Nestorianism, a Christian doctrine, revolves around the work of Nestorius, one of the first bishops of Constantinople.

Its literature, however, includes also other theological and historical sources that are based on his works. In this article, we will talk about its stormy origins and history. Get ready for a full immersion into this peculiar Christian heresy!

What Is Nestorianism?

Nestorianism is a Christian doctrine that originated in Syria and Asia Minor. Nestorianism beliefs stressed the independence of the divine and human natures of Christ. In other words, according to Nestorianism Christ is two different persons, united into one.

In particular, Jesus would be made up of a divine entity and a human person. Therefore, when Jesus died, it wasn’t the Son of God who suffered, but only his human nature. When he performed a miracle, it was the divine acting independently of the human person of Jesus.

– The Founders of Nestorianism

Nestorius’s theology was heavily influenced by the teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, the most prominent theologian of the Antiochian School.

Many Christians who spoke Syriac found themselves attracted to the teachings of Theodore. Because of this, the Church of the East adopted Theodore, Nestorius, and Diodor as authorities of the church doctrine. Theodore of Mopsuestia is currently recognized as the greatest Bible scholar in history.

In Nestorian Mariology, Mary is not given the title of “God-bearer”. This emphasizes the distinction between divine and human aspects of the Incarnation. Nestorian Christianity believes in the concept of a prosopic union of two natures in Jesus.

This Christological position is called radical dyophysitism in the Christian world. It also differs from the orthodox dyophysitism, which was reaffirmed at the Council of Chalcedon.

– Nestorianism Definition

Based on the Oxford dictionary, Nestorianism is “The doctrine of Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, by which Christ is asserted to have had distinct human and divine persons.”

Nestorianism is a term used in Christian theology as a designation for related but doctrinally distinctive sets of teachings. The first use of the term is linked to the teachings of the Christian theologian Nestorius, who promoted doctrines of Christology and Mariology.

The second meaning of the term is related to a set of theological teachings that was known as Nestorian but was distinct from the works of Nestorius in origin, scope, and terminology.

– The Nestorian Heresy

Nestorianism is the last major heresy. As such, it gave rise to the Church’s definitive response regarding the person of Christ at the Council of Chalcedon, in 451 AD.

Nestorians believe that Christ exists as two persons sharing one body. The Nestorian controversy starts with the belief that Christ’s Divine and human nature are distinct and separate. This idea goes against the Orthodox Christian doctrine of the hypostatic union, which states that Christ is fully God and man in one person.

The Origins of Nestorianism

Nestorian ideas first started with the writings of Diodore of Tarsus, who was against the heresy of Apollinarius. In rejecting Apollinarianism, Diodore wrote about the time of incarnation.

According to him, after the Incarnation, the Divine and human natures of Jesus Christ were divided to such an extent that there was complete independence of natures and no union was possible.

These ideas were studied and developed by Theodore of Mopsuestia. Theodore was a scholar in the Antiochian tradition. Theodore wrote how the human and divine natures of Christ were so completely separate that there was only contact between them, but no union of any kind.

Nestorianism in the Writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia

While writing his ideas, Theodore also thought about how Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary. God, having foreseen Man’s triumph over sin, chose to redeem the human race through Him by becoming united with Him by Grace from the time of His conception. He also made the Man Jesus worthy of being called his Son.

Jesus Christ ultimately became God’s tool for the salvation of mankind. Based on these ideas, Theodore opposed God as a description of Jesus Christ. He wouldn’t say the terms “God was crucified” or “God was born” because, he believed, only the Man Jesus was born and God dwelt in the Man Jesus.

Thus, Theodore called Jesus “Theophorus,” which meant Bearer of God. He was also opposed to the term “Theotokos,” which means Giver of Birth to God, for the Virgin Mary.

The Christians thought Theodore’s beliefs were heretical because they deny redemption and salvation. Because if only the Man Jesus suffered on the Cross and died for the sins of men, then how does the suffering of a man redeem the whole human race?

History

When Constantine moved the political capital from Rome to Byzantium, the Western Church centralized the religious power of the Roman Catholic Church. The church of the East didn’t go on the same path. Instead, they retained several important churches that were spread across the region. Alexandria and Antioch were two of the oldest and most important of these churches.

In the first few centuries of the Church, a debate sparked discussion among Christians. They sought to answer the exact nature of Christ. How can he be divine and human? In the West, the Roman Catholic Church decreed Jesus to be “two natures in one person” and moved on. In the East, the discussion on Christ’s nature went on far longer.

The Peculiarities of the Eastern Church Theology

The Alexandrines insisted that Jesus was divine. They believed in the unity of Christ’s person. Apollinaris of Laodicea summarized the idea by saying the Word of God took the place of a rational soul so that a human body could preach the truth of God. The body was simply a tool, a mouthpiece.

The Antiochenes from Antioch did not agree with this idea. Antiochenes stressed the two natures and the true humanity of Christ. They said a sacrifice that was not fully human could not redeem humans. So they believed that God had his presence in Jesus but he was also human. In short, Jesus had two distinct natures.

Their different views weren’t originally a problem, until the danger of losing touch was realized. First, the Alexandrian emphasis might result in a view of Christ that downplayed his humanity, while the Antiochene approach might lead to an interpretation of the figure of Christ that divided the two natures rather than just distinguishing them.

Who Is Nestorius?

Nestorius, the man who created the Nestorian heresy, was born in Germania, Syria. The date of his birth is unknown but he died in Egypt in 451 AD. Nestorius was a monk in the monastery of Euprepius. He was also the student of Theodore of Mopsuestia.

Theodore influenced the 4th-century Christian scholars from Antioch, including Nestorius. Nestorius made Theodore’s teachings popular and had them named after himself. He was chosen by Emperor Theodosius II to be Patriarch of Constantinople in succession to Sisinnius.

Nestorius was known for his eloquence. He rejected the traditional doctrine of the Incarnation by denying the hypostatic union of human and divine natures of Jesus. He also wrote his Antiochian doctrine of the Incarnation. His becoming the court bishop was influenced by the popularity of St. Chrysostom’s memory among the people of the imperial city.

– The Career of Nestorius

Nestorius was consecrated in April 428 AD. Several days after his consecration, he had an Arian chapel destroyed. He also persuaded Theodosius to issue a severe edict against heresy in the following month.

Nestorius also seized the churches of the Macedonians in Hellespont. He also took measures against the Quartodecimans who lived in Asia Minor. Nestorius also attacked the Novatians, despite them having a good bishop.

Nestorius also distinguished between the human aspect and the divine aspect of Christ. He believed that God could not suffer on the cross because he is omnipotent. Therefore, only the human aspect of Christ died on the cross to save humans.

He became the patriarch of Constantinople in 428 and began preaching against the use of the title “Mother of God” for the Virgin Mary.  He suggested calling Mary “Mother of Christ” instead. He stated that to call Mary the Mother of God was also to imply that Mary was of divine nature, that she is a goddess, which is not because she is simply human.

Because of his unconventional teachings, Nestorius got into conflict with other church leaders, including Cyril of Alexandria. Cyril detested him so much that he issued 12 anathemas against him. However, the first to express his disapproval was Eusebius, a layman.

After him came the Bishop of Dorylaeum and the accuser of Eutyches. Soon the two city priests, Phili and Proclus, preached against Nestorius. Philip, who was originally from the Side, accused Nestorius of heresy.

– The Controversies Around Nestorianism

Proclus, who succeeded Philip, preached the same flowery orthodox sermon against Nestorius. This fight brought great excitement to Constantinople, especially towards the clergy who didn’t like Nestorius and who immediately condemned his doctrine. In 430 AD, Nestorius arranged an assembly of the council. Summons were issued to the patriarchs and metropolitans.

Nestorianism did not reflect the conventional tradition of the Church. This was even documented by early historians, such as Socrates and Heracleids. They also accused Nestorius of adopting the beliefs of Paul of Samosata, a theology that saw Christ as a man who, through his sufferings and virtues, attained the dignity of a Son of God.

This was very different from Cyril’s belief about Christ’s nature. For Cyril, Christ had one sole nature which is concrete and existent.

Nestorius couldn’t imagine nature without substance or without a concrete personality which is why didn’t grasp the concept of real existence. The main problem with Nestorius is that he couldn’t reconcile the concepts of “person” and “nature.”

What Nestorius called “natures” should have been called “persons.” His error was to divide Christ into two persons — human and divine. Christ is only one Person and Mary is the mother of that Person.

Mothers give birth to persons and not natures. Many scholars argue that if only their ideas were defined and clarified, there wouldn’t be a schism, and the argument could have been avoided entirely.

– The Exile of Nestorius

In 431, Cyril talked to Pope Celestine I to condemn Nestorius and declare him a heretic during the Council of Ephesus of the same year. Nestorius and his teachings were in fact condemned as heretical not only at the Council of Ephesus, but also at the Council of Chalcedon.

The Councils agreed that Christ was a single person and that Mary was indeed the mother of God. In 435,  Emperor Theodosius II issued an edict exiling Nestorius to a monastery in Egypt. They also burned all his writings.

The exile of Nestorius resulted in the separation of the Assyrian Church from the Byzantine Church. The Assyrian Church also dropped support for Nestorius and denounced him as a heretic. Today, Protestants display the most similarities to Nestorianism. Protestants reject the Mother of God title to Mary.

The Nestorians

The term “Nestorian” refers to both the religion and the Syriac-speaking people based in Iraq and Southern Turkey. Nestorians have a school in Edessa, Turkey. They also have followers from different races, including Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians, Arabs, and Persians.

After Christening, most of them were called East Syrians to be easier to distinguish from West Syrians, who were either Jacobites or Monophysites.

Assyrian Christians of today don’t like to be called Nestorians. They believe that Nestorius did not found the Church of the East. For them, the term Nestorian now exclusively refers to the heresy.

In reality, being accused of heresy gave the Nestorian Churches some benefits. Before Christianity was legal in the Roman Empire, many Christians would seek refuge in the Persian Empire, Rome’s enemy. With Persia as its base, the Nestorian Church’s power and influence spread out across the Silk Road and throughout all of the Far East.

Today, about half a million Nestorians are living in Orumiyeh, in northwestern Iran. Some of them can also be found in Azerbaijan, Northern Iraq, and Eastern Turkey.  Nestorians lived alongside Kurds for centuries and developed good relationships with them.

The Nestorian Church

The Nestorian Church was an Eastern Christian church of the East Syriac Rite. It was located in Mesopotamia. It used to be a major branch of Eastern Christianity which was founded during the Christological controversies.

The other two branches during this time were the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Eastern Orthodox Church. During the Early Period, these churches have claimed the heritage of the Church of the East.

The Nestorian Church used to be the national church of the Sasanian Empire. In 424 AD, this church declared itself independent from the church structure of the Roman Empire. Back then, the Nestorian Church — established by Thomas the Apostle in the 1st century — was headed by the Patriarch of the East seated in Seleucia-Ctesiphon.

It was part of the Great Church which originally shared communion with the Roman Empire until it was condemned by the Council of Ephesus.

The Nestorian organization and its supporters moved to Sasanian Persia to take refuge. Here, the church refused to condemn Nestorius. It was then called the Nestorian Church by all other Eastern churches.

Also, during this period, the Persian and Roman Empires were at war with each other. This forced the Church of the East to stay away from the churches within Roman territory.

After the Muslim conquest of Persia, the Nestorian Church played a key role in the spread of Christianity in Asia. Between the 9th and 14th centuries, the Nestorian church became the world’s largest Christian denomination in terms of geographical extent. The Nestorian Church also established dioceses and communities beyond the Mediterranean Sea. Today, you can find these churches in Iraq, Iran, India, Central Asia and China.

Conclusion

At this point, you can consider yourself as an expert in the Christian doctrine of Nestorianism! Here are a few key points from this article:

  • Nestorianism is a Christian sect that was founded in Syria and Asia Minor. This belief stresses the independence of the divine and human natures of Christ.
  • In Nestorian Mariology, Mary is not given the title of “God-bearer.” This emphasizes the distinction between divine and human aspects of the Incarnation.
  • The term “Nestorian” refers to both the religion and the Syriac-speaking people based in Iraq and Southern Turkey.
  • Nestorius, the man who created the Nestorian heresy, was born in Germania, Syria. The date of his birth is unknown but he died in Egypt in 451 AD.
  • Nestorius was a monk in the monastery of Euprepius. He was also the student of Theodore of Mopsuestia.
  • Nestorius made Theodore’s teachings popular and had them named after himself. He was chosen by  Emperor Theodosius II to be Patriarch of Constantinople in succession to Sisinnius.
  • Because of his unconventional teachings, Nestorius got into conflict with church leaders including Cyril of Alexandria.
  • In 431, Cyril talked to the Pope Celestine I to condemn Nestorius and declare him a heretic during the Council of Ephesus in 431.
  • Nestorianism is the last major heresy that gave rise to the church’s definitive response regarding the person of Christ at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
  • The exile of Nestorius resulted in schism and separation of the Assyrian Church from the Byzantine Church.
  • Today, about half a million Nestorians are living in Orumiyeh in northwestern Iran. Some of them can also be found in Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, Northern Iraq, and Eastern Turkey.

We hope you have found all the information you were looking for in this article. Now you can feel confident speaking about Nestorianism!

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