NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 24.1
We move this week from the controversies surrounding Pelagius to those surrounding Nestorius. At the heart of the controversy is an understanding of the human and divine natures of Jesus. Tom Lee today explores the conflict between the two principal actors in the controversy, Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius of Constantinople.
One Nature or Two — Monks go Beyond the Bounds. Part 24.1
Controversy over the dual nature of Jesus...
Augustine of Hippo, despite extreme views, retained some respect for the views of others and did not strive to impose his will without due debate. In his approach to the doctrine of the Trinity he prefaced his treatise:
"I ask my readers to make common cause with me when they share my convictions; to keep an open mind when they share my doubts. I ask them to correct me if I make a mistake, to return to my way of thinking if they do."
Unfortunately few other bishops were as modest. Though general agreement had been reached on the nature of the Trinity, there was perceived to be a problem and differences of opinion about the relation of the divine and the human in Jesus. This was the epicenter of a storm that would persist into the seventh century.
One major trend, with its chief focus at Alexandria, stressed the divine element, sometimes almost to the exclusion of the human. Another strongly represented at Antioch, where historical study of the Gospels was paramount, emphasized the human element and regarded the human and the divine as so distinct from each other that they were almost two separate beings.
The chief leader at Alexandria was Cyril, bishop of that city from 412 to 444. He seems to have been motivated not only by theological conviction but also by ambition for leadership in the Catholic Church for himself and his See. He was certainly jealous of the other great episcopal sees of the east, Antioch and Constantinople, both occupied by men who sharply dissented from him in the arguments about the nature of Christ.
Theotokos or Christokos — battle-cries for bishops...
Cyril maintained that the humanity in Christ was not so much an individual man as humanity in general. Salvation was accomplished by the personal Logos assuming impersonal human nature, thus uniting it with the divine. In this way it enabled us all to become partakers of God and immortality. He seemed to be following in the footsteps of his doctrinaire predecessor Athanasius. He applied to the Virgin Mary a term that had long been in current use, Theotokos, God-bearing, usually translated, Mother of God. It too would soon become a battle-cry between bishops.
Nestorius, the bishop of Constantinople was a zealous fighter against what he perceived as heresy, especially the remnants of the Arians. Having been raised in the biblical fundamentalist tradition of Antioch he was very reluctant to use the term Theotokos, preferring instead Christotokos, Christ-bearing or Mother of Christ. This aroused Cyril of Alexandria who was keen to vindicate himself as a hunter of heresy, as his theological critics were complaining to the Emperor and Nestorius about his non-conformity to their views.
Nestorius, in a pattern that was becoming familiar, was not tactful and dealt harshly with those who dared to disagree with him. Both men wrote to Bishop Celestine at Rome. Celestine agreed with Cyril, possibly because the Egyptian bishop was more deferential than Nestorius, and because he heard that Nestorius had extended hospitality to some Pelagians who had fled to his See.
In 430 a synod at Rome ordered Nestorius to recant or be excommunicated, and another synod at Alexandria condemned the positions which Cyril attributed to Nestorius, most of them a wild stretch of the truth. The dispute became so heated that a general council, by imperial order, was convened to settle the matter. The bishops assembled at Ephesus in 431 in what is generally known, despite unscrupulous shenanigans, as the Third Ecumenical Council.
Nestorius and Cyril...
Cyril and his supporters reached the city first, and did not wait for the friends of Nestorius, a party of bishops from Antioch, delayed by severe weather. The Council convened under the presidency of Cyril, supported by the metropolitans of Asia, jealous for their own liberties and powers in the face of the perceived pretensions of the Bishop of Constantinople.
Nestorius, protected by the military from the muscular and violent monkish cohorts of Bishop Memnon of Ephesus, declined to appear until the arrival of his allies, so the Council, under the leadership of his accuser, in a single long day's session, condemned and deposed him, convinced by a complete misrepresentation of what he taught. It was claimed that he thought Christ was merely an inspired man.
Not long afterwards John of Antioch and his supporters arrived and organized themselves, claiming to be the legitimate council, and condemned Cyril and Memnon, deposing and excommunicating them. A council of two hundred was damned by a council of forty-three. A few days later, when the representatives of Pope Celestine arrived from Rome, the majority council resumed its session and excommunicated John of Antioch and his party; the Romans being invited to add a tiny voice of affirmation to the already overwhelming chorus of condemnations.
A short-lived truce...
Both sides appealed to the emperor and initially he agreed with the decisions of both Councils, confirming the deposition of Cyril of Alexandria, Memnon and Nestorius. But he endeavored to bring the two parties together and heal the breach. Nestorius gave up the battle. He was content to bow out and return to monastic life, though he continued to write and expound his views, so very different to those he had been falsely condemned for. Cyril and his cohorts condemned Pelagianism, to please Rome, granted ecclesiastical autonomy to Cyprus and raised Jerusalem to a full patriarchate, to annoy Antioch. They also passed a resolution forbidding any addition to the Nicene Creed.
Cyril's victory was short-lived. In 431 he put his signature to a formulary of peace drafted by the leading Syrian theologian Theodoret of Cyrus, which protected Antiochene theology in all essentials. It declared that Christ was "perfect God and perfect man consisting of rational soul and body, of one substance with the Father in his Godhead, of one substance with us in his Manhood, so that there is a union of two natures; on which ground we confess Christ to be one and Mary to be mother of God."
It was a compromise achieved by ecclesiastical politicians under government pressure. But it was a truce maintained under strain. Both Nestorius and Cyril had believed themselves to be right. Nestorius perished in obscurity and Cyril died amidst the trappings of ecclesiastical splendor at Alexandria. But some theologians and bishops refused to accept the cobbled together creed and were exiled by the imperial authorities as disturbers of the peace. A number of them sought refuge in the Persian Empire, and several found a home at Nisibis the main training school for clergy in the Persian domains. Eventually their students filled many of the leading ecclesiastical posts in that realm and their doctrines became the accepted teachings of the Mesopotamian-Persian Church, known as Nestorian.
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