Review of From Nicaea to Chalcedon

From Nicaea to Chalcedon book cover

In From Nicaea to Chalcedon: A Guide to the Literature and its Background (2nd Ed, 2010), Frances Young has sought to supplement the standard histories and textbooks of the 4th – 5th century theology with an overview of the key characters and works in this period. From Nicaea to Chalcedon is written for both beginners and graduate students. The 1st chapter looks at Eusebius and the later Church historians, giving an overview useful for interacting with their works as sources for these centuries. The next chapters work chronologically through the centuries, beginning with Arius and Athanasius (Chapter 2), the ascetic and monastic teachers (Chapter 3), the Cappadocians (Chapter 4), several other figures in the later 4th century, including Ephrem the Syrian and John Chrysostom (Chapter 5), and then the figures surrounding the 4th Christological councils (Ephesus 1 – Chalcedon, Chapter 6).

Yong offers an even-handed evaluation of the characters; she does not, for example, fall into the trap of portraying Nestorius as the innocent victim and Cyril as a malicious manipulator. Her handling of each is sensitive the relevant literature, identifying (as much as we can from our perspective) the vices that lead to different aspects of the controversy but also giving attention to their admirable desire for truth. The account of Nestorius’ doctrine of prosopa blurs his emphasis on the single divine subject using the prosopa, so she concludes “his opponents were not altogether unfair in accusing him of teaching a ‘double Christ,’ two persons acting independently” (295). Nestorius treats the prosopa as the presentation of a thing that can either be natural (grounded in essence or nature) or accidental (grounded elsewhere). The prosopa is the proper subject of predication yet it is also the mode of self-presentation through which the single subject Christ presents Himself according to his divine or human nature. Though awkward and understandably confusing, this is Nestorius’s own account of what John Behr calls “partitive exegesis” and of the Christology affirmed at Chalcedon (Nestorius viewed Leo’s Tome, and potentially the council itself, as a vindication of his position). However, Young rightly and helpfully elucidates the contours of his thought and draws the readers attention to Nestorius’ important identification of his own beliefs with Leo’s Tome, maybe even Chalcedon itself (297). She also suggests that Athanasius was in line with Apollinaris’s Christological emphasis (249).

Young thus helpfully elucidates some of the ambiguities of the era, where many parties within a shared “Nicaean” theology arrived at different conclusions concerning how Christ’s deity was reconciled with His humanity. The graduate student will find some benefit from this work as an introductory survey; the beginner will find it invaluable.

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