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Challenges to the Faith in Jesus Christ

Introductory Remarks

In the fifth century yet another extensive and complicated controversy developed over the person and nature of Jesus Christ. Named Nestorianism after its chief protagonist Nestorius, this heresy posed a grave danger to the Church since it seriously came to question the divinity of the historical person Jesus. Formerly a monk and a priest of the Church in Constantinople, Nestorius also ascended to the Episcopal throne, becoming Patriarch of that city in 428. In wanting to stress the humanity of Christ, Nestorius went to the opposite extreme of Apollinarius (analysed in the last issue of VEMA) and taught that in the person of Jesus Christ there were two natures and two persons. That is to say, unlike Apollinarianism which had denied the presence of a human soul in Christ and thereby failed to recognize Christ's full humanity, Nestorianism came to stress the humanity of Jesus Christ to such an extent that it ultimately failed to recognize the divinity of Jesus Christ.

As we shall see, Nestorius' theology came to be questioned by the Church as a whole when he tried to put as stop to the title 'Theotokos' being used for the Virgin Mary since this term was also a key word for the person of the incarnate Christ. For a long time, in popular piety the Virgin Mary was believed to be Theotokos or 'God-bearer'. However, Nestorius falsely claimed that it was more correct to say that the Virgin Mary gave birth to a mere man called Christ and so His mother could be called 'Anthropotokos' (bearer of a human being) or at best 'Christotokos' (Christ bearer). Reflecting back on this, one could say that Nestorius' Christology was one-sided since, in so far as it emphasized the distinction between the divine and human elements to such an extent it failed to account for the unity of Christ. And so the Church had to respond so as to safeguard not only the natural distinction in Christ but also to uphold the person unity.

Nestorius' position

Nestorius, as his former teacher Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428), wanted to highlight the fullness of the human aspect of the person of Christ. And so, in their writings they underscored the significance of the human soul in Christ, of Christ's ignorance and His real temptations (both physical and spiritual) especially at Gethsemane. Indeed at a time when the humanity of Christ was being seriously questioned in the person of Apollinarius, Nestorius was able to assert not only the fullness of Christ's humanity, but also to allude to a human will in Christ as well, something which St Maximus the Confessor, several centuries later would fight to uphold against all odds. In Christ they saw not only a victory of God but also a real triumph in Christ's human nature since, at every step of Christ's life, they maintained, Jesus chose voluntarily to obey God His Father. That such a concern to emphasize the humanity of the person of Jesus was important is without question, yet the problem arose in their articulation of the unity. Indeed, it could be said that whilst Nestorius' language concerning the distinction between the divine and the human in Christ was to be commended, the terms used to explain the unity was indeed weak and deficient.

Nestorius' main deficiency was his assertion that the unity between the divine and human in Christ was merely external. This basically meant that one could speak of the oneness of Christ only on an external level – that is in terms of honour, will, value (i.e. that both were equally valid) and rank. It was not enough to say that Christ simply shared in all the divine qualities of the Logos as if the union was merely a moral one since this would lead Nestorius to assert that Christ only progressively became god-like. That is to say, Nestorius believed that it was only after a gradual process of intensification that the union between Christ and the Logos was radically transformed. In regards to this issue, Nestorius wrote: "But although he [Christ] had all those things which appertain unto our nature, anger and concupiscence and thoughts, and although also they increased with the progress and increase of every age [in His life], he stood firm in thoughts of obedience." From this it is clear that Nestorius believed that Christ was ultimately divine only because he always obeyed the divine Word of God. And in believing the union in Christ to be purely external, ultimately led Nestorius to the erroneous belief that the historical person, Christ, was, ontologically speaking [i.e in His actual being] sinful even though He never sinned. That is to say, for Nestorius, the man Jesus was potentially sinful in precisely the same way that any other human being is said to be sinful, but that, in the case of Christ, He gradually overcame His sinfulness, through obedience, moral struggle and divine aid. In stating this however Nestorius went very close to admitting that Christ was sinful by not being able to declare his absolute sinlessness. Like Apollinarius, Nestorius was not able to understand that sinfulness, although a reality of the fallen human condition, did not go hand in hand with integral humanity as God had originally conceived and willed from all eternity.

The unity between the divine and human in Christ was further weakened and, in the end destroyed by Nestorius in his insistence that the Logos not only assumed a human nature but also a human person or hypostasis as well. For Nestorius, Jesus was the man to whom the Son of God (the Logos) subsequently joined himself. That is to say, he did not wish to identify Jesus Christ with the divine Logos of God. He believed that the Son of God assumed and joined (synapheia) with the Son of Mary. That is to say, the real unity in Christ was not secured by Nestorius since he was not able to speak of the one person (or hypostasis) of Christ. This led to the suggestion that the divinity and humanity of Christ were to be conceived ultimately as two persons. In this regard, Nestorius argued: "the essence of the likeness of God and the essence of the likeness of the servant remain in their hypostases [i.e. the person of the divine Logos and the different person of the human Christ]". From this, it is clear that Nestorius went so far as to say that the distinguishing features between what was human and divine in Christ were the separate hypostases (or two centres of activity), in this way implying another person alongside the Logos. And even when he did speak of 'two natures, one person' this formula was not understood in a proper manner. For him, the term 'one person' simply indicated the outward appearance of Jesus Christ who still had two natures and two prosopa – i.e. the Son of God and the Son of David were two distinct personal subjects. Nestorius' belief was contrary to the faith of the Church since, by 'person' the divine Son and Word of God who had become incarnate was not meant, but the unified activity of an alleged two persons (the divine Word and the person of the human nature) in Christ.

Church's Response

The Church was most concerned to stress the fact that the One who was born of the Virgin Mary was no other than the divine Son of God – the second person of the holy Trinity - in human flesh, something which Nestorius failed to perceive. For the fathers of the Church, the fullness of Christ's human nature was never questioned, yet, unlike Nestorius, they wanted to assert that it never existed in a separate human person because this would ultimately destroy its unity with the divine Word of God. And this would make Christ incapable of saving the world. Far from existing side by side or each having its own prosopon conjoined (synapheia) in an exterior or moral way, the two distinct natures were united in the one divine Logos of God. The man Jesus and the divine Word of God [the second person of the holy Trinity] were not joined together as two distinct entities forming a union since this could easily be misinterpreted as suggesting 'two sons'. That is to say, the person whom the Virgin Mary gave birth to was not merely a human person upon whom the Son of God came to be joined in a later stage, but was the very Son of God Himself. There could be no division between the Son of God begotten in eternally from God the Father and the Son of Man born in time from a human mother. And so it was not possible to speak of a 'connection' or 'conjunction' between God's Son and Mary's son since they were in fact one and the same person.

Furthermore, the Church rightly believed that the unity of the one undivided reality of the Word of God, who existed as one unique personal divine subject of both His divine and human natures, was safeguarded in the title 'Theotokos' given to the Virgin Mary. Indeed it was Nestorius' rejection of this term, in favour of Christotokos which gave rise to his dispute with the Church since the One who was born, crucified and resurrected was God, the divine Word of God. The title 'Theotokos' is a composite Greek word made up of the Greek words 'Theos' meaning God and the verb 'tikto' meaning 'to give birth to'. Therefore the title 'Theotokos' implies the one who gives birth to God. Both before and after this period, it was seen as a term central to the confession of the true Christian faith. The term was already in use for over two hundred years already employed by Origen (2nd century). In an even earlier statement, St Ignatius of Antioch had written: "Our God, Jesus Christ was conceived by Mary according to the economy." St Gregory the Theologian stated: "if anyone does not confess the Holy Virgin to be Theotokos, that person is estranged from God." It is clear that the Patristic tradition understood this appellation as possessing a precise Christological significance which safeguarded the personal unity in Jesus Christ.

And so, in so far as the person to which Mary gave birth was the Son of God, divine with exactly the same divinity as God the Father, she could subsequently be called Theotokos – that is the 'God-bearer' or the one who gives birth to God. By calling the Virgin Mary, Theotokos, the Church safeguarded and guaranteed the unity of Christ. In his second letter to Nestorius, St Cyril of Alexandria clearly indicated the position of the Church:
When the fathers dared to call the Holy Virgin Theotokos, they did not mean by this that the nature of the Word or His Godhead originated from the Holy Virgin.
Clearly for St Cyril, the term Theotokos in no way implied that the Virgin Mary gave birth to the eternal Godhead or the nature of the Godhead. Rather, just as a mother in general gives birth not to a 'faceless nature' but to a person so too the person that the Virgin Mary had given birth to was none other than the divine second person of the Holy Trinity and in this sense could be called 'God-bearer'. Nestorius' theological blunder was that he failed to understand that the personal subject in the incarnate Christ was always the divine Word of God. Therefore if the term 'Theotokos' were not accepted then there would be a danger of dividing the incarnate Christ into two personal subjects. And so, it was claimed that the title Theotokos was not an optional title of worship but a theological presupposition of true doctrine in Christ.

Concluding Remarks

In calling a council in Ephesus which came to be known as the 3rd Ecumenical Council in 431 to condemn Nestorianism, the Church had triumphed over this long and difficult dispute over the person of Christ. In calling the Virgin Mary 'Theotokos' the Church was able to affirm that it was God the Logos who was born of the Virgin and suffered on the cross. By no means did this mean however that it was the divine nature of the Son of God that was born or suffered on the cross. Rather it implied that that the person who was born in order to save the world was no mere human being, but God Himself incarnate. Yet as we shall see this was short lived since the Church was soon to be confronted with yet another Christological dispute which came to be known as Monophysitism (the heresy that Christ had only one nature). Did Christ have two natures which remained without confusion or was He simply from two natures? That is to say, did Jesus Christ remain in two natures or was He from two natures? It was this question which would give rise to the convocation of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 which dealt with this important matter and in so doing gave the Church once and for all a clear and comprehensive teaching on the person and nature of Jesus Christ. Indeed for the Orthodox Church, the Chalcedon articulation regarding the person and nature of Jesus Christ marked both the most important declaration of Patristic Christology and the final and binding Christological synthesis.


1. Strictly speaking the title 'Patriarch' was given to the bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch only after the 3rd Ecumenical Council which met in Ephesus to condemn Nestorius and his teaching in 431.
2. Indeed Nestorius' teacher, Theodore of Mopsuestia believed that Christ's spiritual conflicts would have been greater that his physical ones (cf De Incarnatione 15, 3).
3. Cf Demetrios Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 22-23.
4. Cf Demetrios Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ, 19.
5. Nestorius, Bazaar of Heracleides, 63.
6. For Nestorius and Theodore of Mopsuestia, the man Christ was not simply to be attributed as having the so called 'blameless passions' (adiableta pathe) such hunger, thirst, desire for sleep, tiredness, pain, sadness and agony, but sinful passions and therefore could be characterised as being sinful even if Christ had not actualised any sinful actions. Indeed the fifth Ecumenical Council held in Constantinople in 553 condemned in an outright manner the erroneous belief that: "Christ was troubled by the passions of the soul and the desires of human flesh, was gradually separated from that which is inferior, and became better by his progress in good works and faultless through his way of life… and.. became after the resurrection immutable in his thoughts and entirely without sin". (See Tanner (ed.), Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, i. 119, cited in Demetrios Bathrellos, The Byzantine Christ, 56).
7. Even though it has to be admitted that Nestorius could also speak of one person, the fact that he also spoke of two persons clearly made him guilty of the theory of two Sons. Besides by the formula 'two natures, one person' Nestorius did not mean the Logos of God.
8. Nestorius, Bazaar of Heracleides, 172.
9. For Nestorius, the term 'Christ' did not imply the divine Word of God but the person to which the Son of God joined himself.
10. Upon being enthroned Patriarch Nestorius wanted to rid the city of heresy. Ironically Nestorius supported his presbyter who preached a sermon on the Theotokos stating: "Let no one call Mary Theotokos, for Mary was but a woman and it was impossible that God should be born of a woman". (Cited in Georges Florovsky, The Byzantine Fathers of the Fifth Century, vol. 8 (Belmont: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1987), 216.
11. PG 67.812B.
12. To the Ephesians 18, 2.
13. Cited in Kallistos Ware, 'Mary Theotokos in the Orthodox Tradition', Epiphany Journal, 9.2(1989): 50.
14. Letter 4.7.
15. On this point Ware noted: "the key here to Cyril's standpoint is that he regards motherhood as a relationship between persons, not natures". Kallistos Ware, 'Mary Theotokos in the Orthodox Tradition', Epiphany Journal, 9.2(1989): 52. Florovsky also stated that "Christian thought moves always in the dimension of personalities not in the realm of general ideas. It apprehends the mystery of the Incarnation as a mystery of the Mother and Child". (Georges Florovsky, Creation and Redemption, Collected Works, vol. 3 (Massachusetts: Norland Publishing Company), 179).

Philip Kariatlis
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College

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