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Nestorianism; Nestorius

Nestorianism is usually regarded as the heresy, taught originally by Nestorius, which split Jesus Christ, the God-man, into two distinct persons, one human, one divine. Born of Persian parents, Nestorius was probably a pupil of Theodore of Mopsuestia before becoming a monk and presbyter at Antioch. Because of the fame he achieved as a preacher, Theodosius II* elevated him in 428 to the patriarchal see of Constantinople. Soon after, he was called upon to pronounce on the suitability of Theotokos (“God-bearing”) as a title for the Virgin Mary. He ruled that it would be best not to use the title unless it was balanced with anthrompotokos (“man-bearing”); however, the best title for her was Christotokos (“Christ-bearing”). His doctrine, and the vehement way in which he expressed it, led Cyril* of Alexandria to oppose him and the Council of Ephesus* (431) to anathematize him as a heretic and to declare him deposed. The emperor exiled him to his monastery in Antioch and later to the Great Oasis in Egypt, where he died about 451.

Naturally Nestorius claimed that he was no heretic. As his writings were thought only to exist in fragments, it has been difficult to judge his claim. But the discovery in 1910 of The Book (Bazaar) of Heracleides in a Syriac translation has provided us with greater understanding of his views. Nevertheless, modern scholars are not in agreement in their assessment of his doctrine. For some he was the unfortunate victim of ecclesiastical politics; for others he remains guilty of the theological errors charged against him by Cyril and others.

What was his teaching? This can only be understood against the background of the traditional Antiochene Christology which stresses the fact that Jesus Christ was truly a man. First of all, he taught that the human and divine natures remained unaltered and distinct in their union within Jesus of Nazareth. He could not conceive of the divine Logos* being involved in human suffering or change, and so he wanted to hold the natures apart. Secondly, he emphasized that Jesus Christ lived a truly human life which involved growth, temptation, and suffering. This would have been impossible, he argued, if the human nature had been fused and overcome by the divine nature. He believed that the Alexandrian Christology overstressed the divinity of Jesus Christ.

To solve the problem of the union of the two natures of Christ-and to emphasize that he taught the doctrine of the one Person, who combined in Himself two distinct elements, Godhead and manhood-Nestorius explained that Jesus Christ, the person described in the gospels, was the “common prosompon,” the prosompon of union. The humanity had the form of Godhead bestowed upon it, and the divinity took upon itself the form of a servant: the result was the prosompon of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, one Person but with two natures. In view of this, Mary his mother was best described as Christotokos. While the strong point of Nestorianism is its attempt to do full justice to the manhood of Christ (a true Savior of men), its weak point is that it places the two natures alongside each other with little more than a moral and sympathetic union between them.

After the Council of Ephesus those Eastern bishops who could not accept the views of the majority gradually formed themselves into a separate Nestorian Church. Its center was in Persia, and a school of Nestorian theology developed under Ibas,* a friend of Nestorius, at Edessa. Later the center of Nestorian theology moved to Nisibis in the school founded there by Barsumas,* the pupil of Ibas. The ecclesiastical center and see of the (Nestorian) “Patriarch of the East” was at Seleucia-Ctesiphon on the Tigris until about 775, when it moved to Baghdad. Nestorians were active missionaries and founded communities in Arabia, India (Malabar Christians*), and Turkestan. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the Nestorian churches suffered badly in the Mongol invasions, but a remnant lived on in the mountains of Kurdistan. Today there still exist the “Assyrian Christians” who claim to be the continuation of the Nestorian Church. They still forbid the use of Theotokos, and they treat Nestorius as a saint.

J.F. Bethune-Baker, Nestorius and His Teaching (1908); F. Loofs, Nestorius and His Place in the History of Christian Doctrine (1914); A.R. Vine, The Nestorian Churches (1937); R.V. Sellers, Two Ancient Christologies (1940); A. Grant, History of the Nestorians (1955).