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.

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