Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Chalcedonian Formula (AD 451): An Insight for the Ages

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,” says [Yahweh] (Isaiah 55:8). From the prophet Isaiah we learn that the thoughts and ways of Yahweh are unimaginably different from our own.  We may even boldly affirm that Yahweh’s way of being god is absolutely different from our creaturely (let alone sinful!) way of being human. The pressing question for us is how to understand him.
Aristotle (384-322 BC), the justly famous Athenian philosopher, developed an impressive system of logic. We may refer to his method of reasoning as sensate logic because it helps us to understand the reality we perceive through our five senses. His understanding of sensate logic dominated Olympian thinking until the 1800s and still remains significant today.
One rule of Aristotelian logic is that of non-contradiction. Simply put, A cannot be not-A at the same time. That would be contradictory. The rule works well for understanding the reality we see around us. It doesn’t work so well for understanding Jesus.
According to the biblical witnesses, Jesus was a man. He was conceived, born, grew up, witnessed, and died. During his public ministry, he ate and drank, walked, got tired, spit, cried, and bled. In all these ways he was a completely ordinary human being.
According to the biblical witnesses, Jesus was God. He existed before our world and history even started. In fact, he was and remains the source, center, and goal of all that does exist. In these ways he was a completely unique divine being.
According to Aristotle’s sensate logic, Jesus cannot be both completely human and completely divine at the same time. He has to be one, or the other, or some mixture of both, at any given moment. According to the biblical witnesses, he was both at the same time, at every moment, and without mixture.
The pressing question for the Church was how to understand Jesus. Christians needed to discern how to rightly understand the contradictory statements of the biblical witnesses. Or they had to go with Aristotle’s sensate logic and resolve the contradictions.
After centuries of wrestling with the question, church leaders managed to make a most creative response. Gathering in the city of Chalcedon (say KAL-se-don) in AD 451, they came up with the Chalcedonian Formula: with the biblical witnesses, we affirm that Jesus Christ (1) is both fully divine and fully human, (2) without separating these two natures, (3) without mixing them, (4) and keeping them in their right order.
Rather than remaining consistent with Aristotle’s sensate logic, the leaders gathered in Chalcedon decided it was more important to remain consistent with the biblical witnesses. To do so, they discovered and affirmed the paradoxical logic used by those witnesses. Paradoxical logic makes sense but not in the same way that Aristotle’s sensate logic does. Paradoxical logic helps us to better understand our relationship with Yahweh just as sensate logic helps us to better understand the world around us.
Affirming the insightful truth of Christian leaders at Chalcedon:

(1) We rightly speak of Jesus as both fully divine and fully human at the same time and at every moment.
(2) We rightly refuse to separate these two aspects of his identity. We separate his divinity from his humanity when we place too much emphasis on Jesus being divine. When we do that, he seems increasingly remote from us. Then we feel a need to fill the gap between us with intermediaries like saints.
We separate his humanity from his divinity when we place too much emphasis on Jesus being human. When we do that, we may see him as a moral example but do not imagine he can empower us, let alone die in our place and for the sake of all people, everywhere, always. We limit what he objectively did, does, and will do for us and all people.
(3) We rightly refuse to mix the two natures of Jesus. He was and remains both fully divine and fully human. We wrongly mix the two when we think of him as a demi-god: more divine than we are but not as divine as God the Father. We also wrongly mix the two when we think of him as a super-man or, today, a super-hero: human like we are but with superhuman powers.
(4) We rightly keep his two natures in their proper order. Jesus was and remains both fully divine and fully human, but he was fully divine first and before all time. He became fully human as well when Mary conceived his completely normal human being in her womb.
The Chalcedonian Formula was an insight for the ages. It rightly summarized the biblical witness to Jesus as both fully divine and fully human. It also rightly discerned and affirmed the paradoxical logic we must use to rightly understand the relationship between God’s ways (fully divine) and our ways (fully human).
By reflecting on the biblical witness in the Chalcedonian way of paradoxical logic, we may witness more clearly to Yahweh as the one true god with three ways of being god, to our human nature as both fully righteous and fully sinful (or fully Christian and fully Olympian), to God’s grace and our faith, to biblical passages emphasizing universal salvation and those emphasizing its limits, to the relationships between the church as a group and the Christian as an individual member, and to the relationship between husbands and wives or parents and children.

Copyright © 2015 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.