Ephesus and Christology
Is Christ Two, Mary, and Grace
The church has had seven ecumenical councils that have been seen as authoritative on important doctrinal issues. Although they defined many things, I would like to take a focus on the Christology proposed at these councils and how it relates to theories of the atonement.
Confusion After Constantinople I
After Constantinople I, many citizens of the Roman Empire began converting to Christianity because it was the state religion. This meant that many said they were Christian without actually following the faith (nominally Christian) and were backsliding constantly — so many church leaders had to figure out how to avoid this. However, this led to strict legalism and strange asceticism. In addition to this problem, the two major hubs of Christianity, Alexandria in Egypt and Constantipole in Turkey, disagreed significantly on Christology. The Roman emperor Theodosius I called for there to be a council in Ephesus which concluded in 431 AD.
Nestorius, the Archbishop of Constantinople, heard that Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria, was calling Mary the Mother of God because Christ is God and man unified. This scandalized Nestorius, as he argued that since God had no beginning, Mary could not be called the Mother of God. This led Nestorius to argue that Christ was God and man, but separately, not unified. The council in Ephesus sided with Cyril in this case, declared Nestorius to be a heretic, and said that Christ is God and man unified, and because of this we rightly can call Mary the Mother of God (the Theotokos).
Rather than taking issue with Christology, in Britain, Pelagius was concerned with all the people converting to Christianity without any concern about morality. They would say they were Christians, but would continue to live their lives how they wished. To combat this, Pelagius said that all Christians, regardless of who they are, must live a life of perfection from baptism onward. The council declared that Pelagius’ views are heretical because they remove the need for grace in our lives.
Meanwhile in Syria, the Messalians argued that the only way to transcend this world is by prayer alone. They said those who exclusively and truly prayed, casting off all good works, would experience God’s true essence with their physical senses and be freed from any obligation to submit to moral obligations or Church authority. The council declared the Messalians as heretics because they rejected the need for good works and proposed a salvation by asceticism.
Implication for the Atonement
There are two distinct issues tackled in Ephesus: one to do with who Christ is and the other to do with the nature of grace.
Beginning with who Christ is, let us dissect what is wrong with Nestorius claiming that Christ is fully God and fully man, but not unified. If Christ is two separate persons, with the second Person of the Trinity cohabiting with the human Jesus, then it was an imperfect human who died for us. Only God is perfect according to Christ Himself (Mark 10), so if He was only a human then He could have been our perfect atonement (Hebrews 5). Rather, we say that Christ had both a human nature and divine nature unified so that: (1) Christ is a human who died for humans (Hebrews 2) and (2) Christ could be perfect because He is God (John 1). This is where the title of Mary comes in — if Christ is God and man unified, it must have begun in Mary’s womb. There could not have been a time when Jesus was not both God and man unified, or else we risk the whole of the atonement. It is then right that we call Mary, who carried the Incarnated God in her womb, the Mother of God. We are not saying that God didn’t exist before being born of Mary, but rather that Mary carried Christ, who is both God and man unified. The eternal God united Himself to what was created and died so that you and I could live. The Source of Life died to raise us from death to life.
Let us now turn to grace. Pelagius argued that to enter heaven one had to be perfect in their works, and the Messalians said that you must meditate until you overcome the need to perform any works at all. Drawing from Augustine, the Church argued that God’s grace is imparted to us by His Spirit through the good works we perform, yet we cannot reach perfection. God through His grace transforms us so that we would perform works in service to Him (James 2) and yet we still sin (1 John 1). If we were saved by moral perfection or intense prayer (Colossians 2), Christ’s death would be meaningless. Salvation isn’t about working our way to heaven or about escaping this world by spiritual practices. Salvation is about being transformed by the radical grace of God to renew and restore this world.
We can see the importance then that we proclaim that Christ is God and man unified, and that we call His mother Mary the Mother of God. Jesus needed to have been both fully man and fully God — if we truly do believe that, we see that Mary truly carried God in her womb. We also see that it is important that we understand the purpose of grace in salvation. We are not saved by perfect works, and we are not saved by perfect prayer — we are saved by God’s grace uniting us to Christ alone.