Sometimes in reaction to American naivete and historical groundlessness, various sectors of the Church will appeal to “history” and “tradition” as an antidote. I hope it is clear that I do in fact value tradition and want to listen to “the mind of the church,” however I am equally committed to being honest about what this means.
Somewhere along the way, the myth of the seven councils took an astonishing hold on the mind of various traditionalists. This myth basically states that back in the good ol’ days, the Church (the unified, holy, purest Church) held seven councils which defined true Christianity, and most of our problems today would be solved if we would just run back to these councils. Some people up the ante and say we should sign on to all of the lesser canons of the councils, and perhaps they will even say that these councils are infallible. Protestants are regularly challenged on why they don’t subscribe to Nicea II. “If you don’t subscribe to that one, what is stopping you from rejecting all the rest?”
This is a persuasive myth, no doubt, and let’s be honest, it just feels good. It makes me feel a lot better to think there was time when people were doing things right. It makes me feel at ease to suppose that there is a time way back when, which if we’d all just rediscover, could possibly solve our current problems.
It feels good, but it is mostly fiction.
You see, in reality what we think of as “the Seven Ecumenical Councils,” actually spans the course of at least nine councils, two of which are now rejected as false or “robbers councils.” The criteria for what makes a council a true one vs. a false one is not entirely clear. In the Middle Ages (in the West of course) it was decided that the Pope has to call the council for it to be valid. This will never work in the early church, however, because most of the councils (including Nicea- “the big one”) were called by the Emperor. Another criterion that I sometimes hear is that the council has to have a bishop from each of the regions, thus making it “catholic” and “ecumenical.” This excludes the council of Ephesus, though, which most people today tend to like. It would also beg the question over councils like Trent, which by design excluded everyone that didn’t agree. I believe the reinstitution of the Patriarch of Constantinople after the schism would also be in dispute. Of course those councils themselves depend on an understanding of the true church (the good guys), and so they don’t help us much today.
The fact is that most of the councils were heavily disputed, caused division, and took decades and centuries of reevaluation, explanation, and modification before various sides were appeased, that is, if they were appeased. A popular tactic was to simply appeal back to Nicea, even around the time of Chalcedon. That was the faith once delivered, and nothing else could be required.
Norman Russell captures the complexity that surrounded Cyril of Alexandria and the Council of Ephesus quite well in his book Cyril of Alexandria:
A result could only be attained if there was unanimity. The bishops did not come to a council to negotiate a compromise. They came to recognize, and under the Holy Spirit to affirm, the true faith. Unanimity was the guarantee that the Holy Spirit was speaking. Without it a council would fail. Cyril judged that conditions so favourable to a positive result were unlikely to occur again, so he moved quickly. (47)
However, the representatives from Antioch, Cyril’s toughest and most influential opponents, had not yet arrived:
The letter spoke of the hardships suffered on the journey and said that the main party was ‘five or six stages’ from Ephesus. The accompanying message was: “The Lord John the bishop told us to say to your Reverence, ‘If I am late, do what you must do.” John no doubt meant that Cyril could go ahead if he was delayed beyond the week needed to complete the remaining stages of the route. Cyril, however, used the message as a pretext for immediate action. John was late, so he summoned the council to meet the following morning, Monday 22 June. (47)
Without John of Antioch, Ephesus did indeed get its unanimous and thus Spirit-inspired vote. This, as might be expected, did not go over well:
The arrival of John of Antioch’s party on 26 June led to a dramatic turn of events. John was understandably furious that Cyril had not waited and immediately proceeded to hold his own council attended by the dissident bishops. The council found Cyril’s Twelve Chapters tainted with the teachings of Appolinarius, Arius, and Eunomius and deposed both Cyril and Memnon, reporting the result to the emperor. (51)
The emperor is where the real punch comes from, of course, and he didn’t quite know what to do with now two councils anathematizing one another. So, in somewhat pragmatic fashion, he deposes both parties, and orders Nestorius and Cyril to both be arrested.
Russell sums things up by simply stating:
The fact of the matter was, however, that the council had failed. (52)
Now of course as history went on, the Church continued its discussion. Reunion was achieved, though it would not last in whole. Cyril was eventually vindicated, but this required a bit of a softening, if not in substance, certainly in rhetoric and diplomacy. The Council of Chalcedon in October of 451 ultimately proved to be the definitive word on the controversy between Alexandria and Antioch, though it would end up losing the hardline Cyrillians for good.
Russell writes of Chalcedon:
The Cyrillian tradition was represented by the second letter to Nestorius and the Laetentur letter to John of Antioch, which incorporated the Antiochene Formulary of Reunion. The Latin-speaking tradition was represented by Leo’s Tome to Flavian. The more extreme Cyrillian position, as expressed by the Twelve Chapters, was irreconcilable with the two natures teaching of Leo’s Tome and was therefore excluded. The Council of Ephesus of 431 had produced no new symbol of faith, declaring as a matter of principle that nothing was to be added to the symbol of the 318 fathers of Nicea. Under imperial pressure, however, the fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council drew up a new symbol of faith which sought to combine the oneness of Christ as a single subject with the duality implicit in his being ‘perfect God and perfect man’. Phrases from Cyril’s amended text of the Formulary of Reunion were combined with Leo’s understanding of the two natures. The resulting Definition of Christ as one person or hypostasis ‘made known in two natures’ without confusion or change was a skilful synthesis of the traditions of both East and West, but it lacked popular appeal and was widely seen as a betrayal of Cyril. (60-61)
This very brief sketch of the christological debate in the century following Cyril’s death perhaps suffices to give some idea of his pervasive influence. Most Eastern Christian communities defined themselves in relation to Cyril’s teaching. The more strict Antiochenes, who recoiled from the Apollinarianism they detected in Cryil’s writings and could not accept the Formulary of Reunion, flourished on the eastern borders of the empire and in Persian territory, calling themselves the Church of the East. Those who were able to interpret Chalcedon in a Cyrillian manner remained in communion with the Imperial Church and were known as Melchites. The narrower Cyrillians, however, who regarded Chalcedon as incompatible with the Twelve Chapters, the only side of Cyril to which they gave real weight, were lost permanently to the Imperial Church in the sixth century and survive today as the Oriental Orthodox Churches. In the West Cyril was also venerated as a standard of orthodoxy but he was not well understood, for the Latins tended to contrast him too sharply with Eutyches, Dioscorus and Apollinarius. (63)
Leo’s ministry, no doubt, carried the day with the West and was an influential step towards the centrality of the papacy that would later become even more pronounced.
Studying history is intriguing, informative, and challenging. We must value history, but this, above all, requires taking it seriously. There were no good ol’ days when all was well. We can’t just go back. The only way is forward.
The Kingdom of God came in with violence, and the Church has been violently bearing it ever since.