same grounds as I reject Chalcedon. Not because there is something horribly wrong (although the “heresies” and the booting of persons out of the church, along with the conscious distancing of Christianity from Judaism are all very troublesome), but because they are too wrapped up in a culture not mine, and not one ordained by God.

      I do appreciate your use of Barth in your article though. Looking through his lens, I could probably get on board with Calcedon in the same way I was able to get on board with Reformed theology because of his dialectic approach.

  3. Rod of Alexandria


    Sounds like you have been reading some Black and Womanist theologies. These are the very reasons why they reject Chalcedon, etc.

    My post is going to answer all questions posed by you and amanda? How? Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and J Kameron Carter. What What!

    1. Optimistic Chad Post author

      I am not simply a foil for your opinions, Rod!
      p.s. should our next tri-blog be about Paul? It will probably look very much the same, lol…

          1. Rod of Alexandria

            @Chad and Amanda,

            I am all in. Just shoot us an email Chad to tell us about your ideas. I don’t have to go last/bat clean up all the time, even though it is fun, but we shall see.

  4. Kevin

    The arguments and assumptions used to form Chalcedonian standards are rooted in a pre-modern, Greco-Roman worldview. While I affirm every culture’s right, nay, NEED, to enculturate the gospel, what I reject is the calcifying of the gospel as being necessarily understood through any particular cultural understanding. Which is exactly what Chalcedon has done.

    Brilliantly said. Succinctly sums up my view on Nicaea and Chalcedon.

  5. John Wilks

    The irony of your whole train of thought is the assumption that for theology to be ultimately relevant, it must be of, by, and for your culture. This is, of course, the prevailing attitude of the many cottage-industry theologies popular today which speak for one demographic or another- all of which denies the foundational transcendence of God, Christ, Atonement, and New Life.

    In other words, your critique of Chalcedon is guilty of the same provincial navel-gazing which you accuse Chalcedon of in the first place.

    So I ask you- is the goal of Christianity that someday people of every tribe, language, and nation will rejoice over one Gospel? Or is it that each would have a gospel all its own to rejoice at separately?

    It seems to me that your impulse (and the impulse of the well-intentioned but hopelessly fractured multiverse of liberation theologies) is towards the latter.

    1. Optimistic Chad Post author

      Thanks for your comments, John. I don’t believe I called Chalcedon irrelevant because it is not of, by, or for my culture. I actually gave 4 reasons why I think that, and only the 4th is relevant to your comment. Even so, I don’t feel that theology itself needs to be from any particular culture to be relevant. I do think that the gospel needs to be encultured or it quite simply IS irrelevant, by the nature of the word. In fact, unless you read only from the Greek and Hebrew, you agree at least on some level.

      I should also say, that navel gazing in this scenario would seem a more apt moniker for those who outsource their theology to pre-modern Greco-Romans than trying to wrestle with those issues within their contexts.

      Also, there does seem to be a willful refusal on your part to see that Chalcedon did for its culture what I am suggesting we do for ours. Where were people like you back then shouting that the Greeks and Romans had no right to enculturate the gospel to their contexts?

      Further, my impulse is not new. It is the impulse that the church fathers had when they wrestled with these issues so long ago. The impulse I am getting from your rather snarky comments is the same impulse I see from the Pharisees in the Gospels who would rather stick to their calcified traditions than explore what the scriptures might mean in a new context.

      New wineskins anyone?

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