Conciliar Christology

Timothy Pawl

This article presents the concept of Conciliar Christology, the Christology taught at the first seven ecumenical councils of the Christian Church. It then discusses the motivations for considering Conciliar Christology when theorizing about the incarnation. These motivations include the historical groundedness one gains in theorizing in light of Conciliar Christology, the broad consensus of reception and authority that Conciliar Christology enjoys among Christians throughout the centuries, and the relevance Conciliar Christology has to the community of Christian believers.

It next discusses the foundations of Conciliar Christology as they were taught by the ecumenical councils. Those councils themselves relied on multiple sources in their formation of doctrine, with their main two sources being scripture and tradition. Concerning traditional sources, the councils cite historical practice, previous conciliar teaching, and the texts of their opponents (as a sort of negative source of authority).

After discussing the concept, the motivation, and the foundations for Conciliar Christology, the article summarizes the content of Conciliar Christology. According to Conciliar Christology:

  1. Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, is one person who has two complete and distinct natures after the incarnation.
  2. One of these natures is the one and only divine nature, according to which the person of Christ is rightly considered immutable and impassible, and which he shares in no less when incarnate than he did otherwise.
  3. The other nature is a human nature. This nature either (1) is composed of a body ensouled by a rational soul, or (2) entails that the bearer, at least during life, has a body ensouled by a rational soul. According to this nature, Christ is like us in all ways – including having a created will – except sin.
  4. These two natures were united in a unique, ineffable manner that leaves the natures whole and intact. They are able to perform their own individual operations, which they perform in communion with one another. This union can aptly be characterized as similar to the union between a soul and the body it informs.
  5. Predications are true of the one person, Christ, according to his two natures. Sometimes these predications are true of him according to one nature but explicitly not true of him according to another. In fact, sometimes the natures make apparently incompatible predications true of the one Christ. In such circumstances, both expressions are true of the one God-man, though the predications need not be true of either or both natures of the God-man.

Finally, given this conceptualization of Conciliar Christology, its motivations, foundations, and content, the article concludes with a discussion of the potential research trajectories for Conciliar Christology. These include scriptural investigations into the evidential relationship that scripture bears to the teachings of Conciliar Christology. These investigations include historical questions concerning which documents are authoritative for Conciliar Christology, how the concepts in those documents (e.g. nature) were understood by their authors, and how those documents were received historically. Potential research trajectories include philosophical investigations into the coherence of Conciliar Christology, the metaphysical models one might use to understand Conciliar Christology, and the philosophical anthropology one might need to explain how one person can have two wills. Finally, the potential research trajectories include systematic investigations into in what ways, and to what degree, the content of Conciliar Christology coheres with other theological theses, schools, or thinkers.

1 Conciliar Christology: scope

Consider the earliest seven ecumenical councils – the councils held as binding by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and those churches in union with them: the First Council of Nicaea (325); the First Council of Constantinople (381); the Council of Ephesus (431); the Council of Chalcedon (451); the Second Council of Constantinople (553); the Third Council of Constantinople (680–681); the Second Council of Nicaea (787). The conjunction of the teachings from these councils concerning the incarnation is Conciliar Christology. (Herein ‘Roman Catholic’ is used as shorthand to designate the Roman Catholic Church along with the 23 other Catholic Churches, e.g. the Antiochian, Alexandrian, and Chaldean Catholic Churches.)

The claims included in Conciliar Christology come from definitions and expositions of faith, creeds, canons, and anathemas of the councils. If such official conciliar statements explicitly accept the teaching of other documents – for example, as the Chalcedonian Definition of the faith accepts Cyril of Alexandria’s second letter to Nestorius and his letter to John of Antioch, as well as Pope Leo I’s Tome to Flavian (‘Leo’s Tome’; Tanner 1990: 85) – then the christological teachings from those documents are included as parts of Conciliar Christology, too.

Determining whether texts are included in the councils is difficult in some cases. That said, there are some documents that are included on any reasonable evaluation. These include the creeds, the definitions of faith, the anathemas, and the dogmatic canons. Some of these documents explicitly endorse others. For instance, as mentioned above, Cyril’s second letter and Leo’s Tome are accepted by documents that are central to the ecumenical councils on any reasonable standard – for instance, the expositions of faith from both the Council of Chalcedon (85) and the Third Council of Constantinople (126–127). These texts describe Cyril’s letters as ‘well-suited to refuting’ Nestorius and for providing ‘understanding of the saving creed’, and Leo’s Tome as ‘in agreement with Peter’s confession’ and ‘a pillar of right belief.’ Indeed, Paul Gondreau (2009: 216) claims that Leo’s Tome was ‘solemnly endorsed at Chalcedon’. A view also articulated by Herbert Relton (1917: 44) says similarly. Bronwen Neil writes in her book, Leo the Great, that the Tome ‘became the touchstone of Chalcedonian Orthodoxy’ (2009: 27). The scholarly consensus is that the Tome, Cyril’s second letter to Nestorius, John of Antioch’s Formula of Union, and Cyril’s response to John are all official documents of the councils. For discussion of individual conciliar texts and their authority, see Bellitto (2002: 23, 27), Denzinger (2002: 50, note 1), Kelly (2009: 44), Landon (1909: 140, 200 [vol. 1]), Price (2009: 75), Russell (2000: 35–39), and Weinandy (1985: 58). Cyril’s third letter to Nestorius, and the twelve anathemas attached to it, is a more difficult case. For the discussion concerning this letter, see Graumann (2011: 36), Hardy (1954: 349), Landon (1909: 201 [vol. 1]), Pawl (2016: 12–13), Price (2009: 85), Tanner (1990: 37–38), and Wesche (1997: 144). For a helpful discussion of related epistemological questions concerning conciliar theology, see Anatolios (2019: 351–352).

The term ‘Conciliar Christology’ is used most frequently in the literature of analytic theology: see, for instance, Arcadi (2018), Crisp et al. (2019), Hauser (2020), Jaeger (2017), Labooy (2019), McCall (2019), Pawl (2015; 2016; 2016; 2016; 2016; 2018; 2019; 2020), Wessling (2013), and Williams (2019). Nevertheless, it was employed by some thinkers prior to the advent of analytic theology – see, for instance, Hardy (1954: 36) and Hallman (1991: xii, xiii). More recently, it has also been employed outside of the analytic context – see Louth (2010: 191) and Khaled Anatolios (2014), among others.

Conciliar Christology is not the only field to employ this particular conception of ‘Conciliar’ in contemporary philosophy and theology. Similar usage of the ‘Conciliar’ modifier has been applied in other areas of systematic and dogmatic theology and philosophy. See, for just one instance, the discussion of Conciliar Trinitarianism in a 2020 special issue of the journal TheoLogica (4:2) dedicated to the topic, including articles by Bray (2020), Edwards (2020), Maspero (2020), Mullins (2020), O’Byrne (2020), Pawl (2020), Torrance (2020), and Tuggy (2020).

2 The motivations for Conciliar Christology

This section presents some motivations for the emphasis on Conciliar Christology in theological discussion.

2.1 Historical groundedness

One method to ensure that one’s theology is grounded in the history of Christian tradition is through tying one’s work to the most common texts of Christian orthodoxy. This does not require that one take the truth of Conciliar Christology as given. However, many have found that the texts of Conciliar Christology can function as a grounding for one’s thought, even if one does not entirely agree with it. One motivation for employing the concept of Conciliar Christology, then, is grounding one’s theology in the historical discussions.

2.2 Broad consensus among traditions, both East and West, both past and present

A second, related motivation for working in explicit contact with Conciliar Christology is the consensus gained by using Conciliar Christology as a starting point. Arguably, using the first seven councils as one’s intellectual backdrop yields the most consensus for theological discussion. One finds this both historically, when looking at reception history, and also presently, when looking at the authoritative status such documents have for present Christian denominations.

2.2.1 Reception history

The seven councils – the christological teachings of which constitute Conciliar Christology – have been received as binding and authoritative to many in Christian history. For instance, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev writes the following of the authority of tradition in Orthodox theology:

This absolute and indisputable authority is used in the dogmatic decisions of the ecumenical councils, proceeding from what the Church has received. […] These decisions are not subject to change and are universally applied to all members of the Church. (2012: 43)

He then goes on to refer, in particular, to the ‘decisions and canons of the seven ecumenical councils’ as being received with this special status. Likewise, Kallistos Ware writes, in a chapter entitled ‘The Church of the Seven Councils’, that ‘the Councils defined once and for all the Church’s teaching upon the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith – the Trinity and the Incarnation’ (1964: 28).

Medieval thinkers received these councils as vital for the theological enterprise as well. For instance, Thomas Aquinas employed texts from the Councils of Ephesus, Chalcedon, and Second and Third Constantinople as authorities with which one must not disagree. One sees this most clearly in his discussion of the union of the word with the human nature of Christ in Summa Theologiae, III q.2 a.3 and 6, as Barnes (2014) shows. See Barnes 2014 for an excellent discussion of Aquinas’ use of the conciliar texts, and the influence his use of those texts had on later scholastics.

Likewise, many Protestant thinkers have received the findings of the councils in their own thought. John Calvin, for instance, wrote in his Institutes:

Those ancient Councils of Nice, Constantinople, the first of Ephesus, Chalcedon, and the like, which were held for refuting errors, we willingly embrace, and reverence as sacred, in so far as relates to doctrines of faith, for they contain nothing but the pure and genuine interpretation of Scripture, which the holy Fathers with spiritual prudence adopted to crush the enemies of religion who had then arisen. (Calvin 1845: book 4, ch. 9, section 8)

This text does not affirm that the councils were specially protected by the Holy Spirit to ensure that they do not teach error, as Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologians argue. Nevertheless, it does affirm that the teachings of the ecumenical councils (the first four ‘and the like’) concerning the doctrines of faith, teach nothing but the pure and genuine interpretation of scripture. In other words, the councils get Christology right, according to Calvin’s Institutes. Such a view is not unique to the early reformers.

Martin Luther has a nuanced discussion of the role and authority of the councils, especially the first four, in Part 2 of his On the Councils and the Church (1539). There he argues that the councils have no power or protection to teach new articles of faith. Even so, the first four councils agreed with scripture – particularly with the Gospel of John – in teaching the Christology they offer. As such, in their christological teaching, they are to be trusted.

We find early twentieth-century Protestant theologians hewing closely to the conciliar texts as well in their reception. For instance, Herbert Relton (1917: XXIX) says of the councils:

We venture to think that the value of the ancient Christology, as this reaches us in the creeds and dogmatic utterances of the Councils, cannot be too highly estimated. In it we find preserved the finest results attained by the most acute intellects of the past, and we benefit from the warnings which they give and which they learned as the fruit of much painful controversy and conflict with heretical opinion. Such a deposit is not lightly to be estimated nor hastily to be set aside as outworn dogma.

Henry Percival, an episcopal divine, in the conclusion of his preface to The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, writes:

In conclusion I would add that nothing I have written must be interpreted as meaning that the editor personally has any doubt of the truth of the doctrines set forth by the Ecumenical Councils of the Christian Church, and I wish to declare in the most distinct manner that I accept all the doctrinal decrees of the Seven Ecumenical Synods as infallible and irreformable. (Percival 1900: ix)

More recent Protestant scholars share the sentiment. Louis Berkhof (1965: 316) writes of the doctrine that Christ has two natures, ‘It is of the utmost importance to maintain this doctrine, as it was formulated by the Council of Chalcedon and is contained in our Confessional Standards’. Richard Holland writes of ‘the necessity of Chalcedonian and Nicene orthodoxy to the Christian faith’ (2012: 77). Other Protestants received these councils not as binding or authoritative, but as actually having been correct in their interpretation of scripture, and so as teaching truths that should be believed and safeguarded. This deference to the councils is a common view, even among those who deny that the councils are supernaturally safeguarded from error.

2.2.2 Authority

Many Christians, most explicitly Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians, take these seven ecumenical councils to have a special normative status in establishing the boundaries of what one can say in one’s Christology.

For instance, Roman Catholics accept not only the first seven councils as authoritative, but also the following fourteen councils, from the Fourth Council of Constantinople in 869–870 through to the Second Vatican Council in 1962–1965. Roman Catholics believe the councils never to have erred in matters of faith and morals. For instance, the twenty-third error listed in the Syllabus of Errors promulgated by Pope Pius IX (Denzinger 2002: para. 1723) is that ‘[t]he Roman Pontiffs and the Ecumenical Councils have trespassed the limits of their powers, have usurped the rights of princes, and have even erred in defining matters of faith and morals’. Likewise, the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church from the Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, in paragraph 25, writes of the infallibility of the bishops when gathered in an ecumenical council. The Orthodox and Roman Catholics disagree, then, not on the authority of these first seven councils, but, instead, on the authority of the later councils approved of by the Roman Catholics.

On the other hand, the Thirty-Nine Articles (1571) of Anglicanism teach (in the twenty-first article) that councils may err and sometimes have errored. Councils have no authority in themselves; rather, the authority attributed to the councils comes from their teaching that which is already taught in scripture.

While not asserting the authority of the councils, the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord (1577), an important early confession of the Lutheran Church, employs the councils as evidence. One sees this most clearly in part VIII on the Person of Christ, which cites the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon multiple times as evidence for christological assertions.

The Scottish Confession, published in 1560 and authored by John Knox, treats the councils similarly. In chapter 20, one reads that councils have errored in great matters. Such councils are to be embraced where they agree with scripture, but to be rejected if they teach any new doctrine not found in the pages of scripture. Here, too, councils have no authority in themselves.

The Belgic Confession (1561) in Article VII states that councils have no authority of their own but are to be tested against the rule of scripture. It makes no mention of any of the first seven councils. The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) includes no discussion of councils in general or of the first seven councils in particular, nor does the Synod of Dordt (1618–1619). The Second Helvetic Confession (1566), in Chapter II, teaches that councils must be tested against the teaching of scripture. Later, though, in Chapter XI, they receive the creeds and decrees concerning the incarnation from the first four ecumenical councils. Again, the common refrain among these Protestant thinkers is that while the councils have no authority in and of themselves, they did get it right when it comes to the teachings of (at least) the first four ecumenical councils.

Returning to the motivation of broad consensus, the largest conjunction of christological claims gleaned from scripture that traditionally receives special status in both the Eastern and Western traditions is the conjunction that comes from these seven councils. Given these reasons, there is a natural and reasonable dividing line after the seventh council, the Second Council of Nicaea. While it is true that the Second Council of Nicaea does not add any new christological claims to the conjunction – it instead focuses on defending the veneration of sacred images and relics – it is still included in Conciliar Christology. This is because it is part of the traditional orthodoxy of both the East and West, and also because it reiterates in summary form the teaching of the previous six councils.

For arguments concerning the authority of the councils, and whether there is good, principled reason to accept some but not all of them, see Washburn 2010; a similar discussion of non-infallible church teachings can be found in Lamont 2008. For a discussion of the authority of ecumenical councils from a reformed protestant prospective, see the work of Oliver Crisp (especially Crisp 2007b: 161–163; 2009: 8-33). Some Eastern Churches (not to be confused with Eastern Orthodox Churches) accept only a subset of the seven councils. The Assyrian Church of the East, for instance, only accepts the first two. For additional discussion of which ecclesial bodies accept which councils, what authority they claim the councils to have, and why they claim them to have that level of authority, see Bellitto (2002), Kelly (2009: 64), Tanner (2001: 3–4, 7, 13), and Wessling (2013).

2.3 Relevance to the community

A final motivation influencing the discussion of Conciliar Christology is its relevance to the community of Christian believers.

First, some thinkers have viewed their work in the philosophy of religion as not merely an academic enterprise, but rather as including some commitment to their communities as well. Such commitment to a community may well require ‘thinking with’ the community, which is what some scholars are attempting to do in the current debates. The councils provide one way of grounding one’s work in the Christian community. In the councils, many individual thinkers find the accepted view of their community. For such thinkers, therefore, going contrary to the teaching of the councils would be going contrary to the goal of thinking with one’s community.

Secondly and conversely, some scholars have intended to show intellectual problems with Christianity by targeting doctrinal claims that are essential to it, such as the incarnation. Such a scholar would ‘misfire’ if the challenges did not in fact target a traditional interpretation of the essence of Christianity. What good would it be for an opponent of Christianity to show that some reading of the texts of Christianity, a reading accepted by no one, is incoherent?

The texts of Conciliar Christology help scholars, both friend and foe, hone their work on the thought of the Christian community throughout the ages.

3 The foundations of Conciliar Christology

The foundations of Conciliar Christology, as defined, are the contents of the first seven ecumenical councils. But those councils themselves were not created ex nihilo (out of nothing); instead, the doctrinal content of those councils received support from various external sources, chief of which were scripture and tradition. This article, focused as it is on Conciliar Christology, is not the place to give an in-depth analysis of the scriptural and traditional sources employed in the ecumenical councils. That said, it would be problematic to pass over them without any discussion. Below, then, is a brief discussion of those foundations.

3.1 Scripture

Concerning the scriptural foundations of Conciliar Christology, the most explicit uses of scripture in the councils come in three places: the letters of Cyril, the Tome of Leo, and the crafting of anathemas. This is not to say that the definitions of faith include no scriptural components. They surely do, as is clear from the first, brief quotation that begins section IV.c. below, where the Exposition of faith at the Third Council of Constantinople relies on Heb 4:15. That the letters, tome, and anathemas will rely heavily on explicit scriptural argumentation is to be expected. Cyril and Leo both are attempting to show the truth of their views against the theories of their opponents. Such discussions must make use of the shared evidence. Among these authors, scripture was a vital source of shared evidence. Concerning the anathemas, many of them include a brief scriptural passage for the sake of illustrating where the anathematized claim goes wrong; a brief justification for the impermissibility of the view in question.

While the councils rely on scriptural teaching, they sometimes forged their own linguistic tools as well. The best example of this is the use of essence (ousia) at the Council of Nicaea. As Athanasius tells it in De Decretis, especially in chapter 5, the gathered council fathers introduced this term as a means for explicitly negating the teaching of the Arians. The Arians had their own ways of reading the scriptural passages marshalled in defence of what was to become the orthodox view. The scriptural language alone, then, was insufficient to explicitly disavow the Arian doctrine. Thus, the non-scriptural terms, essence (ousia) and of the same essence (homoousia), were introduced. The Arians objected to the non-scriptural language, to no avail.

3.2 Tradition

The reliance on tradition at the ecumenical councils can be seen in at least four ways.

First, the councils rely on the authority of ancient custom, including liturgical practices. One finds the councils referring to the authority of ancient custom less with respect to christological doctrine than to matters of practice. For instance, First Nicaea’s 6th canon reaffirms ‘the ancient customs of Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis’ (Tanner 1990: 8). As another example, the prohibition of deacons administering the Eucharist to either presbyters or bishops (seen already by the time of Nicaea as being different offices) in canon 18 from Nicaea is based on such a practice being contrary to both ancient custom and canon (see Tanner 1990: 14).

Second, the councils rely on tradition insofar as the later councils take the claims of the earlier councils as foundational. The Definition of faith from Chalcedon does this with respect to Nicaea, First Constantinople, and Ephesus (Tanner 1990: 84–86); Second Constantinople does likewise in its Anathemas Against the Three Chapters with respect to the first four councils. We see similar reliance in the final two councils as well.

Third, the councils rely on the authority of particular theologians. Cyril of Alexandria and Pope Leo are the clearest examples here. As noted in section 1, their works were endorsed at the councils and became component documents of the councils. While not having the same status as Cyril or Leo, other theologians are also cited as authorities by the councils. For instance, the council fathers at the Council of Ephesus read out and praised a synodical document written by a bishop named Valerian. This document is employed in the Definition against the impious Messalians or Euchites (Tanner 1990: 66). The fathers at Ephesus also affirmingly cited the letter they received from Pope Celestine in their condemnation of Nestorius. The fathers at Second Constantinople employed the writings of Cyril and Proclus in their condemnation of Theodore of Mopsuestia. The fathers at Third Constantinople accepted the report of Pope Agatho and claimed it to be in accord with Council of Chalcedon. The report is employed as evidence against monothelitism; similarly, the Exposition of faith from Third Constantinople cites ‘most wise Athanasius’ (Tanner 1990: 128) as evidence for dyothelitism, the view that Christ had both a human will and a divine will (discussed in more detail in section 4.3).

A final foundation (one might think of it as a ‘negative foundation’) is the work of the opponents of the conciliar fathers. For instance, the works of Nestorius are promulgated with the Council of Ephesus. Moreover, anathemas – that is, condemnations of views – were often levelled using quotations drawn directly from their opponents. One sees this as early as First Nicaea, where the original formulation of the creed ends with a series of anathematized claims drawn from the Arians, including ‘there once was when he [Christ] was not’ and ‘before he [Christ] was begotten he was not’ (Tanner 1990: 5). Such anathemas are foundations insofar as the denials of the anathematized doctrines are the teachings of the councils. For instance, ‘it is false that “before he was begotten he was not”’ functions as a foundation of Conciliar Christology.

4 The content of Conciliar Christology

The church fathers at the Third Council of Constantinople, in their Exposition of the faith, summarize most of the important claims of Conciliar Christology in the following passage:

Following the five holy and universal synods and the holy and accepted fathers, and defining in unison, it [the Third Council of Constantinople] professes our lord Jesus Christ our true God, one of the holy Trinity, which is of one same being and is the source of life, to be perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and a body; consubstantial with the Father as regards his divinity, and the same consubstantial with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects except for sin; begotten before the ages from the Father as regards his divinity, and in the last days the same for us and for our salvation from the holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, who is properly and truly called mother of God, as regards his humanity; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no separation, no division; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single subsistent being. (Tanner 1990: 127–128)

This section elaborates on these claims, drawing texts from other councils to buttress or clarify the teachings.

The main teachings of Conciliar Christology are as follows. According to Conciliar Christology, (1) there was (and is) one person, Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who, after the incarnation, has two complete and distinct natures. One of these natures is (2) the one and only divine nature. The other nature is (3) a fully human nature. These natures were (4) combined in a unique mode of union, called the ‘hypostatic union’. In virtue of this union, (5) predications are true of Jesus Christ according to each nature. Each point is discussed in turn below.

For good and helpful general discussions of the history of the councils, see Bellitto 2002; Davis 1990; Jedin 1960; Kelly 2009; Landon 1909; Price 2012; Need 2008; Stevenson and Kidd 1973; Tanner 2001; Wilhelm 1908. There are many deeper investigations of each council. Price and Whitby’s Chalcedon in Context (2011) and The Acts of the Council of Chalcedon (2007) are useful for understanding the Council of Chalcedon. For recent discussions of the conciliar content with an eye towards philosophical engagement, see Deweese (2007) and Holland (2012: ch. 2).

For help in understanding the history and common interpretation of particular doctrines, the production of this article was aided by Alfeyev (2012), Arendzen (1941), Astley et al. (2009), Baker (2013), Boyle (1995), Clarkson et al. (1994), Denzinger (2002), Dupuis (2001), Graham (1957), Jurgens (1979), Kereszty (2002), Lamont (2008), Leith (1982), O’Collins (1995; 2002), Ott (1960), Pohle (1913), Schaff (1889), Schmaus (1971), Sobrino (1992), Stevenson and Kidd (1973), Willis and Journel (2002), and Wolfson (1970).

4.1 Concerning the person of Christ

Conciliar Christology teaches that there was (and is) one person, Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who had (and has) two complete and distinct natures, and who existed prior (in some sense) to the incarnation. Jesus Christ is one person in two natures, for, as Cyril says, ‘two different natures come together to form a unity, and from both arose one Christ, one Son’ (41). The councils sometimes refer to Christ as one person in two natures, or of two natures, or one person who has two natures. Emperor Justinian (Wesche 1997: 32) takes all three of these wordings to express the same point. For more on this wording, see Need 2008: 102.

This person is, as the fathers at the Third Council of Constantinople say in their Exposition of faith, ‘true God, one of the holy Trinity’ (127). The fathers at the Second Council of Constantinople proclaim the following anathema, that is, condemnation: ‘If anyone does not confess his belief that our lord Jesus Christ, who was crucified in his human flesh, is truly God and the Lord of glory and one of the members of the holy Trinity: let him be anathema’ (118). The person of the Word was, as John of Antioch says in his Formula of Union from the Council of Ephesus, ‘begotten before all ages from the Father in his godhead’ (69) – such that, in the incarnation, Leo says in his Tome, ‘whilst remaining pre-existent, he begins to exist in time’ (79).

This one person, the Word of God, had two nativities, as the fathers at Second Constantinople taught:

Anathema 2: ‘If anyone will not confess that the Word of God has two nativities, that which is before all ages from the Father, outside time and without a body, and secondly that nativity of these latter days when the Word of God came down from the heavens and was made flesh of holy and glorious Mary, mother of God and ever-virgin, and was born from her: let him be anathema’ (114).

According to Conciliar Christology, the very same person who pre-exists the incarnation and is generated outside of time from the Father before all ages is the self-same person who was made flesh and born a man from the holy and glorious ever-virgin.

The teaching that Christ is a single person is protected negatively in the conciliar statements as well, by way of anathema, at Second Constantinople:

Anathema 4: ‘[…] if anyone does not accept the teaching of the holy fathers that the union occurred of the Word of God with human flesh which is possessed by a rational and intellectual soul, and that this union is by synthesis or by person, and that therefore there is only one person, namely the lord Jesus Christ, one member of the Holy Trinity: let him be anathema’. (115, emphasis added)

According to Conciliar Christology, then, there is one person in the incarnation, not two. Furthermore, this one person is in two natures, though he pre-existed his nativity from Mary. One should be hesitant to interpret this ‘pre-existence’ as a temporal pre-existence, since Christ, in his divine nature, does not exist in time, according to a common and plausible interpretation of Conciliar Christology. For textual support, see the above anathema from Second Constantinople about Christ’s nativity from the Father being outside time (achronos) and also the discussion of divine atemporality in Pawl 2016b: 187–190. This is not the only interpretation of divine atemporality. Some authors, for instance, Richard Swinburne (2016: 228–244) distinguish between different senses of ‘time’ (topological and metric) allowing that while the Son begins to exist in one sense of ‘time,’ he does not begin to exist in another.

These teachings of Conciliar Christology are still attested to by many Christian groups. Since the Catholics and the Orthodox take themselves as bound to these conciliar statements, these teachings are still attested to in those communities. One can perhaps see this most clearly by looking at some well-respected dogmatic theologians from different confessional backgrounds. For instance, the Roman Catholic dogmatists Ludwig Ott (1960: 146) and Joseph Pohle (1913: 89–116) affirm these claims about Christ. Martin Chemnitz (1971: 37, first published 1578), an early and important Lutheran theologian (1522–1586), affirms these claims as part of traditional, orthodox christology, as do the Reformed systematic theologians Herman Bavinck (2006: 298–302) in his Reformed Dogmatics and Louis Berkhof (1965: 315–322) in his Systematic Theology.

4.2 Concerning the divine nature

According to Conciliar Christology, Christ’s divine nature is the very same nature as the nature of the Father and the Holy Spirit. Christ, according to his divine nature, is immutable, impassible, and neither lessened nor weakened by the incarnation.

Concerning the immutability of Christ, the collected fathers at the Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council, only issued a single anathema (or four, depending on how you count it: whether it is one anathema with four parts, or four distinct anathemas stated in a single sentence). This anathema they enshrined in their creed, the Nicene Creed. It reads as follows:

And those who say ‘there once was when he was not’, and ‘before he was begotten he was not’, and that he came to be from things that were not, or from another hypostasis or substance, affirming that the Son of God is subject to change or alteration – these the catholic and apostolic church anathematises. (5)

Here the fathers had Arianism in their sights. They intended to rule it out by denying multiple entailments of Arianism, or at least multiple claims they took to be entailed by Arianism. They sum up all of these entailments in the last clause before the dash – ‘affirming that the Son of God is subject to change or alteration.’

One might question here: if it is the person who is unchanging, as this quotation has it, then that very person cannot die then rise up, since to die then rise up is to change; but then how can it be true to say that he ‘suffered and rose up on the third day’, as the Nicene fathers said two sentences prior to this anathema in their creed? Thus, one might allege, the Nicene fathers have contradicted themselves in short order.

There are at least three responses to this question. First, one can claim that the fathers mean to say that the Son cannot change as regards his divine nature. This qualifier is added in other places where the church claims the Son to be unchangeable, as the next block quotation below shows. For an extended discussion of how to understand the distinction between saying ‘the Son of God is not subject to change’ and ‘the Son of God is not subject to change as regards his divinity’, see Pawl 2016b: 117–151.

A second response distinguishes different strengths of ‘immutable’. Something might be immutable with respect to its essential features, or it might be immutable with respect to all its features. This second response reads the claims of immutability in the ‘essential features’ sense, and so denies that changes of the sort envisioned by this objection are inconsistent with divine immutability. For more on this approach, see Swinburne 2016: 228–244.

A third response is to understand the predicates ‘immutable’ and ‘mutable’ in such a way that the following conditional is false: ‘P is immutable, therefore P cannot change in any way’. Were that premise false, then the first premise of the objection under consideration (‘if it is the person who is…’) would be false. For one such way of understanding the predicates, a way that is consonant with everything said in the conciliar texts, see Pawl 2014a and 2016: chap. 7. For a fuller discussion of the arguments against immutability from the incarnation, see Pawl 2016b: ch. 8; 2018.

The conciliar documents from Ephesus, the third ecumenical council of the church, teach the immutability of Christ according to his divine nature. This is clear from the letters of Cyril, which, as noted above, were accepted by later councils (e.g. Chalcedon’s Exposition of faith (85) and Third Council of Chalcedon’s Exposition of faith (127), and so count as parts of Conciliar Christology, as the term is defined. As Cyril says in his letter to John of Antioch, included as part of the Council of Ephesus,

God the Word, who came down from above and from heaven, ‘emptied himself, taking the form of a slave’, and was called son of man, though all the while he remained what he was, that is God (for he is unchangeable and immutable by nature). (72, original parentheses, emphasis added)

And also, as Cyril says in his Third Letter to Nestorius, the person of Christ is immutable.

We do not say that his flesh was turned into the nature of the godhead or that the unspeakable Word of God was changed into the nature of the flesh. For he (the Word) is unalterable and absolutely unchangeable and remains always the same as the scriptures say. For although visible as a child and in swaddling cloths, even while he was in the bosom of the virgin that bore him, as God he filled the whole of creation and was fellow ruler with him who begot him. (51, emphasis added)

One important point to note about both of these previous texts is that they explicitly consider whether, in the incarnation, the Word was unchangeable; both answer that he was. Furthermore, the first quotes the scriptural passage (Phil 2:5–8) concerning Christ’s self-emptying, and notes that, even in the light of this passage, Christ remained unchanging. The second says that Christ, even as a child, was omnipresent and ruler of all creation. These points are important when discussing the consistency of Conciliar Christology and kenotic Christology. For a more detailed discussion of kenotic Christology with respect to Conciliar Christology, see Pawl 2016b: ch. 5.

Concerning the impassibility of the divine nature, Cyril says in his Third Letter to Nestorius:

We also confess that the only begotten Son born of God the Father, although according to his own nature he was not subject to suffering, suffered in the flesh for us according to the scriptures, and was in his crucified body, and without himself suffering made his own the sufferings of his own flesh. (53)

In his Tome to Flavian, accepted at the Council of Chalcedon, Pope Leo says that in the incarnation, ‘invulnerable nature was united to a nature that could suffer’ (78).

The collected fathers at the Council of Ephesus believed so firmly in the immutability and impassibility of the divine nature of Christ that Cyril could say:

I think that those are quite mad who suppose that ‘a shadow of change’ is conceivable in connexion with the divine nature of the Word. For he remains what he is always and never changes, nor could he ever change or be susceptible of it. Furthermore, we all confess that the Word of God is impassible, though in his all-wise economy of the mystery he is seen to attribute to himself the sufferings undergone by his own flesh. (72–73)

In the Chalcedonian Definition of faith, the fathers are emphatic about the impassibility of the divine nature:

But there are those who are trying to ruin the proclamation of the truth, and through their private heresies they have spawned novel formulas [some of which do so by] fantastically supposing that in the confusion [of the natures of Christ] the divine nature of the Only-begotten is passible. (84)

It is because of passages like these that Fr. Giles Emery (2009: 30) reads the Tome as unequivocally teaching the immutability and impassibility of God.

As with the previous attributes of being atemporal and being immutable, there are varying ways of interpreting divine impassibility. Concerning the history of the term, Paul Gavrilyuk (2006: 47–48) writes in his book, The Suffering of the Impassible God, that while there was no ‘universally endorsed body of teaching’ in the patristic period on the topic of divine possibility, there were some common characteristics of the doctrine. For instance, the fathers thought the doctrine was consistent with some ‘emotionally coloured characteristics’ in God, for instance, love, mercy, and compassion. Moreover, ‘impassibility’ was a metaphysical attribute, not a purely psychological attribute. Similarly, Anastasia Scrutton (2011: ch. 2) argues that thinkers, including Augustine and Aquinas, held a view upon which God could have certain emotions and yet still be impassible. Not all views of impassibility, and not all readings of the history of the doctrine, then, require that God not have emotions, or states analogous to emotions.

Finally, in becoming incarnate, this divine nature – and the Son who bears it – was not lessened, as Leo claims in his Tome to Flavian:

He took the form of a servant without the defilement of sin, thereby enhancing the human and not diminishing the divine. For that self-emptying whereby the Invisible rendered himself visible, and the Creator and Lord of all things chose to join the ranks of mortals, spelled no failure of power: it was an act of merciful favour. So the one who retained the form of God when he made humanity, was made man in the form of a servant. Each nature kept its proper character without loss; and just as the form of God does not take away the form of a servant, so the form of a servant does not detract from the form of God. (Tanner 1990: 78)

The Son of God was diminished in no way in the incarnation. In particular, he lost no power. Not only did he lose no power, but as Cyril wrote, he continued filling and ruling all of creation, even as a baby.

As a final bit of evidence, the gathered fathers at Chalcedon claimed in union that the great council ‘expels from the assembly of the priests those who dare to say that the divinity of the Only-begotten is passible’ (85–86). This shows just how serious the fathers were in their affirmation of the impassibility of Christ in his divine nature, and how important they thought it was that others affirmed it as well.

Thus, according to the councils, the person of Christ is impassible and immutable in his divine nature, and that the person of Christ is not lessened or weakened by the incarnation. See Pawl 2016b: 180–190 for more confessional support for these doctrines.

4.3 Concerning the human nature of Christ

Christ, as truly man, is ‘like us in all respects except for sin’ (127), according to the Exposition of faith at the Third Council of Constantinople (which is in turn alluding to Heb 4:15). The statements of Conciliar Christology present this likeness in the following ways. Christ had (and has) a complete human nature, in virtue of which it is apt to call him ‘true man’. Having a human nature involved, according to Conciliar Christology, having a human body ensouled by a rational soul, where the soul included a human will and principle of action. These points are addressed in turn below.

The claim that Christ had both a body and a soul is well-attested in the conciliar statements. As Cyril writes to Nestorius, ‘the Word in an unspeakable, inconceivable manner united to himself hypostatically flesh enlivened by a rational soul, and so became man’ (41, emphasis added). Of Mary, the same Cyril says she is the mother of God (theotokos) ‘because there was born from her his holy body rationally ensouled, with which the Word was hypostatically united and is said to have been begotten in the flesh’ (44). For more conciliar evidence for the claim that Christ had both a body and a soul, see Cyril’s Third Letter to Nestorius (Tanner 1990: 55–56), the Formula of Union from Ephesus (69), the Definition of faith from Chalcedon (86), and Anthema 4 from Second Constantinople (115). Christ’s possession of both a human soul and a human body is taught in accepted letters, in a Formula of Union, in multiple definitions of faith, and, negatively, by anathematizing its denial.

In addition, Christ had a created human will and principle of action. As the fathers at the Third Council of Constantinople say:

[W]e proclaim equally two natural volitions or wills in him and two natural principles of action which undergo no division, no change, no partition, no confusion, in accordance with the teaching of the holy fathers. And the two natural wills not in opposition, as the impious heretics said, far from it, but his human will following, and not resisting or struggling, rather in fact subject to his divine and all powerful will. (Tanner 1990: 128)

Similar affirmations of two wills in Christ appear earlier in the same document (Tanner 1990: 125–126) and at Second Nicaea (135). Conciliar Christology, then, entails the truth of dyothelitism – the claim that Christ had two wills, one proper to his created human nature, the other proper to his divine nature.

Note that, as Oliver Crisp (2007: 59–60) argues, it is inconsistent with the texts of Conciliar Christology to claim, as some have, that Christ has but one will, though that one will can be viewed as both divine and human. Such individuals claim that the divine will fulfills the conditions for being a divine will essentially, and it picks up whatever else it needs in order to fulfill the conditions for being a human will in the incarnation. Thus, on this view, the one divine will counts as both, though it is one in number. See the work of Richard Swinburne (1994: 188–189) for a case for this view.

This view is inconsistent with the claims of Third Constantinople. For, suppose for argument’s sake that there were a single will in Christ, which counted as both divine and human. In such a situation, there would be little sense to be given to the claims that there are two wills, and that one leads the other, and that each is proper to one of the natures of Christ.

According to Conciliar Christology, a human nature is (or is constituted by) a human body ensouled by a rational soul, where the soul includes a human will and principle of action.

4.4 Concerning the manner of union between the natures

Consider the teachings concerning the manner of union between the natures in the one Christ. The councils teach that the two natures are united hypostatically, that is, in a person; that this union is ineffable; that, while it is ineffable, there is an analogy one can use to approach understanding it; and that the union leaves the proper character of the natures intact.

Passages quoted above in section 4.3 show that the union was hypostatic. The councils use the term ‘hypostasis’ to refer to persons. For just one example, the bishops gathered at First Constantinople say they believe ‘in three most perfect hypostases, or three perfect persons’ (28).

The divine and human natures of Christ are united to one another in a way that is beyond human understanding. As Cyril says:

For we do not say that the nature of the Word was changed and became flesh, nor that he was turned into a whole man made of body and soul. Rather do we claim that the Word in an unspeakable, inconceivable manner united to himself hypostatically flesh enlivened by a rational soul, and so became man. (41, emphasis added)

Elsewhere, Cyril again characterized the union as ‘ineffable’:

For there is one lord Jesus Christ, even though we do not ignore the difference of natures, out of which we say that the ineffable union was effected. (72, emphasis added)

And again, the ineffability of the hypostatic union is safeguarded by an anathema at Second Constantinople:

Anathema 7. ‘If anyone, when speaking about the two natures, does not confess a belief in our one lord Jesus Christ, understood in both his divinity and his humanity, so as by this to signify a difference of natures of which an ineffable union has been made, without confusion, in which neither the nature of the Word was changed into the nature of human flesh, nor was the nature of human flesh changed into that of the Word (each remained what it was by nature, even after the union, as this had been made in respect of subsistence) [...] let him be anathema’. (117, emphasis added)

Thus, that the union between the natures is ineffable was taught at Ephesus by Cyril and formally protected from denial in the seventh anathema of Second Constantinople. If Conciliar Christology is true, then the mode of union between the two natures is ineffable. See Michael Gorman (2000: 183), who argues that the personal union is not reducible to any other type of union. (For discussions of what type of relation it could be that holds between the two natures, see Daley 2002; Flint 2011; Kereszty 2002: 350–360; Marmodoro and Hill 2011: 12–15; O’Collins 2002a: ch. 8; Senor 2007; Van Driel 2006; Weinandy 2000: 182–190.)

Even though the union is ineffable, there are still some things that we can say about it, and that Conciliar Christology does say of it. The union is hypostatic, after all – so, it isn’t completely indescribable. In this way, one common objection to ineffability is avoided.

The common objection states that for something to be ineffable, it must not be understandable or describable in any way. But witness that we can describe ineffable things – at the very least, we describe them and understand them as ineffable. And so, nothing can be ineffable. The response to this objection is to note that the understanding of ineffability this objection requires is too strong. One can concede that were ineffability to have the necessary condition that the objector claims it has, then nothing could be ineffable. However, we can deny that ineffability requires such a necessary condition. As long as ineffability does not require that strong necessary condition, the first premise of the common objection (‘for something to be ineffable…’) can be denied. For another discussion of this argument concerning ineffability, see Pawl 2020c.

Conciliar Christology does not provide an analysis of what, precisely, the hypostatic union is – and, in fact, given its teaching that the union is ineffable, logically could not provide such an analysis without contradiction. It does, however, provide a helpful metaphor. Cyril’s Third Letter to Nestorius says of the Word that ‘he made his indwelling in such a way as we may say that the soul of man does in his own body’ (52). The Quicumque, more commonly known as the Athanasian Creed, says something similar: ‘For just as the rational soul and body are one man, so God and man are one Christ’ (Denzinger 2002: paragraph 40). Both Cyril and the Athanasian Creed make the same analogy: as the soul is to the body that it indwells, so the Word is to the human nature that it assumes.

Fr. Joseph Pohle, an important systematic theologian writing in the manual tradition, says, ‘those who have spun out these analogies into full-fledged arguments have notoriously all ended in heresy’ (Pohle 1913: 120). Likewise, Francis Ferrier writes of ‘the futility of seeking to account for the mystery of the hypostatic union] by pure reason, and of the way all such efforts can only end tragically in heresy’ (Ferrier 1962: 77). See Pawl 2016b: 22 (note 14) for one response to these warnings.

The final point about Conciliar Christology’s claims concerning the hypostatic union is (as the passages quoted above suggest) that it leaves intact the proper characters of both natures. Pope Leo claims:

So the one who retained the form of God when he made humanity, was made man in the form of a servant. Each nature kept its proper character without loss; and just as the form of God does not take away the form of a servant, so the form of a servant does not detract from the form of God. (78)

The Chalcedonian Definition, repeated verbatim at the Third Council of Constantinople (127–128) states:

[A]t no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being. (86)

The Third Council of Constantinople states that:

the difference of the natures [is] made known in the same one subsistence in that each nature wills and performs the things that are proper to it in a communication with the other; then in accord with this reasoning we hold that two natural wills and principles of action meet in correspondence for the salvation of the human race. (129–130)

The important point here is that each nature stays how it is without loss. Each nature, when joined in the person of Christ, is not in any way diminished from how it would be were it not to be so joined. The difference between the natures is not removed, but they retain their proper character. And, importantly, they keep their functions, but perform them in communication with each other.

4.5 Concerning the predications true of Christ

Conciliar Christology claims three things with respect to the predications true of Christ. It claims that some predications are true of Christ according to one nature or the other, but not both. It also claims that some predications true of Christ cannot be applied truly of both natures of Christ. Finally, it claims that any truth that either nature would make true of a person who bears only that nature is also made true of the person, Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, who bears both.

First, some predications are true of Christ according to one nature, but not the other. As Cyril says in his Second Letter to Nestorius:

[W]e say that he suffered and rose again, not that the Word of God suffered blows or piercings with nails or any other wounds in his own nature (for the divine, being without body, is incapable of suffering); but because the body which became his own suffered these things, he is said to have suffered them for us [...] The Word is said to have suffered death for us, not as if he himself had experienced death as far as his own nature was concerned (it would be sheer lunacy to say or to think that), but because, as I have just said, his flesh tasted death. (42)

So it is truthfully said that ‘the Word suffered’ and ‘the Word suffered death’. These things are true because the human nature suffered. And they are not true – indeed, they cannot be true, given the parenthetical claims in the text – because the divine nature suffered. One might wonder: what is the principle employed here to get from ‘the human nature suffered’ to ‘the Word suffered’? The principle cannot be a general principle such as the following: for any nature of a person, any predicate apt of that nature is apt of the person. For the predicate ‘is a nature’ is truthfully said of the nature, but not of the person. One more nuanced principle is the following (as stated above): any truth that either nature (divine or human) would make true of a person who bears only that nature is also made true of the person, Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, who bears both natures. For more discussion of this point, see the discussion of ‘Typical Dependence’ in Pawl 2016b: 55.

Later in the Formula of Union from the Council of Ephesus, John of Antioch says:

As to the evangelical and apostolic expressions about the Lord, we know that theologians treat some in common as of one person and distinguish others as of two natures, and interpret the god-befitting ones in connexion with [secundum] the godhead of Christ and the lowly ones with his humanity. (70)

Some predications are true of the person; others are true of one or the other of the natures. The predicate, ‘(is) a nature’, for instance, is apt of both natures, but not apt of the person. Moreover, the ‘in connexion’ clause is a translation of the Latin secundum that is often translated by ‘qua’ in the contemporary discussion. So the text is saying that some expressions are true of him qua one nature; some are true of him qua the other; and some are treated in common (whereby the fathers are saying that the expressions are true qua both natures). Examples of such predicates that are true quaboth natures are ‘exists’, ‘acts’, and ‘wills’.

Cyril’s response to John of Antioch provides another example of predications being true according to one nature and yet unable to be true because of another:

But when we say that our lord Jesus Christ came from heaven and above, we do not apply such expressions as ‘from above’ and ‘from heaven’ to his holy flesh. Rather do we follow the divine Paul who clearly proclaimed: ‘The first man was of the earth, earthly, the second man is the Lord from heaven. (71–72)

Here we see that while it is true that ‘our lord Jesus Christ came from heaven and above’, this claim is true of him according to the divine nature, and explicitly not true of him according to the human nature (the ‘holy flesh’).

Thus, given these few examples, it is clear that some predications are true of Christ in virtue of his human nature, but not his divine nature. Others are true of him in virtue of his divine nature, but not his human nature. For instance, it is true that ‘the Word of God suffered blows and death’, and this claim is true according to (secundum) his human nature, and not according to his divine nature. In other terms, the truth of some predications is explained by the human nature of Christ, while the truth of others is explained by his divine nature. Elsewhere, the fathers go so far as to claim that something that appears incompatible with the Word of God’s suffering is true of Christ according to his divine nature: ‘the Word of God is impassible’. Likewise, ‘Jesus Christ came down from heaven’ is true of Christ according to his divine nature, and not according to his human nature.

Finally, note that the fathers are content to use a name drawn from one nature (Word of God; Jesus) and apply a predicate of it drawn from another nature (suffered; came down from heaven). They are willing to say, for instance, that a member of the Trinity suffered. In fact, they demand such statements on pains of heterodoxy (e.g. the Second Council of Constantinople, the tenth anathema against the Three Chapters; Tanner 1990: 118).

As a second point concerning predications of Christ, one cannot derive from a predication’s being true of the whole person that it is true of each individual nature as well. For while ‘Christ is impassible’ is true of Christ according to the divine nature, ‘is impassible’ is not aptly predicated of the human nature. As some christologists claim, one can predicate from the natures to the person, but one cannot go backwards, from the person to the natures, or from one nature to the other nature. As Pohle says, ‘Reduced to its simplest terms, therefore, the Christological law of predication reads: “Mutua idiomatum praedicatio valet tantummodo in concreto, non valet in abstracto”’ (Pohle 1913: 187). Loosely translated: the communication of predicates is valid when done from the natures to the person, but not when done from the person to the natures (see also Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae IIIa, q. 16, a. 1, ad 2). As the fathers note above, we cannot reason from ‘Jesus Christ came down from heaven’ to ‘the human nature came down from heaven’. Such an inference is invalid.

These rules concerning which predicates are apt of which things have been pulled together by theologians into a doctrine called the communication of idioms, or Communicatio idiomatum in the Latin. Joseph Pohle describes the doctrine as follows:

Whatever is predicated of the Divine Person of Christ according to His Divine Nature, can and must be predicated of the same Divine Person also in His human nature, and vice versa; but the predicates proper to the Divine Nature must not be assigned to the human nature and vice versa. (Pohle 1913: 186)

By ‘also in His human nature’, Pohle does not mean that we say of the human nature that it is, say, omnipotent. Rather, he means that we can use a term that refers to the person by means of the human nature to say something true of the person, even if that something is true in virtue of the divine nature. We can say, for instance, that ‘[t]he God of glory was crucified’ or ‘[a] man created the stars’, both of which are examples Pohle takes from Aquinas (Summa Theologiae III q.16 a.4).

The communication of idioms is employed in confessional Protestantism as well. See, for instance, the Second Helvetic Confession, which states, ‘we accept believingly and reverently the communication of properties which is deduced from the Scriptures and employed by the ancient Church in explaining and harmonizing seemingly contradictory passages’ (Schaff 1919: 403). For an excellent study of the communication of idioms in reformation debates, see Cross 2019. For an Orthodox affirmation of the communication of idioms, see Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev (2012: 264–267), who traces the concept of the communication of idioms through the early Eastern fathers. For a metaphysical model for understanding the communication of idioms, see Pawl 2016b: 62–64.

5 The research trajectories for Conciliar Christology

The research trajectories concerning Conciliar Christology can be divided based on the types of questions one can ask about it. There are questions concerning its scriptural basis, historical warrant, philosophical implications, and interconnections with other theological views. Interestingly, one finds each of these topics discussed in older doctrinal manuals of theology – as when, after stating a theological thesis, writers such as Pohle (1913) and De Aldama and Solano (2014) divide their discussions into proofs from scripture, proofs from tradition, proofs from reason, philosophical objections, and discussions of interconnections with other theological theses. Consider these types of questions in turn.

5.1 Scriptural questions

The evidential relationship between scripture and Conciliar Christology could be one of mere consistency, of implication, of preclusion, of probabilizing, etc. Do the teachings of Conciliar Christology cohere with the teachings of scripture? Are they implied by the correct interpretation of scripture? Are they incompatible with the teachings of scripture? For instance, both Cyril and Nestorius, in the documents included in the Council of Ephesus, argue for their own view and against that of their opponent on scriptural grounds. Is either correct? In his Tome, Leo argues for his view of the communication of idioms by appealing to the activities of Christ found in scripture. Is he correct? The discussion of dyothelitism at the Third Council of Constantinople relied upon certain readings of the passages concerning Christ’s willing in scripture. Were those passages exegeted properly in those arguments?

Such work is undertaken in many dogmatic manuals, such as Pohle (1913) and De Aldama and Solano (2014). One finds it elsewhere in places like Sanders (2015) and the works he cites.

5.2 Historical questions

The relationship of history to Conciliar Christology is multi-faceted. One historical question, discussed briefly in section 1, concerns what exactly is counted as a part of Conciliar Christology. Does Cyril’s third letter, for instance, qualify for inclusion? It was promulgated with later councils, but there is some dispute about whether it was accepted at the time as part of the Council of Ephesus.

A second type of historical question asks about the analysis of the concepts employed in the councils. When the Conciliar Fathers speak of ‘natures’, for instance, what sort of thing do they have in mind? Is Christ’s human nature a flesh and blood composite of body and soul? Or did they mean ‘human nature’ to refer to a universal, shareable thing, perhaps something similar to a platonic form of ‘Humanity’? These two conceptions of what a nature is – called the ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract’ conceptions, respectively, in the contemporary literature – are ontologically vastly different. Historical grounding in the usage of the terms is essential for determining what sort of view the church fathers had, and so determining what they were attempting to safeguard. For discussion of this question, see Pawl 2016b: 29–57; 2020: 13–23.

A third historical question asks concerning the historical reception the individual councils received, and whether such a reception fits with the emphasis they receive in Conciliar Christology. Leo’s Tome, for instance, is an important source in Conciliar Christology. Was it historically viewed as important?

These questions and similar ones are discussed by Khaled Anatolios (2014), Brian Daley (2002), and Aaron Riches (2016; 2020).

5.3 Philosophical questions

There are very many philosophical questions one can raise about the incarnation. In fact, the discussion of philosophical questions concerning the incarnation dominates the contemporary literature on Conciliar Christology. Whether the doctrine of the incarnation implies a contradiction is a perennial philosophical question. This sort of philosophical objection is raised in various ways.

One objection stems from an apparent contradiction of attributes in the one God-man, Jesus Christ, that results from the communication of idioms. The communication of idioms raises a difficulty for Conciliar Christology. For if the predicates apt of Christ according to his human nature are apt of the divine person, and those predicates relevant to the divine nature remain apt to Christ as divine person, then it seems as if contradictory predicates will be apt of the same person. Surprisingly, Conciliar Christology owns this entailment. It allows – in fact, requires – that one affirms apparently incompatible predicates of the one Christ.

For instance, the Tome of Leo affirms both ‘that Christ died’ and ‘that Christ is incapable of death’. It says:

To pay off the debt of our state, invulnerable nature was united to a nature that could suffer; so that in a way that corresponded to the remedies we needed, one and the same mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus, could both on the one hand die and on the other be incapable of death [et mori posset ex uno et mori non posset ex altero]. (78, original emphasis)

Here Leo claims that one and the same thing, the man Jesus Christ, can both die and be incapable of death. Both predications, ‘Christ is capable of death’ and ‘Christ is incapable of death’, are true of him. One might put it briefly as follows: Conciliar Christology entails that one and the same thing – the God-man, Jesus Christ – is simultaneously and aptly characterized by two incompatible predicates (e.g. ignorant and omniscient; impassible and passible), but the objection continues, such incompatible predication is impossible.

For discussions of this question, see Adams (2006: 121–123; 2009: 242–243), Arcadi (2018), Davis (2006: 116), Dawson (2004: 161–162), Evans (2006: 13), Feenstra (2006: 142–144), Gordon (2016: 64), Gorman (2000; 2011; 2014; 2016; 2017: ch. 6), Hebblethwaite (2008: 60), Hick (1989: 415; 2006: 66–70), Hill (2012: 3), Kelly (1994), Klima (1984), Labooy (2019), Leftow (2011: 316), Le Poidevin (2009: 704), Loke (2009: 51; 2011: 493–494), Macquarrie (1990), Moreland and Craig (2003: 597), Morris (1987: ch. 1; 2009), Pawl (2014; 2015; 2016: ch. 4–7; 2016; 2018; 2020: ch. 7), Riches (2016: 5, 166), Senor (2002: 221), Spence (2008: 16), Stump (1989; 2004; 2005: ch. 14), Sturch (1991: ch. 2 and 12), Vallicella (2002), van Inwagen (1998: sections 2–4), and Wellum (2016: 446–455).

A second philosophical question arises when we consider the metaphysics of the incarnation. Were the Second Person of the Holy Trinity immutable, as Conciliar Christology requires, then that person could not become anything, and thus could not become man. Becoming is a type of change, and the Second Person – if Conciliar Christology is correct – is unchanging. Yet he did become man, according to Conciliar Christology; and so Conciliar Christology is inconsistent. Similar arguments can be given from the attributes of impassibility and atemporality. For discussion these attributes, see Pawl 2016b: 179–209 and 2018, and the works cited therein.

A final example of a philosophical objection comes from reflection on the number of wills and intellects Christ is claimed to have in Conciliar Christology. As mentioned in section 4.3, Christ had two wills. Some authors have argued that one person having two wills is impossible. For discussion Christ’s wills and freedom, see DeWeese (2007: 133), Gaine (2015 ch. 7), Hebblethwaite (2008: 68), Hick (2006: 56), Kereszty (2002: 392–396), McFarland (McFarland 2007), McKinley (2015), Pawl (2014; 2014; 2016: ch. 9; 2020: ch. 6), Rogers (2016), Sturch (1991: 29, 167), and Swinburne (1994: 198–199).

5.4 Systematic questions

As a final sort of question, one can ask after the interrelations of the theses of Conciliar Christology with other theological theses and traditions. These sorts of questions can be divided by the type of claim or claims the interrelations of which are considered.

One can ask about individual theological theses not included within Conciliar Christology. For instance, the thesis that multiple incarnations are possible, or the thesis that Christ wasn’t merely sinless, but was wholly impeccable. For discussions of multiple incarnations, see Adams (1985; 2005; 2006: 198–199; 2009: 241), Arendzen (1941: 161), Baker (2013: 47), Bonting (2003), Brazier (2013), Craig (2006: 63), Crisp (2008; 2009: ch. 8), Cross (2005: 230–232), Davies (2003), Fisher and Fergusson (2006), Flint (2001: 312; 2012: 192–198), Freddoso (1983; 1986), George (2001), Hebblethwaite (2001; 2008: 74), Jaeger (2017), Kereszty (2002: 382), Kevern (2002), Mascall (1965: 40–41), Morris (1987: 183), Pawl (2016; 2016; 2019: ch. 2–3), Le Poidevin (2009: 183; 2011), O’Collins (2002: 19–23), Pohle (1913: 136), Schmaus (1971: 241–242), Sturch (1991: 43, 194–200), and Ward (1998: 162). For discussions of impeccability, see Bavinck (2006: 314), O’Collins (1995: 281), Pohle (1913: 214), Schmaus (1971: 259), and Weis (2003). For the relation between temptation and impeccability, see Canham (2000: 95); Couenhoven (2012: 406–407), Crisp (2007; 2007), Davidson (2008: 395), Erickson (1996: 562), Fisk (2007), Gaine (2015: 168–172), Hart (1995), King (2015: 73–76), McKinley (2009; 2011), Morris (1987: ch. 7), Murray and Rea (2008: 82–90), O’Collins (1995: 283–284), Pawl (2019: ch. 6), Pelser (2019), Sturch (1991: 19–20), Swinburne (1994: 204–207), Ware (2013: ch. 5), Wellum (2016: 459–465), and Werther (1993; 2012).

One can ask about theories or models composed of multiple theses concerning the incarnation. For instance, the kenotic theory of the incarnation, or the compositional model of the incarnation. For more on kenotic Christology, see Brown (2011), Crisp (2007: ch. 5), Cupitt (1979: 136–137), Davis (1983: ch. 8; 1988: 52; 2006; 2011), Evans (2006), Feenstra (2006: 142), Forrest (2009), Hall (1898), Morris (1987: 89–102), Pawl (2016: ch. 5), Senor (2011), Sturch (1991: 252–260), Van Ingwen (1998: section 3), and Weinandy (1985: ch. 4). For more on compositional Christology, see Crisp (2011; 2016: ch. 6), Flint (2015), Hasker (2015), Leftow (2011: 321), and Turner (2019: note 5).

Finally, one can ask about the complete systems of individual theologians or schools of theology. For instance, how is Conciliar Christology interrelated with the Thomistic school of theology? There are very many discussions of the relation of Thomism to traditional Christology. For some exemplars, see Barnes (2014), Cross (1996; 2005), Froula (2012; 2017), Gorman (2017), Salas (2006), Stump (2004), White (2016). Or how is Conciliar Christology interrelated with the thought of more recent thinkers – for instance, Barth? For discussions on Barth and traditional Christology, see Hunsinger (2000), Hunsinger and Johnson (2020: ch. 9 and 12 especially), Jones (2008), McCormack (2008) and Sumner (2016).

Attributions

Copyright Timothy Pawl (CC BY-NC)

Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from the ecumenical councils are taken from Norman Tanner’s (1990) Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils (Georgetown University Press). All inline quotations that do not list an author or year are also taken from the Tanner volumes.

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Chapter 1 of In Defense of Extended Conciliar Christology: A Philosophical Essay by Timothy Pawl (Oxford University Press, 2019: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/in-defense-of-extended-conciliar-christology-9780198834144)

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  • Further reading

    • Arcadi, James M. 2018. ‘Recent Developments in Analytic Christology’, Philosophy Compass 13, no. 4 https://doi.org/10.1111/phc3.12480
    • Crisp, Oliver D. 2016. The Word Enfleshed: Exploring the Person and Work of Christ. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
    • Daley, Brian. 2020. God Visible: Patristic Christology Reconsidered. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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    • Kelly, Joseph F. 2009. The Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church: A History. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.
    • Need, Stephen W. 2008. Truly Divine and Truly Human: The Story of Christ and the Seven Ecumenical Councils. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
    • Pawl, Timothy. 2014a. ‘A Solution to the Fundamental Philosophical Problem of Christology’, The Journal of Analytic Theology 2: 61–85. https://doi.org/10.12978/jat.2014-1.190824150011a
    • Pawl, Timothy. 2016b. In Defense of Conciliar Christology: A Philosophical Essay. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.
    • Pawl, Timothy. 2019. In Defense of Extended Conciliar Christology: A Philosophical Essay. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.
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