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Nestorius (386 - 451) was Patriarch of Constantinople (April 10, 428 - June 22, 431). He received his clerical training as a pupil of Theodore of Mopsuestia in Antioch and gained a reputation for his sermons that led to his enthronement by Theodosius II as Patriarch following the death of Sisinius I in 428 C.E. Nestorius is considered to be the originator of the Christological heresy known as Nestorianism, which emerged when he began preaching against the new title Theotokos or Mother of God.

Born in Euphratesian Syria 31 years after Theodore of Mopsuestia (c.381), Nestorius was destined to have his name permanently linked with the great mepasqana because of his Dyophysite pronouncements and the adoption by the faculties of Edessa and Nisibis of his and Theodore's polemics and commentaries. Together, Theodore and Nestorius served as the wellsprings of the two Mesopotamian schools that carried the banner of Nestorianism.

Nestorius used his position as bishop of Constantinople (428) to preach against the title Theotokos, "Mother of God," that was given to the Virgin Mary. He claimed a more authentic title should be the Mother of Christ. This doctrine was challenged by Cyril of Alexandria and, later, Pope Celestine, who anathematized Nestorius and condemned him as a heretic at the Council of Ephesus in 431.

Although much of Nestorius's sermons and teachings were ordered to be burned, the doctrine of Nestorianism survived and served as the basis for Dyophysite teachings in the fifth and sixth centuries, particularly at Nisibis, which had inherited the mantle of Syrian scholarship from Edessa. Fragments of Nestorius's letters and sermons have been preserved in works such as:

  • The Acts of the Council of Ephesus
  • Citations in the works of Cyril of Alexandria (Nestorius's creedal adversary)
  • The interpolated Syriac text, The Bazaar of Heracleides, an apology, written near the end of his life (c. 436).

The Christological thought of Nestorius is dominated by Cappadocian theology and is influenced by Stoic philosophy. Although Nestorius never spoke of the human Jesus and the divine Jesus as "two sons," he did not consider him simply as a man. However, differing from Cyril of Alexandria, who posited one sole nature (mia physis) in Christ, Nestorius defined a nature in the sense of ousia, "substance," and distinguished precisely between the human nature and the divine nature, applying in his Christology the distinction between nature (ousia) and person (hypostasis). Nestorius refused to attribute to the divine nature the human acts and sufferings of Jesus. This last statement underlines the ultimate difference between Nestorius and Cyril. Nestorius distinguished between the logos (the "divine nature") and Christ (the Son, the Lord), which he saw as a result of the union of the divine nature and the human nature.

After the Council of Ephesus, a strong Nestorian party developed in eastern Syria that found its strength and intellectual support in the School of Edessa. After the theological peace achieved in the agreement of 433 between Cyril of Alexandria and John of Antioch, a number of dissenting bishops affiliated themselves with the Syrian Church of Persia, which officially adopted Nestorianism at the Synod of Seleucia in 486. The Nestorians were expelled from Edessa in 489 by the Emperor Zeno and emigrated to Persia. It was thus that the Nestorian Church broke away from the faith of the Church of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire.

The Nestorian spirit was redoubtable. Secured in the Persian Church, it continued to flourish in the seventh century despite persecution from the Sassanids, and after the invasions of the Turks and Mongols. Nowhere is its intellectual vibrancy and spirit more apparent than in its theological school, Nisibis, the successor to Edessa. It is here where our narrative leads, and the explication of the environment that produced Paul's Dyophysite text and Junillus's Instituta Regularia Divinae Legis begins.

Nestorius and His Theological Influences

Nestorius was elected Patriarch of Constantinople in 428, possibly because he was a popular preacher. Prior to his election, he had been a relatively obscure priest. Upon election to his new position, he embarked on a campaign of persecution against Arians and other heretics.

He had been influenced by the Christology of Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia, under whom he probably studied. Diodore and Theodore were considered orthodox during their lifetime, but came under suspicion during the Christological controversies of the fifth century.

  • Diodore presented Christ as having two natures, human and divine; the divine Logos indwelt the human body of Jesus in the womb of Mary, so that the human Jesus was the subject of Christ's suffering, thus protecting the full divinity of the Logos from any hint of diminishment.
  • Theodore, the father of Antiochene theology, taught two clearly defined natures of Christ: the assumed Man, perfect and complete in his humanity, and the Logos, consubstantial with the Father, perfect and complete in his divinity, the two natures (physis) being united by God in one person (prosopon). Theodore maintained that the unity of human and divine in Jesus did not produce a "mixture" of two persons, but an equality in which each was left whole and intact.

The Syriac Fathers (including Diodore, Theodore, and Nestorius) used the Syriac word kyana to describe the human and divine natures of Christ; in an abstract, universal sense, this term embraces all the elements of the members of a certain species, but it can also have a real, concrete and individual sense, called qnoma, which is not the person, but the concretized kyana, the real, existing nature.

The Greek word prosopon (person) occurs as a loan word parsopa in Syriac; thus, the Syriac Christological formula was "Two real kyana united in a single parsopa, in sublime and indefectable union without confusion or change."

Whereas Antioch taught that Christ had two natures (dyophysitism), Alexandria interpreted their position as teaching that he had two persons (dyhypostatism). Whereas the Syriac Fathers were willing to leave the union of Christ's humanity and divinity in the realm of mystery, the Alexandrians sought a clear-cut doctrine that would guard the church against heresy.

The Teaching of Nestorius

At the time, Theotokos ("bearer/mother of God") was a popular term in the Western Church (including Constantinople) used to refer to the Virgin Mary, but it was not used in Antioch. Nestorius maintained that Mary should be called Christotokos ("bearer/mother of Christ"), not Theotokos, since he considered the former to more accurately represent Mary's relationship to Jesus.

Nestorius promoted a form of dyophysitism, speaking of two natures in Christ (one divine and one human), but he was not clear in his use of theological terms. Nestorius spoke of Christ as "true God by nature and true man by nature... The person [parsopa] is one... There are not two Gods the Words, or two Sons, or two Only-begottens, but one." Alexandria understand him to mean that the second person of the Trinity was actually two persons: the man Jesus who was born, suffered and died and the divine Logos, eternal and unbegotten. Part of the problem lay in his use of the Greek word prosopon (Syriac parsopa) for "person"; this word was weaker in meaning than hypostasis, the word used by his opponents. At no time did he deny Christ's deity; he merely insisted that it be clearly distinguished from his humanity.



Assyrian Church of the East

Nasrani Nestorian Church of the East

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