In the last episode, we introduced the political situation framing the debate that ensued between two church leaders at the Council of Ephesus in 431.
Those two leaders were Nestorius, Patriarch of the Capital Church at Constantinople and Cyril, arch-bishop at Alexandria. Let’s get in to the background on these two men so we can better understand the brueha that happened at Ephesus.
Nestorius was appointed as Patriarch of the Church in Constantinople by the Emperor Theodosius II in 428 after the death of the previous Patriarch, Sisinnius I. The godly Sisinnius only served a year before dying on Christmas Eve in 427. Theodosius took 3 months to pick his successor and settled on Nestorius, a priest living at a monastery just outside the walls of Antioch in Syria.
Nestorius had developed a reputation as an excellent preacher, something the Emperor and his court required at the Capital. So Nestorius was summoned and consecrated to his office as Patriarch of the East in April 428.
And so the trouble began.
As we saw last time, there was a long and heated competition between the Churches at Alexandria & Antioch to supply the Patriarch for the Eastern Capital. Though Alexandria considered itself to be academically superior in every way to Antioch, Constantinople kept drawing its lead bishop from their rival, Antioch. With the selection of Nestorius, Alexandria once again had its nose tweaked. What made it worse, wasn’t just that they picked an Antiochan, but that they picked THAT Antiochan. As far as Cyril, leader of the Alexandrian Church was concerned, Nestorius was the WORST POSSIBLE choice.
By all accounts, Theodosius probably could have come up with a better choice. While a capable teacher, Nestorius wasn’t really cut out for the role of being the Patriarch of the Eastern Capital’s Church. He’d better serve as the vice-principle of a reform school than as lead pastor of a large church. He was both intense and stubborn; a dangerous combination. Having spent most of his time in a monastery, he was ultra, politically naive, which ill-equipped him in dealing with the massive political machinations of the Byzantine court. Upon his arrival, he immediately alienated many. In once example, he assured Theodosius the Empire would triumph over its enemies if he exiled all heretics. Then securing permission to assist in this task, Nestorius burned down a chapel belonging to holdouts of Arianism. But as it’s wont to do, the fire didn’t stop at the edges of the chapel. It burned down a large part of the City. This earned Nestorius the title “Torchie.”
Nestorius refused a request by the Roman bishop Celestine to return a group of heretics taking refuge in Constantinople.
Nestorius was completely intolerant of any views but his own. When someone who’s by far the smartest person in the room adopts that attitude, it’s bad enough. But Nestorius wasn’t that sharp. So when he was unable to answer the questions raised by some monks following one of his sermons, he invited them to his house the following day. When they arrived, Nestorius’s guards beat them. Within months of Nestorius settling into his roles as Patriarch, the list of his enemies was impressive. The only thing that kept opposition from going public was the Emperor’s support. And that didn’t last, as we’ll see.
The other main personality at play at the Council of Ephesus was Cyril, arch-bishop or Patriarch of Alexandria. He was working on a reputation not far off from that of Nestorius. Cyril was quite a character. Rabble-rouser might be a good description for him. When the previous bishop of Alexandria died in 412, a riot ensued between two factions, each of which wanted their leader to become the new leader of the church. One group favored Cyril, the other his rival, Timotheus. Cyril’s faction won and Cyril was installed as the head of the Church. This was at the time of the height of Alexandria’s influence and power in the Roman Empire. Cyril believed the church ought to have a more influential role in the governing of the city; something the Roman prefect Orestes was not about to give him.
Cyril wanted to prove to everyone he was large and in charge so, soon after being named patriarch of Alexandra, he closed down and appropriated the property of a splinter group.
There was ethnic and religious tensions in Alexandria at all times. But at this time the tension between Pagans, Jews & Christians was at an all-time high. It broke out in a riot with well-organized Jews on one side and hapless Christians on the other. It was obvious that the whole thing had been engineered by a small group of Jews who’d managed to slay not a few Christians. So Cyril called out the entire Christian community to ransack Alexandria’s synagogues and expel the entire Jewish community from the city. The governor Orestes was furious that so large and important a part of the city’s population was exiled. It was destined to ruin the city’s economy. And besides, who gave a religious leader the authority to take such an overt civil action?
Both men appealed to the Emperor for support. But in the absence of a reply the tension grew. That’s when a group of monks from a desert monastery arrived. These guys were nothing if not interesting. Their attitude was, “Submit or die.” They attacked Orestes, whose guards managed to rescue him. One monk threw a rock that hit the governor in the head. He was arrested and tortured to death. Cyril pronounced him a martyr. The governor and bishops fired off another letter each to the Emperor.
Though Orestes claimed to be a Christian, having been baptized by the previous Bishop of Alexandria, a famous leader of the pagans there supported Orestes in his contest with Cyril. Her name was Hypatia, a philosopher, mathematician and astronomer who bore tremendous influence in the City. Hypatia’s reputation had spread over a good part of the Empire so that many students from wealthy families went to Alexandria to be taught be her. Those students went on to fill some of the Empire’s most important offices, both in government and the Church.
Though a Christian, as governor, Orestes sought to build a healthy relationship with both the Pagan and Jewish communities he was supposed to represent. His critics in the church used his familiarity with outsiders to say he was in truth a pagan. They wanted to drive a wedge between Orestes and his pagan supporters, so they dragged Hypatia form her chariot one day and hacked her body to pieces.
While there’s no evidence of Cyril’s direct involvement, word got out he was ultimately responsible for her assassination.
Can you see where all this is going in the controversy between Cyril & Nestorius? It’s not looking good for the patriarch of Constantinople, is it? Unlike the political neophyte Nestorius, Cyril had 25 yrs of political scheming the time of the Council. He’s also regarded by history as a more astute thinker & theologian than his rival.
Antioch and Alexandria hadn’t just been in competition with each other over who got to send someone to lead the Capital Church. They’d long argued over an array of theological issues. When it came to interpreting Scripture, Antioch tended to understand things literally. Alexandria followed a far more allegorical bent. They also differed in their Christology, that is, how they understood the nature of Jesus.
Nestorius’s hometown of Antioch, favored a straight-forward historical, literal approach emphasizing Jesus’ humanity. Alexandria emphasized His deity. When battle lines were drawn at the Ephesian Council, the attending bishops split pretty much along ethnic lines. That is, the Easterners from Syria over supported Nestorius, while in the West; Egyptians, Greeks, & Romans, backed Cyril.
As I mentioned in the last episode, to modern readers, all this political tension in the Church is disheartening. It may be helpful to keep in mind the ancient world operated under a different perspective than our own. One of the virtues of modern enlightened civilization is the idea of tolerance. That people ought to be free to believe what they will, without the threat of coercion by the civil government, or anyone else. In fact, it’s the duty of govt to make sure that coercion doesn’t rise. Tolerance doesn’t mean all views are equally true or right. It just means each ought to be free to decide for themselves and to respect the views of others while disagreeing with them.
That’s NOT AT ALL the attitude of the ancients. Both Nestorius and Cyril believed, as did all their followers, it was crucial to the peace & prosperity of the Empire and all it’s people, to have right thoughts about God. Ideas have consequences. And if people have wrong, even bad ideas about somethings as important as Who God is and What He’s like,. It will result in choices that have long lasting & deadly effects. And if a church leader ALLOWS people to hold wrong ideas about God, God may bring judgment on his city and church for allowing such blasphemy to go unchecked.
That we may scoff at that idea today, doesn’t make it any less certain in the minds of a Nestorius or Cyril. If we could climb into a time machine and go back to chat with these two guys, we might attempt to reason with them by asking where in Jesus’ ministry He stirred up riots and assassinated His enemies. But let’s be careful about judging the past based on modern values, which are themselves the result of a long process of development, those earlier years and characters helped shape.
Let’s move now to a description of the two Christological schools that butted heads at Ephesus.
Nestorius had developed his ideas on the nature of Jesus against the backdrop of two major heresies that had threatened The Faith: Arianism and Manichaeanism.
As you know, because we’ve been examining it over the previous episodes, Arianism said Christ wasn’t God. He was just a special being God created.
Manichaeanism took the opposite approach and said Christ was a divine being and not Man. He couldn’t be because physical matter is inherently evil.
Nestorius shaped his Christology in such a way that it refuted both of these heresies. He said Jesus was both fully God and fully man and that these parts were separate. Nestorius thought that the previous Councils, dealing primarily with the error of Arianism, had already done the work of affirming Jesus’ Deity.
It was the error of the Manichaeans that needed to be dealt with now, so he emphasized Jesus’ humanity, showing that Jesus was made human in all points like us. Therefore in His sacrifice, He’s able to be a complete and perfect substitute.
Nestorius rejected any sort of suffering in the divine nature of Christ at the same time he affirmed that His human nature grew and was tempted. In his mind, the separation of the natures of Christ and the emphasis on Christ’s humanity did not mean Jesus was two separate people or that he was not fully God. But his opponents, chiefly Cyril, accused him of holding that position.
If Nestorius emphasized the humanity of Jesus, Cyril emphasized His deity. Cyril was concerned that Nestorius’ views allowed the Humanity of Christ to obscure and block His divinity. It seemed to Cyril that if Nestorius was right, then when people worshiped Jesus during the Incarnation, they were worshiping a creature, and that’s forbidden, for worship is to be to God alone.
Cyril was insistent that emphasizing Jesus’ dual nature destroyed His unity as one person. He equated two natures with two persons and accused Nestorius of making Jesus a kind of spiritual schizophrenic.
This is not to say Cyril denied Jesus’ humanity. He certainly did NOT! But Cyril said Jesus deity was so overwhelming to His humanity that it was like a drop of ink in the ocean. The ink’s there, but totally taken up and over by the sea.
And once again, our time’s up.
We’ll get to the actual council in our next episode.