We saw that the error of Nestorianism made necessary the calling of the Council of Ephesus (cf. July 2021, SB, p. 420). Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, taught that Christ had two natures because He had two persons, which two persons were joined in His incarnation. Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria, opposed Nestorius, and Emperor Theodosius II deposed him. But division regarding the matter made the emperor realize the need for an ecumenical council to settle it.
A messy meeting
The Council began in May 431 with about two hundred bishops attending. Even the Bishop of Rome (later known as the “pope”) was present for the first time at an ecumenical council. The Council condemned Nestorius and his views, but the path to that condemnation was messy. The record of that meeting is not a bright spot in the history of the church.
For one thing, Cyril opened the Council before all had assembled. True, the appointed time to begin had come and passed by at least two weeks; we might also think that it was time to get started. But the Bishop of Antioch with his delegation had not yet arrived, so Nestorius refused to appear before the Council. In his absence, Cyril led the Council to decree against Nestorius. Nestorius appealed the matter to the emperor, who nullified the decree. So we have an example of a decision that took the right side of the theological issue but was challenged for being made in haste.
Furthermore, when all the bishops and Nestorius finally arrived, and when it was evident that the Council was still against Nestorius, the delegation from Antioch began their own council that condemned Cyril and his ideas! Philip Schaff writes, “Now followed a succession of mutual criminations, invectives, arts of church diplomacy and politics, intrigues, and violence, which give the saddest picture of the uncharitable and unspiritual Christianity of that time” (History of the Christian Church, 3:725).
Third, because one Council condemned and deposed Nestorius and the other did the same to Cyril, an appeal was in order; but to whom does an ecumenical council appeal? To none other than the emperor. He was initially sympathetic to Nestorius, but some of his advisors convinced him to support Cyril instead. In the end he maintained his support of Cyril, who insisted that the unity of the church required that Nestorius be deposed.
A providential outcome
Nestorius was now officially a heretic. His teachings persisted and would be condemned again over a century later. To this day a Nestorian church still exists (see www.nestorian.org).
Yet this Council preserved, and even developed, the orthodox Christian faith. It soundly rejected the idea that Christ has two persons. For this we are thankful, for if Christ has two persons, we do not have one Mediator. The Council defended the teaching that Christ is one person, in whom two natures are united; we have one Mediator, who is in one person both God and man, God in the flesh! That the eternal Son of God took on our human nature demonstrates that God wills to save humans, and that through Christ God would raise elect, sinful humanity out of sin and into greatest blessedness.
Having settled the theological matter, the Council of Ephesus made several (six or seven) canons, or decrees, reinforcing its stand on the Nestorian issue and prescribing how to deal with any who remained sympathetic to him. A more detailed survey of these decisions is not necessary. We will proceed next time to see what paved the way for the fourth ecumenical council, in Chalcedon.