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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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Sign of the Cross – Sign of the Times?

Originally published in 2007 at Earthpages before we migrated to WordPress

The other night Turner Classic Movies ran a wonderful 1930’s production called The Sign of the Cross. Basically it’s about early Christians being hunted down and persecuted in the Roman empire. Toward the end, the film gives a dramatic portrayal of the power of faith as imprisoned Christians face the prospect of being eaten alive by wild beasts at the Colosseum (which really happened), with an especially inspired performance by Elissa Landi.

After the close of the movie, the critics at TCM said absolutely nothing about the power of faith but zeroed in on the importance of a woman’s breasts being partially shown in a milk bath and how a lusty gay scene was mostly edited out some years later once Hollywood prohibitions kicked in. Interesting stuff, but really quite tangential to the main message…


The Gospel of Thomas – Lots of nice talk but where’s the action?

English: Image of the Last Page of the Coptic ...

The Last Page of the Coptic Manuscript of the Gospel of Thomas. The title “peuaggelion pkata Thomas” is at the end. Courtesy of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, Claremont Graduate University. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Gospel of Thomas (estimated date written, 40 – 250 CE) is an early non-canonical Christian document that has left many scholars scratching their heads as to who wrote it and where it came from. Some say it is a Gnostic text. Others maintain that it is not esoteric nor introspective enough to be considered Gnostic.

Another group of scholars believe that Thomas offers important insights into the early Christian oral gospel tradition. A good deal of the content of Thomas overlaps with canonical New Testament accounts, leading some scholars to say this supports the idea of a preexisting but lost common textual source, which has been called “Q.”

Q is a slightly complicated idea for non-specialists.¹ This diagram simplifies how the entirely hypothetical Q might have contributed to Thomas and “some GOSPELS” (referring to some of the canonical gospels of the New Testament).


With regard to Thomas, Wikipedia notes

Bishop Eusebius (AD 260/265 – 339/340) included it among a group of books that he believed to be not only spurious, but “the fictions of heretics”. However, it is not clear whether he was referring to this Gospel of Thomas or one of the other texts attributed to Thomas.²

Myself, when I read The Gospel of Thomas³ it seems slightly hokey and spiritually dissipated. I can’t fully explain why I feel this way. But I do feel this way. My assessment is not made entirely through biblical scholarship (because I am not a biblical scholar, in the standard sense of the term). Instead, I often make a judgement of any religious text on the way it effects me.

Also, some texts forward ideas and truth claims that I’ve long since moved past, not only experientially, but intellectually. In the extended Christian world, for example, I’ve learned enough about how the Bible and non-Canonical texts were put together to not be a fundamentalist—Biblical or Gnostic. But I still like to read the Catholic Bible from time to time.

Some folks obviously love The Gospel of Thomas. But to my mind it lacks an important element, that being the living example of Jesus through his actions. Thomas is all talk, as it were. It’s composed of over 100 sayings attributed to Christ. But for me, the main point of Christianity is not to merely enjoy nice or mysterious sounding language in some literary or pseudo-mystical way. Rather, it’s about putting a good ethical system into direct practice.

We must try our best to practice what we preach. So to say “God Bless” and then indiscriminately do sneaky and underhanded things to the very person we’re ‘God Blessing’ is, to my mind, evidence of a sick soul.

¹ For good diagrams of different theories about Q, see


³ Gospel of Thomas online and more related links (Bing) (Google)

Related » Gnosticism

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Osiris – Lord of the Dead

ego2005 – Osiris via Flickr

In ancient Egyptian religion, Osiris was the god of the dead and fertility. He was the son of Nut and Geb and the husband and brother of Isis.

According to the mythology, Osiris originally was king of Egypt. He was slain by his jealous brother Seth, who cut up and scattered 13 pieces of his body through the provinces of Egypt. Seth tossed the 14th body part, thought to be Osiris’ nose or penis, in the Nile.

The body parts were collected by Isis who dutifully wrapped them in bandages and anointed them with perfumed oils. This restored Osiris to life but the gods declared that he should not live among mankind, so he was made king of the underworld.

In the Egyptian cult of the dead, Osiris personified life after death for the pharaohs and, as time went by, for mankind. His worship continued until Christianity replaced this shadowy, nature-bound mythology with something arguably higher and truly heavenly. Interestingly, Wikipedia, describes the rise of Christianity here with a seemingly negative slant:

Osiris was widely worshipped as Lord of the Dead until the suppression of the Egyptian religion during the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire. [emphasis mine]¹

¹ Wikipedia, like so many social institutions today, puts on a calm, “professional” front and claims to offer some semblance of objectivity when its entries are often just as biased as any other human venture. Many people don’t see this because Wikipedia often reinforces largely unconscious social biases. This likely is how it has always been with bias. It is true that Early, Medieval Christians and even some modern Christians (in Ireland, for example) can be totalitarian, violent and evil. But it is also true that many converts speak of an entirely new head-space that cannot be attained through some non-Christian pathways.

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Saint Pacianus – A bishop with wife and child

Saint Pacianus in the façade of the bishop’s palace in Barcelona, Catalonia (Spain) – via Wikipedia

St. Pacianus (or St. Pacian) was the 4th-century Christian bishop of Barcelona. He is considered a “Father of the Church” and was canonized as a Catholic saint.

He apparently embodied chastity, education and eloquence.

In those days, a bishop could be married with children. Accordingly, St. Pacianus was married and had a son, to whom the famous (in Catholic and academic circles) scholar Saint Jerome dedicated his biographical De Viris Illustribus (On Illustrious Men).

St. Pacianus is probably best remembered, however, for his pithy statement:

Christian is my name; Catholic is my surname.

It’s hard to know if anyone would say that today.

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Apollinarius (The Younger, 310-390 CE) was an early Christian teacher whose views on Christ were condemned as heresy. He and his father, a grammarian, rendered the Old Testament into a poetic form reminiscent of ancient Greek verse and Platonic dialogues. This was done after the Emperor Julian forbade Christians to teach the classics.

But Apollinarius’ sense of innovation didn’t stop there. He argued that Christ and God were one and that this doctrine should be taught to the people. This might sound similar to what some Catholic priests say in passing today, but it’s very different when we look at the finer points of Catholic theology.

For Apollinarius, Christ’s human spirit was replaced by the divine Logos. As such, Christ couldn’t morally develop during his lifetime because he was already perfect. This view denied Christ’s human side. It was rejected by an orthodoxy believing that all of humanity could not be saved unless God was partly human. The movement spearheaded by Apollinarius, called Appollinarianism, could only redeem the spiritual but not the natural aspects of humanity.

English: Stephen Hawking being presented by hi...

Stephen Hawking being presented by his daughter Lucy Hawking at the lecture he gave for NASA’s 50th anniversary (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The distinction between spirit and human nature continues today. More generally, it takes the form of a broad distinction between spirit and nature. Some see these two ideas as identical and others don’t. A new wrinkle in this issue is the subatomic physics observation that matter can behave like energy and vice versa. This development has lead many to speak of “matter/energy.”¹

Although Apollinarius became Bishop of Laodicea (360 CE), he was condemned by the synod at Rome (374-380 CE) and the council of Constantinople (381 CE).

¹ The centuries-old theological idea of immanence means that spirit comes into or dwells within matter but matter and spirit remain qualitatively different. This idea is found within the Catholic Holy Spirit and with variations in many world religions. Now that subatomic physicists see matter as matter/energy, it doesn’t follow that matter/energy is necessarily the same as spirit. But not everyone sees it that way. Recent observations in subatomic physics seem to have given some, like Stephen Hawking, confidence in believing that they can speak meaningfully about God and spirituality. But Hawking’s confidence seems to be more about his exceptionality in conceptual thinking than in any kind of advanced mysticism. Accordingly, his remarks arguably fall short when he speaks to ultimate meaning and purpose. However, one can’t help but admire how he’s overcome adversity, as well as his treatment of complicated scientific ideas—especially when illustrating new theories about space and time. He’s also to be commended for asking the big questions, which many people never even bother to think about.



English: Resurrection of Christ

English: Resurrection of Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Christianity is the religion based on the life, teachings, moral example, crucifixion and resurrection of the New Testament figure, Jesus Christ. Jesus was the son of a young Jewish woman, Mary, who conceived while engaged to her carpenter fiance, Joseph. The Jesus story tells us that Mary didn’t have sexual relations with Joseph but, instead, was visited by the angel Gabriel who told her that she’d become pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit—a calling which Mary willingly accepted. So technically, Joseph was Jesus’ foster father.

Founded in Jerusalem, the Christian religion emerged from the Jewish scriptural tradition, which Christians today call the Old Testament. Jesus, in fact, is seen by his followers as the long awaited prophet promised in Jewish scriptures.

As with contemporary Christianity, Early Christianity was shaped by the Jesus story. But this isn’t all. There’s also the living grace which believers claim to experience. So rather than their religion being a dry routine based on some distant past event, believers say they can feel the Holy Spirit acting in their lives, here and now.¹

These two elements – the teachings and example of the earthly Christ along with the perceived guidance and indwelling love of the heavenly Christ – forged an unshakable belief in many of Christ’s early followers.

Some early Christians believed that Christ’s promised return – signalling the end of the world – was imminent. In one letter St. Paul chastises believers for not working due to their misguided belief about the end-times occurring within their lifetimes (2 Thessalonians 3:10, Matthew 24:36, Mark 13:32).

The religion spread throughout the Mediterranean’s Gentile (non-Jewish) population for about 20 years after Christ’s death. It was declared an “illegal assembly” under Roman Law. And the tyrant Nero publicly blamed Christians for the great fire in Rome of 64 CE.

Cruel and barbaric persecutions at the hands of the pagan Romans followed but the religion continued to spread. While some Christians denied their belief in Christ when threatened with horrendous torture and death, a good number willingly – some even joyously – went to their deaths at the hands of the pagan Romans.

The graceful and heroic courage of Christians being fed alive to lions in the Colosseum at Rome impressed some of the more sensitive Romans, leading to their conversion to this new monotheistic religion. Conversions didn’t just take place among the poor, as commonly believed. By 96 CE the radical egalitarianism of Christianity became increasingly apparent as members of the Roman Imperial family also converted away from their pagan past. By the end of the 2nd-century, Christianity had spread into Britain.

Map of the distribution of Christians of the world

Map of the distribution of Christians of the world (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why was Christianity so successful?

Some sociologists suggest that the Christian message gave hope of eternal reward to the powerless and oppressed. In other words, it’s a religion for losers. But historians more correctly note that the religion cut across all class lines, fostered warm communal love and complete forgiveness for past wrongs, along with the promise of power over demons and everlasting life in heaven. Theologians add that the spiritual power of the living Christ has always been present among believers in the form of the Holy Spirit, giving life, love and direction to their religious worship.

In 313 CE Constantine issued an edict of toleration in Milan, enabling Christians to worship without fear of persecution. In 381 CE Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire.

Some Christian sects in early Christianity emphasized either Christ’s humanity at the expense of his Divinity, or conversely, his Divinity at the expense of his humanity. The Church took great pains to officially resolve these as “heresies.”

Christianity continued to expand through the Roman empire. When the Western empire fell in 476 CE, the barbarian invaders were converted.

During the so-called Dark Ages, the Papal court fell into disrepute. Several Popes become blatantly corrupt. Murder, intrigue and absurd rationalizations for grave evils abounded. The flame of Christianity, however, was kept alive in the European monasteries. Monks by and large were disgusted with the scandalous and violent practices of the Papal court.

In the East, Christianity continued as ‘Byzantium’ until overrun my Muslim invaders in 1453 CE.

The Orthodox Church had become split by the 11th-century. Apart from subtle theological differences, the Western Church recognized the Pope while the Eastern Church did not.

Several additional heresies were squelched by the Western Church but the 16th-century rise of the Reformers and the Counter-Reformation created a decisive split between Protestants and Roman Catholics.


CHRIST by Fergal of Claddagh via Flickr

Protestant Churches, themselves, began to splinter, with many new denominations rising up, usually at the bidding of some charismatic reformer claiming to rekindle the “original truth” of Christianity.

Despite doctrinal differences among various branches of Christianity in the 21st-century, almost all Christians believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. This is the belief that God reveals himself in three ‘persons’ of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. These three distinct persons are said to be equal, eternal and also a unity, sharing the same substance.

Today Christianity is a world-wide religion of over 2.2 billion followers, largely the result of colonization and missionary work among various Christian denominations.

¹ Problems arise when different believers claim opposing ‘truths’ based on the apparent experience of the Holy Spirit. Quite possibly some individuals mistake a kind of vital, perhaps even biochemical, energy for the true love and peace of the Holy Spirit.

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