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The Council of Chalcedon and the Monothelite Heresy

General Audience — March 23, 1988

—    Council of Chalcedon
—    Human consciousness of Christ
—    St. Leo the Great

In these reflections we are considering the ancient conciliar definitions which contributed to the formulation of the Church's faith. The Council of Chalcedon (451) made a decisive contribution to this formulation with its solemn definition that in Jesus Christ there are two natures, human and divine, which are united (without mixture) in the one personal subject which is the divine Person of God the Word. Because of the term hypostasis it is usual to speak of the hypostatic union. The same Person of the Word-Son is eternally begotten from the Father as regards his divinity; however, as regards his humanity, he was conceived and born in time of the Virgin Mary. The definition of Chalcedon therefore reaffirms, develops and explains what the Church taught in the previous Councils and what was witnessed to by the Fathers, for example, by Irenaeus who spoke of "one and the same Christ" (cf. Adv. Haer. III, 17, 4).

With the doctrine concerning the divine Person of the Word-Son who assumed human nature and thereby entered the world of human persons, the Council emphasized the dignity of the person and the relations existing between various persons. It can be said that it called attention to the reality and dignity of the individual human being who is the unmistakable subject of existence, life, and therefore of duties and rights. How can one not see in this the point of departure for a new history of thought and life? Therefore, the Incarnation of the Son of God is the foundation, source and model of two realities: a new supernatural order of existence for all men and women who draw from that mystery the grace that sanctifies and saves them, and of a Christian anthropology which views each man and woman as a person, placed at the center of society and of the entire world.

1.  Council of Chalcedon

We return to the Council of Chalcedon to say that it confirmed the traditional teaching on the two natures in Christ in opposition to the Monophysite doctrine (monophysis—one nature) propagated after that council. By clarifying that the union of the two natures takes place in one Person, the Council of Chalcedon still more fully set out in relief the duality of these natures, as we saw in the text of the definition previously quoted: "We teach...that one and the same Christ, the only-begotten Son and Lord must be recognized as subsisting in two natures without mixture, change, division or separation. The union does not suppress the difference between the natures; indeed, the proper quality of each remains" (DS 302). This means that the human nature is in no way "absorbed" by the divine nature. Because of his divine nature Christ is "one in Being with the Father according to his divinity"; because of his human nature he is "one in being with us according to his humanity."

Hence Jesus Christ is true God and true man. On the other hand the duality of natures does not in any way affect the unity of Christ, which arises from the perfect unity of the divine Person.

According to the logic of the Christological dogma, the result of the duality of nature in Christ is a duality of will and activity, while safeguarding the unity of the person. This truth was defined in 681 by the Third Council of Constantinople (Sixth Ecumenical Council)—as also in the Lateran Council of 649 (cf. DS 500)—against the errors of the Monothelites, who held that Christ had only one will.

The Council condemned "the heresy of a single will and a single activity in two natures...of Christ," which deprived Christ of an essential part of his humanity. "Following the five holy ecumenical councils, and the saints and excellent fathers," and in accord with them it defined and proclaimed that in Christ there are "two natural wills and two natural activities...two natural wills which are not opposed to each other...but such that the human will follows, without opposition or reluctance, or rather, that it is subject to, his divine and omnipotent will...according to what he himself said: 'I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me' (Jn 6:38)" (cf. DS 556).

2.  Human consciousness of Christ

This is the teaching of the early councils. They set out clearly both the divinity and the humanity of Christ. He is by nature a true man, capable of human action, human knowledge, human acts of will, and human consciousness, and also capable of human suffering, patience, obedience, passion and death. Only by virtue of his being completely human can we understand and explain the texts about the obedience of Christ unto death (cf. Phil 2:8; Rom 5:19; Heb 5:8), and above all, his prayer in Gethsemane: "Not my will, but yours be done" (Lk 22:42; cf. Mk 14:36). However, it is likewise true that Jesus' human will and human activity belong to the divine person of the Son; it was precisely in Gethsemane that he said, "Abba, Father" (Mk 14:36). He is fully aware of his divinity, as is revealed, for example, when he said, "Before Abraham came to be, I Am" (Jn 8:58), and in the other Gospel passages which we mentioned at the appropriate time. As true man, Jesus certainly possesses a specifically human consciousness, which we continually discover in the Gospels. At the same time, however, his human consciousness belongs to that divine "I," so that he can say, "The Father and I are one" (Jn 10:30). There is no Gospel text which indicates that Christ spoke of himself as a human person, even when he frequently referred to himself as "Son of Man." This term is rich with meaning. Under the veil of the biblical and messianic expression, it seems to imply that he who applies it to himself belongs to a different and higher order than that of ordinary mortals as far as the reality of his "I" is concerned. It is a term which bears witness to his intimate awareness of his own divine identity.

3.  St. Leo the Great

At the conclusion of our exposition of the Christology of the great councils we can appreciate the full wealth of meaning of the passage in Pope St. Leo the Great's Letter to Bishop Flavian of Constantinople (Tomus Leonis, June 13, 449). It was, as it were, an introduction to the Council of Chalcedon, and summed up the Christological dogma of the ancient Church: "The Son of God, coming down from his heavenly abode without ceasing to share in the glory of the Father, entered this lower world, born after a new order, by a new mode of birth.... He who is true God, is also true man. There is no unreality in this unity since the humility of the manhood and the majesty of the deity exist in reciprocity. For just as God does not change by his merciful condescension (whereby he became man), so likewise man is not swallowed up by the (divine) dignity. Each of the two natures performs its proper functions in communion with the other, the Word doing what is proper to the Word, and the flesh doing what is proper to it. The one is resplendent with miracles, the other submits to insults. Just as the Word does not forfeit equality of glory with the Father, so the flesh does not desert the nature of our kind...." After referring to the many Gospel texts which constitute the basis of his doctrine, St. Leo concludes: "It does not pertain to the same nature to say, 'I and the Father are one' (Jn 10:30), and to say 'The Father is greater than I' (Jn 14:28). Although in the Lord Jesus Christ there is one single person of God and man, yet the source of the contumely which both share is distinct from the source of the glory which they also share. From our nature he has a humanity inferior to the Father; from the Father he possesses divinity equal to that of the Father" (cf. DS 294-295).

While appearing difficult, these formulations of the Christological dogma contain and reveal the mystery of the Word made flesh, announced in the prologue of St. John's Gospel. In the presence of this mystery we feel the need to prostrate ourselves in adoration in the company of those eminent spirits who have honored it also with their investigations and reflections for our benefit and that of the whole Church.