1. Education
N.S. Gill

Nestorian Schism

By June 22, 2013

Follow me on:

On this day in ancient history - June 22:

The Council of Ephesus, convened on June 22, 431, met to discuss Nestorius Bishop of Constantinople.

John of the Golden Mouth, aka Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople, who died in A.D. 407, was known for his oratorical skill. In 428, when the Emperor Theodosius II established Nestorius as Patriarch of Constantinople, it was hoped that Nestorius, who was also known for his sermons, would serve just as well. At first, all seemed right. Nestorius got right on the task of issuing edicts against heresies -- notably the Arian heresy, although he didn't seem bothered by the followers of Pelagius, whose heresy became popular in Britain, Palestine, and Carthage.

This was the time when Christian doctrine was being decided. It was also during the time of the split Empire, when there was a ruler in the West and another one in the East, and when the Empire was linguistically divided into Latin and Greek. Nestorius and Theodosius were in the Greek-speaking East.

Nestorius and his followers questioned the idea that the Virgin Mary was Theotokos. Instead, they called her a Christotokos. The Bishop of Alexandria, Cyril, heard about this and used it for a power play to wrest power from the East. The patriarch of Rome, or pope, Celestine I, supported Cyril against Nestorius. Presumably these men also sincerely believed that Mary was the Theotokos and that Nestorius was theologically at fault.

Poor Nestorius and his followers thought their position was just as strong, so they went along with the idea of invoking another Council to decide this and other matters. The Council of Ephesus was therefore held in 431. In the end, the emperor changed his allegiance to Cyril, and so a disgraced Nestorius went into exile in Egypt where he established Nestorian churches.

What was the big deal about the Theotokos controversy? Today it is hard to understand because most of us don't pay attention to the finer points of theology. Probably a good number of devout Western Christians are Nestorians.

Theotokos* is the person who gives birth to a god. Christotokos, the term the Nestorians preferred, is the person who gives birth to a christos (anointed one, i.e., the messiah). The Theotokos could be giving birth to a god who is an anointed one/messiah, but the Christotokos is giving birth to a human savior. Thus the Theotokos is in a sense more inclusive. The child of a Theotokos could be human and divine, where the child of a Christotokos would be human. That means that a Christotokos Mary only gave birth to the human aspect of Jesus. Making her the mother of a god puts her in a very special position, worthy of reverence as the Blessed Virgin Mary. Nestorius' position made Christ a sort of split personality with two separate essences. The doctrine that became dominant is that Jesus and the Son of God are one completely unified person. At least this is my understanding.
Please add to the comments to clarify further.

Ecumenical Councils

*Theotokos is sometimes translated 'god-bearer', like the related doryphoros 'spear-bearer'. There is a distinction between tokos and phoros that is hard to translate. In Greek mythology, Semele is a theophoros, but she dies before giving birth. Zeus sews the fetal Dionysus in his thigh and then gives birth to him, making Zeus a theophoros and a theotokos.


June 18, 2006 at 6:04 pm
(1) Jone Lendering says:

I think it is not prudent to call the Nestorians heretics, because this assumes some standard of orthodoxy. Members of modern Nestorian churches (e.g., in Syria and Kurdistan) will probably say that they are the orthodox Christians, and call the Greek, Roman, and Protestant churches heretical. It better to avoid theological value judgments.

June 18, 2006 at 7:11 pm
(2) ancienthistory says:

Thank you. I think you are right that Nestorianism is not a heresy, so I have changed the title to “schism”; however, Arianism and Pelagianism are also heretical only from certain perspectives, yet it is useful to speak in terms of heresy and orthodoxy.

June 21, 2006 at 3:57 pm
(3) Mike says:

It’s also interesting to note that, several years ago, the “Nestorian” patriarch signed a common christological declaration with Pope John Paul II. (The preferred term, I’m told, is Church of the East, or Assyrian Church.) This led both parties, in turn, to permit the sharing of sacraments some years later. These were major historic events, missed by almost everyone. It’s hard to judge those long-ago events, exacerbated as they were by slow communications, incompatible philosophical terminology, and imperial politics. It seems, though, that the Great Church (what is considered Orthodoxy and Catholicism today) fairly consistently called Nestorius a heretic — since he denied what the mainstream considered a core doctrine. It’s unclear, though, whether any “Nestorian” ever fell under that judgment.

June 21, 2006 at 4:30 pm
(4) ancienthistory says:

Thanks. That modern note is interesting. Nestorius was exiled but as you suggest, there is nothing to show that he was excommunicated. Perhaps there were degrees of heresy. Nestorius is said to have tried to find out the official position on Pelagianism, but didn’t get the information — at least not in a timely manner. I wonder if Pelagianism was an excommunicable offense at the time.

June 22, 2006 at 12:57 pm
(5) Ronald Cox says:

Thanks for your essay. Would you elaborate in the comments about why you think most Western Christians are de facto Nestorians? Is it because of a lesser understanding of the Blessed Virgin or because of a deficient understanding of Chirst’s divine nature? I wasn’t clear on your point there. Again, thanks.

June 22, 2006 at 2:35 pm
(6) NSGill says:

I didn’t say most. I said a good many. I think the reasons are either that people aren’t concerned with the finer points of the theology of Christianity or what you wrote. It was meant as an aside.

June 23, 2006 at 7:34 am
(7) Jeffrey Smith says:

The Nestorians have been called heretics ever since the council. I don’t think you have the authority to change that. Are you proclaiming yourself Pope?

July 16, 2006 at 10:21 pm
(8) Joseph says:

I think it is possible that a great many western Christians are de facto Nestorians without realizing it, or realizing they are guilty of heresy. In my opinion (and, I dare say, in the Church’s view), a person who believes a heresy is guilty of being a heretic only if he/she fully understands what the Church teaches and still clings to that belief, in the same way that a person who believes or repeats a lie cannot be called a liar if he/she believes that lie to be the truth.

November 3, 2008 at 7:25 pm
(9) Nestor says:

I agree with your statement that many of today’s christians are de facto Nestorians. Most of the protestants and other evangelicals do not consider Mary to be the ‘mother of God’, as this would make her on equal or greater standing than the creator. Still, they acknowledge that Mary gave birth to Jesus who has both a divine and human nature. I’d say this clearly puts them in the Nestorian camp.

August 13, 2009 at 1:07 pm
(10) Tau Mikael III Basilides says:

I believe that Mar Nestorius had it far more accurate… Mary bore the Chrstos, she did not bear God… the dewdrop does not produce or contain the ocean, or clouds, but the other way around…

December 31, 2009 at 1:06 pm
(11) noel says:

Making Mary Christotokos will not give Jesus a split personality with 2 separate essence. For me Christotokos is more acceptable than theotokos. The word theotokos has been abused throughout centuries. Let us all remember that the blessed virgin is a very righteous jewish woman. That’s the reason why she was chosen by God. Now a righteous jewish woman would not want to have a title “Mother of God.” It would be blasphemy for them. Christotokos will not take away the divinity of Christ. It will only give a specific definition of the role of the blessed virgin. God is a God of order. Now if you are orderly then you are also specific. For those who believe in theotokos that’s your right as a believer but maybe you would like to research this further. The greatest mistake a christian can do is to read the bible and imprison himself/herself to his/her church doctrine. The church doctrine is not the final authority. The Word of God should be the final authority.

June 22, 2010 at 11:01 am
(12) Chip says:

The Catholic position is absurd. Christotokos is correct 100% of the time and can be said without qualification. Calling that incorrect, or heresy, is like saying Paul is incorrect because he called Jesus merely Christ in some passages and not God. The Eastern, or Greek leaders of the early church would have had a much better cultural and linguistic understading than the Latins. Theotokos is only correct in that Mary bore God the Son. You cannot say Mary bore God without qualification, because God, in Christianity, is comprised of 3 persons. It is not necessarily incorrect, but neither does it provide a completely accurate picture. Mary did not bare God the Father, or the Holy Spirit. Calling Mary Theotokos is therefore misleading, regardless of its original intent or context. Look at history, you can always leave it to Catholics to use 1000 words where 5 will do. Quite frankly, what we call Mary is irrelevent, because Christians already know Jesus is both Christ and God from the Scriptures. Jesus did everything he could in his earthly ministry to make his blood relations religiously irrelevant – “who are my mother and brothers?” That Catholics later did just the opposite is quite telling.

August 21, 2010 at 6:40 pm
(13) Roland says:

I have several comments.

1. John Chrysostom is considered a saint in retrospect, but during his lifetime he was deposed from the See of Constantinople and exiled. Cyril, whose uncle was Patriarch of Alexandria at the time, was instrumental in getting Chrysostom deposed. When Chrysostom’s relics were posthumously returned to Constantinople and his name was added to the Diptychs of the Dead, Cyril said, “If John Chrysostom is to be counted among the Archbishops of Constantinople, let Judas be counted among the disciples.” Cyril saw the appointment of Nestorius as a renewal of the Antiochene “heresy” of Chrysostom, which he thought he had already vanquished.

2. The so-called “Nestorian” churches were not founded by Nestorius, nor do they look to him for authority. Rather, they look to Theodore of Mopsuestia, whose theology was very influential on Nestorius. The “Nestorian” label was imposed on them by their opponents. Theodore was condemned long after his death by the Fifth Ecumenical Council, though the practice of posthumous condemnation was not widely accepted in the West.

3. The main problem with Nestorius was that he was stubborn and inflexible and clung to his stance even after he had lost the debate. The other leaders of the Antiochene School (most notably John of Antioch and Theodoret of Cyrus), in reconciling with Cyril, agreed that Nestorius was wrong and that Mary was properly called Theotokos, though they insisted on retaining their traditional two-nature Christology.

4. This was the first act of a two-act drama. The sequel occurred 20 years later at Chalcedon, when the Church moved away from the extreme Alexandrian position and, following Pope Leo the Great, staked out a middle position that defined Christ as one person in two natures. This was sufficient to reconcile some of the more moderate “Nestorians,” but the non-Greek churches that were committed to the one-nature language of Cyril went into schism. (They were thus called “Monophysites” by their opponents, though they rejected the definitive Monophysite, Eucyches.)

March 27, 2011 at 9:44 am
(14) T-i-m L. says:

Looks as though the Roman Catholic and Assyrian churches are reconciled on Theotokos/Christotokos. The issue seemed to be more around Jesus being two persons or one person w/two natures than necessarily about Mary.

From the Vatican (note the acknowledgement of prior misunderstanding):

“We both recognize the legitimacy and rightness of these expressions of the same faith and we both respect the preference of each Church in her liturgical life and piety.

This is the unique faith that we profess in the mystery of Christ. The controversies of the past led to anathemas, bearing on persons and on formulas. The Lord’s Spirit permits us to understand better today that the divisions brought about in this way were due in large part to misunderstandings.

Whatever our Christological divergences have been, we experience ourselves united today in the confession of the same faith in the Son of God who became man so that we might become children of God by his grace. We wish from now on to witness together to this faith in the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, proclaiming it in appropriate ways to our contemporaries, so that the world may believe in the Gospel of salvation.”



May 14, 2011 at 11:10 pm
(15) jsmith says:

Nestorius talked about two hypostases not two persons (something that his opponents used to depose him). he actually insists on unity of the person of christ.

Christotokos is not mother of human jesus (that is anthrotokos). Christotokos is a more infromative term something that theotokos is not (requires qualifications to expalain and may result in ambiguity).

Ephesis 431 was a politically driven council. Cyril used it to discredit the antiochene school of thought the same way his uncle and predecessor deposed crystosom.

Cyril presided on ephesis before the eastern bishops arrived. so in a way nestorius’ fate was sealed even before any denate started. nestorius himself did not appear in front of the council.

when john of antioch arrived he anathematised cyril.

June 22, 2011 at 3:08 pm
(16) Carl says:

Heresy is in the eye of the beholder.
By the way, in the Nestorian tradition today there are several Patriarchs.
Khanania Dinkha IV is recognized by some and Mar Timotheus Josephus Narsai by others.
The difference between Theotokos, Christotokos may simply be the difference between the nature of the Latin and Greek languages. Greek allows a subtlety that Latin does not. Christotokos in the Greek tradition implies what Mary helped God to do is a human form. It was this form that Mary allowed to come into being when she accepted her role. In the Latin the differences seems to remove the divinity from Jesus rather than simply changing the divine form.

July 24, 2011 at 4:45 pm
(17) James says:

“Mother of God”. Two words are missing, which would have avoided the whole division, the first permanent one in the Church, which remains to the present day. Add the words “with us”, and all is well. The Bible in Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23 clearly says that a Virgin will conceive and bear a Son and call Him “Emmanuel”, which means “God with us.” Virtually all who call themselves Christians believe that Jesus is God from all eternity. He was God when He entered Mary’s womb and He was God-Man when He exited her womb. If He is only God when He leaves her womb, His humanity is reduced to a phantom, which is the heresy of docetism.

This is what Nestorius saw happening in the late 4th and early 5th centuries. The rest is semantics. Jesus Christ is one person in self-awareness, but two personal natures in substance, which is essentially what Ephesus and Chalcedon say. The error is Theotokos, which means “bearer [mother] of God”.

Nestorius readily agreed to the use of the phrase “mother of God with us’, or “mother of Emmanuel”, but Cyril and Celestine insisted on “mother of God”, which means God entered her, passed through her, and took on nothing from her.

Mary is the highest of God’s creatures and to be honored, but when the humanity of Christ is denied in speaking of her, and that is what “mother of God” does, the result is the slow but sure poisoning of the Faith, and the history of the church over the centuries surely affirms this. Keep the humanity of Christ in speaking of Mary, which is “mother of God with us”, or “mother of Christ our God”, and there is no trouble.

Remember that words have meaning, and that the letter iota separated the Arians from the Orthodox in the 4th century. In the Nicene Creed, is the Greek word, Homoousious, meaning of the same being, and homoiousious, meaning of a like being!! A word or phrase can easily mean the difference between truth and error.

December 29, 2011 at 9:53 am
(18) Bishop Yochanan Theophilos says:

“Christotokos” doesn’t mean “one who gives birth to a savior”. “Christ”, coming from the word “chrio”, to rub with oil, is the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew “Mashiach”, meaning “anointed one.” Every King of Israel is a “mashiach” regardless of whether or not he saved anyone. The proper translations of “Christotokos” is “one who gives birth to an anointed one,” or more properly, “The one who gave birth to the Messiah.”

Be blessed.

March 11, 2012 at 4:55 pm
(19) James says:

That is exactly what Nestorius wanted to defend. Mary gave birth to the Messiah, the Anointed One, Who is true God and true Man. Strictly speaking Mary is the Mother of the Man in Christ and the Gate of the God in Christ, exactly as conveyed in Ezekiel 44:1-3. The self identity of the Man Jesus is the same as the self identity of God the Word. A good analogy is that of a coin, gold on the one side and silver on the other, yet with the same face imprinted on both sides.

Mother of God destroys this distinction of two personal natures in one personal identity. It comes from the heretical monophysite theology of Cyril of Alexandria and his successor, Dioscorus.

The rule of faith is that the distinction between God and creature can never be destroyed, compromised, or challenged. This is the heart of the Old and New Testaments, when rightly understood. Mother of God destroys this distinction, whereas Mother of God with us (Emmanuel) as exactly written in Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23 preserves the truth of the Incarnation and also preserves the distinction between the Infinite Creator and His creation, both as to our Lord Himself and also His Holy and ever-virgin Mother.

God have mercy on Rome, Constantinople, and Alexandria for their attack on St Nestorius and the Church of the East. History has proven this so utterly clear, beginning with the rise of Islam to the apocalyptic world of today.

July 27, 2012 at 3:46 pm
(20) Rev. Dan says:

I was surprised in this discussion that no one referenced the Christology of the Athanasian Creed:

“But it is also necessary for everlasting salvation that one faithfully believe the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, it is the right faith that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is at the same time both God and man. He is God, begotten from the substance of the Father before all ages; and He is man, born from the substance of His mother in this age: perfect God and perfect man, composed of a rational soul and human flesh; equal to the Father with respect to his divinity, less than the Father with respect to His humanity. Although He is God and man, He is not two, but one Christ; one, however not by conversion of the divinity into flesh, but by the assumption of the humanity into the God: one altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person.

Where Nestorius went wrong with his incarnational theology was with the “unity of person,” which was more of a “disunity of natures” for Nestorius that has been followed down the years into Calvinisms distinction between the “finite and infinate” and the finite not being able to encapsulate the infinite.

The assumption of humanity into God took place in the instant of Jesus incarnation in Mary at conception, thus making her “Theotokos” and not just “Christotokos.” This is amazing to consider God assuming humanity to save it in the instant of a microscopic conception!

The reverse of Nestorianism’s “split” natures in Jesus is “Eutychianism” which is the blending of natures. Lutherans, like myself, are often accused of being Eutychian heretics, but Martin Luther often condemned this accusation.

December 13, 2012 at 2:41 pm
(21) Bishop Mandala Masoa says:

Nestorius’ view was 0rthodoxy. If Marry is described as the Mother of God then it means there would be no God without her which is not the case. She was only the God receiving woman and that does not mean that she was different from any mere woman.

Leave a Comment

Line and paragraph breaks are automatic. Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title="">, <b>, <i>, <strike>
Top Related Searches
  • bado
  • schism
  • saturday june
  • gp
  • ©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.