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Ephesus, 431 CE: Nestorianism

Bill East

Note: This article first appeared as a series of postings on the Medieval-Religion discussion list and is posted here with the kind permission of the author.

In 431 CE, the Emperor Theodosius summoned a third Ecumenical Council, held at Ephesus, in an attempt to settle the Nestorian controversy. Nestorius objected to the term, 'Theotokos' (God-bearer, Mother of God) applied to the Virgin Mary. From the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church:

"Opinion is widely divided as to what the doctrine of Nestorius really was and how far it was heretical. His sustained objection to the term, 'Theotokos' has traditionally been held to imply that he asserted not only to two different natures, but also two different persons, in Christ, the one the man, born of Mary. But we must not overlook that he repeatedly affirmed the oneness of Christ, though he preferred to speak of conjunction (synapheia) rather than of union (henosis). His fear of the Monophysite tendencies, which were actually to come into the open a few years later, led him to reject Cyril's conception of a hypostatic union (henosis ksth'hypostasin), substituting for it a union of the will (kat'eudokian). The latter term certainly savoured of Adoptionism, of which he was actually, though unjustly, accused. Certainly his zeal for upholding the integrity of the two natures, which he believed to be both self-subsisting and therefore incapable of being physically united in the Person of the God-man, caused him to fall into unguarded language, and the fact that his own friends finally abandoned him supports the view that, by trying to defend, he actually compromised the Antiochene Christology."

At the Council of Ephesus, St. Cyril of Alexandria took the chair and began the proceedings before the arrival of the Syrian bishops or indeed of the papal legates. Nestorius was deposed from his see of Constantinople and excommunicated, his doctrines condemned, and the Creed of Nicaea reaffirmed. Furthermore, the Council gave formal approval to the term, 'Theotokos.' This is usually rendered in the west as 'Mother of God' and Catholics used it every day in the 'Hail Mary:' 'Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.'

Eutyches (378-454) was archimendrite of a large monastery at Constantinople. His opposition to Nestorianism, which separates the two natures of Christ so radically as to make him into two persons, led him into the opposite heresy of monophysitism, teaching that Christ had only one nature (mono+physis). The monophysites held firmly to a phrase of St. Cyril, 'one Incarnate Nature of the Word.' As with Arianism, so there are various degrees or varieties of monophysitism. Eutyches himself seems to have held that 'after the incarnation there was only one nature in Christ, and that nature was not consubstantial with us;' i.e. Christ had no human nature.

The phrase, 'one nature after the union' is commonly found in monophysite writers. The process envisioned is that there is a pre-existent Divine nature and a pre-existent human nature which are united at the Incarnation, to make a new nature. This implies the belief in a pre-existent, immortal human soul-a notion congenial to Platonic, Origenist Alexandrians, but not at all to Antiochenes. It also seems to be envisaged that these natures were changed by the union into something else, that they were confused, confounded, or melted into one another. As we shall see, these ideas were to be specifically refuted at Chalcedon.

Eutyches was deposed in 448 by his archbishop, Flavian, patriarch of Constantinople, who of course would have no sympathy at all with such ideas. Eutyches appealed to Pope Leo for support, and through influence at the inperial court secured a retrial at a council at Ephesus in 449. This council was summoned by the Emperor Theodosius II and was chaired by Dioscorus, Patriarch of Alexandria, a strong supporter of Monophysitism and no friend of Flavian.

Pope Leo, far from supporting Eutyches, was entirely supportive of Flavian, and sent delgates to the council armed with a letter to Flavian, known as the 'Tome' of Leo. These legates were insulted, and not allowed to read the letter. Eutyches was acquitted of heresy and reinstated, whereas Flavian and other bishops, including Ibas of Edessa and Theodoret of Cyrrhus, were deposed. A spirited account of this council is given in NPNF, Second Series, vol. 3, p.8:

"So the great council ended with the deposition of Flavian of Constantinople, Eusebius of Dorylaeum, Daniel of Carrae, Irenaeus of Tyre, Aquilinus of Biblus, and Domnus of Antioch as well as of Theodoret. One word of manly Latin had broken in on the supple suffrages of the servile orientals, the 'Contrdicitur' of Hilarius the representative of the Church of Rome."

Pope Leo (the 'Great') was not at all pleased. He wrote a remarkable letter about the affair to the Empress Pulcheria (Letter XCV, in NPNF, Series 2, vol. 12, p. 71).

"For, as I have very often stated in letters from the beginning of this matter, I have desired that such moderation should be observed in the midst of discordant views and carnal jealousies that, whilst nothing should be allowed to be wrested from or added to the purity of the Faith, yet the remedy of pardon should be granted to those who return to unity and peace. Because the works of the devil are then more effectually destroyed when men's hearts are recalled to the love of God and their neighbours. But how contrary to my warnings and entreaties were their actions then, it is a long story to explain, nor is there need to put down in the pages of a letter all that was allowed to be perpetrated in that meeting, not of judges but of robbers ('non iudicium, sed latrocinium') at Ephesus."

Following these depositions and condemnations, the aggrieved parties appealed to Leo. Flavian, the deposed Patriarch of Constantinople, sent an appeal by the hand of Hilary the deacon, papal legate at the council and the utterer of the 'one word of manly Latin' to be heard among the supple suffrages of the servile orientals. Flavian pleaded that the faith, not of the Fathers, but of Eutyches was being preached by Dioscorus and his associates; complaining that the Alexandrian had long been seeking his humiliation; asking the Pope to be the first to rise up 'on behalf of our right faith;' and suggesting a united council of east nd west to heal the terrible wound that had been inflicted.

Eusebius of Dorylaeum also sent an appeal, and followed it up with a visit to Rome in person. He complained that 'contary to the divine canons' he had been most unjustly treated by Dioscorus and those compelled to obey his will, begged Leo to declare him restored to his office and in communion with the Roman see. The most eloquent appeal, however, came from Theodoret of Cyrrhus:

"Extolling the dignity and privileges of the throne in the West, he called to mind that when the early Christians at Antioch had been in doubt concerning their manner of life according to the Law, Paul had gone to the great Peter to learn from him the method whereby such difficulties could be solved. In the same way he and those with him were now turning to Peter's successor, seeking healing for the wounds recently inflicted upon the churches. And, he went on, it befitted Leo to take the initiative, since in him God had granted to the West an orthodox bishop who had already manifested his zeal against the ill-famed Manichaeans, and whose recent writing 'on the incarnation of our God and Savior'-in which was set forth 'both the everlasting godhead of the Only-begotten derived from the everlasting Father and, and the manhood derived from the seed of Abraham and David-had sufficiently indicated his apostolic character and spiritual wisdom." [from R.V. Sellers, "The Council of Chalcedon," London 1953, p. 89]

It was an appeal which Leo could scarcely ignore. Nor did he; he wrote two letters, dated 13 October 449, to the Emperor Theodosius:

"In the first, claiming that as the successor of the Chief of the Apostles his was the power 'both to maintain the cause of peace, and to allow no one to distort its firm foundation but at once to repel the mischief,' he entreated that most Christian and revered Prince to allow everything to remain as it was before the bishops met at Ephesus, till a synod of 'the whole company of bishops from all the world'-which, he suggested, should be held in Italy-could give its judgement..."

"In the second, he ventured to tell Theodosius that had the Bishop of Alexandria allowed the papal letters to the Council of Ephesus and to Flavian to be read, all disputings would have been hushed, and no place left for either ignorance or jealousy, since these contained the declaration of the divinely inspired faith which he had received and was determined to uphold." [Sellers, p. 90] Theodosius did not respond; it is possible, as Sellers suggests, that the letters were intercepted by agents of Dioscorus, and never reached their destination. So Leo wrote again, on 25 December. This time, he made his appeal:

"...simply on the ground that he, too, strictly adhered to the Creed of Nicaea. Within this Creed, he affirmed, his letters were in complete agressment, since in them he anathematized the perverse doctrine of Nestorius, and condemned the impiety of those who were denying that real flesh had been assumed by our Lord Jesus Christ. And again he besought Theodosius to summon an episcopal council in Italy, since this was the only sure means of checking the disorder affecting the whole church, and of preserving the integrity of the catholic faith."

Again, "No Answer" was the stern reply. But in early 450, the Western imperial court visited Rome, and Leo petitioned the Emperor Valentinian III, the Empress Licinia Eudoxia and the Emperor's mother, Galla Placidia [the cousin, daughter, and aunt respectively of Theodosius] to write to their imperial relative in the East on behalf of the catholic faith,' so long guarded by our divine Father Constantine.' Leo also persuaded Galla Placidia to write to her niece, Pulcheria Augusta [sister of Theodosius], soliciting her aid.

Theodosius was, however, not having any of this. He made it clear that, as far as he was concerned, the matter was settled. Flavian, the cause of all the trouble, had been banished. No further decisions were required. One Anatolius wrote to Leo, informing him that he had been appointed Bishop of Constantinople, but offering no assurances of his orthodoxy. Leo rolled up his sleeves and wrote stronger letters, dated 16 July 450, indicating his intention, if it should prove necessary, to hold a General Council in Italy.

In the event, Theodosius solved the problem by falling from his horse and dying on 28 July. He died without male issue, nominating the military commander, Marcian, as his successor. Pulcheria married Marcian, and when the papal delegates arrived in Constantinople, they found the throne occupied, not as they had expected by Theodosius, but by Pulcheria and Marcian.

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