The Council of Ephesus

Editor’s Introduction: In the following pages, Brother Michael tells an inspiring story of the Christian enthusiasm with which the faithful of the fifth century fought and repelled a heresy that would have undermined faith in the Incarnation, and would have derogated the dignity of the Mother of God.

We can well imagine the reaction, or rather the lack of it, on the part of present-day “ecumenical” Liberals, had Nestorius arisen in our own time. But Catholics of the fifth century, thank God, were still close to the Age of Martyrs. Let us, therefore, see how they defended the Faith, remembering that every time a Catholic today prays the Hail Mary, he echoes, whether he is conscious of the fact or not, the enthusiasm of Ephesus in 431.

An Ecumenical, or General Council of the Church, is a solemn assembly of the bishops of the world, convoked by the Pope and subject to his authority. Its purpose is to discuss officially those matters that concern the Faith or ecclesiastical discipline. So far, there have been twenty-one of these Councils, starting with Nicea I and ending with Vatican II.

The glorious Council of Ephesus, our subject in this issue, is third in this historical list. It took place in the year of Our Lord 431, when Saint Celestine I was Pope and Theodosius the Younger was Emperor. And it was held in a city of Asia Minor which has bestowed on the Council its name, and on which the Council, in return, has bestowed immortality.

Pope Celestine ordered the Council because of a certain wicked heresy being promoted in the East by the Bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius. Called Nestorianism after its founder, the heresy went so far as to attack the second great Mystery of Faith — the Incarnation — that is, God become man for our redemption. And it was doing an excellent job of destroying faith and tradition until God Himself raised up saints to check the blasphemies and false teachings of Bishop Nestorius and his followers. Here is the story of that conflict between saints and sinners put forth in dramatic detail.

Nestorius: Author of Heresy

Before becoming Archbishop of Constantinople, Nestorius had been educated at the famous theological and Biblical school of Antioch. This school, from which sprang the celebrated Saint John Chrysostom, had been perfectly Catholic in its teachings until the early fifth century. Renowned for its literal method of inquiry into the Sacred Scriptures, it was sometimes at odds with the equally famous school of Alexandria, which favored a more mystical and allegorical method of Biblical interpretation. Both systems were initially orthodox, yet it must also be said that when carried to extremes, both could be equally prone to heresy. This is, unfortunately, what happened in the Antiochene school, when, with Nestorius as its most brilliant student, a teacher named Theodore of Mopsuestia deviated from the traditional doctrine concerning the union of natures in the God-Man.

Theodore and his disciples tampered with the mystery of the Hypostatic Union Itself, that is , that union between the Divine Nature of Our Lord and the human nature He adopted for our salvation. Indeed, for them, this mystery was no mystery at all, and they proceeded to explain truth away by talking as if there is a duality of persons in Christ. The students were taught that Jesus was just a man whom the Divine Logos 1 had assumed, while each retained his own proper person. It is therefore incorrect, they reasoned, to say that God was born, suffered, and died. These passive qualities cannot be applied to the infinite and impassible Person of the Logos — and consequently, they continued, it was Christ the man who was born, suffered, and died, but the man was certainly not God. Rendering meaningless the inspired testimony of the Apostle Saint John that indeed, “The Word was made Flesh,” Theodore expressed his heretical ideas even more brazenly by saying, “It is foolish to say that God was born of a Virgin.”

As of yet this pernicious opinion had not found its way outside the realm of so-called scholarly conversation and, thank God, the ordinary Catholic kept his traditional piety and faith unsullied by this new poison. Nevertheless, it was a wavering peace that threatened any day to explode into a religious war. And this is precisely what materialized with the ascendancy of Nestorious to the imperial Patriarchate in 428.

No sooner had the proud monk (Nestorius had been abbot of a monastery in Antioch) assumed his office when a certain curate of his domain ignited the flames of controversy with a sermon he delivered in the cathedral Church, wherein he said that it was incorrect to refer to the Blessed Virgin Mary as Theotokos or “God-bearer.” The congregation was infuriated, for they had always attributed this title to Mary. The Patriarch found it imperative that he come to his curate’s defense, which he did in a series of lectures on successive days thereafter. The faithful sat stunned as they listened to their shepherd utter such blasphemies in fiery words like these:

They ask whether Mary may be called God-bearer. But has God then a mother? In that case we must excuse heathenism which spoke of mothers of the gods…. No, my friends, Mary did not bear God; the creature did not bear the Creator, but the man who is the instrument of the Godhead…..

An intelligent lawyer named Eusebius, who earned for himself the honor of being the first to oppose the new heresy, interrupted the Patriarch’s discourse and shouted, “It is the Eternal Word that is Incarnate in Mary!”

The news of the excitement, by now upsetting the entire imperial city, traveled, as religious news always does, quickly, throughout the centers of the Christian world. But nowhere did it find a more sensitive ear than in the Egyptian capital, Alexandria.

This ancient city of the Nile, nurtured in the Faith by the Evangelist Saint Mark, still held fresh in her fondest memories the labors of the heroic Saint Athanasius for her salvation. Now again another champion of orthodoxy by the name of Cyril was sitting in that important Patriarchal See.

Possessed with a keen intellect, a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures, and a soul on fire for the honor of God, he lashed out against Nestorius in a series of sermons in which he demonstrated for the welfare of his flock the fallacies of the views held by Nestorius.

Treatises and letters flowed forth from the ever-active pen of Cyril to the solitaries, monks, and clergy, to the Emperor, the imperial ladies, and finally to Nestorius himself, warning the faithful to be on their guard, and mildly entreating the Patriarch to abandon his error. Unable to answer the logic of Cyril’s arguments, Nestorius resorted to personal slanders, totally untrue, which he hurled at Cyril, thus displaying the baseness of his own mind.

Cyril, having failed in this manner to bring the heresiarch to his senses, hoped that perhaps the Emperor, Theodosius II, would use his influence to check Nestorius. But the Emperor was more interested in securing the sovereignty of the Patriarchate of Constantinople than in defending the divinity of Christ. For he crushed the hopes of Cyril by suddenly taking the side of the new heresy. There was only one alternative for the watchful Alexandrian — he had to inform the Bishop of Rome, Pope Celestine. In a letter to His Holiness, Cyril laid bare the distressing state of the Church in the East.

The Sovereign Pontiff, although greatly preoccupied with the evangelization of the new Western nations (Pope Celestine had sent Saint Patrick to Ireland), and resisting the invasions of the barbarians, applied himself with intense zeal to the internal problems of the more ancient children of the East. In the year 430, at a Roman synod called to discuss the growing crisis, Pope Celestine condemned the Nestorian heresy and warned the accused that if he did not recant his error within ten days he would suffer excommunication. Investing Cyril with the authority of executing the decree, Celestine cautioned him not to be over-lenient:

“By the authority of the Holy See, and acting in Our stead with the power granted to Us, you will execute the sentence with exemplary severity.”

When the Bishop of Alexandria received this reply from Pope Celestine, he was greatly encouraged and immediately summoned another local synod in the Egyptian capital, from which was proclaimed twelve anathemas against the principal tenets of Nestorius. To these, the stubborn heresiarch countered with twelve anathemas of his own against Cyril’s pronouncements! At this deadlock the Patriarch of Constantinople, being fully aware of his condemnation from Rome, followed a course of action typical of heretics of all times — he appealed from the Pope to the authority of a council.

The holding of this Council was inevitable. The whole East had been clamoring for it since the controversy began; the Emperor requested it, the monks requested it, and even Cyril himself brought its beneficial aspects before the attention of Pope Celestine. The Bishop of Rome, in conjunction with the Eastern Emperor, then set the date. It was to be convened on the following Pentecost in the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor. Letters of invitation, signed by the Emperors of both the East and the West, were sent to all the metropolitans, requesting them and their most able suffragans to be present at the discussions. A personal invitation was dispatched to Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. But the holy Doctor did not attend the Council, for when the messenger arrived at the African city with the invitation, he was informed that the great Bishop had died on August 28 (430 A. D.).

Ephesus, surviving today as the poor Greek city of Aya Solouk (The Holy Theologian), had been first evangelized by Saint Paul, who abode there three years. Later, The Holy Theologian, Saint John, and the Mother of God herself, made it their peaceful home when they were forced to leave Jerusalem. What better setting could there be than such a city as Ephesus for the first Marian Council par excellence.

At the time scheduled for the commencement of the sessions, June 6, 431, all the delegates had arrived with the exception of John, the Patriarch of Antioch, and the papal legates. Cyril, in his capacity as President of the Council, and after consulting with Memnon, the Bishop of Ephesus, decided to await their arrival before proceeding. The Patriarch John had sent word that he had been unavoidably delayed, offering what appeared to be legitimate excuses, but what were actually nothing short of tactics calculated to postpone his arrival so that he would not have to be present at the condemnation of his personal friend, Nestorius. Cyril, well aware of their friendship, finally convened the Council, after a two weeks’ delay, without John’s presence. The accused heresiarch had already arrived in Ephesus ahead of time with sixteen sympathetic bishops and a lay escort, so there was no reason for further delay. One may ask why Cyril didn’t await the papal legates? The reason is that the legates were not themselves so much going to take part in the discussions as to pass judgement on the decisions. The heresy had arisen in the East and the Eastern Fathers were more acquainted with it and more capable of refuting its subtleties.

The Theology of the Council

The Nicene Creed was solemnly read and followed by the reading of Cyril’s second letter to Nestorius, which set down the Catholic Doctrine concerning the union of the Natures in Christ as opposed to the teaching of Nestorius. All the bishops unanimously declared the letter’s perfect accordance with the Nicene Faith. During the proceedings, Saint Cyril stressed the unique Personality of Christ as being that of the Eternal Logos Himself. He argued:

The Body of Christ is not the Body of any other, but of the Word; the Human Nature of Christ does not belong to any human person, but the Personality to which it belongs is the Logos. Were the Humanity of Christ a mere Instrument of the Godhead, then Christ would not be essentially different from Moses, for he too, was an instrument of God.

The holy Bishop went on to draw the analogy between the union of the two Natures in Christ and the union of the body and soul in man:

We know that when we speak of a man being born or having died, the soul of that man, since it is spiritual, is obviously incapable of either being born or dying, and yet we still say that the man was born or the man died. The whole man is a composite of body and soul and consequently, though we may distinguish the two parts that make up a man, we do not divide the man. So too with the Person of our Savior; though we certainly distinguish the Human Nature in which He was able to suffer and die, from the Divine in which He could not suffer or die, we do not divide the Christ but we confess that He is One Person, and that Person is God.

The crux of the argument of the Alexandrian bishop is that if the person who died for us on Calvary was not God, then, indeed, we may despair; for then we have not been redeemed, since no mere man could have paid such a price.

Next, the controversial title of Theotokos was proclaimed to be in harmony with the ancient Faith, and was furthermore declared to be the watchwood of orthodoxy, meaning that he who refused to grant this title to the Virgin Mary was deprived of the communion of the faithful. The writings of Saint Cyril on this theological point were further read, in which he stated: “It is not that a man was born of Mary upon whom the Logos then descended, but the Logos united Himself with the Human Nature in the womb of Mary, and thus was, after the flesh, born.”

When the writings of the saint had been read, the letter that Nestorius had written to Cyril in response was brought forward and read aloud to the entire assembly.

Upon its conclusion, all of the bishops protested in unison, with majesty and authority, “Anathema to such impious teachings, anathema to whoever holds such opinions. They are contrary to the Sacred Scriptures and to the traditions of the Fathers.”

When the Church was quiet again the letter of Pope Celestine was dutifully read, and the bishops, all of whom were from the East, regarded it as having the force of a juridical sentence to which they felt bound to subscribe. Having been thus officially excommunicated, for this was what was demanded in the Papal brief, the decree of deposition was likewise solemnly proclaimed, thereby depriving the proud Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, of all episcopal dignity. The first session was fittingly concluded with a recitation of numerous patristic passages, dating as far back as Pope Saint Felix I (269-274), each speaking with unquestionable clarity in setting forth the twoness of Natures and the oneness of Person in our Redeemer. And furthermore, not a few passages spoke explicitly of Mary as being the Mother of God.

Gathered outside the church doors, in enthusiastic anticipation of the assembly’s decision, was what seemed to be the entire population of Ephesus. As soon as the news of what was decided leaked through the portals, the rejoicing was so unparalleled that no historian has failed to report it. The whole city became as though sun-lit with torches, and devotional pageantry exploded in the streets.

The Fathers of the Council were escorted back to their residences with incense and singing, and amid such protestations of affection that the humility of the humblest of saints would have been put to a difficult test. The defeated Nestorius, who could not have failed to notice the spectacle, felt the blow sharply, and with angry words complained to the Emperor.

Satan, however, was not going to let his loyal disciple be so easily overcome; help came in the name of John of Antioch who appeared on the scene. Escorted by armed guards (a practice which we find common among all the early heresiarchs), he had his soldiers cruelly beat off a delegation that had come from the Council to inform him of his friend’s condemnation. When John and Nestorius met they immediately convoked a false synod, together with forty other wavering bishops. Needless to say, Cyril, and Memnon also, were proclaimed “excommunicated.”

Confusion Blinds the Emperor

But Satan still was not finished with his work. Another attack was launched at the holy synod, this time from the direction of the state. Theodosius, assuming a power totally outside his temporal realm, rejected the true Council, and not content with that, he applied his misguided methods of restoring a long desired peace by having Cyril, Memnon, and Nestorius arrested! All communication was then scanned by his imperial commissioner in order that no messages for Cyril could get in or out of Ephesus. But by a clever stratagem, an aide of Cyril, disguised as a beggar, smuggled out, in the hollow of a cane, a letter to the monks of Constantinople.

Astonished at the news of Cyril’s imprisonment, the cloistered monks filed out of their monasteries in an orderly march on the imperial palace. They demanded that the Emperor release Cyril and Memnon without delay, and furthermore that he recognize the decrees of the holy synod.2

Met with this unexpected confrontation, the weak sovereign decided on a different course of action. He sent to Ephesus an order that a delegation from each of the concerned parties present themselves before him in Constantinople, as quickly as possible — except for the three prisoners, who were to remain for the time in confinement. But immediately after sending out the imperial summons, an amazing change took place; Theodosius shifted his support to favor the Papal decrees, and gave his approval to the legitimate Council’s pronouncements.

Why this change in the Emperor’s mind? Historians can only guess. This is our guess, and it is a very simple one: Theodosius was influenced by his sister, Pulcheria, Saint Pulcheria as the Church calls her, and it was her entreaties, her pleas to her brother that he do the will of God rather than the will of men, which changed the course of history. That one little girl, who made the resolution to become a saint, was greatly responsible for destroying, for a time anyway, the devil’s attack on the Divine Maternity of Our Lady, and for restoring, at long last, a welcome peace to the battle-weary churches of the East.

Cyril returned a free man to his native Alexandria, where he was received with heartfelt festivity and where he died a peaceful and holy death in the year 444, after a life of untiring zeal for souls and for the preservation of doctrine. The Universal Church honored him for his holiness with sainthood, and bestowed upon him, for his brilliant mind, the title of Doctor of the Church. His feast day is celebrated on February 8.

But the impenitent Nestorius, wanted by no one, was exiled to Arabia and finally to Eqypt. Here, as Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori records, that same tongue which was so persistent in blaspheming the Virgin Mother of God and her Divine Son, contracted a deadly cancer and rotted in his mouth. The retributive Hand of God was certainly manifested in his conspicuous and unhappy death.

Saint Pulcheria, Saint Celestine, and Saint Cyril should be very dear to every Catholic’s heart — and so should the First Council of Ephesus, because it was in honor of the victory of this great Marian Council that the glorious Pope Celestine gave us the second part of the Hail Mary, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners.” What a gift to thank God for!

So let us, every time we pray the Ave Maria, remember where the last part came from, why it came about, and who the heroes were that made it possible. For these are beautiful little facts of history that no Catholic should ever forget.

1 Logos is a Greek word meaning The Word. It is the mysterious name of the Second Person in the Holy Trinity, Who became man for our salvation, as it is written: “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us: (John 1:14).

2 It is important to remind the reader here that the validity of a council of the Church never has and never will depend on the recognition or non-recognition of the state. On the other hand, it should be understood that the support of the state can be of tremendous benefit to the Church in Her Divine mission of spreading the Gospel.