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What happened at the Second Council of Constantinople?

Second Council of Constantinople
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In AD 553, the fifth ecumenical council of the Christian church assembled by decree of Emperor Justinian and led by Eutychus, patriarch of Constantinople. Known as the Second Council of Constantinople, Pope Vigilius of Rome, who had been summoned to Constantinople against his will, showed his displeasure by taking sanctuary in a church for more than seven months. Pope Vigilius eventually ended his protest by formally ratifying the council’s verdicts in February of the following year.

Fourteen anathemas, or condemnations, were decreed by the Second Council of Constantinople. At stake was the biblical doctrine of the dual nature of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible teaches Jesus was fully God (John 1:1; 8:58) yet fully man (John 1:14). This duality of nature in one person is known as the hypostatic union. To deny Jesus’ divine nature is heretical; to deny His human nature is equally heretical. The Second Council of Constantinople issued their fourteen anathemas in order to silence the false teachers who refused to accept the essential biblical teachings surrounding the person and nature of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Convinced strict religious conformity was necessary to keep the Byzantine Empire intact, Emperor Justinian convoked the Second Council of Constantinople when factions of the church could not agree upon Christ Jesus’ dual natures. In his campaign for religious conformity, Emperor Justinian had pagans baptized against their will, closed schools whose teachings were contrary to Christianity, and fiercely persecuted a sect known as the Montanists. Montanists believed the Holy Spirit had given their leader, Montanus, new revelation. This “new revelation” dealt with personal conduct rather than doctrine. In a belief Montanus was a heretic, Emperor Justinian vigorously opposed his followers. As to Pope Vigilius’ opposition to the Second Council of Constantinople, Emperor Justinian threatened to prevent the pope from returning to Rome unless he agreed to the fourteen anathemas.

Nestorianism, a false belief that Christ was two separate persons, one human and one divine, had been adopted by some church leaders. This breech in orthodox Christology was expressed in writings that came to be known as the Three Chapters: the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, certain works of Theodoret of Cyrus, and the letter of Ibas to Maris. At the previous Council of Chalcedon, the Nestorian writings had been rebuked but not condemned outright. At the Second Council of Constantinople, the assembly reaffirmed their belief in Christ’s two natures while condemning those who believed there were “two Sons or two Christs.”

Also in error was monophysitism. The monophysites believed that Christ Jesus had only one nature, a teaching propagated by Cyril of Alexandria. Empress Theodora, herself a monophysite, had urged Justinian to call a council as a political maneuver to discredit the rival Nestorians. Justinian, who believed religious conformity would bring the empire back to its glory days, agreed to Theodora’s request by summoning the church’s leaders to Constantinople in 553.

In the end, erroneous teachings surrounding the person and nature of the Lord Jesus were condemned at the Second Council of Constantinople. Quite possibly, Emperor Justinian’s motives for calling the council were as political as they were theological, but the assembly stood firm against heretical teachings. Some may consider the disagreements among the various factions in Constantinople as theological hair-splitting, but the subject of Christology is hardly a peripheral issue. Every cult and ism, past and present, begins with a false understanding of the person and nature of God. Our finite minds cannot completely fathom the depth of Christ’s character, but the plain teaching of Scripture is that He is fully God and fully man. Ultimately, the fourteen anathemas issued by the Second Council of Constantinople were justified and necessary.

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This page last updated: May 9, 2022