This is the 40th posting in our series regarding the historical development of theology. You can read the series by clicking here. Two weeks ago we began a series on the Cappadocian Fathers, which can be read here.
Conflict creates division and often detracts from the glory of God. Yet, there are times in which conflict can be healthy when it is rightly responded to. It is sometimes through that conflict also, that we see God preserve His Word and men’s understanding of that word. When handled rightly then, conflict can glorify God. Events leading up to, and including the great Council of Ephesus in AD 431 gave us some great doctrinal understanding, and yet at the expense of a positive testimony before the world for our God. It began where we left it last week . . . with the great patriarch of of Constantinople, Nestorius.
Nestorius created an unintended firestorm when he barred the use of the phrase theotokos which had a literal meaning ‘God-bearer,’ in reference to Mary. Nestorius specifically had issue with this because he could not see how a mere human could bear someone divine. Inciting the anger of the Alexandrians, this created more animosity between the two groups. So deep was the wedge that Cyril of Alexandria began to send spies to Antioch hoping to catch them in the midst of a great heresy, and Nesotirus’ proclamation against the use of theotokus was just the ammunition they needed.
Eventually, Cyril and Nestorius began corresponding about Christology, but not before the animosity had already built into attacks against one another. While Cyril was more vague in his theology (a point agreed upon by many) Nestorius eventually created his own downfall as his explanations began to merge more with the heresy of adoptionism.
Cyril of Alexandria finally called a council to occur in Ephesus. As Cyril’s supporters began to show they waited for others. It became clear that they no others would join them, so Cyril called the council to order. After some reaffirmations of what they did believe, the council condemned Nestorius. As they did that, other bishops did begin to show and seeing what was happening they began a separate council that affirmed Nestorius’ teaching. Even as this was taking place, the leadership from Rome also began to arrived. This was a devastating blow to Nestorius because they indeed did agree with Cyril. The Emperor agreed with this, and while seeking compromise (not wanting division in the kingdom) he exile Nestorius.
Nestorius would die in exile in North Africa around AD 450. Cryil, who had been bishop since 412 would die in 444.
It is certain that much of the division had been incited to a greater degree than necessary because of the political motivations of the proponents of each. Seeing that the bishop of Constantinople would have political authority with the emperor. Whoever was that person would have both the authority to make sure the theology of his own region would be the accepted theology, while at the same time playing a role in the politics of the region. We learn from this the danger of mixing politics and religion with one another. The sway of power and secularism can influence religion in unsatisfactory ways. This is what we see on display here.
Nestorius used his own influence to ban the phrase Mother of God which provided for the needed opportunity to wage a battle against one another. This phrase has come to mean much more than it should in our modern culture as well. However, the regular use of it during the fifth century indicates that it was meant more as a term of respect rather than a theological initiative. In this regards, Mary does deserve respect. However, she should never be elevated to a position above Christ. In fact, she was a human who apart from God’s work through Christ, would never save herself.
Finally, one of the most profound theological doctrines came out of the work of Cyril. Whatever may be thought about his theology overall, it is from him that historical theologians were forced to think about the hypostatic union, a doctrine that survives today. It is a doctrine essential to our understanding of Jesus Christ as fully man and fully God.
Therefore, the work carved out during this era was substantial to God’s revelation of Himself to humanity and His preservation of truth. To that end we must recognize God’s work and praise Him for it.