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 Do We Mean When We Say Scripture Is Divinely Inspired?Let’s start with a principle that can be observed throughout the whole history of the Church, and which drives the way I teach Church history and doctrine. As I tell my students, the truth is always “in the middle” – which is to say, the truth is always to be found in a place of […]
- What Is Memento Mori?Author’s note: Are you contemplating taking your own life? – Please call or text 988 before you do anything else! There is always hope and always a better life just around the corner! You are not alone. Death is a Part of Our Fallen Reality Human beings are no stranger to death, but the plan […]
- Historical Fiction: The Celtic Origin Of HalloweenDiary Entry of the Abbot of Kells, Ireland – November 3, 1012 A.D. Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”) was here a couple of days ago. The Celtic people celebrate this day as the start of a new year each November 1. The summer was at an end and the harvest was beginning. The dark, cold winter was […]
- Is There A Lesson In This Artist’s Gruesome Depiction Of The Seven Deadly Sins?“Yes, now’s the moment; I’m looking at this thing on the mantlepiece, and I understand that I am in hell.” — Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit, 1944 As most theologians point out, once we lose belief in God, it’s a short leap to the belief that there is no moral absolute, no Absolute Good. After all, […]
- What Every Catholic Needs To Know About The Early HeresiesAnyone who wants to go deeper into their Christian faith will eventually come around to seeing the importance of the early Church, and those early Christian bishops, theologians, and catechists we call the Church fathers. When we say, “the early Church,” we’re talking about the time from the beginning, up until the 5th century – […]
- The Saints Show Us How Stewardship Starts With WonderI am impressed every time my child spots a dandelion and plucks it as if something truly magnificent has captured his attention. This kind of wonder seems to fade as we get older. So I have always been interested in how the saints were able to not just maintain this sense of awe but also […]
- Why It’s Important To Celebrate Easter EVERY Sunday Of The YearThe Sabbath Day Sunday, the seventh day of the week is the sabbath, a day of solemn rest, that is set aside for the Lord. This goes all the way back to the dawn of creation when God made everything in six days and then rested on the seventh. The Sabbath day also marks the […]
- Why Every Friday Is Like A Mini Good FridayWhat is Good Friday? Good Friday is the second day of the Sacred Triduum, in between Holy Thursday and Easter Vigil. Good Friday is the commemoration of the passion and death of Jesus Christ on the cross at Calvary. It is always three days before Easter, which marks the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead! […]