How Do We Preach Chalcedon in the 21st Century?

Have you ever heard any of the following preached from the pulpit?

  • And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature (Luke 2:52) – This refers to Jesus’ human side growing in wisdom.
  • At the temptation in the wilderness it was only Jesus’ humanity that was tempted, because God cannot be tempted.
  • At the crucifixion it was Jesus’ humanity that was killed, not his deity.
  • The miracles that Jesus performed were indicative of his divine nature, not his human.

In 451, the Council of Chalcedon was convened to address the person of Christ.  There were two opposing camps: the Alexandrians, who emphasized Jesus’ divinity over his humanity (Docetism), and the Antiochians, who emphasized Jesus’ humanity over his divinity (Nestorianism).

Instead of creating a creedal statement that drew a line in the sand, the council provided a definition that created a box or paradigm.  So long as beliefs of the two opposing camps fell within the confines of the box, then both (the more moderate Alexandrians and moderate Antiochians) could be considered orthodox.

The Definition, in summary, affirms that Jesus is fully God and fully human, and that these two natures are united but also distinct in the person of Christ.  What makes this more of a paradigm than a line is that the statement in no way tries to define the divinity or humanity of Christ, nor does it try to explain how the two natures are in relationship with one another, other than that they are indeed in relationship and not collapsed into one nature.

Karl Barth uses the Chalcedonian Definition throughout his Church Dogmatics.  Sometimes he uses it in the classical sense, referring to the person of Jesus and his two natures.  Sometimes he uses it examine the work of Christ.  And, more radically, he takes the paradigm and applies it to the relationship between God and the Church in his discussion of vocation in IV.3.2.

Some have accused Barth of being either Antiochian or Alexandrian in his leanings.  But, if you read through the Dogmatics, what he actually does is alternate and explore the Chalcedonian Definition from both positions.  The problem, which is often the problem with Barth, is that he can take hundreds of pages to get to the other side of the dialectic.  (George Hunsinger, for example, has mapped out how in CD IV Barth flips between the two idioms and basically the entire IV.1 is “Alexandrian”, IV.2 is mostly Antiochian, and IV.3 is both.  No wonder people accuse Barth of being one or the other, when an entire volume is basically in one idiom).  On the other hand, Charles Waldrop suggests that, particularly in III.2 in which Barth looks at the humanity of Christ and tends towards an Antiochian position, it is an Antiochian position working within the framework of an overall Alexandrian Christology.

Barth, of course, takes a lot of license with the Chalcedonian Definition, and refuses to be constrained by the Greek metaphysical definitions of nature and person.  For example, instead of using ‘Natur’ to talk of the natures of Christ, he uses the German word ‘Wesen.’  Sarah Coakley argues that, in general, the West and East approached the Chalcedonian Definition differently, with the West looking at it very rigidly, tied directly to the Greek language.  The East, on the other hand, saw flexibility in the Definition, and found ways to use it liturgically and with fluidity.  (I argue, in a different venue, that that is indeed what Barth is doing in his use of Chalcedon, in that he approaches it with an Eastern flexibility).

The other problem is that Barth “shorthands.”  So, he will write “Jesus, Son of God,” but what he actually means is “The Son of God who is Jesus of Nazareth.”  Likewise, when he refers to “Jesus of Nazareth,” what he means is “Jesus of Nazareth who is the Son of God.”

Of course, this is also what the NT authors do. They may refer to Jesus of Nazareth, but that does not mean that they deny that he is also the Son of God, and vice versa.  And maybe that is where our problem lies in preaching.  We assume that when the author refers to one nature, they ignore or even deny the other nature.


So here are my questions to pose to all of you pastors, preachers and teachers:

Should we preach Chalcedon today?

Do our congregations, which are steeped in a largely biblically-illiterate culture, just “know” that Christ is fully divine and fully human when we preach?

Is Chalcedon useful today?

What would happen if we dropped the “shorthand” and began using the full sentence in our preaching?

How do we guard against the tendency towards either Docetism or Nestorianism in our churches?

Should evangelical churches, that are largely creedless, begin to re-examine and find ways to adopt these ancient statements in a post-modern context?



Charles Waldrop, “Karl Barth’s Concept of the Divinity of Jesus Christ” Harvard Theological Review (1981): 241-263

George Hunsinger, “Karl Barth’s Christology: Its Basic Chalcedonian Character” in Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, pg 131-147.

Coakley, Sarah. “What Does Chalcedon Solve and What Does it Not? Some Reflections on the Status and Meaning of the Chalcedonian ‘Definition’”, in The Incarnation: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God. Pg 143-163.



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7 thoughts on “How Do We Preach Chalcedon in the 21st Century?

  1. Rod of Alexandria

    As a comment on the return of Nestorianism:

    My friend Sean, a devout bible-believing Roman Catholic, says that many of the neo-reformed/Calvinist folks are practicing Nestorians. I lean toward his position. Post forthcoming.

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