Prof. Douglas Kuiper, professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary and member of Trinity PRC

Previous article in this series: December 1, 2022, p. 106

The last article noted the meeting of the Fifth Ecumenical Council, and its main decisions. This article concludes our examination of that council.

Was the council sympathetic to the Monophysites?

I find the Fifth Ecumenical Council the most difficult to evaluate. Yes, it opposed the teachings of some who said that Christ has two natures and, therefore, two persons. And yes, it defended the decisions of Chalcedon.

But was it sympathetic to the Monophysitists who taught that Christ has only one nature? Philip Schaff suggests that the council’s renunciation of the opposite error was a partial victory for the Monophysite cause.1 But Nick Needham points out that the council did indeed make a significant decision against the Monophysite position.2

It seems to me that the council tried to appease the Monophysites by insisting that the error directly opposite of theirs was an error, but that the council gave the Monophysites no support or ammunition for their own cause. The empress may not have liked the outcome, but the emperor viewed the council as a good step toward imperial unity.

Nor did the Monophysites view the council as a step in their direction. They separated from the Eastern church and remain separate until the present. In Syria and Turkey, they have been known as the Jacobites; in Egypt, as the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Did the church in the west acknowledge this council?

By 553 the idea that the Bishop of Rome was the first among bishops was firmly entrenched. He was the final authority, even over councils. The pope considered it his task to ratify the decisions of council, apart from which they would be of none effect. Initially, Pope Vigilius did not ratify the council’s decisions. The emperor responded by banishing him, after which the pope decided that he would ratify them after all. Then the emperor permitted Vigilius to return to Rome. On the way, he died. His successor, Pelagius I, also ratified the decisions of the council.

Two points are worthy of note. One is that Vigilius’ repeated changing of his mind on this issue makes one wonder if the apostles were so wishy-washy. The second is that it took an emperor to convince this “successor of the apostles” to ratify the council, whereas no emperor could change the mind of any of the apostles, when they knew their doctrine was that of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Even though the Christian church in the West recognized this as an ecumenical council, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Heinrich Bullinger readily acknowledge the weight of the first four councils; Luther calls them the “four great principal councils” (Luther’s Works 41:52). Calvin indicated that some of the later councils also manifested “clear tokens of insight, doctrine, and prudence” (Institutes 4.9.8). But neither Luther or Calvin, at least in their principal works, make any reference to the Fifth Ecumenical Council.

For its ratification of the Creed of Chalcedon and emphasis that Christ is one in person we can appreciate the council’s work.

Did the council put the matter to rest?

Not completely. Some might fault the Council for this. But, in fact, no one ecclesiastical assembly will ever speak the last word such that the church no longer needs to develop in her understanding of truth. In addition, the reason why a council does not put a matter to rest might be that some refuse to accept the verdict of the council, or abide by its decisions. Again, new heresies or old heresies in new guise keep cropping up.

These comments are relevant here. The Fifth Ecumenical Council upheld the decision of the fourth, that Christ was one person in two natures. But discussion continued. Christ might have two natures, but does He have one basic energy, or activity, that unites them? And does He have one will? These are the questions that arose. That they arose gives weight to the argument that the Fifth Ecumenical Council did not completely put the doctrinal matter to rest, and that a sixth ecumenical council would need to be called.

1 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1910), 3:771.

2 Nick Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power (Fearn: Rossshire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2016), 2:376.