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: August 2022, p. 439.

The last article set forth the context for the meeting of the Fifth Ecumenical Council. The Monophysites were teaching that if Jesus was one person, He necessarily must have one nature (mono = one; phusis = nature). Other theologians took the opposite position: because Jesus has two natures, He is two persons. These latter set forth their position in “The Three Chapters,” or “Heads.” Without question, the Three Chapters contained error, and Emperor Justinian condemned it. But why did he condemn it: because he saw the truth of the matter, or because he preferred the opposite error? Clearly his wife was a Monophysite sympathizer. The Monophysites dug in their heels. The pope unhelpfully kept changing his mind on the matter. And the emperor called the Fifth Ecumenical Council.


The Fifth Ecumenical Council met in eight sessions from May 5 to June 2, 553, in the palace of the Patriarch (Bishop) of Constantinople. Although Emperor Justinianhad called it, he did not preside over it; Eutychius, the Bishop of Constantinople, did. This was unusual: the emperor presided over five of the first seven ecumenical councils. But the emperor’s direct involvement in the controversy leading up to the Council, and his wife’s clearly-expressed position on one side of the issue, probably explain his absence.

Present at the Fifth Ecumenical Council were the bishops of two other of the five patriarchal cities: Apollinaris, Patriarch of Alexandria, and Domninus, Patriarch of Antioch. The Patriarch of Jerusalem sent three bishops to represent him. Of the five patriarchs, only the Bishop of Rome (Pope Vigilius) was not present or represented. He was, of course, invited; and his absence is a story in itself.

The shrewd Empress Theodora had arranged for Vigilius to become pope in 538, and promised to recompense him handily if he would defend her views and nullify the decisions of the Fourth Ecumenical Council. Imagine what church history would have been like if the great creed of Chalcedon was declared to be in error, and retracted! That creed set forth the firm foundation for all later development of the doctrine of Christ’s person and natures. But the pope’s arm was being twisted to overturn it. In 545, Justinian summoned Vigilius to Constantinople, and he had been there ever since. In other words, Vigilius’ absence was not due to his inability to make the thousand-mile journey. Nor was it due to his not being invited. Probably it was due to his sense that the position he favored would not win the day.

Present also were many others; Philip Schaff says 164 bishops were present.


A letter from the emperor was read at the first session. In it he expressed his desire for unity in the empire, and particularly a united presentation of the true faith against heresies. He desired that the Council defend the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon, oppose the twonatures- equals-two-persons error (dyophisitism), and noted that the pope was not cooperating.

Many of the ecumenical councils dealt with church political matters in addition to the main theological issues that confronted them. The Fifth Ecumenical Council, apparently, did not; at least, no canons regarding church political matters have come down in history. The council seems to have dealt exclusively with the doctrinal question.

In the end, the Council reiterated that it stood on the foundation laid by the previous Councils of Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451). It supported the emperor in his condemnation of The Three Chapters, which means that it opposed dyophysitism.

The Council also drew up fourteen doctrinal statements. Each took the form of an anathema, a condemnation of those who denied the statements. Some of these reiterated the basic truths that the church had confessed about the Trinity and deity of Christ. One of them (the third) made clearer than the church previously had that the divine Logos (Word) was Jesus Christ come in the flesh. The fifth emphasized that when the church father Cyril had said there was only one physis, which word was now being used to refer to a nature, Cyril had been referring to a person. The sixth emphasized that Mary was the Mother of God, as the Creed of Chalcedon had said, but went so far as to call her the “ever-virgin.”

Some of these pronounce anathemas on any who teach a wrong view of the person and natures of Jesus Christ. Worthy of note is that the Council recognized that a man might use the terminology that the church has adopted, but give this terminology a different meaning. For instance, one might readily say that Jesus has two natures, but then teach that the two are not united in the one person. Or he might say that Christ must be worshiped in two natures, but then teach that one kind of worship is to be given Him in His human nature, and another in His divine. The Council specified that a man must use the right words in the right way: he must mean what the ecumenical councils said they mean, not something different (anathemas 6-9).

Some of the statements pronounce anathemas on anyone who defends the heretical views of Arius, Apollinaris, Nestorius, Eutyches, and Origin (anathema 11), or who will defend the men whose writings the Fifth Ecumenical Council condemned (anathemas 12-14).

How to evaluate the Council, and notes regarding its aftermath, must wait for the next article.