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Rival Bishoprics and the Nature of Jesus Christ

While the western half of the Roman Empire was overrun, Christian bishops continued their dispute over a controversy about the nature of Jesus Christ. The Gospels described Jesus as human insofar as he had wept, hungered, thirsted and demonstrated a lack of omniscience – characteristics considered contrary to godliness. The  bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, was an eloquent speaker who drew large crowds, and he thought it his duty as a Church leader to resolve the issue. It was his opinion that Jesus had a dual nature: a divine nature and a human nature, separate but loosely connected. And he believed that Mary, the mother of Jesus, had given birth to the human Jesus and therefore could not be called "The Mother of God," as was popular among Christians, many believing that because Jesus Christ was God, Mary was god-bearing – the mother of God.

The question of Jesus' nature was combined with rivalries over prestige and power between the bishops of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople. The bishop of Rome, Leo I, claimed he was chairman over the entire Church, and he supported his claim with a geographical argument: that Rome was where Peter had worshiped and died. Leo claimed that Peter was the highest of the apostles, that he was the rock on which God had built his church and that the bishops of Rome were Peter's successors as supreme rulers and teachers within the Church.

The bishop of Alexandria, Cyril, was jealous of the power of the bishop of Constantinople, and he attacked Nestorius not only for his views about Jesus and Mary but also for extending hospitality to Pelagians. Cyril cemented local alliances and appealed to the emperors in the east and west. This resulted in the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431. The Council voted to depose Nestorius from his position as Patriarch of Constantinople. Seventeen bishops who supported Nestorius' doctrine were removed from their sees. Nestorius retired to his monastery near Antioch. And in 435 the emperor of the eastern half of the empire, Theodosius II, under the influence of his sister, Pulcheria, banished him to Upper Egypt, where he was exposed to attacks by desert bandits.

To settle the debate over the nature of Jesus, a Fourth Ecumenical Council met at Chalcedon in the autumn of 451. The bishop of Rome, Leo I, claimed that Jesus Christ had two natures, divine and human, but that these two natures were really one distinct substance. The Council upheld his view, defeating those who still believed Nestorius' version and defeating those Christians called Monophysites, who believed that Jesus Christ had but one composite nature. Leo's supporters at the meeting were jubilant and are said to have announced that it had been Peter who had spoken through Leo. But Leo also lost at the Council: the Council recognized the bishop of Constantinople as having equal authority with the bishop of Rome on the grounds that Constantinople was the New Rome as had been proclaimed by Constantine.

Sources

Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, by Peter Brown, 1967

"Pelagius," Wikipedia

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