July 10, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Early Church: Affirming that Mary is the mother of God

John F. Fink(Fourteenth in a series of columns)

Two weeks ago, I wrote about Arianism, the heresy that taught that God the Father created God the Son, and how difficult it was to defeat it after it was condemned by the Council of Nicaea in 325. For a period, more Christian bishops were Arians than orthodox. It took another council, called by Emperor Theodosius in Constantinople in 381, to re-condemn Arianism and to revise the Nicene Creed a bit.

Soon, though, another heresy had to be dealt with. If, as the Creed said, Jesus was both true God and true man, how do you explain the union of divinity and humanity in Jesus? One school of thought, in Alexandria, emphasized the unity in Jesus while another school, centered in Antioch, stressed the two natures.

Nestorianism, named after Nestorius of Constantinople, denied that Mary could be the mother of God, insisting that she could be the mother of only the humanity of Jesus. Nestorius said that there were two distinct persons in Christ, the divine and the human, and that Mary was the mother only of the human person.

St. Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria, convinced Pope Celestine that Nestorius was in error and the pope condemned Nestorius’s views at a synod in Rome. That wasn’t good enough, though, so Emperor Theodosius II convened the third ecumenical council in Ephesus in 431. The pope was invited to attend, but he did not.

Cyril was a man of action. When he arrived in Ephesus, he took charge immediately, convening the council even though Nestorius and the bishops from Antioch had not yet arrived. The 150 or so bishops who were present quickly found Nestorius guilty of “distinct blasphemy against the Son of God,” and proclaimed Mary truly the God-bearer, Theotokos, the mother of the one person who was truly God and truly man.

Cyril wrote, “That anyone could doubt the right of the holy Virgin to be called the Mother of God fills me with astonishment. Surely she must be the Mother of God if our Lord Jesus Christ is God, and she gave birth to him!”

Then things got a bit crazy at the Council of Ephesus. Bishop John of Antioch and the other Antiochene bishops finally arrived. Angry at Cyril for ramrodding Nestorius’ condemnation through the council, Bishop John deposed Cyril and had him imprisoned. But the council was over, and Cyril was released after three months.

Cyril and John continued to have their differences, condemning each other. They finally reconciled, though, in 433, after John proposed a theological formula that he hoped would satisfy everybody, and Cyril accepted it. It stated that the “union of two natures had been achieved and because of this union we confess that the holy virgin is Theotokos, because the Word of God had been made flesh and been made man.” The pope, who was Sixtus III by then, approved this formula.

Of course, this didn’t satisfy everyone. Eutyches, a monk who lived in Constantinople, thought that Jesus’ human body was different from other human bodies. This was the next heresy to be condemned. †

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