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Constantinople II, 553 CE: Three Chapters Controversy

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.

From the ODCC:

"This, the Fifth General Council, was convoked by the Emperor Justinian to decide the prolonged controversy over the Three Chapters: whether Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Ibas of Edessa should be condemned as tainted with Nestorianism, or whether, following the attitude of the Council of Chalcedon, they should be accpeted. The Emperor, who wished to reconcile moderate Monophysite opinion, was opposed to any toleration of Theodore, Theodoret, and Ibas. Justinian's first decree condemning the Three Chapters (543/4) met with W. opposition...The Emperor's second decree against the Three Chapters (551) met with the same opposition...The Council was convoked to resolve the matter. It was convened on 5 May 553 under the presidency of Eutychius, the new Patriarch of Constantinople. The 165 bishops who signed the acts were almost all Easterns. The Three Chapters were condemned and their authors anathematized. During its course Vigilus, who refused to attend for fear of violence as well as in protest against the preponderance of E. bishops present, drew up the so-called 'Constitutum,' signed by himself and 16 W. bishops, in which, while condemning 60 propositions of Theodore of Mopsuestia, he refused to anathematize his person on the grounds that he had not been condemned at Ephesus (431) or Chalcedon (451) and that it was not the custom of the Church to condemn the dead. The Council replied by erasing the Pope's name from the diptychs in the 7th session. Vigilus was for a short ime exiled, but as the Emperor had nothing to gain from a rupture with the Pope he used every means to bring about reconciliation. Vigilus finally agreed to accept the Council and annulled his former decisions in favour of the Three Chapters. Of the 14 anathemas pronounced by the Council the first 12 are directed chiefly against Theodore of Mopsuestia, the 13th against Theodoret of Cyrrhus, and the 14th against Ibas. In the 11th anathema the name of Origen occurs in a list of heretics, but there are grounds for believing this to be an interpolation. Despite the Papal acceptance the Council was not at once recognized as oecumenical in the W. Milan and Aquileia even broke off communion with Rome, and relations were not restored with Milan until the end of the 6th, and with Aquileia until the end of the 7th centuries."

Henry Chadwick comments:

"The painful affair of the Three Chapters did nothing to reconcile even moderate Monophysites, and actually had the reverse effect to that intended. From 553 onwards, a fanatical Monophysite bishop from Syria, Jacob Baradeus, realized the full dimensions of the threat to the independence and survival of his party contained in Justinian's plan. He travelled round the East in disguise creating an underground Monophysite episcopate to coexist with the Chalcedonians. (To the present day, the Syrian Jacobites, like the Armenians, Copts and Ethiopians, reject Chalcedon.) On the Chalcedoniands the immediate effect was to produce temporary schisms in the West; and the successive contradictory utterances of VIgilus did not enhance the authority of the Roman see." (H. Chadwick, 'The Early Church,'p. 210)

Chadwick adds in a footnote:

"Vigilius' successor, chosen by Justinian, was his deacon Pelagius, in youth a violent opponent of the condemnationof the Three Chapters, but rightly judged by the emperor to be capable of changing his mind. By autocratic authority and the monimum of explanation Pelagius succeeded in upholding the Fifth Council against its Western critics."

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