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Fifth Century

Inner Struggles

At the begin­ning of the fifth cen­tu­ry when Alexan­dria and Con­stan­tino­ple were feud­ing over their respec­tive posi­tions in the Church and in the empire, Nesto­rius, the bish­op of Con­stan­tino­ple, made known his refusal to hon­or Mary, Christ’s moth­er, with the tra­di­tion­al title of Theotokos. He claimed that the one born from Mary is mere­ly the “man” in whom the eter­nal Logos of God came to dwell, but not the Logos Him­self. Thus, Mary could not prop­er­ly be called Theotokos, which means the one who gave birth to God.

Saint Cyril, the bish­op of Alexan­dria (d.444), force­ful­ly reject­ed the teach­ing of Nesto­rius, claim­ing that it is prop­er to call Mary Theotokos since the one born from her, “accord­ing to the flesh,” is none oth­er than the divine Logos of God. The only-begot­ten Son of God was “begot­ten of the Father before all ages” com­ing down from Heav­en for man’s sal­va­tion, being born in the flesh, and becom­ing man from the Vir­gin. Thus, the Son of God and the Son of Mary is one and the same Son.

The Third Ecumenical Council

Nesto­rius and his fol­low­ers refused to yield to Saint Cyril’s appeals for repen­tance. Thus, in 431, in the city of Eph­esus, a small group of bish­ops under Saint Cyril’s direct con­trol held a coun­cil to affirm the Alexan­dri­an doc­trine and to reject that of Nesto­rius. The deci­sions of this meet­ing were for­mal­ly rec­og­nized in 433 by the East­ern bish­ops who had not been present. The Coun­cil of 431 sub­se­quent­ly became known as the Third Ecu­meni­cal Coun­cil.

The Robber Council

Again the deci­sions of this coun­cil were not imme­di­ate­ly accept­ed. Con­tro­ver­sy over the issue in ques­tion con­tin­ued to rage. Saint Cyril and the major­i­ty of the East­ern bish­ops — who were inclined to oppose his teach­ing because of their fear that it did not ade­quate­ly express the gen­uine human­i­ty of Jesus — were able to come to a com­mon under­stand­ing. After his death, how­ev­er, Cyril’s fanat­i­cal fol­low­ers again broke with the bish­ops of Con­stan­tino­ple and the East. In 449, a large num­ber of bish­ops who con­sid­ered them­selves faith­ful to Saint Cyril’s posi­tion, held anoth­er coun­cil in Eph­esus. This coun­cil came to be known as the latrocini­um or rob­ber coun­cil. It for­mu­lat­ed a doc­trine about the per­son and nature of Christ which so stressed the Lord’s divin­i­ty that His human­i­ty all but com­plete­ly dis­ap­peared. Thus, con­fu­sion and divi­sion con­tin­ued to exist among Christians.

The Fourth Ecumenical Council

In 451, anoth­er coun­cil was called, this time in the city of Chal­cedon, to solve the prob­lem of the doc­trine of Christ. This coun­cil, now rec­og­nized in the Church as the Fourth Ecu­meni­cal Coun­cil, suc­ceed­ed in defend­ing the teach­ing of Saint Cyril and the Eph­esian Coun­cil of 431. It also sat­is­fied the demands of the East­ern bish­ops that the gen­uine human­i­ty of Jesus would be clear­ly con­fessed. In its def­i­n­i­tion, the Coun­cil of Chal­cedon close­ly fol­lowed the teach­ing, for­mu­lat­ed in a let­ter, of Pope Saint Leo of Rome.

The Chal­cedon­ian def­i­n­i­tion states that Jesus Christ is indeed the Logos incar­nate, the very Son of God “born of the Father before all ages.” It affirms that the Vir­gin Mary is tru­ly Theotokos since the one born from her “accord­ing to the flesh” in Beth­le­hem, is the uncre­at­ed, divine Son of God, one of the Holy Trin­i­ty. In His human birth, the Coun­cil declared, the Word of God took to Him­self the whole of human­i­ty, becom­ing a real man in every way, but with­out sin. Thus, accord­ing to the Chal­cedon­ian def­i­n­i­tion, Jesus of Nazareth is one per­son or hyposta­sis in two natures — human and divine. He is ful­ly human. He is ful­ly divine. He is per­fect God and per­fect man. As God, He is “of one essence” (homoousios) with God the Father and the Holy Spir­it. As man, He is “of one essence” (homoousios) with all human beings.

The union of divin­i­ty and human­i­ty in Christ is called the hypo­sta­t­ic union. This expres­sion means that in the one, unique per­son of Christ, divin­i­ty and human­i­ty are unit­ed in such a way that they are nei­ther mixed togeth­er and con­fused, nor sep­a­rat­ed and divid­ed. Christ is one per­son Who is both human and divine. The Son of God and the Son of Mary is one and the same person.

The Monophysites

The deci­sion of the Coun­cil of Chal­cedon was not accept­ed by the extreme dis­ci­ples of Saint Cyril of Alexan­dria, nor by those who came to be asso­ci­at­ed with them. These Chris­tians, called mono­physites, reject­ed the Chal­cedon­ian Coun­cil on the basis that the coun­cil spoke of two natures, thus reject­ing the old for­mu­la of Saint Cyril which claimed that in His incar­na­tion, Christ has but one nature. The sup­port­ers of the Chal­cedon­ian deci­sion claimed and still claim that though their words are dif­fer­ent from those of the holy father, their doc­trine is exact­ly the same and is sim­ply expressed with greater pre­ci­sion. The dis­agree­ment was nev­er set­tled, how­ev­er, and although many attempts at reunion were made in the fifth and sixth cen­turies — and again in recent years — the dis­senters from the Chal­cedon­ian deci­sion remain sep­a­rat­ed from the Ortho­dox Church.

Today, the so-called Mono­physite Chris­tians are in the Cop­tic Church of Egypt, the Ethiopi­an Church, the Syr­i­an Jaco­bite Church, the Syr­i­an Church of India, and the Armen­ian Church. These church­es are often called the Less­er East­ern Church­es or the Ori­en­tal Ortho­dox Church­es.

The Councils

The Third and Fourth Ecu­meni­cal Coun­cils made a num­ber of canons of a dis­ci­pli­nary and prac­ti­cal nature. The Coun­cil of Eph­esus for­bade the com­po­si­tion of a “dif­fer­ent faith” from that of the first two coun­cils (Canon 7). This canon has been used by the Ortho­dox in oppo­si­tion to the addi­tion of the word fil­ioque to the Creed as it came to be used in the West­ern Church­es. The Coun­cil of Chal­cedon gave to Con­stan­tino­ple, the New Rome, “equal priv­i­leges with the old impe­r­i­al Rome” because the new cap­i­tal city was “hon­ored with the emper­or and the sen­ate” (Canon 28).

The West

The fifth cen­tu­ry wit­nessed the decline of the Chris­t­ian empire in the West with the fall of Rome to the bar­bar­ians. The incep­tion of the West­ern dark ages fol­lowed quick­ly after the death of a man whose volu­mi­nous and high­ly debat­ed writ­ings exer­cised the great­est sin­gle influ­ence in West­ern Chris­tian­i­ty, both Roman and Reformed: Augus­tine, the bish­op of Hip­po (d.430)