Nestorian Essay

The major schism within the Christian community dominated the theological debates from the 4th and up to the 6-7th centuries. It was based on the opposition to Nicene and Arian Christians (especially in Western Europe and North Africa, where various Germanic states embraced Arianism). In the meantime, a new division began emerging in the 5th century: the Nestorian controversy.

This is especially important for the Near East, where it still has consequences, namely the schism between the Orthodox/Catholic churches and Nestorian communities (the Assyrian Church of the East and its offshoots).

It all started with a debate regarding the nature of Christ, opposing the Antiochene theological school (following the Logos-anthropos i.e. “the eternal Word assumed Jesus, the man” doctrine) and the Alexandrine one (Logos-sarx – “the Word became flesh”; O’Collins, 2009, p. 188).

The Controversy

The leaders of the two schools of thought were the Syrian Nestorius (386-450), Patriarch of Constantinople since 428, and Cyril of Alexandria (376-444), Patriarch of Alexandria since 412.

Nestorius’s Views

The big theological problem was how exactly Divinity (the eternal Word) could coexist with the human nature of Jesus. The most common theological explanation assimilated the God-Man relationship in Christ with the soul-flesh relationship in any human being. However, the difference between those substances is huge: an incomplete substance (the soul) versus a complete one (Deity).

The answer Nestorius gave to this unsatisfactory definition was to defend Christ’s integral humanity and Divinity by supporting two different and complete natures in conjunction (synapheia) with one another, within the same person (prosōpon,O’Collins, 2009, p. 190).

Although Nestorius did not go any further with this separation, his opponents accused him of trying to suggest a mere assumption of the human Jesus by God, with just a moral unity among them.

The practical consequences for the Church were significant. The events occurring to the human Jesus could not be also attributed to the Logos. The best examples here are the birth (the Theotokos – “Mother of God” title given to Mary, mentioned by Luke, 1:43: “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”; NRSV Bible) and the sacrifice on the cross.

The problem got worse as Nestorius and his followers gradually shifted towards the belief in two prosōpa, (persons), or even “two Sons” (O’Collins, 2009, p. 195). This prompted a reaction from the rest of the Church.

Cyril’s Views

Cyril supported the idea of the Word of God becoming flesh, thus getting accused by the Nestorian camp of unreasonably “mixing” the Divine and human nature.

“Hypostatically united” was his main characterization of Jesus’ nature, the Divine and human in one person and hypostasis (allowing, thus, the attribution of Jesus’ life events to the Logos), but rejecting any “mixing” of the two (O’Collins, 2009, p. 193).

However, he often shifted between one and two natures (physeis), a term that would soon become a central issue in theological debates. While, at the beginning of his activity, he was in favor of one single physis, he later changed to two natures, while still admitting a significant difference among the two natures forming the union.

The Resolution: Ephesus and Chalcedon

In June, 431, the Council of Ephesus, opened by Cyril himself and bringing together mainly his followers, condemned and excommunicated Nestorius and proclaimed Cyril’s second letter to Nestorius completely consonant with the Nicene Creed.

Patriarch John of Antioch, supporting Nestorius, organized his own Council, condemning Cyril and declaring the schism official. He and some of his adepts later reconciled with Cyril.

Cyril won the dispute, but the uncertainty regarding the one or two physeis and the way they got united caused another major rift. Soon after Cyril died, in 444, Eutyches (archimandrite of a monastery in Constantinople) claimed that the difference between the Word and the human nature was so serious that the former absorbed the latter (a doctrine called monophysitism).

The rise of monophysitism led to the Council of Chalcedon. Here, in November, 451, Cyril’s second letter to Nestorius and the one to John of Antioch were confirmed again. They were made part of the official dogma: two natures in one person, human and Divine, Jesus being consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father and mankind to the same degree. Both natures were complete and in no way mixed, changed by the union or somehow separated (O’Collins, 2009, p. 196).

In the words of The Council of Chalcedon’s Definition of Faith,  “the difference of the natures is not destroyed because of the union, but, on the contrary, the character of each nature is preserved and comes together in one person and one hypostasis” (in Norris, 1980, p. 159).

This excluded both the doctrines of Nestorius and Eutyches, deepening the rift with the Church of the East and opening a new rift with what were going to become the Oriental Orthodox Churches.

For the church sometimes known as the Nestorian Church, see Church of the East.

"Nestorian" redirects here. For other uses, see Nestorian (disambiguation).

Nestorianism is a Christological doctrine that emphasizes a distinction between the human and divine natures of the divine person, Jesus. It was advanced by Nestorius (386–450), Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to 431, influenced by Nestorius's studies under Theodore of Mopsuestia at the School of Antioch.

Nestorius's teachings brought him into conflict with other prominent church leaders, most notably Cyril of Alexandria, who criticized especially his rejection of the title Theotokos ("Mother of God") for Mary, the mother of Jesus. Nestorius and his teachings were eventually condemned as heretical at the Council of Ephesus in 431 and the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which led to the Nestorian Schism; churches supporting Nestorius broke with the rest of the Christian Church.

Following that, many of Nestorius's supporters relocated to the Sasanian Empire, where they affiliated with the local Christian community, known as the Church of the East. Over the next decades the Church of the East became increasingly Nestorian in doctrine, leading to it becoming known alternatively as the Nestorian Church.


Nestorianism is a form of dyophysitism. It can be seen as the antithesis to monophysitism, which emerged in reaction to Nestorianism. Where Nestorianism holds that Christ had two loosely united natures, divine and human, monophysitism holds that he had but a single nature, his human nature being absorbed into his divinity. A brief definition of Nestorian Christology can be given as: "Jesus Christ, who is not identical with the Son but personally united with the Son, who lives in him, is one hypostasis and one nature: human;"[2] This contrasts with Nestorius' own teaching that the Word, which is eternal, and the Flesh, which is not, came together in a hypostatic union, 'Jesus Christ', Jesus thus being both fully man and God, of two ousia (Ancient Greek: οὐσία) but of one prosopon.[3] Both Nestorianism and monophysitism were condemned as heretical at the Council of Chalcedon. Monophysitism survived and developed into the Miaphysitism of the Oriental Orthodoxy.


Following the exodus to Iran, scholars expanded on the teachings of Nestorius and his mentors, particularly after the relocation of the School of Edessa to the (then) Persian city of Nisibis (modern-day Nusaybin in Turkey) in 489, where it became known as the School of Nisibis.

Nestorianism never again became prominent in the Roman Empire or later Europe, though the diffusion of the Church of the East in and after the seventh century, spread it widely across Asia.

However, not all churches affiliated with the Church of the East appear to have followed Nestorian Christology; indeed, the modern Assyrian Church of the East, which reveres Nestorius, does not follow all historically Nestorian doctrine.

Despite this initial Eastern expansion, the Nestorians' missionary success was eventually deterred. David J Bosch observes, "By the end of the fourteenth century, however, the Nestorian and other churches—which at one time had dotted the landscape of all of Central and even parts of East Asia—were all but wiped out. Isolated pockets of Christianity survived only in India. The religious victors on the vast Central Asian mission field of the Nestorians were Islam and Buddhism".[4]

Nestorian doctrine[edit]

Nestorius developed his Christological views as an attempt to understand and explain rationally the incarnation of the divine Logos, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity as the man Jesus. He had studied at the School of Antioch where his mentor had been Theodore of Mopsuestia; Theodore and other Antioch theologians had long taught a literalist interpretation of the Bible and stressed the distinctiveness of the human and divine natures of Jesus. Nestorius took his Antiochene leanings with him when he was appointed Patriarch of Constantinople by Byzantine emperor Theodosius II in 428.

Nestorius's teachings became the root of controversy when he publicly challenged the long-used title Theotokos[5] (Bringer forth of God) for Mary. He suggested that the title denied Christ's full humanity, arguing instead that Jesus had two persons (dyoprosopism), the divine Logos and the human Jesus. As a result of this prosopic duality, he proposed Christotokos (Bringer forth of Christ) as a more suitable title for Mary.

Nestorius' opponents found his teaching too close to the heresy of adoptionism – the idea that Christ had been born a man who had later been "adopted" as God's son. Nestorius was especially criticized by Cyril of Alexandria, Patriarch of Alexandria, who argued that Nestorius's teachings undermined the unity of Christ's divine and human natures at the Incarnation. Some of Nestorius's opponents argued that he put too much emphasis on the human nature of Christ, and others debated that the difference that Nestorius implied between the human nature and the divine nature created a fracture in the singularity of Christ, thus creating two Christ figures.[6] Nestorius himself always insisted that his views were orthodox, though they were deemed heretical at the Council of Ephesus in 431, leading to the Nestorian Schism, when churches supportive of Nestorius and the rest of the Christian Church separated. A more elaborate Nestorian theology developed from there, which came to see Christ as having two natures united, or hypostases,[7][citation needed][dubious– discuss] the divine Logos and the human Christ. However, this formulation was never adopted by all churches termed "Nestorian". Indeed, the modern Assyrian Church of the East, which reveres Nestorius, does not fully subscribe to Nestorian doctrine, though it does not employ the title Theotokos.[8]

Nestorian Schism and early history[edit]

Main article: Nestorian Schism

Nestorianism became a distinct sect following the Nestorian Schism, beginning in the 430s. Nestorius had come under fire from Western theologians, most notably Cyril of Alexandria. Cyril had both theological and political reasons for attacking Nestorius; on top of feeling that Nestorianism was an error against true belief, he also wanted to denigrate the head of a competing patriarchate.[citation needed] Cyril and Nestorius asked Pope Celestine I to weigh in on the matter. Celestine found that the title Theotokos[9] was orthodox, and authorized Cyril to ask Nestorius to recant. Cyril, however, used the opportunity to further attack Nestorius, who pleaded with Emperor Theodosius II to call a council so that all grievances could be aired.[8]

In 431 Theodosius called the Council of Ephesus. However, the council ultimately sided with Cyril, who held that the Christ contained two natures in one divine person (hypostasis, unity of subsistence), and that the Virgin Mary, conceiving and bearing this divine person, is truly called the Mother of God (Theotokos, meaning, God-bearer). The council accused Nestorius of heresy, and deposed him as patriarch.[10] Nestorianism was officially anathematized, a ruling reiterated at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. However, a number of churches, particularly those associated with the School of Edessa, supported Nestorius – though not necessarily his doctrine – and broke with the churches of the West. Many of Nestorius' supporters relocated to the Sasanian Empire of Iran, home to a vibrant but persecuted Christian minority.[11]

Nestorianism and the Persian Church[edit]

Iran had long been home to a Christian community that had been persecuted by the Zoroastrian majority, which had accused it of Roman leanings. In 424, the Persian Church declared itself independent of the Byzantine Church and all other churches, in order to ward off allegations of foreign allegiance. Following the Nestorian Schism, the Persian Church increasingly aligned itself with the Nestorians, a measure encouraged by the Zoroastrian ruling class. The Persian Church became increasingly Nestorian in doctrine over the next decades, furthering the divide between Chalcedonian Christianity and the Nestorians. In 486 the Metropolitan of Nisibis, Barsauma, publicly accepted Nestorius' mentor, Theodore of Mopsuestia, as a spiritual authority. In 489 when the School of Edessa in Mesopotamia was closed by Byzantine Emperor Zeno for its Nestorian teachings, the school relocated to its original home of Nisibis, becoming again the School of Nisibis, leading to a wave of Nestorian immigration into Persia. The Persian patriarch Babai (497–502) reiterated and expanded upon the church's esteem for Theodore, solidifying the church's adoption of Nestorianism.[11]

Now firmly established in Iran, with centers in Nisibis, Ctesiphon, and Gundeshapur, and several metropolides, the Nestorian Persian Church began to branch out beyond the Sasanian Empire. However, through the sixth century, the church was frequently beset with internal strife and persecution by Zoroastrians. The infighting led to a schism, which lasted from 521 until around 539, when the issues were resolved. However, immediately afterward Roman-Persian conflict led to the persecution of the church by the Sassanid emperor Khosrow I; this ended in 545. The church survived these trials under the guidance of Patriarch Aba I, who had converted to Christianity from Zoroastrianism.[11]

The church emerged stronger after this period of ordeal, and increased missionary efforts farther afield. Missionaries established dioceses in the Arabian Peninsula and India (the Saint Thomas Christians). They made some advances in Egypt, despite the strong miaphysite presence there.[12] Missionaries entered Central Asia and had significant success converting local Turkic tribes. Nestorian missionaries were firmly established in China during the early part of the Tang dynasty (618–907); the Chinese source known as the Nestorian Stele records a mission under a Persian proselyte named Alopen as introducing Nestorian Christianity to China in 635. Following the Muslim conquest of Persia, completed in 644, the Persian Church became a dhimmi community under the Rashidun Caliphate. The church and its communities abroad grew larger under the Caliphate; by the 10th century it had fifteen metropolitan sees within the Caliphate's territories, and another five elsewhere, including in China and India.[11]

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • Baum, Wilhelm; Winkler, Dietmar W. (2003). The Church of the East: A Concise History. London-New York: Routledge-Curzon. 
  • Badger, George Percy (1852). The Nestorians and Their Rituals. 1. London: Joseph Masters. 
  • Badger, George Percy (1852). The Nestorians and Their Rituals. 2. London: Joseph Masters. 
  • Chabot, Jean-Baptiste (1902). Synodicon orientale ou recueil de synodes nestoriens(PDF). Paris: Imprimerie Nationale. 
  • Meyendorff, John (1989). Imperial unity and Christian divisions: The Church 450-680 A.D. The Church in history. 2. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. ISBN 978-0-88-141056-3. 
  • Luise Abramowski, "Der Bischof von Seleukia-Ktesiphon als Katholikos und Patriarch der Kirche des Ostens," in Dmitrij Bumazhnov u. Hans R. Seeliger (hg), Syrien im 1.-7. Jahrhundert nach Christus. Akten der 1. Tübinger Tagung zum Christlichen Orient (15.-16. Juni 2007). (Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck, 2011) (Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum / Studies and Texts in Antiquity and Christianity, 62),
  • "Nestorius and Nestorianism". Catholic Encyclopedia. 
  • Seleznyov, Nikolai N., "Nestorius of Constantinople: Condemnation, Suppression, Veneration, With special reference to the role of his name in East-Syriac Christianity" in: Journal of Eastern Christian Studies 62:3–4 (2010): 165–190.
  • Henri Bernard, La decouverte des Nestoriens Mongols aux Ordos et I'histoire ancienne du Christianisme en Extreme-Orient, Tianjin, Hautes Etudes, 1935.
  • Lev N. Gumilev. Poiski vymyshlennogo tsarstva (in Russian, "Looking for the mythical kingdom"). Moscow, Onyx Publishers, 2003. ISBN 5-9503-0041-6.
  • Hill, Henry, ed (1988). Light from the East: A Symposium on the Oriental Orthodox and Assyrian Churches. Toronto: Anglican Book Centre. 
  • Rossabi, Morris (1992). Voyager from Xanadu: Rabban Sauma and the first journey from China to the West. Kodansha International Ltd.ISBN 4-7700-1650-6. 
  • Stewart, John (1928). Nestorian missionary enterprise, the story of a church on fire. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark. 
  • Chesnut, Roberta C. (1978). "The Two Prosopa in Nestorius' Bazaar of Heracleides". The Journal of Theological Studies (29): 392–409. 
  • Jugie, Martin (1935). "L'ecclésiologie des Nestoriens". Échos d'Orient. 34 (177): 5–25. 
  • Wilmshurst, David (2000). The Ecclesiastical Organisation of the Church of the East, 1318–1913. Louvain: Peeters Publishers. 

External links[edit]

Wikisource has several original texts related to: Nestorianism
In the Nestorian view, the human and divine persons of Christ are separate.[1]
Nestorian priests in a procession on Palm Sunday, in a seventh- or eighth-century wall painting from a Nestorian church in Qocho, China
  1. ^Hogan, Dissent from the Creed. pages 123–125.
  2. ^Martin Lembke, lecture in the course "Meetings with the World's Religions", Centre for Theology and Religious Studies, Lund University, Spring Term 2010.
  3. ^The Bazaar of Heracleides
  4. ^Bosch, David (1991). Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Orbis Books. ISBN 978-1-60833-146-8. , page 204
  5. ^Eirini Artemi, Cyril of Alexandria's critique of the term THEOTOKOS by Nestorius Constantinople, Acta theol. vol.32 no.2 Bloemfontein Dec. 2012
  6. ^Jerry Bentley, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 105.
  7. ^The Catholic Encyclopedia. "Nestorius and Nestorianism". 
  8. ^ ab"Nestorius". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved January 29, 2010.
  9. ^Eirini Artemi, Cyril of Alexandria's critique of the term THEOTOKOS by Nestorius Constantinople, Acta theol. vol.32 no.2 Bloemfontein Dec. 2012,
  10. ^ July 4, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  11. ^ abcd"Nestorian". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved January 28, 2010.
  12. ^Campbell, Ted (1996). Christian Confessions: A Historical Introduction. Westminster: John Knox Press. ISBN 978-0-664-25650-0. , page 62.
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