Controversy over the God-man nature of Christ disturbed both church and empire throughout the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries. Theological quarrels became party politics and several church-wide or "general" councils met to resolve the issues. The first of these councils, the famous Nicea Council, denounced Arianism, a teaching that Christ was a created being. The three councils that followed took up other aspects of the relationship between Christ's divinity and humanity. But heresies continued to spring up like weeds, as they still do today. On this day, May 5, 553, Emperor Justinian convoked a fifth general council, the second to be held at Constantinople.
Emperor Justinian was a vigorous ruler. Unfortunately, he thought the only way his empire could enjoy unity was to compel religious uniformity. Consequently, he closed heathen schools and baptized pagans by force. He all but wiped out the Montanists in fierce persecution. (The Montanists believed in ecstatic spiritual experiences and end-of-the-world prophecies.) Justinian also built church sanctuaries, including the breathtaking Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom).
Empress Theodora favored the monophysite views taught by Eutyches the Archmandrite (an archmandrite was the head of a monastery or several monasteries). Monophysites deny that Christ had both a divine nature and human nature. Eutyches' form of monophysitism held that Christ's two natures, the Divine and the human, united so completely that they became physically one, with the Divine absorbing the human. Its theological rival was Nestorianism, which was said to overemphasize the distinctions between Christ's two natures. Under Theodora's influence, Justinian called the council to condemn writings that supported Nestorianism--the Three Chapters.
The Three Chapters had already been dealt with in the important Council of Chalcedon. The writings were rebuked but the writers were not condemned. Apparently, the monophysites hoped by re-opening the issue to win condemnation of the three writers. In so doing, they would discredit the Council of Chalcedon by making its judgments appear incomplete or inadequate, creating an opening for further Monophysite advances.
The council opened on this day, May 5, 553. In eight sessions, it upheld Chalcedon on the two natures of Christ, but condemned "those who say that there are two Sons and two Christs. For one is he who is preached by us and you, as we have said, Christ, the Son and Lord, only begotten as man, according to the saying of the most learned Paul." They condemned the writings but spared the reputation of two of the three writers of the Three Chapters.
Pope Vigilius swayed back and forth on the issues. Although he refused to attend the council, he was at a disadvantage, because Justinian would not let him return to Rome unless he subscribed to the council's findings. Vigilius capitulated, putting himself at odds with his own previous writings and possibly even with the council of Chalcedon. A western synod excommunicated him and he had to change his position again before the western church would accept him back.
- Jedin, Hubert. Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church. (Herder and Herder, 1960).
- Raab, Clement. The Twenty Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church. Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press, 1959.
- Shahan, Thomas J. "Second Council of Constantinople." Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- "Three Chapters" and "Vigilius." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
Last updated July, 2007