Nestorian Controversy Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Nestorian controversy heralded the beginning of a long series of political and theological controversies concerning the divine and human natures of Christ.

Summary of Event

In the early fifth century c.e., there were two rival theological schools of thought concerning Jesus Christ. The theologians in Alexandria in Egypt, led by Saint Cyril of Alexandria, held that Jesus was the eternal Word of God, living under the conditions of humanity. The other school, based in Antioch, in Syria, believed that Jesus was the result of a union between the divine Son of God and the human Jesus. In Alexandria, more emphasis was placed on the divinity of Christ, whereas Antioch feared that too much emphasis on divinity would obscure Jesus’ humanity. Cyril of Alexandria, Saint Nestorius Theodosius II Celestine I

In 428 c.e., Nestorius, a Syrian, became bishop of Constantinople, the eastern capital of the Roman Empire, a position that ranked second only to Rome itself in ecclesiastical prestige. Following the school of Antioch, he preached that Jesus had two distinct natures, human and divine. He also preferred the term “christotokos” (mother of Christ), for Jesus’ mother, rather than the more popular “theotokos” (mother of God), because, he said, “theotokos” implies that Mary gave birth to God. To Cyril, denial of the concept of “theotokos” meant that Mary was not the mother of God and hence that God had not become human in Jesus. Nestorius seemed to be teaching that there were two persons in Christ, the human Jesus and the divine Son of God.

Nestorius was quickly challenged by Cyril, who considered it his duty to strike down heresy wherever it might appear. Nestorius retaliated by encouraging renegade Egyptians living in Constantinople to file charges of misconduct against Cyril. Cyril complained to Emperor Theodosius II, who had appointed Nestorius. During the Easter season in 430 c.e., Cyril convoked a synod of all the bishops under his jurisdiction, and after a formal investigation, they condemned Nestorius as a heretic.

Saint Cyril of Alexandria.

(Library of Congress)

Early in his term of office, Nestorius had written to the pope about various matters and had incidentally mentioned something of his novel opinions. Concerned about these opinions, Pope Celestine I kept Constantinople under observation. The pope took no action until Cyril sent him a dossier of the documents that had been used at his synod, along with information of that body’s verdict. Celestine then brought together the Italian bishops during August of 430, studied the matter, and concurred in the Egyptian decision. In a letter to Nestorius, Celestine informed the bishop of Constantinople of his verdict and gave Nestorius ten days after receiving the letter to repudiate the erroneous doctrine or suffer excommunication. To see to it that Nestorius obeyed, Celestine commissioned Cyril to enforce his decision. Meanwhile, however, Theodosius II intervened; on November 19, he summoned a general council to meet in Ephesus early in 431 to investigate the controversy. The pope tacitly agreed to suspend his sentence in the interval.

On June 7, 431, the date set by Theodosius for the opening of the council, Nestorius and Cyril were in Ephesus. Each had a coterie of supporters, but the pope’s legates were absent, as were the delegates in the jurisdiction of John, bishop of Antioch. Although this last group did not support Nestorius, they also did not care for Cyril’s theology. During his anti-Nestorian campaign, Cyril had drawn up a list of theses, known as the Twelve Anathemas, in an effort to pinpoint the errors of Nestorius. The language of these propositions, however, was equivocal and suspicious to the Antiochene theologians.

After waiting two weeks for the tardy bishops, and against the protests of the emperor’s civil supervisor, Cyril opened the council on June 22. Summoned officially to account for his ideas and defend himself, Nestorius refused to attend, so his views were studied in his written documents. The assembled theologians found him guilty of advocating heretical ideas, excommunicated him, and declared him deposed.

During the course of the remaining sessions of the council, all the latecomers finally arrived, and immediately the Antiochenes quarreled with Cyril and those who accepted his leadership. They declared him excommunicated and proclaimed themselves a rival council. In the end, the emperor ordered the arrest of both Cyril and John of Antioch; irritated and somewhat puzzled, he wanted time to conduct a personal investigation. Cyril lavishly distributed money and gifts to the important people at Theodosius’s court, but whether this activity influenced the emperor cannot be determined. With the advice of the pope’s legate and of others whom he consulted, Theodosius ratified the condemnation of Nestorius and exonerated the other two bishops. Not until 433 c.e. did Antioch and Alexandria reach an agreement that removed all suspicion from Cyril.

Significance

As a result of these controversies, a reaction set in against Nestorianism called monophysitism, a Greek term meaning “a single nature.” Whereas Nestorians believed that Jesus had two separate natures, Monophysites stressed his predominately divine nature. In 451 c.e., the Council of Chalcedon finally declared Jesus to be both fully human and fully divine and that he was one person who was divine.

Nestorian supporters thought that their views were vindicated by this council. Nevertheless, Nestorius was exiled by the emperor’s order, at first back to his home near Antioch and then to a distant oasis in Upper Egypt. Some twenty years later, he died in obscurity. His ideas, however, did not die. They fell on fertile ground outside the Roman Empire in Armenia and Persia; from there, Nestorianism penetrated eastward as far as China. Europeans visiting Beijing (Peking) in the time of Marco Polo found Nestorian Christians there. Of even greater significance for Christianity was the legacy of ill will created by the Nestorian affair. The virulent theological hostilities that it engendered released a current of controversy that swept over the Roman world during the following century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Constas, Nicholas. “Weaving the Body of God: Proclus of Constantinople, the Theotokos, and the Loom of the Flesh.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 3 (Summer, 1995): 169-194. Constas describes the conflict between Nestorius, who did not believe in honoring Mary as Mother of God, and Proclus, his successor, who defended the Theotokos title.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kee, Howard Clark, et al. Christianity: A Social and Cultural History. New York: Macmillan, 1991. This book includes a short section telling the story of the Nestorian controversy. It describes the role of the emperor’s sister Pucheria in the event, and the blustery personality of Nestorius.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">LaPorte, Jean. “Christology in Early Christianity.” In Christology: The Center and the Periphery, edited by Frank K. Flinn. New York: Paragon House, 1988. LaPorte describes the bitter conflict between Cyril and Nestorius. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 actually agreed with Nestorius that there are two natures in Christ, but said that the two natures are united in a “hypostasis” or person.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">L’Huillier, Peter. The Church of the Ancient Councils: the Disciplinary Work of the First Four Ecumenical Councils. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995. An examination of the work of the first four ecumenical councils, including the discussion about the Nestorian controversy. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morris, Thomas V. The Logic of God Incarnate. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986. This work constitutes a useful reference for a more complete discussion of the arguments on both sides of the God-human debate.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sellers, R. V. The Council of Chalcedon. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1961. A more lengthy and thorough explanation of the Nestorian controversy, which was a catalyst for a series of political and theological debates. These debates resulted in the official clarification of the Church’s doctrine of the single person of Christ.
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