April 10

428

Nestorius becomes Patriarch of Constantinople

Nestorius (c. 386-c. 450) was a leading Christian theologian at a time when the defining of Christ’s nature became a blood sport in the eastern Roman church. He reached the pinnacle of being named to the see of the empire’s capital and then was branded a heretic, deposed, and exiled.

Born in Asia Minor and educated in Syria, Nestorius attracted the attention of Emperor Theodosius II (founder of the University of Constantinople and builder of the city’s great land walls) who named him archbishop. His appointment was resented by many local clergy and his writings on the human/divine nature of Jesus drew criticism. Nestorius, for example, was uncomfortable with the notion of the Virgin Mary being called Theotokos — “God-Bearer”; for him Jesus had not been born a god, but a man. He preferred the term Christokos, “Christ-Bearer”. To his opponents, led by Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria, this seemed to deny the hypostatic union of humanity and divinity and to posit a dual, separate set of natures. Worse, it seemed to imply that the human aspect predominated. Cyril, rather a nasty character in many ways and not one to back down from using violence, wrote this rather measured admonition to Nestorius:

We, therefore, confess one Christ and Lord, not as worshipping. a man with the Word (lest this expression “with the Word” should suggest to the mind the idea of division), but worshipping him as one and the same, forasmuch as the body of the Word, with which he sits with the Father, is not separated from the Word himself, not as if two sons were sitting with him, but one by the union with the flesh. If, however, we reject the personal union as impossible or unbecoming, we fall into the error of speaking of two sons, for it will be necessary to distinguish, and to say, that he who was properly man was honoured with the appellation of Son, and that he who is properly the Word of God, has by nature both the name and the reality of Sonship. We must not, therefore, divide the one Lord Jesus Christ into two Sons. Neither will it at all avail to a sound faith to hold, as some do, an union of persons; for the Scripture has not said that the Word united to himself the person of man, butthat he was made flesh. This expression, however, “the Word was made flesh,” can mean nothing else but that he partook of flesh and blood like to us; he made our body his own, and came forth man from a woman, not casting off his existence as God, or his generation of God the Father, but even in taking to himself flesh remaining what he was. This the declaration of the correct faith proclaims everywhere. This was the sentiment of the holy Fathers; therefore they ventured to call the holy Virgin, the Mother of God, not as if the nature of the Word or his divinity had its beginning from the holy Virgin, but because of her was born that holy body with a rational soul, to which the Word being personally united is said to be born according to the flesh.

Nestorius would repudiate the hostile characterizations of his teachings, but the 431 First Council of Ephesus (held in the city with a near-maniacal devotion to the Virgin, who was said to have spent her final years there) condemned Nestorius as a heretic and ordered him deposed. After much more theological wrangling and imperial maneuvering, Nestorius was exiled to a remote monastery far up the Nile where he eventually died.

After the Council of Ephesus, an episcopal cleansing took place, driving out many of the bishops who had supported Nestorius. Some of these men migrated out of the Roman sphere into the Persian empire where they established the Church in the East. For almost a thousand years this church took Christianity throughout Asia and as far as China, before it was eventually wiped out by Tamerlane’s Muslim hordes. Today, the veneration of Nestorius continues in some churches in Syria and Iraq, now sadly under Islamic attack again.

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