Getting a Handle on the Early Church Councils (Part 3): The “Ain’t Nothin’ but a Gangsta” Synod…and Chalcedon

As it turned out, the Formula of Reunion of 433 didn’t sit too well with the more fanatical elements of Cyril’s allies. Cyril had so violently attacked Nestorius and the Antiochian insistence of the two natures of Christ, that even after he had conceded just a little in order to reunite the Church, those fanatics that he had helped whip up into a frenzy would not accept any compromise. And so, those fanatics would eventually attempt to “right the wrong” of that compromise—the result was the Second Council of Ephesus of 449. It was such a violent fiasco that it came to be completely discredited. To this day it is not considered an official council—it is referred to as the Gangster Synod.

Things had changed since the Council of Ephesus in 431 and the subsequent Formula of Reunion of 433. By 449, Leo was the new Pope in Rome, Leo; Domus was the new patriarch of Antioch; Dioscuros, a pupil of Cyril, was the new patriarch of Alexandria; and Eutychus, the anti-Nestorian monk to whom Cyril had appealed back in 431, although not the patriarch of Constantinople, was still a very powerful figure behind the patriarch Flavian.

The battle lines would be different this time around. Eutychus was to team up with Dioscuros for this battle: Constantinople/Alexandria vs. Antioch/Rome. Ironically, Dioscuros probably felt he was simply upholding an Alexandrian tradition. Back in 403, when patriarch Theophilus was instrumental in deposing the patriarch of Constantinople John Chrysostom, his pupil Cyril accompanied him. Then in 431, when patriarch Cyril was instrumental in deposing the patriarch of Constantinople Nestorius, his pupil Dioscuros accompanied him. And now, Dioscuros was the patriarch of Alexandria—what else would he do than to help depose a patriarch of Constantinople?

The Fallout After Cyril’s Death…and What Led Up to “Ephesus II”
Before we get to the Gangster Synod itself, it is important to point out two key political issues of the time. In the 440s there were two major military threats to the empire. One threat came from Gaiseric the Vandal king. He was an Arian Christian and had his stronghold in North Africa. The other threat came from none other than Attila the Hun, a total pagan. And, whenever there are major threats to a country or empire, people’s natural inclination is to point to wrong theological beliefs as the reason why God is allowing the threat to happen.

Now, when Cyril finally died in 444, his enemies were ecstatic. In fact, a major theologian from Antioch, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, openly celebrated. He even expressed a fear that Hell would be so repulsed by Cyril that it would send him back to the land of the living! That was how much Antioch still despised Cyril! Theodoret then wrote a theological work called The Beggar’s Banquet in which he openly attacked Cyril’s “one-nature” theology as being Gnostic and Apollinarian. He pointed out that the major Gnostic thinkers of the second century, Valentinus and Basilides, had come from Egypt, and then accused Cyril and Alexandria of letting certain Gnostic theological points creep into their views concerning Christ.

In response, Eutychus struck back and refuted Theodoret’s work. He had always felt that Cyril had conceded too much back in 433. He was a hardline “one-nature” guy who thought that after Christ’s human and divine nature came together that Christ’s only “being” was divine. Therefore, he believed that Christ felt no human pains, temptations, hunger, or thirst. Now this view, by any account, was extreme. When Flavian, the patriarch of Constantinople, questioned him on this, Eutychus openly admitted his one-nature belief, and essentially denied that Christ was really human at all. Flavian quickly (and rightly) denounced Euthychus and, like Theodoret, condemned such a view as Gnostic and Apollinarian.

The Gangster Synod of Ephesus (AD 449)
Unfortunately for Flavian though, the emperor Theodosius II backed Eutyches and called a council to depose Flavian. The council, though, was a fiasco from the start. Theodosius II allowed Dioscuros, the patriarch of Alexandria, to act as president of the council. (This was extremely odd, given the fact that this same Theodosius II had to deal with the problems stemming from Cyril’s actions at the first council of Ephesus in 431!) Also, just like in 431, a major ally of the patriarch of Constantinople was unable to show up—this time, Pope Leo of Rome was not able to be present at the council.

He did, though, send a letter through his delegates in which he articulated his position. This letter was to become known as The Tome of Leo, and it was to become extremely influential, not only in Church history, but also in the later development of Rome’s power. In Leo’s Tome, the Pope said Eutychus was completely ignorant of traditional Christian doctrine, of the Bible, and of the Christian creeds. Simply put, Leo put forth a view that Nestorius, that condemned scapegoat heretic, completely agreed with!

Unfortunately for Leo, Dioscuros, the president of the council, refused to let the Roman delegation read Leo’s Tome. Instead, Dioscuros proved himself to be even more heavy-handed and tyrannical than Cyril, his predecessor. He declared that Eutychus’ doctrine to be correct and that all churchmen who held to a “two-nature” doctrine were unfit to hold church office. Neither Flavian nor his ally Eusebius were allowed to even defend themselves or speak. Furthermore, Dioscuros did not even allow the scribes and recorders for Flavian and Eusebius to take any notes of the proceedings!

The end result was that 101 bishops voted to depose Flavian. Of course, at least 30 bishops were forced to sign blank sheets of paper, with Dioscuros filling in the details later on! Other bishops were intimidated by soldiers to sign. Still others were not allowed to leave the council room for any reasonnot even to go to the bathroom—until they signed the condemnation of Flavian. Dioscuros then proceeded to condemn many other bishops he felt were too closely associated with Flavian. He even tried to arrest and imprison Flavian’s chief ally, Eusebius. He, though, managed to escape to Rome.

For all practical purposes, it seemed that the fanatical “one-nature” believers of Alexandria had pulled off a coup of the entire Church. As it turned out, though, Dioscuros had overplayed his hand. Such violence and intimidation did not sit well with virtually anyone else other than his followers. Within two years, Alexandria’s powerful influence within the Church would be crushed.

Marcian and Pulcheria

The Council of Chalcedon (AD 451)
As it turned out, Theodosius II died soon after 449. Since he had left no heir, his 51-year-old sister Pulcheria was in line for the throne—the same Pulcheria who had called for Nestorius’ deposition back in 431. Since there had to be an emperor, though, Pulcheria had to get married. She ended up marrying a general named Marcian, on the condition that he respected her virginity. He agreed and thus became emperor.

Now, to be clear, the reason why Pulcheria had opposed Nestorius back in 431 was not his “two-nature” theology, but rather his rather tactless way he opposed the term Theotokos for Mary, and the fact that he accused Pulcheria of lying about her virginity. The fact was, when it came to the “one-nature” vs. “two-nature” debate concerning Christ, both Pulcheria and Marcian sided with the traditional view of Antioch and were opposed to Alexandria’s extreme “one-nature” view.

Consequently, as soon as Marcian became emperor, he made a few history-changing decisions. First, he stopped payments to Attila the Hun. The empire had been paying off Attila so that he wouldn’t attack, but with Marcian’s refusal to pay Attila anymore, he virtually insured the fact that Attila would soon attack. Secondly, Marcian felt that a number of natural disasters that had recently happened in the empire were a result of God’s displeasure with the second Ephesus council of 449. And so, Marcian called another council to finally resolve the lingering controversy concerning the natures of Christ. It was to take place in the city of Chalcedon in 451.

The Council of Chalcedon

It was the Council of Chalcedon that was to give the definitive theological stance of the Church. It had two goals: (A) to repeal the second Ephesus council of 449 and its political effects, and (B) to reject the false teachings of both Nestorius and Eutychus. It was to resolve the problem once and for all.

Once the council convened, the first order of business was to deal with Dioscuros and his crimes committed not only in 449, but also at other times. In addition to hearing the complaints of the bishops who had been forced by Dioscuros to sign the condemnation of Flavian, the council also heard charges that Dioscuros had taken charitable funds for himself, so that he could live a life of extreme luxury and sin—it became clear that Dioscuros was not a good guy! Consequently, the council deposed Dioscuros and his allies.

The council then allowed Leo’s Tome to finally be read and declared that it most clearly defined the traditional Orthodox position of the Church. The council ended up once again affirming the title of Theotokos for Mary and then declared the official Church position regarding the nature of Christ was that which was defined in Leo’s Tome: Christ was in two natures (the position held by Antioch). All along the Alexandrian view was that Christ was out of two natures. Once this was decided, the Egyptian bishops begged the council not to force them to sign Leo’s Tome. They knew full well that if they signed it, they would be killed by the fanatics back in Egypt.

The final item which was determined at the Council of Chalcedon was the formal “order” of patriarchates. Rome, by virtue of Leo’s Tome, and by it being the traditional site of both Peter and Paul’s martyrdom, was given the honor of being called “first among equals.” Constantinople, by virtue of being the capital of the empire, was #2, with Antioch being #3, Alexandria being demoted to #4, and Jerusalem being #5.

The Aftermath: The Rise of Islam and How Pope Leo Stopped Attila the Hun
Not surprisingly, the Christians in Egypt were disgusted with Chalcedon. Just two years prior, the “one-nature” believers of Egypt had thought they had effectively won (or actually forced) the rest of the empire over their theological view. And now their view had been decisively denounced for good. This anger led to a split within the Alexandrian church. The Orthodox patriarchate that held to the Chalcedon doctrine of Christ was headed by the patriarch Proterius. The fanatical “one-nature” Egyptian believers (known as “Monophysites”) broke away and formed the Coptic Church, with a man named Timothy as its patriarch.

When the emperor Marcian died in 457, the Alexandrians rose up against Proterius during the Easter celebrations and killed him. They then installed Timothy as patriarch. This was obviously not to last for too long. Eventually, the division in Egypt was to be permanent, with an Orthodox patriarch and Coptic/Monophysite patriarch continually fighting for power in Egypt. Eventually, when Islam began to sweep up through Arabia and into Egypt, the Christian church in Egypt was so divided and weakened that it was unable to withstand Islam’s rise. Egypt soon succumbed to Islam’s influence has been predominately Muslim ever since. There still is a small Christian presence in Egypt, but it is an often-persecuted minority.

Leo and Attila the Hun

Shortly after Chalcedon Attila the Hun decided to attack Rome. The emperor Marcian asked Pope Leo to go and try to plead with Attila and convince him to call off his attack of Rome. And so, in 451-452, Leo went out to meet Attila—and somehow, he convinced Attila to pull back. Leo’s prestige grew even more—not only was he the one who properly defined the accepted Christian doctrine of Chalcedon, he was also now known as the savior of Rome. A few years later, though, in 455, Gaiseric the Vandal attacked Rome. Once again Leo went out to plead for the city, but ultimately failed. Gaiseric attacked Rome, but because of Leo’s attempts, Gaiseric’s attack was not as severe as it could have been. Still, Leo’s reputation grew. He eventually died in 461.

The result of the tumultuous church battles of the fourth and fifth centuries was two-fold: First, on the positive side, a clear theological definition of traditional Orthodox Christian doctrine was finally agreed upon. On the negative side, though, the way at which such a decision was arrived left the empire deeply divided. The church in Egypt embraced Monophysitism and broke away to form the Coptic Church; and eventually Egypt succumbed to Islam.

The followers of Nestorius eventually made their way east, to the Persian Empire, and eventually to China and established the Nestorian Church. Later, in 1054, the western half of the empire, headed by the Roman Pope, split off from the eastern half of the empire and the patriarch of Constantinople. The once “unified Christian” empire eventually was fragmented into Orthodox, Catholic, Nestorian, Monophysite, and Arian factions. Such religious fragmentation opened the doors to the rise of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries. Later still, in 1517, the Protestant Reformation resulted in further fragmentation.

Church history is both fascinating and humbling. Now, I know that some will look at the turmoil that surrounded these councils and conclude, “Well, if that’s really what happened, how could anyone believe Christianity is true?” I beg to differ. Any honest look at Church history—heck, any honest reading of the New Testament—illustrates the truth of Christ’s parable of the Wheat and the Tares. Church history is not pristine—it never was. The reality is that it is a messy business. Why? Because it involves imperfect, sinful human beings.

I believe it was St. Augustine who said, “The Church is a whore, but she’s my mother.” And despite the conflicts and injustices that have sometimes happened within the Church, it has still preserved the faith and the Tradition that Christ handed down to the apostles. It’s still there for anyone willing to till its soil.

The harvest still is plentiful…just don’t be surprised to find some tares as you labor in the fields.

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