Early Understandings of Jesus
By Alan Schreck, Ph.D.
What did these councils teach? The Council of Nicaea in 325 AD responded to the claim of a priest of Alexandria, Arius, that the Word or Son of God (who “became flesh and dwelt among us” as Jesus – Jn 1:14) was not God and hence was not eternal; he did not always exist. Arius argued on the basis of some Gospel passages that Jesus never claimed that he was God, as when he says in the Gospel of John (14:28) that “the Father is greater than I.”
The bishops at Nicaea considered all the pertinent texts of the Gospels (such as Jn 10:30: “I and the Father are one”) and concluded that Arius was wrong. The Son or Word of God is God (see Jn 1:1) and always existed. To clarify this they proclaimed a creed (the “Nicene creed”) which included a key Greek word, homoousios, which meant that the Word or Son is of the same “being” as God the Father. If the Father is God, so is the Son. If the Father is eternal, almighty (and so on), so is the Son or Word of God.
Tragically, a few bishops after the Council of Nicaea questioned the decision of the Council (saying, for instance, that homoousios is an unscriptural word), and convinced the Roman emperor and his sons that Arius and his beliefs had been wrongly condemned. It took over fifty more years of controversy before the First Council of Constantinople (381 AD) reaffirmed the teaching and the creed of Nicaea. This ecumenical council also added a phrase to the Nicene Creed to affirm the divinity or Godhead of the Holy Spirit, the “Lord and Giver of Life” who with the Father and the Son “is worshipped and glorified”. Thus by the end of the fourth century the Christian belief in God as a Trinity of three equal divine persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, was formally recognized by Christians.
In the fifth century there were two more ecumencial councils that addressed questions about Jesus. In the early 5th century a prominent bishop, Nestorius, rejected the title “theotokos” or “God-bearer” to refer to Mary. Christians believed that the mother of /Jesus could rightly be called the “Mother of God” or “God-bearer” because the Gospel clearly teaches that Jesus was conceived in Mary, not by any human being, but by the Holy Spirit. This was what the angel Gabriel announced to Mary one day in Nazareth (the “Annunciation”) and Mary consented (see Lk 1:26-38). Nestorius thought that to call Mary “Mother of God” would confuse people into thinking that the eternal God came into being through a human. The Council of Ephesus met in 431AD to consider Nestorius’ opinion. The Council decided that it was right and good to honor Mary as “Mother of God” because she is the mother of God in his human nature. The Council clarified that Mary “contributed” to Jesus his true and full humanity, while God the Holy Spirit “overshadowed” Mary so that the child born to her was truly God, the Son or Word of God (Lk 1:30-35).
This belief that Jesus is both human and divine, man and God, led to much debate and speculation after the Council of Ephesus about how this mystery could be expressed. A monk, Eutyches, living in Constantinople claimed that before Jesus took flesh in Mary there were two “natures” (a divine and human nature), but after the union of the two natures in Mary’s womb there was only one nature in Jesus – the divine nature. In a sense Eutyches proposed that the nature of God is so great that it overshadows and “swallows up” the humanity of Jesus. For Eutyches, Jesus took on human appearance, but the only full and true nature remaining in Jesus after taking on “flesh” (the outward human appearance) is the nature of God. To put it simply, Eutyches’ claim is that Jesus was truly God, but not truly or fully human.
The bishop of Constantinople, Flavian, objected to this. He wrote a letter to the bishop of Rome, Pope Leo I, to get this opinion, as well. Unfortunately, due to Church politics a council was called with the emperor Theodosius II’s consent in 449 AD that proclaimed Eutyches’ position (called “Monophysitism”) correct, and deposed Bishop Flavian. The letter of Pope Leo in response to Flavian was ignored by this council. But things changed quickly. Theodosius II died suddenly (he fell off his horse) and his sister, Pulcheria, prevailed upon her husband, the new emperor Marcian, to call another council to reconsider the issue. The Council of Chalcedon was called in 451 AD. This time Pope Leo’s letter was read and all positions were fairly considered. The result was the formulation of a creed of the Council of Chalcedon that declared that Jesus Christ is one person who exists “in two natures” – a divine nature and a human nature - which are neither confused (“blended together” into a third nature) nor divided or separated (so Jesus is not “schizophrenic” – sometimes acting like God, sometimes like a man). Jesus is one person who is truly and fully God and truly and fully human. How this can occur is beyond our comprehension. It is truly what Christians mean by the term “mystery”: not something unreasonable; just something beyond human capacity to understand fully. Hence it must be accepted not by reason alone, but also by faith.
The first four ecumenical Councils defined the meaning of the basic Christian beliefs about God and Jesus Christ that were proclaimed by the Church in her teaching, tradition (beliefs “handed down”), and sacred writings. They are necessary even today to know what most Christians believe about these central issues.
The first four ecumenical (general) councils of the Church have a special place in the Christian tradition. This table summarizes some basic facts about them.
Alan Schreck currently serves as Chair of Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Department of Theology, where he has taught Church history and Catholic theology for 28 years. After graduating from the University of Notre Dame, Dr. Schreck earned his Masters and Doctorate degrees in Theology from the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto, Canada. Dr. Schreck has authored eight books, including Catholic and Christian, Catholic Church History from A to Z, and The Compact History of the Catholic Church.