Nestorius and an Unholy Squabble About Christ (1)

Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.


Controversies are frequently present in the church of Christ because the church is called to fight the good fight of faith, also in defense of the truth of Scripture. But controversies are not pleasant, and sometimes they are very ugly.

It is not surprising that controversies are ugly, for they are fought by men who are sinners, even within the church of Christ. The redeeming element is usually that some who are engaged in it are defenders of the faith and are fighting that the truth of God may be preserved. One can overlook a great deal of individual wrong in controversy if it is clear that the truth is at stake and that men are fighting valiantly for it.

But once in a while it happens that the spectator to a controversy mutters to himself as he observes the battle: A plague on both your houses; and he turns away in disgust. Such a controversy took place in the fifth century in the Mediterranean world between a heretic by the name of Nestorius and a man who, although his views were vindicated at the time, was not himself as orthodox as one would have liked him to be. The latter's name was Cyril.

The controversy was over the doctrine of our Lord Jesus Christ. That's what makes it all so sad. It involved the doctrine of the incarnation of Christ, the truth of Him whom the Scriptures call Immanuel, God with us. And it was so violent, so unchristian in every sense, so brutal, so ugly, that it is difficult even to talk of it. When I was teaching Church History, I found this chapter to be one of the more distasteful.

And yet, the Lord used the controversy to bring the church nearer to the truth concerning the union of the divine and human natures of our Savior. The result of the controversy was the Chalcedonian Creed. (It might be a good idea if you would look it up and read it now. It can be found in the back of the Psalter used in the PRC.)

The Problem in the Church

You will recall that, in our last article, I mentioned the fact that the church was having a most difficult time in defining precisely who Christ is. In 325, at the great council of Nicea, the church had emphatically confessed the doctrine of the Trinity, and that doctrine especially as it was connected to the absolute divinity of Christ. Christ Jesus our Savior is, in the memorable words of that creed, "very God of very God."

But, although the church readily acknowledged that Christ was also a man "like us in all things, except our sin," no one was prepared to say precisely in what way Christ was also a man. And, granted now that He was indeed a man, what was the relation between His divinity and His humanity? These were vexing questions.

Apollinaris had given an answer by which he attempted to answer both questions. He had concluded, under the influence of Graeco-Roman philosophy, that the divine Logos had taken the place of the human soul in the man Jesus Christ. But the church told him, flat out, that he was wrong and that he would be branded a heretic if he insisted on his position. He was wrong, so said the great Athana—sius, because Christ had to have a human soul in order to save us in both body and soul. Apollinaris would not admit his wrong; he was branded a heretic.

But the questions remained.

The story of Nestorius is the story of two other attempts to answer the question — and the story of the final answer which the church gave.

The Early Life of Nestorius

Nestorius' life was like a brilliant comet which flashes briefly across the sky and very quickly disappears from view.

He was born in Germanicia in the early part of the 400s. Germanicia is in Syria on the northeast coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Its most important city is Antioch, the city from which Paul the apostle set sail on his missionary journeys. And so it was to Antioch that Nestorius went for his education. While attending school and in his early post-graduate years, he lived in a cloister hard by the walls of the city. In thecloister he learned about and learned to love the ascetic life.

Nestorius was a man of considerable ability. He not only found it relatively easy to master his subjects, but after his schooling he showed a vast theological learning and a sound and practical judgment which set him apart from many others. These gifts soon came to the attention of the leaders in the church, and he was ordained a presbyter in the church at Antioch. In that church he practiced a rigid austerity, in keeping with his love of the ascetic life, and he became a fervent and powerful preacher, whose oratory attracted hundreds. He became accustomed to preaching to a church crowded with people.

Such a man soon drew wider attention to himself, and it was not long before the emperor took notice of him. The patriarchate of Constantinople fell vacant. The emperor was responsible for filling the post.

To appreciate fully what happened next, one must understand the importance of Constantinople. It was a city on the Bosporus (you can find it on a map under the name of Istanbul) which occupied a strategic position because it was the western side of the door that separated Asia on the eastern side and Europe on the western side. Constantinople had received its name from Constantine the Great who, when he became ruler of the Roman Empire, moved the capitol of the empire from Rome to this city on the Bosporus. Because it was so closely associated with the center of political power, the church in Constantinople grew rapidly in importance as well, especially when the emperors were devoted to the task of supporting the church and, when possible, ruling it. Constantinople, as a result, became the most important church in the eastern part of the Mediterranean world and was rivaled only by Rome itself.

The patriarch of Constantinople was the most important man in the Eastern church, the equal in the East to the pope, who was bishop of Rome. In fact, the two tended to squabble a great deal over who was really ruler of whom. Both wanted the top spot. The controversy continued till 1043 when the church split between east and west. The patriarch of Constantinople was in a position to influence all ecclesiastical affairs; he was able to influence the emperor himself and give him counsel and advice on how best to rule in church and state; he was, under the emperor, the most powerful man in Asia.

It is some measure of the high reputation of Nestorius that the emperor passed over the leading clerics in Constantinople and chose Nestorius to be the new patriarch. The year was 428. Nestorius could not have been much more than 25 years old.


Once again a little background information is important to understand events.

As I said at the beginning of this article, the church was embroiled in controversy over the relation between the human and divine natures of our Lord Jesus Christ. But one complicating element in the controversy was the use of a rather strange term: theotokos. That term was applied to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and means, literally, "God-bearer," or, less literally, "mother of God." Mary was theotokos, the mother of God.

This term, whatever one may think of it as an accurate description of Mary, had originated among the monks, especially in Egypt, who were already deeply involved in the worship of Mary. They thought the term important to preserve the divinity of Christ, and they made common use of it to express their devotion to Christ and to Mary. So common had the expression become, especially in Egypt, that it had entered the devotional life of the members of the church, and it had become a part of the liturgical rituals of the clergy.

But there were many who did not like the term, refused to use it, and sometimes fought vehemently against its use in the churches. They complained that it was not biblical, that it did not accurately express Mary's relation to Christ, and that it was, in fact, a dangerous term which could easily leave the impression not only that God Himself was born from the virgin, but also that God Himself suffered and died on the cross. One can sense the force of these objections.

The differences over the use of theotokos were also present in Constantinople at the time Nestorius moved from Antioch to take over this prestigious post.

Something happened to Nestorius when he received this appointment from the emperor. I think what happened was something latent in Nestorius' character which did not have opportunity to come to expression until he had the reins of power in his hands. But from the very day he assumed his duties he became a proud and arrogant man who was a religious fanatic of the worst sort. He seemed to think that God had appointed him to be patriarch of Constanti—nople for no other reason than that he might be God's sole avenging angel against every solitary heresy that appeared on the horizon.

From day one Nestorius moved with intolerant zeal and bigotry against every little sect that had a corner in the teeming mass of people who inhabited the imperial city. On day five after his inauguration he ordered burned down a small Arian church in a poor quarter of the city. I suppose a zeal against heresy can be approved, but the methods which Nestorius used were harsh and cruel even by the standards of his day. Condemnation was not enough. The heretics had to be run out of the city or destroyed. Their property had to be confiscated and their voice silenced. Nestorius began to deliver impassioned speeches against heresy, which roused the people to fury until riots became everyday occurrences in the city and blood began to be spilled.

What makes his frenzy and inordinate zeal all the more distasteful is the fact that when the Western church condemned Coelestius and Julian of Eclunum for the heresy of Pelagianism, and when these two men fled to Constantinople, Nestorius was the one who was tolerant of their view and supported them in their heresy of the free-will of man. He was even willing to appeal to the pope on their behalf in an effort to get their condemnation undone. "Consistency, thou art a jewel."

One other "heresy" he could not abide. He hated the term theotokos. The use of that term was, to Nestorius, the greatest of all heresies.

The stage was set for great trouble.

We must save the rest of the story till next time.