…“None of the great ‘heretics’ of the history of dogma have borne this name so unjustly as Nestorius.”
Nestorius, the Bishop of Constantinople, is arguably one of the most controversial figures in the history of Christian theology.
A student of the revered Antiochene theologian Theodore of Mopsuestia, Nestorius strongly affirmed the deity of the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. But being thoroughly Antiochene in his Christology, Nestorius was opposed to any account that would suggest the confusion of the human and divine natures in the person of Christ.
That was why Nestorius was deeply troubled by the orthodox description of Mary, the virgin mother of Christ, as Theotokos or “God-bearer”. Although this term was frequently used in the liturgies and prayers of the Church, Nestorius was afraid that it might encourage erroneous ways of understanding the incarnation.
On Christmas morning in 428 A.D., the Bishop of Constantinople preached a sermon against this beloved Marian title, Theotokos, because he thought it led to the crudest idea of God. For Nestorius, to say that Mary was the “God-bearer” was to suggest that the foetus in her womb was God. It was to say that she was the “Mother of God”, and that God was born of a woman. Nestorius vigorously objected to such irreverence.
For him, the divine nature is immutable, incorruptible and perfect. Therefore, just as it makes no theological sense to say that God can die, so it is ludicrous to say that God can be born of a human mother. Furthermore, the Bible seems to suggest that it was Christ who was “born of a woman”. Thus, Nestorius insisted that it is theologically more appropriate to call Mary Christotokos, or “Christ-bearer”.
It is important to note that Nestorius did not deny the divinity of Christ. He rejected the Marian title Theotokos because he was afraid that it would undermine the humanity of Christ. But Nestorius’ rejection of the idea that God was in the womb of the Virgin led him to conclude that Mary had given birth to the son of David, in whom the Logos took residence. This led theologians especially from the Alexandrian camp to accuse Nestorius of resuscitating the adoptionist Christology of Paul of Samosata.
To complicate matters further, Nestorius insisted that it is impossible for a single being to be both divine and human. Consequently, he came to the conclusion that the incarnation is the mutual indwelling of two persons: the eternal Son of God and the human Jesus. As Roger Olson put it, for Nestorius, “Jesus Christ was a conjunction of divine nature-person and human nature-person: eternal divine Logos and human person Jesus in intimate union”.
Nestorius’ chief opponent was Cyril, the patriarch of Alexandria, and a prominent member of the Alexandrian school. In a series of highly convoluted correspondences, the two theologians accused one another of heresy. Nestorius accused Cyril of advancing a sophisticated form of Apollinarianism, a heresy that asserted that the incarnate Christ had only one nature. Cyril, on the other hand, accused Nestorius of promoting a polished version of adoptionism.
In 431 A.D., a Council of bishops was convened at Ephesus to discuss the Christology of Nestorius and settle the dispute. The Council decided in favour of Cyril’s Christology. It reproduced almost verbatim a statement found in one of Cyril’s letters to Nestorius: “One and the same is the eternal Son of the Father and the Son of the Virgin Mary, born in time after the flesh; therefore she may be rightly called Mother of God.” Consequently, the Council called Nestorius “the new Judas” and condemned his “godless teachings” as heresy.
Modern historical research on Nestorius, however, has led some scholars to believe that the patriarch of Constantinople might have been wrongly accused of heresy. As Bengt Hägglund reports: “It is now being heard that Nestorius was misunderstood and wrongly interpreted by his opponent, Cyril, and that it was this, together with church politics, which provoked the struggle between them.”
A case has been made that far from being heretical, Nestorius’s Christology was merely an elaboration of the teachings of his mentor Theodore of Mopsuestia. This has prompted Reinhold Seeberg to conclude: “None of the great ‘heretics’ of the history of dogma have borne this name so unjustly as Nestorius.”
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.