The Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon

Apr 25th, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Many Protestants are willing to affirm the first four ecumenical councils. Thankfully there is in this respect common ground between Catholics and such Protestants. But most Protestants either deny or are ambivalent about the ecumenical councils that took place after the Council of Chalcedon. And that leads to division between Protestants on the one hand, and Catholics and Orthodox on the other hand.

The Council of Ephesus

Part of the reason why Protestants do not accept the ecumenical councils after the Council of Chalcedon is that they do not see in Scripture any clear and explicit basis for their teachings. In this respect what divides Protestants and the Catholic Church is the Protestant idea that if Scripture does not clearly spell out a doctrine, then the doctrine is not an essential doctrine, and the Church has no authority to declare it to be such. Another reason why Protestants do not accept the ecumenical councils after Chalcedon is that they do not see how the teachings of the subsequent councils follow from the dogmas promulgated by the third and fourth ecumenical councils. They see how the doctrines of the Trinity and Christ’s two natures can be drawn from Scripture, but this idea of monothelitism (i.e. that Christ had only one will), for example, seems philosophical and beyond the scope of Scripture.

Yet consider the account of St. Maximus the Confessor. In AD 655, at the age of seventy five, he was arrested on orders from the Emperor, and tried as a heretic, for refusing to accept a compromise involving monothelitism, which had gained the Emperor’s favor. He was sent into exile, and then in 662 he was brought to trial again in Constantinople, again for his rejection of any compromise regarding monothelitism. His punishment this time was having his tongue cut out and his right hand cut off, so that he could neither speak nor write. He was then exhibited in different parts of the city, and then again exiled. He died later that year.

St. Maximus would not be a saint and martyr if he stood his ground only for a man-made philosophy. He understood very well that since we have a will, it follows by necessity that because Jesus was fully human, He must have a human will. Otherwise, He wouldn’t be fully human, but only possessing a human body (like a Logos-possessed zombie — that’s Apollinarianism). Of course the Second Person of the Trinity never lost His divine will when He took on human nature. Hence monothelitism follows directly from monophysitism. That is why St. Maximus was willing to endure torture, exile and death rather than compromise on the question of monothelitism. Monothelitism is no less heretical than is monophysitism. To deny that Christ had two wills is to deny the incarnation, and is thus to deny the whole Christian faith. If therefore we are willing to die for the Christian faith, we must be willing to die for the truth that Christ has two wills, i.e. His divine will and His human will.

But to understand why, we have to understand the third and fourth ecumenical councils. These past two weeks, Professor Lawrence Feingold of the Institute for Pastoral Studies1 at Ave Maria University, gave two lectures to the Association of Hebrew Catholics, the first on the Council of Ephesus in 431, and the second on the Council of Chalcedon in 451. In the second half of the second lecture, Prof. Feingold explains the implications of the Council of Chalcedon for the question of monothelitism. Listen to the lectures and the Q&A sessions below.

“Nestorius, Theotokos, Hypostatic Union [The Council of Ephesus in AD 431]”
  (download)

Q&A
  (download)

“Christ is Perfect Man and Perfect God [The Council of Chalcedon in AD 451]”
  (download)

Q&A
  (download)

  1. For readers interested in deepening their theological education in an orthodox Catholic institution, the Institute for Pastoral Theology (IPT) at Ave Maria University is presently accepting applications for the Master of Theological Studies degree program that will begin in August 2010. Classes meet one weekend per month in various locations around the US, ten months each year. Deadline for applications is June 1, 2010. []
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  1. Hi Bryan,

    Do you know of any particular Protestant theologians who accept all and only the first four councils? Most Protestants, I suppose, just don’t care about such things, but I was under the impression that most of those who do accept at least the first six. (As far as the 7th, they either interpret it differently than the RCC and EOC, or they accept Hierapolis in place of Nicea II.)

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