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Three Chapters Controversy

The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity
Andrew LouthAndrew Louth

Three Chapters Controversy 

Doctrinal controversy caused by the longstanding attempt of the Emperor Justinian I to heal the divisions in the Church (especially in the Eastern part of the Empire) resulting from the Council of Chalcedon of 451. Justinian sought reconciliation on the basis of Cyrilline Chalcedonianism (or Neo-Chalcedonianism), an attempt to interpret the Council of Chalcedon in the light of the writings of Cyril of Alexandria. Part of this policy was the condemnation of the ‘Three Chapters’, that is, of the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, linked with the heresiarch Nestorius in Cyril’s later attacks on Nestorius; of the writings of Theodoret of Cyrrhus against Cyril; and of the letter of Ibas of Edessa, to Mari the Persian.

Justinian believed that an unequivocal condemnation of these ‘chapters’ would facilitate the reconciliation of the Miaphysites. In 544, he issued a letter condemning the Three Chapters, but it was too late to achieve any reconciliation with the Miaphysites. This condemnation also aroused opposition in the West, in Rome, and especially in North Africa, for Theodore of Mopsuestia had died in 428 in the communion of the Church; Theodoret of Cyrrhus had been one of the fathers of the Council of Chalcedon; and the letter of Ibas was a defence of the Formula of Reunion, interpreted as implying Cyril’s withdrawal of the ‘Twelve Chapters’, directed against Nestorius, originally accepted at the Council of Ephesus, but unmentioned at Chalcedon. The condemnation therefore called into question the authority of Chalcedon, and was resisted in the West, where the churches were much less in thrall to Cyril than were those of the East: Pope Vigilius opposed it, as did the Africans Facundus of Hermiane, Ferrandus, Liberatus of Carthage, and Victor Tonnennensis (whose Chronicle is an important source for these events). By bribes and bullying, Justinian secured the support of Vigilius at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553, and of other bishops in the West, though for decades there were churches in the West in schism over the condemnation. The Council also failed to reconcile the Miaphysite Churches of Egypt and the Levant with the Chalcedonian Church.

Andrew Louth


Justinian’s letter condemning the Three Chapters: ed. E. Schwartz, Abh. (Bayr.), nf, 18 (1939), 45–69 (ET: K. Wesche, On the Person of Christ (1991), 115–58).Find this resource:

    Latin version of the Acta of the Fifth Œcumenical Council, ed. J. Straub, ACO, iv.1 (1971); ET (with introd. and notes) in R. M. Price, The Acts of the Council of Constantinople of 553: With Related Texts on the Three Chapters Controversy (TTH 51, 2009).Find this resource:

      Other texts bearing on the controversy (with study), in C. M. Chazelle and C. Cubitt, The Crisis of the Oikoumene: the Three Chapters and the Failed Quest for Unity in the Sixth-Century Mediterranean (SEM 14, 2007), 279–83.Find this resource:

        Grillmeier, 2/2 (1995), 411–62.