As the 5th century went on a new false teaching arose. This false teaching so emphasized the divinity of Jesus Christ that his humanity was reduced to nothing. This may seem strange to us. We naturally believe that Jesus Christ is a human being. But in ancient times, there was a strong sense that God could not really become human. People who were raised on Greco-Roman philosophy could not believe that God Himself could be hungry, thirsty or tired. This was inconsistent with their notion of God. They would say that all of Christ’s physical needs were a kind of “show”. Some even said that when Jesus walked he did not leave footprints in the sand. And, of course, Jewish people could not accept that the Messiah would die a painful, shameful death on the cross. Again, a ‘play acting’ Jesus could not truly transform humanity from within. This is why the Church has always held on to the humanity of Christ. In other words, Jesus Christ had to be truly God to conquer sin, death and the devil, but he also had to be truly human to help us. A council was called in Chalcedon to address these issues. The council said that although there is only one divine person in Jesus Christ, there are two natures, divine and human. Therefore, this council was defending the humanity of Jesus Christ.There are Christians who do not accept the Council of Chalcedon. These people affirmed that there is only “one divine nature” in Jesus Christ. The Christians are sometimes called “monophoysite” (mono-physis = one nature). They are also called non-Chalcedonian Christians or Oriental Orthodox, and include the Coptic, Ethiopian and Armenian churches. However, as a result of further study and ecumenical dialogue beginning in the 20th century, theologians have come to see the difference between the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Christians as linguistic verbal differences rather than differences in belief. We can hope that God will lead us to heal this schism.
Some people thought that this stress on the two natures was a falling back to the Nestorian heresy which said there was only a connection between the divinity and humanity of Christ. To make it clear that the Council of Chalcedon was not Nestorian, the Emperor Justinian (It is interesting to note that the Emperor Justinian was a skilled theologian, as his activities on behalf of the church show. It was a strong tradition in the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire that laymen and women could be theologians. This held true to the very end of the Eastern Empire. In the West, theology early on became a matter for clergy, not for lay people. Justinian was also renowned as a builder. He commissioned the building of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) Basilica in Constantinople [now Istanbul] which for many centuries was the greatest church in Christendom. After the Muslims conquered it, it became a mosque and is now a museum. Justinian also commissioned the building of St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai, one of the oldest, still functioning monasteries in the Christian world.) called a council in 553 to reiterate the Orthodox teaching that Jesus Christ is one, divine person in the two natures, human and divine. To express this poetically Justinian wrote the hymn “Only-begotten Son” which we sing at ever Divine Liturgy.
Only-begotten Son and immortal Word of God, Who for our salvation didst will to be incarnate of the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, Who without change didst become man and wast crucified, Who art one of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit: O Christ our God, trampling down death by death, save us!
We can see, then, that the 1st to 5th ecumenical councils were concerned with showing how Jesus Christ is related to God and humanity. This was not for the sake of theological controversy or debate, but rather to be sure that Jesus Christ is truly our Savior.
In previous articles we looked at the first and second ecumenical councils. In this article we will look at the third, fourth and fifth ecumenical councils. But before we do this, we should go over some of the material about the first two, because really all the counsels are related. In a sense we could say that the theme of all the counsels is who Jesus Christ is and how He is related to God and to us.In the early 4th century a priest of Alexandria named Arius began to preach that Jesus Christ was not God. Arius said that Jesus was the first being who was created, through whom God created the world, but he was still a created being, not God. This false teaching so disturbed the church and civil society that the emperor called a council of bishops to settle the matter in 325AD. The Fathers of the council condemned Arius and affirmed that Jesus is indeed God. The Fathers adopted the Creed which we sing at every Liturgy which says that Jesus is “…And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of Light; true God of true God; begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made;…”
So the first ecumenical council stressed the divinity of Jesus Christ, the second council (381AD) was called because there were people denying that the Holy Spirit is God. To combat this, the council added a section about the Holy Spirit in the Creed. We say that we believe “… in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified;….”. In other words, the second ecumenical council affirmed that the Holy Spirit is God also.
In the early 5th century a man named Nestorius became Bishop of Constantinople. When he became Bishop he learned that the Christians in Constantinople were venerating the Virgin Mary as “Theotokos”. Theotokos is a Greek word which is often translated as “Mother of God”. However, it literal means “the God bearer”. In other words, the one who has given birth to God. Nestorius did not like this because he thought it was incorrect to say that Mary is the Mother of God. Nestorius said that she should be called “Christotokos” (the one who bore Christ) or “anthropotokos (the one who gave birth to a man). Nestorius said that there was a division between the Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, and the Jesus Christ who was born of the Mother of God. He said that there was a connection between the two, but they were not the same.
At one point Nestorius said that the Word of God dwelled in the man Jesus as in a temple. The problem with this, of course, is that the word of God can be said about all holy men and women. This means that the difference between Jesus Christ and other holy people is a matter of degree. One would say that the word of God dwells in Jesus to a great degree than it does in other holy people. It would be a difference of quantity, not quality, so to speak. In a sense this is a very modern false teaching. Most people, Christian or non-Christian, have good things to say about Jesus. People see him as a great spiritual leader, a moral teacher and so on. Some Buddhists see Jesus as an enlightened being, some Hindus will say that Jesus is an incarnation of God. Even some Jews will say that Jesus was a charismatic rabbi. It is indeed wonderful to see Jesus Christ praised this way, but all of this praise falls short of confessing that Jesus is “true God of true God.” This is what Nestorius denied and the council of Ephesus affirmed. In other words, Nestorius denied that the son of Mary is truly God. Again, we have a denial that Jesus is God. In order to deal with this problem a council was called in 431 AD in Ephesus. The council stated that the Jesus Christ born of the Virgin Mary is indeed the eternal Son of God. There is not just a connection between the two, but they are one. This council said that it was proper to call the Virgin Mary “Theotokos” because she is the Mother of God. This was the third ecumenical council which defended the divinity of Jesus Christ.