In Defense of Conciliar Christology: A Response to Mark DelCogliano

by Timothy Pawl, Ph.D.

I’d like to thank Fr. Kimel for hosting this exchange, and Mark for his characteristically insightful comments on my book. Also, I’d like to thank Paul Gavrilyuk who, as Mark said, originally hosted our exchange at an Interdisciplinary Colloquium. As Mark notes, he and I are colleagues at the University of St. Thomas (MN). We are also friends. I’ve discussed theology a fair bit with Mark over the past few years, and I’ve never left a conversation as ignorant as I entered it. I should note here, lest I be misread, that my original reply to Mark was tongue-in-cheek, as were his original comments. Some of that same playfulness comes through in these blog posts.

An autobiographical point as a segue into responding to Mark’s comments. In Defense of Conciliar Christology began as an invited talk at an annual philosophy of religion conference. I planned to write a brief paper noting some problems with contemporary philosophical understand­ings of the incarnation. That talk ballooned into a paper, then an overly long paper, then a planned series of articles, and finally, this book. What I found in my reading was that there are a lot of people, both philosophers and theolo­gians, both now and in Christian history, who raise philosophical objections to the coherence of traditional Christology. My goal in this book is to show those objections unsound. In that sense, my project is defensive. I don’t attempt to argue that the Christology of the councils is true, or even possibly true. Rather, my goal is to show that folks haven’t yet given good philosophical reason for thinking it to be false.

I count six critiques raised by Mark: first, I overly esteem Leo and his Tome; second, I appeal to medievals for definitions and not patristics; third, I stack the deck; fourth, I give a Nestorian account; fifth, what I call Conciliar Christology isn’t even a thing; sixth, my account removes paradox at great detriment to the Christology of the fathers. I’ll consider these in order.

First, do I over-esteem Leo? How much esteem is too much? I’ll allow my esteem to be tempered by the conciliar fathers, the vast majority of whom were easterners, who at Chalcedon write,

To these it has suitably added, against false believers and for the establishment of orthodox doctrines, the letter of the primate of greatest and older Rome, the most blessed and most saintly Archbishop Leo, written to the sainted Archbishop Flavian to put down Eutyches’s evil-mindedness, because it is in agreement with great Peter’s confession and represents a support we have in common. (Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, ed. Norman P. Tanner, 85)

Or 3rd Constantinople, which writes:

it approves … the Tome of the all-holy and most blessed Leo, pope of the same elder Rome, which was sent to Flavian, who is among the saints, and which that synod called a pillar of right belief. (Tanner, 126-7)

I’m happy to moderate my esteem in him and his work to the degree these eastern conciliar fathers did: he is all-holy and blessed, most-holy and most-blessed, and his work is in agreement with Great Peter’s confession and a pillar of right belief. If I come off in the book as esteeming the man or his works more than this, I repent of it now.

Second, Mark says I appeal to medievals more than the patristics, and the Latins more than the Greeks, in my definitions of the relevant terms. Norman Tanner made this same point in a review of my book for the Heythrop Journal. I think this is a fair point. I do rely on Latin medievals more than Greek patristics in my work. But note well: my goal is merely to show a way in which one can interpret the councils from within the tradition, and on which they are not incoherent in their teachings on Christ. I trust that following the likes of Aquinas on such definitions is not, in itself, a way of veering dangerously outside the acceptable bounds of tradition. Moreover, while I do rely more on Latin medievals, the patristic Greeks don’t go unmined, as Mark notes. I discuss John of Damascus’s views of the proper definition of “hypostasis” at least as much as Aquinas’s. I also cite patristic era eastern authors, such as Emperor Justinian, Cyril of Alexandria, and many experts on such thinkers, such as our own colleague Stephen Hipp at the St. Paul Seminary and Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev in an attempt to show the sympathy such thinkers would have for the medieval-inspired definitions I eventually employ. Provided that the definitions I eventually employ are not prohibited by the eastern Fathers in concert (and the case would have to be made not only that my definitions are faulty, but the definitions of many medieval western councils and authors whom I cite as well), I don’t see that my reliance on the medievals vitiates my goal.

Third, have I stacked the deck? I don’t think so. Recall the dialectic. Someone says to me, “that stuff you believe is incoherent.” The job I have taken up is replying. In doing so, I’m allowed to revise and clarify. That’s not stacking the deck; that’s part of an adequate response. I suppose it is true that if I were to provide revised definitions that were straightforwardly incompatible with theological or historical usage, that would be a problem. On that front, I’m happy to see that Mark claims that I acquitted myself well theologically and historically.

Fourth, is my answer Nestorian? I have a section on that topic in the last section before the book’s conclusion (Ch9; SectV). Mark says, “Thus for the Fathers it is the person of Christ that must be the subject of experi­ences, not one or the other nature.” Depend­ing on what we mean by “subject of experi­ences,” I have different things to say here. If we mean the psychological subject of experi­ences, the guy who experiences things, then I agree with both parts of Mark’s claim: Christ, and not a nature, is the subject of psycholog­ical experiences. But if we mean merely the thing which stuff happens to, or the thing we can linguistically predicate of, then I deny his second part. It is true that Christ is the subject of experiences (he hung on the cross), but it is also true that the same is aptly said of the human nature: the human nature hung on the cross.

In the previously-mentioned section of my book, I rely on the definition of Nestorianism given by that great eastern Father, St. John of Damascus. He says Nestorians believe that the Word and the humanity exist by themselves, that the ignoble attributes are said of the humanity alone, and the noble attributes said of the Word alone. My view isn’t Nestorian in that sense. For while I say, following Leo in his Tome, that the human nature was causally affected, while it hung and bled, that is not said of the human nature alone, it is said of the human nature and the Word himself.

Perhaps someone will reply that, even still, while my view isn’t explicitly Nestorian on the Damascene’s definition, it is still, nevertheless, Nestorian to say such things as “was causally affected,” “hung,” or “was pierced” of the human nature. Persons, not natures, hang, get pierced, or are affected.

To that reply, I note that I’m saying no more than the councils themselves say. For all-holy Leo says in his pillar of right belief, in agreement with Peter’s great confession, that the human nature “hung, pierced with nails, on the wood of the cross” (Tanner, 81). Third Constantinople says that “each nature wills and performs the things that are proper to it in communion with the other” (Tanner, 129). What of Cyril, the great opponent of Nestorius? Would he view my predication of the predicates both of the human nature and of the person of the Word as beyond the pale? According to Cyril (on Christopher Bellitto’s reading, which some of you are better placed to evaluate than I am), “Jesus’s human nature suffered because it is human and therefore capable of suffering.” Likewise, another scholar, Herbert Relton, writes that Cyril “assigned to his human nature the hunger, the thirst, the suffering, the dying.” Khaled Anatolios provides evidence that Athanasius likewise predicated such ignoble predicates of both the Word and his human nature. Thus, if my view, which has me saying some ignoble predicates both of the person and of the nature is Nestorian, then so is Athanasius’s, Cyril’s, Leo’s, and the councils that explicitly accepted Leo’s Tome. Insofar as we have reason to think that Cyril – Cyril! – isn’t a Nestorian, we have reason to think that my view is not, too.

Fifth, is Conciliar Christology a thing? Well, Mark has been reading theology since I was a pre-teen, and he’s never seen the concept, let alone the term. I can see how the term eluded him. I thought I was making it up at first, but Google Scholar tells me it was used a handful of times prior to my stipulation of its meaning in this context. But the concept itself – the concept of all the stuff the councils officially taught about Christ back when the church wasn’t in east-west schism – that concept is new to him? Kallistos Ware wrote, in 1964, 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.” Isn’t he writing here about Conciliar Christology and Conciliar Trinitarian Theology? There are a lot of books dedicated to the history and theology of the first seven councils. When they discuss the Christology of those councils, isn’t it precisely Conciliar Christology that they are discussing?

Mark notes that Conciliar Christology is a simplification, or a reduction, or a distortion…of what exactly? Of, it appears, a “full understanding of the Christological legacy of the early Church.” Well, sure: if one were to present Conciliar Christology as if it were the full Christological legacy of the early church, that would be a simplification and reduction. But why think anyone was trying to do that? I agree wholeheartedly with Mark that Christ is a “who” that we encounter in the sacraments. Christ is a person we adore, and rightly so. The Christian God we worship is not merely the God of Classical Theism. Let my “Amen!” resound to these claims! I never claimed that Conciliar Christology is the fullness of expression of patristic Christology. But I do think that what I’ve called Conciliar Christology is a necessary condition for any viable Christology based on the teachings of the first seven councils. If the objectors can show it to be incoherent, then, they have shown that no Christology based on those councils, patristic or otherwise, is coherent.

Finally, even if Mark is right and Conciliar Christology is not a thing, and no one in the history of the world has ever stopped to consider the ecumenical councils of the undivided church, and whether what they teach about Christ is internally consistent – if no one has ever stopped to ask whether the Christology defined once and for all, allegedly unrevisable and protected from error by the Holy Spirit, harbors an alleged contradiction – well, is being the first to do so such a very bad thing?

Sixth, have I wronged the paradox that is necessary to Christology? Perhaps Mark and I mean different things by paradox. To claim that something is a paradox is to claim two things: first, that it appears contradictory; second, that it isn’t contradictory. Perhaps you disagree. Perhaps you think that something can be both a paradox and contradictory. Even so, in this context we shouldn’t allow the paradox to be contradictory, since no logical contradiction (i.e., claim of the form P is true and P is false) is true, and as I assume for argument’s sake in the book, and something Mark and I both affirm, the Christian story is true. Paradox in a case of commitment to the truth is a case of seeing something as appearing but not being logically contradictory.

Here, Mark tells us that paradox is needful. It is “the only way” to convey the truth, it is “the best way” to affirm what happened in the incarnation. And so on. To remove the paradox is problematic. And he thinks I’ve removed it. I think it is the other way around, though: it is Mark who has removed the paradox (I’ve been told that theologians appreciate provocation in their talks; I’m trying to play along here).

To have reason to think something a paradox, you need reason to think it both appears but isn’t contradictory. Now, everyone – Christian and atheist alike – will find the appearance of logical contradiction in the passages I cite in the book. Is the teaching really contradictory? Well, there are those who have provided logical arguments to the conclusion that it is contradictory. If so, then it isn’t a paradox after all. How does one go about answering such charges? I see no other way than by considering their arguments and attempting to show that they are unsound. How does one go about giving evidence that the alleged paradox is not contradictory? I say you try to show a way of understanding the terms and statements that doesn’t imply a contradiction. How else? But then, to retain the paradoxical nature of the claims, we need some reason for thinking it is not contradictory, and I see nothing in what Mark says that could provide that. In short, to be paradoxical but true, it has to appear logically contradictory, but not in fact be logically contradictory. My book is an attempt to show that latter part.

From my perspective, there are people giving carefully constructed, logical arguments in good faith, which attempt to show that the paradox is more than paradox, it is inconsistency. A proper response to such people isn’t reassertion of the paradox and its importance. The proper response is considering the arguments they give. If the Holy Spirit has protected these councils from error, as the Orthodox and Catholics both profess, then there is a fault somewhere in the argument. We do a service to the objector and ourselves if we meet their arguments in the same manner in which they are given, with careful logic.

* * *

Dr Pawl is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, Minnesota. He works on metaphysics and philosophical theology. In metaphysics he works on truthmaker theory, modality, and free will. In philosophical theology, he has published on transubstantiation, Christology, and divine immutability. Some places where his work has appeared include: The Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Faith and Philosophy, and Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion. With Dr Gloria Frost he leads the Classical Theism Project.

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24 Responses to In Defense of Conciliar Christology: A Response to Mark DelCogliano

  1. Basem says:

    Dr Pawl: few thoughts on Dr DelCogliano critique and your response (I am a lay person and not a theology or philosophy scholar):

    1-Conciliar Christology, weather one agrees or disagree with, is a simplification of Christ nature by the very nature of how God is “Ineffable, Inconceivable, and Incomprehensible” (as John Chrysostom elegantly state in his liturgy). Limited man thought of God’s will always be an approximation.

    2-There is no question that politics played a major part in the Christological controversies (and the decisions of the Councils). I am sure you are aware of the pioneering work of RV Sellers and VC Samuel; both (from different POV describe the tense political environment that led to that divide).

    3-Leo was a great theologian but for many Eastern Fathers, the simplicity his Tome deemed insufficient to describe the mystery of Christ. Hence, came the later councils that sort of shaped what is loosely described as “Neo-chalcedonism” which was more closely aligned with Cyrilian Christology than the, rather simple, Tome of Leo. Leo, has also been, not unrightfully, accused of being the “first papist” because of many positions to he took to affirm to the supremacy of the See of Rome; perhaps the most significant was the rejection of the Second Council of Ephesus as a “robber synod” – Leo rejected the council not based on its proceedings or outcomes but more because Rome wasn’t adequately represented. Many in the East believe that Leo’s concern wasn’t more with doctrine but more with establishing the supremacy of Rome. Also, many historic accounts detail (VC Samuel would be a good non-biased resource) how Leo was instrumental in the persecution of non-Chalcedonians even when imperial authorities though to take a more lax position.

    4-Not all EO theologians necessarily agree that the councils were “protected from error by the Holy Spirit” – an article by Bishop Hilarión (Alfeyev) of Podolsk is particularly illuminating about this (

    Kind regards

    Liked by 1 person

    • timpawl says:

      Dear Basem,
      Thanks for your comments. I appreciate your help thinking through these things.

      Re: 1, I took Mark’s claim that Conciliar Christology is a simplification to be a criticism that doesn’t automatically apply to every act of human intellection about Christology. Otherwise, why would he list it as a “deeper concern”? But then, he isn’t using the term “simplification” in the same sense you are, since, as you use it, every person’s thought about Christology will be a simplification.

      Re: 2, I agree that politics played a major part in Christological controversies. Reading the histories of the councils, I was struck by the amount of intrigue, betrayal, assault, bribes, and other scandalous activities at the councils (e.g., sending a prostitute to a rival bishop’s lodging). If someone made a movie of the events, we’d accuse it of being sensationalized. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction!

      Re: 3, It may be that Leo’s Tome is over-simplistic, and that he was motivated more by political (Ecclesiastic) concerns than by doctrine. Cyril, too, can be accused of being motivated more by politics than by doctrine. For the purposes of my book project, figuring out the primary motivations of the key players isn’t needful. The human “why” of their statement isn’t the target of the opponent’s argument. The opponent argues, “you guys accept this council, and yet its teaching implies a logical contradiction.” Such an argument is problematic for anyone who accepts the council, whatever the motivation for accepting it, or the motivation of the authors in writing its contents.

      Re: 4, Thank you very much for that article by Alfeyev. I used his 2012 book, _Doctrine and Teaching of the Orthodox Church_, a great deal in my research. I wasn’t aware of this article, and I’m glad to have read it. I don’t see in it anywhere where Alfeyev cites someone who is an EO theologian and that person claims that the councils weren’t protected from error by the Holy Spirit. Perhaps I missed it?

      I was surprised to see Alfeyev cited here for the point you are making, since he says elsewhere things like this:
      “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.” Now, he doesn’t mention the Holy Spirit here, it is true. But I took his reasoning in the passage to be that these conciliar statements have their “absolute and indisputable authority,” and are “not subject to change and are universally applied,” not due to any human reasoning, but precisely because of God’s work in safeguarding the Church.

      Thanks again for your comments!


    • Maximus says:


      Many Eastern Orthodox scholars reject Neo-Chalcedonianism as a Western/Miaphysite construct because it posits that Chalcedon was initially interpreted in a way that diminished St Cyril. Neo-Chalcedonianism supposes a shift towards Cyrillianism at the 5th Council. Whereas many Orthodox affirm that from the outset, the Chalcedonian Definition was created by bishops who esteemed St Cyril and framed the Definition in Cyrillian language, in addition to Roman/Antiochian terminology.

      Fr. John Romanides: “I think a very basic difficulty which we Chalcedonians of the Greek tradition face is that there is a peculiar theological alliance between the Latin (including Protestant) and non-Chalcedonian scholars in regard to Chalcedon. For the same reasons that the Westerners can accept Chalcedon, the non-Chalcedonians reject Chalcedon. Both sides try to prove that Chalcedon rejected the Twelve Chapters of St. Cyril and accepted Leo’ s Tome either as a correction (so say the Westerners) or as a distortion (so say the non-Chalcedonians) of Cyrillian Christology. Contrary to both these approaches (which do not represent the central tradition of Chalcedon) the Chalcedonian Greeks read the documents of Chalcedon in the light of Ephesus I (431) and Constantinople II (553). The usual Latin and non-Chalcedonian picture whereby our Illyrian, Thracian, Asian, Pontian, Cappadocian, Palestinian, and Egyptian Fathers are presented as capitulating before a few Latin and Antiochene bishops is caricature and not history.”

      Met. Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and St. Blasios: [T]he lack of recognition by the so-called Anti-Chalcedonians of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils, and the theory of some Orthodox theologians of Neo-Chalcedonianism, in essence have a common denominator and cannot be accepted by the Orthodox Church.


  2. Tom says:

    Dr. Pawl,

    Just wanted to say thanks for the book. Loved it. I thought it was spot on and especially helpful for folks like me who come from an analytical (shh, don’t say that too loudly) context for doing faith. I read your book on the heels of Aaron Riches’ Ecce Home. The two of you pretty much overwhelmed me, so I spent a week watching Kung-fu movies in Chinese – something different to change the scene. Now I’m back for more!



  3. Tom says:

    Fr Al, you’re killing it here on EO with the guest lineup!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Basem says:

    Dear Dr Pawl,

    I don’t know if the prevailing of one Christological argument over another is necessarily “God’s work in safeguarding the Church”. Prevailing of one doctrine over 1500 years of history is not necessarily God’s final word on the matter (if even God actually needs to have a “final word” on that particular issue; Christology remains our modest interpretation). The reason that the Chalcedonian position became “The Orthodox” is because it was the religion of the empire. At the time of Chalcedon, almost half of Christendom rejected the Tome and the Council and non-Chalcedonians didn’t perish despite unrelenting persecutions by the Byzantines and then the Muslims. By the same token, one can make the argument that Islam was “God’s work” given how the Islamic state took down Byzantium and the Islamic states continue to flourish to this date? The Israelites were oppressed for 400 years in Egypt and generations have died awaiting God’s promise. I would caution that such an interpretation of prevailing Christological doctrine as a sign of Divine endorsement being too simplistic – “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).

    On a different twist of the matter, when you first encountered ancient church history, did that shake your faith some? Pardon me if this is an inappropriately intrusive question?



    • timpawl says:

      Dear Basem,
      Thanks for the comment. I take your caution. I don’t intend to argue that “this christology has prevailed across the centuries” gives evidence for the claim “this christology is true.” (I actually like that sort of argument, if we can find widespread acceptance in the early church for a claim. In that case, I think the widespread, prevailing affirmation is much better explained by the teaching being handed down by the first christians than by, say, spontaneous heresy of the exact same type sprouting up in different jurisdictions in the early church.) Neverthless, that’s not the sort of argument I’m giving here. In fact, in the book, I don’t give _any_ argument for the Christology of the councils. My task is to test the councils for consistency. One can do that even if one thinks the teachings are false (e.g., when one tests an opponent’s philosophical views for internal consistency).

      I wouldn’t say your final question is inappropriately intrusive. I appreciate your care in asking it. I wouldn’t say my reading of church history shook my faith. My reading of church history reaffirmed a disjunction that I had long believed. I had long affirmed that either God was safeguarding the deposit of faith from human error, or there’s good reason not to take the councils as authoritative. All the shenanigans, all the bishops behaving badly, all the political intrigue, the unlikely deaths of emperors and the shifts they brought to the theological landscape, Cyril’s bribery of the emperor, etc. All that stuff gave me more reason to believe that either God safeguarded it, in which case we can trust it, or God didn’t, in which case the historical facts of the mechanism for coming to doctrine seems hopelessly flawed. The same reasoning holds true, I think, for the canon of scripture (which I know isn’t defined in the 7 councils, but was still come to at local councils with similarly unreliable actors and processes). I was already on board with God’s providential safeguarding, and so the extra evidence of bad behavior didn’t cause me to worry. But I definitely see that if I didn’t think God safeguarded the process, I’d be very shaken in my belief in the canon and dogma, given the actual historical facts about how they arose.



  5. Prof. Pawls, thanks to you and to Dr. Delcogliano for the interaction. I’ve profited much by it and look forward to reading your book.

    My question relates to Mark’s suggestion in his critique that “Conciliar Christology is not a thing.” By this I take him to be suggesting that your interaction with Chalcedon and the tradition that followed (or more broadly, the seven ecumenical councils) simply elides some historical differences between the councils, and various theologians, that are not insignificant. Though we should doubtless have something to say here of continuity and “development” of christological teaching from Nicaea I to Nicaea II, it seems to me that such an account also ought to make note of real shifts and redirections. In some cases, what one council held as a firm confession another council dropped or conceded, because its political and intellectual objectives were different.

    Basem above mentions so-called “Neo-Chalcedonianism,” for example. One element of the post-Chalcedon era that fascinates me concerns the career of Cyril’s mia physis formula. Whereas Chalcedon had rejected Eutyches’ (Cyrillian) “one incarnate nature of God the Word,” later orthodox thinkers embraced it. What was in the fifth century a sure sign of the Eutychian heresy, and subsequently championed by Severus and the Monophysites, came to be rehabilitated and given an orthodox spin by Leontius of Jerusalem, Maximus, John of Damascus, and others. (Related to this is the pronoun debate in 451 between “in two natures” and “out of two natures.” What seems to have been a significant point of contention at Chalcedon largely disappears in subsequent generations, as orthodox thinkers freely make use of both and read them together.)

    To me this suggests that, although there is significant continuity running through the councils, the Christology of Ephesus and Chalcedon is not precisely the same as that of Constantinople II and III. Can we give an account of “Conciliar Christolog-IES” that sufficiently accounts for this history?


    • Basem says:

      Thank you for your comments Darren. Just to note “Monophysites” was a polemic term introduced in the 6th and the 7th century long after Severus is gone! VC Samuel had that detailed in his book (his thesis was under the supervision of Georges Florovsky). None of the non-Chalcedonians (later condemned as “Monophysites” and lumped in with Eutyches) ever approved what Eutyches taught. All of the followers of Eutyches have perished with no prevailing modern counterpart. I would argue that the non-Chalcedonian remained consistent in their position of Cyrillian Christology and never adopted any heretical teachings.


    • timpawl says:

      Hi Darren. Thanks for the comment.

      I think it is a good idea for people to do comparative historical studies of the councils, and to trace the developments as they go. That’s the job of folks like Mark, who I have no doubt would excel at that sort of thing. I’m not a historian, though I enjoy reading historians on such matters, and I’d certainly read a book about Conciliar Christolog-IES.

      In my reading of the councils, informed by my betters, the doctrine develops organically, and (I argue) without contradiction. The fathers certainly don’t take themselves to be contradicting previous ecumenical councils. They often start by reiterating the creeds, by re-committing to previous affirmations (like 3rd Constantinople does with the Tome, as well as Cyril’s letters), etc. It strikes me that the later conciliar fathers are intentionally trying not to contradict prior councils on Christological matters. By the time you get to the last of the seven councils, you have a robust body of Christological teachings there, whether in the form of decrees, or letters, or definitions, or anathemas, etc. While I think it is valuable to have an account of conciliar christologies, as you describe it, I don’t think that such an account is _needful_ in order to respond to the charge that the robust body of Christological teaching is incoherent on philosophical grounds.



      • Thanks, Tim, for the reply. I suppose that the next question with respect to your consistency thesis would be twofold: (1) Might there be one expression of Christology from that line of conciliar development that is NOT consistent, but which is repaired or refined by later councils? (To affirm this much, it seems to me, would simply be to say that later councils aren’t only responding to new ideas and challenges but also modifying the received confessions so as to eliminate shortcomings which these new challenges have exposed.)

        (2) If earlier conciliar expressions are indeed repaired or improved upon by later councils, in what way does “conciliar Christology” intend to speak to the whole and in what way is it more restricted to the final stage of christological development (insofar as there is such a thing)? In other words, is “conciliar Christology” really more of a shorthand for Constantinople III and Nicaea II?

        Again, the appearance of Alexandrian language such as “out of two natures” after 451 might be a good way to explore this relationship between conciliar development and conciliar consistency.


        • timpawl says:

          Thanks for this comment, Darren.
          To your first question, if there were a pair of teachings that were logically inconsistent in the first 7 councils, I think rationality would require us to deny at least one of those teachings. For no logical contradiction can be true, and if we affirmed both, we’d be affirming a contradiction. What I think we see is clarification, not repair. For instance, 3rd Constantinople might be viewed as saying this: “the previous councils said Christ was true man, but didn’t say anything explicitly about whether he had a human will. We here [at 3rd Const.] are clarifying the doctrine: he does have a human will.” If you have a repair or shortcoming in mind, I’d be happy to know of it. I’m taking a repair to be something like this, “the previous Fathers at Council X said _this_, but that’s wrong. We now affirm _not-that_.”

          To your second question, I don’t take Conciliar Christology to be shorthand for the Christology of the final few councils. It is true that the final few councils make pains to explicitly say that they agree with the previous councils. So it might well be that all the doctrine of the earlier councils is there, implicitly, in the later councils. But to get the explicit statements of many claims, we need to go back to the prior councils. In philosophy-speak, we might say that to populate the conjunction of claims that is Conciliar Christology, we need to take conjuncts explicitly taught at all 7 councils.



          • Thanks, Tim — that’s helpful. In my own research I’m presently attending to the ways in which Chalcedon was re-read and “massaged” in a more overtly Cyrillian direction from the sixth century. Of course this never takes the form of overt correction — “Chalcedon was wrong on X” — which would be ecclesiologically disastrous. I’ve mentioned a few examples of course correcting, e.g. Chalcedon seems to be at some pains to specify (in its anti-Eutychian context) that Christ’s one hypostasis is “in [and specifically not out of] two natures,” while subsequent councils invoke the latter (or both together) — in effect saying that “out of two natures” is acceptable language so long as it is intended in a non-Eutychian way (e.g. Const. II, anathema 8). This isn’t a correction of Chalcedon, of course, so much as it is an expansion of orthodox usage.

            Another example is Leo’s much-debated Tome, where there remains a good deal of debate (as evidenced on this page!). For my money Leo’s fifth-century understanding of the co-operation of the Word and the humanity is not consistent with Maximus, Constantinople III, and Damascene. (This isn’t troubling to me as an historian any more than the suggestion that a figure such as Irenaeus or Athanasius might not be entirely “Chalcedonian” in their own respective eras.) Multiple councils after 451 explicitly receive and reaffirm the Tome but I take them to be giving it a sympathetic reading, in line with their own contemporary concerns, in ways Leo himself likely did not intend.

            I suppose that by “repair work” I mean that later councils choose to give conciliar documents one certain reading and not another, as they add on their own layers of advancement and clarification. We need look no further than the condemnation of the Three Chapters and the emergence of the “Neo-Chalcedonian” tradition to see this. This path of conciliar development is not by any means clear from the vantage point of 451, because while those later developments may be theologically consistent with what has come before they are not theologically inevitable. The result is that we cannot read the conciliar tradition backwards, as it were: arguments that Leontius is a Constantinople III thinker, or that Athanasius is Chalcedonian, etc. are non-starters.

            (I’m not suggesting that this is what you are doing — only exploring ways in which “conciliar Christology” may be overly monolithic.)

            Liked by 1 person

  6. Maximus says:

    The Eastern Fathers esteemed the Tome of Leo much, much more than contemporary Orthodox. As a matter of fact, I believe that Chalcedon calls it a “pillar of Orthodoxy”. I think contemporary denigration of the Tome stems from the influence of Fr. Romanides and recent concessions made to the Miaphysites. Fr. Florovsky warned the Orthodox theologians at the Orthodox-Oriental dialogues that they cannot forget the Tome. If I may offer some examples:

    St Sophronios of Jerusalem: Indeed I call and define this [the Tome] as ‘the pillar of orthodoxy’, following those holy Fathers who well defined it this way, as thoroughly teaching us every right belief, while destroying every heretical wrong belief, and driving it out of the halls of holy catholic church, guarded by God… And [I accept] what Leo, the most holy shepherd of the most holy church of the Romans, wrote, and especially what he composed against the abomination of Eutyches and Nestorius. I recognize the latter as the definitions of Peter, the former [the letters of St Cyril] those of Mark. (Synodical Letter 2.5.5, Sophronius of Jerusalem and Seventh-Century Heresy pp. 131-135)

    St. John Moschos

    Abba Menas, ruler of the same community also told us that he had heard this from the same Abba Eulogios, Pope of Alexandria: When I went to Constantinople, [I was a guest in the house of] master Gregory the archdeacon of Rome, a man of distinguished virtue. He told me of a written tradition preserved in the Roman church concerning the most blessed Leo, Pope of Rome. It tells how, when he had written to Flavian, the saintly Patriarch of Constantinople, condemning those impious men, Eutyches and Nestorius, he laid the letter on the tomb of Peter, the Prince of the Apostles. He gave himself to prayer and fasting, lying on the ground invoking the chief of the disciples in these words: ‘If I, a mere man, have done anything amiss, do you, to whom the church and the throne are entrusted by our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, set it to rights’. Forty days later, the Apostle appeared to him as he was praying and said: ‘I have read it and I have corrected it’. The pope took the letter from Saint Peter’s tomb, unrolled it and found it corrected in the Apostle’s hand. (The Spiritual Meadow, 147.)

    St. Photios the Great

    Leo the Great, whilst bishop of [Old] Rome, carefully demonstrated divine matters in his inspired and dogmatic Tome. In this, he was confirmed by the Fourth Synod. He confirmed its decree, and was praised by the sacred, and God-inspired assembly. He…thus radiates the very same light of Orthodoxy, not only upon the entire West, but also to the ends of the East through his God-inspired and dogmatic epistles, through the legates who exercised his authority, and through the peace with which he illumined that great assembly collected by God. Moreover, he also said that if anyone set up or teach another doctrine other than that taught by the Synod, that person should be deposed if he were of the dignity of the priesthood or anathematized if he were a layperson or even a monastic, religious or ascetic. Whatever that God-inspired Synod decreed, Leo, similarly inspired by God, openly confirmed through the holy men Paschasinus, Lucentius and Boniface (as one may hear many times from them, indeed not only from them, but from him who sent them). Dispatching synodical letters, Leo himself testifies and confirms that the speeches, spirit, and decisions of his delegates are not theirs, but his own. Still, even if there were nothing of this, it is sufficient that they were his representatives at the Synod and that when the Synod ended, he professed to abide by its decisions. (Mystagogy, 79)

    Fr. Georges Florovsky

    I should like to be an advocatus diabolus because I feel the need. First, I am wholeheartedly in favor of a reconciliation between eastern churches, but I am not for over-emphasis on the East. Eastern ecumenism is a contradiction in terms. The West also belongs to the oikoumene. We cannot afford to forget the West — and the Tome of Leo. The Christian Tradition is universal. The Byzantine Church was afraid of precipitating a schism by rejecting Leo. We must also be careful. …I have also doubts about agreement on the basis of a one-sided Cyrillian formula. (1964, Discussion on the Paper ‘The Problem of the Unification of Non-Chalcedonian Churches of the East with the Orthodox on the Basis of Cyril’s Formula: “Mia Physis tou Theou Logou Sesarkomene’ by Professor Johannes N. Karmiris)


    • Basem says:

      If the Tome of Leo is the “pillar of orthodoxy” why was Nestorius condemned then since he accepted it as an accurate representation of his faith? Also, why wasn’t the Nicene creed amended to describe Christ “in two natures”. Also, why did the later councils adopt more Cyrillian language of “from two natures”?

      Now, I personally have more difficulty with Leo himself rather than his Tome. His Tome and Chalcedon could be interpreted in Cyrillian way as was agreed upon in the EO-OO dialogues. But describing it as a “pillar of orthodox” is a bit of stretching the limits. As an OO, I also find Cyrillian Mia-Physis not entirely satisfactory and carries an Apollinrian flavor! I personally believe that person of Christ is a mystery that human language can’t express. He is fully God and fully man and that is pretty much all what we know and what the scripture says! It is sad that politics divided the church over this in my opinion!

      As far as miracles and legends; I mean no offense as OO have also quite a bit of them too, they hardly stand as authentic proof of anything weather it is the folks tale of St Euphemia or Peter appearing to Leo!

      Saying all of that and hope I didn’t offend, I believe that the essence of faith among all apostolic churches is essentially the same and with significant grace and humility, anathemas can be lifted and we all can praise the Lord together. Our “lowest common denimator” isn’t by any means “low” but grand. CS Lewis writes about Him in “Mere Christianity”. We can all continue to celebrate our traditions rooted in our Saints and Martyrs and recognize the fallibility of mankind and the Grace of the Lord that abides more on weakness!

      God bless!


      • Maximus says:


        There is lot of things you should look into. Here is Pope St Leo in his own words:

        [I]f they think there is any doubt about our teaching, let them at least not reject the writings of such holy priests as Athanasius, Theophilus and Cyril of Alexandria, with whom our statement of the Faith so completely harmonizes that any one who professes consent to them disagrees in nothing with us. (Letter 117.3)

        Pope St Leo thought himself to be in complete harmony with Alexandrian christology, not a corrective to it. He certainly did not see his Tome to be in agreement with Nestorius, as can be seen in his Letter to Chalcedon:

        Let there, however, remain in force what was decreed specifically against Nestorius at the earlier council of Ephesus, at which Cyril of holy memory then presided, lest the impiety then condemned should derive any comfort from the fact that Eutyches is being struck down by condign execration. For the purity of faith and teaching, which we proclaim in the same spirit as did our Holy Fathers, condemns and prosecutes equally both the Nestorian and the Eutychian depravity together with their originators. Fare well in the Lord, most dear brethren. (Epistle 93, To the Council of Chalcedon)


      • Maximus says:

        Btw, Eutyches accepted the Mia Physis formula and the Twelve Anathemas of St Cyril. Does that mean that the Mia Physis and the Twelve Anathemas are Eutychian or that Eutyches misinterpreted them? So what if Nestorius read the Tome and agreed with it? Even Holy Scripture is twisted to mean something other than intended by heretics.

        That’s why the 5th Council affirmed “of” and “in”, as long as one interpreted each rightly. Eutychians and Nestorians attempted hide themselves under both formulas.


  7. Anna S. says:

    Should we be looking for philosophical/logical consistency in the councils or soteriological consistency? These two may not always overlap, since I think soteriology has its own logic in terms of what is being taught about the relationship of God and man.


    • timpawl says:

      Thanks for your question, Anna.

      I’m not clear on what soteriological consistency is. My interpretation of that claim would be something like “a proposition, P, is soteriologically consistent if and only if P is logically consistent with the correct soteriology” But I don’t think that’s what you have in mind, as my speculative definition of the term requires logical consistency.

      On my view, the answer is that we should require both Sot and logical consistency. I think it is a general truth, for any conjunction of propositions, that if they imply a logical contradiction, then that conjunction is false. That’s a truth of classical logic, and I think that classical logic is universal, applying to every area of discourse.


  8. Basem says:

    Dear Maximus,

    Thank you for your comments. I think one key thing that should be glossed over: we can’t strip the councillar theology, creeds, and tomes from their historic context. Certainly the tensions leading to Ephesus I, II, and Chalcedon were instrumental in the positions taken during those councils and the anathemas that followed. Trying to fossilize the canons of the councils and then invoke the Holy Spirit as a sancifier of all the inequities that preluded and followed the councils does little justice to history and to Christianity in general. Fr Matthew the Poor, one of the lead contemporary OO theologians, said “Theoretical theologians divided the Church. Human thought is not universal; Greek thought is different than Roman and Roman is different than Egyptian….East is different from West and it is impossible that all thoughts would agree. The hope is that the Holy Spirit would unite us in Agape Love in the person of Christ”. That is why I say that Leo’s theology can’t be dissected out from his imperial aspirations and conducts. Please understand that I am NOT condemning the man or calling him a “Nestorian”. All what I am trying to say is that the concerns of the non-Chalcedonian fathers were not unfounded. What followed with 200 years of severe Imperial persecution of the non-Chalcedonian until Muslim conquest of Egypt and Syria also has to be taken into context.

    I can’t find your other comment here; came through my email “Met. Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and St. Blasios: [T]he lack of recognition by the so-called Anti-Chalcedonians of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils, and the theory of some Orthodox theologians of Neo-Chalcedonianism, in essence have a common denominator and cannot be accepted by the Orthodox Church.” – I believe the majority of the OO would have no difficulty accepting the 5 and the 6th councils (except the anathemas that were unfairly given to the non-Chalcedonian fathers). In essence, it become less important who was “right all along” and who “went back on track” if presently we express the same faith!

    There are 2 kinds of theologians: (1) Ones who are trying to “unite” and they put God before man and (2) One who keep insisting on “dividing” who put man before God. Let me expand: If Eutyches has been unequivocally condemned to be a heretic for denying the humanity of Christ, where do we stand if we deny the humanity (aka “fallibility”) of those ancient bishops and fathers of the 4th century. Trying to prove that one side of the conflict is “infallible” only proves the accusation of Leo being the affirmative “First Papist”. And this is where I have difficulty understanding the accusation of the non-Chalcedonians being “ecclesiastical heretics” while being “ideologically orthodox”. The concept itself is flawed when examined because it assumes the “infallibility” of ancient ecclesiastical authorities which is precisely the reason why “Papal infallibility” is a heresy! I believe that this concept of “ecclesiastical orthodoxy” is some sort of “crypto-Eutychianism”.

    The other issue is the so called “Communion of Saints” and what do we do if “Saints” actually have sort of attacked each other? Who is a Saint and who isn’t? I believe this is where the words of the “protestant” Dietrich Bonhoeffer come handy “We have one another ONLY through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, for eternity”. Saints (edified “fallen” humans) were sancified by Christ and hence it become irrelevant who did what or when? You can also say that both Maximus and Samuel were “confessors” to different Christologies but same faith.

    Faith is not simply formulas and theological precision. Faith is a living, breathing, communion with God through prayers and sacraments that leads to edification. Both EO and OO (many RC and “protestant”) individuals have demonstrated the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives and writings.

    God bless,


  9. Maximus says:

    Dear Basem,

    Thank you for your thoughts. Rather than get into a prolonged EO-OO debate, I’ll just respond and say that I know of no theoretical theologians who divided the Church. I simply know of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, the Holy Council of Chalcedon and the Holy Fathers, the empirical theologians who defended it. No, they are not sinless and God has always worked through human failings, turmoil and chaos to bring about our salvation.

    As Fr. Florovsky held, I also don’t think our differences are semantical and nationalistic: ‘I do not think our separation [with Non-Chalcedonians] is due only to historical misunderstandings about the terms physis, hypostasis, ousia, prosopon, etc’; ‘The dogmatic nature of Monophysitism is very much connected to Greek tradition; it is comprehensible only through Greek terminology, the Greek way of thinking and the categories of Greek metaphysics. It was Greek theologians who worked out the dogma of the Monophysite church.’ (please see Aug. 12th, 1964 Discussion on the Paper “Chalcedonians and Monophysites After Chalcedon” by The Rev. Professor J. Meyendorff. Morning Session and Byzantine Fathers of the 5th Century, Chap 18)

    I’ll leave you with two quotes from Orthodox priests who held to our ecclesiology while still participating in the ecumenical dialogues:

    Fr. John Meyendorff: ‘The Orthodox have always believed — and have said so at ecumenical gatherings — that the Orthodox Church is the One Church of Christ to which Christ promised that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). This promise of Christ would be meaningless if the Church were to be “divided.” Thus, we believe that the “oneness” of the Church is still with us — in Orthodoxy. However, the Orthodox Church has also recognized the sincerity, the devotion, the Christian achievements of non-Orthodox Christians: those who invoke the Name of Jesus Christ cannot be considered as foreign to Him and thus foreigners to His Church, especially when they are sincerely ready to listen, to search, to seek unity in Christ. Their quest, their challenge to us, their witness to the non-Christian world cannot leave us indifferent.’

    Fr. Thomas Hopko: ‘The dogmatic definitions (dogma means official teaching) and the canon laws of the Ecumenical Councils are understood to be inspired by God and to be expressive of His will for men. Thus, they are essential sources of Orthodox Christian doctrine.’

    I wish you well brother,


  10. Basem says:

    Dear Maximus,

    Thank you for your comments. I don’t wish to drag this argument any longer as well and my apologies to Dr Pawl and Fr Aidan for taking the discussion off original topic into an EO-OO debate.

    I understand your position, despite disagreeing with it, because there are many OO clergy and laity brethren who hold a similar position as yours: one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, gates of Hades shall not prevail, “oneness” of the church lies with us (OO) and the whole nine yards! Some OO, to my dismay, even take the extremist view that those outside the “mystical ark” have no promise of salvation, sacraments lack grace, similar to the EO old calendarist schismatics. You get the idea!

    I find it interesting that “Monophysites”, a novel term coined by the Chalcedonian fathers close to century after Chalcedon (and never used by those who were considered to be “Monophysites”), can only be understood to Greek-speaking scholars. So, a humble person like me who knows only handful or words of “liturgical Greek” have to study Greek to understand how my faith is being understood as heretical! I am a fairly educated man and was wondering about the fate of all simple villagers who never heard the word “Christology” and just “invoke the Name of Jesus Christ” in adoration and would lay their lives for Him without hesitation (some “Nestorian” Christians actually did in Iraq). In Fr Meyendorff defense, at least he still describes OO as “Christians”. Not sure if Fundamentalist Baptists or Evangelicals would consider either EO or OO as “Christians”; RC are totally not considered of course being lead by, who they consider to be, the “Anti-Christ”. I don’t know if you are in North America or not, but here many Protestants who covert to EO come with same animosity against RC that was headed down to them by their “fathers”!

    If Grace abides in weakness of EO fathers, it can also abide in weakness of OO fathers, unless we dare accuse God of being “partial”.

    I end here and, again, my apologies for Dr Pawl and Fr Aidan for hijacking the post.

    God Bless,


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      With this gracious comment, I think I’ll step into this conversation and direct everyone back to Dr Pawl’s fine post. Clearly we will not be solving the Chalcedonian/Non-Chalcedonian debate here on Eclectic Orthodoxy. Thanks, Basem and Maximus.


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