Early Christian History

Controversies: Nestorianism

The Nestorian Controversy was one of several significant eastern schisms, one which had a lasting effect on eastern Christianity as a whole. Like many of the important, early controversies, western Christendom was not involved in it and remained mostly unaware of it, until it presented itself to them much later, and in a startling manner.

Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople

Patriarch Nestorius was a respected cleric and hierarch who had come, originally, from Syria; he retained strong ties to that region even after his elevation. This kept him somewhat detached from most of what was going on around him in what was, then, the “center” of Christianity. In short order he managed to turn a fine-pointed doctrinal debate into a struggle over the makeup of the Church itself.

At the time of his elevation in 428, Mary was increasingly known by the epithet θεοτοκος (theotokos), meaning “Mother of God”. Rather early in his tenure, Nestorius appears to have taken offense at this and refused to use this title. He used, instead, the epithet ξριστοκος (christokos), meaning “Mother of Christ.” Nestorius believed that theotokos compromised Jesus’ divinity; asserting that God had been born of a woman made God the equivalent of a human being.

His opponents, mainly led by Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, objected, claiming that — by doing this — Nestorius created a false distinction between Jesus the man and Jesus the divine. In other words, they concluded, Nestorius was dividing Jesus into two beings.

This christological debate became rather heated, and bishops adhering to either side tried to jockey into position against the other. Some were driven out of office, where they were (locally at least) in the minority. A good deal of hierarchical wrangling took place, and it threatened to make a bad situation even worse.

The Council of Ephesus

Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II invoked a council to be held at Ephesus in 431. He supported Nestorius but became increasingly concerned about the controversy. Before the delegation from Syria — Nestorius’ main supporters, naturally — Cyril took charge. He used anti-Imperial sentiment among the assembled bishops to convince them to denounce the Emperor’s “pet”; they did so.

Faced with the vehemence of the bishops, Theodosius changed his tune; he withdrew his support for Nestorius and removed him from office. He further pressured Nestorius’ supporters into changing their teachings or resigning. Ultimately, Nestorius’ chief supporter, John Patriarch of Antioch, caved in and renounced Nestorius.

Eventually, Nestorius was exiled to an religious community by an oasis in Egypt, and fell out of memory. The vast majority of the eastern Church had denounced him as a heretic; but the Syrian Church had not, and never would. The Syriac Church’s Nestorian teachings would, however, be later modified by another respected Syrian cleric, Babai the Great, to something much closer to the “conventional” christology of the east.

Assyrian Church of the East

Although it had veered back, doctrinally, toward prevailing eastern Christianity, the Syriac Church would never be integrated into it again. It remained apart — as, for example, the Armenian Church had — and had a life all its own.

The Assyrian Church of the East (as it came to be known) developed a certain missionary zeal. It also became a haven for the few Nestorians and other assorted outcast Christians who’d lived to the west, especially in and around Constantinople. Assyrian missionaries traveled through Persia, penetrated central Asia, and eventually reached China and even Korea by the 8th century!

Marco Polo wrote that there were “Nestorian” churches in China and other parts of Asia, which western Christians found rather astounding. (In this case the term Nestorian is a misnomer, since as noted, the Assyrian Church’s christology had changed after Nestorius’s time.)

Christology Strikes Again!

The Nestorian schism is yet another example of a christology-oriented conflict. As with the Samosatene/Arian and Monophysite controversies, it’s obvious that understanding the nature of Christ proved extremely difficult. Time and again we see that those who attempt to understand christology, invariably run up against the notions of others.

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