The Church from A.D. 381 to 428
The 2nd Œcumenical Council was held in Constantinople in A.D. 381 under the protection of the Emperor Theodosius the Great. The 3rd Œcumenical Council was held in Ephesus on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor in 431. The half century between brought many changes.
In the empire, Theodosius died in 395 and was succeeded by his sons Arcadius and Honorius, Augusti in East and West respectively, both young, the latter still a minor. In 408 Arcadius, only 31 years old, died in his turn and was succeeded as Augustus in the East by his son, Theodosius, named after his grandfather. At the time, the younger Theodosius was only seven years old and until 414 was under the guardianship of his older sister the Augusta Pulcheria. Honorius on his death in 425 was succeeded as Augustus in the West by Valentinian, grandson of Theodosius the Great.
At the same time, the frontiers of the empire in the West were crumbling under waves of barbarians, which were about to become a flood. In the year 407, the last Roman legion in Britain, VI Victrix, which had been stationed there for almost 300 years, was withdrawn to shore up the defences on the Rhine. Within a few decades Roman administration in Britain had foundered under the Anglo-Saxon invaders. The Visigoths overran Italy and besieged Rome itself. On 24 August 410, the city fell and was sacked by the barbarians, an event that astounded and appalled the Roman world. The pagans claimed that the fall of the Eternal City was the fault of Christians for refusing to offer the sacrifices owed to the pagan gods. It was this charge that led St Augustine of Hippo to write his masterpiece, The City of God. In 429, the Vandals, after overrunning Spain, invaded North Africa. St Augustine died in Hippo in 430 while the Vandals were besieging it. By the year 476, Roman rule in the West had collapsed. The Church alone survived the fall, and for several centuries after provided the only vestiges of civilised and literate administration remaining in the West.
In the Church, the half century saw the bishops who presided at the Council in Constantinople in 381 gathered to God and others succeeding to their sees. As we approach the 3rd Œcumenical Council, Celestine is bishop of Rome, St Cyril, third in succession to St Athanasius the Great and devoted to his teaching, is bishop of Alexandria, and St Juvenal is bishop of Jerusalem. St Sisinius became bishop of Constantinople in 426. In Antioch, the Meletian schism, which had persisted for half a century, was brought to an end at last in 414. In 427, John became bishop of Antioch. With the end of the Arian heresy in 381, the Church was at peace.
The 1st and 2nd œcumenical councils addressed heresies concerning the Trinity. The following three œcumenical councils were concerned with christology—dogmas about the Son of God incarnate. What makes them significant is that by this time all the churchmen involved were staunch defenders of Nicene orthodoxy, firm in rejecting Arianism and Apollinarianism. What had happened was that the intense theological debates of the past century had so sharpened theological tools and so deepened theological reflection that teachings that in the past seemed within the range of permissible opinion began to be questioned. The christological controversy was to prove even more intractable than the Arian. It took three œcumenical councils and over 120 years to reach an orthodox resolution, and even then it left a schism unhealed to this day.
The Arians had used the texts in Scripture that ascribed human frailty to Jesus—hunger, thirst, weariness, ignorance, disquiet, and above all the words of dereliction uttered on the cross: ‘My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’ as proofs that the Son of God was not fully divine, since God by definition cannot suffer, but rather a kind of creature, even if not a creature like us. The defenders of orthodoxy were thus compelled to account for the simultaneous manifestation of human actions and of divine actions in the incarnate Christ to counter the Arian interpretation. Subsequent controversy arose from incompatible accounts.
I will begin the narrative of events leading up to the 3rd Œcumenical Council in the year 428, but to understand them, it is necessary first to go back half a century to the teachings of two theologians of Antioch in Syria. For what follows, I am indebted to two works that I warmly recommend: Fr John McGuckin, Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy (2004); and Donald Fairbairn, Grace and Christology in the Early Church (2003), in the Oxford Early Christian Studies series.
Throughout the history of the Church, there have been two ways of understanding how our salvation is accomplished: by Jesus conferring on us what he is as Son of God who has become incarnate for our sake; and by Jesus, in his life, witness, death and resurrection, serving as our model of faithfulness to God. The two views are not mutually exclusive; both have biblical support, and an individual Christian who was moved by each at different times would not be inconsistent. However, each can be developed until it does rule out the other, and this is what happened in the fourth and fifth centuries.
Theodore, bishop of Mopsuestia in Cilicia II, in what is now southern Turkey, followed in the footsteps of his teacher Diodore, bishop of Tarsus in Cilicia I. Both taught the orthodox doctrine that our Lord Jesus Christ is perfect man and perfect God. At the same time, Diodore was determined, against the heresy of Arius, not to attribute any change or human weakness to the divinity of the incarnate Christ, while at the same time, against the heresy of Apollinaris, insisting that the humanity of Christ is a perfect human being, with a rational soul and a free will of his own—anything less would compromise his humanity. Diodore insisted so strongly on the complete independence of the human and the divine natures in Christ, rejecting any form of union, that he was accused of teaching two Sons. He denied the charge without, however, convincing his critics.
Theodore taught a less extreme version of Diodore’s doctrine, although the same in substance. He taught that God the Word, foreknowing that the humanity of Christ, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, would be capable of sinlessness, joined his divinity to the humanity in Mary’s womb for our salvation, without any mixture or confusion of the two natures, and was born as Jesus, in whom was both God and man. Rather than say that Jesus was a single existing being, in Greek hypostasis (ὑπόστασις), he preferred to say that he was one prosopon (πρόσωπον, the Greek equivalent of the Latin persona), meaning that the people to whom he appeared saw a single human being, even though in reality there were two separate natures, human and divine.
Theodore preferred to describe the indwelling as a συνάφεια (conjunction) and rejected ἕνωσις (union) and μῖξις (mixing). To support his teaching of two distinct natures, he quoted John 2:19: ‘Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up’; Colossians 2:9: ‘For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily’; and Luke 2:52: ‘And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.’ Theodore attributed this increase in wisdom and stature to the grace granted to the man Jesus by the Spirit through the Word. And it was through the Spirit that the man Jesus performed the miracles befitting the divinity in order to make manifest the Logos indwelling him.
At the crucifixion, the Word of God could not of course undergo any suffering, and certainly not die, but he remained with the Christ who suffered these things, accompanied him to the underworld, and on the third day raised him from the dead, making him the pioneer of our own salvation. He had indwelt the Christ from the beginning ‘as in a son,’ preparing him to share his sonship so as to be counted one prosopon, and carried his humanity up to heaven, there to be joined with him in honour, to be worshipped and glorified together with him, and in the last days to judge the living and the dead. Because God the Word conferred immortality on him for his deserts, we by following in his footsteps can at the Last Judgement share in his immortality.
In the meantime, God the Word, through the Holy Spirit, confers the gifts of his grace on us to assist us in our path to a perfect humanity. Theodore’s commentary on Philippians 2:8–11: ‘And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father,’ focusses on the distinction between the human nature and the divine: ‘The one who gave is God; the one to whom he gave is the man Jesus Christ, the firstfruits of the resurrected ones.’ (Fairbairn, op. cit., p. 48) The man’s nature was not changed and immortalised until his death and resurrection.
The biblical passages that Theodore, with his strong distinction of the human and the divine in Christ, found difficult to account for were 1 Corinthians 2:8: ‘Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory’, and Hebrews 13:8: ‘Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever,’ verses that the Alexandrian tradition emphasised.
The understanding of our salvation in the church of Alexandria was, in a sense, the opposite of that of Antioch: instead of teaching that God the Word gives us the gifts we need to achieve human perfection at the last judgement, the Alexandrian tradition taught that God the Word gives us himself through our baptism, being himself Life and so conferring immortality on us.
As a consequence, they also had a very different understanding of the incarnation—rather than God the Word being conjoined to the man Jesus to form one prosopon, God the Word became man in the flesh, perfect man with a human soul and will, without in any way changing his divinity, still perfect God. The proof text of the Alexandrian tradition was John 1:14: ‘And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth,’ together with Philippians 2:6-11, interpreted in a very different sense to Antioch: ‘[Christ Jesus] Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’ Because some interpreted ‘became flesh,’ σὰρξ ἐγένετο, as implying that the union constituted a change in the divinity, or diminished the humanity, the word ‘became’ was interpreted in the light of Psalm 93:22: ‘And the Lord has become a place of refuge for me’, καὶ ἐγένετό μοι Κύριος εἰς καταφυγὴν (LXX), showing that the word has a completely general sense, and does not entail change of substance.
The Alexandrian tradition rejected the assumption of the Antiochene tradition that the human nature of Christ, receiving divine grace through the Holy Spirit from God the Word, could then make it available to the rest of mankind. St Athanasius the Great wrote, ‘And again, if, as we have said before, the Son is not such by participation, but, while all things originated have by participation the grace of God, He is the Father’s Wisdom and Word of which all things partake, it follows that He, being the deifying and enlightening power of the Father, in which all things are deified and quickened, is not alien in essence from the Father, but coessential. For by partaking of Him, we partake of the Father; because that the Word is the Father’s own. Whence, if He was Himself too from participation, and not from the Father His essential Godhead and Image, He would not deify, being deified Himself.’ (De Synodis, 51; trans. John Henry Newman and Archibald Robertson, in Schaff and Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, IV, 1892; edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight) One of the scriptural passages supporting this is Hebrews 1:3: ‘Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high.’
The Antiochene tradition treated as proof-texts for separate prosopa in Christ Luke 2:52: ‘And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man’; and 1 Timothy 2:5: ‘For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.’ The Alexandrian tradition, however, read them in the context of Philippians 2:6-11: God the Word’s self-emptying to become like us for the sake of our salvation, that is, for the sake of the ‘economy,’ the purpose of the Incarnation. St Cyril of Alexandria wrote, ‘Therefore, they say that it is necessary to introduce another Son, Christ and Lord, because some are unable to fathom the depths of Sacred Scripture. But the wise Evangelist presents the Word as enfleshed, showing by that that the Word, by virtue of the economy, permitted this flesh, which is his own, to follow the laws of its own nature. For it is human to progress in wisdom and stature, I would add even in grace …’ (That Christ Is One, 760a; French trans. G.M. de Durand, Sources Chrétiennes, No 97, 1964, p. 455)
Nestorius is Patriarch of Constantinople, A.D. 428–431
The 3rd Œcumenical Council, which met at Ephesus in A.D. 431, was held to condemn a teaching, the Nestorian heresy, as it is known to history, which was the culmination of the theology begun by Diodore of Tarsus and continued by Theodore of Mopsuestia and Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus in Syria. The Nestorian heresy is the teaching that the incarnate Christ is composed of two separate subjects, one human and one divine, connected by honour only, and respectively responsible for the human and divine actions of Christ, neither of which is to be confused with the other. Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, after whom the Nestorian heresy is named, was accused of Diodore’s teaching of ‘two Sons’ but denied vehemently that he taught any such doctrine. Unfortunately, his language was such that those who heard him did not understand how he could not be teaching it, especially since his most famous—or notorious—teaching was that it was wrong to call the Virgin Mary ‘Theotokos,’ God-bearer, because in fact she gave birth only to the man Jesus, not to the divine in Christ.
St Sisinius had occupied the patriarchal throne of Constantinople for only two years when he died. The Emperor Theodosius the Younger, aware of the intense rivalries dividing the candidates for the throne among the clergy of the city, searched elsewhere for a successor, and chose a monk from Antioch in Syria, who was well known for his asceticism and preaching, Nestorius. He was consecrated in the cathedral of Constantinople on Tuesday, 10 April 428.
At the time, Nestorius was around 40 years old. He was a childhood friend of John, the recently consecrated bishop of Antioch, who probably recommended him to the Emperor, and had been a pupil of Theodore of Mopsuestia. In the Antiochene tradition, his theology had a philosophical basis, insisting on precise definitions of terms and syllogistic reasoning. He was friends with Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Andrew, bishop of Samosata in Syria, the three being the principal Antiochene theologians at the time. He was pious and learned, but he had a fatal flaw—intellectual arrogance. He condescended to his supporters and despised his opponents. He took it for granted that people would do what he told them to do and think what he told them to think, and was outraged when they did not.
He imposed his views on the church of Constantinople with a heavy hand, indifferent to local opinion since he was confident that he had the support of the Emperor Theodosius. Within months, he had alienated the monks, whose influence in the city was powerful. By persecuting heretics without regard to the practical ramifications, he caused problems for the bureaucracy. He offended the women of Constantinople by trying to prevent them from attending Vespers, arguing that women should not be out at night. Most serious of all, he publicly insulted the Augusta Pulcheria, an error of judgement that would cost him dear.
Nestorius was proud of his knowledge of Aristotelian physics and his skill in Aristotelian logic. He considered most of his brother bishops to be half-educated, wooly thinkers, and, as Patriarch of Constantinople, he intended to set them straight. And he considered the prime example of wooly thinking to be the pious custom of honouring the Virgin Mary with the title of Theotokos, Mother of God.
When he came from Antioch, he was accompanied by some of his associates, including as his closest adviser, the priest Anastasius, an Antiochene zealot. The church historian Socrates of Constantinople describes the event that lit the fuse of the Nestorian controversy:
‘One day, as Anastasius was teaching in the church, he said, ‘Let no one call Mary Mother of God [θεοτόκος], for Mary is a human being, and it is impossible that God was born from a human being.’ Hearing this troubled both clerics and laity, for they had long been taught to recognise the divinity of Christ and to put absolutely no separation between the man of the economy and the divinity; they were convinced by the words of the apostle [Paul], who said, ‘Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more,’ (2 Cor 5:16) and ‘Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God.’ (Heb 6:1). (Ecclesiastical History, VII.xxxii.1–3; French trans. Pierre Périchon and Pierre Maraval, Sources Chrétiennes, No 506, 2007, pp. 115, 117)
With Nestorius repeating the condemnation of the term Theotokos in his sermons and making such pronouncements as ‘I adore the one who is borne because of the one who bears him, and I worship the one who appears because of the one who is hidden … I divide the natures, but I unite the worship,’ disquiet spread rapidly to other cities, reaching Alexandria before the end of 428. Early in 429, St Cyril of Alexandria was preparing his annual letter to the churches of Egypt, announcing the date of Great and Holy Pascha, which was Sunday, 7 April in that year. It was his custom to include in the letter a discussion of a topical theological concern, and that year he chose as his subject the attack on Mary as Mother of God, without however referring to Nestorius by name. In the letter, he stated his position, from which he would not deviate for the rest of the controversy. The fundamental point, which he would never permit to be compromised, was that Jesus, to whom the Virgin Mary gave birth, is God the Word in the flesh, not an association of a human self and a divine self but one divine person, albeit receiving from the Blessed Virgin all that is human, including a rational soul, for the sake of our salvation.
Starting with the biblical passages cited above in John 1 and Philippians 2, Cyril then goes on to say, ‘We do not uncomprehendingly have him descend into mere humanity, but we follow holy Scripture by joining the Word from God by nature to our nature in union and knitting them together to make one thing only out of both, in order that he is not thought of merely as a God-bearing man [like the prophets], but rather as God who has become man who, according to the union required by the economy, that is to say the union with his own flesh, also underwent birth through the holy Virgin. It is only thus and not otherwise that one can think of one Christ and one Lord, not divided into a man on the one hand and a God on the other after the inexpressible interweaving, but received and thought of as making one only Son, even if the nature of the elements brought together in unity differs in thought.’ (Cyril of Alexandria, Festal Letter XVII, 2; French trans. Marie-Odile Boulnois and Bernard Meunier, Sources Chrétiennes, No 434, 1998, pp. 267, 269)
In answer to the Antiochene claim that Luke 2:52, ‘And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man’, refers to the man Jesus, Cyril responds, ‘… this is nothing other than dividing the single Christ in two. But, as I just said, the Son who is before all ages is said in the end of the age to be declared Son of God because he appropriated to himself the generation of his own flesh. It is thus that, even while being the wisdom of him who engendered him, he is said to progress in wisdom, despite being perfect as God, because he brought himself to take upon himself the properties of humanity, because of the superlative degree of the union.’ (Ibid., p. 279)
Cyril, learning that the question was troubling the monks of Egypt, and reminded of Diodore’s teaching of two Sons, sent a letter to them expanding on what he had written in his festal letter, again without mentioning Nestorius by name, explaining, ‘This is not so that you yourselves might join in the verbal fight, rather that if any such people come to you, you will be able to oppose their foolish ideas with the truth …’ (McGuckin, op. cit., p. 246)
Among the arguments he countered was the Antiochene conviction that God the Word could not have suffered on the cross or died. Cyril stressed once again that Christ is a single subject and that the incarnation was for our salvation:
‘For he was the Word in his own body born from a woman, and he gave it to death in due season, but he suffered nothing at all in his own nature for as such he is life and life-giver. Nonetheless he made the things of the flesh his own so that the suffering could be said to be his … For he who did not know death descended into death alongside us through his own flesh so that we too might rise up with him to life. And coming back to life he despoiled Hell, not as a man like us, but as God alongside us and for us in the flesh. Our nature is enriched with incorruptibility in him as the first, and death has been crushed since it launched a hostile attack against the body of Life itself.’ (Ibid., pp. 260–261)
Copies of Cyril’s letters soon reached Constantinople and, even though he was not named, Nestorius was in no doubt that it was his teachings that were being censured. Outraged, he began searching for ways to attack Cyril’s administration of the see of Alexandria. At the same time, Marius Mercator, a layman and westerner resident in Constantinople, had translated some of Nestorius’s sermons into Latin and sent them to Rome. Nestorius, aware that Pope Celestine was inquiring into his teachings, turned to certain western bishops in Constantinople who had been banished from their sees for heretical teachings. When Cyril and Celestine learned that Nestorius was actively seeking ways to attack them canonically, they began to prepare for a battle.
Cyril now began a wide study of the Fathers and of Scripture to prepare a case against Nestorius, an activity that would soon produce several major theological treatises and serve the cause of orthodoxy well at the councils that would follow. Toward the end of 429, he collected the relevant letters, copies of Nestorius’s sermons and the citations he had gathered from the Fathers, had them translated into Latin, and forwarded them to Celestine. He also wrote to Nestorius, remonstrating, but received a supercilious reply.
In February 430 Nestorius escalated the controversy dramatically. A friend of his, Dorotheus, bishop of Marcianopolis in Mœsia (present-day Devnya in Bulgaria), was visiting Constantinople, and he had him give a sermon in the cathedral. In it, Dorotheus declared that anyone who ‘dares to call Mary Mother of God is anathema.’ Cyril expressed his shock at this in a letter to other bishops: ‘See, therefore, that we have been anathematized in his [Nestorius’s] very presence, not to say by him, with him presiding, for Dorotheus would not have spoken such things in the church against the will of Nestorius. Now both we the living, the bishops throughout the world, and our Fathers who have gone to God have been anathematized.’ (St Cyril of Alexandria, Letters, trans. John I. McEnerney, 2007, I. p. 51)
Cyril now wrote a fuller account of his christology to Nestorius. He takes his stand firmly on the Nicene Creed’s affirmation that the only begotten Son of God descended and was made flesh. ‘We do not say that the nature of the Word was altered when he became flesh. Neither do we say that the Word was changed into a complete man of soul and body. We say rather that the Word by having united to himself hypostatically flesh animated by a rational soul [ὅτι σάρκα ἐμψυχωμένην ψυχῇ λογικῇ ἑνώσας ὁ Λόγος ἐαυτῷ καθ’ ὑπόστασιν (Migne PG 77, col. 45)], inexplicably and incomprehensibly became man … We say that although the natures are different which were brought together to a true unity, there is one Christ and Son from both. The differences of the natures are not destroyed through the union, but rather the divinity and humanity formed for us one Lord Jesus Christ and one Son through the incomprehensible and ineffable combination to a unity.’ (Ibid., I. p. 39)
This, under the title of his ‘Second Letter to Nestorius,’ would be cited as a touchstone of orthodoxy at the councils of Ephesus in 431, Chalcedon in 451 and Constantinople in 553. It should be noted that the statement above, that ‘the differences of the natures are not destroyed though the union,’ although it was not given any special role at Ephesus, played an important role in subsequent debates.
Nestorius replied, dismissing his arguments as illogical. Nestorius believed that the single subject, which Cyril professed, must entail either that the divinity suffered what the humanity suffered or that the humanity could not be a real humanity and the sufferings were thus a mere appearance: ‘To me, at least, they seem to overthrow the first [Cyril’s distinction of the natures according to the definition of humanity and divinity], for they introduced, I do not know how, him who was proclaimed in the first statement as incapable of suffering and not capable of receiving a second begetting, as, in turn, capable of suffering and newly created.’ (Ibid., I. p. 45) He failed to understand Cyril’s conviction that the Incarnation is God joining himself to us human beings in a way that is beyond our power to comprehend, and that logic has nothing to do with it.
In the spring of 430, Cyril circulated his Five Books Against Nestorius, and also sent doctrinal treatises to the Emperor Theodosius, his wife the Augusta Eudoxia, his sister the Augusta Pulcheria, and the princesses Arcadia and Marina.
That summer, the monks of Constantinople, being persecuted by Nestorius, asked the Emperor to convene an œcumenical council, the first time the idea had come up. Nestorius now began to solicit a council, but he had in mind a small gathering of theologically informed bishops under his chairmanship meeting in Constantinople, whose task would be to judge Cyril and Celestine. In this he was out of step with Theodosius, whose notion of a council was the traditional one, all bishops, learned and simple, meeting and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
During the same summer, Celestine had been busy in Rome. He convened a synod on 11 August 430, which condemned Nestorius’s teachings and required him to recant and confess the orthodox faith or be excluded from communion with Rome and all orthodox bishops. Celestine sent letters to this effect to Nestorius and Theodosius, and a letter to Cyril, delegating him to carry out the synod’s decree. He also sent copies to other bishops in the East, including John of Antioch.
When news of the Roman decree reached Alexandria, Cyril held his own synod of the Egyptian church early in November, confirming it. After this, things began to move swiftly. Cyril now wrote what would become famous—or notorious—as his ‘Third Letter to Nestorius.’ It conveyed the judgement of the two councils and Cyril’s pronouncement of the ultimatum that Celestine had called upon him to deliver. It did more than Celestine’s letter, which had condemned Nestorius’s teachings only in general terms. Cyril regarded Nestorius as a slippery character, who would find a formula that would let him escape: ‘… it shall not suffice for your reverence to confess with us just the profession of faith set forth … by the holy and great synod assembled in the city of Nicæa. You have not understood and have not interpreted rightly, but rather perversely, even if you confess the text with your lips.’ (Ibid., I. p. 81) Cyril wrote very precisely and clearly what Nestorius was teaching wrongly, and what he must confess and anathematize under oath. And he appended to his detailed account twelve anathemas to which Nestorius was required to subscribe. They were expressed briefly, and even brutally. Cyril probably did not realise when he formulated them just how much trouble they would cause him over the next three years, but he would not have taken them back—it was necessary to leave Nestorius and his followers no avenue of escape.
Cyril’s ultimatum was delivered by his delegates to Nestorius during Liturgy in the cathedral of Constantinople on Sunday, 30 November 430. Nestorius, in sermons that he preached on the following 6 and 7 December, made the concession that he would accept the term ‘Theotokos’ as a pious expression while still asserting that ‘Christotokos’ was the more correct term. And he avoided addressing the key question—whether Christ was in fact God the Word in the flesh, and not merely a divine prosopon and a human prosopon conjoined by the name ‘Christ.’ He was confident that, with the backing of the Emperor, he would be able to face down both Rome and Alexandria.
It should be kept in mind that, when Cyril formulated his ultimatum, neither Celestine nor Cyril were aware that the Emperor Theodosius had determined to summon an œcumenical council to resolve the issue, so these events are not directly related to the council, although they were soon to be caught up in it—in fact Cyril’s anathemas were to be at its centre.
Meanwhile, after he had received letters from Cyril and news of Celestine’s condemnation of Nestorius but before he received a copy of Cyril’s ultimatum to Nestorius, John of Antioch wrote to his old friend, advising him to compromise. This letter is significant because it demonstrates that Nestorius’s teachings were not shared even by most of the Antiochene clergy. Evidently, although he held Theodore of Mopsuestia in esteem, John had not taken much notice of his teachings, nor those of Nestorius either. His letter shows that he was under the impression that Nestorius shared the common opinion of the Church, despite having a bee in his bonnet concerning the title Theotokos. Significantly, he wrote, ‘For if we were not to accept what is signified by this title, we would fall short of the truth on many points, and in particular we would be in danger concerning the unsearchable economy of the only-begotten Son of God. For if one suppresses this term or what it signifies, then it immediately follows that neither is God the one who has taken on himself the unsearchable economy for our sake, nor is God the Logos the one who manifested such an exceedingly great love for us in emptying himself and taking the form of a servant.’ (Donald Fairbairn, J. Eccl. Hist., 2007, p.391) He is unaware that this is a doctrine that Nestorius rejects.
However, shortly afterward John received a copy of Cyril’s Third Letter to Nestorius together with the anathemas. He was shocked by the intransigence of the anathemas and unsure of their orthodoxy. He sent them on to the two most experienced theologians of his archdiocese, Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Andrew of Samosata. They replied with criticisms that were circulated widely in their turn. Both of them suspected Cyril of Apollinarism, that his teaching of the Word of God ‘in the flesh’ must preclude a fully human Christ, while Cyril’s willingness to ascribe the lowly actions of Christ to the Word reminded them of the Arian use of the passages to question the full divinity of the Son.
Cyril now realised that he needed to explain his position more fully to the bishops of Syria and Asia Minor. Between December 430 and May 431, he wrote copiously in defence of his position, including replies to Andrew and Theodoret.
In their critiques of the twelve anathemas, Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Andrew of Samosata never once mentioned Nestorius’s heretical teaching of ‘Christ’ as a mere name for two independent prosopa. Both claimed to confess the incarnation in two natures in a union of one person. Both suspected that Cyril’s teaching implied a mixture of the human and divine in Christ, and hence the destruction of what was truly human and truly divine. However, both held tenaciously to the Antiochene teaching of a strict separation of the actions attributable to the human and divine natures, with no recognition of Cyril’s conviction that in his self-emptying God the Word had made both the human and the divine actions his very own.
Theodoret’s critique was the more sophisticated theologically, and Cyril responded in kind. Andrew’s was thinner, and his preferred tactic was to search Cyril’s writings, trying to trap him in contradictions. Cyril, in his response to Andrew, evidently decided to address a wider audience of the bishops of the Antiochene archdiocese. Even though Andrew commented on only nine of the anathemas, while Theodoret commented on all twelve, Cyril’s reply to Andrew was substantially longer than his reply to Theodoret, and covered more ground, giving an explanation of his position much wider than Andrew’s critique. Unlike in his response to Theodoret, Cyril here provided extensive quotations from Nestorius’s writings. He also introduced florilegia, series of quotations from the fathers of the Church, a practice that would become standard in later theological writing.
Both Theodoret and Andrew focussed especially on the fourth anathema: ‘If any allocate the sayings in the evangelical and apostolic writings to two persons [προσώποις (Migne PG 77, col. 120)], or concrete existences [ὑποστάσεσι (ibid.)], whether those spoken by the saints about Christ or those he used about himself, and then attribute some of them to a man who is thought of separately from the Word of God, and others only to the Word of God because they are more appropriate to God, let them be anathema.’ Each spent almost a fifth of his reply on it. Theodoret accused Cyril of Docetism, the teaching that Christ was no more than an appearance, and said, ‘Surely, then, it was not God the Word who said these things; it was the form of the servant … God the Word permitted it to say such things … so that we would not take him … for an appearance or fantasy.’ (Daniel King, trans., St Cyril of Alexandria: Three Christological Treatises (2014) p. 101) Andrew accused him of Arianism. Despite claiming to follow the orthodox teaching of one Son and Christ, in typically Antiochene fashion Andrew attributed the human sayings to ‘the visible nature’ and the divine sayings to ‘the hidden nature.’ (Ibid., p. 146)
The tenth anathema, ‘Divine Scripture says that Christ became ‘the high priest and apostle of our confession’ [Heb. 3:1] and that he ‘offered himself for us as a sweet-smelling savor to God the Father.’ [Eph. 5:2] Therefore, if any say that it was not the Word of God himself who became our high priest and apostle when he became incarnate and a man like us, but another, separate individual besides him, one born from a woman, or if any say that he brought this offering on his own behalf rather than just on our behalf (for the one who knew no sin was not in need of any offering), let them be anathema,’ also receives more attention than most of the anathemas, and also leads both Theodoret and Andrew to insist on the separation of the natures.
Theodoret offered Paul’s description of Jesus as a high priest in the order of Melchizedek in Hebrews 4 and 5 to show that Jesus learned to be virtuous through his trials, offered his petitions with fervent cries and tears, etc., and concluded that it was ‘Surely not God the Word, immortal, impassible, incorporeal … [but rather] what he took up to himself from David’s seed … mortal, passible, afraid of death … Neither was God the Word who was from God himself, ordained as our high priest; it was he who was of David’s seed who became our high priest and atoning sacrifice because he was sinless.’ (Ibid., pp. 119-20) Andrew, quoting from Hebrews 5, asserted that God the Word could not be the high priest, being God already, and so above a priestly honour, while the things that are beneath the divinity are ascribed to the human nature. But he did concede that ‘… it is because the one who is of David’s seed was inexpressibly united, without confusion or division, to the Word of God, that, in his role as high priest, he could be tempted in every way, yet without sinning, and learn obedience from what he suffered, and that his very own flesh could bring offerings to God the Father on our behalf only, not for himself too.’ (Ibid., pp. 164-66)
The twelfth anathema drew less comment than some earlier ones, being already covered by earlier discussion, but it was the one that most scandalized the Antiochene bishops and was to be the one most held against Cyril subsequently: ‘If any do not confess that the Word of God suffered in the flesh, was crucified in the flesh, tasted death in the flesh [παθόντα σαρκὶ, καὶ ἐσταυρωμένον σαρκὶ, καὶ θανάτου γευσάμενον σαρκὶ (Migne PG 77, col. 121)], and became the firstborn from the dead, because as God he is both Life and the Life-giver, let them be anathema.’
The most basic conviction in the traditional conception of God is that he cannot suffer, and certainly cannot suffer death, and this anathema seemed to be challenging it flagrantly, despite the fact that Cyril’s ‘in the flesh’ was an essential part of it, and qualified it.
Theodoret asserted, ‘The property of suffering belongs to that which is passible. The impassible is above suffering. Therefore, it was the form of the servant that suffered, the form of God of course being together with it. The latter allowed the former to experience suffering because salvation is born of suffering, and he made those suffering his very own by being united to them.’ (King, op. cit., p. 129)
Andrew again accused Cyril of contradicting his own writings, quoting from the Letter to the Monks, and went on to say that he made God the Word passible, since to suffer in the flesh is the same thing as for the divinity to suffer together with the flesh. ‘What the Lord Christ did was not to bring himself, in his divinity, down to a state of suffering, but rather, by means of his holy flesh, to raise his entire humanity up to the height, to drag what was lying on the ground up to heaven, and to make worthy of adoption what up to then had been without any freedom.’ This reflects Theodore of Mopsuestia’s teaching that the humanity in Christ was perfected at its death and resurrection, not that it was perfect from conception. (Ibid., pp. 176-78)
This anathema was to continue to echo and divide at future councils, and became known as the Theopaschite Formula, from the Greek for ‘God suffered.’