The First Ecumenical Council, that of Nicea, met in 325. Fifty-six years later (381), the second one met in Constantinople. Fifty years later (431), the third Council met in Ephesus. But only twenty years elapsed between the third Council and the fourth, which convened in 451 in Chalcedon. Perhaps twenty years between councils seems like a long time; after all, we are used to annual synods. But remember that provincial and regional councils met more often. Between ecumenical councils, which addressed matters of highest importance that pertained to Christendom, twenty years was relatively short. What went on in those twenty years?

The need for a creed

As we noted in our last article, the Third Ecumenical Council had done something well: it had defended the doctrine that Christ is one person with two natures, and had rejected the idea that Christ was two persons. However, the question about the relation of Christ’s two natures to each other and their union in His one person was still not resolved. Because this question was not resolved, the Fourth Ecumenical Council could not be held soon enough! This is true for three reasons.

First, the Council of Ephesus was a messy affair, church politically. Good order was not followed. Because of this, many did not receive its answer as final.

Second, Ephesus had not provided a positive statement of the relation between Christ’s one person and His two natures. Christians knew what not to believe and they knew what they did believe, but they did not always know how best to explain the truth positively. A fuller creed was needed to spell out this doctrine of Christ.

Third, two years after the two parties had disagreed at Ephesus, they met to formulate and sign a statement with which they could agree, called the Formula of Union. In the main, the Formula was orthodox, and the Chalcedonian Creed reflects much of its wording. But how could men who disagreed in 431 suddenly agree in 433 and jointly sign a doctrinal statement? People were suspicious about this. After the signers of the document died, the distrust increased, and people were less willing to abide by the Formula of Union. A creed was needed to unite all.


In this context, a man named Eutyches taught error. Eutyches was the head of a monastery in Constantinople. He followed the orthodox theology of Cyril. But he went off balance. Cyril had taught that Jesus Christ was one person with two natures—actually one person “out of two natures.” Cyril meant that the one person of the Son of God lives through a divine nature and a human nature. But Eutyches understood the phrase to refer not to Jesus Christ possessing two natures but to Jesus Christ arising out of two natures. Christ came “out of” the divine nature of God and the human nature of Mary. But having come, Eutyches said, Jesus did not possess two natures; He possessed only one, the divine. His human nature was taken up into the divine. So not man but God was born, suffered, crucified, was buried, and was raised.

This was not what the Council of Ephesus had meant, and this was not what the regional Synod of Constantinople in 448 declared. Both agreed that the incarnate Christ possesses two natures. Undeterred, Eutyches asked Pope Leo I to agree with him. His opponents also tried to convince the pope to side with them. And his opponents got their wish. But because of the unrest, some asked the emperor to call an ecumenical council.

The Emperor first called a regional synod at Ephesus in 449. Just like the Council of Ephesus in 431, the Synod of Ephesus in 449 was poorly conducted. The supporters of Eutyches prevailed, and they so badly treated the man who opposed Eutychianism that he died within a week. This synod also condemned the pope, who in turn used this controversy to strengthen his power as the Bishop of Rome.

A regional synod was not going to help matters. An ecumenical council was needed. Some pleaded with Emperor Theodosius II to call an ecumenical council. The pope favored the idea, and suggested that the council be held in Rome, since all others had been held in the East.

God’s directing hand

Theodosius was not a strong emperor and probably would not have encouraged those who opposed Eutyches. But God wanted both a council to be held and one that would decide the matter rightly.

To that end, He had already raised up Pope Leo I. He was a strong pope, who would be remembered for promoting the powers of the papacy. At the same time, he gave the church firm and solid direction in this theological matter.

God also raised up a new emperor. Theodosius died in 450, having fallen from his horse. Because he left no sons to succeed him, his brother-in-law Marcian became emperor. Marcian’s wife, Pulcheria, had sided with the pope regarding these theological issues and Marcian sided with his wife! The new emperor called a council to meet in 451, not in Rome, but near Constantinople, so that the emperor could have more control than the pope.