Fully God and Fully Man: Cyril of Alexandria and the Council of Chalcedon (Part 1)

One of my all time favourite theologians is the great Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). In his magnum opus, Reformed Dogmatics, the Dutch churchman writes these words:

Theology, if it truly wants to be scriptural and Christian, cannot do better … than to maintain the two-natures doctrine [of Chalcedon].

Reformed Dogmatics, 3:304.

Speaking of this same two-natures doctrine of Chalcedon, Princeton stalwart Benjamin B. Warfield (1851-1921) had this to say:

[It is] a very perfect synthesis [of] complex and at times seemingly divergent biblical data …. [if Chalecedon] is not the solution then the mystery of … Christ’s personality passes over into a mere mass of crass contradictions which cannot all be believed.

Cited in Fred Zaspel, The Theology of B. B. Warfield, 282-283.

Just to show that this was not a passing theological fad of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, contemporary theologian Robert L. Reymond (1932-2013), spoke thus of the two-natures doctrine of Chalcedon:

[A]s an apologetical, ecumenical, and clarifying statement regarding the person of Christ, the Definition of Chalcedon remains unsurpassed.

A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 613-614.

So, what exactly is this two-natures doctrine of Chalcedon? And why does it matter so much in our understanding of Jesus Christ? Simply put, the two-natures doctrine is the orthodox teaching regarding the full humanity and full divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God-Man – a teaching that was creedally formulated and embraced by the Church in the mid-fourth century AD at the ecumenical council of Chalcedon.

For us who have been well “trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine” of our Saviour (1 Tim. 4:6), the phrase “fully God and fully man” is right at home with many other basic truths of the Christian faith we hold dear. But how many of us truly appreciate the heritage of this phrase we take for granted today? How many Christians are aware of the battle for orthodoxy that was waged in the early church when it came to defining and delineating the Son of God’s true nature? Is Jesus two persons – one human and one divine? Or is Jesus one person, with two natures? Perhaps Jesus is neither? Is the Son of God perhaps one person with one very special nature, a mixture of both divine and human elements? And what about the relationship between these two elements?

As you can see, “fully God and fully man” is a phrase we Christians can easily take for granted today. Furthermore, it is a phrase that can mean different things to different people. Thus, it’s important to both appreciate the heritage of this rich theological statement and know exactly what is meant by it when uttered from an orthodox perspective.

Over the next several posts, we are going to take a trip back to the mid-fourth century AD – as we consider the history of the “Chalcedon Definition” of the two natures of Christ. This orthodox Definition of Christ’s two natures was forged in the heat of the early Church’s battle for orthodoxy – a battle waged in the muddy trenches of misguided heretical assaults and complicated political movements. It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that, amidst all the other characters involved in this battle, one man stands out as the champion of orthodox Christology. His name was Cyril of Alexandria (ca. 376-444). Thus, to him we will turn in Part 2.

Scripture quotations are from The ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version), copyright 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics. Edited by John Bolt (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006).  

Fred Zaspel, The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010).  

Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 2nd Ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998).  

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