Catholicism, The Papacy

Mary, Mother of God and the Council of Ephesus:

St. Cyril of Alexandria at the Council of Ephesus, by
Francisco Meneses Osorio, 1701 (Wikimedia Commons)


Today, January 1, marks the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, in the Catholic Church.  It is beyond the scope of the present post to present the history of the feast day, as well as to detail the Christological debate associated with the title Theotokos (“God-bearer”), formally declared at the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431.  What follows then is a brief (albeit incomplete) background of the Council and its judgment.

            Though the Greek title itself (which finds its synonym in the phrase “Mother of God”) dates back at least to the third century, it was at the beginning of the fourth century in which it came under assault by the newly elected Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius.  In fact, it was the phrase itself which was the catalyst for the eruption of a Christological dispute culminating in the calling of a General Council at Ephesus, and the condemnation and deposition of Nestorius.  This was set against the backdrop of a growing rivalry between the ecclesiastical sees of Alexandria and Constantinople, which had its genesis in the fact that the latter had displaced the former’s rank as second after Rome in the traditional taxonomy of the churches, according to Canon 3 of the Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381).  The ascending power of Constantinople understandably drew the ire of Alexandria, along with that of Antioch which it had also supplanted.[1] 

What lay at the heart of the matter, however, seems to be the disparate approaches to Christology traditionally taken by the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools.[2]  As Fr. Leo Davis explains, “just as all philosophers are said to be basically either Aristotelian or Platonist, all theologians are in Christology either Antiochene, beginning with the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels and attempting to explain how this man is also God, or Alexandrian, beginning with the Word of John’s prologue and attempting to understand the implications of the Logos taking flesh”.[3]  Nestorius’ Christology was Antiochene, and, in the view of Fr. Aidan Nichols, seen through that framework “the title Theotokos was more or less nonsense”, though it could prove to be acceptable.[4]  Nestorius ascended the Patriarchal throne of Constantinople in 428, and it was not long before one of his Antiochene clergy preached against the title.  This was met with the subsequent disapproval from the capital’s populace who were accustomed to it.  Nestorius published his own views attacking the designation, which were circulated abroad, and it soon became an ecclesiastical controversy with Pope Celestine getting involved.[5]

According to Fr. Nichols, “Rome tended to support Alexandria ecclesiastically, but its own Christology…was if anything closer in spirit to that of Antioch”.[6]  Be that as it may, Papal condemnation of Nestorius was swift and unambiguous, as Celestine sent a letter to the Patriarch himself in December of 430 notifying him of his deposition.  By this time, however, Emperor Theodosius II had already called for the convocation of an Ecumenical Council at Ephesus.[7]  The heresy attributed to Nestorius was that of positing two persons in Christ, both a human and Divine.  More specifically, “it was held at the time, and has been held with less conviction since, that Nestorius therefore denied a metaphysical union between God and man in Jesus Christ, confining their unity to the purely moral level”.  What is being hinted at here seems to be the fact that there have been those who attempt to disassociate Nestorius from the heresy that bears his name.  However, as Nichols points out, “the fact that so many of Nestorius’ Antiochene friends abandoned him at the last may suggest that, in their view, better informed as this was than ours, he had compromised the Christology of Antioch in his very effort to defend it”.[8] 

The Council of Ephesus:

The Council was convened in June of 431, and was presided over by Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria, who had received his commission from Pope Celestine.  The former wasted no time in getting down to business, not even awaiting the arrival of John, the Patriarch of Antioch.  The hasty convocation was protested by Nestorius, as well as by Count Candidian, whom the Emperor Theodosius II had sent to oversee (but not intervene in) the Council.[9]  Nestorius is said to have complained that: “Cyril presided.  Cyril was accuser.  Cyril was judge.  Cyril was Bishop of Rome.  Cyril was everything”.[10]  Yet it is worth noting that the Bishop of Rome had already condemned the embattled Patriarch of Constantinople; Cyril and Celestine were of one mind in this regard.  Nestorius refused to attend.  For his part, John of Antioch convoked his own council.[11]  Meanwhile, the Council of Ephesus was underway.

In the first session, Cyril’s Second Letter to Nestorius was read, along with the latter’s response.  The Patriarch of Constantinople was subsequently anathematized by the attending Bishops, along with those would communicate with him.  Juvenal, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, then called for Celestine’s letter to be read.  Following that, the Third Epistle of Cyril to Nestorius was read, which included his Twelve Anathemas against Nestorius.  This letter contained the assertion that: “…since the holy Virgin brought forth corporally God made one with flesh according to nature, for this reason we also call her Mother of God, not as if the nature of the Word had the beginning of its existence from the flesh.”  Next, some passages from the Early Church Fathers were read, as were some from Nestorius’ own writings, and a letter to the Council from Capreolus, the Bishop of Carthage, was inserted into the Acts at Cyril’s behest.[12]  The Council then “decree[d] by the holy Synod that Nestorius be excluded from the episcopal dignity, and from all priestly communion.”

Celestine’s Legates Arrive:

The papal legates attended the second session of the Council, and they came bearing letters from the Pope.  The Letter of Pope Celestine to the Synod of Ephesus was read aloud in Latin, and then in Greek, to those present.  In it, Celestine noted that “we have sent our holy brethren and fellow priests, who are at one with us and are most approved men, Arcedius, and Projectus, the bishops, and our presbyter, Philip, that they may be present at what is done and may carry out what things have been already decreed [by] us”.[13]  This seems to be a reference to the fact that the Pope had already passed judgment on Nestorius, and the legate Phillip expressed a robust belief in the primacy of the church of Rome, and that it came de jure divino.  In this second session he announced that:

“We offer our thanks to the holy and venerable Synod, that when the writings of our holy and blessed pope had been read to you, the holy members by our [or your] holy voices, you joined yourselves to the holy head also by your holy acclamations. For your blessedness is not ignorant that the head of the whole faith, the head of the Apostles, is blessed Peter the Apostle. And since now our mediocrity, after having been tempest-tossed and much vexed, has arrived, we ask that you give order that there be laid before us what things were done in this holy Synod before our arrival; in order that according to the opinion of our blessed pope and of this present holy quested was granted assembly, we likewise may ratify their determination.”

In the next session, Juvenal of Jerusalem asked the legates if they had a chance to read the documents that they had requested from the Council with respect to Nestorius’ deposition.  Phillip affirmed that they had, but requested that they be read aloud again, “so that we may follow the formula (τύπῳ) of the most holy pope Cœlestine (who committed this same care to us), and of your holiness also, and may be able to confirm (βεβαιώσαι) the judgment.”  After his request was granted, Phillip remarked that:

“There is no doubt, and in fact it has been known in all ages, that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince (ἔξαρχος) and head of the Apostles, pillar of the faith, and foundation (θεμέλιος) of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour and Redeemer of the human race, and that to him was given the power of loosing and binding sins: who down even to today and forever both lives and judges in his successors. The holy and most blessed pope Cœlestine, according to due order, is his successor and holds his place, and us he sent to supply his place in this holy synod, which the most humane and Christian Emperors have commanded to assemble, bearing in mind and continually watching over the Catholic faith….” 

Next, the two Bishops sent by the Pope, in accordance with the authority granted them by him, and in agreement with the Council, echoed its condemnation of Nestorius as a heretic and his deposition.  Cyril then moved to have the three legates put their agreement on record, as did the entire Council, to which they obliged.  The seventh session produced the eight Canons of the Council, a letter to Pope Celestine wherein the attending Bishops gave their account of all that had unfolded, along with handling other issues that were pressing.[14]  According to Davis, it was the “two votes [that] comprised the essential dogmatic statement of the Council — Cyril’s Second letter was declared to be in conformity with the Creed of Nicaea; Nestorius’ reply was not”.[15]

The Aftermath:

The Patriarch of Antioch later affirmed the deposition of Nestorius, and all but fifteen of the recalcitrant Bishops came around.[16]  In queue, however, was another Christological controversy that would be settled about twenty years later at the Council of Chalcedon.  “Before his death”, says Fr. Davis, “[Nestorius] would acclaim the work of the Council of Chalcedon as expressing his deepest beliefs”.[17]  The legatees of those who rejected the Council of Ephesus lived on in what is now known as the Assyrian Church of the East.  Roughly six centuries later the Crusades would bring renewed proximity between the Assyrians and the Apostolic See of Rome.[18]  Those who returned to communion with the Pope now exist as the Uniate Assyrian Church (aka the Chaldean Catholic rite).[19]

[1]  The information in this paragraph thus far has been taken from Leo D. Davis, The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1990), 136-142.

[2] Davis, Ecumenical Councils, 142; Aidan Nichols, Rome and the Eastern Churches: A Study in Schism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 54-56.

[3] Davis, Ecumenical Councils, 142.  For a slightly more detailed differentiation, see Nichols, Rome and the Eastern Churches, 56.

[4] Nichols, Rome and the Eastern Churches, 56, cf. note 12.

[5] The information above is from Davis, Ecumenical Councils, 140-141.

[6] Nichols, Rome and the Eastern Churches, 58.

[7] The papal condemnation, chronology, and convocation of the Council are from Davis, Ecumenical Councils, 153.

[8][8] Nichols, Rome and the Eastern Churches, 59-61.

[9] Davis, Ecumenical Councils, 154-155.

[10] In Nichols, Rome and the Eastern Churches, 58.

[11] Davis, Ecumenical Councils, 156.

[12] Translated by Henry Percival. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 14. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1900.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <>.  Cf. Davis, Ecumenical Councils, 155.

[13] Translated by Henry Percival. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 14. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1900.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <>. 

[14] Translated by Henry Percival. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 14. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1900.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <>. 

[15] Davis, Ecumenical Councils, 155.

[16] Davis, Ecumenical Councils, 161-163.

[17] Davis, Ecumenical Councils, 163, 166.

[18] Nichols, Rome and the Eastern Churches, 72.

[19] Nichols, Rome and the Eastern Churches, 72-73.  See pp. 61-80 for a fuller treatment up to the present.

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1 thought on “Mary, Mother of God and the Council of Ephesus:

  1. As always, well researched and thoughtfully presented. This is a nice start to what I hope will be a far better year.

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