• Know the Creeds, Councils, Confessions, and Catechisms Part 4: Council of Ephesus

    Posted May 18th, 2017 By in Pastor Brian's Blog, Why We Believe What We Believe With | Comments Off on Know the Creeds, Councils, Confessions, and Catechisms Part 4: Council of Ephesus

    The Council of Ephesus (AD 431) is recognized as the third of the seven ecumenical councils of the church. That’s the easy part. Equally easy is understanding what the council took up and concluded. The Nicene Creed was reaffirmed and Mary was declared to be theotokos, that is, the “bearer of God” or the “mother of God.” Getting underneath and behind this latter declaration is a bit trickier.

    Two religious and equally political figures of the fifth century are at center stage: Nestorius of Constantinople and Cyril of Alexandria. Depending on one’s sensibilities and one’s reading of history Cyril and Nestorius where either astute and thoughtful theologians or political thugs…or both. For example, on one occasion Nestorius burned down a chapel that belonged to the Arians—those who denied the deity of Christ. Only problem was the local fireman of the day were not Johnny on the spot and a lot of the city also burned down with it. This won Nestorius the sophisticated nickname of “Torchie.” On another occasion he was questioned during one of his sermons by some monks. Rather than answer the question publicly—which he evidently couldn’t do—he invited them back to his house to discuss. Surprise! When the monks arrived at his house they were beaten by his guards. Let that be a lesson to sermon questioners everywhere. Nestorius was a theologian. He was a politician. He was a thug. In the fifth century those categories, for better or worse, often blended together. Cyril was not a baby either. On one occasion it is rumored that he had a female pagan philosopher killed. He was, however, a shrewder politician than Nestorius, which is probably why—spoiler alert—he ultimately prevailed over Nestorius in the end.

    we can be confident that he is at work in the political and theological wrangling of our day.

    Anyway, Cyril accused Nestorius of denying Nicene Christology by overemphasizing the humanity of Christ to the neglect of his divinity. Which he probably did. But with all deference to Torchie, he was not doing it in a vacuum but was trying to refute and rebuff other Christian heresies of his day, namely Arianism and Manicheanism—the former emphasizing the humanity of Christ to the neglect of his deity and the latter neglecting the humanity of Christ almost entirely. In order to pull the robe of Nestorius and expose him as the theological scoundrel he was accused of being, Nestorius was asked to affirm Mary as being theotokos—that is “the bearer” or “mother of God.” Nestorius couldn’t—or wouldn’t—do it. For him to do this would to him suggest that there was a time when God the Son didn’t exist. God, he argued, cannot have a mother. Mary was the mother of Jesus, the man. Of course, Cyril wasn’t suggesting that Mary was the mother of God ontologically. Rather, he was keeping Jesus’ divine nature and human nature so closely united that it was appropriate to refer to Mary as the God-bearer. But that is what happened. A classic case, at least from my perspective, of political partisanship, ornery and iron wills, and miscommunication.

    Nestorius was rendered a heretic and run out of the city and Cyril’s Christology won the day—which is not a bad thing. There is more to the story historically. But one fascinating bit of historical information is that it was here that Mary came to prominence in a way that she had not been before. Before this Mary was revered and appreciated, but after this council she rose to an entirely different level, one which would ultimately climax in veneration. Now she was regarded by orthodox Christians as theotokos. Just as the doctrine of Christ developed over the centuries, so too did the doctrine of Mary and her role in salvation. It was here that she burst on the scene which has forever shaped the way Christians—for better or for worse—view her role in salvation history.

    At the end of the day, we can be thankful for the way God uses the political and theological wrangling of history to clarify for us the person and work of Christ; and we can be confident that he is at work in the political and theological wrangling of our day.

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    Pastor of New Life La Mesa Presbyterian Church in San Diego, CA.

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