Commentary on the Council of Ephesus

Daniel J. Castellano (2007)

The restoration of Nicene orthodoxy at Constantinople in 381 effectively ended the threat of Arianism, but not without cost to the Church. The devout Christian emperor Theodosius had been instrumental in deposing the last Arian bishops of influence in Asia Minor, and the support of the state came with a price.

The emperor's direct intervention in theological matters threatened to obscure the boundary between ecclesiastical and imperial authority. The Church could assert its independent authority through ecumenically approved canons, such as those adopted at Constantinople and confirmed by the bishops of the Western Empire, who were free from Theodosius' direct rule, but it remained to be seen what would happen if the mind of the Church opposed that of the Christian emperor.

Theodosius severely persecuted non-Christian religions, tainting the ethical legitimacy of the Christian society he professed to defend. His edicts against the Manichaeans deprived them of civil rights (381) and later threatened them with death (382). In 385 he outlawed all pagan sacrifice and idolatry, and in 388 he ordered the destruction of all pagan temples in the East. He did not order a general extermination of pagans, but he did deprive them of the right of public worship, sought to disband their associations, and expelled them, with all Christian heretics, from the imperial capital. Those who defied these edicts might indeed face the penalty of death, though few executions were actually carried out, as was characteristic of such edicts intended to terrify. These harsh measures were mitigated by the impracticability of their implementation in the fourth century, but the mere attempt to implement them has sufficed for many to view Theodosius as a cruel religious oppressor.

Against this view, we should consider an aspect of Roman society that is foreign to the modern psyche. The Romans regarded religion as a civic duty, and so the temples where sacrifices were offered had been built by the state. After Constantine, Christianity became a state-sponsored religion, but not to the exclusion of the old Roman religion, which persisted in many forms and continued to be supported by the emperor. Theodosius, as head of state, acted within his imperial authority to redefine the cult of the state, declaring Christianity to be the exclusive state religion. Since the public temples were at the disposal of the state, he was within his rights to decommission their use and order them to be destroyed. This is an unjust persecution only according to our modern paradigm of religion as an essentially private affair, even when practiced by an assembly in public.

We should also take care to avoid the rhetorical excesses that many careless authors have made, making Theodosius guilty of massacres of pagans and heretics, when there is no evidence that any such massacre took place, save at spontaneous riots in Alexandria, where violent mobs, Christian, Jewish and pagan, were a commonplace long before and after Theodosius. Theodosius did not regard paganism or heresy as such punishable by death, but only when it involved defiance of a particular edict regarding public worship. Even then, the death penalty was of limited applicability, as only the Manichaeans were so threatened, along with those who would offer sacrifice in a temple. Other forms of heresy were punishable by fines, loss of property, or loss of the right to execute wills. In practice, the enforcement of these edicts met fierce resistance in the East, and in the West they were hardly enforced at all.

Counterbalancing this well-intentioned, though from a modern perspective, perverse, imperial zeal, came the charismatic authority of St. Ambrose of Milan, a towering public figure beloved by the people and respected by the powerful. Uncompromisingly orthodox, he nonetheless did not hesitate to dine with pagans, and would even act as a political ambassador on their behalf. St. Ambrose's position on non-Christian religions is difficult to analyze in terms of modern notions of tolerance and intolerance. A characteristic example was his response to the burning of a synagogue that was allegedly incited by the local bishop. While acknowledging that the arsonists and their supporters ought to be punished, St. Ambrose strenuously opposed the use of church funds for the rebuilding of the synagogue, as this would be a sacrilegious misuse of alms. One evil did not justify another, and, more scandalously to the modern mind, human justice should not take precedent over concern for religious purity. Theodosius heeded St. Ambrose, and rebuilt the synagogue with his own funds instead, showing that he was far from an indiscriminate persecutor of non-Christians.

The Theodosian edicts against non-Christian religions were issued long before the emperor closely associated with St. Ambrose, so it would be a mistake to attribute the emperor's zeal to the bishop's influence. These edicts had little effect in Milan and the rest of the Western Empire. St. Ambrose was an opponent of capital punishment, an exceptional position in that age. Attempts to blame spontaneous massacres of pagans in Alexandria on the Milanese bishop are ill-informed slanders by enemies of the Church. Similarly, those who criticize St. Cyril's use of a mob to expel the Jews from Alexandria neglect to mention that this was in response to a Jewish massacre of Christians. The vigilantism in Alexandria was more a reflection of the lawlessness of that city than the institutional policy of church or state.

When the saintly bishop did hear of a massacre for which the emperor was directly responsible, his response was legendary. In 390, Theodosius slaughtered 7000 people, the innocent with the guilty, as a reprisal for the killing of the governor of Thessaloniki by an angry mob. St. Ambrose excommunicated the emperor, and demanded a public penance, which the emperor performed dutifully and remorsefully, stripped of his royal accoutrements, before an astonished crowd. After several months of penance, the emperor was restored to communion. Thenceforth, he required a thirty-day waiting period before state executions, to allow time for sober judgment to prevail.

The influence of St. Ambrose may have strengthened Theodosius in his determination not to use state funds for pagan altars, as reflected in his edict of 391, but the emperor's hostility toward paganism long preceded his encounter at Milan. Much less can we attribute to St. Ambrose the emperor's continued advocacy of more severe measures, including the death penalty. Although the emperor did not consider himself above the Church, as evidenced by his public penance, he was nonetheless an independent force shaping the political constitution of the Church.

The emperor would advocate the enhanced status of the bishop of Constantinople, as patriarch over much of the East, and second in dignity only to the Pope. This promotion in status for the see of Constantinople was not intended by Theodosius to affect papal supremacy in matters of doctrine. In fact, his edict against Arianism explicitly appealed to the authority of the Pope as the successor of Peter and teacher of orthodox doctrine. Nonetheless, the ecclesiastical rise of Constantinople would create friction with Rome in matters of canonical jurisdiction. The new patriarchate of Constantinople proceeded to amass dioceses in Thrace and Pontus, contrary to the second canon of the Council of Constantinople.

Theodosius' successors would assume the authority to appoint the bishop of the imperial see, and one such appointment, that of Nestorius in 427-428, proved to be of disastrous consequences. Several bishops accused Nestorius of heresy for opposing the Marian title Theotokos ("mother of God") and promoting an Antiochene Christology which seemed to assert the existence of two Christs, one human and the other divine.

St. Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, was Nestorius' leading adversary. In accordance with traditional custom, St. Cyril petitioned the Pope to resolve this doctrinal dispute. In 430, Pope St. Celestine condemned the Nestorian doctrine in the form presented to him, and demanded that Nestorius renounce this doctrine, under penalty of excommunication from the body (the Catholic Church) of which the Pope declared himself the head. This was the strongest assertion of papal authority to date, but it was grounded in the well established tradition of the Pope's doctrinal inerrancy. St. Cyril drew up a list of twelve propositions to be renounced, and warned John, the Patriarch of Antioch not to support Nestorius, lest he too, should find himself out of Communion. John's assent to this wish further proves the respect that eastern patriarchs had for the necessity of submission to Rome on doctrinal questions.

Nestorius would not submit to Rome's judgment, so he asked Emperor Theodosius II to convoke an ecumenical council. This would be the first such council since Nicaea, as the Council of Constantinople was only a synod of the East, made ecumenical after the fact by papal ratification.

St. Cyril presided over the Council, held in Ephesus, by virtue of his status as Patriarch of Alexandria and as the Pope's proxy in carrying out the sentence of excommunication. St. Cyril regarded the Council as a means of executing the Pope's commission to him, and took it for granted that the anathematized doctrines would be condemned. The only material question would be whether Nestorius would recant these doctrines.

In a catastrophic misjudgment, St. Cyril opened the council without awaiting the arrival of John of Antioch, reasoning that the latter would not want to be present at his friend's trial. This outraged the patriarch, who held a much smaller rival council of forty-three Antiochene bishops, which condemned Cyril as an Apollinarian heretic, though it did not say a word in contradiction of the judgment against Nestorius.

Since the emperor, by that time, had claimed the power to appoint and depose bishops in the East, his recognition of the council's decrees was necessary in order to enforce the removal of bishops from office. At first, Theodosius II recognized the decrees of both councils as legitimate, deposing both Nestorius and Cyril, but later he realized the inconsistency of this position, and recognized only Ephesus as legitimate. The Pope had already defined the doctrinal issue before the Council had convened; the synod served to confirm this judgment and apply it to the facts of Nestorius' case. As Pope and Council were in complete agreement, the question of the relative authority of these two fonts of ecclesial unity remained indeterminate.

As with the situation at Nicaea, we may ask why this doctrinal question was of such importance that it needed to be decided definitively one way or the other at an ecumenical council. In the case of Nicaea, the Arian doctrine seemed to be a subtle distinction from earlier theological tradition, but it had the far-reaching implication of undermining the divinity of Christ, fundamentally re-defining Christianity. The Nestorian dispute seems to be even more subtle, and unlike the case of Arius, it is not altogether clear whether Nestorius actually held the heterodox view of which he was accused.

The entire Church had accepted that the Nicene doctrine was absolutely essential to the faith, having witnessed the theologically disastrous implications of Arianism. Thus all parties in the Nestorian dispute claimed to defend the creed of Nicaea, and each asserted that his Christology was most consistent with the orthodox faith. In opposing Nestorius, St. Cyril emphasized that he was not trying to define a Christological doctrine for the entire Church, but simply repudiating elements of Nestorius' doctrine that were contrary to the Nicene faith. Thus the Nicene Creed remained the standard of faith, and St. Cyril's efforts were not an attempt to impose a new formulation of orthodoxy.

St. Cyril's Second Letter to Nestorius

This focus on Nicaea is found in St. Cyril's second letter to Nestorius, confirmed by the Council of Ephesus as orthodox. St. Cyril casts his discourse as an exposition of the meaning of the Nicene Creed's affirmation that the "only begotten Son... became incarnate, became man," and then "suffered, rose on the third day, and ascended into heaven." St. Cyril emphasizes that the Creed affirms the existence of one Son, who was begotten from eternity, yet lived and suffered as a man. While it would be obviously inaccurate to assert that the divine nature could suffer, or that human nature could be begotten from eternity, nonetheless it is one and the same Person who exists as both of these natures. Upholding the Nicene doctrine of an "only begotten Son" requires that we do not speak of Christ the man and the Word of God as two different subjects. Thus anything that may be affirmed of one as subject, may be affirmed of the other. Using the example opposed by Nestorius, St. Cyril affirms that Mary truly is the mother of God, not because she gave birth to the divine nature, but because she gave birth to the person Jesus who is truly God.

St. Cyril makes no attempt to explain or define how the divine and human natures are united in a single Person. He simply states that "the Word in an unspeakable, inconceivable manner united to himself hypostatically flesh enlivened by a rational soul." "Hypostatic union" is not a technical description of the union of the human and divine, but merely an affirmation that both natures pertain to the same subject, or hypostasis. In other words, the same, real "Someone" exists in both natures. The precise means of this union remain an "unspeakable, inconceivable" mystery.

The succinct, clear reasoning of St. Cyril's letter, appealing as it does to the Nicene doctrine of a single Son, as well as the venerable tradition of referring to Mary as the Mother of God, makes it a statement of unquestionable orthodoxy, save to those who would ascribe a meaning to the word "hypostasis" other than "subject" or "subsistence," an interpretation contradicted by the context. St. Cyril's explanation strove for simplicity and clarity, and did not assert anything beyond what directly followed from the Nicene Creed.

Nonetheless, the Antiochenes did find fault with this formulation, fearing that the doctrine of a single Person assuming a human nature reeked of Apollinarianism, the heresy that Christ's human nature was incomplete, having its rational functions of intellect and will performed by the divine Logos. Notwithstanding St. Cyril's assertion that the Word assumed a human nature with a rational soul, Nestorians thought that the denial of a distinct human person in Christ practically implied the denial of a distinct human intellect and will. This objection, foreshadowing the Monotheletic controversy, amounted to a philosophical dispute as to whether it was meaningful for a "person" to exist when abstracted from any particular intellect or will.

While it is manifestly not the Church's mission to decide philosophical questions for their own sake, it sometimes happens that, in the course of exercising her duty to expound the received deposit of faith, a philosophical proposition irresistibly follows. The Church had always believed that Christ had two natures, yet was only one person. On these points, both Nestorius and his opponents could agree. However, Nestorius did not recognize that an inevitable consequence of this doctrine was that it must be possible for a person to exist even in abstraction from a particular nature. Thus the single personhood of the Son was not a mere formal conjunction of two natures, but a real union in a single, real subject. Similarly, the fact that the personhood of Christ did not derive from his human nature does not imply an incompleteness in that human nature, which nonetheless possessed its own intellect and will. Nestorius' objections against St. Cyril were unfounded, but it remains to be seen whether his own doctrine was heterodox.

Nestorius' Letter to St. Cyril

Nestorius' response to St. Cyril, condemned by the Council of Ephesus, can appear quite orthodox upon casual reading. There is no evidence that Nestorius was trying to diminish the status of Christ, nor to separate the human from the divine into two persons. On the contrary, Nestorius agrees with St. Cyril on many basic points of Christology. He acknowledges that Christ has two natures combined in one person, and that the godhead (i.e., the divine nature) was incapable of suffering. He even affirms that the divine nature of Christ accepts what belongs to the human body as its own. However, Nestorius derives inferences from these truths that are at odds with the doctrine articulated by St. Cyril.

Nestorius believes it is an error to attribute acts of Christ's human nature to the Word. Thus it is fallacious to interpret the godhead's assumption of what belongs to the body as implying that the Word was born of the flesh, drank milk, grew in wisdom, was strengthened by angels, and finally suffered, died and was buried. Here Nestorius runs into conflict with orthodoxy, as expressed for example in St. Athanasius' great treatise De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, where clearly it is the Word who suffers and dies, for Christ and the Word are one and the same.

Nestorius appears to have confused the divine nature, or godhead, with the person who is God the Word. While agreeing that Christ is but one person (prosopon) with two natures, he considers it an error to say that the Word was born, suffered, or experienced any of the other frailties of the flesh, as these are incompatible with the divine nature. This objection indicates that Nestorius identified God the Word with the divine nature only. On its face, this is an explicit repudiation of the incarnational doctrine of St. John's Gospel ("et Verbum caro factus est") as well as the Nicene Creed, which speaks indiscriminately of the one Christ, eternally begotten of the Father, yet becoming man ("et homo factus est"), being born, and suffering on the Cross. St. Cyril is therefore correct to identify the Word of God as the person who has both a divine nature and a human nature, as opposed to Nestorius' restrictive identification of the Word as the subject (hypostasis, or subsistence) of the divine nature only.

To complete our understanding of Nestorius' doctrine, we should address the question of what he meant by Christ being a single person (prosopon). This single person, as we have seen, is not the Word of God, nor is it the rational soul of Christ's human nature. Nestorius mentions a "high and divine conjunction" of these two natures, yet denies that this "conjunction" implies that the subject of Christ's divine nature (the Word) is also the subject of his human nature, hence the Word did not grow, suffer, or die. Thus the term prosopon does not refer to a single subsisting subject, as evidenced by the Nestorian formula, "one prosopon, two hypostases." Whether Nestorius was willing to accept this implication or not, his doctrine implied two subjects under the name "Christ," rendering that title little more than a formal union of two distinct beings. His assertions in other statements that he recognized only one subject in Christ only proves the incoherence of his doctrine, not his orthodoxy.

The Nestorian heresy is difficult to analyze because Nestorius himself had highly orthodox intentions, defending the faith against Arianism and Apollinarianism, yet he formulated his doctrine clumsily, so that it logically implied two subjects in Christ, however fiercely he might oppose that result. Nestorius' repeated affirmations of his orthodoxy, such as his statement that the infant Jesus was truly God, may prove his sincerity but not the objective rectitude of his doctrine. The disgraced patriarch also had the unfortunate habit of appearing to assent to a doctrine, while eviscerating its meaning. For example, his reluctant approval of the term Theotokos came with the caveat that it did not mean that the Virgin Mary was the mother of the Word, thereby negating the literal sense of the term.

St. Cyril's Third Letter to Nestorius

St. Cyril's third letter to Nestorius addresses the patriarch's objections and points out the heterodox implications of the Antiochene teaching. He affirms that the Word truly did become flesh, yet not by abandoning His divinity, nor by splitting into two. Nestorius' notion of "conjunction" is merely a formal union, and neglects the reality that in Christ dwelt "all the fullness of the godhead bodily." Nestorius has shied away from the unseemly implication of the incarnational doctrine that the Divine Word should suffer the indignities of the flesh, but this was part of the very purpose of the Incarnation, which was a profound act of self-emptying.

St. Cyril realizes that this is not a philosophical dispute of little consequence, but touches upon the very meaning of the Incarnation which is the essence of Christianity. Reminding Nestorius how the Nicene Creed ascribes suffering and death to the eternally begotten Son, St. Cyril points out that it was precisely the divine in Christ that made such suffering meritorious, for the virtue of human nature would not have sufficed. Christ is the perfect Victim because He is God, and the sacramental reception of His Body and Blood is life-giving, not through their virtues as human flesh, but through the Divinity that dwells in them. The divine properties of the Body and Blood of Christ, which are themselves an object of divine worship, require an intimate union of the divine and human natures in a single subject.

St. Cyril takes care to affirm that the divine nature itself does not participate in the frailties of the flesh, hence Mary did not give existence to the divine nature, though she is truly the mother of the Eternal Word that united itself in a single subject with a human being.

We have noted that Nestorius would have objected to many of the heretical conclusions that St. Cyril imputes to him, yet the bishop failed to realize that his doctrine implied these conclusions whether he wished it or not. Further, he was plainly in error in his assertion that the acts of Christ in His humanity should not be ascribed to the Word, as this equated the Word with the divine nature of Christ only, effectively splitting the Son in two. More critically, Nestorius' doctrine denied the full reality of Christ's "economy" (oikonomia, the Greek term commonly used for the Incarnation), which is the union of the human with the divine.

The Twelve Anathemas against Nestorianism

St. Cyril gave Nestorius an opportunity to prove his orthodoxy, subjoining twelve propositions to the epistle for him to anathematize. These were fully accepted by the Council of Ephesus. The Antiochene counter-council anathematized the bishops at Ephesus and anyone else who assented to any of these anathemas. This counter-resolution was spiteful and absurd, as several of the anathemas were of unquestionable orthodoxy even by Antiochene standards.

When examining the twelve anathemas, we should keep in mind that St. Cyril did not claim to be defining a new doctrine, but only to be condemning errors in contradiction with the faith of Nicaea. The language of the anathematized propositions is sometimes ambiguous, even awkward, as we should only expect when the formal terminology of this doctrine had not been established. For these reasons, the Church has never formally adopted the anathemas in all their particulars for purposes of defining doctrine. Nonetheless, the Church did condemn the anathematized heresies, none of which were renounced by Nestorius, who produced twelve counter-anathemas of his own.

The first anathema against Nestorianism invokes the name Emmanuel as affirming that God is truly with us in the flesh, hence the Virgin Mary is truly the mother of God, as the Word truly became flesh.

The second anathema affirms the unity of the Word with the flesh in a single subject (hypostasis) who is one Christ, "God and man together."

The third anathema has an unfortunate wording, rightly repudiating a mere formal conjunction of divine and human subjects (hypostases), yet strangely affirming a "union by nature." We have seen from St. Cyril's attached letter that the patriarch did not believe that Christ had a single nature, nor that the human and divine natures could mingle, each adopting qualities of the other. The expression "union by nature" (physike enosis) is simply an assertion of the real, objective unity of Christ as a single "Someone", not just in a formal sense, but as a palpable entity. The Greek physis ("nature") conveys a connotation of solid, essential reality, and it is likely that St. Cyril was appealing to this sense of the word, judging from all he has said previously. Obviously, an interpretation of the "union by nature" to mean a merging of the divine and human natures would be heretical, by St. Cyril's own confession.

The fourth anathema is a bold exegetical claim, but it seems to follow irresistibly from the notion that there is only one Son, one Word, one Christ. Therefore, any reference to these terms in the New Testament must apply to the one Lord in both His human and divine natures. This is not to say that everything applies to both natures, but to the one Person who exists in two natures.

There may be instances where a strict literal application of this anathema is problematic, such as when Jesus says that the time of the Last Judgment is not known to the Son, as this would imply an impossible ignorance in the divine nature. Thus it is possible for a Scriptural expression to apply to Christ in only one of his natures, but this is not the same as referring to the man separately from the Word, which is the error against which this anathema is directed.

The fifth anathema clearly equates Christ with "God in truth," consistent with Nicene orthodoxy, and affirms that the Word truly became flesh, partaking of flesh as truly as we do. This reinforces the analogy St. Cyril used earlier, saying the Word assumed flesh as our soul assumes a body. This analogy should not be taken literally, as St. Cyril makes no claim to explain the hypostatic union, and more properly, he should say that the Word assumed a complete human nature, both flesh and a human soul, lest he become vulnerable to the charge of Apollinarianism. In Scriptural language, the "flesh" can refer to human nature in its entirety, corporeal and mental, as the Hebrews made little philosophical distinction between these aspects of humanity.

We note that the fifth anathema repeats the unfortunate terminology of the third, asserting that Christ is "by nature one Son." Once again, this is not an assertion of an intermingling of the human and divine natures, but an emphasis on the reality of the Son as a single being.

The sixth anathema illustrates the absurdity of Nestorianism, which would logically make the Word the master of Christ, effectively making two distinct persons, only one of which is divine.

The seventh anathema condemns the heresy that Jesus the man was merely clothed in the glory of the Eternal Son, yet was a separate being from Him.

The eighth anathema shows the incoherence of the belief that Jesus the man was a separate being from the Divine Word, as it would be idolatrous to worship the man together with the Word, if they are distinct beings. Instead, Immanuel should be worshiped as one being, both God and man.

The ninth anathema makes clear that a separation of the Word from the man would entail a denial that Jesus performed miracles by His own Spirit, but instead used the divine power as an "alien power." This is thoroughly incompatible with the Gospels, which clearly teach that Christ healed by His own power, and was the sender of the Spirit.

The tenth anathema shows how Nestorianism corrupts the central Christian faith that the Word Himself was offered as the fitting Sacrifice to God the Father. Instead, it would be a mere man who was sacrificed. Worse still is the error that this man offered himself also for his own sake, as though he shared in the sinfulness or corruption of mankind.

The eleventh anathema shows how the Nestorian doctrine undermines the faith that the flesh of the Lord is life-giving, for this could hardly be the case of the flesh of a man. If the life-giving quality is to pertain to the flesh itself, it must be because it truly is the flesh of the Divine Word "who has the power to bring all things to life."

The twelfth anathema plainly affirms all the Nestorius found scandalous in the doctrine of the Incarnation, namely that the Word of God "suffered in the flesh, was crucified in the flesh, and tasted death in the flesh... although as God he is life and life-giving." This is not to say that the divine nature was capable of suffering, but the Divine Word did truly suffer through the flesh He truly adopted as His own. This strong assertion of the mystery of the Incarnation was scandalous to the Jewish conception of an utterly transcendent God, which Nestorius, in his erroneous way, strived to preserve. These misgivings result from a failure to appreciate the unfathomable divine humility exhibited in this ultimate act of self-emptying.

The judgment against Nestorius

The Council's judgment against Nestorius summarizes the nature of the trial and the Council itself. Since Nestorius refused to appear before the Council and renounce the anathematized doctrines, and continued to teach the heresies contained in his letters and other writings, the Council was "compelled of necessity both by the canons and by the letter of our most holy father" to condemn Nestorius. The Council recognizes that Nestorianism is contrary to the traditional Catholic faith as expressed at Nicaea, and therefore punishable under existing canons. It also recognizes the authority of Pope Celestine to judge the doctrine heretical, and the Council considers itself "compelled of necessity" by that authority. This is one of the clearest early acknowledgements of the Pope's universal jurisdiction in matters of doctrine.

The bishops at Ephesus seemed to realize that Nestorius was not a typical heresiarch, but rather a devout, well-intentioned bishop led woefully astray in his thinking. Thus it was only "with many tears" that the Council issued "this sad condemnation against him." Appealing to its own authority as coming directly from Christ Himself, the Council decreed that Nestorius should be expelled from the priesthood, a severe punishment reflecting the magnitude of his error.

Expulsion of Eastern Bishops

The Council addressed the question of how to deal with other Nestorian bishops, such as the Antiochenes gathered in a rival council. The Council noted that no bishop has the right to do harm through his authority, thus the rival council's decrees were illegitimate. Moreover, many of the Antiochene bishops had already been excommunicated or laicized, making them unauthorized to do anything, harm or good, by episcopal authority.

Appealing to its own universal jurisdiction, the Council informs all Eastern bishops (those of the West being under the direct authority of the Pope) that those who were absent from the Council by necessity are nonetheless bound by its ruling. Therefore, any bishop who adopts Nestorian teachings is subject to ecclesiastical penalties. Metropolitan bishops espousing Nestorianism are excommunicated from the hierarchy and denied any authority over provincial bishops. Heretical metropolitans are subjected to the judgment of orthodox provincial bishops and neighboring metropolitans, who may even deny him the rank of bishop altogether. Provincial bishops are subject to the immediate penalty of expulsion from the priesthood.

The decrees on expulsion anticipated a possible crisis of authority created by the Nestorian metropolitans who deposed or restored bishops according to their doctrinal preferences. Such acts were naturally regarded as null by the Council. The danger of the heresy was sufficiently grave that the Council saw fit to subject metropolitans to the judgment of their provincial bishops.

The Council also appeals to the common canonical practice of depriving heretical clerics of their rank, while excommunicating heretical laymen altogether. This practice is undoubtedly the result of great esteem for the indelible mark of holy orders, so that one who received that mark could not be fully excommunicated.

Definition of the Nicene Faith

The Nicene Creed was read before the Council as expressing the true faith of the Church, and Nestorian attempts to eviscerate the meanings of its phrases were countered by a reading of orthodox interpretations by the Fathers of the Church. These documents were collectively considered as expressing the faith of the Church.

The Council forbids anyone to "write or compose any other creed" than that of Nicaea. The "Nicene Creed" in question is actually the expanded version adopted at Constantinople in 381. This prohibition against other creeds does not forbid the amplification of the Nicene Creed, as the Council itself cited several commentaries, but guards against any negation or omission of its phrases. It is not acceptable to suppress any part of the Nicene Creed even for the pastoral purpose of aiding the catechesis of converted Hellenists or Jews. Violations of this decree are punished by the usual canonical means, stripping clerics of their rank and excommunicating laity.

Definition against the Messalians

The Council also issued decrees against the Messalians (also known as Euchites, Adelphians, Lampetians or Enthusiasts), a heretical sect of the Orient. The Messalians denied the efficacy of sacraments, including baptism, and instead sought spiritual power through constant prayer. Intense meditation was supposed to achieve union with God and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, through which sinful inclinations would be purged and demons would be expelled. More extravagant claims included the ability to see demons and even the Holy Trinity. This clearly heterodox belief system was in many respects informed more by Eastern mysticism than the historic Christian faith.

The obviously non-Christian content of the Messalian doctrine made its condemnation at Ephesus uncontroversial. Due to their denial of the sacraments, the Messalians were almost entirely a lay movement, so the clergy were universal in their denunciation of this heresy, which was punished with the usual canonical penalties

We may see similarities between this heresy, which originated around 360, and the quietistic Protestant sects, such as the Quakers, Amish, and Anabaptists, as well as the Methodists to a lesser extent. Several so-called evangelical movements also appeal to prayerful ecstasies as a means of sanctification, denying the efficacy of any sacrament. The Messalians' salvation through emotional experience appealed to the less educated, then as now, and many roamed the countryside in southern Asia Minor, seeking converts.

The Messalian movement also resembled transcendental meditation in its claim that one saw God when in a state of perfect apathy. Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrus, remarked that such practice resembled sleep more than prayer. Indeed, modern neurological studies of Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns performing "centering prayer" have shown that this self-induced stupor triggers dopamine release, explaining the pseudo-spiritual ecstasies experienced. The true God, on the contrary, reveals Himself when He pleases, and not at the summons of man.

Monks (who were mostly non-clerics) in particular were susceptible to this heresy, so the Council forbade any such heretic to administer a monastery. The disorder of Messalianism was most acute in the province of Pamphylia, and the Council authorized the bishops there to depose or excommunicate heretics, and to seek the counsel of the bishops of neighboring provinces to resolve any ambiguous matters. Messalianism would linger in some form until the ninth century, but it remained a localized lay movement that never enjoyed ecclesiastical approval. Quietism, therefore, has no historic legitimacy in Christianity.

Resolution on the Independence of the Church in Cyprus

The Antiochene bishops, hoping to spread their doctrinal errors, began the uncanonical practice of ordaining clerics in Cyprus, traditionally outside their jurisdiction. It appears that the Antiochenes were not the only ones making use of this illegitimate practice, so the Council deemed it necessary to reiterate the canonical tradition of the Church that no bishop or metropolitan could seize the right of ordination in provinces that were not in his jurisdiction from the beginning. Thus the historic autonomy of the provincial churches is preserved.

This resolution, which is well grounded in Church tradition, is difficult to reconcile with the actions of the patriarchate of Constantinople, which was amassing many provinces well outside its historic jurisdiction. As more than a few of the bishops at Ephesus were under the jurisdiction of Constantinople, it seems that they did not consider their patriarch's actions to be in contradiction with this resolution, perhaps because it was conducted under imperial authority. Therefore, this resolution should not be interpreted in a way that is prejudicial to a legitimate universal authority, whether it be the emperor (as was then erroneously believed by many in the East) or the Pope (as was later recognized in the West).

Formula of Union with John of Antioch

We have noted more than once that the Nestorian heresy was particularly tragic because the bishops in error were pious men who sought to defend the Nicene faith in a misguided way. Even in its condemnation of their deeds, the Council addresses these men respectfully as "excellent Nestorius" and "most reverent bishop." The situation of John, Patriarch of Antioch was especially unfortunate due to the thoughtless circumstance by which he was excluded from the Council. When tempers had simmered, he was able to come to an agreement with St. Cyril on a common declaration of faith.

Both holy men declare that their statement on the Incarnation is not intended to add anything foreign to the Nicene Creed, but grounded as it is in Scripture and Tradition, they simply express the ancient faith of the Church. The Nicene Creed is upheld as a sufficient statement of faith, not needing any addition, though orthodox interpretations may be cited to explicate its meaning. This present declaration on the Incarnation is not an attempt to explain a divine mystery, but simply to state what that mystery is.

This formula of union uses much more precise language than could be found in the anathemas. Its clarity is such that it deserves to be cited without comment, and its expressions serve to clarify the ambiguities in the language of the anathemas.

We confess, then, our lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God perfect God and perfect man of a rational soul and a body, begotten before all ages from the Father in his godhead, the same in the last days, for us and for our salvation, born of Mary the virgin, according to his humanity, one and the same consubstantial with the Father in godhead and consubstantial with us in humanity, for a union of two natures took place. Therefore we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord. According to this understanding of the unconfused union, we confess the holy virgin to be the mother of God because God the Word took flesh and became man and from his very conception united to himself the temple he took from her. As to the evangelical and apostolic expressions about the Lord, we know that theologians treat some in common as of one person and distinguish others as of two natures, and interpret the god-befitting ones in connexion with the godhead of Christ and the lowly ones with his humanity.

St. Cyril's Letter to John of Antioch

Once the Antiochene patriarch was able to assent to a common formula with St. Cyril, after misunderstandings and misrepresentations had been removed, unity among the great patriarchates had been restored. It remained for St. Cyril only to address slanderous misrepresentations of his position by unrepentant Nestorians, and to note that his position was no innovation, but an exact replica of the doctrine expounded previously by St. Athanasius as well as other Church Fathers. He forwards this documentary evidence to John of Antioch, noting that the Nestorians have circulated a corrupted version of Athanasius' letter to Epictetus.


The Nestorian controversy was resolved in several stages. First, the Pope's condemnation quelled any controversy in the West, and the execution of his judgment at Ephesus showed that most Eastern bishops were also opposed to the doctrine. Pope Celestine's successor, Sixtus III, ratified Ephesus and imposed its decrees on the entire West. St. Cyril's formula of union in 433 with John of Antioch served the dual purpose of bringing the Antiochene patriarchate back into the fold, as well as expressing the Incarnational mystery in unambiguous terms that could be clearly identified as the historic faith of the universal Church.

Nestorianism was extinguished in the Greek world, though occasionally Nestorian errors would be introduced in the controversies against the opposing heresy of the Monophysites. Nestorius' heresy did persist among some Persians at Edessa, who were expelled by Monophysites in 457. When the exiles returned to Persia, the Church there became Nestorian in theology, and declared itself independent of Antioch. To promote political independence from the Eastern Roman Empire, the King Peroz of Persia expelled all non-Nestorian Christians from his kingdom.

The Persian church, which called itself "Chaldean," flourished for several centuries, including the first two centuries of Muslim rule, during which it established missions as far as India and China. In later centuries, especially the fourteenth, the church deteriorated, plagued by internal dissensions and Muslim persecutions.

In the sixteenth century, the Nestorians of India were converted to Catholicism by the Portuguese. In the seventeenth century, Catholic missionaries converted several thousand Persian Nestorians, and in the eighteenth century, Capuchins and Dominicans succeeded in converting the entire Chaldean Church in Mesopotamia (Iraq) to the Catholic faith. In 1912, many other Nestorians converted to Russian Orthodoxy. At present, however, the majority of Christians in Persia (Iran) are Nestorians, as are many in Iraq. Their church is currently called the Assyrian Church of the East, the name "Chaldean" being reserved to those in communion with Rome.

In 1994, the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East issued a common declaration of faith, ending their Christological dispute. The Assyrian Church has clarified that it no longer subscribes to the Antiochene interpretation of the Nestorian formula of "two hypostases". The Assyrian formula of one real concrete Person in two natures does not include the term "hypostasis" explicitly, but it does hold that these natures are not merely generic or abstract, but concrete individuations of each nature. However, the concretely individuated human nature of Christ has no existence apart from its union with the Word, so this is not an assertion of two "hypostases" in a heretical sense. The Assyrian Church also believes that the humanity of Jesus pertains to the Son of God Himself, and therefore recognizes the legitimacy of addressing the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Mother of God.

Since the Assyrian Church is now in theological harmony with Rome, she should not be considered heretical, but only schismatic. Remaining points of division include the Assyrian Church's veneration of Nestorius and her defense of the heretic Theodore of Mopsuestia, who was condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council.

© 2007 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved.