The Christological Heresies: Nestorianism

I started a series overviewing the ancient Christological heresies. In my first post, I looked at Apollinarianism. In this post, I want to consider the heresy of Nestorianism.

To understand the Nestorian heresy, named after a man from Antioch alive during the fifth century, we have to understand the controversy in which he was involved.

Nestorious was part of a theological camp which affirmed that God, second person of the Trinity, had become a human. However, he along with his contemporaries, were concerned that some theologians were too closely associating the divinity and humanity of Christ, to the extent that the natures were “mingled” or “confused”. Nestorious was concerned with protecting the distinctness of the natures.

This concern of Nestorious climaxed when theologians began to designate Mary, Jesus’ mother, as the Theotokos. Theotokos is a Greek term which means “Mother of God”, or more literally, the “God bearer” (Mary “bore” God in her womb). Nestorious wondered if Christians could responsibly call Mary the Mother of God? How can a mere human bear God?

The logic behind calling Mary the Theotokos was this: Jesus Christ is both God and man. The divine Logos, who had a divine nature from all eternity, at a point in time assumed a human nature. Therefore there was one Person with two natures, divine and human. Mary gave birth to this one person with two natures, thus giving birth to God.

Alister McGrath explains the logic further:

By the end of the fourth century, the following propositions had gained widespread acceptance in the church:

  1. Jesus is fully human
  2. Jesus is fully divine

If both of these statements are simultaneously true, it was argued, then what was true of the humanity of Jesus must also be true of his divinity — and vice versa. An example might be the following:

  1. Jesus Christ is God;
  2. Mary gave birth to Jesus;
  3. Therefore Mary is the Mother of God

This kind of argument became increasingly commonplace within the late fourth-century church; indeed, it often served as a means of testing orthodox of a theologian. A failure to agree that Mary was the Mother of God became seen as tantamount of refusing to accept the divinity of Christ (Historical Theology, 51-52)

If Jesus is one Person with two natures — divine and human — it is logically correct to call Mary the Mother of God. While she didn’t beget Jesus’ divine nature, she did give birth to Christ who is also divine.

Nestorious, however, was not comfortable with this title given to Mary. For Nestorious, Mary was not the Mother of God — rather, she was the mother Jesus Christ the man. For this reason, he preferred to call her the “Christotokos”: the bearer of Christ. 

This was met with hostility for one reason: you cannot divide the natures of Christ. Jesus Christ is one person with two natures. To separate the natures of Christ like this would create two persons, one for each nature. And this is what Nestorious effectively did. He parced Christ into two persons in two natures, such that one thing could be experienced by the human Christ that wasn’t by the divine Christ. So, the human Christ could be born by Mary, but not the divine. This was the inherent danger in Nestorious’ teaching.

Some argue that Nestorian was not meaning to make this correlation. Whatever the case, Nestorious’ Christotokos doctrine was condemned.  Cyril of Alexandria condemned the heresy with 12 propositions. I’ll cite a few below:

  1. If anyone does not acknowledge that Emmanuel is truly God, and that the holy Virgin is, in consequence, Theotokos, for she gave birth in the flesh to the Word of God who has become flesh, let them be condemned.
  2. If any one does not acknowledge that the Word of God the Father was substantially united with flesh, and with his own flesh is one Christ, that is, one and the same God and human being together, let them be condemned.
  3. If anyone divides the persons in the one Christ after their union, joining them together in a mere conjunction in accordance with their rank, or a conjunction effected by authority or power, instead of a combination according to a union of natures, let them be condemned.

As is evident, Cyril was concerned with the union of natures in one person. And so he condemned Nestorian. Jesus Christ is one Person with two natures — human and divine. He is not two persons with two natures.

Consequently, what can be said of the humanity of Christ must be said of the divinity. To give one example, Christians affirm that Christ died. Is it appropriate to say therefore that God died? Yes! The Logos died on holy Friday, his human body and soul effectively separating. He was dead for three days in fact! And on Sunday, his human nature was raised and ascended into heaven.

Another example: Christians worship Jesus Christ. But do we worship the human nature of Christ? Yes! Why? Because one cannot separate the natures of Christ and worship only one thing. Christians worship Christ, the entire person.

This is the astounding mystery of the incarnation: Jesus Christ is both divine and human, inseparably.

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