Ephesus, Council of

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The Third Ecumenical Council, held at Ephesus in Asia Minor in 431. This article deals with the council's history, its dogma, and its historical and doctrinal significance.

History. Following the difficulties provoked by the preaching of Nestorius against the title theotokos traditionally applied to the Virgin Mary (see nestorius and nestorianism), St. cyril of alexandria, acting on a commission given him by Pope celestine i and the Roman synod of Aug. 11, 430, journeyed to Ephesus to preside at the council convoked by the emperor theodosius ii (Nov. 11, 430) at the suggestion of Nestorius. St. Augustine, who had been personally invited, died on August 28 before the opening of the council. Celestine sent legates to preside over the council in his place (Epist. 1619; April 7 and 15, 431), and they were to conduct themselves in accordance with Cyril's wishes.

By June 7, 431, the opening date of the council, many bishops, and particularly the Oriental partisans of Nestorius, had not arrived. Cyril, despite the protests of the bishops and the representative of the emperor, opened the council. The first session (June 22, 431), which was attended by about 150 bishops, approved the doctrine contained in Cyril's letter to Nestorius (Epist. 4) but not his 12 anathemas. It condemned the "blasphemies" of Nestorius; this action, in Cyril's report, was popularly cheered as a victory of the Lord over the enemies of the faith (Epist. 24). On June 26 john of antioch and the Oriental bishops arrived and, refusing to join Cyril's assembly, held a council of their own, which excommunicated and deposed Cyril and the bishop of Ephesus, Memnon. Informed of these happenings, Emperor Theodosius in a rescript of June 29 annulled the Cyrillan decisions of June 22.

Upon the arrival of the Roman representatives, the Cyrillan Council met again in their presence; and informed of what had transpired, they expressly approved and confirmed the condemnation of Nestorius, employing the authority of the Apostolic See (July 1011). On the 16th they excommunicated John of Antioch and his adherents, including theodoret of cyr. On July 22 a final session forbade the composition of a formula of faith other than the Nicene Creed and renewed the condemnation of the errors of Nestorius.

In August an imperial rescript requested the bishops to return to their homes and declared that Nestorius, Cyril, and Memnon were deposed and were to be held in arrest. Both parties meanwhile sought the emperor's support. The Oriental bishops presented him with a formula of faith that acknowledged Mary as the Theotokos, but they sought in vain for the condemnation of the anathemas of Cyril. For his part Cyril approached powerful members of the court to whom he sent rich gifts. After a series of theological conferences at Chalcedon, Theodosius dissolved the council in September. Cyril escaped arrest and returned to Alexandria in triumph, while Nestorius was confined to a monastery near Antioch.

In April 433, after lengthy negotiations, Cyril and John of Antioch reached an agreement. John set forth the faith of the Oriental bishops, confessing that the Virgin Mary is the Theotokos, "because the Word of God has become flesh and is made man." In Christ the natures must be distinguished, but they must be united and assigned to one sole person (prosōpon ). The Oriental bishops anathematized Nestorius and approved his deposition. Cyril joined in the profession of faith with enthusiasm, refrained thereafter from referring to the contested formula of the unique nature, and made no further mention of the anathemas (Epist. 38 and 39). Pope sixtus iii, who had succeeded Celestine (July 31, 432), sent Cyril and John warm congratulations (Epist. 5 and 6; Sept. 17, 433).

To the question of which council was in truth the real council of Ephesusthat held by Cyril in such difficult circumstances or that of John and the Oriental bishops Theodosius and some modern historians have attempted to give an answer by striking a balance between the two. Nevertheless, although Cyril did act in haste and with imprudence, he did not overstep the mandate entrusted to him by Celestine and Theodosius. The Roman emissaries joined him on their arrival; hence, it was Cyril's council and not John's that corresponded with the pope's intention, and that was approved by Sixtus III. Moreover the Church acknowledges the council of Cyril as the one that gave expression of its faith. Thus at the Council of Chalcedon (451) the fathers asserted adherence "to the ordinances and to all the doctrines of faith of the Holy Synod held long ago at Ephesus under the guidance of Celestine of Rome and Cyril of Alexandria" (Acta conciliorum oecumenicorum 2.1.2:127; and Leo, Epist. 93).

Dogma. The council had condemned Nestorius and his "impious preaching" in general terms; it did not desire to define or proclaim any other faith than that of Nicaea. But a positive expression of its belief was set forth in Cyril's letter, which was read and approved at the first session. Briefly stated, Cyril maintained that the Being (physis ) of the Word has not undergone any change in becoming flesh. The Word is united according to the substance (hypostasis) to flesh animated by a rational soul. He is called the Son of Man, although He is so-called neither at one's mere will or one's good pleasure, nor by the assumption of a prosōpon (person); the two natures are joined in a true union, and the two constitute one Christ and the one Son. The difference in natures is not suppressed by the union, but the indescribable meeting of divinity and humanity produces one sole Christ. The Word Himself was born of the Virgin and took to Himself the nature of His own proper flesh. It is not the nature of the Word that has suffered; but since His own body has suffered, it can be said that He has suffered and died for us.

There is one sole Christ and Lord, not that the Christian worships a man with the Word, but that he worships a one, only Christ. To reject the union according to the hypostasis is to speak of two sons. Scripture does not say that the Word is united to the prosōpon of a man, but that the Word has become flesh. So the Fathers call Mary, the Mother of God, Theotokos. When these formulas are seen in the light of the Apollinarian debate and compared with the Christology of Antioch, they must be acknowledged as having a considerable bearing on what can legitimately pass for a definition by the Council of Ephesus.

Although this letter from Cyril to Nestorius (Epist. 17), with the anathemas, was read at the first session of Ephesus, it was not approved by the bishops. The anathemas cannot, then, be considered a solemn definition by the council. Nevertheless, in the entirety of the facts and context, and aside from certain formulas that were still in need of further precision, these anathemas represented the thought of the council. It was thus that the Council of constantinople ii (553) and the whole theological tradition thereafter understood them.

Regarding the maternity of Mary, the council did not give a dogmatic definition in a formal sense. Here again, however, account must be taken of the context and the atmosphere. "All this debate on the faith," says Cyril, "has only been engaged in because we were convinced that the Blessed Virgin is the Mother of God" (Epist. 39 to John of Antioch in 433). The letter of Cyril that the council adopted as the expression of its faith recalls the traditional use of the word Theotokos and explicitly teaches the divine maternity of Mary in intimate relationship with the mystery of the hypostatic union. Tradition is not wrong in seeing in the decisions of the council the equivalent of a definition.

Significance. Although it had been convoked by Theodosius at the request of Nestorius, the council that was supposed to condemn Cyril resulted in the defeat of Nestorius. To its convocation by the emperor, the pope gave his explicit consent and sent his legates to Ephesus. They were important. The council was in fact an almost exclusively Oriental assembly. Its ecumenical character was constituted by the presence of the Roman delegates, who represented both the Papal See and the Western episcopate whose judgment had been rendered in synod at Rome. Cyril acted more or less as the representative of Pope Celestine. When the delegates of the pope arrived, they intervened with full authority, and Philip the priest relates that all admitted that "the holy and blessed apostle Peter, prince and leader of apostles, column of the faith, foundation of the Catholic church, had received from Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of mankind, the keys of the kingdom, and the power to bind or forgive sins. It is he who up to now and always lives and gives judgment through his successors." These expressions were repeated by Vatican Council I.

The council thus set forth a strong affirmation of the doctrinal authority of the bishop of Rome. It was he who confirmed the conciliar accomplishments. The letters of Sixtus III (Epist. 1, 2) to the Oriental bishops and to Cyril have almost the character of an official confirmation: "quaecumque sancta synodus, nobis confirmantibus, rejecit " (Whatever with our confirmation the holy synod rejected).

In the history of the dogma of the Incarnation, the Council of Ephesus marks a decisive milestone. It acknowledged and sanctified the theology of St. Cyril, the unity of the Incarnate Word, the union of two natures in the unique hypostasis whose difference is not suppressed by the union, the declaration that God the Word was born, suffered, and died in the flesh to which He was united. Certain of these formulas, which did not distinguish sufficiently between nature and hypostasis, were still in need of clarification, and the Orientals would always be tempted to look for apollinarianism in them, while Eutyches on his part would abuse them by seeing in Christ only one nature after the union. The Council of Chalcedon was to bring a useful counterbalance to the Cyrillan formulas without, however, putting an end to the argument. On the other hand, the divine maternity of Mary was agreed upon by all without discussion, and tradition has not been in error in seeing in the Council of Ephesus the triumph of the Theotokos.

In regard to the Conciliar Acts, Ephesus is the first council of which the original Acta are preserved. These are not the official Acta but individual collections, bringing together the verbal record of the meetings, documents of various kinds, letters, etc. The principal collection preserved was compiled under the direction of Cyril immediately after the council closed and has come down in three Greek collections, the Vaticana, the Segueriana, and the Atheniensis. They were translated into Latin as early as the beginning of the 6th century and were preserved in several collections, e.g., Turonensis, Palatina, Veronensis, Casinensis (Monte Cassino). A collection originating in Nestorian circles was translated into Latin by the deacon Rusticus (564565) and has been preserved under the name Synodicum in the Casinensis. Other Latin collections also are known (Veronensis, Palatina ). The Acts of Ephesus have been published in the older conciliar collections (such as Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio 45); but they are now available in the edition of E. Schwartz, Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum, 5 v. (Berlin 192129), v. 1 Concilium Ephesinum.

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[p. t. camelot]