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Theology > Jesus > Incarnation > Early Church Councils 


Following is a summary of the decisions related to the Incarnation by the four major ecumenical councils, councils which are generally accepted by the various branches of Christianity: Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant.


Occasion – convened by Emperor Constantine to deal with the issues raised by the teachings of Arius of Alexandria; approximately 300 attended, with each attendee bringing delegations of varying sizes; the majority was from the East.

Heresy – Arius stressed the oneness of God and taught, therefore, that Jesus was not fully God; the Son was created from nothing and had a state beneath God; he claimed that there was a time when the Son was not; the word “Son” had implications, for to be “Son” meant that the Son came after the “Father”; Christ was the first created being and not eternal; affirmed the humanity but denied the deity of Christ; followers affirmed that Christ was heteroousios, of a different substance from the Father.

Decision – condemned Arius; asserted that Jesus is “very God of very God”; He is “one in essence” or “consubstantial” (homoousios, of the same substance) with the Father; the Council rejected heteroousios, of a different substance from the Father; the Council also  rejected a suggested compromise that used the word homoiousios, of similar or like substance; produced the original Nicene Creed; following is the Nicene Creed with modifications that were added by the Council of Constantinople (381):

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.

And we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Defender – Athanasius, stressed that the “Father” was always a Father, eternally a Father; never was a time when He was not the Father; the Son had no beginning but was eternally begotten by the Father; begotten from the same substance as the Father; affirmed that “the divinity of the Son is the divinity of the Father.”


Occasion – convened in Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius who embraced the Nicene formulation.

Heresy – Apollinarius (310-390), Bishop of Laodicea, taught the tri-part nature of man (body; irrational or animal soul—the seat of emotions; and rational soul, spirit, or intellect [nous]), with the Logos replacing the nous or the soul in Jesus; thus, the true humanity of Christ was denied; Christ had no human spirit or mind, for it was replaced by the Logos; in denying the humanity of Christ, the salvation of man was compromised; position of Apollinarius affirmed the deity of Christ but denied His full humanity.

Decision – condemned Apollinarius; if Christ did not have a human mind, then he could not be truly a man; accepted the Council of Nicaea, but revised the Creed; affirmed the Deity of the Holy Spirit.

Defender – Gregory of Nazianzus, who said: “whatever is not assumed cannot be healed” or “what he did not assume he did not redeem”; also: “for deity joined to flesh alone is not man.”


Occasion – convened by Emperor Theodosius II; approximately 250 bishops attended.

Heresy – Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, rejected the phrase, “the mother of God” (Theotokos, preferring to use Christotokos, bearer of Christ; believed in two natures and two persons (prosopon was used of both natures), rather than two natures in one person; he separated the deity and the humanity, thus denying the unity of Christ; Christ was composed of two natures and two persons who worked in conjunction with each other by a unity of the will; some question whether Nestorius himself actually believed all the ideas that have been associated with him; he spent his final years in a monastery.

Decision – condemned Nestorius; spoke of a hypostatic union of the two natures, affirming that Christ was two natures in one person (two physis and one prosopon); stated that Mary was Theotokos (God-bearer, or Mother of God; initially Theotokos was more a statement about Christ rather than about Mary, but that slowly changed as Mary’s position became elevated in the thinking of the Church); the Council also condemned Pelagianism.

Defender – Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria, wrote that “the two natures being brought together in a true union, there is of both one Christ and one Son”; also: “The holy fathers . . . ventured to call the holy virgin the Mother of God, not as if the nature of the Word or his divinity had its beginning from the holy virgin, but because of her was born that holy body with a rational soul, to which the Word being personally united is said to be born according to the flesh.”


Occasion – convened by Emperor Marcian.

Heresy – Eutychus, bishop and archimandrite of Constantinople, taught that the two natures in Christ became one, known as Monophysitism; he merged the two natures, affirming that Christ’s human nature was absorbed by the Logos, creating a tertium quid, a third nature; a variation is that the divine nature absorbed the human nature; with either position the Incarnation resulted in one nature; denied that Christ had two distinct natures.

Decision – condemned Eutychus; affirmed that two natures united in one person; Jesus, “the same perfect in deity, the same perfect in humanity; truly God and truly man . . . of one essence with the Father in respect of His deity and of one essence with us in respect of His humanity . . . to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation, the distinctiveness of the natures being by no means removed because of the union, but the properties of each nature being preserved”;  statement of the Council:

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach people to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the God-bearer, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person [prosopon] and one Subsistence [hypostasis], not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten God, the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning have declared concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

Defender – Leo of Rome; produced the Tome, actually a letter, in which he attacked Eutychianism and defended the teaching of the Church; the Tome was prepared for the Council in order that the Council might know the position of Rome; it was carried to the Council and read during the proceedings.

NOTE: Sabellius (condemned in 263) accepted a modal concept of the Trinity; God is one Person who in various actions is known as Father, Son, or Spirit.

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