The General Council of Ephesus, 431
(Chapter 3 of THE CHURCH IN CRISIS: A History of the General Councils, 325-
1870, by Msgr. Philip Hughes.)
One of the minor activities of the General Council of 381 was to provide a
new bishop for the see it thought worthy of the second place in the Church,
in place of Gregory of Nazianzen who had been forced out. The bishops chose
an old retired veteran of the high places of the imperial administration--
Nectarius. He ruled for sixteen years, and gave general satisfaction. And
it is recorded that, in his quiet and peaceful way, this practiced
administrator began to turn the new primacy of honour into something very
like a primacy of fact. It gradually became the fashion to send appeals of
various kinds to Constantinople, and for the bishop there to deal with them
as though to do so were part of his jurisdiction. When Nectarius died, in
397, the question who should succeed him was, then, something to interest
the whole East.
The personage who moved immediately was the bishop of Alexandria,
Theophilus. He had a candidate, one of his own priests, one of his chief
confidants in fact. But the court had a candidate also--the court being no
longer the emperor who had called the council in 381, Theodosius, but
the minister Eutropius who governed in the name of Theodosius' youthful
successor, Arcadius. The court had its way, and brought from Antioch an
ascetic personage, the monk John, famed as the great preacher of the day,
known to later ages thereby as Chrysostom, the man with the tongue of gold.
He was consecrated, by Theophilus, in February 398. But Theophilus went
home bitter, it is thought. Alexandria had failed to place its man in 397,
as it had failed on the like occasion in 381, in the time of its late
bishop Timothy; and it was only the threats of Eutropius--that there were
serious charges on file against Theophilus--that had brought that bishop to
accept the appointment of the monk from Antioch.
A few words about the actual power of the bishop of Alexandria will revive
some of the faded colour of the tragic history that is to follow. He was,
first of all, more absolutely lord, in all matters of daily life, of the
bishops dependent on him than was, at that time, any other bishop in the
Church; and of these dependent bishops there were something like one
hundred. He chose them all, and he personally consecrated them, the
metropolitans no less than their suffragans. He was also, whether himself a
monk or not, a kind of supreme patriarch of the monks, in this country
where the monastic life had begun--and he thereby enjoyed unique prestige
in the whole monastic world. He was immensely wealthy, with revenues coming
from such extraordinary sources as his see's monopoly of the right to sell
salt, and nitrates and papyrus, and all the various lugubrious
paraphernalia needed in funerals. Alexandria, until Constantinople rose to
the fullness of its promise, was the wonder city of the whole Roman world,
the greatest of all trade centres, the queen of the Mediterranean. And of
nothing was the great city prouder than of its see. The bishop of
Alexandria moved in an habitual popularity and power that made of him a
kind of native king, with mobs willing to demonstrate in his favour at a
moment's notice. For forty-five years the see had had in Athanasius a saint
for its bishop, a saint whose endless contests with the never much loved
imperial government, whose many exiles, and inflexible fidelity to Nicaea,
had achieved for his successors a position the like of which has probably
never been known. This, in the hands of a saint! But Theophilus was far
from being a saint. The saint, now, was at Constantinople, and in a world
of Theophilus' kind he was soon to be hopelessly lost.
These considerations, the space given to them, rather--and to the story of
St. John Chrysostom--in a study of the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon,
is due to the simple facts that rivalry between the two sees, Alexandria
and Constantinople, ceaseless after 381, mattered very greatly in the
history of these councils; that Alexandria sought endlessly to control
Constantinople; that at Ephesus in 431 and again in 449 a bishop of
Alexandria was the very willing agent of the deposition and excommunication
of a bishop of Constantinople; and that at Chalcedon, in 451, the all but
impossible happened and a bishop of Alexandria was deposed and
excommunicated; and Alexandria--civic, popular Alexandria no less than the
clerical world and the monks--never forgot this, and never forgave it. And
it being the fifth century and not the twentieth, the more human side of
these grave ecclesiastical contentions ultimately brought down to ruin the
wealthiest province of the empire.
Chrysostom, as he is commonly called, the first effective bishop his see
had known for many years, found abundance of employment for his zeal, and
inevitably made as many enemies as friends; wealthy enemies and highly
placed, clergy among them, and even the young empress. The first occasion
of his clash with the bishop of Alexandria was the kind reception he gave
to alleged victims of Theophilus' harsh rule. This was some three years
after his appointment. On the heels of these fugitives there came other
monks, sent by Theophilus, with counter-accusations of heresy. But they
failed to prove their case, before the emperor, and were themselves
condemned. And the fugitives brought it about that Theophilus was summoned
to answer their charges in person. He arrived (403 ) with a cohort of
twenty-nine of his bishops in attendance, blaming Chrysostom for all that
had happened, and swearing openly that he had come to the capital "to
And this is what his familiarity with the great world, his political skill
and his lavish expenditure, actually achieved. John, when bidden by the
emperor to summon a council for the trial of Theophilus had refused:
Alexandria lay outside his jurisdiction. He now, in turn, was bidden by the
emperor to take his trial, Theophilus his judge with his twenty-nine
suffragans and a chance half-dozen visiting bishops picked up in the
capital--the group called the "Synod of The Oak," from the country seat at
Chalcedon where these bishops met.
John again refused to acknowledge an uncanonical jurisdiction. Whereupon,
for his refusal to appear, he was condemned and deposed. The ultimate
outcome of these proceedings was his exile to the farthest limits of the
empire; and his treatment was so harsh that he died of it (407). Theophilus
celebrated his victory by composing a book against John filled, it would
seem, with all manner of hideous calumnies. And in John's place there ruled
one of the priests of Constantinople whom the saint had had to censure.
These bare facts, which seemingly all writers accept, are sufficient
witness to the existence of malevolence at Alexandria, and to the
corruption of life at the court of a Christian emperor. The other feature
of this story is the action of the pope, when the full account of these
deeds reached him--letters from Theophilus (wholly misleading), from John
(a full account, down to the day he wrote) and the minutes of the Synod of
The Oak. This last the pope refused to accept as a council at all. Its
sentence on John was mere words. He took John to be still the lawful bishop
of Constantinople, and when he was asked to recognise Atticus, put in
John's place, he refused, and broke off relations with both Alexandria and
Antioch who had recognised him.
Theophilus was still out of communion when he died (412). His successor, a
nephew, Cyril, began his long career as bishop equally under the ban.
Antioch was the first see to surrender and make the symbolic submission, by
restoring John's name "to the diptychs"-placing him in the list of deceased
bishops officially prayed for. Then Atticus did the same, explaining
fearfully to Alexandria that he really had no choice but to do this. Cyril,
very young, as self-confident and absolute as was ever his uncle,
stubbornly--even passionately?--refused. "You might as well ask to put
Judas back in the company of the Apostles," he wrote. Cyril had been with
his uncle at The Oak. But in the end, he too restored John's name. It was
fifteen years or so since these terrible scenes of episcopal
vindictiveness. But the saint's body had now been brought back with honour
to his cathedral, and in a kind of public "amende" for the crime of the
emperor Arcadius in banishing him, his son, Theodosius II, knelt before the
coffin and kissed it. And between Rome and all the major sees of the East
there was communion and peace.
The new troubles came then, as it were, out of a blue sky. Alexandria and
Constantinople had long made their peace with Rome. And when Atticus died
in 424 the new bishop, an elderly civil servant, managed the affairs of the
turbulent capital so as to please all parties, his clergy, the monks, and
the court. But with the appointment of Nestorius as his successor, in April
428, the peace was suddenly, and very rudely, broken. Like St. John
Chrysostom the new bishop was a monk from Antioch. There he, too, had been
a famous preacher, whose appointed task was the public explanation of the
Scriptures. And he began his new career with a great oration, in which he
called on the emperor to root out the remnants of the many heresies,
pockets of which still existed in Constantinople.
In the new controversy which this sermon heralded, the natural characters
of Nestorius and of Cyril of Alexandria play a great part--not more so
perhaps than the personalities of such chiefs always play, but for once we
are well supplied with evidence about this. As to the precise point on
which Nestorius soon fell foul of all his world, he is himself our earliest
witness--in two letters to the pope, Celestine I (422-31), written in the
early months of his administration. He is explaining to the pope the
difficulties he has to face in his war against the heretics, and he
proceeds to say that one very serious matter is the unconscious heresy of
good Catholics, of monks and even some of his clergy, about the meaning of
the belief that Christ is God. They are confused in their minds about the
great mystery that Christ is both God and man, and they speak as though
what is human in Christ was divine. They talk, for example, of God having
been born, and of God being buried, and invoke the most holy virgin Mary as
the "God-bringing-forth," the mother of God (using the Greek word that
expresses this so succinctly, Theotokos). They should, of course, be more
careful in their speech, and say she is Christotokos--the one who brought
forth Christ, the mother of Christ. "The Virgin," he told the pope, "is
certainly Christotokos: she is not Theotokos." In speaking and acting as
they do these Catholics are reviving, says Nestorius, "the corruption of
Arius and Apollinaris," heretics notoriously condemned long ago. And
Nestorius speaks feelingly of "the fight which I have to put up over
By the time Nestorius had written these letters, his public support of
preachers whom he brought in to "correct" his ignorant clergy, and his own
sermons, his prohibition of the use of the word Theotokos and the
punishments he meted out to the disobedient, had set the capital in an
uproar. And the trouble was crossing the seas. For the news of his ill
treatment of the monks had spread to the land which was the centre of the
monastic movement, Egypt, and when the Egyptian monks laid the theological
problem before their bishop, Cyril--the accusation that the traditional
Catholic piety towards the God-man and his mother was heretical--there
entered the field the very unusual combination of a first-rate theologian
who was also a finished man of affairs and an experienced politician. Cyril
wrote, for his monks, a theological defence of the tradition which was
necessarily a severe denunciation of Nestorius. This was sometime after
the Easter of 429, and the "reply" was presently circulating in
Constantinople. And Cyril also wrote to Nestorius.
In the events of the next two years the natural man in Cyril was to reveal
itself fairly often. What of the same in Nestorius? What was it that so
suddenly moved him to attack what was not a local piety peculiar to the
city where he had just begun to live but, as the event showed (and as
Nestorius must have known), a general, traditional way of regarding this
doctrine? His own first letters on the subject are a curious mixture of
orthodoxy and of novel statements, "startling to pious ears," as a later
day would have said; statements capable indeed of being explained as in
harmony with the tradition, but until so explained, and especially when set
out in criticism of current practice, justifiably causing real suspicion
that the speaker was himself a heretic--a man, that is to say, out to
propagate a new, personal, antitraditional version of fundamental belief.
What prompted all this? The vanity of the learned man who has found out
something the generality do not know? the possession of key-knowledge that
will "make all the difference"? the desire of a gifted man, promoted
suddenly from obscurity to one of the highest places in the world of his
time, to make his mark, to set all things right? For his point that,
although Theotokos, rightly understood, is perfectly orthodox, it is better
to use his own new word Christotokos, the suitable place to air this--a
first time--might have been a conference of theologians or bishops. But
Nestorius chose to do it in sermons to the multitudes that filled his
cathedral, and not in terms of learned, anxious speculation, but in blood-
and-thunder denunciation of universally practiced piety. There is a levity
about the action which, given the gravity of the issue, is itself surely
scandalous. And was Nestorius a really honest, straightforward type? In his
first correspondence with the pope, when he tells of his problem with
Pelagian refugees from Italy, he is even naively devious, and the pope in
his reply points this out very bluntly. And once the major forces had been
brought in against him, Cyril of Alexandria and the verdict of Rome, he
certainly shows himself, in his manoeuvres with the court, a twister of the
first order: Trop habile Nestorius.
When Cyril wrote directly to Nestorius, in February 430, seemingly, he said
how surprised he was that he should disturb the peace of mind of the
faithful by such very controvertible statements. Nestorius in return
attacked the explanation Cyril had given the monks, called it
untraditional, and said explicitly that it was the Apollinarian heresy all
over again. Cyril had given him the news that Rome considered his views
scandalous, and Nestorius ended his letter with a hint that the court was
on his side. Cyril was not unaware that at Constantinople there were
clerics from Egypt, gone there with a case against their chief bishop, and
that Nestorius was taking care of these enemies. It was with reference to
this situation that Cyril wrote to his agents in the capital, about this
time: "This poor fellow does not imagine, surely, that I am going to allow
myself to be judged by him, whoever the accusers are that he can stir up
against me! It will be the other way round. I shall know well enough how to
force him back to the defensive." The temperature is rising rapidly, on
both shores of the Mediterranean.
It was now that Cyril first approached the court on the matter of
Nestorius, sending explanations of the point at issue to the emperor, his
wife and sisters.
The next move was a council in Egypt, sometime after Easter 430, and an
elaborate report to the pope on the part of Cyril--his answer to the Roman
query whether certain sermons that have come to the pope were really
Nestorius' sermons. Cyril's reply was a "skilfully written letter"
describing the situation at Constantinople, saying that all the bishops of
the East are united in their anxiety about these errors of Nestorius. He is
quite isolated in his denial that the Virgin is Theotokos, but flatters
himself that he will bring the rest round, "so greatly has the power of
his see infatuated him." The bishops will not publicly break off relations
with Nestorius without consulting the pope. "Deign then to make known to us
what seems good to you, and whether we ought either to remain in communion
with him or to declare publicly that no one should remain in communion with
a man who thinks and teaches so erroneously." The pope's reply, Cyril
recommends, should be sent to all the bishops of the East.
With this letter went copies of Nestorius' sermons (and a Latin translation
of them ), then the Cyril-Nestorius correspondence, then a list drawn up by
Cyril of the errors said to be taught by Nestorius, and a compendium of
texts from the classic theologians of the past on the doctrine called in
When this dossier reached Rome, Pope Celestine set it before a specially
summoned gathering of bishops, and on August 11, 430, he wrote his
judgment. This he sent, in the first place, to Cyril. In this letter the
pope speaks of Cyril's communication as a consolation amid his grief at the
sermons Nestorius had been preaching. Already, that is, before receiving
Cyril's letter, the pope had handed over these sermons to one of the great
scholars of the day, the bilingual John Cassian, to be the basis of a book
against Nestorius. But Cyril's letter, the pope continues, suggests how to
cure this terrible evil. To the question about remaining in communion with
the bishop of Constantinople, the pope replies that those whom Nestorius
had excommunicated because they opposed him remain, nevertheless, in full
communion, and those who obstinately follow the path that leads away from
the apostolic teaching cannot be "in communion with us," i.e., the pope.
Nestorius, he instructs Cyril, is to be summoned to make a written
recantation of his errors, and to declare that his belief about the birth
of Christ is what the church of Rome believes, the church of Alexandria,
and the universal church. And Cyril is charged with the execution of this
decision. He is to act in the pope's place, and, speaking with all the
authority of the pope's see, is to demand this retraction of Nestorius, to
be made in writing, within ten days of the notice given. If within this
time Nestorius has not complied he is to be declared expelled from the
To the bishops of Antioch, Jerusalem, Thessalonica, and Philippi the
pope also wrote letters which follow the same line as that to Cyril, but
make no mention of the commission to act which the pope had sent him. The
pope merely says, with great gravity, "The sentence we pronounce, which is
even more the sentence of our master Christ who is God, is..." and so on,
as in the letter to Cyril.
We possess, besides the letter to Cyril, the letter which the pope wrote,
that same day, to Nestorius. In this Celestine explains that lack of
scholars who could translate the bishop's letters and sermons had delayed
his reply, then came the dossier sent from Alexandria, which has been
studied. The pope tells the bishop of Constantinople that his letters are
"full of evident blasphemies." The sermons, for all their obscurity,
plainly teach heresy. What a dreadful mistake it was to make Nestorius a
bishop! The sheep have, indeed, been handed over to the wolf. And now,
those whose lack of foresight brought this about are calling on the pope to
help them out of the difficulty. The pope does not point out to Nestorius
the particular places where he has gone astray, list any of "your many
impious declarations, which the whole church rejects." But, as he tells
him, this present letter is a final warning. The bishop of Alexandria is in
the right, in this controversy. "Brother, if you wish to be with us...
openly show that you think as we think." "Our sentence is this," and the
letter ends with a demand for a written declaration that Nestorius believes
the very thing he has repudiated, with a notice of be ten days allowed, and
a warning that noncompliance means immediate excommunication. Celestine
then tells him that all the papers concerning the process have been sent to
Alexandria, that he has commissioned Cyril to act in his name and to inform
him, Nestorius, and the other bishops what the pope has decided.
A letter, in much the same terms, also went from the pope to the clergy and
faithful people of the capital. But the pope did not write to the emperor.
What the normal time was for a public letter to go from Rome to Alexandria,
in the fifth century, and thence on to Constantinople, a business involving
sea-journeys of something like a thousand miles, it is not easy to say. But
it is surprising that not until December 7 was Nestorius officially
summoned by Cyril to recant. And the bishop of Alexandria did not carry out
his task in person--as, presumably, the pope designed. He sent the
ultimatum by four of his suffragan bishops. Nor did he content himself with
sending the pope's letters of commission, his own credentials in the
matter. Before moving, he had called a synod of the bishops of Egypt, and
he now sent on to Nestorius their synodal letter condemning his teaching.
Finally, to make the expected retractation doubly sure, Cyril had drafted
twelve statements about the heresies Nestorius was alleged to support,
statements all of which ended: "Whoever believes this, may he be anathema,"
i.e., accursed.[10a] These Nestorius was to sign.
But in the long interval between August 11 and December 7 much had happened
at Constantinople and elsewhere. Nestorius had had a correspondence with
the bishop of Antioch, who urged him, in very plain language, to do as he
was asked, and not to cause trouble merely about a word he disliked
(Theotokos) but which he admitted could bear an orthodox meaning, and to
which many saints and doctors of the past had given sanction by themselves
using it. "Don't lose your head," wrote the Antiochean. Ten days! "It will
not take you twenty-four hours to give the needed answer.... Ask advice of
men you can trust. Ask them to tell you the facts, not just what they think
will please you.... You have the whole of the East against you, as well as
Egypt." Nestorius, in his reply to this surely good friend, hedged. He gave
no explicit answer, merely saying he had not been rightly understood, that
if his book forbade the use of the famous word it was because heretics were
using it, with an heretical meaning. And that now he will just wait for the
council, which will settle this, and all other problems. As to Cyril,
it is he who is the troublemaker. "As to the Egyptian's insolence, it will
scarcely surprise you, for you have many evidences of it, old and new."
On November 19, the emperor had summoned a General Council of the Church,
for certain vaguely described purposes, the summons said, but actually, no
one doubted, to settle this controversy between Constantinople and
Alexandria and--in the expectation of Nestorius--to be the scene of the
trial for heresy (Apollinarianism) of Cyril. The council was to meet at
Ephesus, at Pentecost (June 7) 431.
When Cyril's four bishops reached Constantinople, December 7, Nestorius
refused to receive them. John of Antioch, in the letter just mentioned, had
passed on to Nestorius copies of the pope's letter condemning him, and also
of a letter he (John) had received from Cyril. Long before Cyril's four
bishops walked into the sanctuary of the cathedral at Constantinople, that
December Sunday, to hand over the ultimatum, Nestorius had known all about
it. And he had not been idle. It was from Nestorius, it is often said, that
the council idea had come. And in the emperor's letter inviting Cyril to
the council there was much to make it evident that the glorification of
Alexandria was no part of the programme. Cyril's writing separate letters
to the emperor, the empress, and the princesses was here declared to be an
attempt to divide the imperial family, and the bishop was ordered--not
invited--to attend the council, under severe penalties. On the other
hand, the emperor's act had changed the whole situation for Nestorius. In
summoning the council Theodosius had forbidden all and every ecclesiastical
change, no matter by whom, until the council had concluded. And when
Nestorius now wrote to the pope of the crimes that were to be brought
against Cyril when the council met, he made light of the theological
controversy, gave not a hint that he knew of the pope's judgment, but wrote
that Cyril, he hears, is preparing a "Faith in danger" campaign, in the
hope of distracting the council from his own anxieties.
The pope made no difficulty about the emperor's plan to call a council, nor
about the prohibition which--in fact--had called a halt to the summons to
Nestorius. And when Cyril wrote to ask whether Nestorius was now to be
treated as excommunicated, for the ten days had long since gone by, the
pope in reply quoted the Scripture that God wills not the death of a
sinner, but rather that he be converted and live. And Cyril is exhorted to
work for peace with the rest of the bishops.
The date of this letter is May 7, 431--one month before the day appointed
for the council, five months from the day Cyril's deputation tried to
deliver the ultimatum to Nestorius. And in those five months the twelve
anathemas of Cyril, so to call them, had time to circulate; and--in the
vast territories where the influence of Antioch was strong--they had raised
issues which now quite overshadowed the differences between Cyril and
Nestorius, or between Rome and Nestorius even. In the eyes of these
Antiochean theologians the language in which the bishop of Alexandria had
framed his statements revealed him as a pure Apollinarian. And John of
Antioch had organised a party to make this clear at the council, and had in
the meantime induced two bishops--one of them held to be Cyril's equal as a
scholarly writer, Theodoret of Cyrrhus--to come out with public
refutations of the Alexandrian's "heresies." And this group wrote to the
bishops of the West for support, to Milan, for example, to Aquileia, and to
How much of this was known to Pope Celestine, when he wrote his letter of
May 7, we do not know. But he surely knew that minds were inflamed, and as
he gave Cyril the news that he was not himself able to make the journey to
Ephesus, he urged "the Egyptian" to be moderate, to remember that what the
pope wanted was that Nestorius should be won back. We must not, said the
pope, again scripturally, be of those "swift to shed blood."
The day after this letter was written the pope signed the instructions for
the three legates who were to represent him at the council. They were told
to act throughout with Cyril and to watch carefully that the authority of
the Apostolic See was duly respected. And, finally, the pope sent a letter
to the council. It is a moving document, in which Celestine reminds the
bishops of the beloved apostle St. John, whose remains lie in the church at
Ephesus where they are meeting, and reminds them that they are the
successors of the twelve apostles, privileged to preserve what their
labours had established. The pope speaks plainly about the Nestorian
novelties: they are treason to the faith. He exhorts the bishops to
unanimity, and to be courageous in act. Then he presents his legates, who
will take part in the council and will tell the bishops, "the things which
we decided at Rome were to be done." "Nor do we doubt your assent to all
this," the pope goes on, "when it is seen how all that is done has been
ordered for the security of the whole church."[14a]
To the legates the pope entrusted a letter for the emperor, announcing that
he would be represented at the council by legates, and praying he would
give no encouragement to these novel ideas now causing such trouble, the
work of men who would reduce the idea of God to the limits of what a finite
intelligence could explore. The pope leaves it in no doubt, in this as in
the other letter, that Nestorius is already condemned; if the pope consents
to the case being discussed once more, this is in the hope that the
unfortunate man will retract.
The emperor had not convoked every single bishop of the empire to the
council, but only a certain number from each of the fifty-nine provinces of
his own jurisdiction, the choice being left to the metropolitans. In all,
something like 230 or 250 ultimately arrived at Ephesus. Cyril came in a
few days before the appointed date. He found Nestorius already established.
He had been at Ephesus since Easter, with a small group of sympathetic
prelates. Cyril had brought with him fifty Egyptian bishops. Sometime after
Pentecost the (anti-Nestorius) bishop of Jerusalem arrived with fifteen
supporters, and later came news from the Antiocheans, forty-six in all,
that they had been delayed by accidents. This last group had chosen to
travel by the land route, a thousand miles and more of difficult and--as it
The most numerous group at the council was the bishops of what we, today,
call Asia Minor, the nineteen provinces that then made up the (civil)
dioceses of Asia and Pontus, and the district called Proconsular Asia which
was subject to the emperor's direct rule. It was in this last that Ephesus
itself was situated. In Asia Minor there were, in all, something like three
hundred sees. It was the most Catholicized territory of all the empire.
Something like a hundred of these bishops came to the council. The bishop
of Ephesus, Memnon, acted as their leader, and they were to a man anti-
Constantinople--the question of the Theotokos apart. The repeated attempts
14a. These three letters are in Jaffe, nos. 377, 378, 379.
Of successive bishops of the capital city, since 381, to turn the primacy
of honour then voted it into an effective hold on the only territory not
already dominated by Antioch or Alexandria, made the bishops of Ephesus
allies of the foe of Constantinople in all these disputes.
Meanwhile the Antiocheans did not arrive, and the bishops waited, for a
good two weeks after the appointed day, June 7, in the great city, two
hundred of them nearly, each with his retinue, in the scorching latitude of
38 degrees north. Disputes were frequent, fights and riots with the
Nestorian minority, in which the town naturally took an interested
part. But Cyril made no attempt to meet Nestorius. The two prelates
avoided each other. Each, to the other, was a wicked heretic, awaiting his
trial and deserved condemnation. And while the bishop of Ephesus forbade
the churches of the city to Nestorius, Cyril was free to preach on
Nestorius as the enemy of truth, the outcast already condemned by the
On June 21 the long wait was broken. Cyril announced that the next day the
council would hold its opening session. Immediately there were protests.
From the imperial commissioner, in the first place, Count Candidian, who
was charged with the safety of the council, under orders to prevent any but
the bishops from entering the church where the meetings would take
place, and with keeping order in the council itself, i.e., to see that
every bishop who wished to speak was allowed to speak, and to reply to
attacks made on him; also to see that no bishop left Ephesus until the
council had ended its business. Candidian demanded a delay until the
Antiocheans arrived. So did no fewer than sixty-eight bishops, in a written
protestation. And Nestorius, with his party, made their protest too, saying
the council was no council until all the bishops were assembled. But Cyril
stood to his announcement, and on June 22 the council opened--a memorable
first session in which much was enacted, and in which still more lay
mischievously latent, suppositos cineri a doloso indeed.
The question has been raised by what authority Cyril thus opened the
council, acting as though he was its acknowledged president. That the mass
of the bishops at the time accepted the fait accompli without any sign of
protest--even the sixty-eight signatories--is certain. It was also
traditional that Alexandria was the first see of the East. Its bishop being
present at a General Council, and neither pope nor emperor having named
another to preside, he was surely its inevitable president. Nestorius, in
the memoirs he wrote, many years later, says: "We expected that he who
exercised authority (the emperor, through Candidian) would have chosen the
president. No one thought you would have taken it for yourself." But from
the 159 bishops who were in the church as the day's work began there
was not a sign of objection to Cyril.
The first, unallowed-for incident was a protestation, to the council this
time, not to Cyril, from Candidian. It was the emperor's will, he said,
that there should not be any "fragmentary councils." He was asked to
show his instructions and did so. But the bishops stood firm, and begged
him to leave, which he did, after a final plea to wait for the absentees,
upon whose arrival Nestorius and his party would join the council.
The council then settled down to its business. A notary read a summary of
the case against Nestorius, told how Cyril had intervened at
Constantinople, and then at Rome, and how "the most holy bishop of the
church of Rome, Celestine, has written what it behoved." And the notary
announced that all the documents were here and at the disposition of the
Nestorius was then sent for. Three times--as the Law demanded--he was
officially and personally summoned, a deputation going from the council to
the place where he lived. He ignored all three citations, and the council
passed to the study of his case.
The next act was the reading of the creed of Nicaea, and then of Cyril's
letter to Nestorius. Cyril then rose, acknowledging the letter, and to put
it to the bishops to vote whether the theology of his letter was in accord
with the creed of Nicaea; 125 of the bishops followed him, each making
profession of the Nicene faith, and affirming that the letter accorded with
Nicaea. A demand was made for Nestorius' reply to the letter. When it was
read, and the question put as to its accord with Nicaea, thirty-four
bishops had individually answered in the negative when the patience of the
assembly gave out. There was a call for a mass vote, and without a
dissentient they shouted their views in a series of acclamations: "Whoever
does not anathematize Nestorius, let him be anathema. Curses on him. The
true faith curses him. The holy council curses him. We all say anathema, to
his letter and his views. We all say anathema to the heretic Nestorius....
The whole universal church says anathema to the wicked religion taught by
The bishop of Jerusalem now asked that the pope's letter to Nestorius be
read. So far not a word had come from the president to say that Rome had
condemned Nestorius already, and looked to the council to ratify this. It
was in the name of Nicaea that Nestorius had been condemned. The council--
or Cyril--had not merely begun the business before the Antiocheans had come
in, but before the arrival of the pope's representatives also. The
Jerusalem proposal, so to speak, was adopted and the pope's letter was
read--and listened to as a matter of routine, one would say, without a
single acclamation. Next was read the letter delivered to Nestorius by the
four bishops, the letter of the Egyptian synod. But not the now famous
twelve anathemas which Cyril had composed in order to stop every retreat
for his wily opponent--or perhaps they were read? Historians do not agree.
Then, after an account by one of the four bishops of their mission to
Nestorius, the notary read out a long collection of texts from all the
classic theologians of past days justifying the orthodoxy of the term
Theotokos; and followed this with a long selection of passages from
Nestorius that were evidence of his errors. Finally, in a solemn resounding
sentence, the council deprived Nestorius of his bishopric of Constantinople
and ejected him from the ranks of the episcopate; 198 signatures of bishops
were attached to the sentence.
In all the day's proceedings not a single voice had been raised to say that
the views of Nestorius were what the faith really was. All that long day
crowds had stood round outside the great church, while the interminable
routine had slowly worked to its inevitable end, echoes from within making
their way to the streets, no doubt, in the more lively moments. When the
result was known there were scenes of the wildest joy, and Cyril, in a
pastoral letter written on his return to Alexandria, has left a vivid
picture of it all.
"The whole population of the city, from earliest dawn until the evening
stood around, in expectation of the council's decision. And when they heard
that the author of the blasphemies had been stripped of his rank, they all
began with one voice to praise and glorify God, as for the overthrow of an
enemy of the faith. And as we [the bishops] came forth from the Church,
they led us with torches to our lodgings, for it was now evening.
Throughout the city there was great rejoicing, and many lighted lanterns,
and women who walked before us swinging thuribles."
The Council of Ephesus was now over? No, its history had hardly begun,
although, without a shadow of opposition, it had carried out the task for
which, in the eyes of all, it had been summoned; and although the justice
of what it had done was not questioned, and no move was ever made to
reverse the decision. These strange words promise a complicated story.
There were to be six more sessions of the council, spread through the month
of July, and then, for the mass of the bishops, a long dreary wait of
weeks, while, at the capital, rival delegations argued before the emperor
about the orthodoxy of Cyril. It was late September, three months after
this night of triumph, before the council was dissolved, and the bishops
free to begin the long journey back to their sees.
The morrow of the celebrations was taken up with the task of notifying the
decision to all the interested parties: letters from Cyril and his bishops
to the emperor, and to the clergy and people of Constantinople; a report
from Candidian to the emperor; and from Nestorius (who had been officially
told his sentence at the conclusion of the session) a complaint about the
way his friends had been dealt with.
The next day, June 24, the Antiocheans arrived. They speedily learnt all
that had happened, and were soon officially notified of the sentence
against Nestorius and ordered, by Cyril, not to communicate with him in any
way. Their immediate reaction was to form themselves into a council--along
with some of the bishops who had held aloof from the great session of the
twenty-second They gave Count Candidian audience and he, as well as
protesting against what was then done, gave a full account of all the
events of the week. It was then the turn of those bishops to speak, against
whom Memnon had closed all his churches, shutting them out in this way from
the liturgy at the great feast of Pentecost. There was speech of Cyril's
autocratic conduct, of the heresy which his twelve anathemas contained and,
finally, John of Antioch who presided over the gathering proposed a
sentence that Cyril and Memnon be deposed as the authors of the heresies
contained in the anathemas, the heresies of Arius and Apollinaris, and all
the bishops be excommunicated who had allowed themselves to be led away by
these chiefs. Notice of this sentence was served on all concerned, and once
more the elaborate business gone through of officially informing the
emperor and all the ecclesiastical world of the capital.
When these letters were despatched, whether June 26 or 28, the previous
despatches to the emperor can hardly yet have reached Constantinople. His
answer to Candidian's report on the session of June 22 is, in fact, dated
June 29. It is a severe condemnation of all Cyril's proceedings. The
emperor regards all that was done as of no effect, and orders the bishops
to meet again, in accord, this time, with the instructions given to the
count. None is to leave until this new discussion has taken place. And one
of the highest officials of the court, it is announced, is on his way to
By the time this communication had reached Ephesus, something else had
happened: the three Roman legates had arrived, the two bishops Arcadius and
Projectus, and the priest Philip. In accord with the instructions given
them, ten or eleven weeks before, they joined themselves to Cyril. On July
10, all the bishops who had taken part in the act of June 22 came together
once more in session. The difference in the procedure is evident, notable,
significant. Cyril presided, and the session opened with a demand from
the legates that the pope's letter to the council, which they had brought
with them, should be read. This was done, and one of the legates then said,
"We have satisfied what custom demands, namely, that first of all, the
letters from the Apostolic See be read in Latin." They were next read in
Greek--a translation brought by the legates.
And now there were acclamations from the council. The papal sentence had
anticipated the bishops' own vote. The counteraction of John of Antioch
against themselves for their support of Cyril, the emperor's gesture of
repudiation, were, perhaps, the lighter for this wholehearted confirmation.
"Celestine," they called, "is the new Paul. Cyril is the new Paul.
Celestine is the guardian of the faith. Celestine agrees with the council.
There is one Celestine, one Cyril, one faith of the council, one faith of
the world-wide church." And then one of the papal legates intervened to
point out that what Celestine's letter had said was that it was the
council's business to carry out what he at Rome had decided should be done.
And another legate, acknowledging the acclamations, said in a terse phrase,
"The members have joined themselves to the head, for your beatitude is not
ignorant that the head of the whole faith, and furthermore of the Apostles,
is the blessed apostle Peter." And then this legate, the priest Philip,
asked for the official record of what had been done on June 22, So as to be
able to confirm the sentence passed, according to the instructions of "our
At the session of the following day the same legate pronounced that the
judgment of June 22 had been made "canonically and in accordance with
ecclesiastical learning"; and, "conformably with the instructions of the
most holy pope, Celestine," the judgment was confirmed. Whereupon the
minutes of the session and the sentence against Nestorius were read,
following which the legate Philip made a speech in which occurs this
passage, that has never ceased to be quoted since: "No one doubts, nay it
is a thing known now for centuries, that the holy and most blessed Peter,
the prince and head of the Apostles, the pillar of the faith and the
foundation on which the Catholic Church is built, received from Our Lord,
Jesus Christ, the saviour and redeemer of the human race, the keys of the
kingdom, and that to him there was given the power of binding and of
loosing from sin; who, down to this day, and for evermore, lives and
exercises judgment in his successors."
In the report of these last proceedings made by the bishops to the emperor,
the principal part which the Roman see has played in the condemnation of
Nestorius, "before the present council was summoned," is stressed, and the
fact that Cyril had been charged by the pope to act in his place. But the
bishops do not excuse themselves for--once more--ignoring the emperor's
commands as to what they shall do and how. In their letter notifying again
to the clergy of Constantinople the deposition of their bishop, the next
signature, after Cyril's is that of Philip, "priest of the church of the
Apostles," then comes that of the bishop of Jerusalem, and next of the
other two Roman legates.
It remained to resolve the council's situation vis-a-vis the Antioch group
who, now nearly three weeks since, had declared these two hundred or so
bishops excommunicated, and no council. John of Antioch and his adherents
were now, three times, formally summoned to appear before the council, and
upon their final refusal they were all solemnly excommunicated (July 17).
And, once again, pope and emperor were formally notified of all that had
At Constantinople there were general rejoicings at the news that Nestorius'
reign was over. But the emperor still refused to recognise the work done as
it had been done. He did not reprove the bishops for ignoring his orders of
June 29, and he wrote as though all the bishops then at Ephesus were one
body--a single letter addressed to all. But he confirmed all three
depositions, i.e., of Nestorius and of Cyril and of the bishop of Ephesus.
All the other acts he condemned. The faith as defined at Nicaea sufficed,
he said. His new envoy, Count John, who brought the letter, would further
instruct the bishops about "our divinity's plan for the faith." And the
bishops were bidden return to their sees.
When the count arrived, with this somewhat confused, and confusing, decree,
it must have been the beginning of August. He had all the bishops brought
together in a single assembly to hear his news, their leaders with them.
The effect was a general riot, Nestorius and Cyril had to be removed before
order was restored. That evening they, with Memnon of Ephesus, were placed
under arrest. "If I see the pious bishops to be irritable and
irreconcilable (though what causes their rage and exasperation is a mystery
to me), and if I find it necessary to take other measures, I shall as soon
as possible give your majesty news of this"; so the count reported to
There were, of course, protestations to the court from the council. And
Cyril, who knew well the world of Constantinople, made immediate use of the
vast wealth of his see. "At the court every man had his price, and Cyril
did not stop to count the price." We have a list of the valuable
presents that flowed in, carpets (of various sizes), furnishings, valuable
silks, jewels, ivory chairs, ostriches, and good plain golden coin. Of this
last, one group of fifteen high personages "touched," between them, the
equivalent of nearly a million dollars. "Il est certain que Cyrille a paye
tres cher." No less effectively, he influenced the monks, and an abbot
who in forty-eight years had never left his cell headed a great
demonstration, that all the town turned out to cheer as it made its way to
the palace. And the abbot solemnly warned Theodosius of the sin he
committed when he interfered with the council's action.
What the emperor decided was to hold a conference, which both sides would
attend. Eight delegates from each party came to the palace at Chalcedon,
the town directly across the Bosporus from the capital. The legate Philip
went with the party of the council. John of Antioch led the other group.
Cyril was still under arrest; nor did any pleas on his behalf at Chalcedon
overcome the emperor's determination not to see him. The conference began
on September 4. There were five meetings in all, and we have no record
of what took place except what has survived of letters to the bishops still
kicking their heels at Ephesus from their friends in the delegations--or
rather in the delegation of John of Antioch's party, one of whom was the
great Theodoret. The emperor's decision--presuming it was his office to
decide--was sensible enough. He refused to condemn Cyril for his twelve
anathemas, would not even have them examined; refused to accept the Antioch
policy that no more needed to be said than to repeat the definition of
Nicaea; and he utterly refused to reconsider the personal question of
Nestorius. "Don't talk to me of that fellow," he said. "He has shown the
sort he is." As to the excommunicated John of Antioch and his party "Never
so long as I live will I condemn them," said the emperor in his edict.
"When they appeared before me none were able to prove anything against
them." Cyril and Memnon were tacitly allowed to keep their sees. The
bishops were allowed to go home The great council was over.
1 He had died January 17, 395, the last man to rule the whole Roman world
as sole emperor; and he died a man in the prime of life.
2. St. Innocent 1, 402-17.
3. Batiffol, Msgr. Pierre, Le Siege Apostolique, 359-451, 343.
4. Whom, however, Cyril does not name.
5. Batiffol, as before, 361; also, 343.
6. Batiffol, as before, 348, n. 5. St. Cyril's Letters, no. X. Also quoted
Bardy, Les debuts du Nestorianisme, F. and M., vol. 4, p. 172, n. 2.
7. Batiffol, as before, 349, n. 1.
8. Bardy, 172, fort habilement redigee.
9. The word translated by "power" is dunameis. When the pope passes to
state his decision to the clergy and faithful of Constantinople (August 11,
430) and says, "The authority of our see has decided," the noun used is
authentia--i.e., supreme authority, where the other term dunameis is "high
rank," or "resources."
10. In the province of Macedonia (and therefore directly subject to the
Holy See), 70 miles east of Thessalonica, 240 due west of Constantinople.
10a. Barry, no. 18, prints a translation of the synodal letter and the
11. Announced since John of Antioch's letter.
12. For this correspondence, Batiffol, as before, 361-62.
13. Cf. Newman on the emperor, "distrustful of Cyril": "'Theodosius
disliked Cyril; he thought him proud and overbearing, a restless agitator
and an intriguer and he told him so in a letter that has come down to us."
Trials of Theodoret, in Historical Sketches, II, 348. It seems safe to date
this essay, first printed in 1873, in the 1860s.
14. Whom John had already called in to induce Nestorius to admit the
orthodoxy of the use of the word Theotokos.
15. The leading prelates brought each his own bodyguard; Cyril, sailors
from Alexandria, Nestorius, gladiators from the circus.
16. Newman, as before, 349-50.
17. The great church called Maria Theotokos.
18. "Beneath ashes deceptively cool." The reference is to Horace's famous
warning to historians, Odes, II, 1.
19. "Round about 160," says Bardy, F. and M., 4, 180. The exact figure is a
matter of dispute.
20. Nolle particulures quasdam synodos fieri. Batiffol, as before, 371.
21 The text of this letter, Greek and Latin, is printed in Kirch,
Enchiridion Fontium Hist. Ecclesiasticae Antiquae, pp. 461-62.
22. And the official record of the proceedings notes that he does so
"taking the place of Celestine, the most holy and most reverend chief-
bishop of the church of the Romans."
23. The term used by the legate for his native Latin tongue is interesting-
-Romana oratio. Mansi, IV, p. 1288.
24 Text, Creek and Latin, in Denzinger, no. 112.
25. The Roman basilica of this title.
26. To fifty-three, rather, by name, belonging to all parties; to the pope
and the bishop of Thessalonica, also, who did not attend the council; and
to St. Augustine, dead now eleven months.
27. Batiffol, Msgr. Pierre, Le Siege Apostolique, 359-451, p. 388.
28. Ibid., p. 389. See also Bardy, p. 188.
29. Bardy says September 11, p. 190.