The Three Biggest Issues Plaguing the Church in the Fifth Century

Through the first five centuries, the major assaults on Christianity were consistently directed towards the first-tier doctrines. Like Gnosticism and Arianism before it, the Christological issues of the fifth century attacked the nature of Christ. As Jewish Christianity made the Gospel works based in the first century, Pelagianism did the same in the fifth century. As all false movements and religions claim an authority outside of Scripture alone, the development of the Papacy moved the Catholic Church away from the ultimate authority of Scripture, affecting its trajectory for centuries to follow.

Christological Controversies

Though progress had been made in the development of a consistent theology of God and Christ in the first four centuries of the Church, the fifth century saw an extreme focus on the doctrine of Christ. The context leading up to the Christological controversies of the fifth century must take into account the ecumenical councils of Nicaea in 325 and Constantinople in 381. The Council of Nicaea focussed on God’s oneness, while the Council of Constantinople focused on God's threeness. Certainly, much progress was made in defining the Trinity, but the clarity in understanding the Triune God created confusion in understanding Christ's nature as human and divine.

Thus, the peak of the Christological controversies of the fifth century are expressed in the next two ecumenical councils. The Council of Ephesus in 431, like Nicaea before it, focused on the oneness of Christ, while the Council of Chalcedon in 451, like Constantinople before it, focused on the twoness of Christ.

Central to the controversy were the Churches of Antioch and Alexandria. Their differing refutations of Arianism set the stage for the conflicts in the fifth century. The controversy itself was manifested in three phases classified as Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, and Eutychianism. The Apollinarian position, named after Apollinaris, was the preliminary phase and found its climax in the Council of Constantinople in 381. Primarily, the Apollinarian condemnation was voiced by Gregory of Nazianus. The second phase was Nestorianism, named after Nestorius. Nestorianism's primary opponent was Cyril of Alexandria, and its assault climaxed at the Council of Ephesus. The third phase, Eutychianism, was named after Eutyches. With the reading of Leo's Tome, Eutychiansim ended at the Council of Chalcedon.

Many extracts deal with the Christological controversies. Gregory of Nazianuzus's An Examination of Apollinarinasim addressed the overemphasized divinity of Christ in Apollinarius's theology. His work expresses the reality that Apillinarianism presented a Christ without a human mind. The Anathemas of Cyril of Alexandria and Cyril's Exposition depict the refutation of Nestorianism's overemphasized manhood of Christ. In the Admissions of Eutyches, a recorded dialogue between Flavian and Eutyches, Eutyches asserts that Christ was only of one nature after His incarnation. Finally, The Tome of Leo addresses Eutyches's foolish theology.

The Tome of Leo is a masterfully written description of Christological doctrine. In it, Leo clearly describes Christ as one person with two natures. He asserts that Christ is fully man, yet at the same time, fully divine. Neither His humanity nor His divinity is lost within the incarnation. Pope Leo wrote the Tome in 449 to be read at the gathering of bishops in Ephesus, but the atmosphere of the group made its reading unwise. When the Tome was finally read at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, it had tremendous influence in crafting The Definition of Chalcedon. 

The Definition included the famous statement that Christ is recognized "in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” The Council of Chalcedon is often remembered because of The Definition of Chalcedon’s clear language in defending the mystery of the incarnation -- the hypostatic union of Christ.

In some sense, the cause of the fifth century Christological controversies can be traced back to the Arian Controversy of the early fourth century. In all the good that the Council of Nicaea brought about in condemning Arianism, it left the door open for more nuanced heresies to emerge. It seems the leading proponents of each heretical extreme on the nature of Christ find agreement in hatred of Arianism. Though they may have joined hands to defeat a common enemy, their attacks of Arianism were foundationally different. These differences brought about the differing views of Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, and Eutychianism.

The effects of the Christological controversies are observed in the products of the Council of Chalcedon. Not only did the Council bring about The definition of Chalcedon, but also a plethora of other things. For instance, the Council, which gathered a record number of 500 to 600 bishops, defined the authorial place of councils, helped authorize certain council canons, brought the Church closer to common canon law, and it determined the place of monks. Finally, of greatest note, the Council defined the Roman Bishop as equal to all other bishops. This definition of the Roman Bishop is key to understanding the drastic shift to papal authority.

Certainly, the Christological controversies in the fifth century are a major issue because of their focus on first-tier doctrine. The nature of Christ is directly related to soteriological doctrine. If Christology is wrong, soteriology will be wrong, or at least inconsistent. A Christ who is not truly God and not truly man will be insufficient in atoning for the sins of the elect. No mere man can satisfy the infinite wrath of the Father. Yet, the wages of sin is death. Christ must be a man to die for sin.


Around the time of the second Christological phase in the early fifth century, another issue was plaguing the Church -- Pelagianism. Pelagianism was named after Pelagius, a man born in Britain in 350. Pelagius's moralistic view on Scripture led him to elevate aspects of Scripture which mentioned moral conduct, free will, and obedience. His arrival to Rome is disputed; however, it is likely around 390. While in Rome, he was considerably bothered by his observance of a general lack of morality. Furthermore, as he read Augustine's Confessions, he came across a prayer that deepened his grief. However, it was not until 410 when his heretical teaching started to warrant some attention.

Given his disgust for Augustine's views, it is no surprise that Augustine of Hippo is as central to the Pelagian heresy as Pelagius himself. Augustine took up the assault on Pelagius around the year 412. The main aspects of the debate revolved around the topics of original sin, free will, grace, and predestination. Though Pelagianism was eventually condemned as a heresy, some were not so quick in their condemnation. A council in Diospolis in 415 declared him, and his main follower Celestius, orthodox. However, in 417, he was condemned by Innocent I, but soon after, the new Bishop of Rome reinstated him. Finally, the emperor Honorius took matters into his own hands and banished him in 418. He and Celestius's banishments were confirmed at the Council of Ephesus in 431.

The extracts on the Pelagian controversy provide wonderful insight into the theological formulations of both Pelagius and Augustine. The first to note is Pelagius's Letter to Demetrias. Pelagius describes, in clear language, his thoughts towards the idea that man is unable, by the tainting of sin, to obey God's commandments. Pelagius thinks this is blasphemous, since, in his view, it would make God unholy and unrighteous to punish man for something they are unable to do. The letter gives a clear insight into Pelagius's idea that man works his way to salvation through obedience.

The second extract is titled Pelagius on Human Freedom. This extract provides teaching on the three hallmark aspects to Pelagius’s theology: ability, volition, and existence. The extract affirms Pelagius's idea that God's grace is that of giving humanity freedom to be perfect. He focuses on the praise that God receives by the possibility of man's moral perfection.

Though there are others, the final extract is titled Augustine on Grace. Augustine explains man's will as a will that always chooses the option where the greatest affections lie. As man is tainted by sin, his affections are perpetually towards sin; thus, his choices will only be sinful. Augustine sees God's grace as a grace that gives the Holy Spirit to man, and with the Spirit, a new affection towards God.

In pondering the causes of Pelagianism, the question must be asked, what caused Pelagius to interpret Scripture in such a worldly sense? Certainly, the answer is up for speculation. However, his service as a monk was likely a factor. It is impossible to escape the conclusion that Pelagius’s biases towards the ascetic lifestyle and outward moral living caused him to impose a free-will hermeneutic on his reading of Scripture. Likely, the most fundamental cause for his works-based heresy was an unregenerate heart. Evidence of a regenerated heart is the conviction of sin and an understanding of one's complete inability to merit salvation. Pelagius seemed to have no understanding of saving grace, nor of the significance of the cross. Nevertheless, the controversy in broad terms, was sparked by Pelaguis's visit to Rome and his reading of Augustine's Confessions.

The effects of Pelagianism are both good and bad. As Ferguson states, "Pelagianism has been regarded as the great 'heresy' in the West comparable in significance to Arianism in the East.” Though Pelagius fell off the scene quite rapidly after his banishment, it appears the ideas of Pelagianism did not die so quickly. The works based oriented heart of dead men will ensure that heretical soteriology will always be around. On the other hand, the controversy pushed men like Augustine to write prolific works addressing the issues of God's grace and soteriology.

The way in which Pelagianism tickles the hearts of dead men makes it a deceptively dangerous issue. Because it was an issue focused on soteriology, it is of first importance. Pelagius's view of salvation completely disregards Christ's atonement on the cross. If man has the ability to be perfect, then the life, death, and resurrection of Christ was pointless. God took on human flesh to live the perfect life man could not live. However, Pelagius, though a man of the Scriptures, seemed to disregard most of the Bible. His ideas, unfortunately, took root in the Catholic Church, as seen by Catholicism's works-based soteriology.

The Papacy

The third issue facing the Church during the Later Theological Developments period could go to several things. Certainly, Dontonism was an issue. Also, the Germanic migrations and the Barbarian invasions affected the fabric of the Church in significant ways. However, the theological assaults on Biblical truth seem to be the most threatening. Though not an issue in the grain of Arianism and Pelagianism, the shift to the superiority of the Roman Bishop is an event that has shaped the Catholic Church to this day.

The context behind the shift to a single man as the sole authority over the Church starts early in Church history. On a local level, a single bishop as the head of a presbytery is first seen at Antioch and Asia Minor through the letters of Ignatius. However, this local bishop was not thought to be on par with the apostles. In fact, in the late second century, Irenaeus was using an argument of apostolic succession to counter the authority of the Gnostics. In the third century, Hippolytus argued that bishops are "successors of" the apostles and not simply in a succession of leadership after them. However, in those second and third-century formulations, no one thought that one man was above everyone.

Jumping ahead, Leo I was the first man who claimed to be what is now thought of as the Pope. His service as Bishop of Rome lasted from 440 to 461. As a successor of Peter, he believed his authority was over the entire Church, as well as the emperor. In his Sermon 3, he explained his Petrine theory and how the Roman Bishop is the direct successor of Peter. His argument certainly relies on the assumption that Peter was the head of all the apostles and had sole authority over them. This assumption is foolish given the fact that the apostle Paul rebuked Peter in Spirit-inspired Scripture. Nonetheless, acknowledging the call that a bishop has to shepherd his flock, he claimed it was the Bishop of Rome's call to be the chief shepherd over all the shepherds. Thus, when Leo's Tome was read at the Council of Chalcedon, it was read as though Peter himself was speaking.

Cyprian, in the third century, had claimed that all bishops share authority as successors of the apostles; thus, it did not belong to a single man. Interestingly, the twenty-eighth canon of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 affirmed the local authority of the Bishop of Rome, not his universal power.

The extract sources from the early Church do show the progression of thought on the Papacy. The first extract to mention is The Edict of Valentinian III in 445. Though the Edict became an embarrassment for Rome because it implied the state was over the Church, it described the position that Pope Leo was seeking to defend. In response to hearing that a man named Arles was defying the ultimate authority of the Bishop of Rome, Valentinian described what was thought to be true of Pope Leo's position. He affirms that the Bishop of Rome is the Apostolic See of Peter, that he is first of all the bishops, and that he is the ruler of all the bishops.

In the Canons of the Council of Sardica in 343, the Bishop of Rome is given a unique privilege as the successor of Peter. Though at this point, it does not seem likely that the bishops gathered at Sardica saw the Bishop of Rome as the sole authority over all regions. Though, they did see him as unique.

In a letter written by Jerome to Pope Damascus in 376, Jerome acknowledges the fact that he sees Damascus as the chair and successor of Peter. He claims to be terrified of his eminence, as though he is royalty. He admits that Peter is the rock in which the Church is built on. In a similar light, Innocent I, who served as Pope from 401 to 417, wrote a letter to the African bishops during the Pelagian controversy, affirming them in their appeal to the Bishop of Rome. He says that nothing should be done apart from the final authority of the See.

The cause of the shift in view of the Papacy can be attributed to many things. The fight against heresy in the first three centuries brought about the question of authority. Who has apostolic authority? And certainly, when someone can claim to speak with the same authority as the apostles themselves did, it becomes a trump card against the spread of different beliefs. As Leo sought to defend his supreme position, he had to prove that Peter was above all the other apostles; otherwise, his view would never have gained traction. He built his argument for Peter with John 21 and Matthew 16. The Biblical defense, though taken out of context, paired with Rome's history of steadfastness in controversy, and their geographical position was the perfect storm for the Papacy to stick.

The most significant effects are seen in the centuries to come. As soon as a man holds the sole authority over the Church, destruction is close. Rome's authorial shift, from the supremacy of Scripture to the Church led by the Pope, is the cause for many of the errors that the Roman Catholic Church currently finds themselves in.

Many may not see the solidifying of the authority of the Pope as a major issue. However, as history unfolds, Papal authority becomes the source of countless issues. Anytime the highest levels of authority are shaped or changed, it affects all that is underneath it. If the Pope is the supreme authority over the Church on earth, the entire Church will be affected by him. However, the seriousness of this authorial shift is seen in the near blasphemy of the papacy. The Pope is taking the place of Christ. Christ is the chief shepherd over the plurality of under-shepherds. No man stands between Christ and His bride. The reverence, honor, and near worship the Pope receives should only be received by Christ.

Modern Ministry Context

Studying the significant issues of the fifth-century Church will help a modern Christian assess which problems are of the greatest importance today. As Christological issues proved to occupy much of the battles in the first five centuries, a modern Christian should be encouraged to stand firm against any movement which changes the nature of Christ. The Christological controversies help today's defenders of the faith understand the more subtle nuances to Christological heresies. Certain Christian movements in America today drift into the ditches of overemphasizing Christ's deity or humanity. A student of Church history will have a better ability to identify the error in these movements or denominations. Thus, they will be able to warn younger Christians of the churches to avoid.

Understanding the context around Pelagianism will help modern Christians identify the error in the Roman Catholic way of salvation, as well as have a better ability to navigate the discussion of Arminianism and Calvinism. A Protestant apologist today could bring up the issue of Pelagianism to a Catholic apologist and have a discussion on Augustine's treatment of the issue. Catholics and reformed protestants love to put Augustine on their team; therefore, an understanding of the history will allow avenues of dialogue between Catholics and Protestants.

Roman Catholicism ought to be viewed as a false religion. Just as modern apologists have answers for common atheistic arguments, so the apologist should have answers to Catholic arguments. The issue of authority will certainly arise in a discussion with a Roman Catholic. As Catholic apologists claim the overwhelming evidence of 2,000 years of church history to support their practices and traditions, a student of church history will be able to poke holes in that Catholic assumption. Most Protestants today are not studied enough on true history to challenge Catholicism's claim to have a pure history. Being able to explain the development of the papacy might be the pre-evangelistic blow that allows the Gospel seed to lodge itself in the heart.


Bettenson, Henry, and Chris Maunder, eds. Documents of the Christian Church. 4 ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Ferguson, Everett. Church History: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation. Vol. 1, The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.