On This Date in 431: The Council of Ephesus

Today is an apt day for reflecting on the Christian doctrine of the two natures of Christ. It was on this date, in AD 430, that the “third general council” of the Christian Church convened at Ephesus. The question considered there was about how best to understand the doctrine that the selfsame person, Jesus Christ, was both fully divine and fully human. While vigorous discussion had circled this issue for quite some time, the Council of Ephesus was a crucial complex of events in the development of this Christological doctrine.

In 428, Nestorius was appointed by emperor Theodosius II to be bishop of Constantinople, the imperial capital. Soon Nestorius was embroiled in controversy. Difficulties began with his early resistance to the long-standing practice of calling Mary, the mother of Jesus, by the title Theotokos—literally, the “God-bearer.” Nestorius favored Christotokos, the “Christ-bearer.” This, he believed, would better accommodate the distinction between the two natures of Christ—the distinction between his divine nature and his human nature.

This was risky business. The established use of terminology in almost any context dies hard. But in the religious context, battle lines can be especially dangerous. Still, Nestorius was the bishop, and in this capacity he bore certain responsibilities. One such responsibility was to pursue greater clarity in the formulation of a doctrine that was both important and mysterious. So the discussion evolved from judgments about proper terminology to stormy debate about the meaning of the doctrine itself.

The term Theotokos seemed, primarily, to express an elevated status for Mary as “God-bearer.” But it also placed substantial emphasis on the divinity of her son. So when Nestorius proposed the alternative Christotokos, he was suspected by some of denying the divinity of Jesus. Word got around. Eventually, Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, got wind of it. And that is when things took a sorry turn for Nestorius.

Cyril was noted on all sides for being cantankerous. He gloried in his role at Alexandria, and was condescending toward the bishopric at Constantinople. The very hint of heresy invited his undivided attention. And there’s evidence that Cyril reproached Nestorius for personal reasons, as well.

Cyril sought to establish that the Christological doctrine as understood by Nestorius conflicted with the Nicene Creed of AD 325. But there had already arisen a contrast between Alexandrian theology and Antiochene theology on this point. Cyril insisted on the Alexandrian; Nestorius spoke out for the Antiochene.

One thing led to another, until Nestorius was called upon by Celestine I, Bishop of Rome, to affirm the Alexandrian Christology or face excommunication. Emperor Theodosius intervened with an effort to settle the dispute more amicably. He summoned a council of church leaders from the various parties to the city of Ephesus where proceedings began on June 22, 431. Nestorius himself was present. But matters spiraled out of control, and very little was settled. Anathemas were hurled in every direction. This so-called “third great ecumenical council” was a boondoggle. In the end, Cyril retreated to Alexandria claiming a sort of victory. Theodosius permitted Nestorius to retire to Antioch.

While Nestorius drafted letters and tracts defending his views, events turned in favor of the Antiochene teachers, and Cyril was somehow persuaded to sign the Formulary of Reunion (in 433). The Formulary reinstated the official designation Theotokos, but described the doctrine of the two natures of Christ in distinctly Antiochene terms. This doctrine would thereafter clearly distinguish between the two natures, as Nestorius had insisted it should.

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My summary of these events is adapted from the discussion by Ivor J. Davidson in his excellent book A Public Faith: From Constantine to the Medieval World—AD 312-600. (This is volume 2 of The Baker History of the Church, published by Baker Books, 2005.)

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

8 Responses to On This Date in 431: The Council of Ephesus

  1. Greg Logan says:

    Good point re clarification. Perhaps re-doing the first sentence “Today is an apt day for reflecting on the traditional doctrines of the two natures of Christ .” This would satisfy those disciples that reject any doctrine of Jesus having two natures as well as recognizes that there is more than one traditional doctrine of two natures (as was the very point of the Council of Ephesus).

    I appreciate your recognition of the influence of Nestorius as opposed to complete condemnation. Ultimately I have never thoroughly dug into whether Nestorius had a definitive human person or was grey on that area. This is the key issue that sets the traditional two nature doctrine of the hypostatic union apart from the Biblical teaching of Jesus necessarily being a genuine man just as His brethren (who were fully functioning without either a demi-God (Arius) or person of God pulling the strings of some sort of human nature that could not function without the divine person in charge).

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  2. Doug Geivett says:

    I don’t think we need to delete your earlier comment, Greg. I think it helps the discussion. And my post probably needed some clarification.

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  3. Greg Logan says:

    Doug – Thanks for the clarification – makes perfect sense. I would delete my comment accordingly but am unable to as far as I know.

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  4. Doug Geivett says:

    Correct, Greg. It’s an account of historical events up to and following the Council.

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  5. Greg Logan says:

    None of this seems to take into account the multitude of scriptures that specifically state that Jesus is a genuine man – not an impersonal human nature….

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  6. Doug Geivett says:

    Thanks, Cam. I wasn’t sure there would be much interest in this history. But it really was very important.

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  7. cam says:

    Well, I’m glad I’m not a bishop!! Too much work.

    This was a very easy to read and understand summary of part of history that most of us know very little. I think Gary is right on track with his scripture references. These clarify the idea better than anything else could.

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  8. Gary Armstrong says:

    Thanks, the history of these things is interesting. An acquaintance of mine is a Sikh and in describing his religion to me he said something like, “We don’t worship any human being, we worship a book.” That got me to reflecting on the two natures of Christ and how I might best explain this to a Sikh. I thought John 1:14 would be a good touchstone, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us…” and Hebrews 2:17, “Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest….” Also, I thought Acts 14:15, where Paul says, “We are also men of the same nature as you…” would show Paul’s understanding of and aversion to worshiping Jesus if he had only the nature of humanity.

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