ChristologyChurch History

In Defense of Nestorius

“As for Nestorius, let him be anathema . . .” – Nestorius, “The Bazaar of Hercleides”

“The controversies of the past led to anathemas, bearing on persons and on formulas. The Lord’s Spirit permits us to understand better today that the divisions brought about in this way were due in large part to misunderstandings.” – Pope John Paul II in 1994 regarding the first Council of Ephesus

“Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” – Jesus of Nazareth, “The Gospel according to Matthew”

I have no small task today. I write to Chalcedonian Christians to beg a reappraisal of the infamous Nestorius! Roman Catholic historians and theologians have carefully studied his case, finding cause in it for great charity toward the Assyrian Church of the East. I am optimistic that others will too who consider the record carefully. I begin by reviewing the councils of Nicea and Constantinople, followed by a sketch of Archbishop Nestorius. I will close by quoting the record of the first Council of Ephesus by fifth century historian Socrates of Constantinople.

COUNCIL OF NICEA

Early in the fourth century, Roman Emperor Constantine followed his bloody warfare against Emperors Maxentius and Licinius by deploying religion to unite the Roman lands he conquered. To Constantine’s frustration, a charismatic priest named Arius set Constantine’s religion in an uproar by claiming that God had created Jesus ex nihilo from nothing. Arius’ doctrine would reduce Jesus from eternal divinity to a finite creation. Many false teachers had preceded Arius, but none had so pervasively infected Christianity. More importantly, none had gained the agreement of an apostolically ordained bishop. Arius won to his heresy Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia (not to be confused with historian Eusebius of Caesarea).

In an unprecedented step and in contrast with our Lord’s command in Matthew 18:15-17, Emperor Constantine took it upon himself to summon the bishops of his empire to Nicea to solve his problem. He could not reach far beyond his own borders however. Only one bishop came from the vast reaches of the Persian Empire to Nicea. No representatives of Christianity came from Southern India which had contained Christians since the first century ministry of the Apostle Thomas. While the Nicene creed became ecumenical (universal) in its adoption and profession by Christians, the council was held almost exclusively by one empire.

We Christians proudly claim the Nicene Creed, but we should also recognize that the council was called by a politician, usurped Matthew 18:15-17, and failed to end the Arian heresy which harassed orthodoxy and the Roman Empire for centuries to come. In contrast with such politics, Bishop Polycarp preserved ecclesiastical unity early in the second century by obeying Matthew 18:15-17. He personally visited Roman Bishop Anicetus to discuss the quartodeciman quarrel. Polycarp’s precedent later rescued ecclesiastical unity from schism when Bishop Vincent of Rome tried to excommunicate Asian Christians over the same question.1 In contrast with Polycarp, the Council of Ephesus imitated Constantine’s overreach rather than our Lord’s command in Matthew 18.

COUNCIL OF CONSTANTINOPLE

In AD 381, the Council of Constantinople wrested the bishopric of Constantinople from Arians who had held it ever since Constantius II installed the previously mentioned Eusebius of Nicomedia. The third canon of the Council of Constantinople elevated the archbishop of Constantinople to “the prerogative of honour after the Bishop of Rome because Constantinople is the New Rome.”2 The few modern Western Christians who note this canon tend to debate whether it affirmed Roman claims to ecclesiastical authority. We typically fail to consider how the ancient Alexandrian and Antiochian archbishops felt about subordinating themselves to a new archbishopric which was just fifty years old and historically Arian!

In contrast with Constantinople, Alexandria had held Jewish and then Christian esteem for six centuries. Alexandria had birthed the Greek Septuagint translation of Scripture, the Jewish thinker Philo, and a line of bishops extending from none other than the gospel writer Mark to Athanasius, the great defender of Nicene orthodoxy. When assessing the council of Ephesus, we should note that 5th century politicians had sometimes misused the Christian faith as a pretext for power grabs and violence. We also should not overlook the fact that the attack on Archbishop Nestorius of Constantinople came from the bishopric of Alexandria which had recently been demoted in favor of Constantinople.

NESTORIUS

Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II appointed Nestorius as archbishop of Constantinople in AD 428 after hearing him preach in an Eastern Roman province. Upon his first sermon as archbishop, Nestorius declared himself the enemy of all heresies. He then called for the burning of Arian churches, railed against the Novatians, and called on the Byzantine emperor to remove every Macedonian3 church from the region. Not surprisingly, Nestorius gained many opponents who claimed that his words fomented violence. While his preaching matched the incendiary style of some others in his day, we would be hard pressed to reconcile Nestorius’ manner with our Master’s teaching, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you . . .”4

Archbishop Nestorius had studied in the School of Antioch which in that era challenged the School of Alexandria for the highest esteem in the Roman Empire. Alexandria at that time used loose, allegorical interpretations of Scripture like those of Origen. Antioch instead used a highly literal form of exegesis. The greatest difference between these schools however, lay in their christologies. Alexandria so strongly emphasized the uniting of our Lord’s divinity with his humanity that subsequent Alexandrian theologians would be accused of monophysitism (defining Jesus as having only one nature).5 Antioch on the other hand, stressed that the humanity of Jesus was unaltered by his divinity. Antiochians believed that Alexandria’s emphasis of the uniting of our Lord’s natures detracted from his being truly human. In an era of countless heresies, both schools suspected the other was falling sway to false doctrine when in fact, each emphasized two sides of the same coin: the mysterious union of divinity and humanity in the singular person of Jesus, the eternal Word of God.

Archbishop Nestorius further suspected that the Arian heresy of a created rather than eternally begotten Logos lurked in the title “theotokos”, which terms Mary the “god bearer” (understood as “mother of God”). The title “Mother of God” can make Protestants squirm too if they read into it the misconception that Rome elevates Mary to equal or nearly equal footing with the Son of God. Nestorius never claimed Jesus Christ was two different people. Rather, he emphasized the distinction in Jesus’ two natures and argued that Mary was the christotokos for fear of a heretical twisting of the incarnation. Since the eternally begotten Son of God has no beginning, Nestorius famously declared that the Logos could never be two or three months old. The reader may find affirmation in this statement for condemning Nestorius, but we should consider how often each of us has been misunderstood. As Christians plead with one another to listen to both sides of modern cultural and theological clashes, we will do well to consider the possibility that Nestorius, due to his arduous pursuit of heresy, misinterpreted theotokos and was likewise misinterpreted himself. Martin Luther claimed to have scoured the writings of Nestorius and found no heresy.6 For a more detailed defense of the christology of Nestorius, see “Bazaar of Heracleides” by Archbishop Nestorius or “A History of Christianity in Asia, Volume I” by Samuel Hugh Moffett.

POISONING THE WELL

As Nestorius fought the heresies of Arius and Apollinaris, he stretched so far as to attack even Archbishop Cyril of Alexandria. Nestorius accused Cyril of denying the true humanity of Jesus. The two exchanged letters culminating in Cyril’s twelve anathemas which he challenged Nestorius profess. Politically shrewd, Cyril did not name Nestorius as teaching the anathemas, but in this manner he created an ultimatum by which Nestorius would either capitulate in their dispute or appear to be anathematized like the heretic Arius. Both Cyril and Nestorius appealed to Archbishops Clementine of Rome and John of Antioch. Neither of them followed the command of our Lord in Matthew 18:15-17 or the model of Polycarp.

Imitating Emperor Constantine, Nestorius then asked for a council of bishops to resolve the dispute. Emperor Theodosius II granted his request. The space of this article does not allow for all of the details of the Council of Ephesus, but the reader is encouraged to consider that armed mobs roamed the streets surrounding the council, that the council proceedings devolved into two parties rather than a council decision, and that it did not reflect Matthew 18:15-17.

5th CENTURY HISTORIAN SOCRATES OF CONSTANTINOPLE

” . . . Having myself perused the writings of Nestorius, I have found him an unlearned man and shall candidly express the conviction of my own mind concerning him: and as in entire freedom from personal antipathies, I have already alluded to his faults, I shall in like manner be unbiassed [sic] by the criminations of his adversaries, to derogate from his merits. I cannot then concede that he was either a follower of Paul of Samosata or of Photinus, or that he denied the Divinity of Christ: but he seemed scared at the term Theotocos [sic], as though it were some terrible phantom. The fact is, the causeless alarm he manifested on this subject just exposed his extreme ignorance: for being a man of natural fluency as a speaker, he was considered well educated, but in reality he was disgracefully illiterate. In fact he contemned the drudgery of an accurate examination of the ancient expositors: and, puffed up with his readiness of expression, he did not give his attention to the ancients, but thought himself the greatest of all.

“Now he was evidently unacquainted with the fact that in the First Catholic epistle of John it was written in the ancient copies, ‘Every spirit that separates Jesus, is not of God.’ The mutilation of this passage is attributable to those who desired to separate the Divine nature from the human economy: or to use the very language of the early interpreters, some persons have corrupted this epistle, aiming at ‘separating the manhood of Christ from his Deity.’ But the humanity is united to the Divinity in the Saviour, so as to constitute not two persons but one only. Hence it was that the ancients, emboldened by this testimony, scrupled not to style Mary Theotocos. For thus Eusebius Pamphilus in his third book of the Life of Constantine writes in these terms: ‘And in fact “God with us” submitted to be born for our sake; and the place of his nativity is by the Hebrews called Bethlehem. Wherefore the devout empress Helena adorned the place of accouchement of the God-bearing virgin with the most splendid monuments, decorating that sacred spot with the richest ornaments.’

“Origen also in the first volume of his Commentaries on the apostle’s epistle to the Romans, gives an ample exposition of the sense in which the term Theotocos is used. It is therefore obvious that Nestorius had very little acquaintance with the treatises of the ancients, and for that reason, as I observed, objected to the word only: for that he does not assert Christ to be a mere man, as Photinus did or Paul of Samosata, his own published homilies fully demonstrate. In these discourses he nowhere destroys the proper personality of the Word of God; but on the contrary invariably maintains that he has an essential and distinct personality and existence. Nor does he ever deny his subsistence as Photinus and the Samosatan did, and as the Manichæans and followers of Montanus have also dared to do . . . ”

“Not long time elapsed before a mandate from the emperor directed the bishops in all places to assemble at Ephesus. Immediately after the festival of Easter therefore Nestorius, escorted by a great crowd of his adherents, repaired to Ephesus, and found many of the bishops already there. Cyril bishop of Alexandria making some delay, did not arrive till near Pentecost. Five days after Pentecost, Juvenal bishop of Jerusalem arrived. While John of Antioch was still absent, those who were now congregated entered into the consideration of the question; and Cyril of Alexandria began a sharp skirmish of words, with the design of terrifying Nestorius, for he had a strong dislike for him. When many had declared that Christ was God, Nestorius said: ‘I cannot term him God who was two and three months old. I am therefore clear of your blood, and shall in future come no more ‘among you.’ Having uttered these words he left the assembly, and afterwards held meetings with the other bishops who entertained sentiments similar to his own. Accordingly those present were divided into two factions. That section which supported Cyril, having constituted themselves a council, summoned Nestorius: but he refused to meet them, and put them off until the arrival of John of Antioch. The partisans of Cyril therefore proceeded to the examination of the public discourses of Nestorius which he had preached on the subject in dispute; and after deciding from a repeated perusal of them that they contained distinct blasphemy against the Son of God, they deposed him.

“This being done, the partisans of Nestorius constituted themselves another council apart, and therein deposed Cyril himself, and together with him Memnon bishop of Ephesus. Not long after these events, John bishop of Antioch made his appearance; and being informed of what had taken place, he pronounced unqualified censure on Cyril as the author of all this confusion, in having so precipitately proceeded to the deposition of Nestorius. Upon this Cyril combined with Juvenal to revenge themselves on John, and they deposed him also. When affairs reached this confused condition, “Nestorius saw that the contention which had been raised was thus tending to the destruction of communion, in bitter regret he called Mary Theotocos, and cried out: ‘Let Mary be called Theotocos, if you will, and let all disputing cease.’ But although he made this recantation, no notice was taken of it; for his deposition was not revoked, and he was banished to the Oasis, where he still remains. Such was the conclusion of this Synod. These things were done on the 28th of June, under the consulate of Bassus and Antiochus. John when he had returned to his bishopric, having convened several bishops, deposed Cyril, who had also returned to his see: but soon afterwards, having set aside their enmity and accepting each other as friends, they mutually reinstated each other in their episcopal chairs . . . “7

CONCLUSION

As ISIS today tortures and slaughters Assyrian Christians who proclaim Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of God”8 and who also defend Nestorius as orthodox, I submit that we should respect to their martyred blood enough to let Nestorius speak for Nestorius rather than relying on Cyril alone. Nestorius’ orthodox christology can be read at length in his own words in “The Bazaar of Heracleides.” I cherish many writings by Alexandria’s great Archbishop Cyril,9 yet I deplore his behavior at Ephesus. On the positive side, the events at Ephesus contributed to orthodox christological definitions. On the other hand, Nestorius was unjustly condemned there for a heresy that he did not profess. The most important consequence of the council was its pivotal contribution to the first schism of our Lord’s body, effectively alienating Persian (Assyrian) Christians who venerate Archbishop Nestorius. Constantine-style politics, not the Matthew 18 command of our Lord, divided orthodox Christians from one another at Ephesus.

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Matthew Bryan

Matthew Bryan

Matthew is a post-Protestant disciple of Jesus, an avid disciple-maker, a father of 2 grown men, and the delighted husband of Kristy. He holds a Bachelor of Science summa cum laude from the University of Memphis and has authored 3 books. A former church planter, Matthew now serves within the Restoration Movement. He enjoys reading the letters of Desiderius Erasmus, learning the history of empires, and encouraging believers to take up Biblical Greek for the twin purposes of clarity and unity.

  • Benjamin Winter

    I very much appreciate the thrust of this article. Very good point about the Council of Nicaea not being truly ecumenical,
    and great tie-in to the lack of charity today toward our “of the East”
    Christian brothers and sisters. Ben and I have had a good chat about related issues over on this thread: https://conciliarpost.com/christian-traditions/eastern-orthodox/why-we-call-mary-the-mother-of-god/

    I do wonder if you go a bit too far in stating that calling councils (in the case of Constantine) violates Matthew 18. Don’t you think that the story of Constantine and Christianity is a bit more complex than the one-sided picture you paint here? You’re only giving the political angle, ignoring Constantine’s own dedication to resolving controversy as well as his deference to bishops as the decision-making body. I’ve seen it argued that Constantine correctly valued unity over purity, especially during the openings of the Donatist controversy. Furthermore, there was a well-established precedent for Christians to appeal to the emperor for arbitration of internal controversies–Maxentius (who supervised the return of property to Christians after a persecution) is one example.
    If what I’m saying isn’t resonating, perhaps check out this piece:

    Drake, H. A. “The Impact of Constantine on Christianity.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine, Edited by Noel Lenski, Revised Edition, 111-136. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University
    Press, 2012.

    • mmchanb

      Thank you, Ben. I do prefer to offer both sides of an issue whenever possible, but the article length did not leave room for a more detailed look at Constantine. I am willing to be corrected, but I do understand Constantine’s actions to have undermined Matthew 18.

      I’m glad Nicea clarified proper Christology, but I see the primary problem preceding Nicea to be the actions of Eusebius of Nicomedia. As the first schismatic bishop of apostolic succession, his role was far more important than that of Arius. Eusebius of Nicomedia needed believers to practice Matthew 18 just as Polycarp had done for Anicetus. The body must not be severed, and the solution is relational.

      I know I’m a dreamer, but imagine if a bishop had come to Eusebius of Nicomedia alone and in humility to plead for his restoration. If Eusebius had rebuffed this brother, then he would have returned in charity with only one or at most two other bishops who personally knew Eusebius to discuss the issue in private. Finally then, if Eusebius continued to separate himself, these 2-3 bishops who had obeyed Matthew 18 could authoritatively call for a council of all bishops to resolve the matter.

      If I were to assume the very best in Constantine, I would still regret that what occurred between Polycarp and Anicetus did not occur between Eusebius of Nicomedia and a loving fellow bishop. Even granting the most pious intentions in Constantine, did his actions not preclude the implementation of Matthew 18? I ask sincerely. I am willing to be corrected. I believe that if Matthew 18 had been enacted, the Arian heresy would have been more effectively stamped out and in a much shorter period of time. I look forward to your reply.

      • Benjamin Winter

        Hello Matthew, apologies for my delay! The way you’ve parsed it out here, I more fully understand and appreciate the spirit of your comments on Constantine. Following the method of Matthew 18 would, doubtless, have been fruitful; I agree with this point (and wish I had been more clear on that above). I was primarily adverting to the fact that the story of Constantine and Christianity is complex, which you acknowledged in the first paragraph of your comment! In addition, I think we must always be wary of positing hypotheses contrary to fact when it comes to what Arius would have said or done.

        Finally, I had also meant to imply that, in making an analogy between Christianity in the 2nd century and Christianity in the 4th–with regard to the behavior of bishops–one must always be aware of the unique difficulties raised by what Constantine did… difficulties that (perhaps!) merited new actions to maintain unity. There is no denying that Christian power structures changed, in many ways borrowing from the Roman Empire’s power structures, during the events surrounding the split-up of the Western Empire and the vying for influence between the two halves of the Tetrarchy.

        All that being said, I am very happy you wrote this article, if for the reason alone that it raises awareness of how many of our Eastern brothers and sisters were “cut out” of the picture without really getting a say from the get-go.

        Cheers!

        • mmchanb

          Your reply is helpful. I had not before considered the changes in Roman Ecclesiatical practices from the angle that they may have been necessitated by the actions of an outside force (the decree of Theodosius). That’s a new thought for me.

  • Thanks for your well researched article, Matthew. My only caution to the readers, as we discussed, is not to confuse charity towards Nestorius with the adoption of what was condemned as heretical at the Third Ecumenical Council. That is to say, regardless of what Nestorius actually believed, what was condemned at the Third Ecumenical Council was then, and is still now, a heretical belief about Christ: That Jesus was born of Mary as a man, and that the Godhead overshadowed him sometime after his birth.

    We should confess unequivocally that Jesus Christ was, and is, fully God and Man from the time of his conception.

    • mmchanb

      Amen!