Monday, April 10

Little Things

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.


ron said...

"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."

Wondering: where did you read this in Nestorius' writings? or, are you relying on secondary sources?

gileskirk said...

I have read excerpts from the sermons of Nestorius in an old collection of Patristic-era materials edited by Philip Schaff and Blomfield Jackson. I found it in an antiquarian bookshop in Amsterdam this past summer. But, nearly any church history book will confirm this rather generic assessment of his teaching.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... nothing gets the blood boiling in the morning like reading about heresy in the church.

ron said...

Thanks: to my knowledge, which is admittedly limited, you appear to have accurately represented the 'history' as given by the victors (aren't they always the ones who write it?.
I have seen "The Bazaar of Heraclides," a work of Nestorius' now translated, but haven't had the opportunity to purchase.
That birthday list isn't too long to add it!

Truth Seeker said...'s another little thing. Wasn't the Council of Chalcedon in 1453?

gileskirk said...

Actually, after the Council of Ephesus in 431 had condemned Nestorianism, there remained a conflict between patriarchs John of Antioch and Cyril of Alexandria. Cyril claimed that John remained Nestorian in outlook, while John claimed that Cyril held to the Apollinarian heresy. The Emperor Theodosius II called a council and the two settled their differences under the mediation of the bishop of Beroea, Acacius, on April 12, 433. In the following year, Theodoret of Cyrrhus assented to this formula as well, apparently putting a rest to Nestorianism forever. But then, it raised its ugly head once again following the publication of some old Syrian manuscripts. Finally, in 451 a new council was held at Chalcedon to settle the matter once and for all.

Anonymous said...

It's ironic how the heretics usually have a point. Nestorius did not set out to destroy Christ's divinity, Pelagius was reacting to the flagrant immorality of the time ... Was it Chesterton who said orthodoxy was a matter of balance? Heresy seems to come of emphasizing one point to the exclusion of others.