Nestorianism Heresy and Controversy Explained | Church History

The fifth century is inundated with numerous theological controversies which left the Church in schisms persisting to this very day. Despite being a tragic century in this sense, it included numerous figures who upheld the Orthodox faith.

With the dawn of the fifth century, a new patriarch named Nestorius rose to the patriarchal throne of Constantinople after John Chrysostom had died in exile. Like Chrysostom, Nestorius was a committed disciple of the school of Antioch and its leader Theodore of Mopsuestia. In contrast to the school of Alexandria, the school of Antioch emphasized the paradoxical contrast between the divinity and humanity in the person of Christ. The school of Alexandria, however, emphasized the unity of Christ’s being and did not focus on the distinction between His humanity and divinity. Nestorius used the rationale of his school to form a new opinion by which he rejected the title Theotokos or Mother of God and preferred to call Mary Christotokos – Mother of Christ. This was based on the proposition that Mary gave birth to an ordinary man, who later became conjugated with the Logos or the Word of God. This claim was based on the school of Antioch’s teachings. The claim that ‘Mary was the mother of Christ or Man’ was met with resistance by the people of Constantinople. Cyril of Alexandria, the nephew and successor of Theophilus, who excommunicated John Chrysostom, the predecessor of Nestorius, was displeased with this and began exchanging letters with Nestorius.

When the exchange of letters failed to end the controversy, Emperor Theodosius II convened a council of 200 bishops in Ephesus in 431. The council took place during the papacy of Pope Celestine of Rome and his deacon Leo (who would later become the Pope of Rome during the time of the Council of Chalcedon). Neither Pope Celestine nor his deacon Leo were present at the council but Pope Celestine rather sent delegates on his behalf. Alexandria’s representatives were Cyril and his deacon Dioscorus. From Constantinople, Nestorius was present with his bishops. His supporters from Antioch, headed by John of Antioch, arrived late to the council so that the council began its sessions prior to their arrival. The council consisted of seven sessions that ran from June 22 until July 31. The council condemned the heresy of Nestorius and upheld the orthodoxy of the title Theotokos espoused by Cyril. Nestorius was exiled, deposed from his office, and replaced with Flavian of Constantinople.

Cyril’s theology was predicated upon the unity of Christ. Cyril conceived of one composite incarnate nature of God the Word, meaning one subject and one hypostasis after the incarnation. Cyril used the terms nature and hypostasis interchangeably as did Alexandrians and some Antiochians. To Cyril, Christ’s oneness does not compromise the distinction of the divinity and humanity though this distinction is in contemplation alone

This language which Cyril employed along with the fact that the council began prior to the arrival of the Antiochene party caused the Church of Antioch to impeach communion with the Church of Alexandria. When a schism was clearly emerging, Cyril of Alexandria approached John of Antioch to reunite and composed a formula of reunion which ended the schism between the two churches. The formula of reunion allowed the Antiochians to use the two-nature language instead of the one-nature language initially adopted by Cyril and the Alexandrians though only if it is accompanied by sufficient qualifications that preserve the unity. As John McGukin puts it,

“[Cyril] had no intention of using such language [i.e. dyophysite language] himself, and in the letter to Eulogius and that The Christ Is One, he says explicitly that he regarded their whole way of thinking and arguing as obscure.

He admitted that dyophyiste terms could be orthodox on two grounds. The first was that the natures in question mean natural properties not independent subject entities, and therefore one was talking about states, or conditions, not persons. The second was that their continuing co-existence should be radically qualified by sufficient indications that these two realities had actually been united, made one, were inseparable in mutual communion, or only nominally separable (like body and soul) not practically divisible.

[Cyril] seems to have reassured them [i.e. Cyrillian party] on the basis that it was a concession to be understood in terms of his previous teaching, not as an amendment of it.”

As such, it became clear that the decrees of the council and the formula of reunion were to be always paired together to formulate the christology of the Church. The tension between the one and two nature (physis) formulations continued to persist especially with extremists at both ends of the spectrum. An example of this is Eutyches, a Constantinopolitan Archimandrite, with minimal theological training who planted the seeds of a church schism that last to this very day.