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The Church's Belief in Jesus Christ According to the Conciliar Definitions

General Audience — March 16, 1988

The great Christological councils of Nicaea and Constantinople formulated the fundamental truth of our faith, firmly established in the creed, namely, that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, one in Being with the Father as regards his divinity, of the same nature as us as regards his humanity. After the conciliar explanations about the revealed truth concerning Christ's true divinity and true humanity, the question arose about the correct understanding of the unity of this Christ, who is at the same time fully God and fully man.

The question regarded the essential content of the mystery of the Incarnation, and therefore of Christ's human conception and birth from the Virgin Mary. As far back as the third century it was usual to call her Theotokos, (Mother of God), an expression found, among other places, in the oldest Marian prayer, the Sub tuum praesidium, "We fly to thy protection, O Holy Mother of God...." It is an antiphon frequently recited by the Church even to the present day. The most ancient text in which it occurs is on a papyrus found in Egypt, and can be dated to the period between the third and fourth century.

This invocation Theotokos, however, was challenged at the beginning of the fifth century by Nestorius and his followers. He held that Mary can be called only Mother of Christ and not Mother of God. This position was linked to the attitude of Nestorius to the problem of the unity of Christ. According to Nestorius, the divinity and humanity were not united, as in a single personal subject, in the earthly being which began to exist in the womb of the Virgin Mary from the moment of the annunciation. In opposition to Arianism which presented the Son of God as inferior to the Father, and to Docetism which reduced Christ's humanity to a mere appearance, Nestorius spoke of a special presence of God in Christ's humanity, as in a holy being, as in a temple. He said that there subsisted in Christ a duality, not only of nature, but also of person, the divine and the human. Being the mother of the Christ-Man, the Virgin Mary could not be regarded as, nor called, the Mother of God.

In opposition to the Nestorian thesis, the Council of Ephesus (431) confirmed the unity of Christ as derived from revelation and as had been believed and affirmed by Christian tradition—sancti patres—(cf. DS 250-266). The Council defined that Christ is the same eternal Word, God from God, who as Son is generated from eternity by the Father, and according to the flesh was born in time from the Virgin Mary. Therefore, since Christ is only one being, Mary has every right to the title "Mother of God," as had already been expressed for a long time in Christian prayer and in the thought of the Fathers (cf. DS 251.

The doctrine of the Council of Ephesus was later formulated in the so-called "Creed of union" (433) which put an end to the remaining post-conciliar controversies in the following words: "We confess that Our Lord Jesus Christ, only-begotten Son of God, perfect God and perfect man, composed of a rational soul and a body, conceived by the Father before time began as regards his divinity, is the same who in these last times, for us and for our salvation, was born of the Virgin Mary as regards his humanity. He who is of one being with the Father according to the divinity, is of one being also with us according to the humanity; in fact, there has been effected the union of the two natures (human and divine). Therefore we confess that the Blessed Virgin is Mother of God, because the Divine Word has become incarnate and was made man, and through his conception (in Mary) has united to himself the temple which he took from her" (DS 272). This is a stupendous concept of the humanity-temple truly assumed by the Word in the unity of person in Mary's womb!

The document known as the "formula of union" was the result of further interchanges between Bishop John of Antioch and St. Cyril of Alexandria, who for this reason received the congratulations of Pope St. Sixtus III (432-440). The text already spoke of the union of the two natures in the same and unique subject, Jesus Christ. Since new controversies had arisen, especially because of Eutyches and the Monophysites who held for the unification and mixture, as it were, of the two natures in the one Christ, the Council of Chalcedon met some years later (451). In agreement with the teaching of Pope St. Leo the Great (440-461), it introduced the term "person" for a greater clarification of the subject of this union of natures. It was a further milestone in the journey of Christological dogma.

In formulating its dogmatic definition, the Council of Chalcedon repeated that of Nicaea and Constantinople, and made its own the doctrine of St. Cyril at Ephesus, and that contained in the "letter to Flavian from the prelate Leo, the most blessed and most holy archbishop of the very great and very ancient city of Rome...in harmony with the confession of the great Peter...and for us a firm pillar" (cf. DS 300). Finally it stated with precision, "Following therefore, the Holy Fathers, we unanimously teach and confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ...one and the same Christ—only-begotten Lord. He exists in two natures without mixture, change, division or separation. The union does not suppress the difference between the natures. The proper quality of each remains, and comes together with the other in one single person and hypostasis. He is not divided or separated into two persons, but is one and the same Son, only-begotten, God, Word and Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets, first of all, and then Jesus Christ himself taught us about him, and as the creed of the Fathers has transmitted to us" (cf. DS 301-302).

It was a clear and forceful synthesis of faith in the mystery of Christ, received from Sacred Scripture and from sacred Tradition, which used the rational concepts and expressions "nature" and "person," pertaining to the current language. In this way they were raised to the dignity of philosophical and theological terminology, as happened especially after that conciliar definition. The Council, however, adopted those concepts and terms from the current language, without reference to a particular philosophical system. One must also note the concern of the Council Fathers for precision in the choice of words. In the Greek text the word prosopon corresponding to "person," indicated rather man's external, phenomenological side (literally, the theater mask). Therefore the Fathers used, alongside this word, another term, hypostasis, which indicates the ontological specificity of the person.

We too should renew our profession of faith in Christ, our Savior, in the words of that venerated formula used by countless generations of Christians who drew from it light and strength for a witness driven at times to the supreme test of martyrdom.