It is the 5th of May 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm your guest host, Sam Leanza Ortiz.
Today on the Almanac, we turn to the Second Council of Constantinople, which opened on the fifth of May in 553. This council was the second of three to convene in this imperial city and the fifth in total to be held by the early church.
It brought eastern bishops, led by Patriarch Eutychius, and a handful of westerners to western Turkey at the behest of Emperor Justinian to address the dispute between those in support of the decisions at Chalcedon in 453 and those who were not.
The crucial decision at Chalcedon solidified the doctrine of the Incarnation, holding that in the Incarnate Christ were two natures, united in one person.
Opponents to Chalcedon became known as Monophysites, who hold that in Christ there is only one nature. The substance of that nature is open to interpretation – existing on a spectrum of orthodoxy.
On the other end of the spectrum stood the Nestorians, who affirmed Christ's dual nature but held them as distinct.
Following Chalcedon, eastern and western bishops struggled, eventually reaching a complete schism as the West fully accepted Chalcedon. Still, Monophysites gained popularity in the East – even gaining favor with Justinian's wife, Empress Theodora.
While Justinian was considered a pious emperor, there was also a political angle to the council – a reliable feature of post-Constantinian Christendom. The western half of the empire had been in shambles since the early fifth century – such that the Roman bishop, Vigilus fled to Constantinople in 547 to escape another Gothic invasion. He sought to bring them back more fully under his leadership.
A sense of doctrinal unity was required to forge ahead.
With the West and East at odds, Emperor Justinian issued an edict in 543 containing what are known as the “three chapters.” The West, represented by Vigilius, did not get much of a chance to respond because few of them were invited or expected to make the trek to Constantinople. Furthermore, many in the West found Justinian’s edict excessive, believing that it called into question matters settled over a century ago.
Nevertheless, Justinian’s three chapters focused on:
- The works and person of fourth-century theologian Theodore of Mopsuestia
- The writings of fifth-century Syrian bishop Theodoret against Cyril of Alexandria
- And finally, the lone surviving work of Ibas, a bishop from Edessa who adopted a mediating position between the Nestorians and the Alexandrians.
Theodore was a biblical scholar in the Antiochene school, whose work on Christology and the Incarnation did not match the more-precise terminology of the Alexandrian school.
While his works had been condemned at Ephesus in 431, his influence within the church through the Nestorians remained, and Justinian wanted to put this issue to bed.
The Council, primarily consisting of eastern bishops, condemned Theodore’s works and person, while the Roman pope, Vigilius, upheld the position of Ephesus to anathematize his works but not to condemn his person – the condemnation of dead persons was not yet a church custom. Sorry, John Wycliffe.
Theodoret was also a theologian in the Antiochene school whose early works sided with Nestorius against Cyril of Alexandria. Cyril's works emphasized the unity of Christ's being, which possessed two natures – divine and human.
Theodoret’s more literal reading of the Bible allowed for a duality, though this would be a position he would abandon later in life. Unfortunately for him, he was forced into exile in 449, only to be restored to his diocese after condemning Nestorius at Ephesus two years later. Constantinople affirmed the condemnation of his writings but left his person alone.
Finally, turning to the last chapter, we come to Ibas, a contemporary of Theodoret and Cyril. His works similarly obfuscated the nature of Christ, attempting to find a middle way between Nestorius and Cyril.
The Incarnation, as mind-bending as it can be for us finite humans, was not merely an intellectual playground. Thus, the works of Ibas were also condemned by the eastern bishops.
Fourteen anathemas were issued, bringing a sense of doctrinal unity to the east and frustration to the west. Vigilius hesitated to approve, but after months of functional imprisonment in Constantinople, he relented and was allowed to go home, only to die on the way.
Some parts of the West did not accept the anathemas, believing that the pope had only assented under duress – leading to minor schisms between the seats of ecclesiastical power.
In a little over a hundred years, as the church faced new threats from Islam, the church would find unity once more at the third council of Constantinople, which reaffirmed the decisions of the preceding councils, bringing some reprieve to a long period of tension.
This week's batch of shows – including tomorrow's - features a lot of Christians fighting with one another. Whether with words or with bullets, Christians have found a lot of reasons to fight each other – including many that are very silly and many that are weighty- the doctrine of Christ among them!
But, when I look at the issues that divide today, I find myself grateful for the stories of the Christian church, which provide a healthy dose of perspective and humility as to which hills are really worth fighting on.
The last word for today comes from the first chapter of the epistle to the Colossians: For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 5th of May 2022 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
This show has been produced by Christopher Gillespie.
This show has been written and read by a woman who’s sure she’s mispronounced something in there - I’m Sam Leanza Ortiz, filling in for a man who can always tell the difference between his Theodores and Theodoret's – that’s Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.