History of the Catholic Church – The Council of Ephesus (Story Series Ep7)
Can God have a Mother?
The Council of Ephesus – 431
In the year 430 AD, the Emperor Theodosius II summoned the bishops of the all the East to settle a heated controversy brought about by the sermons of Nestorius, the recently appointed Bishop of Constantinople.
Nestorius only recently succeeded Atticus to the see of the city of Constantine. Atticus was himself an unlawful occupant of the see once occupied by the famous preacher of the Christian pulpit – St John, styled ‘tongue of gold’, Chrysostom in Greek.
Peace was only just restored to this diocese troubled by the injustices meted to St. John and the threats of the pope to excommunicate all who refused to acknowledge St. John as its rightful bishop. Atticus died, but not until he re-entered the name of John Chrysostom in the list of lawful bishops, dead and alive, of Constantinople.
It is into these settling waters that Nestorius stepped with new mud on his feet. Nestorius, like John Chrysostom, was a monk from Antioch, and a preacher of similar fame. He was, however, unlike the saint for his heresies and dogged opposition to the Traditional teaching of the Church.
In the first months of his episcopate, Nestorius wrote a letter to Pope Celestine relating his troubles with some of his fellow bishops, and even some of his clergy, who refer to the Blessed Virgin Mary as the “God-bringing-forth”, Theotokos. In his letter, he admits that the term, Theotokos, may be used properly but only in a slippery sense, and that it was more appropriate to call the Blessed Virgin, Christotokos – “Christ-bearer”.
Nestorius brought some monks from Antioch to help in his ‘battle’ against these ‘heretics’ who teach that the Blessed Virgin is the Mother of God. He preached fierce sermons which caused no small scandal among the faithful. It has been the traditional piety to refer to our Lady as the Theotokos. The sermons of Nestorius jarred against the sense of the faithful. His sermons cried round Constantinople. Echoes of his errors reached Rome, and even crossed the Mediterranean Sea, borne by Egyptian monks to the shores of Alexandria.
Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria, in response to the appeal of the monks in his see, wrote an exposition of the Faith of the Church concerning the Incarnation of Word. This piece was, in its parts and as a whole, a condemnation of the errors of Nestorius. Cyril also wrote to “the most religious and beloved of God, fellow minister Nestorius” to confirm if the errors he heard were true, and urged him to recant. Nestorius remained obstinate in his errors. Cyril wrote as well to the Pope, sending his letter to Nestorius, his work on the Incarnation and some sermons of Nestorius in Greek and in Latin.
The Pope after studying the dossier, commended Cyril for his prudence, and handed them to John Cassian, a skilled linguist in the Greek and Latin tongues, to prepare a treatise against the errors of Nestorius. He informed Cyril of a letter he would write to Nestorius, condemning his views and asking him to recant his errors within ten days of reception of the letter under pain of excommunication. In this letter he informs Nestorius that Cyril has been granted to act in his office as supreme pontiff in executing the order.
Between the date these letters from the Pope left Rome for Cyril and Nestorius in Alexandria and Constantinople respectively, and the time Cyril actually requested Nestorius to recant, the emperor already summoned the bishops of the East to settle some ecclesiastical issues. Everyone was clear the chief object of the council was the trouble stirred by Nestorius. John, the Patriarch of Antioch, and a friend of Nestorius, also wrote to him urging him to avoid causing trouble over words he claims admits of an orthodox meaning. All to no avail. Nestorius, as well as Cyril, already wrote to the emperor, suggesting that the matter be settled in a synod.
The Emperor gave the summons in November of 430 AD for a council to be held at Ephesus on the day of Pentecost (June 7) the following year. Pope Celestine would not make it to the council. He sends three legates vested with full apostolic power to represent him – Arcadius and Projectus, bishops, and Philip, a Priest of Rome.
The Emperor also sent an honourable invitation to St. Augustine as well. But the saint had died in August that year during the siege of Hippo by the Vandals in Africa.
Many bishops arrived Ephesus days before the slated date. Cyril from Alexandria, and Nestorius from Constantinople, were to be the chief participants at the synod. With over 200 bishops present, the Council was delayed as the bishops waited for the arrival of the Patriarch John of Antioch and his suffragan bishops. Two weeks into the wait, Cyril announces the commencement of the council for June 22. Some bishops protest otherwise. The Count Candidius, sent by the emperor to ensure order in the proceedings of the council, refused. Even, the legates from Rome were yet to arrive.
June 22 came and Cyril opens the council nonetheless. The bishops were gathered in the great Cathedral of the Theotokos in Ephesus. The remains of St. John the Beloved were buried in this very cathedral. And see! The bishops are seated in the Church dedicated to the Mother of God to consider the teachings of Nestorius against the Mother of God!
The Creed of Nicaea is first read. Nestorius is invited thrice but he refused to show up before the council although he had arrived Ephesus long before. The correspondence of Cyril to Nestorius is read. Cyril presiding over the council, asks the Bishops whether his writings were in accord with the Faith of Nicaea. They unequivocally affirm. Next the reply of Nestorius and some of his sermons are read. Again, Cyril asks the mind of the Bishops on the teachings of Nestorius. In one voice they decried his errors.
This first session lasts for an entire day’s length. And although only the bishops were in the cathedral, the faithful kept watch without until darkness covered them round about.
A woman is hushing the embers in a bowl, they must not flame on for incense was coming. “The Virgin is the Theotokos! So we have always held. What is this novelty we hear?”
At the end of the session the faithful hear that Nestorius is deposed and that the Cathedral of the Theotokos was not wrongly named. Joy fills the city, psalms and canticles encircle the darkness as many of the men and women waiting outside the cathedral accompany the bishops with lighted torches to their various residences.
The bishops from Antioch later arrived and after them the legates who now presided over the second session. They confirm the acts of the first and append the seal of the Apostolic See to the signatures of the over 198 bishops. Five other sessions are held as well, but the chief issue was already settled.
Was it? The Bishops from Antioch, formed a counter council, accusing Cyril of Arianism and Apolliniarism. So much that the emperor summoned Cyril and representatives from the council, on the one hand, and Nestorius and representatives from the false council, on the other hand, to defend, each party his stance, before him in the imperial courts.
Still Nestorius was found wanting and the council needlessly proven right and true.
So, how is the doctrine of the Virgin as Mother of God (Theotokos) to be properly understood?
Arius denied any divinity in the person of Christ.
Apollinarius said Christ had a human soul and sensitive appetites but had no rational mind, His Divinity supplying all what reason would have provided.
Nestorius in trying to escape from both Arius and Apollinarius argued that “a baby of two or three months could not be called God”, and that “a woman could not give birth to a son older than herself”. The error of Nestorius was this, that the humanity of Christ was simply a temple which God dwelt in for a time.
What did the Council of Ephesus establish? The Same Old Truth, viz, “the Word was made flesh”. God the Son, assumed mortal flesh and united His Divine Nature with our human nature, evermore remaining a Divine Person, the Second of the Blessed Trinity.
Now, a son is necessarily a person, and not a mere ‘male human baby’. The mother gives birth to a person, and not just a nature. But the person of Christ, the God-Man, is Divine, and the Blessed Virgin, His Mother is necessarily, the Theotokos, the Mother of God!