Christologies in Conflict: Cyril and Nestorius

Rendition of the Council of Ephesus

Rendition of the Council of Ephesus

The Christological controversies of the early Church are some of the most interesting and historically confusing events within the Christian tradition. The four great Councils of the fourth and fifth centuries and the writings of Early Christian leaders, both orthodox and heterodox, provide scholars with a wealth of information concerning the controversies concerning early belief concerning the person of Jesus Christ. At the Council of Ephesus (of which there were actually two) in 431 AD, the theologies of Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius of Constantinople squared off concerning the person of Christ, whether there were two distinct persons of Logos and man within the incarnate Christ, or if the persons were somehow joined in a union.[1]

Cyril [2] was the patriarch of Alexandria, and stood firmly in the tradition of St. Athanasius. His life’s work was opposition to the theology of Nestorius, though ultimately his work was “the most brilliant representative of the Alexandrian theological tradition, [as] he put into systematic from, on the basis of the teaching of St. Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers, the classical Greek doctrines of the Trinity and of the Person of Christ.”[3] Cyril however was involved in a great deal of theological politicking,[4] and his love of conflict, along with the rivalry of Alexandria and Antioch made the theological considerations of Nestorius a prime opportunity for contest.[5] Cyril was for a time deposed by both the Antiochene Bishop’s meeting at Ephesus in 431 AD, as well as imprisoned by Emperor Theodosius II before being released to resume his duties. [6] Though viewed as the champion of orthodoxy against the heresies of the impious Nestorian heresy, recent scholarship has cast doubts on the character and motivation of Cyril’s theological impetus for arguing against the Nestorian interpretation of the person of Christ.

Nestorius

Nestorius

Nestorius was a student of Theodore of Mopsuestia, a theologian within the Antiochene tradition. He was appointed Bishop and Patriarch of Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius II and began an attempt to curb heresy and schism within the church.[7] Controversy began when Nestorius supported his chaplain Anastasius’ preaching against the use of the term theotokos (“God bearer”), viewing that as a form of Apolinariansim.[8] Indeed in his sermon against the theotokos, his primary concern seems to be with the preoccupation with Mary, as his main argument seemed to involve itself with the question “Does God have a mother?”[9] The Alexandrian rebuttal to this claim was that Nestorius was advocating a separation in the persons of the incarnate Christ, one divine and other human, making Christ one person with two distinct personas within him. Nestorius’ teaching was condemned in Rome by Pope Celestine in August 430, and thereafter Cyril issued sentence against his theology.[10] To resolve a matter that had quickly become empire wide, Emperor Theodosius II called a Church council at Ephesus. The council however met in two groups, one of which was comprised of an Alexandrian majority that condemned Nestorius, and another held with an Antiochene majority that condemned Cyril. However, by 436 AD, Nestorius had been permanently exiled to the Upper Nile region of Egypt, where he later died.[11] Nestorius later wrote a book entitled Liber Heraclidis in which he agreed with the Orthodox view of Christ’s persons in opposition to the heretical Eutychians,[12] concerning with Pope Leo’s Tomus ad Flavianum.[13] Given this introduction to Cyril, Nestorius, and their key ideas, what did Nestorius and Cyril write that caused such great dissent and consternation within the Church?

In his Sermon against the Theotokos, Nestorius explains his understanding of the key problem with calling Mary the “mother of God”—that God is the creator and He cannot be created.[14] He further writes that “the incarnate God did not die; he raised up the one in whom he was incarnate.”[15] Clearly Nestorius is at this point concerned with the immutability of the Divine. The proper view of Christ is that our conception of his divine and human persons should not change the true divinity of the Logos. Despite this seeming division of God and man, Nestorius argues that Christ is one: “He is at once God and man.”[16] Nestorius speaks in terms of conjunction of God and man rather than union of God and man.  Scholars argue that “We must not overlook that he [Nestorius] repeatedly affirmed the oneness of Christ… His fears of Monophysite tendencies… led him to reject Cyril’s conception of a hypostatic union, substituting for it a union of the will.[17] As Nestorius further explains in his second letter to Cyril, “I commended the distinction of the natures in accordance with the special character of humanity and deity, the conjunction of these natures in one person, the denial that the Logos has need of a second birth from a woman, and the confession that the Godhead is not susceptible to passion.”[18] Nestorius argues that at the Last Supper, Christ distinguished between his divinity and humanity, saying “’This is,’ not my deity, but ‘my body which is broken for you’”.[19]

Church-HistorySome have argued that this simply demonstrates the Antiochene concerns for the wholeness of each person of Christ, both the fully divine Logos and the fully human and free man. Because of this desire to include the totality of both persons, Nestorius distinguished between the properties and names of the two natures in Christ, including his designation of Mary as Christotokos (“Christ bearer”) and not Theotokos, which he felt could impact the theology of the immutability of God. And despite this distinction, Nestorius believed that he was preaching one indivisible Christ.[20] Who is Christ for Nestorius? The answer to the question seems to depend on one’s point of view. A sympathetic scholar can easily focus on Nestorius’ claims for the unity of Christ and explain away his clunky use of distinctions to be in need to development, not condemnation. However, it seems just as easy to look at the Nestorian claims to the especially distinct characteristics and names of the divine and human and argue that Nestorius’ claims to Christ’s unity were just an attempt to remain orthodox. From the writings preserved, it seems clear that Nestorius sought to preserve the fullness of both God and man in Christ. Whether this necessitates a division within the person of Jesus Christ for Nestorius is much harder to conclude.

However, Cyril felt that Nestorius clearly sacrificed the unity of Christ and created in Him two distinct persons. Cyril concerned himself primarily, it seems, with the issue of unity in Christ. In his Second Letter to Nestorius, he wrote that “We say that while the natures which were brought together into a true unity were different, there is nevertheless, because of the unspeakable and unutterable convergence into unity, one Christ and One Son out of the two.”[21] Cyril is making the union of God and man a fundamental principle along with the fullness of Divinity and humanity. For Cyril then, there was “union, in the sense that there is only one hypostasis (person), that of the Logos, which has assumed a whole and complete humanity.”[22] While there is distinction in the character and names of the divine and human (Later distinguished as “natures”) for Cyril, the key concept is unity of the divine and human persons within Christ.[23] Concerning the Theotokos aspect of the controversy, Cyril argued that “since the union [of the divine and human] took place in the very womb, he is said to have undergone a fleshly birth by making his own birth of the flesh which belonged to him.”[24] Because of the union of God and man in the womb, Cyril believed that one could say (in a sense) that God was born of the Virgin Mary and that the Logos of God suffered on the cross. Concluding his letter to Nestorius, Cyril wrote that “the one Lord Jesus Christ must not be divided into two Sons… Accordingly, they boldly called the holy Virgin ‘God’s mother’ [Theotokos], not because the nature of the Logos on the deity took the start of its existence in the holy Virgin, but because the holy body which was born of her, possessed as it was of a rational soul, and to which the Logos was hypostatically united, is said to have had a fleshly birth.”[25]

Cyril of Alexandria

Cyril of Alexandria

Who was Christ for Cyril then? The key concept in the Alexandrian way of theologizing was the unity of Christ as both God and man. Yet the natures of both God and man remain distinct. Cyril in his letter to John of Antioch denied that he advocated the mixing of confusing of the natures of Christ, instead arguing for the impassibility of the Logos as a means of salvation.[26] Because of that unity then, one could say that in some sense God was born of Mary and it was therefore appropriate to call her the Theotokos—the God bearer. This theology of hypostatic unity of fully God and fully man in Christ raised further questions that had to be addresses at the later Council of Chalcedon.

Both Cyril and Nestorius claimed to be orthodox in their conceptions of Christ. Nestorius focused on the distinctive aspects of both God and man in Christ, while Cyril focused on the unity of the divine and man in Christ. Taken into account with the later Monophysite and Chalcedonian conflict, this Christological controversy demonstrates the diversity of thought concerning Christ in the Early Church, as well as the importance of definite, accurate, technical language in defining theological concerns for the Christendom.


Sources

[1] Richard A. Norris, The Christological Controversy, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1980, 123-145. [2] Further reference to ‘Cyril’ will indicate Cyril of Alexandria and not the earlier Cyril of Jerusalem. [3] “Cyril of Alexandria,” Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Ed. F.L. Cross, Third Edition Revised E.A. Livingstone, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005, 447. [4] “Cyril of Alexandria,” Encyclopedia of the Early Church, Ed. Angelo Di Beradino, Trans. Adrian Wolford, 2 Volumes, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992, 214. [5] “Cyril of Alexandria,” Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Ed. F.L. Cross, Third Edition Revised E.A. Livingstone, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005, 446-447. [6] “Cyril of Alexandria,” Encyclopedia of the Early Church, Ed. Angelo Di Beradino, Trans. Adrian Wolford, 2 Volumes, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992, 214. [7] Ibid., 594. [8] “Nestorius,” Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Ed. F.L. Cross, Third Edition Revised E.A. Livingstone, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005, 1145. [9] Richard A. Norris, The Christological Controversy, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1980, 124. [10] “Nestorius,” Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Ed. F.L. Cross, Third Edition Revised E.A. Livingstone, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005, 1146. [11] Ibid., 1146. [12] Ibid., 1146. [13] “Nestorius,” Encyclopedia of the Early Church, Ed. Angelo Di Beradino, Trans. Adrian Wolford, 2 Volumes, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992, 594. [14] Richard A. Norris, The Christological Controversy, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1980, 124-125. [15] Ibid., 125. [16] Ibid., 129. [17] “Nestorius,” Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Ed. F.L. Cross, Third Edition Revised E.A. Livingstone, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005, 1146. [18] Richard A. Norris, The Christological Controversy, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1980, 137. [19] Ibid., 138. [20] “Nestorius,” Encyclopedia of the Early Church, Ed. Angelo Di Beradino, Trans. Adrian Wolford, 2 Volumes, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992, 594. [21] Richard A. Norris, The Christological Controversy, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1980, 133. [22] “Cyril of Alexandria,” Encyclopedia of the Early Church, Ed. Angelo Di Beradino, Trans. Adrian Wolford, 2 Volumes, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992, 214. [23] This principle of unity led to the later Monophysite divide, where the unity of the hypostatic union was taken to mean that there is only one nature within the one person of Christ, as opposed to the orthodox distinction of one person, two natures united in Christ. [24] Richard A. Norris, The Christological Controversy, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1980, 133. [25] Ibid., 134-135. [26] Ibid., 143-144.

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