Assorted Thoughts on Whether or Not Chalcedon is Doing Metaphysics or Commits Us to Classsical Metaphysics (it probably isn’t/doesn’t)

It seems that the the idea that the metaphysical language of Chalcedon itself gives us a normative description of reality, or commits us to a specific metaphysic, is mistaken. While the creeds language is highly metaphysical, are all these terms, substance, person, nature, essence, about the person of Christ to be taken in the strictest metaphysical terms? Are we committed to a broadly classical metaphysic by Chalcedon?


Upon closer inspection, however, Chalcedon itself doesn’t appear to commit us to any such thing (the assertion that it does would probably only have any force if it was assumed that such a metaphysic was already the case) nor is it required to remain within the bounds of orthodoxy. It is absolutely possible, for example to construct a fully orthodox christology without metaphysics on the ‘basis of the narrated history of Jesus’ ( such as that of Bruce McCormack). But there’s a few significant things about Chalcedon that, to me, put a few nails in the overtly classical  concept of Chalcedon (a lot of this comes from Sarah Coakley’s essay on Chalcedon ‘What Does Chalcedon Solve’ in ‘The Incarnation’)


  1. The bishops at chalcedon were bishops, and not professional philosophers.
  2. The terms themselves – person, substance et al – are never given substantial definitions.
  3. The terms do have a pre-history, obviously, but these histories are not cleared up by the definition
  4. The bishops resisted the call for more precise clarification of the terms
  5. The content of the of the terms as well as their logical relations are left undefined


Put all this together and I think a serious case can be made that Chalcedon was fundamentally (but not purely) a regulatory document or statement. I wouldn’t want to deflate its metaphysical commitments altogether but they are far less inflated than the classical metaphysical view need them to be. Coakley is quite perceptive here:


It does not, that is, intend to provide a full systematic account of Christology, and even less a complete and precise metaphysics of Christ’s makeup. Rather, it sets a ‘boundary’ on what can, and cannot, be said, by first ruling out three aberrant interpretations of Christ (Apollinarianism, Eutychianism, and extreme Nestorianism), second, providing an abstract rule of language (physis and hypostasis) for distinguishing duality and unity in Christ, and, third, presenting a ‘riddle’ of negatives by means of which a greater (though undefined) reality may be intimated. At the same time, it recapitulates and assumes (a point often forgotten in considering the horos in abstraction from the rest of the Acta) the acts of salvation detailed in Nicaea and Constantinople; and then it leaves us at that ‘boundary’, understood as the place now to which those salvific acts must be brought to avoid doctrinal error, but without any supposition that this linguistic regulation thereby explains or grasps the reality towards which it points. In this, rather particular sense, it is an ‘apophatic’ document.


(1) Chalcedon does not tell us in what the divine and human ‘natures’ consist; (2) it does not tell us what hypostasis means when applied to Christ; (3) it does not tell us how hypostasis and physeis are related, or how the physeis relate to one another (the problem of the communicatio idiomatum); (4) it does not tell us how many wills Christ has; (5) it does not tell us that the hypostasis is identical with the pre-existent Logos; (6) it does not tell us what happens to the physeis at Christ’s death and in his resurrection; (7) it does not tell us whether the meaning of hypostasis in this christological context is different, or the same, from the meaning in the trinitarian context… (p. 161-163)


Kevin VanHoozer is also quite helpful here:


Chalcedon does not define for all time what a person or a nature is…it provides discretion, and a concrete example, for the kinds of things we can say about Christ…what is normative about Chalcedon is the underlying ontological judgement that it preserves, in Greek conceptual form, from Scripture: whatever it means to be human, and whatever it means to be God, Chalcedon stipulates that we must say that the one person Jesus Christ is both. (‘Jesus without Borders: Christology in the Majority World’, p. 32)


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