Meet Nestorius

30 Jul

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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