Monthly Archives: July 2015

Meet Nestorius

MEET NESTORIUS – Saint or Heretic?

– by Qi Li

n1Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to 431, was a native of Syria and a theologian of the Antiochene school. Although he earned his fame as a pious monk and eloquent preacher in the early 5th century, he is known to people of later times more due to the Nestorianism controversy which bears his name.


Very little is known of the early years of Nestorius. He is believed to be born in 391 in Germanicia of Syria (Kahramanmaraş of Turkey today), and was trained under Theodore of Mopsuestia.

Some sources hold that Nestorius was also a student of John Chrysostom, as the latter had been a close friend of Theodore. This could be possible but the chance would be slim, given that Chrysostom left Antioch in late 397 to become bishop of Constantinople. Still, when making a comparison between the life of Nestorius and Chrysostom, there are many interesting similarities: Both were trained at the Antiochene school, both gained a great reputation as an outstanding preacher, both were appointed to the See of Constantinople, both were blunt and made themselves enemies of political powers as well as some of the ecclesiastical leaders, and both were eventually banished and died in exile.

The major difference between the two was their Christology. Nestorius’ views evoked fiery debate which led to the third Ecumenical Council, the Council of Ephesus in 431, when his doctrine was declared heretical, and he was deposed. A simple man who had no interest in public power and prominence, Nestorius withdrew to his monastic life in Antioch. But he was not left in peace and was later exiled to Petra, a remote city in Upper Egypt in 436. There he remained for the rest of his life, and died in 451.

The Christology Debate

The Christology debate mainly involved theologians of the Antiochene school and the Alexandrian school over the doctrine of Jesus’ incarnation. It was evoked by Nestorius’ rejection of the use of the term “theotokos”, a title for the Virgin Mary which means “bearer of God”. Nestorius declared that calling Mary the “Mother of God” implied that the Godhead is passible, and that attributing the characteristics of the flesh (such as sacrifice, sweating, hunger, etc.) to the Godhead is blasphemy. He suggested the term “Christotokos”, which means “bearer of Christ”, and insisted on attributing divinity to the Godhead and humanity to the manhood accordingly.

Nestorius didn’t make his first discussion clear of confusions, and left the impression that Jesus Christ was divided into “two persons” (or “two sons”). Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, immediately sensed the potential danger of making Christ a mere man, and therefore wrote to Nestorius. There were three letters from Cyril to Nestorius, and it was in the second letter where Cyril fully explained his incarnational doctrine, encouraging Nestorius to base his teachings on the Nicene Creed. Sent in early 430, this letter is one of the most important Christological documents of the early church, and later formed part of the Chalcedonian Formula in 451.

Expounding the idea of the Word of God being made flesh and made man, Cyril wrote, “The Word, in an ineffable and incomprehensible manner, ineffably united to himself flesh animated with a rational soul, and thus became man…While the natures that were brought together into this true unity were different, nonetheless there is one Christ and Son from out of both…And so, we must not divide the One Lord Jesus Christ into two sons.”  [1]

As for calling Mary the “Mother of God”, Cyril explained, “This does not mean that the nature of the Word or his divinity took the beginning of its existence from the holy virgin, rather that he is said to have been born according to the flesh insofar as the Word was hypostatically united to that holy body which was born from her endowed with a rational soul.” [2]

In responding to Cyril, Nestorius also clarified his ideas by saying, “Christ is a term that applies to both the impassible and the passible natures in a single persona…impassible in the Godhead, but passible in the nature of his body.”[4] He also reaffirmed the doctrines they shared in common: “I applaud the fact you make a division between the natures according to Godhead and manhood, admitting their conjunction in one persona; and also that you deny that God the Word had need a second generation from a woman; and that you confess that the deity cannot undergo any suffering. All this is truly orthodox.” [5]

n2Obviously, Nestorius held to the orthodox understanding that Christ is one persona with two natures. To accuse him of dividing Christ into two sons is, at least, a misunderstanding. For Nestorius, the issue at stake is to make a distinction between the two natures in an effort to protect the deity as impassible. As shown in the above chart, the major difference between Cyril and Nestorius’ standpoints lies on how the union of the divinity and the humanity is described. Nestorius’ treatment, typical of the Antiochene thinking, attributes the lowly things experienced by Christ (such as birth, fatigue, sorrow, suffering, death) to his human nature, and the glorious things (pre-existence, miracles, rising from death) to his godhead. But for Cyril and the Alexandrians they insisted that “all the sayings in the Gospels are to be attributed to one prosopon (person), and to the one enfleshed hypostasis of the Word”.[6]

Nestorius’ treatment is not without weakness, but it should not have been understood as heretical. Apparently his argument had been based on the premise of “One Christ and Son”. Emphasizing on the impassibility of the godhead does not necessarily imply that the one who died on the cross is not God the Word but the man Jesus.


Council of Ephesus, 431

The Condemnation

Neither of the two incarnation doctrines is perfect, and neither is necessarily wrong. However, it was not Cyril’s interest to reach a compromise on this theological issue. With his political skills and maneuver, Cyril gained support from the synod of Rome, as well as the royal family, in addition to his own Alexandrian camp. In his third letter to Nestorius, which served as an ultimatum, Cyril conclusively condemned Nestorius as a heretic, and called for him to recant. Like Chrysostom before him, though popular with the public, Nestorius had made a number of enemies – through stern words about heresies, and criticisms against the rich and powerful. Before Nestorius got a chance to respond to the third letter, the Council of Ephesus was held in late 431 to his great disadvantage. With the absence of the majority of his supporters, and without being given a chance to defend himself, Nestorius was condemned and deposed from his office.

As pointed out by several contemporary theologians and Christian historians, the Christology debate here was more personal and political than theological. Among the five patriarchates, Antioch and Alexandria were more prominent than the others in the development of Christianity in the early centuries. By the late fourth century, Constantinople had become the capital of the Eastern Empire and with its rising importance, the Antiochenes and the Alexandrians became rivals to hold that important office.[7]  It was under such circumstances that Nestorius became the patriarch of the capital. And now, he was confronted by the more politically experienced opponent, Cyril – who is said to be trained by his uncle Theophilus, the bishop who orchestrated Chrysostom’s banishment!

It is noteworthy that Nestorius was not the first to reject the Theotokos title. His teacher before him, Theodore, also called it into question. This is why Theodore is actually called “the father of Nestorianism”[8]. His influence on Nestorius contributed at least partially to his own posthumous condemnation on the Second Council of Constantinople in 553.

Works and Reevaluation

Nestorius’ extensive writings include seven sermons, eleven letters and numerous fragments.[9]  Due to his condemnation, most of his writings had been destroyed, with only one work, the “Book of Heraclides” (Bazaar), being preserved in full. Written in the latter years of his life, the book is an autobiography as well as an elaboration of his more mature theology. The discovery of this book in 1895 caused a reevaluation of his Christological views. Although no wide-spread agreement was reached on whether he was orthodox or heretic, it can be concluded from what he said in his Bazaar that he did not agree with what had become the traditional Nestorianism: he did not split Jesus Christ into two persons as did the Nestorians.[10]

[1] Readings in World Christian History: Earliest Christianity to 1453, ed. by John Wayland Coakley and Andrea Stark (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 2004), p. 166.

[2] Coakley and Stark, p. 167.

[4] Coakley and Stark, p. 168.

[5] Coakley and Stark, p. 168.

[6] Coakley and Stark, p. 172.

[7] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Rev. and updated, 2nd ed (New York: HarperOne, 2010), pp. 298–299.

[8] Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, The True Image: The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ, 1st British ed (Grand Rapids, Mich. Leicester, England: Eerdmans Inter-Varsity Press, 1989), p. 294.

[9] Hubertus R. Drobner and Siegfried S. Schatzmann, The Fathers of the Church: A Comprehensive Introduction, English ed (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), p. 464.

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Meet: Charles H. Spurgeon

“Look unto me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth, for I am God, and there is none else.” (Isa. 45:22)

CHS 1C.H. Spurgeon (1843-1892)

— by Anthony Whitlatch

Few throughout the history of Christianity in London, England have had as profound an impact on the Protestant church as Charles Haddon Spurgeon.

Born June 19th 1834, in Kelvendon, England (in the county of Essex), to John and Eliza Spurgeon, Charles was the first of seventeen children (nine of whom died at birth). At eighteen months old, Charles was sent to live with his grandparents in Stambourne, England. C.H. Spurgeon’s grandfather, James Spurgeon, was the minister at the non-conformist meetinghouse in Stambourne (a congregational community no aligning with the Anglican Church). Charles obviously received much influence from his grandfather in these early years and in subsequent years as he returned to spend holidays in Stambourne. One story C.H. Spurgeon recounts later in life is his first encounter with the “bottomless pit” (Revelation 9). As he read this story aloud, he recalls asking his grandfather about the bottomless pit, but receiving no answer. After multiple nights reading the same passage and asking the same question about the “bottomless pit,” his grandfather finally inquired the reasoning for Charles’ questioning. In response young Spurgeon asked, “If the pit has no bottom, where would all those people fall who dropped out at the lower end?“ From a young age, Spurgeon wrestled with the depravity of the human soul believing there was no depth which a man could sink which he could not sink deeper yet into depravity. This haunted Spurgeon. As an adult, he recounts having nightmares about the “bottomless pit.”

When Charles returned home (age six), his parents were living in Cholchester, England, and he had two sisters and one brother. His father was a normal English businessman by week and the minister of the congregational church in Cholchester by weekend. Although obviously influenced by his father’s ministering in the church, Charles’ mother also had a large influence in Charles’ as she pleaded to God on his behalf. Once his father told Charles a story of returning home to a praying wife who was pleading for her children, and specially interceding for Charles, her firstborn and strong-willed son. On another occasion, Charles recalls his mother praying this prayer with her young children, “Now, Lord, if my children go on in their sins, it will not be from ignorance they perish, and my soul must bear swift witness against them at the day of judgement if they lay not hold of Christ.” As Spurgeon recounts this story he says, “The thought of a mother bearing swift witness against me pierced my conscience and stirred my heart.” No doubt, the faithful intercession of Charles’ mother played a large roll in the salvation and ministry of C.H. Spurgeon.

CHSat23On January 6th 1850 (age fifteen), Spurgeon was pushed into Primitive Methodist Chapel by a snow storm. This small congregation (fifteen members) and this unknown (except to God) preacher would provide for young Mr. Spurgeon his grasping of “salvation by faith.” As the preacher read from the Scriptures, “Look unto me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth, for I am God, and there is none else,” (Isa. 45:22) he then looked at Spurgeon in the crowd and said, “Young man, you look very miserable…. You always will be miserable—miserable in life and miserable in death if you don’t obey my text; but if you obey now, this moment you will be saved… Young man, look to Jesus Christ! Look! Look! Look! You have nothin’ to do but to look and live.” It was on this day that the ruler of this world (Satan) lost the battle for one man’s soul and this one man would go on build the Kingdom of God in London and throughout England.

After his conversion he was convicted, through reading the Scriptures, of his need to be baptized, so he requested permission from his parents. On May 3rd 1850, he walked eight miles to be baptized by Mr. W.W. Cantlow, the closest baptist minister.

In August 1850 (same year as his conversion and baptism), he headed for Cambridge to attend school. At Cambridge, Spurgeon began teaching Bible in outlying towns. After Bible study in the morning and school work the rest of the day, he woNew_Park_Street_1889uld travel in the evening preaching what he learned in the morning. Recognition from this activity earned him the Pastorate at Waterbeach Church in October 1851 (age sixteen). In December 1853 (age 18), He was invited to guest teach at New Park Street Church in London. He was so enjoyed by the congregation and the leaders were so impressed by his teaching ability, they offered (and he accepted) the pastorate of the largest baptist church in London, at the time, in 1854 (age nineteen).

Within one year, Spurgeon packed New Park Street Church and they began construction to expand. Meanwhile, the congregation moved to Exeter Hall where Spurgeon was packing the 4000-5000 seat hall (this was the newspaper report from their second meeting at Exeter Hall).

CHS 4By 1856, after failing to return to their home church (the congregations meeting at Exeter Hall were too big for their “expanded” building), they began construction on the Metropolitan Tabernacle. For three years (1856-1859), while the Tabernacle was constructed, Spurgeon’s congregation met at Royal Surrey Gardens, a concert hall seating 10,000-12,000. He packed the Gardens twice every Sunday. The Tabernacle, 5,000 square feet larger then the Royal Surrey Gardens, had 3600 seats + 1000 more fold-able seats and an estimated 1000 more found their way into standing room only. From August 1860 to June 1891, Spurgeon ministered to hundreds of thousands the Metropolitan Tabernacle.

Theologically Spurgeon was Calvinist primarily, but when asked, his doctrine was Jesus Christ. Confounded by the vastness of the Bible, he often found too much in his study to teach. He had conviction about believers baptism and therefore criticized the Anglican church for infant baptism. Most of his ministry was with the Baptist denomination, but eventually he resigned from the Baptist Union in 1877 claiming that they were allowing those who downgraded the Bible, miracles, the work of Christ, and creation into their community. He said to be in fellowship with these people was to live in sin. In separating, Spurgeon’s church became the largest independently ran congregation in all of England.

CHS 2For forty years and nine months, Spurgeon rocked Christendom with his teaching. His influence to the London community alone can he seen in that 60,000 people who showed up for his three day viewing upon his death. 100,000 people lined the streets for two miles between the Tabernacle and the cemetery, flags were flown at half staff and shops and pubs were closed on the day when C.H. Spurgeon was returned to the ground with a Bible laid on his casket opened to Isa 45:22:

“Look unto me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth, for I am God, and there is none else.”

– – – – –

Resources on Spurgeon

  • Tom Nettles – living by revealed Truth (Christian Focus)
  • Spurgeon, Memories of Stambourne
  • Spurgeon, The Saint and His Saviour
  • Spurgeon, “Compel them to come in”
  • Fullerton, W.Y. Charles Haddon Spurgeon: A Biography.

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Meet: John Wesley

Wesley- Needs to be Re-Introduced

– by Filomena Saxton

john-wesley-registerIf anyone needs to be reintroduced to the 21st Century’s minds and hearts, it is John Wesley. When my son got interested in Wesleyan faith practices and doctrines, I realized how little I knew of the man or the thinking behind him. I was surprised considering I help run a Christian inter-denominational mission where I come across many students with many faith practices such as Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic, Pentecostalism, Lutheran and others. Not only that but we witness to atheist, Buddhist, Muslim, and the general seeker. So when I tried to think through the many shades to my son’s new found controversial dogma- – I realized I needed to do my research.

Even though his name is not mention much, at least in my circles, “John Wesley is one of the major figures of Christian history” (Noble, 2010). Today, seventy million people regard themselves as standing in the ‘Wesleyan’ tradition. In his day, John Wesley proved to be an effective evangelists who viewed his movement as not one to usurp the Church of England, a church where he was ordained and served, but wanted it to act as a renewal. His many converts were organized into societies. At John Wesley’s death in 1791 his followers numbered 79,000 in England and 40,000 in America, but by 1957 there were 40 million Methodists world-wide. Wesley wrote numerous theological works and edited 35 volumes of Christian literature for the edification of the societies. Influenced leaders like William Wilberforce and Charles Finney and His revivals was accredited by bringing about transformation not only in the individual but in society at large.

HolyClubOxfordLife Overview and Accomplishments

Born 1703, the 15th child to Samuel and Susanna, Wesley’s parents were devout and taught religion and morals faithfully to her nineteen children. Many believe that John got his faith practices, “methods” form his mother who provided strict discipline to her children. At 16, John attended Oxford and soon was then ordained an Anglican Minister. In 1733, his brother Charles started a group called the Holy Club- a group John and George Whitfield were dedicated members. Members had to take vows and promise to lead holy lives, take communion once a week, pray daily and visit prisons regularly. This newly formed group spent three hours every afternoon studying the Bible and other devotional material. They would hold each other accountable by asking each other questions, 22 in total, to facilitate self-examination and accountability to holy living. Some of the questions …

Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am?

Am I honest in all my acts or words or do I exaggerate?

Do I confidentially pass on to another what was told in confidence?

Can I be trusted? [i] (See endnote for more)

wesley_preach_470x352This internal piety and outward discipline was starting to have an effect on these band of brothers. Shortly after, Wesley loans Whitfield a book, The Life of God in the Soul of Man by Henry Scougal, which as Whitfield states “showed me that I must be born again, or be damned!” In 1735, George Whitefield started to preach and was having remarkable success, especially in the industrial city of Bristol. In 1737, Whitfield’s preaching electrifies Bristol and London with thousands packing churches to hear him. Publishes six sermons, while opponents publish against him. His preaching was so successful and the need was so great he asked Wesley to help him preach- hesitantly John accepted.   Hundreds of working-class poor, oppressed by industrializing England and neglected by the church, were experiencing emotional conversions under his fiery preaching of John Wesley!

Wesley: A Man for His Time

During the time of Wesley, British society began to decay from the top which reaches full bloom by the end of Wesley’s life. To understand the effect the Great awakening had on British Society and the challenges for its converts a look at Eric Metaxas description of the age is informative.

1997-7059_HOR_F_3120“It was a society of cruelty, vulgarity, and hopelessness, and prostitution. A society where decay came from the top. King George III read the bible to his kids but his sons were a symbol of depravity. As Metaxas states, “There was an almost sublime bestiality to George’s sons, a cadre of pleasure-choked buffoons who set the behavioral bar so low for the rest of society that one suspects they had perhaps thrown it into the basement. His son, the Prince of Wales, bedded seven thousand women, incurred heavy debts from gambling. In parliament alcoholism was epidemic- and fashionable. Leading political statesman were regularly drunk during in the House of Commons. Alcoholism from the elite to the poor was pervasive and abundant.

“Prostitution was rampant, 25% of all unmarried women in London were prostitutes. Brothels that exclusively provided services with girls 14 and under. Public executions were a popular form of entertainment and when no hangings presented themselves…they resorted to animal cruelty.

“The British aristocracy at the end of the eighteenth century was, among other things, exquisitely selfish and gave no more thought to the conditions of those below them It simply wasn’t fashionable to do so. The English nobility took its cues from its Gallic counterparts across the Channel and had been doing so for almost a century. The fabled excesses and decadence of the wealthy and noble classes of prerevolutionary France were mirrored expertly by their English counterparts.” [1]

jwHorsebackIt was this society that Wesley, and his Holy Club’s brothers, tried to reform. The preaching of the gospel led to a revival all over England. It was so controversial to be a Methodist convert, a Wesleyan or Whitefield, follower since it was so against the ethos of the time that it placed oneself in line for public ridicule and scorn. Still people like William Wilberforce in England and Charles Finney in the America’s were not only being saved but using their political power and social influence to bring about transformative social reforms such as the end of slavery and programs for the poor.

Wesley’s Place in History- An Enigma?

True, Wesley was a man for his time and his legacy and impact has lasted generations. There are not many notable theologians in Christian history that can boast of their evangelist work like John Wesley nor many who can unite the “theoria and praxis” as he did for his followers.

chperfectBut the questions many are asking “was he a significant theologian?” [2] As many scholars have pointed out such as Noble, “the eighteenth century is not well-known for front-rank theologians”.[3] When one tries to make sense of his doctrine one sees his Arminianism which one can reject or accept it. But it is his less known doctrine that have us all- dismissing him. Christian Perfectionism is the main one that is the most controversial. Reading and studying his statements and writings on it, as well as writings from his disciple Charles Finney, one is really left with, at least I did, that there are precious nuggets that the Reformed tradition can learn from. Many of Wesley’s, even Arminian thinking, seems to me to be a reaction to Reformed Theology that has lost its salt and has moved to a place where John Calvin himself would reject.

(This summer, The Evangelical Orphan will feature several postings from my students at Phoenix Seminary. They have be encouraged to meet long-lost relatives from our ecclesiastical family, and introduce them to us all – in class, and through this blog. We’re hoping these offerings will serve as a whet for your ongoing appetite to learn more about our history. Enjoy! -bh)

[1] Metaxas, Eric (2009-10-13). Amazing Grace (Kindle Locations 1411-1416). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[2] Noble, T. A. (2010). John Wesley as a theologian: an introduction. Evangelical Review Of Theology, 34(3), 238-257.

[3] Noble, T. A. (2010). John Wesley as a theologian: an introduction. Evangelical Review Of Theology, 34(3), 238-257

[i] Am I a slave to dress, friends, work or habits? Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying? Did the Bible live in me today? Do I give it time to speak to me everyday? Am I enjoying prayer? When did I last speak to someone else of my faith? Do I pray about the money I spend? Do I get to bed on time and get up on time? Do I disobey God in anything? Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy? Am I defeated in any part of my life? How do I spend my spare time? Am I proud? Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy or distrustful? Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisees who despised the publican? Is there anyone I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it? Do I grumble or complain constantly? Is Christ real to me?

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Posted by on July 24, 2015 in Church History


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