On June 22, 431, St. Cyril of Alexandria opened the first session of a council of bishops at Ephesus. What would be the Third Ecumenical Council was later overshadowed by the schism precipitated by the fourth, Chalcedon. At the time, however, the crucial theological questions and the outsized personalities of Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria and Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople made the Council of Ephesus incredibly momentous. Nestorius was ultimately condemned along with the doctrine associated with his name, Nestorianism. Nestorianism, after the earlier Arian controversy, is one of the most infamous and divisive theological heresies of the early Christian Church. Ecumenical Councils, a gathering all of the Christian Bishops, were convened on command of the Roman (Byzantine) Emperors in order to settle these problematic arguments that threatened Church unity. While the Councils sometimes led to new disagreements and arguments, the Ecumenical Councils cemented orthodox Christian doctrine and are an integral part of Christian tradition.
Emperor Constantine convened the first Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 AD to address the dominant theological concern of that time, Arianism. Christianity, at the time, was just emerging as the state religion of the Late Roman and soon to be Byzantine Empire. While the writings we know as the New Testament had all been written by this time, the New Testament as such, with a full consensus on the books which comprised it, had not been set. Post-Biblical Christian texts had also begun, but many of the most famous of the “Christian Fathers” emerge precisely in the debates over Arianism: St. Athanasius first comes on the scene as a deacon attending to the Bishop of Alexandria during the Council of Nicaea. Given Christianity’s largely “underground” status until the time of Constantine, there was not full agreement between the various important centers of Christianity, such as Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Rome. Emperor Constantine realized that the newly public and semi-official status of Christianity meant that doctrinal differences and disagreements between powerful and influential bishops would harm not only Christian unity, but the stability of the Empire as well. The Council of Nicaea was convened specifically to address a controversy that tore at the fabric of both imperial and ecclesial unity.
Bishops came to the Council of Nicaea from every territory where the Gospel of Jesus Christ had been preached and where there was an established ecclesia, the Church as the Body of Christ. According to the early Armenian historians, St. Gregory the Illuminator sent his son Aristakes (who would succeed him as the second Catholicos of the Armenians) to represent the newly established Armenian Church at the Council of Nicaea. Drawing bishops and theologians from the known Christian world, beyond even the borders of the Roman Empire, the Council of Nicaea truly encompassed the known Christian world, hence the term ecumenical. The word ultimately derives from a Greek term meaning “from the whole world.” Ecumenical councils were meant to secure agreement on the basic tenets of the Christian faith, a faith that had already spread across much of the world. The earliest councils were truly ecumenical, with the participation of bishops from Armenia and Persia in the East and the Roman province of Britain in the West.
|A World History of Christianity||This wonderful and accessible book presents the history of the spread of Christianity in a truly ecumenical fashion, describing with equal interest the development of Christian churches in the Latin West and in missions to the East. At St. Nersess.|
|On the Incarnation||A great classic of early Christianity by St. Athanasius of Alexandria, a staunch anti-Arian defender of the orthodoxy of the Council of Nicaea. Published in St. Vladimir Seminary Press’ Popular Patristics Series.|
|The Way to Nicaea||By Fr. John Behr, Professor of Patristics at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, the first of three volumes tracing the development of a concept of Orthodoxy through the disagreements over the question, “Who is Jesus Christ?” This first volume follows the early arguments, including Arianism, that led to the first ecumenical council of Nicaea. At St. Nersess.|
While there continued to be adherents to Arianism—hence St. Athanasius’ impassioned defense of Nicaean orthodoxy—for the most part, the entire Christian world eventually came around the views of Nicaea. All of the ancient and apostolic churches recite the “Nicene Creed,” which, apart from a few changes made at the Second Ecumenical Council in 381 AD, known as the First Council of Constantinople, was developed at the Council of Nicaea. That is to say, the Council of Nicaea truly did encompass the entire Christian world and was a genuinely ecumenical council. Even today, with a proliferation of post-Reformation Protestant denominations that reject the extra-Biblical tradition of catholic and orthodox churches, there are few who call themselves Christian that do not adhere to the main decisions of the Council of Nicaea. Similarly, the First Council of Constantinople, convened by the Emperor Theodosius the I (whom the Armenian Apostolic Church commemorates every week during the deacons’ litanies known as the diptychs) and partially presided over by St. Gregory Nazianzus, to combat continued Arianism, gained wide acceptance throughout the ecumenical Christian world.
It was with the Third Ecumenical Council, the First Council of Ephesus convened in the ancient city of Ephesus on the Aegean Coast (the letters of St. Paul addressed to the Ephesians are letters to the people of the city of Ephesus) in 431, that lasting splinters in universal Christendom appear. Armenian Apostolic Christians commemorate the “200 Fathers of the Holy Council of Ephesus” this Saturday. Along with most Christian churches, the Armenians accept the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD as the Third Ecumenical Council. If Arianism was the main topic of debate at the first two ecumenical councils, it was Nestorianism that was the central issue of the third. Nestorius, trained in the city of Antioch, had become an important teacher and eventually the Patriarch of Constantinople. He taught that the divine and human aspects of Jesus Christ should be considered two separate people. St. Cyril of Alexandria, who strongly opposed Nestorius and his teachings, recognized that dividing Jesus into two people effectively negated the efficacy of salvation. The First Council of Ephesus condemned the position of Nestorius, and sided with Cyril that St. Mary should be called Theotokos, the Mother of God, and not merely “the Mother of Christ.” However, many bishops in the East rejected the decisions of the Council, creating one of the first major divisions of Christendom that exists to this day: the Assyrian Church of the East does not explicitly take the title of “Nestorian,” though it is does not accept the Council of Ephesus.
For the Armenian Apostolic Church, as for all our Sister “Oriental Orthodox” Churches, the teaching of St. Cyril of Alexandria and the decisions of the Council of Ephesus are of paramount importance. In fact, the Christological position of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the teachings about who Christ is, can best be described as Miaphysite, a term built in part from Cyril’s famous formula, that Jesus Christ has “one incarnate nature of the God-Logos,” using the terminology from the beginning of the Gospel of John, carried the day at the Council of Ephesus. Just as the Council of Nicaea, however, did not solve all the lingering problems of Arianism, the Council of Ephesus was likewise not able to solve all the problems of Nestorianism. In 449, there was a Second Council at Ephesus, where Cyril’s doctrine of “one incarnate nature of the God-Logos” was officially adopted. Even more politically heated than the previous council at Ephesus, this one likewise did not solve all the lingering theological and political problems of Nestorianism. In 451, another council was convened at Chalcedon (modern-day Kadıköy, outside of Istanbul). The Council of Chalcedon overturned the Second Council of Ephesus and adopted what has become known as Chalcedonian Christology: that Jesus Christ is one person in two natures, divine and human. Over time, all of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, including the Armenian Apostolic Church, rejected the Chalcedonian formula in favor of Cyril’s, recognizing the Second Council of Ephesus but rejecting the Council of Chalcedon. From the Armenian perspective, then, the First Council of Ephesus, accepted by all the churches except the Assyrian Church of the East, was the last truly ecumenical council.
Christological controversies stemming from the Council of Chalcedon continued to rage. Perhaps most tragically, the true ecumenical nature of the universal Christian Church was shattered. While, from the perspective of the Assyrian Church of the East, the First Council of Ephesus had already created a major schism, with the Council of Chalcedon, major portions of early and important Christian populations were splintered from each other: many in Alexandria and Egypt, a major see; the ancient Syriac monasteries; and our own Armenian Church, among others. Throughout the ages, there have been many attempts to repair the schisms among Christian churches into to bring about a true ecumenism. At times, Byzantine Emperors tried to force Armenians, Copts, and Syriacs back into the Chalcedonian fold. At other times, there were constructive dialogues between the two sides that almost reached consensus, such as during the Catholicosate of St. Nersess Shnorhali. In the past century, there has been an invigorated ecumenical movement, attempting to repair the divisions not only between the so-called Oriental and Eastern Orthodox Churches, but also including important dialogues between Roman Catholic and Oriental Orthodox Churches, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, as well as many ecumenical discussions with the Episcopalian Churches. Many of our own Armenian Church leaders, such as Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan and Catholicos Karekin I, were central to the conversations that took place in the middle of the twentieth century. During those conversations, theologians from the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox Churches concluded that their Christologies were in basic agreement, but expressed differently. Though there has not been an official reunification of these churches, even this statement by theologians is astounding. After all, the last time a truly ecumenical council took place between those two branches of Christendom was at the council the Armenian Church commemorates this Saturday, the Council of Ephesus—in 431 AD!
|Does Chalcedon Divide or Unite?||Including the statements made by the working group of theologians and hierarchs from the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches in the middle of the twentieth century, this book outlines the Christological position of St. Cyril of Alexandria while also marking a high point in modern ecumenism.|
|Building Bridges: The Ecumenical Journey of Karekin I||Offering a collection of essays by Catholicos Karekin I, this book highlights the ecumenical efforts of His Holiness Karekin I throughout his ministry.|
|A Century of Contacts Between the Armenians and Episcopalian Churches in the U.S.A.||By Fr. Arten Ashjian, a booklet detailing a different set of ecumenical Christian contacts, between the Episcopal and Armenian Churches in the United States.|
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