FIRST COUNCIL OF EPHESUS (431)
The third ecumenical council, summoned by Emperor Theodosius II in order to settle the Nestorian controversy. The period from 381 to 431 was dominated by the efforts of the bishops of Rome and Alexandria to undo the work of the second ecumenical council, that of Constantinople I (381). The rivalry of the three sees came to a head in the conflict between CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA (412-444) and NESTORIUS, archbishop of Constantinople (428-431).
Nestorius was a monk of Antioch strongly influenced by the principles of that city’s school of theology. He acquired a considerable reputation as a preacher, and when the see of Constantinople became vacant in 428, Theodosius II appointed him archbishop, overriding the claims of local candidates. Nestorius, who had a fanatical streak and was eager to rid the city of schismatics and heretics, posed as a zealous supporter of orthodoxy. He fully supported his chaplain, Anastasius, who had preached against the use of the word Theotokos (Mother of God) as savoring of APOLLINARIANISM. A violent controversy arose over the use of the term, which had gained popularity with the growing devotion to the Virgin Mary. Nestorius’ opponents gained the support of Cyril and the Egyptian monks.
The antipathy between Alexandrian and Antiochene theology and Cyril’s love of conflict and intolerance of dissent added fuel to the flames, and led to his defending Theotokos in his paschal letter of 429. Cyril’s agents in Constantinople spread the idea that Nestorius did not like Theotokos because he did not believe that Jesus was God. Excerpts from Nestorius’ sermons were equated with the utterances of the third-century heretic Paul of Samosata. Cyril thus succeeded in building up an atmosphere of suspicion in Constantinople against Nestorius.
He then persuaded Celestine, bishop of Rome, to summon a synod at Rome in 430; it condemned Nestorius, as did Cyril’s own synod in Alexandria. Cyril then sent notice of both condemnations to Nestorius with a covering letter and twelve anathemas. The twelve anathemas condemned the “two natures” theology of Antioch—the division of the words and actions of Jesus between His divine and human natures—and required Nestorius to agree that the Word of God suffered in the flesh.
Meanwhile, Theodosius II had summoned a council, to be held at Ephesus, for Pentecost 431. Nestorius was confident that he could prove that the twelve anathemas were Apollinarian in tendency, but he underestimated the ability of Cyril to sway the proceedings to his own views, and also failed to appreciate the distress that his remarks concerning Theotokos had caused. Nestorius had enemies in Asia Minor who were jealous of their own liberties, and Memnon, bishop of Ephesus, became a violent opponent, throwing in his lot with Cyril. Nestorius had the support of John, bishop of Antioch, and other Syrian bishops. The scandal caused by Nestorius’ remark that “God is not a baby two or three months old” continued unabated.
The third ecumenical council finally met on 22 June 431, when Cyril and his suffragans assumed control of the proceedings and deposed Nestorius. The Syrians arrived four days later, having been delayed by severe weather, and on hearing the news, held a rival synod and deposed Cyril and Memnon. Finally the legates of the bishop of Rome arrived and joined the main council in accordance with Celestine’s wish. Cyril’s dubious actions thus had Western ratification, and he went on to condemn PELAGIANISM, to grant Cyprus ecclesiastical independence, to appoint Juvenal patriarch of Jerusalem, and to prohibit any addition to the Nicene Creed.
The two rival synods had, however, cursed each other; and the emperor, not knowing what to make of the impasse, ratified the depositions of Nestorius, Cyril, and Memnon as if these were the acts of a single council. Cyril was, however, a master of bribery of state officials, and the position of Nestorius began to weaken. His offer to return to his monastery at Antioch was accepted, and Cyril’s position was strengthened by the support he received from the papal legates and by his ability to escape punishment for his overbearing behavior. At Alexandria he was greeted with triumph on his return.
The breach between John of Antioch and Cyril was healed in 433 by large concessions on both sides. However, this reconciliation was maintained only with difficulty and broke down completely after the deaths of the main protagonists. The third ecumenical council was not really influential as such in later centuries. It was subsumed under the authority of the Council of NICAEA (325) as representing an orthodoxy from which no deviation was possible. However, the formal approval that it gave to the title Theotokos was significant for Greek Orthodoxy. In Coptic Christianity it is accepted, unlike CHALCEDON, as an ecumenical council.
- Bathune-Baker, J. D. Nestorius and his Teaching. Cambridge, 1908. Chadwick, H. The Early Church, pp. 194-200. Harmondsworth, 1967.
- D’Ales, A. Le Dogme d’Ephèse. Paris, 1931.
- Fliche, A., and V. Martin, eds. Histoire de l’église, Vol. 4, pp. 163-196. Paris, 1939.
- Frend, W. H. C. The Monophysite Movement, pp. 1-49. Cambridge, 1972.
- Hefele, C. J., and H. Leclercq. Histoire des conciles, Vol. 2, pt. 1, pp. 287-377. Paris, 1908.
- Kraatz, W., ed. Koptische Akten zum Ephesinischen Konzil vom Jahre 431. Texte und Untersuchungen 26, no. 2. Leipzig, 1904. Loofs, W. Nestorius and his Place in the History of Christian Doctrine. Cambridge, 1914.
LESLIE W. BARNARD