The first ecumenical council which took place at Nicaea in 325 AD, was particularly concerned with the Arian controversy. This heresy had denied that the Word of God was properly God, and considered him some lesser and created divine being. Later, the second ecumenical council took place at Constantinople in 381 AD, in the context of a great many councils being called here and there, by the continuing followers and opponents of Arian ideas. This second council not only finally excluded all Arian thought from the Church, but also insisted that the Holy Spirit was also divine in the same sense as the Father and the Son, so that the Holy Trinity was a unity of three consubstantial Divine Persons.
Nevertheless controversy was never absent from the life of the Church, and even in our own times we discover that it is necessary to set boundaries to Orthodox Christian faith and practice in the light of contemporary challenges.
So it was that in the 5th century yet another dispute arose concerning Christ, and it is perhaps useful to remember that question which Christ himself posed of his disciples – who do you say that I am? This is the question which we must all answer, and which the Church has always answered with increasing precision in the face of various false answers.
The dispute concerned Nestorius, the Archbishop of Constantinople. He was from the Roman province of Syria, in what is now part of Turkey, and he trained under Theodore of Mopsuestia in Antioch, who himself became a figure of controversy. Having gained something of a reputation as a preacher, the Emperor Theodosius selected Nestorius as the new Archbishop of his Imperial capital in 428 AD and he was consecrated the successor of Sisinnius, who had been archbishop for only one year before his repose.
He was consecrated in 428 AD and started by making a good impression. He closed an Arian chapel in the city, and also took action against various other heretics and schismatics such as the Macedonians (they rejected the divinity of the Holy Spirit), Quartodecimans (they insisted on keeping Pascha on the 14th Nisan, whichever day of the week it occurred) and Novatians (they had separated from the wider communion of the Church over the matter of how to deal with those who were weak during times of persecution).
At the end of 428 AD however, Nestorius preached a notorious sermon in which he condemned the use of the term Theotokos in regard to the Virgin Mary. This term means God Bearer, and had been used of the Virgin Mary for many years. It would seem that the copy of a hymn in Greek from Egypt preserves our earliest documentary evidence. Dating from about 250 AD it says..
Beneath your compassion,
We take refuge, O Theotokos:
Do not despise our petitions in time of trouble:
But rescue us from dangers,
Only pure, only blessed one.
Certainly this term was used by Origen, St Athanasius, St Gregory, St John Chrysostom and Augustine. It had a solid reputation as expressing the reality that the one who was born of the Virgin was truly God.
Unfortunately Nestorius set himself against this tradition. His first sermon on the subject may be summarised in the following manner, he said..
“People … are always enquiring among us now this way and now that: Is Mary Theotokos they say (that is the bearer or mother of God); or is she on the contrary Anthropotokos (that is the bearer or mother of a human being)?…. Mary, my friend, did not give birth to the Godhead, (for what is born of the flesh is flesh). A creature did not produce him who is uncreatable. The Father has not just recently generated God the Logos from the Virgin…. Rather she gave birth to the human being, the instrument of the Godhead….Moreover the incarnate God did not die, he raised up the one in whom he was incarnate….But Christ is not a mere man… No, he is at once God and man…I worship this one together with the Godhead because he is a sharer in the Divine authority…I adore him as the instrument of the Lord’s goodness…God is within the one who is assumed, the one who is assumed is styled God because of the one who assumed him”.
It is immediately clear, and it would have been immediately clear to his audience, that there was an issue with the Christology which Nestorius proposed. This is not to say that he did not have many supporters. He was essentially doing no more than repeating what he had himself been taught by Theodore of Mopsuestia. In brief we can say that the tradition of Theodore of Mopsuestia was that God the Word had assumed a human being and so was in a relationship with the human Jesus which allowed Jesus to be called Son of God because he had become the instrument of God, but in reality the Son of God was not Jesus the man, he simply worked in and through the man Jesus. However close it might be insisted that this union was, it was essentially no different to the union of God and any of the prophets except in degree. Christ is called one by Nestorius, because when we see him we see God and man united, but God the Word is not Jesus according to this teaching and so the one who suffers on the cross can never be God but will only be the man Jesus, who is called Son of God only because the Son of God has assumed him and dwells in him.
There were several other sermons like this, and reports rapidly spread to other places so that St Cyril in Alexandria felt obliged to intervene. St Cyril also corresponded with Pope Celestine in Rome who asked him to investigate the growing controversy.
So as not to drag out this review of the history of the affair, it is sufficient to say that St Cyril eventually sent three letters to Nestorius. It must be said that Nestorius was not at all happy with being criticised for what he had always considered to be entirely Orthodox views. St Cyril, in his second letter, summed up his concerns in as gentle a manner as possible, saying..
“It is not that he actually experienced death as far as anything which touches his divine nature is concerned, to think that would be insanity. Rather it is that… his flesh tasted death…So also when his flesh was raised the resurrection is also said to be his, not as if he fell into corruption, … but because, again, his body was raised. … This is the sense in which we confess one Christ and Lord. We do not worship a human being in conjunction with the Logos lest the appearance of a division creep in by reason of that phrase ‘by conjunction’. No, we worship one and the same because the body of the Logos is not alien to him….He did not depart from his divine status or cease to be born of the Father; he continued to be what he was, even in taking on flesh… Accordingly the [holy Fathers] boldly called the Virgin Mary God Bearer, not because the nature of the Logos or the deity took the start of its existence in the holy Virgin but because the holy body which was born of her, possessed as it was of a rational soul, and to which the Logos was hypostatically united, is said to have had a fleshly birth”.
I will just quote from Nestorius’ reply to this second letter. He begins with the words..
“The rebukes which your astonishing letter brings against us I forgive…”
And he continues in the same rather aggrieved manner, attempting to show that his views are correct and that St Cyril has fallen into the errors of Arius and Apollinarius by suggesting that the Son and Word of God could be said to be born, to suffer and to die.
St Cyril’s Third Letter contained a list of propositions which he required Nestorius to accept or otherwise face excommunication. This action had been agreed with Pope Celestine of Rome who had gathered some of his own bishops in synod to discuss the situation. The Third Letter addresses Nestorius in the following manner…
Together with the holy Synod that has been gathered together in Great Rome, under the presidency of the Most holy and Most devout our brother and co-minister the Bishop Celestine, we testify to you in this third Letter also, counselling you to refrain from the crooked and perverted doctrines which you both hold and teach, and to choose in place of them the Right Faith which was delivered to the Churches from the beginning through the holy Apostles and Evangelists who have been both eye-witnesses and ministers of the word. [Luke 1:2] Or if your Piety will not do so, according to the instruction set forth in the Letters of the the most holy and most pious Bishop and our co-minister of the church of the Romans, Celestine, know that you have no part with us, nor place nor rank among the Priests of God and His Bishops.
We should remind ourselves that even though it seemed Nestorius was to be easily dealt with, since his views were opposed by both Celestine and Cyril, in fact he still had much support in the See of Antioch, where many found his views to be entirely acceptable. Indeed on reading the Twelve Chapters of St Cyril they found themselves agreeing with Nestorius that it was Cyril who was in error.
In fact it was Nestorius who convinced the Emperor to call a Council, where he expected to be able to vindicate his views and have those of Cyril condemned. The bishops of the Imperial Church were summoned to attend and the meeting was intended to begin at Pentecost in 431 AD. The Emperors would not be present, but they had ordered that the Count Candidian would represent the Imperial authority and would ensure that the bishops focused on the matter at hand, did not try to leave Ephesus without permission, and were not troubled by crowds of curious visitors.
The local Metropolitan, Memnon, was already present with his bishops, and they were soon joined by Nestorius and the 16 bishops he brought with him. Memnon closed the Churches of Ephesus to Nestorius and his party and would not commune with him. Just before Pentecost, and the expected start of the council, Cyril arrived from Egypt with his bishops. The Palestinian delegation arrived soon afterwards together with a few individual bishops. But five days after the council was due to start the Antiochian and Roman bishops were still not in the city. St Cyril wanted to open the council, but the Count Candidian required him to be patient, and since the opening activity of the council would be the reading of the Emperors authorisation it was necessary for Cyril to wait. But after two weeks of further delay, still no sign of the Antiochians, and a sense that they were deliberately avoiding attending a council which would require a judgement of Nestorius, Cyril opened the Third Ecumenical Council.
Three summons were sent to Nestorius to require him to attend the council, but he refused on the grounds that the Antiochians were not yet at Ephesus. Indeed 68 bishops who opposed the starting of the council entered the Church were it was being held with the Count Candidian who declared the meeting illegal and required it to disperse. St Cyril pointed out that the supporters of Nestorius were now present at the same meeting as those who opposed him, and after Candidian read out the Imperial authorisation, perhaps intending to check what the Emperor had intended, the bishops present acclaimed it loudly and considered they now had authority to proceed.
The local judgement of Celestine and his bishops, which had taken place in Rome, was ratified by the council in Ephesus and Nestorius was declared a heretic. Five days later and the Antiochians finally arrived under the leadership of John of Antioch. Candidian described what had happened and so a second council opened, under Candidian’s presidency, which proceeded to condemn St Cyril and Memnon of Ephesus.
At first the emperor sided with this second council, probably because it was organised by Candidian and therefore appeared to have the Imperial sanction. But he withdrew his support when it became clear that things were rather more confused. St Cyril’s council continued to meet until the end of July. The papal representatives arrived for the second session and instructed the council to ratify the decision which had already been taken by Celestine as Pope of Rome. The Roman delegates were received warmly but the council pointed out that it had already condemned Nestorius itself. The Romans listened to all that had happened in the first session and signed their agreement on behalf of Celestine. Thus the bishops of East and West were agreed in their actions.
The council of John of Antioch being held elsewhere in the city was then discussed and the council summoned him to appear before them, but he would not even admit the messengers to his residence. Finally the bishops issued a number of canons before starting to think of heading home.
It was not clear to the Emperor what he should do, since the council of St Cyril had the support of four times as many bishops, including those of Rome. So he decided to accept both councils at once and instructed that Cyril, John of Antioch and Memnon of Ephesus were all deposed. Over the next few months the Emperor came to accept the council of St Cyril as representing the mind of the Church, and so Cyril was allowed to return to Ephesus. Nestorius retired to his monastery and was replaced by Maximianus.
John of Antioch and many of his bishops broke communion with those who supported St Cyril and the deposition of Nestorius. It was not until 433 AD that a fragile reconciliation was effected. But although the Third Ecumenical Council had certainly acted properly in deposing Nestorius, it had not been able to bring about any sort of lasting unity on the basis of a shared Christology. The history of the next decades, leading up to Chalcedon and beyond, shows that the Nestorian view of Christ, rather that of Theodore of Mopsuestia and the tradition behind his views, had not gone away, and continued to have important supporters.