November 15, 2007
by Fr. Andrew Younan
Christology in the Patristic Period
Fr. Andrew Younan
Part II – Councils & Synods
This second lecture will be an overview of the Church’s official response to the Christological controversies that took place in the first six Christian centuries. After looking at individual writers and interpretations of the Bible and learning the terminology they used in their expression, we will see how the Holy Spirit, who is always guiding the Church in her teaching, led her to a balanced and moderate expression of Christology, but one that was still meaningful and firm. This teaching became codified in the Christological Councils of Nicea (325 AD), Ephesus(431 AD), Chalcedon (451 AD), and II Constantinople (553 AD).
In the East, however, attendance at these councils was nearly impossible, but we will see how the Church of the East in her own way found a moderate and orthodox position in Christology even in the midst of intense personal debates. In looking at the Synods of the Church of the East, we will pave the way for the third lecture, which is a presentation of her Christological synthesis that is quite relevant even in today’s theological world.
A. The Councils of the Universal Church
In the midst of debates between the Arians and Athanasius, Appolinarians and Cappadocians, Monophysites and Diophysites, the Church strove to guard the truth of the Lord’s identity from all error. Indeed, if our salvation comes as a result of our faith in Christ, who he is becomes a question of the highest importance for the Church. Therefore she could not leave the question to any individual author, but rather called all her bishops together to clarify and define as precisely as possible the true faith of the Messiah.
The Council of Nicea – 325 AD
The Council of Nicea is not exactly a Christological Council. That is, the question at hand was not about the divinity and humanity of Christ, but rather about the nature of the Trinity – is the Son of God equal to the Father? Against the mighty opposition of the Arians, who said that the Son of God is a creature and therefore less than the Father, the Fathers of the Council of Nicea boldly proclaimed the full divinity of the Son of God:
We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of all things, visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten generated from the Father, that is, from the being of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in being with the Father, through whom all things were made, those in heaven and those on earth. For us men and for our salvation he came down and became flesh, was made man, suffered and rose again on the third day. He ascended to the heavens and shall come again to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Spirit.
As for those who say: “There was a time when he was not” and “Before being begotten he was not,” and who declare that he was made from nothing, or that the Son of God is from a different substance (hupostasis) or being, that is, created or subject to change and alteration – these people the Catholic Church condemns.
Though the topic was not precisely Christ as both God and man, the council made clear that the Son of God, as God, is God, and equal to the Father.
The Council of Ephesus – 431 AD
Christ’s divinity having been clearly defined and defended, the pendulum swung in the West, and extremists began, in their concern for protecting Christ’s divinity, to undermine his humanity. We saw in the previous lecture how Apollinarius became a central figure in this heresy. But there was more complication to this story: those who took the humanity of Christ seriously slipped into another accusation, that of “Nestorianism.” As the intensity raged between these two sides, accusations became harsher and harsher, the “Nestorians” being accused of “splitting Christ into two” and the “Monophysites” being accused of destroying Christ’s humanity.
This is the intellectual setup for the Council of Ephesus. Unfortunately, however, the Church and her Councils are not simply intellectual beings, and the history of the Council of Ephesus requires us to turn our attention to the incidents surrounding it if we are to understand it in context. As we saw last lecture, the central figures in this time period are Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorious of Constantinople: two patriarchs overseeing enormously powerful parts of the Roman Empire. In 381 AD, at the First Council of Constantinople, the city of Constantinople was declared equal in status to the city of Rome, though Rome was the older and more central See. Up until that point, the second most important See in the Church had been Alexandria, and bitterness thrived in Alexandria against Constantinople. More importantly than this, this debate between Cyril and Nestorious was one between the two theological stances of what scholars have called the “Schools” of Alexandria and Antioch.
Personality also plays a strong role in the circumstances surrounding the Council of Ephesus. Moffett describes the history in this way:
Ephesus, 431, was the most violent and least equitable of all the great councils. It is an embarrassment and blot on the history of the church. The council was called by the authority of the emperor, who favored Nestorious, but Cyril stole it away from him. When he received word that the patriarch of Antioch, who also sided with Nestorious, would arrive late and was asking the council to wait for him and his bishops, Cyril, who had brought fifty of his own bishops with him, arrogantly opened the council anyway, over the protests of the imperial commissioner and about seventy other bishops. Nestorious refused even to attend…So tense was the situation that a guard was flung about the house in which Nestorious lodged to prevent his murder. At Cyril’s bidding the council proceeded obediently to vote two hundred to nil to excommunicate Nestorious. John of Antioch, with forty bishops, arrived too late to do anything but declare the result illegal and hold a countercouncil that excommunicated Cyril. Confronted by an impasse that threatened to tear his Byzantine empire apart, Theodosius II reluctantly decided to defuse the situation by accepting the deposition of both the rival patriarchs, Nestorious and Cyril. They were arrested and imprisoned, but the two men reacted to the sentence in quite different ways. Cyril promptly bribed his way back to power. He bought the favor of the emperor’s adviser, the grand chamberlain, with a present of fourteen oriental rugs, eight couches, six tablecloths, four tapestries, four ivory benches, six leather benches, and six ostriches and ran the church of Alexandria into debt to the amount of around three million dollars by today’s reckoning. Nestorious, on the other hand, who was often tactless and extreme but always honest and sincere, accepted the verdict with only a quiet protest at its injustice. He went obediently into exile, first to his old monastery near Antioch and then, in 435, as the opposition to him hardened, on to Petra in Arabia. Finally, so greatly was his influence feared, he was moved far out into the Egyptian desert. (Moffett, pp. 174-175).
This is the context in which we must understand the teaching of the Council of Ephesus.
Ironically, aside from excommunicating the person of Nestorious, the Council had rather little precise teaching, and no Canons. What was ratified at the Council was simply the Second Letter that was written from Cyril to Nestorious. What is relevant to our topic in this document is the following:
For we do not say that the nature of the Word became flesh by undergoing a change, nor that it was transformed into a complete man, made up of soul and body. Rather, we affirm that the Word, having united to himself according to the hypostasis the flesh animated by a rational soul, became man in an ineffable and incomprehensible manner and was called Son of man. This union is not merely according to will or to good pleasure; nor does it consist in the assumption of a prosopon (“personality”) only. And though the natures which are brought together into a true unity are distinct, from both there results one Christ and one Son; not as though the distinction of natures were suppressed by their union, but rather because the divinity and the humanity by their mysterious and ineffable coming together into unity have constituted for us the one Lord, Christ and Son. It was not that an ordinary man was born first of the holy Virgin, on whom afterwards the Word descended; what we say is that, being united with the flesh from the womb, he has undergone birth in the flesh, making the birth in the flesh his own…Thus [the holy Fathers] have unhesitatingly called the holy Virgin “Mother of God.” This does not mean that the nature of the Word or his divinity received the beginning of its existence from the holy Virgin, but that, since the holy body, animated by a rational soul, which the Word united to himself, according to the hypostasis, was born from her, the Word was born according to the flesh.
Through all the hardship and controversy surrounding the Council of Ephesus, its main teaching is an affirmation that (1) the Son of God did not change in becoming man; (2) Christ has two natures which are distinct but perfectly united, not “merely according to good pleasure;” and (3) it is not inaccurate to call the Virgin Mary the “Mother of God” because of the perfect union between God the Word and the “holy body, animated by a rational soul” which was born of her.
The Council of Chalcedon – 451 AD
Two things left the Council of Ephesus lacking in the eyes of the Catholic Church: the questionable circumstances surrounding it, and the weakness of its teaching and terminology. Therefore in 451, the same year Nestorious died in the Egyptian desert, Emperor Marcian called for the Council of Chalcedon. Two years earlier, Monophysite bishops had met again in Ephesus at what is called the “Robber Council,” where they took the Alexandrian position to a heretical extreme. This “Council” in Ephesus was condemned both by Pope Leo I and by a synod of Rome in 449. Still, the Alexandrian upheaval against the teaching of Christ’s two natures required that a general Council meet to decide the issue. The Council of Chalcedon remains the most balanced expression of the Christology of the Universal Church. The relevant texts are as follows:
[The Council] opposes those who attempt to divide the mystery of the incarnation into two sons. It excludes from the sacred assembly those who dare to declare subject to suffering the divinity of the Only-begotten. It withstands those who imagine a mixture or confusion of Christ’s two natures. It rejects those who fancy that the form of a servant assumed by him among us is of a heavenly nature and foreign to ours in essence. It condemns those who invent the myth of two natures of the Lord before the union and of one nature after the union.
Following therefore the holy Fathers, we unanimously teach to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man composed of rational soul and body, the same one in being with the Father as to the divinity and one in being with us as to the humanity, like unto us in all things but sin. The same was begotten from the Father before the ages as to the divinity and in the latter days for us and our salvation was born as to his humanity from Mary the Virgin Mother of God. We confess that one and the same Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son, must be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion or change, without division or separation. The distinction between the natures was never abolished by their union but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person (prosopon) and one hypostasis. He is not split or divided into two persons, but he is one and the same Only-begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as formerly the prophets and later Jesus Christ himself have taught us about him and as has been handed down to us by the Symbol of the Fathers.
As these points have been determined by us with all possible precision and care, the holy ecumenical Council has ordained that no one may propose, put into writing, devise, hold or teach to others any other faith than this.
Respecting, despite its controversy, the main points brought forth in the Council of Ephesus twenty years earlier, the Council of Chalcedon refines and specifies the official teaching of the Church, affirming in strong terms the two natures of Christ, God and man, and making their distinction absolutely clear.
The Second Council of Constantinople – 553 AD
The calm moderation of the Council of Chalcedon was not enough to end the controversy surrounding Christ’s “two natures and one person,” in its own terminology. The question became one not so much of terminology as one of stress. Yes, “nature” was the name given to “what is two in Christ,” and “person” and “hypostasis” were the names given to “what is one in Christ,” but that was not enough to keep accusations of heresy from abounding. The fact remained and remains that Christ is a mystery, and that the more deeply we look at him, the more mysterious he becomes, whatever our terminology.
Unfortunately, the human element in the Church showed itself in the events leading up to the last Christological Council, the Second Council of Constantinople, which took place over a century after the Council of Chalcedon. Like the Council of Ephesus, “Constantinople II” added little to the theological conversation, though it did clarify points made at Chalcedon and used more dramatic language. But the issue was not one of terminology nor even of ideas, but of persons. Three men who had been recognized as orthodox by Chalcedon, Theodoret of Cyrus, Ibas of Edessa and Theodore of Mopsuestia, were accused of heresy (well after their deaths) and brought to trial as “Nestorians” by this council. Their common condemnation is referred to as that of the “Three Chapters.”
Obviously the condemnation of three men who had been dead for decades brought about much debate, and Pope Vigilius opposed the whole idea and even refused to attend the Council. Emperor Justinian, on the other hand, was more anxious to unite his Roman Empire than to defend dead men, and seeing that the Egyptians who supported the condemnation of the three men were within his empire, and their “Nestorian” supporters were outside, in the Persian Empire, he insisted on the Council proceeding. The Pope was taken by force and on May 5, 553, the Second Council of Constantinople had begun. At first, Pope Vigilus continued his opposition, publishing aConstitutum against it, and this placed him in opposition to the Emperor. The Council took the side of the Emperor, and this combined power forced the Pope’s retroactive support and approval of its validity. The approval of the Pope, however, seems to extend mostly to the last three Canons of the Council, in which the “Three Chapters” are condemned.
Still, even in these extreme circumstances, the Church’s official stance is theologically moderate. Condemned together are the heresies of the Monophysites and the Nestorians:
For, since union can be understood in various ways, some following the impiety of Apollinarius and Eutyches and upholding the obliteration of the elements which tome together, maintain a union by confusion. Others who think with Theodore and Nestorious, favoring division, introduce an accidental union. The Holy Church of God, rejecting these two impious heresies, confesses the union of God the Word with the flesh as being by synthesis, that is according to the hypostasis. For in the mystery of Christ union by synthesis not only preserves from confusion what has come together but also tolerates no division. For when we say that the only-begotten Word was united according to the hypostasis, we do not say that there took place any confusion between natures; rather, we think that God the Word was united to the flesh, each of the two natures remaining what it is. This is why Christ is one, God and man; the same, one in being with the Father as to the divinity and one in being with us as to his humanity. For the Church of God repudiates and condemns equally those who introduce a separation or division and those who introduce a confusion into the mystery of the divine incarnation.
Theologically moderate, the Council was unfortunately also an attack on persons, and the following condemnation was also included in its final Canons:
If anyone, therefore, defends the aforementioned most impious Theodore and his impious writings in which he spreads the blasphemies mentioned and countless others against our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, and if he does not condemn him and his impious writings and those as well who accept him either by justifying him or by saying that his positions are orthodox, and those who have written in his favor and in favor of his impious writings, and those who hold similar opinions or once held them and remained to the end in such heresy,anathema sit.
The following questions therefore become relevant (though we will not answer them here):
1) Did Theodore and the others condemned actually teach what they were accused of teaching?
2) What does it mean to condemn a man of heresy who had died 125 years earlier in full communion and respect of the Church? Or was it really a heresy that was condemned, rather than a person?
B. The Synods of the Church of the East
In this section I wish to show how the Church of the East, though having her own unique expression of Christology, nevertheless maintained both orthodoxy and a true concern for doctrinal unity with the Church Universal. The Church of the East clearly showed her acceptance of the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon though none of her bishops attended; on the other hand, the Councils which had come about in questionable circumstances and had more personal attacks than theological content, namely Ephesus and II Constantinople, were taken with a grain of salt, though even in these cases, whatever dogmatic affirmations were made were not contradicted.
The Synod of Isaac – 410 AD
It is remarkable that the first concern of the first Synod of the Church of the East, which came about after decades of severe persecution in which communication with the West was impossible, was to affirm the unity of the Church of the East with the Church of the West. Before any of its Canons, the Synod expresses the “Symbol of Faith of the Three Hundred and Eighteen Bishops,” that is, the Creed of the Council of Nicea.
The Synod of Mar Aqaq – 486 AD
The Church of the East watched from Persia while the West aggressively debated the Christological question at the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, and waited over thirty years to publish any official declaration. At the Synod of Mar Aqaq, we have a clear statement of Chalcedonian orthodoxy:
But our faith in the dispensation of Christ should also be in a confession of two natures of Godhead and manhood, none of us venturing to introduce mixture, commingling, or confusion into the distinctions of those two natures. Instead, while Godhead remains and is preserved in that which belongs to it, and manhood in that which belongs to it, we combine the copies of their natures in one Lordship and one worship because of the perfect and inseparable conjunction which the Godhead had with the manhood. If anyone thinks or teaches others that suffering and change adhere to the Godhead of our Lord, not preserving — in regard to the union of the parsopa of our Savior — the confession of perfect God and perfect man, the same shall be anathema.
Just as in Chalcedon, the Fathers of the Synod of Aqaq affirmed a single parsopa (which we will see means person) with two distinct natures in Christ.
The Synod of Mar Aba – 544 AD
The story of Mar Aba is an inspiring one in many ways, but our concern here is with his relationship to the Western Church and the doctrinal statements of his Synod. As for the former, after Aba converted from Zoroastrianism, he visited many of the great Christian cities of the West as a representative of the Church of the East. Moffett relates that “At the Byzantine capital he is said to have been received to communion as a matter of course and in no way treated as a heretic.” (p. 219). This reflects the atmosphere of the West aside from the Church of Egypt, whose tendencies a few later would force the Emperor to begin the Second Council of Constantinople.
But nine years before II Constantinople, the Synod of Mar Aba made a strong expression of union with the West, at the same time affirming the Church of the East’s unique understanding of Christology:
These things were made known with precision by the gift of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples, who learned from the Holy Spirit that Christ is not ordinary man, nor God stripped of the clothing of manhood in which he was revealed, but Christ is God and man, that is, manhood which is anointed with [the Godhead] which anoints it. As it is written, “Therefore God, your God, anoints you with the oil of gladness above your fellows,” the same making known his manhood. Again, “In the beginning was the Word,” this showing his Godhead, which exists eternally and for ever, which created all that is seen and all that is unseen, and exists in three qnome, without beginning, without change, without passion, and without division, which are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As our Lord said — for by him the eternal Trinity was made known — as he spoke concerning himself, “Destroy this temple,” that is, the manhood with which he clothed himself, and again said, “My Father, who [dwells] in me, performs these works,” and again concerning the Holy Spirit who is in him when he said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. Because of this he has anointed me.” Behold, from the title “Christ” we learned about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and we have understood his manhood from the same, and in it is the seal of the entire confession of Christianity. Anyone who does not confess in this way, let him be anathematized. Anyone who introduces a “quaternity” into the holy and immutable Trinity, let him be anathematized. Anyone who does not confess that in the last time the Only-begotten Son of God, who is Christ our Lord, was revealed in the flesh, let him be anathematized. Anyone who does not acknowledge the suffering and death of the manhood of Christ, and the impassibility of his Godhead, let him be anathematized. Or anyone who seals a prayer with the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but numbers some other with them, or does not believe that in the name “Son” he refers to the Godhead and manhood of Christ together, or anyone who seals a prayer with the name of Christ and not as confessing the Trinity, let him be anathematized.
Behind this moderate Chalcedonian approach was a deep respect for Theodore of Mopsuestia, “the Interpreter,” who was to be condemned almost a decade later at II Constantinople, though no persons are named in the definitions of the Synod of Mar Aba.
The Synod of Mar Isho’yahb – 587 AD
It is remarkable that it was not until almost forty years after II Constantinople, wherein Theodore and others were condemned by name, that Theodore is mentioned in any Synod of the Church of the East. The Synods of Mar Yawsip (554 AD) and Mar Hazqiel (576 AD) made no mention of either Theodore or of the Christological controversy. Even this Synod of Mar Isho’yahb mentions Theodore in a totally different context. Its Second Canon is entitled “A defense of the writings and teachings of the holy Theodore, and against the slander of the heretics, who have spread false information concerning him,” but it has nothing at all to do with Constantinople II or Christology. Rather, it is a defense of his spiritual interpretation of the book of Job and his teaching on its authorship.
The Synod of Mar Sabrisho’ – 596 AD
The first time Theodore, as a symbol of the Christological controversy and the condemnations of II Constantinople, is mentioned in the Synods of the Church of the East is in 596, 43 years after his condemnation in the West. Like in other Synods, the Christological language is moderate and Chalcedonian, but takes on a personal note:
We also cast out and anathematize all who reject the interpretations, traditions and teachings of the approved teacher, the blessed Theodore the Interpreter, and attempt to bring in new and foreign traditions full of humbug and blasphemy…
The conclusion I would like to make in this lecture is that compared to the raging controversies in the West which became personal attacks, the Church of the East was respectful of all dogmatic agreements while putting aside condemnations of individual writers.
Sources: Synodicon Orientale, tr. M. J. Birnie; A History of Christianity in Asia, Samuel Hugh Moffett; The Christian Faith, ed. Neuner & Dupuis.