Milpitas Christian Church

Second Council of Ephesus 431

Churches fight over power and controversy.

Background - politics

  • Two schools of theological thought centered around the churches of Alexandria and Antioch

  • The two schools became bitterly opposed to each other and engaged in nasty politics to undermine each others’ members

  • The prize was the bishopric of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. The bishop of that large and wealthy church was called the patriarch. The church did not produce many of its own theologians or leaders, but the bishops of Antioch and Alexandria frequently tried to get their own people to become the patriarch of Constantinople, because it was easy for the patriarch to have the ear of the emperor.

  • The churches of the West, led by Rome, did not argue very much in this controversy, but intervened every once in awhile

Background - theology

  • The christological controversies: how can Christ be one and yet fully human and fully divine?

  • Both schools agreed that Jesus’ divine nature is eternal and immutable/unchanging

  • But how could the eternal and unchanging God be united to a historical, changeable man?

    Alexandrine School Antiochene School
    Jesus’ divinity is more important than His humanity and can even overwhelm it Jesus’ humanity is what links Him to us as our Savior and thus must never be diminished
    Jesus is one person, and thus practically speaking had no human limitations Jesus experienced human limitations during His earthly ministry and thus must be understood as two persons, a human and a divine, in the same body
  • As you can see, both schools were tending towards extremes that were difficult to harmonize with all of Scripture and which excluded each other

  • The heresy of Apollinarianism was rejected at the Council of Constantinople, 381

Gregory of Nazianzus

Epistle 101 text:

If any believe in Jesus Christ as a human being without human reason, they are the ones devoid of all reason, and unworthy of salvation. For that which he has not taken up he has not saved. He saved that which he joined to his divinity. If only half of Adam had fallen, then it would be possible for Christ to take up and save only half. But if the entire human nature fell, all of it must be united to the Word in order to be saved as a whole.

  • Then Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople caused a controversy by saying that in Jesus there were “two natures and two persons,” a divine and a human of each

    • He was not a good explainer or theologian and even now it’s a bit difficult to understand how he personally meant it, but his opponents objected to the implication that Jesus was a split personality rather than a single unified Person
  • Nestorius was associated with Antioch, and so the Alexandrines led by Bishop Cyril tried to ruin him in any way they could

  • Bishop Cyril of Alexandria, an able politician, secured the support of Pope Leo I of Rome and both Roman emperors.

  • Eastern emperor, Theodosius II, called the Council of Ephesus for June 431

    • Purpose was to settle the doctrine of the two natures of Christ and decide how to treat Nestorius’s teaching

431 - Battle of the councils

Cyril’s Council of Ephesus

  • Nestorius’s supporters, led by John of Antioch, were delayed two weeks

  • Bishop Cyril and his supporters decided to start proceedings without them

  • Many bishops and the Roman legate protested that it was not a true ecumenical council if anything was decided without all members, but they were overruled

Result: declared Nestorius a heretic (without letting him defend himself) and deposed him as bishop of Constantinople

John’s Council of Ephesus

  • When John of Antioch arrived with the party of Nestorius’s supporters, they were furious, and convened a rival council

Result: declared Bishop Cyril a heretic and reinstated Nestorius

Cyril’s Council of Ephesus

  • Retaliated by reaffirming the condemnation of Nestorius and also condemning John of Antioch and everyone at his council

Government Intervention

  • Emperor Theodosius II had enough of this infighting. He:
    • arrested both Cyril and John
    • declared both councils to be void
    • forced a series of negotiations between the Alexandrines and the Antiochenes

Result: Cyril and John finally agreed to a “formula of union” in 433

  • Nestorius remained excommunicated and deposed. He was slowly abandoned by his former friends, who now found him embarrassing, although his ideas began to spread into the Churches of the East who were outside of Roman borders

  • Theologically the two extremes of either side were avoided, but the controversy wasn’t over yet!

  • Pelagianism was also officially denounced and condemned

  • Reaffirmed the Nicene Creed (the original, not the modified version from the Council of Constantinople of 381)

Formula of Union - 433

The text:

We will state briefly what we are convinced of and profess about the God-bearing virgin and the manner of the incarnation of the only begotten Son of God – not by way of addition but in the manner of a full statement, even as we have received and possess it from of old from the holy scriptures and from the tradition of the holy fathers, adding nothing at all to the creed put forward by the holy fathers at Nicaea.

For, as we have just said, that creed is sufficient both for the knowledge of godliness and for the repudiation of all heretical false teaching. We shall speak not presuming to approach the unapproachable; but we confess our own weakness and so shut out those who would reproach us for investigating things beyond the human mind.

We confess, then, our lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, perfect God and perfect man of a rational soul and a body, begotten before all ages from the Father in his godhead, the same in the last days, for us and for our salvation, born of Mary the virgin, according to his humanity, one and the same consubstantial with the Father in godhead and consubstantial with us in humanity, for a union of two natures took place. Therefore we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord. According to this understanding of the unconfused union, we confess the holy virgin to be the mother of God because God the Word took flesh and became man and from his very conception united to himself the temple he took from her. As to the evangelical and apostolic expressions about the Lord, we know that theologians treat some in common as of one person and distinguish others as of two natures, and interpret the god-befitting ones in connexion with the godhead of Christ and the lowly ones with his humanity.

Cyril also wrote an interesting letter to John of Antioch around the same time, which can be read here. In it he:

  • Argues for the legitimacy of calling Mary theotokos “Mother of God”
  • Asserts the importance of affirming the Council of Nicaea and the teachings of the “holy fathers” like Athanasius


  • A major schism in the Eastern churches which was only patched over with much negotiation, but which eventually caused problems again leading up to the Third Council of Ephesus in 449, which dissolved into violence and error. The Second Council of Ephesus was repudiated by the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

  • The Persian churches, outside Roman borders, had recently declared their independence from other Christian churches (in order to deflect Persian accusations that Christians were just Roman spies). They accepted Nestorianism and spread it further east.

    • Many supporters of Nestorius and John of Antioch who were in the Roman empire migrated east rather than submit to the Formula of Union


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