Little things matter. Sometimes, they matter a great deal. Even subtle differences in vocabulary can mean this difference between tremendous truth and egregious error. This was all too evident during the swirling Christological conflicts of the fourth and fifth centuries.
Nestorius was consecrated bishop of Constantinople on this day in 428. Although there was little indication of it at the time, it was eventually to prove to be a momentous occasion. A firm opponent of the Arian heresy, he nevertheless, fell into an almost equal and opposite error.
The Arians taught that Christ was a created being. To refute this and other points, Nestorius argued that at the incarnation, the divine nature joined with the human merely as a man might enter a tent or put on his clothing. Instead of depicting Christ as one person with two natures, Nestorius saw him as a conjunction of two natures so distinct as to be different persons who had merged.
Thus, Nestorius refused to call Mary the Theotokos, literally, the "God-Bearer" or "Mother of God." Her baby was very human, he said. The human acts and sufferings of Jesus were in fact, of his human nature and not of his divine nature. He was concerned that to say Mary was "Mother of God" was to say God had once been just a few hours old. "God is not now nor has He ever been a baby," he argued. He never actually denied that Christ was divine. On the contrary, he asserted, it was to protect the doctrine His divinity that he argued as he did--lest it be lost in worship of the human child. Instead, he was just attempting to be "accurate and precise in the use of doctrinal vocabulary."
But Cyril, the patriarch of Alexandria, condemned Nestorius’ position on the incarnation as heresy by issuing twelve anathemas against his views. Nestorius responded in kind. The two men proved to be fierce antagonists. There was no chance of reconciliation. Pastors and theologians from across the Christian world began choosing sides. A fierce battle of words imperiled Christian unity--and orthodoxy. Emperor Theodosius II called a council in 433 to settle the question. Working quickly, Cyril deposed Nestorius before his Syrian supporters could reach the council site. Rome backed Cyril's move and Nestorius was stripped of his position and exiled.
But the followers of Nestorius did not easily yield. In regions controlled by Persia they formed their own church. It was a strong body which evangelized eastward as far as China. Nestorian churches appeared in Arabia, India, Tibet, Malabar, Turkostan and Cyprus. Many exist to this day, especially in modern-day Iraq.
Ultimately, the orthodox churches created a formula to describe Christ's person at yet another council, this one in the city of Chalcedon, in 451. The assembled bishops declared Christ was two natures in one person. "We all with one voice confess our Lord Jesus Christ one and the same Son, at once complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, of one substance with us as regards his manhood, like us in all things, apart from sin."
Many historians and theologians ever since have argued convincingly that it was the adherence to this Chalcedonian formula that established Christendom's uniquely balanced worldview and set the West on course to ultimately build the greatest civilization of freedom, opportunity, and prosperity the world had ever known.
Sometimes, it really is the little things that matter.