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Mary Theotokos and the 3rd Ecumenical Council
The Third Ecumenical Council
Beyond the theological reasons which were determinative for the convocation of the 3rd Ecumenical Council held at Ephesus in 431, one of the main socio-political factors was the imperial disunity which was becoming all the more apparent within the empire. Indeed from the perspective of the Emperor, disunity within the state meant great unrest, which could easily break out in violence. And for this reason, leaders always wanted to deal with issues, even theological ones, which could disrupt the good order of the state. The clash between St Cyril of Alexandria and Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople had spread to the Churches of Rome and Antioch, thereby becoming, in the words of St Cyril a 'universal scandal' since it had reached the 'ends' of the then known empire. The disruptive events, which were to follow, would compel the Emperor to deal with this matter since the unity of the empire was at stake.
Before the Council of 431, St Cyril had written several letters to Nestorius exposing his heretical teachings. Clearly, for St Cyril there was a real union, and not just a mere 'contact' between the divine and human natures in the one person of Christ. For this reason, it was not incorrect to assert that Mary had given birth to the same Person as God the Word. For example in 429, in his Paschal Homily, St Cyril wrote:
For it should be understood that… the Begotten is by nature God, and, therefore, the Virgin who gave birth to him should be mother not simply of flesh and blood… but rather Mother of the Lord and God who put on our own likeness… Therefore Emmanuel is God; and Mother of God should be the one who gave birth according to the flesh to the God who appeared in the flesh.
St Cyril continued to expose the teaching of Nestorius with letters, such as his well-known Dogmatic Epistle. In 430 St Cyril sent his Third Letter to Nestorius, which contained the Twelve Anathemas against Nestorius. In response, Nestorius wrote twelve anathemas to counter those of St Cyril's in which he clearly stated that in Christ, there were two natures and two persons who were united 'morally'. Nestorius believed that it was due to the virtuous life of the man Jesus, that this purely human Christ was subsequently conjoined to the Word of God. Furthermore Nestorius clearly believed that the humanity of Christ gradually came to be deified since the man Christ was obedient to divinity. By this Nestorius meant that the man Jesus gradually overcame his purely human aspect through obedience, moral asceticism and divine grace, thus gradually acquiring a divine aspect as well. Yet for the Church, Christ's Lordship did not take place by grace but by nature since Christ was God's divine Son and Word.
Nestorius attempted to put a stop to St Cyril by gaining the support of Emperor Theodosius II. However, perceiving the danger, St Cyril turned to Pope Celestine in Rome and John Cassian so as to counter Nestorius' political machinations. Upon perceiving the extent of division in his empire, the Emperor, in 430 decided to summon a council in the city of Ephesus in order to restore imperial unity. From a historical perspective the events of the 3rd Ecumenical Council were complex. At first, Nestorius seemed to have secured the upper hand in that it was he who enjoyed the support of Emperor Theodosius II and Candidian, the captain of the imperial guard. In an equally clever manner, St Cyril, on the other hand made sure he could secure the support of Memnon, bishop of Ephesus, who closed all churches to Nestorius when the Emperor had finally decided to summon a synod in the cathedral of St Mary in Ephesus so as to have the matter settled. Working against Nestorius, however was the late arrival of his supporters, such as Patriarch John of Antioch who had been summoned to attend the council. It was for this reason that on several occasions Nestorius asked that the council be postponed until his party arrived.
Commencement of Council
Yet, despite the strident opposition by Nestorius, and for that matter Candidian, the council commenced on Monday, 22 June, 431 and was in session. In protest however Nestorius refused to attend the assembly even though he had been summoned on several occasions. After proclaiming their adherence to the faith of Nicaea, there followed a reading of St Cyril's second letter. This letter, together with Cyril's third letter, which contained the twelve anathemas formed the essential dogmatic statement of the council. After declaring the orthodoxy of these letters, the delegates proceeded to pass their sentence on Nestorius:
Our Lord Jesus Christ, upon whom he [Nestorius] has blasphemed, decrees, through the Holy Synod here present, that Nestorius be excluded from the Episcopal dignity and every priestly assembly.
The historical records show that in the end, 197 bishops signed this document. Whilst the actual content of the sentence is not surprising, what is striking, on the other hand, was the council's absolutely certain conviction that its verdict was that of Jesus Christ.4 Even though the council bishops proceeded to send a copy of the verdict to the Emperor matters had not as yet been resolved since Nestorius' party had not yet arrived to offer their counter argument.
Four days later, on 26 June, John of Antioch finally arrived and immediately convened another council – which St Cyril called 'a little council of apostasy' - with forty-three other bishops to condemn St Cyril and bishop Memnon of Ephesus since they did not find the theology of St Cyril acceptable. And on 29 June, an imperial rescript arrived not only annulling the action of St Cyril's council but also forbidding any bishop to leave. And so events were not looking favourable towards St Cyril and the Church. Matters however took a turn for the better, in July when the papal legates arrived from Rome and the council of St Cyril was able to assemble for its second session. The Emperor could see that neither party would give way and that unrest, and therefore, political instability would continue. In the end, the Emperor intervened and decided to convene a conference made up of eight delegates from each faction so that he could form his own opinion. Here the supporters of St Cyril proved victorious and Nestorius was removed from Ephesus and from his position as bishop of Constantinople, and was replaced by Maximianus as Patriarch.
Victory over Nestorius
After the council, St Cyril immediately departed back to Alexandria since the victory over Nestorius had been achieved. Yet matters had not ended since, next came the task of reconciliation between St Cyril of Alexandria and John of Antioch. This would finally be achieved in 433 in the following manner. Paul of Emesa had been sent to Alexandria from Antioch with the theology of John of Antioch. Upon reading this, and seeing its 'orthodoxy', St Cyril responded with a Letter of Reconciliation:
Let the heavens rejoice and the earth be glad for the wall of division is broken down.
The two Patriarchs had finally agreed that Christ was one person, the second Person of the Trinity. For this reason it was not incorrect to say that the virgin mother was 'Theotokos' since she had truly given birth to the second Person of the Holy Trinity. Furthermore, they both concurred that, in Christ, there were two natures, one divine and the other human, which were hypostatically united [i.e. united in the Person of divine Son and Word of God].
The Church had triumphed, the storm had died and peace would reign for as long as St Cyril was alive. Upon his death, however in June 444, trouble would begin to stir yet again on the person and nature of Christ and would ultimately be dealt within, what would come to be known as the Fourth Ecumenical Synod in Chalcedon which would take place in 451. Yet at this Council and the Ecumenical Councils, which followed, it was St Cyril's theology on the person of Christ, which would remain the normative criterion of Orthodoxy. Indeed history has shown that all parties laid claim on being faithful followers of St Cyril of Alexandria. It would be precisely for this reason that the Church would have to fight long and hard to show that St Cyril's theology did in fact affirm not only the one person of Christ but also distinguished between both a 'divine' and 'human' nature. Whilst the expression 'Theotokos' underscored the unity of the person of Jesus Christ, it would be the council of Chalcedon, which would find adequate terms to signify both these aspects in our Saviour Jesus Christ.
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
1. The theological reasons have already been discussed in the 2005 August and September issues of The Voice of Orthodoxy.
2. Paschal Homily, PG 77. 776C and 777C.
3. Leo Donald Davis, The First Seven Ecumenical Councils, 155.
4. Cf the Council of the Apostles described in Acts where the apostles, upon reaching their decision declared: "For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit" (Acts 15:28).
5. St Cyril of Alexandria, Letter 39 (PG 77:173-182).