Chalcedon and Indian Christologies

Stavan Narendra John
Monday, March 1st 2021
Mar/Apr 2021

Contemporary theological reflection on the ascended Jesus is sparse. [1] This is true of contemporary Indian theological reflection as well. [2] Yet, the ascension is a very important element in Christology. There is a need to reflect on who Jesus is today; or in other words, there is a need to reflect on who Jesus is and what he is doing, after his ascension. In this article, I will reflect on these questions: first, by looking back to the Chalcedonian model and addressing criticisms of it along the way; and second, by applying this model to contemporary Indian theological reflection about Jesus today.

The Chalcedonian Model

Here is what Chalcedon says about Christ:

Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all with one voice teach that it should be confessed that our Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same Son, the Same perfect in Godhead, the Same perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man, the Same [consisting] of a rational soul and a body; homoousios with the Father as to his Godhead, and the Same homoousios with us as to his manhood; in all things like unto us, sin only excepted; begotten of the Father before ages as to his Godhead, and in the last days, the Same, for us and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin Theotokos as to his manhood; One and the Same Christ, Son, Lord, Only begotten, made known in two natures [which exist] without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the difference of the natures having been in no wise taken away by reason of the union, but rather the properties of each being preserved, and [both] concurring into one Person (prosopon) and one hypostasis—not parted or divided into two persons (prosopa), but one and the same Son and Only-begotten, the divine Logos, the Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from of old [have spoken] concerning him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and as the Symbol of the Fathers has delivered to us. [3]

Defenders and critics (with some qualification) alike acknowledge that this confession “has been the touchstone of orthodoxy for fifteen centuries.” [4] However, to be fair, one must acknowledge that this “Definition of Faith,” [5] as it is known, has been controversial from its inception. For the sake of brevity, I will not engage the various lines of criticism here. [6] Instead, I will advance an approach to Chalcedon that is positive yet self-critical.

Eric Mascall represents this approach when he points out that all too often Chalcedon is held in high regard, but it does not amount to anything more:

Like a sacred relic, it has been sealed off from contamination, placed in a shrine, and contemplated with deep veneration, but not very much has been done with it. I think it is high time that it was brought to use. [7]

I agree with Mascall’s views on Chalcedon, especially when he contends that the genius of “Chalcedonian Christology lies precisely in its own incompleteness,” by which he means that the confession does not exhaust all the truth about Jesus, but rather provides a foundation upon which one can build, especially in exploring

hitherto unexplored realms, in the guidelines which it gives for the solution of problems which did not exist in the fifth century but have now become present and urgent, in the fact that it constantly confronts, or rather englobes, us with a mystery of whose vastness and transcendence we become only the more conscious the more enlightenment we receive from it. [8]

It is this insight from Mascall that provides a solid basis for using Chalcedon as a model for exploring who Jesus is today. Very briefly in what follows, such a model will be proposed for theological reflection on the ascended Jesus.

Sarah Coakley seems to be reticent to extend insights gleaned from Chalcedon to the resurrected Christ when she states that Chalcedon “does not tell us what happens to the physeis [nature] at Christ’s death and in his resurrection.” [9] However, Ronald Feenstra does not express any such reservations when he contends that “the Christian ecumenical statements of faith, such as the definition of Chalcedon, say that Christ is, not that he was, truly human.” [10] While it is important not to be too dogmatic about this issue (hence, one can understand Coakley’s reticence), one is justified in exuding the confidence of Feenstra when he makes the observation that Chalcedon affirms the humanity of Jesus even after the ascension.

This is an important insight and has significant implications for contemporary Christological studies, especially concerning who Jesus is today. The Chalcedonian model for the ascended Jesus makes one simple assertion, with a qualification: Jesus is still truly divine as well as truly human, with the qualification that he is in a resurrected body in heaven today. The same rigor must be applied in denying Apollinarian, Eutychian, Nestorian, and Docetic heresies in the theological articulation of the ascended Jesus, the Jesus of today. T. F. Torrance states,

The Chalcedonian formulation also asserted that “the distinction of the natures is in no way destroyed because of the union, but rather the peculiarity of each nature is preserved.” This statement has more implications than at first appear. It states very clearly that the divine and human natures remain in their distinctiveness, and that what is proper to each is preserved in the union. That is of special importance for the preservation of the humanity of Christ. It is precisely because the humanity of Christ in all its distinctiveness is joined hypostatically to the divine nature, that the humanity of Christ remains in permanent existence; it does not pass away with the death of Christ, or with his resurrection and ascension. [11]

Torrance is particularly helpful in clarifying the importance of Jesus’ ascended ontology to his function. We now turn to implications of Chalcedon for the Indian theological context.

Chalcedon and Indian Christologies

Chalcedon and its terminology have not been popular in classical Indian theology. [12] To be sure, classical Indian theologians would not say they affirm Chalcedon, but one can discern a position within them that is not contrary to it. [13] It is important to discern that despite this distaste for the terminology and its association with the West, Indian theologians have been able to hold to both the divinity and humanity of Christ, even after the ascension. Vengal Chakkarai’s comments on this point are illustrative:

Their Lord never ceased to the disciples to be the man Christ Jesus. What is called the humanity of Jesus was not sublimated into a kind of mystic divinity, and lost in the effulgence thereof. On the contrary, it was because of the consciousness that the Lord whom they had companied with still remained essentially the man Christ Jesus, one who could be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, that He became the Mediator between God and man. . . . His humanity was essential, and remained as the abiding consciousness of the Christian Church. [14]

Contemporary Indian Christology raises, among other things, two main concerns: one that focuses on Jesus’ “function” and the other on his “person.” Matthew Thomas points out that in many Indian Christologies there is a prioritization of liberative aspects of Christology grounded in the Jesus of history. While this is good, it is incomplete, according to Thomas, because it neglects an equal focus on how there is a much deeper liberation in the form of theosis (deification or divinization) that is grounded on the “heavenly session” of Jesus. [15] In this regard, Thomas’s words are illuminating:

Jesus’ action among the Indian masses is not merely aimed at their liberation from injustice and oppression, but also to help them accomplish the ultimate destiny of transfiguration. The High Priest Christology is therefore a corrective to Indian liberation Christologies. [16]

In relation to Jesus’ person, more practically speaking, there seems to be an overemphasis on Jesus’ work and a corresponding underemphasis on understanding who Jesus is. This is evidenced, for example, in a recent study by Abraham Shaibu, who concludes his study on “Ordinary Indian Pentecostal Christology” by stating, among other things:

This Christology focuses more on the existential aspects of the work of Christ, such as healing, exorcism and provision, than on the person of Christ. The study showed that many of the respondents were not able to move beyond these functional categories to a deep-rooted understanding of the person of Christ. . . . Hence, it is more or less a functional Christology. [17]

Therefore, Indian Christologies will not only have to address the shortcomings in terms of both the “function” and the “ontology” of Christ, but also more generally continue to maintain the distinctiveness of Jesus in a land where many consider him only as an Avatar. [18] This is where the Chalcedonian model proves so helpful.

Chalcedon does not exhaust all there is to say about Jesus, but it provides a model for orthodox thinking about Christ. I have argued in this article for the Chalcedonian model to be extended and applied not only to the pre-resurrected Jesus but also to the resurrected and ascended Jesus. Jesus not only was fully human and divine but still is both fully human and fully divine. The implications of this belief are not just theological but immensely practical and relevant to the Indian context, not least in affirming the uniqueness of Jesus, who remains human—unlike temporary Hindu Avatars—and thus “is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God” (Heb. 7:25, ESV).

Stavan Narendra John is faculty-in-training in the Theology Department at the South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies. Currently a PhD candidate at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, his thesis focuses on Thomas F. Torrance’s Theology of the Ascension. Stavan lives in Bangalore, India, with his wife, Christina.

Editor’s Note: In the published edition of this article, Vol. 30, Iss. 2, pp. 9-13, there appeared three errors – solely the fault of Modern Reformation – that have been corrected in this online version. First, on page 13, the incomplete sentence which read as: “I have argued in this article for the Chalcedonian model to be extended and applied not only to the pre-resurrected Jesus” has been corrected to: “I have argued in this article for the Chalcedonian model to be extended and applied not only to the pre-resurrected and ascended Jesus but also to the resurrected and ascended Jesus.” In footnote 13, the Indian term ‘satya’ should have been italicized. Finally, the final sentence of the article should have included a reference to the ESV translation of Hebrews 7:25, which is partially quoted in that sentence.

1. See, e.g., Douglas F. Kelly, foreword to Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation, by Gerrit Scott Dawson (London: T&T Clark International, 2004), x; Oliver Davies, Theology of Transformation: Faith, Freedom, and the Christian Act (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 7–8; Anthony Kelly, “The Ascension: Recollecting the Experience,” Australian Journal of Theology 20 (2013): 81; Peter Orr, Christ Absent and Present: A Study in Pauline Christology (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 221–22.
2. Matthew Thomas, for instance, points out a neglect of Jesus’ ongoing ministry of intercession as a missing element in Indian theologies, which focus primarily on liberation. For more see Matthew Thomas, “The High Priestly Christology of Hebrews as a Paradigm for an Indian Christology,” in Bible Bhashyam: An Indian Biblical Quarterly 27 (2001): 279–80.
3. Aloys Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition: From the Apostolic Age to Chalcedon (451), vol. 1, 2nd ed., trans. John Bowden (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975), 544.
4. Gerald E. Bray, “Can We Dispense with Chalcedon?” Themelios 3 (1978): 2. Critics might not word the orthodoxy of the creed in the same way, preferring instead to limit the scope of its popularity to the Western region of the Christian empire. For more, see Richard Norris, “Chalcedon Revisited: A Historical and Theological Reflection,” in New Perspectives on Historical Theology: Essays in Memory of John Meyendorff, ed. Bradley Nassif (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 140.
5. A. N. S. Lane, “Christology beyond Chalcedon,” in Christ the Lord: Studies in Christology Presented to Donald Guthrie (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1982), 257.
6. One can get a sense of the different kinds of criticisms on offer by reading Norman L. Geisler, “Current Chalcedonian Christological Challenges,” Evangelical Review of Theology 12 (1988): 307-8; Lane, “Christology Beyond Chalcedon,” 262–73.
7. Eric Lionel Mascall, “The Relevance of Chalcedon Today,” in Parola e spirito: studi in onore di Settimio Ciprani (Brescia: Paideia Editrice, 1982), 1047.
8. Mascall, “The Relevance of Chalcedon Today,” 1047.
9. Sarah Coakley, “What Does Chalcedon Solve and What Does It Not? Some Reflections on the Status and Meaning of the Chalcedonian ‘Definition,’” in The Incarnation: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God, ed. Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall, and Gerald O’Collins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 162.
10. Ronald J. Feenstra, “Reconsidering Kenotic Christology,” in Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement: Philosophical & Theological Essays, ed. Ronald J. Feenstra and Cornelius Plantinga Jr. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 147.
11. Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, ed. Robert. T. Walker (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 209.
12. Cf. Robin Boyd, An Introduction to Indian Christian Theology (Delhi: ISPCK, 2014), 3, 120.
13. See, e.g., Boyd, Indian Christian Theology, 151, where, assessing Chenchiah’s understanding of Jesus’ humanity, he states: “While some of his phrases may seem Eutychian or Apollinarian, his constant stress on the humanity of Christ would seem to clear him from the charge of docetism and indeed the traditional categories of Christological controversy do not seem applicable to his view at all.” To be fair, it must also be pointed out what Boyd mentions on page 241: “The Nicene and Chalcedonian language of ousia and hypostasis may well be unsuitable for Indian apologetic or even systematic theology, yet the truth behind the language, the satya to which the inadequate language points, is Biblical, and it can be expressed in Indian terms, using some of the ‘instruments’ which are now at our disposal.”
14. Chakkarai, quoted in Boyd, Indian Christian Theology, 171. 15. Matthew Thomas, “The High Priestly Christology of Hebrews as a Paradigm for an Indian Christology,” in Bible Bhashyam: An Indian Biblical Quarterly 27 (2001): 279. 16. Thomas, “The High Priestly Christology of Hebrews,” 280. 17. Shaibu Abraham, “Ordinary Indian Pentecostal Christology” (PhD diss., University of Birmingham, 2011), 261. 18. Indian theologians have often affirmed the humanity of Jesus, post-ascension, in a milieu steeped in Avatar theology, where deities take on flesh only temporarily. In contrast, notice how David Brown’s Kenotic Christology denies the ongoing humanity of Jesus and seems to endorse a view similar to that traditionally held to represent what characterizes Avatars: “All one need say is that divine attributes apply exclusively before the Incarnation, human attributes exclusively to the period of the Incarnation and divine attributes again exclusively to the post-Incarnation period.” David Brown, The Divine Trinity (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1985; repr., Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011), 257.
Monday, March 1st 2021

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology