Nestorius and the Nestorian Heresy

English: Jesus Christ - detail from Deesis mos...
Jesus Christ – detail from Deesis mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul – Wikipedia

Some entries at Think Free are easier to write than others. I enjoy writing about topics that push the envelope.

I probably included the so-called early Christian heresies in the original Think Free database because I felt they should be covered. But today I’m thinking, who cares?

It seems grandiose for one group to denounce another group based on a cooked up account of cosmology. I don’t find the conceptual duels among Christian schools particularly interesting. Give me the spat between Freud and Jung any day. At least their theories were based on observation and not just abstract conjecture claiming to be inspired or based on inspiration.

What would Jesus say if he were sitting in the room among angry, self-righteous theologians each claiming to be right? I think I have a pretty good idea.


Getting all riled up over theological differences seems nonsensical. Yes, there are differences among Christian denominations—doctrinal and, I believe, experiential. But that doesn’t mean we should denounce each other.

Yet that’s exactly what the early Christian bishops did to those sorry souls whom it disagreed with.

So again I wonder. What would Jesus say about my reluctance to write about Nestorius?

I imagine he’d say something like “Don’t spend too much time outlining the early Christian heresies. You have better things to do with your precious time. And if anyone wants to learn more,  you can always provide links.”

So I think I’ll follow my imaginary Jesus’ advice and simply list the main features of the so-called Nestorian heresy, with links for readers wanting more info.

It’s good to know, better to love. And from what I can see, some of the early Christian heavyweights lost sight of this most central Pauline teaching.

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 1 Cor 13:2

English: A diagram showing the Nestorian view ...
Nestorian view of Christ: Containing both a human and divine person – Wikipedia

Here’s the outline:

  • Nestorius was the Bishop of Constantinople (428-431)
  • He (apparently) proposed that Jesus Christ is not the human incarnation of God but a man inspired by God
  • This means Jesus is a regular man on the one hand, and a divine being on the other hand
  • These two underlying realities are not united but exist side by side, like two rooms with a window between them
  • Nestorius rejected the standard term, Theotokos (Mother of God), for the Virgin Mary because she was only the mother of the human side of Jesus
  • The Western Church, however, believed that Jesus’ divine substance and human nature were unified, making him God and Man, more like one room where the divine and the natural are mysteriously united
  • Bishop Cyril of Alexandria accused Nestorius of heresy because he believed the natural and divine aspects of Jesus were united in a “hypostatic union”
  • Nestorius insisted that he was an orthodox believer and wanted to defend himself at the council of Ephesus in 431
  • He found no audience and was summarily condemned for heresy at Ephesus and again at the council of Chalcedon in 451
  • Exiled to a monastery in Upper Egypt, Nestorius maintained throughout his life that the Western Church misunderstood his position and that he was, indeed, an orthodox Christian
  • His monastery was continually raided by desert bandits and although injured he lived on, probably until the year 450
  • Some of the Eastern Church bishops agreed with Nestorius and founded a Nestorian Church that lasted for centuries and spread Christianity through central Asia to China

How Wikipedia puts it:

“Nestorianism” refers to the doctrine that there are two distinct hypostases in the Incarnate Christ, the one Divine and the other human. The teaching of all churches that accept the Council of Ephesus is that in the Incarnate Christ is a single hypostasis, God and man at once. That doctrine is known as the Hypostatic union.

 Nestorius’s opponents charged him with detaching Christ’s divinity and humanity into two persons existing in one body, thereby denying the reality of the Incarnation. It is not clear whether Nestorius actually taught that.¹ puts it this way:
Nestorius argued that the Godhead joined with the human rather as if a man entered a tent or put on clothes.²

And an Orthodox Wiki – an openly biased page – declares quite emphatically:

In their refusal to venerate the Virgin Mary, modern Evangelical Protestants deny the use of the term Theotokos. In defending this, many Evangelical Protestants argue that the Virgin Mary could not have given birth to God but only to the man Jesus. They thus again separate in the Theandric God-man Jesus a human and a Divine person and teach Nestorianism.³

Pythagoreans embrace the morning sun by Fyodor Bronnikov

Funnily enough, presenting this material in point form was more engaging than I had expected.

I had writer’s block at the very thought of trying to explain Nestorianism in the conventional sentence/paragraph format.

Whenever coming up against a brick wall, it’s good to be creative and shift gears. After all, life is a process.

Related » Christology




Additional Sources

Van A Harvey. A Handbook of Theological Terms 1992, pp. 164-165

S. J. Grenz, D. Guretzki, C. F. Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms 1999, p. 83.

S. G. F. Brandon (ed.) Dictionary of Comparative Religion, New York: Scribner’s, 1970, pp. 468-469.

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