Sentence First, Verdict Afterwards

`Let the jury consider their verdict,’ the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.

`No, no!’ said the Queen. `Sentence first–verdict afterwards.’

`Stuff and nonsense!’ said Alice loudly. `The idea of having the sentence first!’

–          Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland


About five hundred delegates assembled in the great church of St. Euphemia, and the first session of the council was held on 8 October, 451.

The Council of Chalcedon Re-Examined, by V.C. Samuel

This is where and when the Council of Chalcedon began.  It was not initially intended to be held in Chalcedon, an ancient maritime town less than two miles opposite Constantinople.  It was first planned to be held in Nicea, about sixty miles away.  However, invasions necessitated the attention of emperor Marcian.  Thus, holding the council near the capitol allowed the emperor to look after both state duties and the council.

There was unprecedented imperial interest in this council.  It should be remembered that it was Pulcheria who gained the throne upon her brother’s death; Marcian was her consort.  Pulcheria was determined to support Rome against Alexandria in this council, but also did not want Rome to achieve too high a position.  She wanted Constantinople to come out as equal to Rome.

Eighteen high-ranking state officials presided over the meetings of this Council.

Their seats were fixed in the church, directly facing the alter, and on either side were the delegates to be seated.

To the left were delegates from Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Caesarea in Cappadocia, Ephesus, and elsewhere; to the right, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Thessalonica, Egypt, Illyricum, and Palestine.  At the center: the Holy Gospel.

The most important decisions of the council which have a bearing on the present study are (i) the deposition of Dioscorus; (ii) the acceptance of the Tome of Leo; (iii) the adoption of a definition of faith; and (iv) the exoneration of persons like Theodoret of Cyrus and Ibas of Edessa.

It is this first point that is the subject of this post.  Dioscorus was from Alexandria, the bishopric that Pulcheria wanted to take down a notch. Immediately on the seating of the delegates, the Roman legate demanded that Dioscorus be excluded from the council.  The charge:

‘he had seized the office of judge and dared to conduct a council, without the authorization of the apostolic see, a thing which has never happened and which ought not to happen.’

This is reference to the council held in 449, later to be deemed indefensible by the Council of Chalcedon.  Despite the commissioners not being convinced, they “unwillingly” required the Alexandrine patriarch to move from his seat to a place in the middle reserved for the accused.  This was the opening scene.

The charges were presented so as to lay the entire blame of this council of 449 on Dioscorus and a small handful of others, thus not charging many of the other delegates attending the earlier council.

Two specific charges were presented against Dioscorus: he infringed upon the faith of the Church by trying to establish the heresy of Eutyches as orthodoxy, and he deposed Eusebius and Flavian – neither of whom had trespassed the faith in any way.

Recall that until this point, there were different understandings in Alexandria and Antioch regarding the previous statements of the nature of Christ.  They could agree on the statements; they did not agree on what the statements meant.  It strikes me that to accuse either side of heresy – as each side did in turn – was premature.

Dioscorus asked that the minutes of the earlier council be read.  But first he asked that the subject of the faith itself be clarified.  While this request was taken lightly, it strikes at the heart of the issue – that there were different understandings of the faith despite all sides leaning on the same previous councils and letters.

The commissioners would not proceed in this manner, stating that since there were personal charges against Dioscorus, these must be settled first.  A questionable decision, it would seem, given that the charges against him were precisely on the different understandings of common statements.

Now the minutes of the previous council were read.  As indicated in the minutes, seven mandates were issued by emperor Theodosius II for convening the council.  Further, the emperor had nominated him, Juvenal and Thalassius as presidents of the council.  How, therefore, could he be charged of convening an unauthorized council?

Much discussion ensued; points were raised.  These were addressed if against Dioscorus, often ignored if these might support his position.  Those who supported decisions of the council in 449 began to waiver, finding various ways by which to suggest that they did not understand or had not been properly understood or that they had been forced to sign blank papers after which Dioscorus solely documented the conclusions of this earlier council.

The verdict was reached, arguably the verdict determined even before the council convened: Flavian and Eusebius had been unjustly condemned and Eutyches had not deserved exoneration.  Further, Dioscorus and a handful of others who led the earlier council were to be deposed.

The verdict against Dioscorus notes two flaws against him: First, that he refused to comply with the three summonses served on him.  Dioscorus noted that the others charged with him were not also summoned, and he would not attend unless all were present.  Further, the assembly which summoned him contained less than one half of the delegates who were present at Chalcedon.  Therefore, was this a legitimate charge against Dioscorus, or was it a charge against the governance of the assembly?

The second flaw mentions ‘other offences of which you have been convicted.’  But it did not specify any of these.  Was the assembly not really sure?

One can see from these two “flaws” that the situation against Dioscorus was not as clear as many today (and maybe even then) believe.  Per Samuel:

It is this fairness that was denied to the Alexandrine pope by the Roman legates, at a time when the incumbent of the Egyptian see had occupied a place in the Church as high as that of Rome itself.

Why was Dioscorus to strongly prosecuted and sentenced, with a verdict that was all but pre-determined?  Why was Rome so hostile to him, and the imperial authority in Constantinople so willing to allow Rome to so humiliate him?  In addition to the political desires of Pulcheria, Samuel offers a few thoughts, but one strikes me as worth noting.  In a letter by Anatolius to Pope Leo after the council, he stated that Dioscorus was condemned for the sake of peace in the Church; he was the scapegoat.  And peace in the Church required acceptance of the Tome of Leo.

It should be noted: of the many places in which Leo had previously dispatched his Tome, he never sent one to the Alexandrine patriarch – Dioscorus.  Dioscorus was not given a chance to address the Tome directly.  Pope Leo had, in fact, excommunicated Dioscorus six months before the Council of Chalcedon.  That Dioscorus refused to sign the Tome meant he must be crushed – and the desire of Pulcheria for a reduction in the standing of Alexandria corresponded with the desire of Pope Leo to crush the bishop of that see.


This ends the story of Dioscorus…almost:

…Dioscorus was most warmly loved and honoured by a vast majority of the people of Egypt, who continued in their unwavering loyalty to him so long as he lived, and remembered him with profound respect even after his death.

Above all, it is a fact that the non-Chalcedonian tradition includes him among the accepted fathers of the Church, holding him in practically the same esteem as the Chalcedonian tradition defers to Leo of Rome.


Am I making a case that the decisions of these earliest councils have led the Church down a heretical path?  Not at all.  Just that the Church was attempting to precisely define something that, one the one hand, was not clearly defined in Scripture or tradition (the precise way in which the divine and human came together in Christ), and on the other hand, was not completely understood in a common manner across all parts of Christendom.

It seems to be the case that, while in the process of better developing a common understanding, power politics played a role.  Once again, God does work through imperfect humans.  The path is not always straight, and not always pleasant.  But this doesn’t mean that the results along the way are heretical.

Which, perhaps, if one is feeling charitable, could also be applied to Dioscorus.  And to the non-Chalcedonian Churches.  Because even until this point in history, there was not common understanding about how the divine and human came together in Christ.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.