The First Two Ecumenical Councils
In this short article, we are going to look at a complicated and intricate controversy in the early Church pertaining to the nature of Christ Himself. First, we have to set the scene. In the year 381 AD, the Emperor Theodosius I convened all of the bishops in an ecumenical council of the Church, the First Council of Constantinople. This is the second ecumenical council of the Church following the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.
At the Council of Nicaea, many of the heresies regarding the Most Holy Trinity were put to rest. Also, the Arian question was answered but not fully resolved. At the time, there were more adherents to the heresy of Arius than there were orthodox Christians. Arius believed that Jesus was the highest of the created beings of God but that He Himself was not God. This is, of course, despicable heresy or wrong teaching. Jesus is both fully God and fully man from the first moment of His conception in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In the first Council of Constantinople, this heresy was condemned again in saying that the Son is “consubstantial” with the Father. Jesus is God.
Resolve to End Arianism
In an effort to stabilize the Eastern Catholic Church, the First Council of Constantinople sought to condemn all forms of Arianism, impose limits on bishops, give the Bishop of Constantinople the “prerogative of honor” after the Bishop of Rome, condemn the current Bishop of Constantinople as invalidly ordained, and giving procedures to bring repentant heretics back into the Church. For this article, the important context is that the Constantinople (the “New Rome”) is given the second seat of honor after Rome, in opposition to Antioch and Alexandria (the third canon of the First Council of Constantinople).
St. Cyril and Nestorius
In 412 AD, Cyril was made the Patriarch of Alexandria. There was quite a bit of discussion and debate between the major schools of thought in Alexandria and Antioch, but the third canon of the First Council of Constantinople brought Constantinople into the fray. This three-way struggle came to a boiling over point in 428 AD when Nestorius of Antioch was made the Archbishop of Constantinople.
A priest in Constantinople began to preach that Mary should not be called the Theotokos (Greek for “God-bearer” or “Mother of God”). This priest preached with the permission and insistence of Nestorius. In fact, Nestorius entered into the fray by defending this priest theologically.
Nestorius believed that it was not possible for the Son of God to suffer, even in the flesh of Jesus Christ. St. Cyril, on the other hand, protected the view that the Son of God truly suffered in the flesh. He wrote a letter on Easter 429 AD to the Egyptian monks warning them of the view of Nestorius. This letter found its way to Constantinople and Nestorius preached against it, defending his own viewpoint.
As letters between St. Cyril and Nestorius ratcheted the tensions, Emperor Theodosius II called the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD.
The Council of Ephesus (431)
The city of Ephesus is the traditional home of the Blessed Virgin Mary after the Ascension of our Lord and was long a place of veneration for the Theotokos. So, St. Cyril chose this location for the Council. The Council was convoked before John of Antioch and other Nestorian bishops reached Ephesus. Nestorius was deposed and exiled for heresy. The Nestorians did not go down without a fight and dragged this controversy on up to a decade and a half after the death of St. Cyril.
Further, the Blessed Virgin Mary was affirmed dogmatically by this Council as the Theotokos (God-bearer) or Mater Dei (Mother of God).
The True Faith
So, what is the truth of Jesus Christ? What is the truth about Mary? Was Nestorius correct? Is Mary only the Mother of Christ and not the Mother of God or the Mother of Man?
St. Cyril did the lion’s share of theological heavy lifting in this controversy. So, let us dive into his thought. Cyril held rightly that the enfleshment of God in the Person of Jesus Christ redeemed and transfigured human nature, drawing us all into become as God, through grace. Nestorius believed that the Incarnation of Jesus was only a moral example for man.
Contrary to Nestorius, God walked the streets of Nazareth, God was born of the Virgin Mary, God performed miracles, God suffered and died for our sins, and God rose from the dead. Of course, these are specifically actions of God the Son, because Jesus Christ is God. The Blessed Virgin Mary bore Jesus who is God in her womb. So, referring to Mary as the Theotokos (God-bearer) helps us to realize and hold fast to the Truth that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man.
Nestorius believed that Jesus was a human person and the Word of God is a Divine Person and these two existed side by side. The true Faith holds that Jesus Christ is the Word of God and He is a Divine Person who has two complete natures: divine and human. So, the Divine Person of Jesus is fully God and fully man, united in a mystical way in the Incarnation in what is called the Hypostatic Union.
The Word of God IS Jesus
The Word-Become-Flesh suffered on the Cross and died for the sins of mankind. There are not two subjects here: one God and one man. There is one Subject: the God-man Jesus Christ. In other words, the Word of God was not merely given to Jesus, someone affixed to Jesus, or somehow otherwise associated with Jesus. The Word of God is Jesus who was, who is, and who will be.
St. Cyril of Alexandria
St. Cyril of Alexandria was declared a universal Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII in 1882. St. Cyril of Alexandria is a different saint from Saints Cyril and Methodius who were apostles to the Slavs. St. Cyril of Alexandria is celebrated in Catholic Church on the following days: the Old Roman Calendar on February 9, on the New Roman Calendar, the Armenian Catholic Calendar, and Coptic Catholic Calendar on June 27, the Maronite Calendar on January 18, and on the Byzantine Catholic calendar on January 18 and June 9. If I have left your Catholic Church sui iuris off this list, I apologize.
St. Cyril of Alexandria, pray for us.
- What Is The Second Vatican Council? And, Why Did It Create Controversy?A New Ecumenical Council On January 25, 1959, Pope St. John XXIII took the world by surprise by calling a new ecumenical council of the universal Church. We now know this council as the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), so called because it was held in Vatican City. An ecumenical council can be called and […]
- October Is Devoted To The Holy Rosary | Mark Your Calendar!Did you know that each month has a traditional Catholic devotion? This year, let’s focus on each devotion month-by-month to grow in our faith and traditions! Make yourself notes, write it on your calendar, and pray a specific prayer each day of the month to remember. You could use a prayer already associated with the […]
- A List of Sacramentals To UseWhat are Sacramentals? “Holy Mother Church has, moreover, instituted sacramentals. These are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. They signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church. By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in […]
- Genuflect Or Bow? When, Where, And Why This Is Part Of The Catholic Faith!(Special Thanks to Adoremus and Dr. Denis McNamara) The heavy lifting and much of the inspiration for this article is offered by Dr. Denis McNamara’s fantastic article “Altar as Alter Christus: Ontology and Sacramentality” from Adoremus. The Church is deeply indebted to Dr. McNamara for his passion, knowledge, and love of Jesus Christ and the […]
- So Much More Than Just Smoke: What Is The Importance Of Using Incense In The Catholic Church?Incense – A Long History Incense has been used in sacred worship for over five thousand years. Long before Christian worship began burning fragrant aromas in liturgy, the Egyptians began using incense in a religious way during the Fifth Dynasty, between 2494 and 2345 BC. Many Asiatic religions have used incense for hundreds, if not […]
- Can St. Irenaeus Prove That The Catholic Church Was The Original Church?Irenaeus was a 2nd-century bishop of Lyons in modern-day France. He knew Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John. He, therefore, serves as a significant witness to the early Church’s development, especially as it was consolidating itself against divergent groups. In his monumental Against Heresies, Irenaeus counters the various Gnostic groups, which misconstrued […]
- Can Married People Become Saints?Recently I read an account of a martyr who was not an ordained religious. The author began the reflection by saying that this saint helps us to keep in mind that sainthood is possible in all states of life. While this statement is true and supplies hope and encouragement for those of us who aren’t […]
- 4 Unique Videos About The Holy SpiritPentecost brought the Holy Spirit to the Church. This Pentecost, let’s talk a little about the Holy Spirit! If you are looking for resources and ways to grow your relationship and understanding of the Holy Spirit, we have four great videos for you! 4 Unique Videos About The Holy Spirit The Untapped Leadership Potential: The […]