Known as the fifth general council and convoked by Emperor I in May 553. It was presided over by Patriarch Eutychius of Constantinople, and attended by 165 bishops, nearly all from the eastern and Greek-speaking provinces of Justinian’s empire. The main object of the council was to modify (without appearing to do so) the decisions and authority of the by condemning the “Three Chapters” consisting of works by OF MOPSUESTIA, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, and Ibas of Edessa, on the ground that they were tainted with Nestorianism.

All three theologians had been vindicated at Chalcedon. The upshot was, however, the humiliation of Pope Vigilius (537-555) and a serious distancing of Eastern and Western ecclesiastical relations. In addition, the council failed to bridge the widening gulf between the Byzantine church and the , thus consolidating the breach between the Melchite and Coptic- .

The genesis of the council goes back to 538 with the death of , whose had been condemned at the two years earlier. The Monophysites represented too large a section of religious opinion in the East, especially in Egypt, to be ignored. Search was immediately initiated for an interpretation of the Tome of I THE GREAT and the decisions of Chalcedon that would meet Monophysite objections while sustaining the authority of the Tome and the council.

The first attempt, represented by ideas emanating from the Palestinian monks, tended toward Origenism, and was condemned in an edict that also condemned ORIGEN and Origenism, published in in February 543 ( Historia ecclesiastica IV.38).

However, one of the leaders, Theodorus Askidas, was befriended by Justinian and promoted to the influential bishopric of Caesarea in . His influence now became paramount at court, replacing that of the papal representatives. Askidas believed that religious unity could be restored in the East if the emperor could bring about the formal condemnation of the theology of Theodorus of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, and Ibas of Edessa, all representatives of the Antiochene school of theology.

Ibas’s letter to the Persian presbyter Maris that criticized Cyril’s Christology, Theodoret’s rejoinder to Cyril’s Twelve Anathemas, and some outspokenly Antiochene writings of Theodorus were regarded as especially obnoxious. These comprised the “Three Chapters” that were offered for condemnation. As both and anti- Chalcedonians in the East could agree on this proposition, it was hoped that unity could then be restored.

In the West, however, Askidas’ plans were regarded with suspicion. To the Carthaginian archdeacon , he was a secret Monophysite as well as the rival of the papal representative Pelagius for the emperor’s favor ( XXIV). Liberatus found a North African ally in Facundus of Hermiana, who criticized both the theology of those who condemned the “Three Chapters” and the right of the emperor to intervene in ecclesiastical matters (Pro defensione trium capitulorum XII.3).

In this situation, Pope Vigilius hesitated. Personally inclined toward Justinian’s views, he feared schism developing among the Western bishops if he approved them publicly. However, Justinian formally condemned the “Three Chapters” in 543 or 544. On 11 April 548 the pope followed suit. He sent his own condemnation of the “Three Chapters” to Patriarch at Constantinople.

The Judicatum, as it was called, raised a storm of protest in the West. In 550 the Illyrian and North African bishops forced Vigilius to retract his decree. The next year, however, Justinian promulgated a new edict: a of faith condemning the “Three Chapters.” On its acceptance by Menas, Askidas, and other Eastern bishops, Vigilius excommunicated them (14 August 551). He had in the meantime been brought to Constantinople; now, fearing for his life, he fled to Chalcedon and refused to preside at the general council that the emperor was preparing to summon.

The council met on 5 May 553. Vigilius issued another decree, the Constitutum (11 May), in which he declined to condemn the “Three Chapters” or their authors. The council, however, deliberated without him. The conclusions were foregone. The chapters were condemned on the grounds that they were contradictory to the doctrines of the Council of Chalcedon. The letter of Ibas received particularly severe treatment. “It had nothing to do with Chalcedon.

Anyone who does not anathematise it places himself in opposition to Chalcedon. Long live the emperor” (see Héfele and Leclercq, trans., 1909, pp. 118-20). Ibas and Theodoret had been solemnly restored to communion at Chalcedon, a fact now conveniently forgotten. Vigilius’ name was erased from the diptychs (seventh session, 26 May).

Of the fourteen anathemas eventually approved by the council, the first twelve were directed mainly against the theology of Theodorus (the fourth, fifth, sixth, and twelfth explicitly), the thirteenth against Theodoret, and the fourteenth against Ibas. The positive doctrine of the council moved toward the Monophysites in permitting the acknowledgment of the Son “out of two natures,” but the corollary that He was of one nature after the Incarnation was condemned (anathema 8).

The term much used during the debates that there was in the Son “one divine-human energy” (mia theandrike energeia) anticipates the attempted Monenergist compromise of Heraclius in the next century. These concessions, however, were compromised by the council’s explicit acceptance of the canonical status of the doctrine of the four previous councils (i.e., including Chalcedon). They came too late to halt the emergence of a Monophysite church with its own hierarchy, in which the majority of the Coptic bishops participated. In Egypt the division between Melchite (imperial) and moved toward finality.

In the West, too, the council had divisive results. Vigilius was forced to accept its decisions (December 553) and solemnly condemned the “Three Chapters” (on 23 February 554). While in North there was grudging acceptance, the churches of Milan and Aquileia went into schism. Their hostility weakened the imperial position in Italy when it was confronted by the Lombard invaders in 568/569, and Aquileia did not return to communion with Rome until the end of the seventh century.

The council failed to heal the Monophysite schism while further alienating the Western churches from Constantinople. It provided Justinian with a temporary triumph but made inevitable the threefold division of Christendom into Western and papal, Byzantine and Orthodox, and Syrian and Coptic Monophysite churches.


  • Bindley, T. H., and F. W. Green. The Oecumenical Documents of the Faith, 4th ed. London, 1950. The anathemas with a brief introduction are reprinted on pp. 151-56.
  • Bois, J. “Constantinople (IIe concile de).” In Dictionnaire de Théologie catholique, Vol. 3, cols. 1231-59. Paris, 1911.
  • Bréhier, L. “La lutte entre Vigile et Justinien.” In Histoire de l’église, ed. A. Fliche and V. Martin, Vol. 4, De la Mort de Théodose a l’élection de Grégoire le Grand, pp. 467-82. Paris, 1948.
  • Duchesne, L. L’Eglise au VIe siècle. Paris, 1926.
  • Heféle, C. J., and H. Leclercq, trans. Histoire des conciles, Vol. 3, pt. 1, pp. 68-140. Paris, 1909.
  • Herrin, J. The Formation of Christendom, pp. 119-27. Oxford, 1987.

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