The Nestorian Controversy

Dan Graves, MSL

The Nestorian Controversy

Nestorius was consecrated bishop of Constantinople on this date April 10th, 428. His elevation to this influential position had profound repercussions for the church. A firm opponent of the Arian heresy, he was accused of falling into a contrary error.

Arians taught that Christ was a created being. To refute this and other points, Nestorius argued that the Godhead joined with the human rather as if a man entered a tent or put on clothes. Instead of depicting Christ as one unified person, Nestorius saw him as a conjunction of two natures so distinct as to be different persons who had merged.

Nestorius refused to call Mary the "Mother of God." Her baby was very human, he said. Jesus' human acts and sufferings were of his human nature, not his Godhead. To say Mary was Mother of God was to say God had once been a few hours old. "God is not a baby two or three months old," he argued.

He never denied that Christ was divine. On the contrary, it was to protect Christ's divinity that he argued as he did, lest it be lost in worship of the human child. The divine nature could not be born of a woman. Nestorius' refusal to use the term "theotokus," Mother of God, led to a big argument. He pointed out that the apostles and early church fathers never employed the word. But he could not resolve the issue so as to bring into focus the Jesus we know from scripture who is completely and truly both God and man.

Cyril, the patriarch of Alexandria, condemned Nestorius' works by issuing twelve anathemas against him. Nestorius responded in kind. The two men were harsh individuals and fierce antagonists. There was no chance of reconciliation. Emperor Theodosius II called a council at Ephesus to settle the question. Working quickly, Cyril and his allies deposed Nestorius before his Syrian supporters could reach the council site. Rome backed Cyril's move and Nestorius was stripped of his position and exiled. Theologians who study Nestorius' writings today say that his opinions were misrepresented and probably were not heretical.

Nestorius' followers did not go down without a fight. In regions controlled by Persia they formed their own church. At the beginning, it was a strong body which evangelized as far East as China. Nestorian churches appeared in Arabia, India, Tibet, Malabar, Turkostan and Cyprus. Many exist to this day, especially in Iraq, although the level of spirituality is often low. Some units reunited with the Roman Catholic church around the sixteenth century.

In part because of the Nestorian controversy, the church created a formula to describe Christ's person at the Council of Chalcedon in 433. The assembled bishops declared Christ was two natures in one person. "We all with one voice confess our Lord Jesus Christ one and the same Son, at once complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, of one substance with us as regards his manhood, like us in all things, apart from sin..."

Bibliography:

  1. Aland, Kurt. Saints and Sinners; men and ideas in the early church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970.
  2. Bray, Gerald. Creeds, Councils & Christ. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1984.
  3. Chapman, John. "Nestorius and Nestorianism" and "Cyril of Alexandria, St." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
  4. Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria. "Anathamas" and "Exposition." Documents of the Christian Church. Selected and Edited by Henry Bettenson. London: Oxford University Press, 1967, 1963.
  5. Eerdman's Handbook to the History of Christianity. Editor Tim Dowley. Berkhamsted, Herts, England: Lion Publishing, 1977.
  6. "Nestorius." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
  7. Prestige, G. L. Fathers and Heretics: six studies in dogmatic faith with prologue and epilogue. London: S.P.C.K., 1958.

Last updated April, 2007.

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