Between the 5th and 7th centuries, the Christian religions had various internal fractures and schisms over matters of faith. They debated the nature of humanity and the soul, the doctrines of grace and original sin, the proper way to refer to Mary, and how Jesus could be both God and man. These debates weren’t always polite or levelheaded. Once one clergyman accused another of heresy, they might be found orthodox or condemned at a church council. Condemnation could lead to a sentence of excommunication, banishment, or even death.
Augustine of Hippo preached that Original Sin, an innate sinful human nature since Adam and Eve first bit the apple, crippled but did not destroy free will. He said that perfect morality was impossible without God’s Grace, and that no one had free will to refuse or accept this Grace. Meanwhile Pelagius preached that God gave humans the free will to do good and evil, but wanted them to only choose the first. He thought his fellow Catholics used the Doctrines of Grace and Original Sin to justify licentious unchristian lifestyles. A 415 council found Pelagius orthodox while a 418 council condemned him.
A few years later in the heart of the Byzantine empire at Constantinople, a heated debated on the nature of Christ was going down. Nestorius, the Archbishop of Constantinople, had the support of Emperor Theodosius II. He had studied at Antioch where scholars and philosophers had attempted to answer the mysteries of Christology: How could a God who had no end and no beginning be born? How could a perfect being also be an imperfect one? Nestorius made a distinction between Jesus’s human and divine natures. He taught that Mary gave birth to Christ’s human body, but not His divine Logos or soul, which existed before her or even time.
Nestorius’s greatest critic and most dangerous enemy was Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria. Cyril pressed Nestorius on the issue of the name of Mary. Most Greek-speaking Christians were calling her Theotokos, birth-giver of God, while Nestorius was proposing Christotokos, birth-giver of Christ. Cyril accused Nestorius to Pope Celestine I of heresy. Nestorius asked his ally Emperor Theodosius to call a council so he could defend himself, and have Cyril pronounced the heretic instead. Theodosius agreed. The emperor sent out letters calling for Metropolitan patriarchs from across the Catholic world to gather in Ephesus, in Turkey in 431 CE.
Nestorius only had a small delegation of 16 Palestinian bishops show up in support; John of Antioch and his 42 Syrian bishops in support of Nestorius were delayed. First a famine in Antioch had kept them from setting out, then horses dying en route had slowed them down. Cyril’s ally Memnon of Ephesus already had 52 bishops present and Cyril of Alexandria had brought 50 of his own. Cyril decided to press his advantage and moved the trial forward despite protests, finding Nestorius guilty of heresy before the Syrian delegates arrived. When they did, John of Antioch was not about to accept all he’d just gone through was for nothing.
McGuckin, John Anthony (2004). Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy. St. Vladimir Seminary Press.
Catholic Encyclopedia – Council of Ephesus
Kelly, Joseph (2009). The ecumenical councils of the Catholic Church: a history. Liturgical Press.
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