Theotokos and the Council of Ephesus

Within the early church there were many issues when it came to Christology.  Some would take a piece of scripture and develop a whole theology without properly exegeting or considering what other scriptures say on an issue.  To put it in modern terms it was proof texting, but on a grandiose scale.  A scale in which souls were at stake.  The Council of Ephesus was called to discuss the unity of Christ.  More specifically, how can he be truly God and truly human?  As if this issue were not enough to cause division there was a political component as well.  The Christian patriarchs of Antioch, Constantinople, and Alexandria had a rivalry which stemmed from Constantinople calling itself the “New Rome”.  At the center of the council were two bishops by the names of Nestorius and St. Cyril of Alexandria.

Nestorius was a priest who became the patriarch of Constantinople.  He was trained in Antioch which had a very good reputation of defending the humanity of Christ.  Nestorius starts with diversity in Christ (two natures) then gets into trouble when trying to explain how they come together.  In attempting to explain the humanity of Christ, Nestorius looked at the blessed virgin Mary.  Most churches at the time called Mary the theotokos, or mother of God.  Nestorius made the suggestion that Mary should have the title of theodochos, or the recipient of God (Norris 26).  Later on he would make the suggestion to call her Christotokos, or the mother of Christ.  By doing this Nestorius was making an attempt to preserve the humanity of Christ, but the way he did so was complex and in the end failed to preserve the unity of Christ.

Nestorius used a Stoic concept of what makes an individual in his argument.  Properties are inseparable to the person, and Nestorius believed that Christ should exist as two individuals (hypostasis) or two person (prosopon).  He didn’t believe that natures changed which is good because that would make him just like Apollinaris about a century earlier.  Since natures can’t change Nestorius proposed that there was a third person involved (Lecture Notes).  Problem is Christ only has two natures, and third nature or person being involved is a big Christological problem.

Hearing the argument of Nestorius, Cyril took the opportunity to say that Christ was one individual.  He did this by employing the term mia physis, or one nature.  To Cyril, the view of Nestorius implied that there were two different Christ’s.  By saying that there is one nature, Cyril is not saying that Christ did not have a human nature.  He is saying that there is a human soul that is in union with his divinity.  This term is known as the hypostatic union and is still a term that is used today.

Nestorius was eventually condemned at the Council of Ephesus for his “two sons” doctrine (Norris 28).  Cyril, who by all accounts was very uncharitable to Nestorius, called him a “New Judas”.  The council righty confirmed the orthodox position of Mary being the theotokos.  She gave birth to the whole person of Christ, not just his humanity.  To think the divine came later would be a type of adoptionism.  The council was crucial in upholding the humanity and the divinity of Christ, and it is one we can look to today for those who deny the theotokos. 

Image result for theotokos

Works Cited

Norris, Richard A.  The Christological Controversy.  Fortress Press Philadephia: PA, 1980.  Print.

 

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