Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

The Historical Background of the Council [Chalcedon]


From the purely historical point of view the Council of Chalcedon was the beginning of a crisis in the life of the Church. The first great schism, which still divides Eastern Christendom, is rooted in Chalcedon. And if we want the Truth and the dogmatic achievement of the Fourth Council to be the foundation of Church unity, should we not try to understand why that Truth for so many Christians became a scandal and a stumbling block?

The reason of this double meaning of Chalcedon, of its success as well as of its historical failure, is to be found in that central event of the whole history of the Church, and especially the history of the Eastern Church — its alliance with the Roman Empire, the true kernel and root of "Byzantinism."

The conversion of Constantine was the first step in the growth of the Christian Empire. Yet that Christian Empire has often been accused of having merely been a nominal Christian state, which under Christian terminology retained its pagan nature and all its political and social deficiences, instead of transforming them in accordance with Christian principles. Still more frequently, the Byzantine Church has been accused of not reacting against these deficiences, of not actively furthering the building of a temporal order, of making compromises with slavery, social injustice and so on.

These accusations are typical of our modern conceptions of the task of the Church in human society. But it may be asked whether it is fair to judge Byzantium in accordance with criteria with which it was quite unacquainted?

For the Byzantine Church was still keeping as the central fact of its being the ontological difference between the Church and the world, which doubtless was the essential element in early Christianity. The Church is not of this world, and entering the Church has always meant dying in order to be reborn into a new life. In this sense Christianity is not a doctrine "valid" for the world, but above all, the corpus christianum , a "new people." And yet, being not of this world, the Church lives in it and for it — and the salvation of the world is its only task.

This explains why at that time the Church could only regard the "conversion" of the State as "nominal" in a sense. But even so that conversion represented an enormous victory. It implied — and here we touch the very heart of "Byzantinism," the submission of the State to the ultimate values — to the True Faith, and the possibility, for every one in the State to live a full Christian life given by the Church.

But, of course, the very maximalism of that vision (for it is much more a vision and an aspiration than a practical programme) made its application to life too difficult and explains the almost permanent crisis in which the Christian Empire lived. In these Christological struggles the State had too often to take a definite position, to make a choice. And it was asked to do so by the Church itself. And it is too normal, alas, that the Roman Empire too often chose not so much the argument of Truth but those of political pragmatism.

Chalcedon was the critical point, the climax of that long and tragic process. All the political and the national problems of the Empire were implied in the dogmatic question about the two natures in Christ. It took centuries to realise the value and true meaning of the dogma formulated there. Contemporaries realised above all that the Council meant the defeat of old ecclesiastical centres — Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus — by Constantinople, the victory of the imperial Church over the Copts and the Syrians, the challenge of the new Rome to the old Rome. Paradoxically enough Chalcedon, which proclaimed the most universal of all dogmas, at the same time became the end of Roman Christian Universalism. Syria, Egypt, Armenia, Persia did not accept it because the dogma of Chalcedon carried with it an Imperial seal, and all the efforts of the Roman Empire to balance it by all kinds of compromises did not avail to bring back these Christian bodies to the Orthodox Byzantium.

Historical failure was as I have said. And yet in this human weakness of Church history the greatest victory of the Truth was won, and Chalcedon became an ever-living symbol and foundation of living theology for subsequent generations of Christians. "For My strength is made perfect in weakness." We must always be loyal to the strength of God as revealed at Chalcedon, and it is this same loyalty that must compel us to an ever-renewed repentance for our historical weaknesses and shortcomings.

The Ecumenical Review , Vol. 4, No. 4, July 1952, pp. 400-402