On Creeds and Confessions and Context

Posted On April 19, 2017

One of the fundamental principles of interpretation is context. This is true not only in regards to the interpretation of Scripture but also the interpretation of any communication. Many of us have heard of the 1938 War of the Worlds panic that occurred when listeners to a radio broadcast mistook a dramatic presentation of H.G. Wells’s story of alien invasion for a news broadcast. Because they did not understand the context, they did not understand the intent of the broadcast, and panic was the result.

Reformation Bible College is a confessional institution, committed to upholding Trinitarian orthodoxy as summarized in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (AD 381) and Christological orthodoxy as summarized in the Definition of Chalcedon (AD 451). It is committed to upholding Reformed theology as expressed in the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity. We believe these creeds and confessions express the teaching of Holy Scripture. Like Scripture, these creeds and confessions also have contexts.

The Nicene Creed of AD 325 and the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of AD 381 must be read within the context of the fourth-century Arian controversy. To understand why these creeds use the language they use, one must be aware of the debates sparked by the teaching of Arius. One must be aware of the way in which the use of theological words such as ousia, and physis, and hypostasis were changing.

To understand the language of the Definition of Chalcedon, one must be familiar with the Christological debates that culminated in the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451. One must also be aware that there is more to Chalcedon than the one paragraph that comes up in most of the results when you Google the words “Definition of Chalcedon.” If you look at the results of your Google search, 9 out of 10 will probably display this paragraph which is the Definition proper:

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.

Now, supposing our researcher is unfamiliar with the history of the Christological debates, he might be led to believe by his Google search results that this one paragraph is all there is to the Definition of Chalcedon. However, even if he is unfamiliar with the history, there is one word in this paragraph that should raise the question of context. And what word is that? The first word of the paragraph: “Therefore.” When we see the word “therefore” at the beginning of a sentence, what does it tell us? It tells us that this sentence has followed something else. It is the conclusion to something. If we hope to understand the sentence, we have to find out what that “something” is.

If we do a little more digging, we find that this paragraph is the penultimate paragraph in a significantly longer document. There is more to the Definition of Chalcedon than one paragraph. We discover that the preceding material in this document provides the context for understanding how to interpret the Definition proper. Allow me to provide an example in something that is said closer to the beginning of this long document.

After condemning Nestorianism and Eutychianism and confirming the Nicene Creed and Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Council of Chalcedon goes on to say that “it has accepted the synodical letters of the blessed Cyril, pastor of the church in Alexandria, to Nestorius and to the Orientals [Antiochenes], as being well-suited to refuting Nestorius’s mad folly and to providing an interpretation for those who in their religious zeal might desire understanding of the saving creed” (emphasis mine). The council then affirms that it has also added to Cyril’s letters “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.”

Why is this so important?

If we read the entire document, we already know that when the Council speaks of the “saving creed” it is referring to the Nicene Creed. So here the council of Chalcedon is saying that if someone wants a more complete and detailed explanation of the Christology found in the “saving creed,” the Nicene Creed, they should read these letters by Cyril of Alexandria and Leo of Rome. In other words, this section of the document, pointing to these letters, indicates that the members of the Council of Chalcedon see these letters as orthodox expressions of the same Christology that they will summarize more concisely in the penultimate paragraph of the Definition—the Definition proper. In short, if we read the entire document written by the Council of Chalcedon, we will immediately realize that these letters by Cyril and Leo provide vitally important context for understanding what the Council of Chalcedon intended to affirm in its specifically theological teaching.

If we are to avoid theological confusion, we must pay attention to context.

Dr. Keith Mathison is Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformation Bible College.