The Council of Ephesus, Did it Work?
Arguably the most impactful issue in the history of Christianity has been the argument over the nature of Christ. Throughout the second and third century, the church had seen the rise of Gnosticism and Marcionism. Both of these had threatened to cause separation, but the church endured. In the fourth century, the combination of humanity and divinity in the incarnate Christ became the central point of theological discrepancy. To unequally emphasize either the humanness or the godliness of Jesus led to heresies that struck at the core belief system of the Christians. These had to be dealt with as soon as possible. At the council of Nicaea, the bishops gathered to present to the body of the church a clear belief on the unity of earthly and heavenly natures in the Son of God. The creed which was produced functioned as the official position of Christendom on the nature of the Messiah and his place in the Trinity for more than a hundred years. In the fifth century, the debate over the nature of Christ once again entered the Christian world. Again, a council came together to reestablish unity. Because of the haste and partiality with which the third ecumenical Council of Ephesus was executed, the conclusions did not adequately bring unity, causing the council of Chalcedon 20 years later.
To truly grasp the importance of the council of Ephesus, and to understand the necessity of establishing a clear position on the nature of Christ, one must look at the “heretical” teachings which had the greatest impact on the development of Christology. The most recognized individual in this debate was Arius, a presbyter from Alexandria from which we get the term “Arianism.” To grasp the magnitude of the issue at hand one needs to understand the impact of the Arian movement. Arius (260-336AD) believed that Jesus was created by the father, so while he was part God and part man, he was not co-eternal with God. Arius did not want to deny God, but rather emphasize the sole divinity of God. No other being was eternal except the father. In Church History written by Socrates of Constantinople, Arius clearly states “If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and from this it is evident, that there was a time when the Son was not.” This saying would go on to become the theme of Arian followers, and a statement encompassing the root of the argument with mainstream, or “orthodox,” Christianity. Disagreement entered the theological discussion, and a schism began to form. In order to reestablish unity, Constantine called together the bishops and influential members of the church at Nicaea in 325 to examine this issue and come to a decision. The result was a statement directing the church to a single view of the doctrine of Christ’s nature. Included in the text were specific denunciations of the Arian view of Christ. In order to eradicate heresy, the creed set plainly that Christ had existed coeternally with God, was equally and fully God and human, and all those who disagree must be excommunicated from church positions and fellowship. The document quickly became the standard for determining heretical teaching and the basis for establishing orthodoxy regarding the nature of Jesus.
The council of Nicaea changed how Christians settled theological disagreements. Previously, each bishop would decide their own interpretations and excommunicate those they saw as worthy of being expelled from the church. In the second century, for example, Marcion began to preach a message that demanded the existence of two gods, one of the Hebrew canon and one of the Greek. Consequently, the bishop of Rome anathematized him. In contrast, the Arian controversy had so greatly spread through Christianity that it required a decision made by the whole church. Subsequently, the emperor, Constantine, gathered bishops from all across the Roman empire and beyond. They gathered together at Nicaea to decide as a whole church their belief on the nature of Christ.
One of these teachings was the idea that Mary was not to be called Θεοτόκος, which is translated “mother of God.” The title had come to carry the Alexandrian emphasis on the divinity of God. In its place, Nestorius proposed that Mary be referred to as Χριστοκος, “mother of Christ.” To emphasize the divinity of Christ was not the Antiochene way, and Nestorius went so far as to say that the attribution of divinity to Mary was heresy to the level of Arius. In his first letter to Pope Celestine, he pronounced, “It is no small error, but similar to the error of Apollinarius and Arius… They erred like heretics and openly blasphemed God the Word consubstantial with the Father… as if He took His beginning from the Christ-bearing Virgin (christotokos)…” Cyril of Alexandria also compared the theological debate to that of Arius, stating in his second letter to Pope Celestine “we have also expended much energy here striving to root out from the church of God that most despicable impiety, the most harmful opinion of Apollinaris and Arius.” Of course, the importance of the differences of beliefs came from more than just the title of Mary. The heart of the argument was over the nature of Christ. When was the divine joined with the human? Orthodoxy stated that at the very moment of conception the human Jesus, He was also divine. Nestorius believed that this was confusing the truth, that Jesus became divine only after birth, that is why Mary was not to be called the mother of God, but rather the mother of a very human Christ. Consequently, the mostly united Christian body began to be divided between Antioch and Alexandria, Nestorius and Cyril.
There are two specific differences between the judgment of Arius and the judgment of Nestorius which contributed to the effectiveness of the council. The first is the length of time given from the beginning of the teaching to the judgment. It is important to note that it took approximately 6 years from the time Arius’ began spreading his ideas to the council which anathematized him. Nestorius was first appointed to the bishop of Constantinople in 428. At this point, Nestorius began promulgating his opposition to the title of Mary as the mother of God. The response from Cyril was immediate. Cyril wrote to Pope Celestine three letters by the early part of 430 AD. On August 11, 430, the Pope responded to Cyril that Nestorius must recant within 10 days or be excommunicated. This was less than two years after Nestorius had begun to spread his views. Not surprisingly, Nestorius refused to do so. He wrote in the Bazaar of Heracleides his distress over this condemnation. It is clear that the decision was made in considerable haste. No one can look back and know for certain the motives that drove Cyril and orthodoxy to react with such haste to this doctrine. What becomes clear is the effect that this had on the acceptance of the decision.
Of course, Nestorius was not finished with his argument on the accusations leveled against him. He argued that those who sought to strip him of his position had not been given time to truly understand the theological argument he was making. Speaking about the teachers of the people he writes “[it is] because the very teachers have not had time at all to set before them the teaching of the exact faith…” Nestorius complained that he had no time to explain his position in a way that the teachers would understand it and follow what he was saying. This was, I believe, the very reason for the rapidity employed by the church. Were Nestorius to be given time to convince those under his instruction to accept his views, many might be persuaded. The threat to orthodoxy and to Cyril was now very urgent. The “protection” of the body of Christ was the main reason that in two years Nestorius was anathematized by Rome, and three years after he was ordained bishop his views were called before an official council of Ephesus.
When one examines the differences between Arianism and Nestorianism, the marked difference is authority. Although Arianism had a lasting impact on the church, Arius himself was never a bishop and held only lower positions in the church of Alexandria such as presbyter. Nestorius, on the other hand, was bishop of one of the theological centers of the Roman kingdom. When Arius spoke out, he was first taken out of office, then compelled and pleaded not to speak any longer, and finally anathematized. This first step, the removing of power, when applied to Nestorius, was a much larger decision and caused much more push back. Furthermore, a bishop in the church could cause many to follow his teachings in much shorter a time then could one who held a lower position.
While the quickness of the anathema provides clear indication of the hasty decisions made by the Christian establishment, the authority of this judgment provides even greater evidence into the reason for the ineffectiveness of the Council. Nestorius writes of his utter astonishment that the leaders who had deposed him would make this decision without the agreement of all the bishops. Was this the case? Had the church really issued Nestorius’ excommunication without the consent of the whole church? There are allusions to an event in the Five Tomes of Nestorius, where it mentions the reception of anathemas. After Cyril had sent several letters, which we discussed earlier, to the pope in Rome. The leaders in Rome held a synod in which they condemned Nestorius, sending their decision to Alexandria. Celestine wrote that Nestorius was to be excommunicated in ten days if he did not write his statement of recantation. This further demonstrates the pace at which the judgment progressing. The pope called for Cyril to become his legate in the matter, which led to the Synod of Alexandria. In November of 430, Cyril presided over the synod which developed 12 anathemas based on Nestorius’ teachings. These anathemas were locally supported, but not on behalf of the entire church. This is where Nestorius had a legitimate argument against the bishops. The fact that those in Rome and Alexandria acted against Nestorius without the agreement of all the bishops caused uneasiness and unhappiness among those who had believed Nestorianism as well as those who had not had adequate time to fully understand the teaching. In an effort to stop the Nestorian heresy quickly, orthodox Christianity sacrificed a thorough and complete investigation by all leaders of the church. Without widespread agreement among the leaders, no lasting decision could be made.
The Ephesus council purposed to synthesize a lasting and accepted judgment by all the bishops that would restore unity to all of Christendom. Furthermore, it had the appearance of a much more formal and civil proceeding then the previous synods which first excommunicated Nestorius. Nevertheless, working behind the scenes were powers who sought to make certain the outcome. Like the council of Nicaea previously, the emperor, Theodosius II, called for a resolution to the disunity of the church through ecumenical council. It is important to note that Cyril was in attendance, serving as the prominent accuser of Nestorianism as he had done for the last three years. Peter, a presbyter from Alexandria, was in charge of the presentation of the documents. One person who was not included in the council was Nestorius himself. This phenomenon began at the council of Nicaea, where Arius was not allowed to speak on his own behalf. In fact, there was no prominent supporter of Nestorius in attendance at the Ephesus council. John the Patriarch of Antioch and the successor Nestorius provided the staunchest support for him. But, by the time John arrived in Ephesus the council had already passed judgment. Without Nestorius to speak for himself, without John’s support, with the precedent set by the previous synods to depose the heresy, and with the powerful Cyril leading the inquiry, only the excommunication of Cyril could be accepted.
When Cyril exhorted a response from the bishops regarding the judgment of Nestorius, “All the bishops cried out together: Whoever does not anathematize Nestorius let him be anathema… We anathematize all the apostles of Nestorius: we all anathematize Nestorius as a heretic…” After this Cyril’s 12 Tomes against Nestorius were read. Not a single writing of Antiochene bishop was included in the record of the council. The evidence points to the fact that every aspect of the council, from the previous anathemas to the leaders, was against Nestorius from the beginning.
Nestorius was officially stripped of his episcopal dignity, of all priestly communion, and excommunicated from the church. The sentence proceeded quite simply, “Let Nestorius know that he is deprived of all episcopal dignity and is an alien from the whole Church and from the communion of all its priests.” With this statement the council convened, making the judgment that was largely predetermined.
Looking at the precedent set by the council of Nicaea, the official position of the church leaders should have provided unity to the church and among the bishops. Eusebius of Caesarea writes to the people of Diocese in the aftermath of the 325 council praising the decisions made there. “Our most pious Emperor, before anyone else, testified that it comprised most orthodox statements.” Even the emperor supported the Orthodoxy of the decision made. The response following 431 was far different. Because the Nestorian movement was but three and a half years old, and those who believed the teachings felt as though they had not had the opportunity to properly present their argument before the church, the divisions remained. John of Antioch, appealed to the emperor, accusing Cyril of heresy. While this was happening, those in Alexandria sent messengers to the Emperor accusing those in Antioch of refusing to follow the decisions made in Ephesus. Theodosius II decided to punish all of them, which further cast the situation into disarray. The disjoining response to the decision at Ephesus proved that the council of Ephesus was not as effective as the bishops had hoped.
In the following years, the ineptness of the Ephesus council would be made apparent through the synods, depositions, and anathema’s which would be hurled from one group of leaders to another. Nestorius eventually did retire to Syria where he lived out the rest of his life. It is most likely here that he wrote the Bazaar of Heracleides in which he retells his story of the abuses which he perceived were levied against him. John had called synods where he sought to depose Cyril, but the two finally agreed to a peace in 433. It appeared that at this moment the council had finally succeeded. But the partisan method with which the council of Ephesus was conducted caused several leaders to take extreme positions, further causing division in the church. One example of those who reacted strongly to heresy was Eutychus, a monk who vehemently opposed Nestorius at the Ephesus council. He was so zealous, in fact, that Flavian of Constantinople held a small council in 448 to excommunicate the monk. This was only the beginning of the surprising turn of events involving Eutychus.
Not only did the council of Ephesus fail to bring sustainable unity to the church, it actually contributed to the heresies that forced the council of Chalcedon just 20 years later. While Cyril was alive, he had focused on appeasing the Syrian monks who were angry and hurt by the decisions made in 431. What He failed to do was pacify the monks of Egypt who were anxious to eradicate all remnants of heresy. Eutychus, among others, employed that zeal for judgment. In Ephesus in 431, everything had gone according to the predetermined plan and therefore eradicated the heresy of the time. Eutychus sought to duplicate this in 449.
Pope Leo the Great wrote to Flavian regarding his will for Eutychus. The “Tome of Leo” would have cleared all misunderstanding had it been read at the second council of Ephesus, but this was not Eutychus’ plan for the council. Through the record of the Council of Chalcedon (451), the truth regarding the synod at Ephesus in 449 comes to the forefront. Following the reading of the tome Leo had dedicated to be read two years prior, the bishops responded, “Why were not these things read at Ephesus [at the heretical synod held there]? These are the things Dioscorus hid away.” It was the predetermination of the outcome which led to the labeling of this council as heretical.
Dioscorus was put in charge of the council by the emperor Theodosius II. It is quite clear that Dioscorus and Eutychus had determined what they wanted to happen ahead time, and this caused for an ugly scene as the council proceeded. The picture is described by a Syriac monk who had been at the council. The tome of Leo was requested multiple times by the bishops gathered. Each time Dioscorus found some way to postpone the reading. The evidence becomes even stronger for the predetermination of this council when Eutychus stands and makes his appeal, which would have been followed by a statement from his accuser. Instead, the accuser, Eusebius, was not allowed to be heard. At this point, the monks who were in support of Eutychus began to cry out “burn Eusebius.”
The voting to depose both Flavius and Eusebius was forced upon those at the council. The scene that ensues is one ultimately without order. The bishops were violently prevented from taking notes, both Dioscorus and one of the judges struck Flavius. Many of the bishops fell on their knees begging the leader for Mercy regarding Flavius, but to no avail. Many of the bishops were forced to sign the document of deposition by force. The signatures were forged of those who refused to sign. Others signed a blank piece of paper. The legate of the Pope, Hilarious, could be seen crying out for the annulment of the sentence in the name of the Pope, and then escaping with remarkable difficulty. The next day Flavius was deposed, and died within a week. Although this was not the end of the council, we get a picture of some of the proceeding that took place. Just from this brief description, it can be seen why the decisions made by this council desperately needed to be reviewed by a council that was led with some semblance of order.
Finally, after the proceedings of the previous councils of the fifth century failed to bring harmony to the church, another attempt was made. This time, called by emperors Marcian and Valentinan and Pope Leo I. In 451, just 20 years after the council of Ephesus was called, the council of Chalcedon met. It was not to undo the theological decisions made at the previous council. In fact, Chalcedon reaffirmed what had been decided in Ephesus. Several times, the counselors remarked that the council of 431 made the correct decision in excommunicating Nestorius. It also confirms the decisions made at that council regarding the theological decisions. Through this information, it becomes clear that the problem with the Ephesus council was not in the decisions or judgments made. Chalcedon acted in a manner that was similar to the previous councils but with one crucial difference. After the decision to follow the tome of Leo on the issue of Eutychus was made and agreed upon, the judges formulated a plan to bring about oneness to the entire Christian church. This plan involved sending one or two individuals to each province, making known what was agreed on by the patriarchs. The Reason? “So that if, as we desire, all be of one mind, all ambiguity may be removed: But if some entertain contrary opinions (which we do not believe to be the case) we may know what their opinions are.”
It would be another hundred years before the next ecumenical council was held. The council of Chalcedon did not put forth any new theology, that is not the reason that its decisions lasted so long. Instead, the way that it was conducted, the inclusion of many members, allowed the judgments to pass largely without challenge.
The controversy over the nature of Christ threatened to tear apart Christianity as early as the 4th century. In an effort to bring unity to Christianity, leaders sought to establish a clear position in order to bring unity. This was accomplished by council, patterned after the first ecumenical council called by Constantine in 325. For a century the decisions made at Nicaea brought peace and understanding to the church. It was of utmost importance to keep the church together, and so when the debate between Nestorius and Cyril began in the fifth century the church acted immediately. The council of Ephesus was supposed to be what the council of Nicaea had been for the church of the fourth century. Nevertheless, because of the haste that the leaders acted with, the decisions of 431 was not sufficient. Since those who were in support of Nestorius were not allowed to present their case, many Christians did not accept that they were justly excommunicated. This led to extremes on both sides, and Eutychus calling the second council of Ephesus in 449. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 finally established an impartial and complete process, which led to a widespread acceptance of the decisions made twenty years prior in Ephesus. The reason that these conclusions were not accepted from the beginning was not because of the judgments themselves, but because of the means by which the end was obtained. If the church, if Christianity focuses all its attention on being correct, without considering the method that leads to each decision, it works against itself. Without the hearing and understanding of all parties, no true belief will be unreservedly accepted by the church.
Alin-Mihai Bobac. “The Mariology of Saint Cyril of Alexandria and of Nestorius.” Revista Teologica, no. 4 (October 2014): 79-96.
Artemi, Eirini. “Cyril Of Alexandria's Critique of The Term Theotokos By Nestorius Constantinople.” Acta Theologica 32, no. 2 (December 2012): 1-16.
Berndt, Guido M. and Roland Steinacher, ed. “Arianism: Roman Heresy and Barbarian Creed.” The Journal of Theological Studies 68, no. 1. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Bright, Wm. Select Sermons of S. Leo the Great on the Incarnation with his XXVIIIth Epistle called the “Tome.” London, 1886.
Cyril of Alexandria. Five Tomes Against Nestorius. Found in A library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church: Anterior to the Division of the East and West, Volume 47. Translated by P.E. Pusey. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1881.
Cyril of Alexandria. On the Unity of Christ. Translated by John McGuckin. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2015.
Fortescue, Adrian. The Greek Fathers. London: Aeterna Press, 2015.
Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010.
Harnack, Adolf. Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing House, 2007.
J. Chapman, “Robber Council of Ephesus.” The Catholic Encyclopedia Volume 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909.
McGuckin, John. Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2010.
Nestorius. Bazaar of Heracleides. Translated by G. R. Driver and Leonard Hodgson. Oxford, UK: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1925.
Nestorius. Nestoriana. Found in Christology of the Later Fathers. Translated by Edward Rochie. Louisville, KY: Hardy Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.
Newman, John Henry, trans. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume 4. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1892.
Noll, Mark A. “Doctrines, Politics, and Life in the World: The Council of Chalcedon (451).” Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000.
Percival, Henry R. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series Volume 2. Edited by Philip Schaff, Phillip and Henry Wace. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1890.
Percival, Henry R., trans. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume 14. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1890.
Rudge, F.M. "St. Flavian." The Catholic Encyclopedia Volume 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909.
Wace, Henry and William C. Piercy, ed. “Flavius.” Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature. London: John Murray, 1999.
Walker, Williston, ed. A History of the Christian Church, Fourth Edition. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985.