The Seven Holy Ecumenical Councils


The Third Ecumenical Council - Ephesus: 431 AD

By 400 AD, almost all Christians accepted that our Lord was both fully God and fully man. The question was: How were the two natures combined in the one person?

The controversy came to a head over the term “Theotokos”. It had been the custom to call the Blessed Virgin Mary “Theotokos” which means “God-bearer”. Nestorius, along with his teachers Diodorus of Antioch and Theodore, Bishop of Mopsuestia, taught that Mary was not “theotokos” but merely “christokos” (Christ-bearer.) Nestorius could not believe that the tiny foetus in the womb of Mary was the God of all creation.

The Ephesus Council declared that Nestorius was wrong. It further declared that anyone who refused to call Mary “Theotokos” was no longer part of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. It further declared that anyone who continues under the authority of a nestorian bishop is condemned along with him, even if the person concerned does not personally hold the nestorian heresy. This is a very important principle. Because your bishop is your Father-in-God, you spiritually sink or swim along with him!

The Council also condemned another heresy: Pelagianism. Pelagius was a Celtic monk from Britain (or Ireland) who became popular preacher in Rome about 400 AD. His message was simple: “Want to live a better life? Try harder!” He criticised Blessed Augustine who said that if God wants us to obey His commands, He must first give us His grace. “Nonsense,” said Pelagius. “Everyone has been given grace. Just get off your backside and put some effort into it. Talk about God’s grace is just a cop-out!”

Pelagius’s preaching was popular because it:

But Pelagius was wrong and his teaching was condemned. Pelagianism is a very English heresy and English people relapse into it over and over again. Anglicans are very prone to fall into Pelagianism in spite of the fact that the Book of Common Prayer condemns it in many places. Take these examples:

The new Anglican liturgies veer towards Pelagianism with their emphasis on community self-help and their de-emphasis on our natural helplessness [“Worship horizontally, not vertically!”] Pelagianism builds people’s self esteem. It underlies New Age spirituality. But the true Orthodox Faith emphasises our total dependence on God. As our Lord said: “When you have done all that is commanded of you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done that which was our duty.’ “(St Luke 17:10).


The Fourth Ecumenical Council - Chalcedon: 451 AD

St Cyril of Alexandria (+444) had led the campaign which had saved the Church from the Nestorian heresy. He had been the first to see that if Christ sometimes operated in his “human mode” we could never be sure that what He did and said had God’s authority or merely human authority. To emphasise the divine authority of what Christ said and did, St Cyril had used a slogan which he [wrongly] believed to have come from the great St Athanasius. It was: “One nature of God the Word Incarnate.”

This slogan became the basis of a new heresy. It was first expressed by the priest-abbot of a large monastery at Constantinople, Eutyches. He taught that Christ’s human nature was not the same as our human nature after it was united to the divine nature. According to Eutyches, Christ’s human nature was absorbed by his divine nature. Hence the “one nature of God the Word Incarnate.” For teaching this, Eutyches was deposed by his archbishop named Flavian. If what Eutyches was teaching had been true, Christ could not have died on the cross for us men and for our salvation.

Eutyches however appealed to the Emperor who called a council at Ephesus in 449. This was a strange council. When a letter from Pope St Leo to Flavian was produced, the council members just sneered at it and refused to discuss its arguments. This caused the pope to nickname the council “latrodnium” i.e., “robber” because it sought to rob the Church of the true Catholic Faith.

The Latrocinium Council did have one good consequence. When a proper council was called at Chalcedon in 451, a record number of bishops turned up: over 600!

St Leo’s letter [called “The Tome of Leo”] spoke of “two natures in one person”. The trouble was that there was no word in Greek for “person”. The nearest Greek word was “hypostasis” which meant a mask an actor might wear.

Eventually the council adopted a long statement which was based on Leo’s Tome. Central to it was the phrase “two natures (human and divine) in one person.” The two natures were “unconfused, unchangeable, indivisible, inseparable.” Christ’s human nature was one essence with our human nature. His divine nature was one essence with the Father.

How can Christ be both human and divine at one and the same time? Nestorius and Eutyches had both tried to answer that question and both had ended up giving wrong solutions to the problem. Chalcedon said in effect: The human mind cannot fully understand the nature of God nor the nature of the Incarnation. Beyond a certain point we must simply accept in faith what God has revealed to us. We believe what God has said because we trust Him not to mislead us.

A strong number of the Eastern Church could not accept Chalcedon. They were known as the Monophysites [=one nature]. They took with them some of the best brains in the Church. Remnants of their churches still exist today, although there are active and fruitful works being done on both sides to clear up this error and restore a non-compromised unity in the Church.

Today we have a new form of Monophysitism in many mainline churches. The 5th century Monophysites played down Christ’s human nature. The modern Monophysites play down Christ’s divine nature. The modern ones say: “Christ was a remarkable man for his times. But he was limited by the culture and times in which he lived. So what he said and did is not necessarily a guide to the church today.”

Both the ardent and modern Monophysites are wrong.

The Council of Chalcedon also passed a number of canons defining and upholding the authority of a diocesan bishop in his diocese. His authority is the equivalent of that of the apostles so long as, and only so long as he holds and upholds the apostolic faith.


To be continued in the next issue of Cornerstone