You are on page 1of 6

(Published in The Greek Australian VEMA, September 2005)

Nestorianism:
Challenges to the Faith in Jesus Christ

Introductory Remarks
In the fifth century yet another extensive and complicated controversy
developed over the person and nature of Jesus Christ. Named Nestorianism after its
chief protagonist Nestorius, this heresy posed a grave danger to the Church since it
seriously came to question the divinity of the historical person Jesus. Formerly a
monk and a priest of the Church in Constantinople, Nestorius also ascended to the
Episcopal throne, becoming Patriarch of that city in 428.1 In wanting to stress the
humanity of Christ, Nestorius went to the opposite extreme of Apollinarius (analysed
in the last issue of VEMA) and taught that in the person of Jesus Christ there were
two natures and two persons. That is to say, unlike Apollinarianism which had
denied the presence of a human soul in Christ and thereby failed to recognize
Christ's full humanity, Nestorianism came to stress the humanity of Jesus Christ to
such an extent that it ultimately failed to recognize the divinity of Jesus Christ.

As we shall see, Nestorius' theology came to be questioned by the Church as


a whole when he tried to put as stop to the title 'Theotokos' being used for the Virgin
Mary since this term was also a key word for the person of the incarnate Christ. For a
long time, in popular piety the Virgin Mary was believed to be Theotokos or 'God-
bearer'. However, Nestorius falsely claimed that it was more correct to say that the
Virgin Mary gave birth to a mere man called Christ and so His mother could be called
'Anthropotokos' (bearer of a human being) or at best 'Christotokos' (Christ bearer).
Reflecting back on this, one could say that Nestorius' Christology was one-sided
since, in so far as it emphasized the distinction between the divine and human
elements to such an extent it failed to account for the unity of Christ. And so the
Church had to respond so as to safeguard not only the natural distinction in Christ
but also to uphold the person unity.

Nestorius' position
Nestorius, as his former teacher Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428), wanted
to highlight the fullness of the human aspect of the person of Christ. And so, in
1 Strictly speaking the title 'Patriarch' was given to the bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and
Antioch only after the 3rd Ecumenical Council which met in Ephesus to condemn Nestorius and his
teaching in 431.
their writings they underscored the significance of the human soul in Christ, of
Christ's ignorance and His real temptations (both physical and spiritual) especially at
Gethsemane.2 Indeed at a time when the humanity of Christ was being seriously
questioned in the person of Apollinarius, Nestorius was able to assert not only the
fullness of Christ's humanity, but also to allude to a human will in Christ as well,
something which St Maximus the Confessor, several centuries later would fight to
uphold against all odds.3 In Christ they saw not only a victory of God but also a real
triumph in Christ's human nature since, at every step of Christ's life, they maintained,
Jesus chose voluntarily to obey God His Father. That such a concern to emphasize
the humanity of the person of Jesus was important is without question, yet the
problem arose in their articulation of the unity. Indeed, it could be said that whilst
Nestorius' language concerning the distinction between the divine and the human
in Christ was to be commended, the terms used to explain the unity was indeed
weak and deficient.

Nestorius' main deficiency was his assertion that the unity between the divine
and human in Christ was merely external. This basically meant that one could speak
of the oneness of Christ only on an external level – that is in terms of honour, will,
value (i.e. that both were equally valid) and rank.4 It was not enough to say that
Christ simply shared in all the divine qualities of the Logos as if the union was merely
a moral one since this would lead Nestorius to assert that Christ only
progressively became god-like. That is to say, Nestorius believed that it was only
after a gradual process of intensification that the union between Christ and the Logos
was radically transformed. In regards to this issue, Nestorius wrote: "But although he
[Christ] had all those things which appertain unto our nature, anger and
concupiscence and thoughts, and although also they increased with the progress and
increase of every age [in His life], he stood firm in thoughts of obedience." 5 From this
it is clear that Nestorius believed that Christ was ultimately divine only because he
always obeyed the divine Word of God. And in believing the union in Christ to be
purely external, ultimately led Nestorius to the erroneous belief that the historical
person, Christ, was, ontologically speaking [i.e in His actual being] sinful even
though He never sinned.6 That is to say, for Nestorius, the man Jesus was potentially

2 Indeed Nestorius' teacher, Theodore of Mopsuestia believed that Christ's spiritual conflicts would have
been greater that his physical ones (cf De Incarnatione 15, 3).
3 Cf Demetrios Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 22-23.

4 Cf Demetrios Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ, 19.


5 Nestorius, Bazaar of Heracleides, 63.
6 For Nestorius and Theodore of Mopsuestia, the man Christ was not simply to be attributed as having
the so called 'blameless passions' (adiableta pathe) such hunger, thirst, desire for sleep, tiredness, pain,
sadness and agony, but sinful passions and therefore could be characterised as being sinful even if
Christ had not actualised any sinful actions. Indeed the fifth Ecumenical Council held in Constantinople
in 553 condemned in an outright manner the erroneous belief that: "Christ was troubled by the passions
sinful in precisely the same way that any other human being is said to be sinful, but
that, in the case of Christ, He gradually overcame His sinfulness, through obedience,
moral struggle and divine aid. In stating this however Nestorius went very close to
admitting that Christ was sinful by not being able to declare his absolute sinlessness.
Like Apollinarius, Nestorius was not able to understand that sinfulness, although a
reality of the fallen human condition, did not go hand in hand with integral humanity
as God had originally conceived and willed from all eternity.

The unity between the divine and human in Christ was further weakened
and, in the end destroyed by Nestorius in his insistence that the Logos not only
assumed a human nature but also a human person or hypostasis as well. For
Nestorius, Jesus was the man to whom the Son of God (the Logos) subsequently
joined himself. That is to say, he did not wish to identify Jesus Christ with the
divine Logos of God. He believed that the Son of God assumed and joined
(synapheia) with the Son of Mary. That is to say, the real unity in Christ was not
secured by Nestorius since he was not able to speak of the one person (or
hypostasis) of Christ. This led to the suggestion that the divinity and humanity of
Christ were to be conceived ultimately as two persons.7 In this regard, Nestorius
argued: "the essence of the likeness of God and the essence of the likeness of the
servant remain in their hypostases [i.e. the person of the divine Logos and the
different person of the human Christ]".8 From this, it is clear that Nestorius went so
far as to say that the distinguishing features between what was human and divine in
Christ were the separate hypostases (or two centres of activity), in this way implying
another person alongside the Logos. And even when he did speak of 'two natures,
one person' this formula was not understood in a proper manner. For him, the term
'one person' simply indicated the outward appearance of Jesus Christ who still had
two natures and two prosopa – i.e. the Son of God and the Son of David were two
distinct personal subjects. Nestorius' belief was contrary to the faith of the Church
since, by 'person' the divine Son and Word of God who had become incarnate was
not meant, but the unified activity of an alleged two persons (the divine Word and the
person of the human nature) in Christ.9

of the soul and the desires of human flesh, was gradually separated from that which is inferior, and
became better by his progress in good works and faultless through his way of life… and.. became after
the resurrection immutable in his thoughts and entirely without sin". (See Tanner (ed.), Decrees of the
Ecumenical Councils, i. 119, cited in Demetrios Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ, 56).
7 Even though it has to be admitted that Nestorius could also speak of one person, the fact that he also

spoke of two persons clearly made him guilty of the theory of two Sons. Besides by the formula 'two
natures, one person' Nestorius did not mean the Logos of God.
8 Nestorius, Bazaar of Heracleides, 172.

9For Nestorius, the term 'Christ' did not imply the divine Word of God but the person to which the Son of
God joined himself.
Church's Response
The Church was most concerned to stress the fact that the One who was
born of the Virgin Mary was no other than the divine Son of God – the second
person of the holy Trinity - in human flesh, something which Nestorius failed to
perceive. For the fathers of the Church, the fullness of Christ's human nature was
never questioned, yet, unlike Nestorius, they wanted to assert that it never existed in
a separate human person because this would ultimately destroy its unity with the
divine Word of God. And this would make Christ incapable of saving the world. Far
from existing side by side or each having its own prosopon conjoined (synapheia) in
an exterior or moral way, the two distinct natures were united in the one divine
Logos of God. The man Jesus and the divine Word of God [the second person of
the holy Trinity] were not joined together as two distinct entities forming a union since
this could easily be misinterpreted as suggesting 'two sons'. That is to say, the
person whom the Virgin Mary gave birth to was not merely a human person upon
whom the Son of God came to be joined in a later stage, but was the very Son of
God Himself. There could be no division between the Son of God begotten in
eternally from God the Father and the Son of Man born in time from a human
mother. And so it was not possible to speak of a 'connection' or 'conjunction'
between God's Son and Mary's son since they were in fact one and the same
person.

Furthermore, the Church rightly believed that the unity of the one undivided
reality of the Word of God, who existed as one unique personal divine subject of
both His divine and human natures, was safeguarded in the title 'Theotokos' given to
the Virgin Mary. Indeed it was Nestorius' rejection of this term, in favour of
Christotokos which gave rise to his dispute with the Church since the One who was
born, crucified and resurrected was God, the divine Word of God.10 The title
'Theotokos' is a composite Greek word made up of the Greek words 'Theos' meaning
God and the verb 'tikto' meaning 'to give birth to'. Therefore the title 'Theotokos'
implies the one who gives birth to God. Both before and after this period, it was seen
as a term central to the confession of the true Christian faith. The term was already in
use for over two hundred years already employed by Origen11 (2nd century). In an
even earlier statement, St Ignatius of Antioch had written: "Our God, Jesus Christ
was conceived by Mary according to the economy."12 St Gregory the Theologian

10 Upon being enthroned Patriarch Nestorius wanted to rid the city of heresy. Ironically Nestorius
supported his presbyter who preached a sermon on the Theotokos stating: "Let no one call Mary
Theotokos, for Mary was but a woman and it was impossible that God should be born of a woman".
(Cited in Georges Florovsky, The Byzantine Fathers of the Fifth Century, vol. 8 (Belmont:
Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1987), 216.
11 PG 67.812B.

12 To the Ephesians 18, 2.


stated: "if anyone does not confess the Holy Virgin to be Theotokos, that
person is estranged from God."13 It is clear that the Patristic tradition understood
this appellation as possessing a precise Christological significance which
safeguarded the personal unity in Jesus Christ.

And so, in so far as the person to which Mary gave birth was the Son of God,
divine with exactly the same divinity as God the Father, she could subsequently be
called Theotokos – that is the 'God-bearer' or the one who gives birth to God. By
calling the Virgin Mary, Theotokos, the Church safeguarded and guaranteed the unity
of Christ. In his second letter to Nestorius, St Cyril of Alexandria clearly indicated the
position of the Church:
When the fathers dared to call the Holy Virgin Theotokos, they did
not mean by this that the nature of the Word or His Godhead
originated from the Holy Virgin.14
Clearly for St Cyril, the term Theotokos in no way implied that the Virgin Mary gave
birth to the eternal Godhead or the nature of the Godhead. Rather, just as a mother
in general gives birth not to a 'faceless nature' but to a person so too the person
that the Virgin Mary had given birth to was none other than the divine second person
of the Holy Trinity and in this sense could be called 'God-bearer'. 15 Nestorius'
theological blunder was that he failed to understand that the personal subject in the
incarnate Christ was always the divine Word of God. Therefore if the term
'Theotokos' were not accepted then there would be a danger of dividing the incarnate
Christ into two personal subjects. And so, it was claimed that the title Theotokos was
not an optional title of worship but a theological presupposition of true doctrine in
Christ.

Concluding Remarks
In calling a council in Ephesus which came to be known as the 3rd Ecumenical
Council in 431 to condemn Nestorianism, the Church had triumphed over this long
and difficult dispute over the person of Christ. In calling the Virgin Mary 'Theotokos'
the Church was able to affirm that it was God the Logos who was born of the Virgin
and suffered on the cross. By no means did this mean however that it was the divine
nature of the Son of God that was born or suffered on the cross. Rather it implied that

13 Cited in Kallistos Ware, 'Mary Theotokos in the Orthodox Tradition', Epiphany Journal, 9.2(1989): 50.
14 Letter 4.7.
15 On this point Ware noted: "the key here to Cyril's standpoint is that he regards motherhood as a
relationship between persons, not natures". Kallistos Ware, 'Mary Theotokos in the Orthodox Tradition',
Epiphany Journal, 9.2(1989): 52. Florovsky also stated that "Christian thought moves always in the
dimension of personalities not in the realm of general ideas. It apprehends the mystery of the
Incarnation as a mystery of the Mother and Child". (Georges Florovsky, Creation and Redemption,
Collected Works, vol. 3 (Massachusetts: Norland Publishing Company), 179).
that the person who was born in order to save the world was no mere human being,
but God Himself incarnate. Yet as we shall see this was short lived since the Church
was soon to be confronted with yet another Christological dispute which came to be
known as Monophysitism (the heresy that Christ had only one nature). Did Christ
have two natures which remained without confusion or was He simply from two
natures? That is to say, did Jesus Christ remain in two natures or was He from two
natures? It was this question which would give rise to the convocation of the Council
of Chalcedon in 451 which dealt with this important matter and in so doing gave the
Church once and for all a clear and comprehensive teaching on the person and
nature of Jesus Christ. Indeed for the Orthodox Church, the Chalcedon articulation
regarding the person and nature of Jesus Christ marked both the most important
declaration of Patristic Christology and the final and binding Christological synthesis.

Philip Kariatlis
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College