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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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Pelegianism and authoritarian personalities

Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle

Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle (Wikipedia)

Preamble: Why I’m not too enthusiastic about Christian theology  (skip to main entry, Pelegianism)

Reading over material for this update, I came to feel that Pelegianism is a great example of why I’m not overly enthused about the history of Christian theology and its related squabbles.

While converting to Catholicism in 2001 I asked the leader for our RCIA course, an elderly priest, how certain parts of the Bible came to be included in the Catholic canon.

I could have also asked the related question of how certain dogmas and teachings came into being but I’m pretty sure I only asked about the formation of the Catholic Bible, which differs from other Bibles.

In retrospect, the priest was probably caught off guard. He was a good, educated man who no doubt knew about the various Councils held in early Christianity.¹

Also, the RCIA participants met in the evening. The leader was probably tired after a long day of fulfilling his priestly duties. And maybe he felt he had to answer to the group, not just to me. But still, his answer seemed simplistic at the time.

He replied that certain Biblical books “resonated with the people” and others did not, as if a majority community democratically decided what should and should not be included in the Catholic canon.

This may be true on some level, but the final decisions were made by a select few. Even today, many of the clergy are quick to point out that the Church “is not a democracy.” For the most part, unchanging truths are apparently revealed through some ambiguous process I still don’t fully understand.

Does anybody?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not disagreeing with the Church’s basic teachings. But many elaborations, it seems, are questionable and supported through incredibly weak arguments.

A high school student could pick apart some of the arguments upheld by members of the clergy—especially, imo, those concerning why only men may become ordained priests.

But I digress. I’ll pick up on these ideas in the postscript.

A17th century Calvinist print depicting Pelagi...

A 17th century Calvinist print depicting Pelagius. The caption says “Accurst Pelagius, with what false pretence Durst thou excuse man’s foul concupiscence, Or cry down Sin Originall, or that The love of God did man predestinate.” – Wikipedia


Pelegius was a British monk (circa 354–420 or 440 CE)  who came to be associated with a body of teachings called Pelagianism. Pelagius, himself, came to deny those teachings that had been linked to him.

So what is Pelagianism?

Pelagianism is the heretical Christian view, loosely associated with Pelagius, that salvation is attainable through one’s own efforts, as opposed to redemption through divine assistance.

Pelagius believed that Adam and Eve’s original sin (as related in the Biblical book of Genesis) was a bad example for the rest of us. But Adam and Eve’s sin did not indelibly stamp sin into every human being born after him.

In other words, Pelagius recast the traditional idea of a universal “original sin” into a more specific “first sin” of Eve.

So sin is something we can avoid by making good ethical choices and following up with good ethical actions. This places full responsibility on the individual, and less emphasis on the need for divine aid. God already gave us the “tools” as it were, to avoid sin by giving us free will. So grace, intercession, intervention, and so on, may occur but are not necessary to avoid sin and to make good ethical choices.²

Jesus sets a good example and offers a means for atonement. But for Pelegians, Christ does not die for the original sin that we, so the traditional teaching goes, inherit from Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God.

Pelegius also rejected infant baptism, a topic often raised by non-Catholics in favor of adult baptism. And he saw the popular Catholic idea of “weakness” as a crutch for not trying hard enough to eradicate bad behavior.

Pelagius was disturbed by the immorality he encountered in Rome and saw Christians using human frailty as an excuse for their failure to live a Christian life.3

In the early 5th century St. Augustine condemned Pelagius’ ideas. Pelagius was accused of heresy and acquitted.

But this was only a reprieve. Pelagius was later charged again in 431 CE, condemned as a heretic and excommunicated. Not necessarily executed, he was banished from Jerusalem to Egypt where he disappears from history.

Pelagius’ ideas have returned, however, in literature and film.4 And although most of his writings are lost, the thrust of his arguments remain intact by the writings of his opponents (most likely biased to make Pelagius look as wicked as possible).5

Pelagius, flanked by two ministers of his chur...

Pelagius, flanked by two ministers of his church, from a miniature of the Liber testamentorum. (Wikipedia)

Postscript: Why I dodge dogmatic obsessives (see also, Preamble)

Why don’t I like studying the history of Christian theology, as mentioned in the preamble?

For one, it seems too abstract. Theological writings also can come off arrogant and mean-spirited. Instead of reading about the ideas a group of men have developed – and the victims they historically were willing to persecute to advance those ideas – I much prefer good, honest histories about political intrigue and battles. Something I can sink my teeth into and possibly relate to contemporary news.

My kind of history may relate to religion and theology but it involves the whole picture. Not just religion. Theology by itself sometimes seems like a conceptual game.6

Maybe that’s a little extreme. I can understand why a given Church wants to get it right. But I think the humility factor must take precedence, not the arrogance or authoritarian factors. And it seems that many who boldly proclaim as correct their view of theology are probably authoritarian personalities hiding behind a plethora of unresolved psychological issues. Can they avoid dealing with their psychological issues by focusing on their apparent “certainty” on every issue under the sun?

I wouldn’t call obsessive dogmatics “losers” because everyone has a role to play in the grand scheme of things. And we’re all imperfect people, after all. But I wouldn’t spend time having a coffee with them, either. Personalities like that can be toxic. And as a spiritually sensitive person, they can make me squirm, maybe even give me a headache.

So I keep a respectful distance. Fortunately, people so different from myself tend to not want to associate with me either. So it usually works out. There are always a few needy or disturbed exceptions. People who just do not take a broad hint. They tend to be more difficult. But again, one can’t waste time with them.

There’s too much love in the world to spend time with regimented haters. We can pray for them. But getting too close only fans the flames of their authoritarian anger.

¹ In fairness, if someone asked me out of the blue, I’d probably refer them to Wikipedia or the online Catholic Encyclopedia.

² I’m not sure if I agree with this. I tend to think that God educates us as to why we are sinning. That is, what we once thought was AOK becomes clearly sinful from the higher perspective of grace. So we can’t necessarily choose correctly from the get-go. We have to be educated by God about making the right choice. To make things more complicated, this probably varies from person to person. God’s expectations may be sometimes be personal and not always universal. That’s why we should really only judge ourselves and not others.




Some histories of Christianity, of course, do include political elements and all the Church’s warts. But others gloss over the scheming and iniquity. See, respectively, Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity (gritty) vs. Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity (glossy).

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The Old Testament – Timeless wisdom or old, outdated operating system?

11th century Hebrew Bible with targum, perhaps...

11th century Hebrew Bible with targum, perhaps from Tunisia, found in Iraq: part of the Schøyen Collection. (Photo: Wikipedia)

The Old Testament is a Christian name for the books of the Hebrew Bible. This is a problematic term because Jewish people could easily find it disrespectful of their holy scripture.

The designation comes from a Christian perspective with the unabashed implication that the New Testament fulfils the Old Testament, rendering the latter imperfect and somewhat lacking. This way of viewing the so-called Old Testament is found within Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Fundamentalist forms of Christianity.

In Christianity, the relationship between the Old and New Testaments seems confusing. I had one professor who argued that Christianity’s biggest mistake was to try to incorporate the Old Testament into the new religion. They should have just started afresh, he felt. I think this perspective lacks appreciation of the Jesus story. The “new” religion gains a certain depth and continuity by including the Old Testament. However, problems do arise, which theologians and preachers try to resolve in various ways.

The most notable difference between the Old and New Testaments is God’s apparent encouragement of violence and animal sacrifice in the OT but not in the NT. Sometimes, that is. The OT God doesn’t approve of all sacrifices, as we see with Cain and Abel. And sometimes he punishes doers of violence, if that particular violence is not in keeping with his Holy Agenda.¹

Also, the NT says we should live by the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law.² Living by the letter of the law “kills” it. The OT, by way of contrast, lays out strict and fairly detailed laws as to how the righteous should behave. This difference in rules and regulations also applies to what and when we eat. Somehow the Catholic Church forgot this, and started making new rules of regulations about eating. But many modern Catholics see this as unimportant.

As for adultery and sexual lust, Jesus of the NT raises the bar here. You can’t even think about it without being sinner; whereas in the OT actually doing it is the sin.²

A representation of Saint John the Evangelist in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue on July 31, 2010 in New York City.

Some Christians make no apology for calling the Old Testament the Old Testament. For them, it’s just another instance of unwarranted political correctness to pretend that all religions are of equal value. The New Testament, again for them, is better. So why, they argue, water things down by pretending otherwise? But again, their Holy Bibles contain the Old Testament. So there’s a lot of room for debate here.

¹ Both the OT and NT, however, are sexist and often simplistic—especially in the NT with regard to nutritional needs.

² These are just some of the differences that came to mind while revising this entry; this is not an exhaustive list. The NT also emphasizes forgiveness while the OT prescribes the famous, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” kind of reactive punishment for wrongdoings. Follow this link for more perspectives.

Related » Adam, Bible, Book of Isaiah, Book of Job, Burning Bush, Daniel, Dead Sea Scrolls, Divination, Elohim, Eve, God, the Father, Heaven, Jesus Christ, John the Baptist, Jonah, Just War, Kabbala, Koran, Lilith, Lot, Lot’s Wife, Miracles, Moses, Pollution, Torah, Yahweh

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The Son, Catholicism and its Critics

English: child Jesus with the virgin Mary, wit...

Child Jesus with the virgin Mary, with the Holy Spirit (represented as a dove) and God the Father, with child john the Baptist and saint Elizabeth on the right (Wikipedia)

In Christian theology, the Son is part of the Holy Trinity. The Christian Trinity refers to the belief that God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit form a co-equal, co-eternal mystical union.

Jesus, the Son, is fully human and fully divine. Not a few alternative Christianities claim or have claimed that Jesus wasn’t fully human or, alternately, that he wasn’t fully divine. These views were aggressively branded as “heresies” by the early Church Fathers, most notably Tertullian, a presbyter from Carthage (a Roman province in occupied Africa), and Irenaeus, the Bishop of the Roman occupied Gaul (what is now Lyon, France). These two men expended a great deal of energy denouncing anyone who didn’t see things the way they did.

Concerning the orthodox version of the Trinity, so vigorously proclaimed in the early Church, each of the three parts is defined as a “person.” It remains somewhat mysterious as to just what this means.¹

Another issue with the idea of the “Son” as part of the Trinity is its supremely masculine character. Many feminist writers have taken issue with this, forwarding notions of “The Goddess” to counterbalance what they argue is nothing more than an unsavory remnant of patriarchal oppression.

Some Christian theologians counter that God is beyond gender, a position outlined in the Roman Catholic catechism. But to many, this still falls short.

The depth psychologist Carl Jung believed that the Catholic dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1950) was a step in the right direction. Jung believed that Catholicism trumped Protestantism in this area because it was promoting much needed feminine symbols to communicate the numinous. But again, to many feminists, calling Jesus’ mother Mary the “greatest saint” or “Mother of God” does not compare to her son’s status as “God.”

The discussion here can get complicated, and I don’t pretend to have any answers, myself. It’s probably most productive to remember that God is a mystery. The mysterious aspect of God is something which, again, the Catholic authorities do recognize.

Some critique Catholic notables who believe they are divinely inspired or, at least, in a privileged position to make firm, even cutting, statements on pressing issues.² The more forceful critics say that worldly power has gone to their heads, and they lampoon the notion that Catholic authorities have a pipeline to God.

From a sociological perspective, it’s also worthy to note that because Catholic authorities belong to a group which enjoys social power, the current version of psychiatry does not designate them as mentally unsound. But if it were an individual saying “I know what God wants,” most, if not all, psychiatrists would probably see this as a mental disorder and possibly prescribe medication to dampen down their “delusions” or “magical thinking.”

History reveals that the individual is often persecuted. And some believe that today’s conventional Church in some ways carries on that tradition of insulting, bullying and marginalizing people who are different. This claim is ironic considering that Jesus, the individual, was persecuted within a similar dynamic.

¹ Wikipedia outlines the standard theological wording, but it doesn’t really help much.

² Recall the Pope recently saying that Donald Trump is “not Christian.”



Hartwig HKD – Bonsai Moon via Flickr

In Zen Buddhism, satori is the idea and belief that one can experience a sudden flash of enlightenment in which all the conventional dualities of ‘love and hate,’ ‘good and bad,’ ‘beautiful and ugly’ are apparently transcended.

Those claiming to have experienced satori talk about the importance of living in the present—hence popular spin-off catchphrases like “Be Here Now” (cleverly satirized in the otherwise vulgar film, The Love Guru).

There are different understandings about what satori really means. Some say that a greater kind of love and compassion follows the destruction of smaller ideas about love and compassion.¹ But satori usually is a somewhat cooler idea about surpassing the discriminating intellect.

One can’t help but wonder if some enlightened masters would, perhaps just as quickly as they gained enlightenment, lose their cool if their followers suddenly stopped funding them.

The Japanese scholar D. T. Suzuki champions Zen while casting aspersions on core Christian beliefs about Jesus dying on a cross. For Suzuki, religion is largely about aesthetics. And he says it’s distasteful to the Japanese mind to think of God dying in such a gruesome way. He also writes extensively on satori but admits to never having experienced it.²

Related » Koan

¹ This should not be confused with the Christian ideas of eros and agape because the latter involves a selfless service to God. And the entire idea of an absolute God is absent or seen as unimportant in Zen. See D. T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism and D. T. Suzuki in C. A. Moore, The Japanese Mind.

² Suzuki, himself, says that the idea of satori differs from Christian mysticism. The latter, he claims, is disconnected from everyday life. This demonstrates how Suzuki misunderstands the subtle workings of Christian mysticism, which reaches out to others through intercessionIbid.

On the Web:

  • Mel Van Dusen presents the talks of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.”

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Serenity Prayer

Scott Shatto Peace Church

The Serenity Prayer is a Christian prayer written in 1943 by the American Protestant theologian and man of letters, Reinhold Niebuhr, here in its most familiar form:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

In 1951 Niebuhr added the concept of “grace” to the opening lines, which I think was an unnecessary clarification. Wikipedia also notes that the prayer didn’t come out of nowhere. There are many antecedents throughout the world’s wisdom literature. Also, and quite interestingly, there was even a case of plagiarism with this prayer. Quite ironic considering the subject matter! For details see the excellent Wikipedia entry.¹




Search – “Wisdom” via Tumblr

When someone seems to know through insight, intuition and experience how best to act or how things will likely work out, we say they’re wiser than those who make superficial, snap or conventional judgments.

Wisdom may or may not involve academic, specialized, scientific or factual knowledge. The intuitive aspects of wisdom may involve revealed, infused, illuminated, transpersonal or transcendent knowledge—that is, knowledge that saints, mystics and seers from many different religions say extends beyond the usual understanding of space and time.

name lost in internet. Seems to be Mystic Marr...

Name lost in internet. Seems to be Mystic Marriage of Christ and the Church (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The idea of wisdom has been debated among religious traditions. Hindus, for example, might see Christians as slaves to externally imposed dogmas and rituals that seal them in ignorance, while some Christians may see the works of the devil binding Hindus to false or incomplete beliefs that deny or ‘water down’ the belief that Christ is the only Messiah.

Even within a given religion, opposing viewpoints can be found about the nature of wisdom. Fundamentalist Christians, for instance, often react strongly against the deeper aspects of Christian mysticism. In fact, some Fundamentalists go as far to say that all mysticism is Satanic.

drifts ...item 1.. Grand Jury's indictment add...

Photo credit: marsmet53 via Flickr

The Protestant Josh McDowell seems to lean in this direction. In his book The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, McDowell notes that there are many types of mysticism but only discusses the alleged errors of the “pantheistic mysticism of the East.”¹ More importantly, his discussion equates the term ‘mysticism’ as if it only applied to Eastern mysticism, particularly that of Zen Buddhism.

McDowell’s argument overlooks the plain fact that a mature discussion on mysticism applies to a wide variety of religious experiences, along with the key question concerning their transcendent origin and ethical orientation. In fact, Catholics and some Protestants take great pains to differentiate interior experiences that are from God and those that are not. Moreover, mystics can variously describe God as being wholly other or as some kind of natural or pantheistic consciousness.

¹ Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999: 643-658.

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