Theological Throw-Down

Two intellectual heavyweights met in the city of Ephesus, where the Roman Emperor Theodosius II convened the Third Ecumenical Council in A.D. 431. At stake was the future shape of orthodox Christian belief.

It was the most rancorous matchup of the early 5th century. In one corner: Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople, who preached a doctrine of separation between Christ’s human and divine natures. In the other corner: Bishop Cyril of Alexandria, known as the “Doctor of the Incarnation,” who affirmed the indivisible nature of the Word of God made flesh.

As a result of his doctrine, Nestorius had been spreading the notion that the Virgin Mary could not be called the mother of God, but only the mother of the human being Jesus. That claim scandalized Cyril and a large body of learned figures of the early church.

At Ephesus the two camps battled it out before a jury of more than 200 clergymen from the great Christian centers of the world. As they argued their deeply held positions, neither side flinched from the kind of political maneuvering that we associate with the phrase “Byzantine intrigue.”

In the end, the Council condemned Nestorius as a heretic; he was defrocked and deposed from his position. It ratified Cyril’s defense of Christ as the Incarnate Word of God, and affirmed St. Mary as the genuine Theotokos, or “birth-giver of God.”

Where Were the Armenians?

In the summer of 431 Armenia found itself embroiled in a growing rivalry with Persia. The Catholicos St. Sahag (the same who had collaborated in the creation of the Armenian alphabet) could not dispatch any of his bishops to the Council of Ephesus. But the Armenian Church stood firmly with St. Cyril, and accepted the conclusions of the Third Ecumenical Council, along with those of the councils of Nicaea (in A.D. 325) and Constantinople (A.D. 381), as the foundation for its theological understanding.

An echo of the Council of Ephesus can still be heard in the honored term Asdvadzadzin—the Armenian version of the Greek Theotokos—which we use to describe St. Mary, and which provides the name for countless individual Armenian churches. The church also devotes a feast day to the “200 Fathers of the Holy Council of Ephesus,” which will be observed this Saturday, August 7.

By Christopher H. Zakian

Above: The Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (1876), by Vasily Surikov.

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