The early centuries of Christianity have seen no small number of Christological controversies and the early 5th century was no exception. Just before 431, a lowly Syrian monk by the name of Nestorius came to power in Constantinople, succeeding Sisinnius. The Syrian churches were known for being a little cavalier in their thinking during that day, but Nestorius had a friend, John of Antioch, who recommended him to the office. Nestorius had a strong liking for the teachings of Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia (who in the Syrian and Antiochene early Christian world held Bono and Edge status as theologians). When Nestorius came to power he began to immediately take action against a perceived decline of traditional monasticism and continued to burn the remains of the Arian heresy, literally. However, the flames from the burning of Arian churches scorched more than just the Arians and their churches, it scorched the local economy of Constantinople and prompted an unsettling among the populace which in turn angered political leaders and soldiers. Nestorius found almost immediate opposition from local bishops as well in the manner in which he was taking action and the rhetoric which in Syria was much different than the other parts of the Christian world. Eventually, Nestorius began to squelch the language of speaking of Mary as the “Mother of God” (Gk. theotokos) because he saw the person of Jesus Christ as being constituted by two persons, divine person (The Logos) indwelling the human person (Jesus), which could not mix at all because of the nature of the two and Mary was simply the mother of the human son of man and not the divine son of God, the Logos (“If Mary is not ‘strictly speaking’ the mother of God, than Jesus is not ‘strictly speaking’ God.” John McGuckin, trans. ‘On the Unity of Christ’ by Cyril of Alexandria). Almost immediately, in addition to local opposition the patriarch of Alexandria, Cyril, began writing treatises questioning his doctrine and condemning the propagation of an alternate gospel which promoted a God who did not in fact experience the incarnation. Cyril famously promoted the true Gospel passed down from the fathers before him and at the Council of Ephesus in 431 Nestorius would be condemned, though, technically excommunicated even before the council and finished off with several synods afterward just to be sure. Even the Syrian churches as a whole were put into question and eventually would leave the imperial territory to form a separate Nestorian (Assyrian) Church. Cyril died defending the person of Christ in that the divine and human natures of Christ are as closely tied to one another as the concept of soul and body in humanity. Orthodoxy won the day, the Hypostatic Union Model was used, and the language of “Mother of God” was solidified all the more. Though, even upon all that Cyril did to promote sound doctrine the new heresy of Monophysitism would emerge upon his death and the Syrian churches would continue to struggle with bad theological conclusions while promoting good theological questions.
Today, in contemporary evangelicalism, there is the tendency to individualize our theology to the point that our own understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ (Christology) is relegated to our subjective liberties while the great theological heritage from Paul to Athenasius to Cyril of Alexandria to Thomas Aquinas to John Calvin to Martin Luther to Jonathan Edwards to Karl Barth to the present pass by the wayside perhaps even in some seminaries as in many churches. The debate of the roles of scripture and tradition is not one that I will be getting into here. I will say that we are for one, truly blessed that despite our insufficiency in understanding fully the great work of redemption and the all the details found in scripture, as Christians, we are still ‘saved by grace through faith.’ One doesn’t have to be a scholar of theology or ancient languages to hear the Gospel. Now, despite our sharing in a special feeling right now in who we are in Christ, there are some theological pitfalls that should be avoided and the neglect of doing so could be the difference in worshipping the God as revealed in Christ and scripture, or worshipping a false god that is inappropriately applied to the God of the Bible in utter ignorance. Now, to agree with Tillich, I will say it is true that words fall short of the glory of God as does our concept of who God is within our own minds. However, we do trust that God has faithfully brought his revelation to us through the scriptures and that the Holy Spirit provides us with the ability to grasp many difficult theological concepts despite not knowing all the ins and outs of theology.
To bring this meandering back to Nestorius, I apologize, I will say that there are many Christians today who say they believe in the God who is revealed in the Bible, but in fact, many Christians fail to do some basic theology and wind up holding heretical views of Jesus Christ, the Trinity, the Father, the Holy Spirit, revelation, or even the church. There is some flexibility with some issues I realize, but if you do not believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation, than you are not in fact a Christian. If you believe that Jesus became God in some way, you are heretical. If you believe that Jesus was more of a man than God, you are heretical. If you believe Jesus was more God than man, you are heretical. If you believe, as Nestorius did, that the person and work of Christ are so distinct that the supernatural is completely a part of the divine nature and the weeping, mourning, thirsting, and suffering are a part of the human nature alone, you are heretical. When I say heretical, I am not making an appeal to my own judgement on what is heresy and what is not, I appeal first to revelation in God’s word as well as to the decisions of the early councils of Christianity which were held to not develop, but to keep the orthodox Christian beliefs which had come to them from earlier saints. Nestorius believed that Mary was not the mother of God, but mother of Jesus of Nazareth. That is to say that Jesus was not God, and that’s a big problem. Then, Nestorius claimed that the eternal Logos testified to in John 1 existed in some sense outside of Jesus because when Jesus died it was merely the human nature and not the Logos which was preexistent. Jesus was fully God and fully man, 100 %. The natures of Christ are ways of understanding the person and work of Christ, but if we aren’t careful they can create a different Christ as Nestorius did.
Okay, yeah, so, who cares about any of this and what does it have to do with us today?
I hate this question with a passion. People who ask this typically can be described as super-individualistic modern Christians who want the Bible and all of history to speak to them today where they are, and completely neglects what the Bible and history say altogether as secular morality and life lessons are put in place of the facts. Application is important, don’t get me wrong, but if there is nothing being applied than we need to ask what the heck we are doing to begin with.
Soap-box aside, Paul lived his life with a foundation that was not set upon money, fame, popularity, politics, etc., but his foundation was upon Christ alone. His entire life after his experience on the Damascus road was based upon the person and work of Jesus Christ as the one and only true God-man. Paul sought passionately to pursue his high calling to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles not by thinking about himself all the time and how the Law and Prophets apply to his own experience as Paul, but by thinking critically about his faith in Jesus Christ and seeking understanding for the sake of serving the church and fulfilling the mission to which God had called him. There is great importance to seeking understanding for the faith we’ve been given as there is also great importance to not teach false doctrine, the Bible speaks prominently on the importance of sound doctrine. How do we develop sound doctrine without studying God’s word, doing theology, studying the history of the church, exercising the spiritual disciplines, and submitting ourselves to our brothers and sisters in Christ in the church? We don’t.
Today, many believe that modern Western evangelical Christianity has become nothing more than “moral therapeutic deism.” The problem here is that historic orthodox Christ-centered Christianity has been abandoned for general life-principles, a lack of church discipline, preaching for “itching ears” as Paul says, and Christianity has been fashioned into a form of religion that is suitable for the Western individualistic lifestyle as opposed to Christians submitting themselves to God’s word. Many today believe that Jesus was a great person, but he wasn’t God. Many believe Jesus was a great prophet equipped with top-notch moral guidance, but he was not the Lord and Savior that we need for our salvation. Many today believe that Jesus was not God, and there is a danger in how we describe the person and work of Jesus. We have a tendency today to distinguish between the dual natures of Jesus to the point that we can commit a similar fallacy that Nestorius committed and that is to see the divine nature of Jesus as God and the supernatural aspects of Jesus’ life as being the focus of our gaze upon Jesus while the humanity of Jesus is discarded or discredited. Cyril is viewed as a theological bully in a sense today by many due to some of his actions, but the defense of the tradition passed down from Athenasius is something that is too often overlooked today. Christians whether being in the academy or the church are called to a mutual task. That task is nurtured by faith and reason in the attempt to understand the great faith that we have in the God revealed in scripture while not forgetting those who have tried to understand our faith before us. The life of faith is not merely about the present which is being caught in the tension of the already/not yet in regards to the Kingdom of God, but it is about seeing God’s faithfulness in the past and promises for the future which give us confidence to live under his grace by faith in the present (See “The God of Promise & The Life of Faith” by Scott Hafemann for more). This applies to studying the tradition of our great faith as well. When we want to learn about Christ we go to the Gospels and epistles, correct? Yet, when we arrive in the Gospels and epistles, we find that there is a lot about the Law and Prophets. So much in fact that the entire New Testament could arguably be a commentary on the Old Testament. Therefore, we need to know and study the Old Testament in order to understand the New Testament. Similarly, we need to study the New Testament in order to understand the Old Testament better. They complement one another and that is part of the reason they have been compiled into the same book or canon. It is in this way that when we want to understand Christ better, we not only look to what we can understand from reading God’s word, but we look to what those saints of old have said and thought about the very same questions that we struggle with in this day and age.
“But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.” – Apostle Paul, Titus 2:1 (For more on the importance of doctrine and hence, theology and church history, see Eph. 4:14; 1 Tim. 1:3, 4:6, 6:3; Ti. 1:9; Heb. 6:1)
“What he was by nature, we become by grace.” – Cyril of Alexandria
“The greatest dangers to evangelical faith, I believe, lie as much in what we do know as in what we don’t. They lie not only in the doctrinal fog represented on many a church pew each Sunday but also in the great truths of Christian faith which are professed on those same pews but which, nonetheless, now lie dormant.” – David Wells, Prof. Emeritus of Theology Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, http://www.theologymatters.com/MARAPR98.PDF
grace and peace,
Much of the content on Nestorius and Cyril comes from the book in the Popular Patristics Series from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, ‘On the Unity of Christ’ by Cyril of Alexandria, translated by John McGuckin.
Hypostatic Union Model – The belief promoted in the early church essentially by Athenasius and then by Cyril that the two natures of Jesus Christ, divine and human, co-existed substantively and in the one person Jesus Christ. (See theopedia.org)
Council of Ephesus, 431 – This is one of the chief ecumenical councils of early Christianity, and the third council. Over 200 bishops were present from various churches around the Mediterranean region and Theodosius II presided over the council. The basic agenda was Nestorianism and Nestorius which were declared heretical because his views departed from the early faith of the church, separated the natures of Christ into persons, denied Mary as God-bearer (‘theotokos’), and ultimately denied the divinity of the person of Jesus. Pelagianism was also condemned and the Nicene Creed fashioned from the previous two councils was declared complete. (See theopedia.org)
Nestorian (Assyrian) Church – For more on this church which has been declared heretical by the early Western church in Rome and the Eastern church based in Constantinople (Istanbul), visit http://www.nestorian.org/.
Arianism – Heresy which denies the divinity of Christ. (See theopedia.org)
Monophysitism – Heresy for declaring Christ to have only one nature as opposed to two. Eutychianism and Apollinarianism both fall under this broader category and were major heresies in early Christianity.
For more about the importance of theology... a good start can be found online for free at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary page on iTunes U, search for David Wells on why theology matters for a brief and excellent mini-lecture. Also, for more on the church fathers there is a free website with many writings from the early church at ccel.org. I recommend beginning with the Apostolic Fathers first for those who are new to reading the church fathers or church history. John Calvin’s ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’ can also be found at this same site and is a great read, though the translation is a bit dated and can be tedious to read. Finally, I recommend the book, “The God of Promise & The Life of Faith” by Scott Hafemann. He has some great insight on faith and how theology is a part of our everyday lives. For quick answers to theological questions, purchase a pocket dictionary of theological terms or visit theopedia.com.