The Council of Ephesus

STAR"Behind the Scenes"
by Mark Alessio

Part 1STAR

"What greater prodigy could the world behold, than a woman become the Mother of God, and a God clothed In human flesh?"

-----St. Alphonsus Liguori +1787, Doctor of the Church

St. Proclus Speaks Out

Sometime around the year 428 A.D., an event took place in the city of Constantinople, then the capital of the Roman Empire, which helped to change the course of CatholIc devotional life forever. Those in attendance on that day would have noticed nothing unusual. Far from it, in fact, for the setting for this occurrence was a liturgical celebration being held in the city's cathedral. During this celebration, a spirited homily in praise of the Virgin Mary was delivered by St. Proclus [+446], who made the following observations:
"The reason we have gathered here today is the holy Theotokos Virgin Mary, immaculate treasure of virginity, spiritual paradise of the second Adam, workshop of the union of [Christ's two] natures, marketplace of the saving exchange, bridal chamber in which the Word was wedded to the flesh, living bush that was not burned by the fire of the Divine birth, the true light cloud that bore the One Who, in His body, stands above the Cherubim, fleece moistened by celestial dew, with which the Shepherd clothes His sheep."
One fact of this panegyric strikes us immediately, namely the speaker's keen grasp of the doctrinal ramifications of the Divine Maternity. In the best patristic tradition, he clothed his praise of Mary in the imagery of the Old Testament, presenting a colorful and rich picture of the promised Woman who carried the Living God in Her womb. He gave pride of place to Mary's title, Theotokos [Mother of God, or "God-Bearer"] and, as though to underscore his reflections, he returned to it at the close of his homily: "Behold, holy Mary is openly proclaimed as Theotokos." Previous to this final proclamation of Mary's title, St. Proclus cited the following scriptural passage from the prophet Ezechiel:
"And He brought me back to the way of the gate of the outward sanctuary, which looked towards the east: and it was shut. And the Lord said to me: This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it: because the Lord the God of Israel hath entered in by it, and it shall be shut. [Ez. 44: 1-2]
The Church Fathers understood this gate to be the Ever-Virgin Mary:

"Today let Ezechiel, renowned for his visions, rejoice because his prophecy is in effect fulfilled. In Babylon he saw a closed gate and said: Sealed up let it be, because by it the Lord will enter in. Mary is that closed gate. By it, Christ came into the world, but He opened it not. Let disputations be silent." [St. Ephrem of Syria + 373, Hymn XV On the Blessed Virgin]

It is clear, then, that St. Proclus was so effusive in his praise of Mary's title, Theotokos, precisely because he saw in it a safeguard for the integrity and truth of the Incarnation. The faithful, sitting in the cathedral at Constantinople on that fateful day, had no cause for alarm. The title, "Mother of God," was not a novelty suddenly thrust upon them by a flamboyant orator. It had been used by Fathers before St. Proclus. In fact, the oldest extant. prayer to Our Lady, the Sub Tuum Praesidium [dating back to at least the 3rd Century], contains the words, "We take refuge beneath Thy protection, O holy Mother of God." The Catholics of the time would have understood-----intuited-----the validity and aptness of the title, Theotokos, even in the absence of any doctrinal niceties. It was a part of their Catholic sensibility.

However, there was one person listening to St. Proclus that day who, far from being elevated by his homily, found it to be a cause of great internal unease. This person was named Nestorius and his title was nothing less than "Patriarch of Constantinople."


Nestorius [died c. 451] had become the Patriarch of Constantinople in 428. He derived his Christological ideas from a school of thought which originated in Antioch, and which placed a special emphasis on the humanity of Jesus. Two thinkers, both born in Antioch, who influenced the thinking of Nestorius were Diodore of Tarsus [died c. 390] and Theodore of Mopsuestia [died c. 428].

Diodore of Tarsus, a bishop and theologian, had been a leading figure at the Council of Constantinople [381] and a teacher of St. John Chrysostom. In his reasoning, Christ represented both the Son of God and the Son of Mary. Both, then, would be Sons of God, one by nature and one by grace, and Our Lady, therefore, could not be viewed as the Mother of God, but simply as the mother of a man. This contradicts the teaching that two natures [human and Divine] are united in the one Person of Jesus Christ and, therefore, compromises the truth of the Incarnation. In the year 499, Diodore was condemned by a synod at Antioch.

Theodore of Mopsuestia, bishop and theologian, was, like his friend Chrysostom, a student of Diodore. He taught that Jesus received the Logos [His Divine nature] and the Holy Ghost in successive stages and that, consequently, there was never a complete union of Divine and human natures in Jesus Christ. Though he was respected for his orthodoxy during his life, some of his writings [particularly those dealing with the Incarnation] were condemned after his death at the Second Council of Constantinople [533]. In a sermon preached at Antioch, Theodore strongly condemned the use of the title, Theotokos, for he believed that Mary could not be called "Mother of God" in the literal sense of the term, but only in an indirect way.

Not surprisingly, this unpopular opinion caused some unrest.

It was no mere whim which moved these "Antiochene" theologians to highlight the humanity of Jesus. This emphasis was the byproduct of their struggles against two specific heresies of the time, both of which presented false ideas of Our Lord's humanity and, therefore, of the Incarnation itself:

  • The Arians denied the Divinity of Christ, believing that He was not eternal, but was originated at some point in time. Our Lord, they contended, was given a share in the Divine nature of the Father because of His part in the Redemption. Therefore, He is, at best, an inferior "divine being," situated in the created order between God and men.
  • The Apollinarists taught that, while Christ had a human body and a human soul, He did not have a human rational mind, this human mind, having been replaced by the Divine Logos. They argued that, if Christ had a human mind, and human free will, He could have sinned, an impossibility if He had been possessed solely of a Divine mind.
It is easy to see how blatantly these heretical teachings contradict the Truth that two natures-----Divine and human-----are united in the One Person of Jesus Christ. The Redemption of mankind hinges on this Unity of Person, for by becoming-----actually becoming-----man, while still remaining God, Our Lord could fulfill all the requirements necessary to effect the Redemption. The transgression of Eden had been committed by Adam and Eve, who, at the time, constituted the whole of humanity. Therefore, in the interests of justice, a member of the human race had to atone for the transgression. However, this transgression had been committed against God, and what could men possibly have to offer God as a ransom for their eternal souls?

The solution to this dilemma is the most powerful example ever given to the world of God's mercy and love . . . a mercy that doesn't ignore the right dictates of justice and a love that gives all there is to give of itself. Through the Unity of Person, the Incarnation of the Second Divine Person, the ransom will be paid for Adam and Eve, and it will be paid by a man. But, also, the merits of this Man will be infinite, for He is God; His sacrifice, then, will be acceptable to the Father:

"Therefore because the children are partakers of flesh and blood, He also Himself in like manner hath been partaker of the same: that, through death, He might destroy him who had the empire of death, that is to say, the devil: And might deliver them, who through the fear of death were all their lifetime subject to servitude." [Heb. 2: 14-15]
Obviously, then, to compromise this Unity of Person effected at the Incarnation, to separate the Divine and human natures of Christ-----or to propose false theories which question the integrity of their union-----is to strike at the very heart of the Catholic Faith.

In attempting to emphasize the full humanity of Jesus in the face of those heretics who denied it, some theologians, such as Diodore and Theodore, ended up by separating somewhat His two natures. Although they may have believed that they simultaneously defended Our Lord's perfect Divinity by stressing His full humanity, two wrongs do not make a right. And it is not surprising to find Nestorius, influenced so strongly by such thinkers, delivering these words from the pulpit of his cathedral in Constantinople, words which did not sit well with his listeners:

"I am asked if it be lawful to give to Mary the Virgin the title of Theotokos [Mother of God] or if it be right to term Her simply Anthropotokos [Mother of a man]. Can it be that God has a Mother? . . . No, the creature has given birth not to the Creator, but to a Man, Who was instrument of the Divinity. The Holy Spirit, by His operation from which was born the Son of Mary, merely prepared for God the Word a temple in the Virgin's womb."
Even today, some Protestant "theologians" employ the same reasoning as a means to strip Our Lady of Her rightful and fundamental title, Mother of God. Although masquerading behind a facade of concern for the honor of Jesus, this argument is not only simplistic, but it displays little insight into the very reason for the Incarnation, let alone the Unity of Person effected by it. And, in the end, regardless of Nestorius' motives, the denial of the Blessed Virgin's title, Theotokos, was-----and remains-----an affront to Her honor and dignity. This denial of the Divine Maternity did not go unnoticed or unchallenged, as bishops wrote him in consternation. Supported by the Emperor Theodosius II [c. 401-450], Nestorius continued to spread his teachings with impunity.

Enter St. Cyril of Alexandria . . .

It is understandable that those troubled by Nestorius' erroneous teachings should appeal to other influential Churchmen for help in dealing with a situation requiring definite action, lest the faithful be led into wrong or muddled ideas concerning the very basis of our hope in Christ. Into the fray, then, stepped a pivotal figure in the resulting events, St. Cyril [+ 444], Patriarch of Alexandria and Doctor of the Church. Without mentioning Nestorius by name, Cyril, wrote a letter to the monks of Egypt, in which he remarked:

"I do not know how to express my astonishment when I see Christians hesitating to give the Holy Virgin the title of Mother of God. Since Our Lord Jesus Christ is God, how can the Virgin, who gave Him birth, not be the Mother of God? The Apostles have taught us this truth, even though the word Theotokos be not found in their writings. The Holy Fathers never hesitated to use the term . . ."
St. Cyril went on to defend the Divine Maternity in words whose clarity shines forth to this day:
"We know that the Eternal Word existed before Mary, and that from all eternity He abides in the bosom of His Father. But in the Incarnation there is a Mystery, which we can in some measure compare to that of human generaleration. All men who have ever been born are made up of soul and body. Our mothers gave us the corporal substance into which God has infused a soul. This fact does not hinder us from saying that they gave birth to a man
. . . . The union of soul and body makes up the one person who is called the man, therefore she who gives birth to a man is truly his mother. After the same manner that the soul is united so strictly to the body-----so indissolubly that one cannot separate them in the human person without destroying the man-----in the Incarnation the Word was united to Human Nature to be born in the one and Indivisible Person of Jesus Christ our Lord and God."
St. Cyril also wrote two letters to Nestorius himself. The second of these letters is of great importance, as it would later be approved by the ecumenical Council convened to deal with Nestorius. In this second letter, Cyril begins by charitably exhorting Nestorius to avoid scandalizing his flock and to heed the writings of the Fathers. He then lays out clearly and concisely the Church's correct teaching on the Incarnation and the Unity of Person. Among the relevant points brought out here are these:
  •  "We do not say that the nature of the Word was changed and became flesh, nor that He was turned into a whole man made of body and soul . . .
  • Rather did two different natures come together to form a unity, and from both arose one Christ, one Son. It was not as though the distinctness of the natures was destroyed by the union, but Divinity and humanity together made perfect for us one Lord and one Christ, together marvelously and mysteriously combining to form a unity. So He Who existed and was begotten of the Father before all ages is also said to have been begotten according to the flesh of a woman, without the Divine nature either beginning to exist in the holy Virgin, or needing of itself a second begetting after that from His Father. [For it is absurd and stupid to speak of the One Who existed before every age and is coeternal with the Father, needing a second beginning so as to exist]."
  • "In a similar way we say that He suffered and rose again, not that the Word of God suffered blows or piercing with nails or any other wounds in His own nature [for the Divine, being without a body, is incapable of suffering], but because the body which became His own suffered these things; He is said to have suffered them for us . . . the Word is said to have suffered death for us, not as if He Himself had experienced death as far as His Own nature was concerned [it would be sheer lunacy to say or to think that], but because, as I have just said, His flesh tasted death."
  • "This is the account of the true faith everywhere professed. So shall we find that the holy Fathers believed. So have they dared to call the holy Virgin, Mother of God, not as though the nature of the Word or His Godhead received the origin of their being from the holy Virgin, but because there was born from her His holy body rationally ensouled, with which the Word was hypostaticlly united and is said to have been begotten in the flesh."
The Council of Ephesus

At last, St. Cyril took the matter straight "to the top," namely, 'the then-reigning Vicar of Christ, Pope Celestine I [422-432]. Accusing Nestorius of heresy, Cyril sent the Pope copies of his correspondence to Nestorius, together with a collection of Nestorius' sermons and writings of his own which challenged the errors of the Patriarch of Constantinople. On August 11, 430 the Pontiff replied to Cyril by giving him the authority to contact Nestorius with an ultimatum: recant within ten days or be excommunicated and lose your episcopal Seat. By November or December, the ultimatum was delivered by four bishops sent by CyriI.

Nestorius, however, had been working on his own behalf by appealing to Emperor Theodosius to summon a general council to examine the situation and the differences which had caused such a stir. Even before Cyril's messengers had arrived, letters had been sent to all metropolitans by the Emperor, summoning them to a general council. With the Emperor on his side and a council in the works, Nestorius simply disregarded the threat of excommunication.

Pope Celestine saw the wisdom in dealing with Nestorius' errors by means of a council, and he sent two bishops there as representatives of Rome. They were to judge the discussions, while abstaining from entering into the talks themselves. The Pope also sent a priest named Philip as his personal representative. Meanwhile, the Emperor sent a personal invitation to St. Augustine, unaware that the great Doctor had died the previous August.

The dramatic aura which marked the origin of the Council of Ephesus did not abate in its first days. One account relates that St. Cyril, accompanied by fifty bishops, and Nestorius, accompanied by sixteen, arrived in Ephesus on the same day, just prior to Pentecost, and that the other bishops balked when Nestorius proposed that they all celebrate Vespers together. John, the Patriarch of Antioch [and good friend of Nestorius] wrote to explain that his group could not leave for Ephesus until after Easter, ostensibly due to a famine at Antioch, which gave rise to the probable speculation that he was delaying his departure so that he would not be obliged to participate in any condemnations of his friend. In addition to the "heat" generated by personal tempers and feelings, the weather at that time was so hot that bishops fell ill, and some died.

John of Antioch sent word via two of his bishops that the opening of the council should not be delayed on his account, and that he would arrive within the week, but over sixty bishops petitioned St. Cyril to defer its commencement until John's arrival. When John had still not arrived more than two weeks after this, Cyril and a majority of bishops determined to open the Council of Ephesus [the Third Ecumenical Council of the Church] on June 22, 431.

Perhaps in the back of their a minds was the thought that John's delay was not due to extraneous circumstances, to but was deliberate.

In the absence of any further communication from a Rome [although a letter from the Pope was on its way], the Council was convened. Nestorius, residing in a house surrounded by  armed men and regarding. himself as a victim of malice and slander on the part of Cyril, refused to heed three summonses to appear at the First Session, stating that he would only appear when all the bishops were together. Most of the bishops who had petitioned for a delay in opening the Council were still against the idea of opening the First Session at that time.

Nevertheless, the First Session opened on schedule. After a reading of the Nicene Creed, the second letter of St. Cyril to Nestorius [quoted above] was read and judged to be in accordance with right doctrine, 126 bishops rising to give their thoughts on it. Nestorius' reply to Cyril was then read, at which the assembled bishops anathematized Nestorius. After a reading of Pope Celestine's letter to Cyril, a third letter written by Cyril to Nestorius was read. This letter set forth once again the clear teaching of the Church on the Incarnation, closing with the declaration:

"We have been taught to hold these things by the holy Apostles and evangelists, and by all the divinely inspired Scriptures, and by the true confession of the blessed Fathers. To all these your reverence ought to agree and subscribe without any deceit. What is required for your reverence to anathematize we subjoin to this epistle."
Appended to this letter were Twelve Anathemas [accepted by the Council] which Nestorius was bound to accept in order to refute any charges of heresy. The first three will suffice to give the tenor of the whole:

"1. If anyone does not confess that Emmanuel is God in truth, and therefore that the holy Virgin is the Mother of God [for She bore in a fleshly way the Word of God become flesh], let him be anathema.

2. If anyone does not confess that the Word from God the Father has been united by hypostasis with the flesh and is one Christ with His Own flesh, and is therefore God and man together, let him be anathema.

3. If anyone divides in the one Christ the hypostases after the union, joining them only by a conjunction of dignity or authority or power, and not rather by a coming together in a union by nature, let him be anathema."

Then began a series of testimonies by those who knew and heard Nestorius speak, and a series of readings from the Church Fathers, which were compared and contrasted to Nestorius' own writings. At the end of this First Session, all 198 bishops joined in signing the sentence against Nestorius who, it must be remembered, was still under excommunication and had stubbornly refused three summonses to appear on that day. This sentence, which Nestorius refused to accept and which was, consequently, left hanging on the door of his house, read:

"As, in addition to all else, the excellent Nestorius has declined to obey our summons and has not received the holy and God-fearing bishops we sent to him, we have of necessity started upon an investigation of his impieties. We have found him out, thinking and speaking in an impious fashion, from his letters, from his writings that have been read out, and from the things that he has recently said in this metropolis which have been witnessed to by others; and as a result we have been compelled of necessity both by the canons and by the letter of our most holy father and, fellow servant Celestine, bishop of the church of the Romans, to issue this sad condemnation against him, though we do so with many tears. Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who has been blasphemed by him, has determined through this most holy synod that the same Nestorius should be stripped of his episcopal dignity and removed from the college of priests."

Anyone who continues to doubt that affection and veneration for the Mother of God is an ancient and fundamental element of authentic "Christianity" need only observe the reactions of the Ephesians to the decree of the Council. We are told that crowds waited outside while the Council deliberated and, upon hearing its decision, the air was filled with cries of "Praise be to the Theotokos." The famous torch lit procession of Ephesus has been cited often as an example of that special love for Mary which has kindled the hearts of entire cities-----even entire nations-----in former times:

"And the populace of Ephesus were drawn to the Virgin Mother of God with such great piety, and burning with such, ardent love, that when they understood the judgment passed by the Fathers of the Council, they hailed them with overflowing gladness of heart, and gathering round them in a body, bearing lighted torches in their hands, accompanied them home." [Pope Pius Xl, Lux Veritatis, 1931]

Reprinted from the May 2002 Issue of Catholic Family News.




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