Is a Council as Authoritative as Scripture? The Case of Ephesus
My recent research has been on the theology of the inspiration of Scripture among several of the church fathers. I’ve found lots of interesting things, but one sticks out in my mind as particularly important. It comes from the collection of documents surrounding the Council of Ephesus in 431. Unlike the previous ecumenical councils (Nicaea and Constantinople), we have lots and lots of documents from Ephesus, many of which have hardly been studied at all. One such document that has not been noted in the secondary literature, as far as I can tell, is apparently an announcement of the council’s decision to condemn Nestorius and his associates.
The letter is addressed generically to the ‘clergy and the people’, and is sent simply ‘from the council’ and signed ‘the genuine brethren with us’. It seems likely that the letter was sent to Constantinople, since it exhorts the people and clergy to join the council in casting out those who hold the errors condemned by the council. Furthermore, although the letter is not signed by any specific person, the close of the letter which mentions ‘the genuine brethren with us’ suggests that one of the presidents of the council signed it. Cyril of Alexandria was the president of the council, and we know that he wrote other letters to Constantinople (e.g., Ep. 18, 19, 27), so this one might be another example of his arguing his cause in the imperial capital. Moreover, there are definite linguistic similarities between this letter and Cyril’s other anti-Nestorian writings, suggesting that it comes from Cyril himself, or perhaps was dictated by him to Peter the Alexandrian, the notary of the conciliar sessions.
The significance of this document for a theology of Scripture is that it unequivocally uses θεόπνευστος (‘divinely inspired’) to refer to something other than Scripture. After a lengthy introduction denouncing Nestorius’ contumacy and audacity, the document announces that he ‘has been judged by just decree of the holy Trinity and their divinely inspired judgment’ (ψήφωι δικαίαι τῆς ἁγίας τριάδος καὶ τῆς αὐτῶν θεοπνεύστου κρίσεως κατακέκριται). The term θεόπνευστος, meaning ‘divinely inspired’, is rare prior to the New Testament, but is used in 2 Timothy 3:16 to refer to Scripture. For this reason, most patristic usage of the term applies it to Scripture, following 2 Timothy. In fact, with one other possible exception, in every other instance in his writings Cyril uses the term to refer to Scripture (literally hundreds of times), but on this occasion he uses the word to describe the decision of the assembled bishops at Ephesus in 431. In other words, it appears that he regards the decision of a council as divinely inspired by the Spirit even as Scripture itself is. Even more striking is that the decision of the council is the ‘decree of the Trinity’. Such a loaded statement has obvious implications for a theology of Scripture, tradition, the councils, etc. If others know patristic texts that describe the decision of a council in similar terms, I would be interested to know of them.
– The text can be found in Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum 1.1.2, p.70.