Getting a Handle on the Early Church Councils (Part 2): The Third Council of Ephesus, AD 431–Hold On, the Ride is Going to Get Bumpy

The tares of politics, intrigue, and fanaticism have always grown up side by side the wheat of the Gospel as it works its way throughout human history. No better example of this can be seen in the wild and wooly events that transpired in the events leading up to, and including, the third Church Council that took place in Ephesus in AD 431.

The Events Leading Up to Ephesus: John Chrysostom’s Ouster
By the late 300’s, Alexandria had successfully established itself as a powerful Christian center. What the first half of the 5th Century was to show, though, was just how obstinate, violent, and fanatical some Egyptian Christians could be. By the close of the 4th Century it was clear that Alexandria did not like Antioch, and it had no qualms in using its power to torpedo the influence of Antiochian bishops.

John Chrysostom

One such example could be seen in the story of John Chrysostom. He was a bishop from Antioch who had been made the Archbishop of Constantinople in 398. To this day the Orthodox Church practices the divine liturgy of John Chrysostom every Sunday. Yet, despite the honor he holds in the Orthodox Church, this man was forced out of his office as Archbishop a mere five years later in 403. Why?

The answer is relatively simple. First, John was from Antioch, and therefore held to the view that Christ possessed both a divine and human nature. In addition, he was also somewhat of an aesetic and openly denounced excessive luxury. Well, these two things did not sit too well with the Empress Aelia Eudoxia. Not only did she like her luxury, but she held to the Alexandrian view that Christ had only one divine nature. This view was known as Monophysitism—the belief that Christ had only one nature, not two. Consequently, not only was the Empress against John, but he also had another enemy: Theophilus, the Archbishop of Alexandria. Together, Theophilus and Aelia Eudoxia worked toward getting John deposed as the Archbishop of Constantinople in 403.

Theophilus’ assistant was a man named Cyril. After Theophilus died, Cyril became the new Patriarch of Alexandria. Cyril, by all accounts, was one intense (and fanatical) Monophysite believer. In his eyes, as in the eyes of many Egyptian Christians, to hold to the two-nature view of Christ was to betray the true Christian faith. Well, unfortunately for Cyril, not everyone in the Church and Empire shared his opinion. This tension was just a tinderbox waiting to ignite.

Orestes, Cyril, and the Riot of Alexandria in 414-415
One example of this tension could be seen in the events in Alexandria around 414-415. The Roman Prefect of Alexandria was a man named Orestes. Being an Orthodox Christian, he wanted to respect the ethnic diversity of the city. One of the things he did was issue certain regulations regarding the popular dances and theatrical shows for Alexandria’s Jewish population. This didn’t sit too well with some of the militant Christians in the city though, and one particular Christian activist started antagonizing and attacking the Jews. Orestes wanted to send a clear message to the Christians of Alexandria that he would not allow any kind of persecution of the Jewish population. And so, he had the Christian activist arrested and then tortured.

Cyril of Alexandria

Orestes didn’t realize, though, that Alexandrian Christians were fanatical about their faith. They didn’t care that he was an imperial official—his punishment of the Christian troublemaker was seen as an attack on their Christian faith. It didn’t matter that Orestes himself was Christian…he held to the Alexandrian view of the nature of Christ! He had to be dealt with! And who was to be the one to lead this revolt? None other than their beloved patriarch, Cyril! He whipped the crowds up into a frenzy and led them around the city, raiding synagogues, robbing and beating Jews, and eventually expelling them from the city. Orestes quickly sent word to the Emperor and complained about the Alexandrian uprising.

Because he essentially “tattled” on them, the Alexandrians got even more furious with Orestes. Monks came into the city from the Egyptian desert, denounced Orestes, and called him a “pagan idolator” who was persecuting Cyril! They ended up stoning Orestes and severely wounding him. Orestes fought back by having the ringleader monk arrested and tortured to death! Cyril then responded by declaring that the dead fanatical monk was a martyr for the Christian faith.

Despite his clear support and instigation of these uprisings against imperial authority, Cyril never got punished. Why? The answer is simple: he was a powerful patriarch of a powerful Christian center. He presided over 100 bishops and ten metropolitans. Simply put, Cyril had backing, and the Emperor was not about to pick a fight with such a powerful and influential patriarch.


Nestorius Comes to Constantinople…and Cyril Didn’t Like It
The failure to punish Cyril ended up emboldening him. And so, about fifteen years later, when a man from Antioch named Nestorius became the new archbishop of Constantinople, Cyril felt he had the spiritual and political clout to do some damage. Now why would he want to do some damage to Nestorius? The answer was simple: Nestorius, in Cyril’s eyes, was a heretic…or was he?

Whatever he was, one thing was for sure: Nestorius was an outsider to Constantinople. That was the reason why the Emperor Theodosius wanted him. There was simply too much political and ecclesiastical squabbling in the capital, and Theodosius wanted to find someone who would hopefully help calm the turbulent atmosphere in the city. The only problem with Nestorius, though, was not that he was necessarily a real heretic, but that he was a bull-headed and stubborn man—not exactly the kind of guy who is good at reconciliation!

In particular, Nestorius held two views that got him into big trouble and eventually got him exiled and labeled a heretic.

First, being from Syria and the Patriarchate of Antiochian, Nestorius held to the two-nature understanding of Christ. He denied that Christ’s two natures existed in a total union. Instead, he called it a lesser union. Christ, Nestorius said, had a divine nature and a human nature existing together in his person.

Mary the Theotokos

Nestorius’ second controversial view involved his understanding of Mary, Jesus’ mother. By that time, people had come to call Mary the Theotokos, which meant “God-bearer.” Nestorius did not agree with this title—he felt that not only did it downplay Christ’s humanity, but it elevated Mary too much. Instead, he taught that she should be referred to as Christotokos, which meant “Christ-bearer.” He said, “Let no one call Mary ‘Theotokos,’ for May was but a woman, and it is impossible that God should be born of a woman.” Mary didn’t give birth to God; she gave birth to the historical person Jesus of Nazareth. Yes, Jesus had a divine nature, but he was still a human being.

From our vantage point in history, Nestorius’ view does not seem that odd. His logic does, after all, make a great deal of sense. To certain people of his day, though, especially to Cyril and the Alexandrian church, Nestorius was assaulting their foundational beliefs about Christ. Truth be told, though, it really wasn’t Nestorius’ views themselves that were offensive, but rather the arrogant, heavy-handed way in which he forced them on people that caused the backlash.

Take for example how his view deeply offended the Emperor’s sister Pulcheria, who held a great deal of power in the empire. She was a very strong woman who was deeply devoted to Mary the Theotokos—she erected shrines to honor Mary, had her own portrait hang above the altar in the church at Constantinople, and encouraged the roles of women in the nigh services. In addition, she never married and vowed to stay a virgin, in honor of Mary.

When Nestorius became the archbishop, though, not only did he teach that it was wrong to call Mary the Theotokos, but he removed Pulcheria’s portrait from above the altar and limited women’s roles in the night services. He even charged Pulcheria was lying about her virginity! Needless to say, Pulcheria was not too thrilled with the new archbishop!

The other person who objected to Nestorius was Cyril, the archbishop of Alexandria. Not only did Cyril argue for the use of the term Theotokos, and not only did he promote the one-nature view of Christ, he also was jealous of Antioch’s power—bishops from Antioch always seemed to secure the position of archbishop of Constantinople! Cyril wanted Alexandria, not to mention himself, to gain more political power. Nestorius seemed to be an easy target.

Initially, Cyril wrote to Nestorius and explained his objections to Nestorius’ theological stance on these issues. In his letters to Nestorius, Cyril, citing primarily from the gospel of John and the letter of Hebrews, argued for the concept of a “hypostatic union” that said there was no separation between Christ’s human and divine natures. Because there was no separation, it was right to call Mary the Theotokos.

Nestorius, quite obviously saw things slightly differently. He cited from the synoptic gospels and the letters of Paul and argued that the New Testament clearly speaks of the birth and suffering of the humanity of Christ—Christ was not simply God with a human mask; he really was a human being. Therefore, although he obviously was also “God in the flesh,” he still was nevertheless a real human being. In light of this, it was more appropriate to call Mary the Christotokos. Simply put, Nestorius felt that the “hypostatic union” undermined the humanity of Christ.

Unfortunately for Nestorius, he was not blessed with any tact—the same goes for Cyril, as we will so see. In his letter, Nestorius not only made his argument, but also resorted to accusing Cyril of being a docetist who completely denied Christ’s humanity. Name-calling very rarely promotes constructive debate, and Cyril proceeded to respond in kind. The result was to be a whole lot of destruction within the Church. Cyril quickly got a number of bishops on his side. When he appealed to the patriarch of Rome (the Pope), and gave him what was obviously his version of the debate, the Pope was alarmed with Nestorius. He then wrote to Nestorius in 430 and gave him a deadline to explain his beliefs. Cyril had accused Nestorius of being an Ebonite. He further insisted that his doctrine of the “hypostatic union” must be the accepted Orthodox belief.

The Council of Ephesus in AD 431—Let the Soap Opera Begin!
The result was the council of Ephesus in 431, called by Theodosius II. In its most simplified terms, it ended up being an Alexandria-Rome coalition vs. an Antioch-Constantinople coalition. The emperor Theodosius II, hoping to ensure the council’s legitimacy, sent Count Candidian to maintain order. Candidian was a friend of Nestorius, though, so Cyril and his allies naturally interpreted the emperor’s action as an endorsement of Nestorius.

The Council of Ephesus: AD 431

The real problem of the council, though, involved Nestorius’ allies from the coalition from Antioch. John, the patriarch of Antioch, along with his Syrian bishops, was late to the council, really late. On June 6th, he sent word ahead to Ephesus to let them know he was running late and that he would be there within five days. Well, five days went by and still there was no John of Antioch.  In fact, by the time June 21st came around, John and his Syrian bishops still had not showed up. That summer in Ephesus was extremely hot, and obviously there was no air-conditioning—the rest of the council was getting irritated and angry. Cyril wanted to get the council started, but without the delegation from Antioch, Candidian insisted they couldn’t start.

Finally, on June 22nd, Cyril and his allies somehow were able to override Candidian’s decision and start the council proceedings without the patriarch of Antioch. The reason why Cyril wanted to start was not simply the heat—he knew that without John of Antioch to defend Nestorius, that Nestorius was a sitting duck. Consequently, Cyril and his allies, locked and loaded, began the council on June 22nd. Nestorius was so enraged at this obvious heavy-handed manipulation of the council that he and his friends left the council and refused to participate without the delegation from Antioch there. Immediately, one of Cyril’s allies, Memnon the bishop of Ephesus, ordered that all the churches in Ephesus be closed to Nestorius and his allies and that they be refused communion. Not surprisingly, the council, without Nestorius and without John of Antioch, came to a swift decision: “Anathema to Nestorius!” They issued their decision to excommunicate Nestorius in a letter to Nestorius—they addressed it to “The New Judas!”

A few days later, on June 26th, John of Antioch finally showed up. As soon as he learned of what had happened, he immediately blamed Cyril for the disaster. In fact, he convened a council of his own in Ephesus and proceeded to condemn Cyril and Memnon. Nestorius, in an attempt to somehow bring closure to the mounting division, issued a statement. It read, “In bitter regret, let Mary be called Theotokos, if you will, and let all disputing cease!” In other words, Nestorius was saying, “Fine! Call Mary Theotokos! This should not rip the church apart!” Well, this allowance on Nestorius’ part came too late for Cyril and Memnon. They convened their own special council and condemned John of Antioch as well.

The result was that both Cyril and his allies, as well as Nestorius and his allies, ended up appealing to the emperor. Cyril’s letter was sent to Eutychus, a vehemently anti-Nestorian monk close to the emperor. He proceeded to whip up the crowds in Constantinople into a frenzy against Nestorius—after all, Nestorius had made many enemies in Constantinople, simply because of his own heavy-handed techniques in dealing with anyone who opposed him. The result was that there was a mob in Constantinople that gathered against Nestorius and shouted, “God the Word died!”

Like so many times throughout Church history, complicated and nuanced theological debates were reduced to simplistic bumper-sticker slogans that whipped up the masses into hysterics.

The Aftermath: An Attempt at Compromise
Somehow, once tempers cooled, the emperor was able to negotiate a truce between Alexandria and Antioch. By 433, both Cyril and John patched up their differences…to a point. Both agreed to rescind their condemnations of each other and to recognize each other’s claim to his patriarchate. They then came together to agree on The Formula of Reunion. They agreed that the official Orthodox position on the natures of Christ was to be the following: (A) Christ was to be spoken of as being in “two natures” (a clear concession to Antioch), and (B) Mary was to be called the Theotokos, and the church would distance itself from Nestorius (a clear concession to Alexandria). Simply put, Nestorius was made the scapegoat. He was exiled to upper Egypt and he and his followers were not to be called Christians.

The ironic thing is that Nestorius’ theology was not really all that different than what was to become the accepted Orthodox view. Aside from the title for Mary, it is really hard to see any difference at all. What did Nestorius in was, quite frankly, his lack of tact and love in debating theological issues. His theology might have been quite Orthodox, but he certainly did not exhibit any compassion or Christ-like love when dealing with those who didn’t agree with him on specific theological points.

The result was that he was demonized, and his views were caricaturized as heretical. The lesson to be learned is quite simple: “right theology” is obviously important, but living out Christ’s love is probably more important. Christians should debate and discuss theological points, but they should do so in a spirit of humility. Nestorius’ arrogance got him exiled. And yes, it is obvious that Cyril was every bit as arrogant as well, and he was never exiled or condemned. Sometimes the world isn’t fair. But, as time would show, Cyril’s arrogant actions had long-term devastating effects on the Church.

1 Comment

  1. To place it in historical perspective: The amount of Church History that had already occurred in the first four hundred years of Christianity would be like us today, going back to around 1600 and coming forward. A lot has happened both in the Church and Civil Government. Christianity is after all, quite ancient.

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