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Is a Council as Authoritative as Scripture? The Case of Ephesus

April 18, 2011

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.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 18, 2011 8:27 pm

    Matt, do you think God-breathed is an objective or subjective genitive? Any thoughts on the grammar?

    • Matthew Crawford permalink
      April 20, 2011 3:42 pm


      Thanks for the question. Very helpful. I take krisis as an objective genitive, denoting the object or outcome of the ‘voting’ or ‘decision’ (psephos). Theopneustos is an adjective modifying krisis. The auton (‘their’) is, I think, a reference to the Trinity. So in other words, the Trinity has ‘inspired’ the decision of this council, just like the Trinity has ‘inspired’ holy Scripture. What do you think?

      By the way, Cyril sometimes speaks of the Nicene Creed in similar terms, albeit without using theopneustos. It is clear that he believes the fathers at Nicaea were guided by the Spirit (he uses passages like Matthew 10:20 to support for his claim), and that the Nicene Creed (not the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed) cannot be changed in the smallest ‘word’ or ‘syllable’.


  2. April 18, 2011 9:07 pm

    It’s hard to tell what’s going on without the surrounding context. But could the “judgments” be referring to the Scriptures? I’d be interested.

    Also, it occurred to me that many present-day Christians have a real loose tongue when speaking of God speaking. When we hear people say “God told me …”, for the most part we know they don’t mean that they’ve experienced a work of inspiration.

  3. August 9, 2014 2:30 pm

    Matt- Neil just mentioned this article to me. A couple of thoughts from Muller’s “Post Reformation Dogmatics,”

    “The methodological link between text and system, both in the initial formulation of the locus out of the exegesis of the text and in the gathering of [proof texts] for the sake of pointing the theological system toward the text and grounding it on the authority of Scripture, was the technique. . .of drawing logical conclusions from the text after the basic exegetical work had been completed. The assumption of the Protestant exegete was that properly drawn conclusions carried with it the same authority as the text itself. While, in the general sense, Scripture was the [the principle cognitive foundation of theology], in the more specific and proximate sense, the individual [texts, topics, or seats of doctrine] provided the first principles of theology in the oldest sense of the identification of theology as a [form of knowledge]” (520).

    “[T]he ultimate and therefore perfect archetype theology is identical to the divine mind—all other theology is, at best, a reflection of this archetype, a form of ectypal theology. Ectypal theology in the human subject (in all systems of theology!) is not only finite and reflective but also limited by human sinfulness and by the mental capacities of the theologian. The human author of theology, thus, has little intrinsic authority. If theology is to be authoritative, its source (other than the mind of the theologian) must carry authority with it. That source cannot be the divine archetype, but it must stand in a more direct relation to that archetype than any utterly human effort: the doctrine of the inspiration leads, therefore in many of the orthodox systems, directly to the doctrine of the Scripture (261).”

    It would seem to me that it’s not unusual to think of an exhaustive consideration of the scriptural data as having the same authority as Scripture. The doctrine of the Trinity is then from the Spirit of God and Godbreathed even if it is not explicated in Scripture. The difficulty is discovering from the documents you are using is if the council saw themselves not merely as exhausting the possible interpretations of Scripture, but actually adding to the Scripture in the same manner as the Apostles.

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