We’re in a series of articles exploring the councils and creeds of the Christian church. Why? Because when it comes to faithfully and diligently working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12) we miss a great deal when we simply try to construct our own “real Christianity” with nothing more than a bible. To take heed from those who have gone before us is to benefit from the wealth found in the most important theological declarations of the Christian tradition.
Today we continue the series with a look at the council of Ephesus.
The First Council of Ephesus sought to further clarify and better articulate the Church’s understanding of the person of Jesus Christ, more specifically how he is both human and divine. The orthodox position has always been that Christ is both God and man (true God from true God… born of the virgin Mary) but what did this actually look like, and how did these two natures co-exist? Answers to these questions run the risk of over-spiritualising or over-humanising Jesus, thus distorting not only our understanding of him, but necessarily undermining the work he accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection.
The two major players in this council came from two of the most powerful cities in the world; Nestorius (Patriarch of Constantinople) and Cyril (Patriarch of Alexandria). It must be said from the outset that both these men were deeply concerned with understanding the nature of Christ in a way that was true to Scripture, however they erred in that Nestorius held a literal approach to Jesus which emphasized his humanity, while Cyril emphasized his godhood.
Nestorius developed a view of Christ that aimed to refute both Arianism (Christ was created as god-and-man together, see The Council of Nicea) and Manichaeanism (matter was evil, thus Christ wouldn’t fully become human, but rather was a completely divine being merely ‘wearing’ a human form). This led Nestorius to the conclusion that Jesus was both fully God and fully man, but these parts were separate. For Nestorius, Christ could therefore suffer on the cross in his human part, while the divine part remained unaffected and in control. He emphasized that Jesus was human in every possible way, which he believed is crucial if we are to share in his suffering and benefit from his sacrifice.
With a sharp focus on the other side of the argument, Cyril believed that Nestorius dangerously diminished the divine in Jesus, and that this produced two different people (one human, one divine) that were only loosely tethered to each other in Christ. Cyril held that it was only through the divine Jesus also bearing the infinite punishment for infinite sin on our behalf that he was an effective High Priest for humanity.
Why it Matters
In the end, after a lot of underhanded political maneuvering and power plays between the parties of both Cyril and Nestorius, the council decided in favour of Cyril’s Christology which better balanced the two natures, and had Nestorius stripped of his rank and exiled. While we should be glad for this outcome with regard to developing an important theology, it could also be concerning for those at the time; if a decision of a church council was reached largely because of politics, how could they be sure the right call was made? What we must remember is that even with all the posturing of the day, both parties were seeking as best they could to be faithful to Scripture and facilitate the expansion of the true Christian faith across the world. Throughout the pages of the Bible we frequently see how God uses imperfect people and even evil acts to accomplish his good purposes, and always despite the inadequacy of those he uses.
We would do well to remember the council of Ephesus when engaging in disagreement with fellow believers. Ephesus reminds us that we should exercise humility, care, and a posture that seeks to listen in order to better understand. Today we look upon the events at Ephesus with gratitude, because it was here that the church came closer to our current understanding of the dual nature of Christ and how Christ accomplishes our salvation.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Ephesus tends to leave the modern reader with the impression that a clear statement of beliefs on Christ’s two natures hasn’t been clearly articulated yet. And that’s really right; it isn’t until the council of Chalcedon in 451 (approx. 20 years later) that a full Christology is made clear. Stay tuned!
More articles in Councils & Creeds: