About That Guy Nestorius...

I suppose there are extremists on all sides of just about every theological issue. In my experience, those who hold to extreme positions tend to fixate on a single constituent part of the greater issue and then measure every argument presented on that issue against their understanding of the microcosm.

Not too long ago, a Catholic extremist was bouncing around theological message boards. This fellow had fixated on the 5th century Nestorian heresy. He reacted wildly to just about every Christian post dealing with mariology or Christology. Not even those of his own Catholic faith were immune to his emotional outbursts. I have an image of him as a small child, jumping up and down and waving his arms frantically as he shouts, "Nestorian, Nestorian."

So who was Nestorius and what did he do that, some 16 centuries later, is still able to spark such hysterical reactions in that defender of the Catholic faith? Before addressing that, I believe it important to lay an historical and theological groundwork.

Nestorius was but one of a number of early theologians who attempted to explain the relationship of divinity and humanity in Jesus Christ. Proponents of several of these doctrines were struggling to attain ascendancy in the 5th century. One of these doctrines came to be known as Arianism.

Though the heresy is named after Arius of Alexandria, it appears to have been born in Antioch. The man many historians believe to have originated the doctrines of what we now call Arianism was a Syrian-born priest known to history and hagiology as Lucian of Antioch. Lucian, who headed the theological school in Antioch, fell out of favor with the church as a consequence of his association with a known heretic and was excommunicated. He later was re-instated and came to be a major player in church history.

Lucian was an early champion of literal interpretation and strongly opposed the allegorical methods of the Alexandrian school. He stressed the importance of textual accuracy and produced a revision of the Septuagint, based on the original Hebrew source texts, and a recession of the New Testament. One of my old hagiologies describes his labors in these words:

He revised the books of the Old and New Testaments, expunging the errors which had found their way into the text either through the negligence of copyists or the malice of heretics, thus preparing the way for St. Jerome, who shortly after was to give the world the Latin translation known as "The Vulgate".--John Gilmary Shea, Ed., Little Pictorial Lives of the Saints," Benzinger Brothers (1878), p. 49. Has imprimaturs and approbations of Pope Leo XIII and 39 cardinals, archbishops and bishops

Whatta guy! Though once excommunicated for an extended period, and believed to be the father of a major Christological heresy, Lucian is considered a shining light in the early church. Lucian "fixed" errors that allegedly had crept into the Septuagint and his work later was used by Jerome in his revisions of revisions and the Bible version he produced. Seems to me that a lot of hands were involved in creating corrections and rescensions of the Septuagint, which was the seed from which eventually grew much of the Vulgate Bible.

Lucian may have been a hot shot at interpretation and textual criticism, but he was something of a flop when it came to theology. The Christology that he came up with, a cross between Modalism and Subordinationism, held that the Logos was Himself created, though He then went on to create everything else that was created and, by virtue of His role as Creator, was greatly superior to all the rest of creation. The best known of Lucian’s students were Eusebius, the father of church history, and Arius, the Alexandrian presbyter who lent his name to one of the great heresies of antiquity.

In Arius's thought, certain trends of Alexandrian theology, formulated by Origen a few generations earlier, reached their ultimate consequences. Arius's concept of the Christian godhead was monarchic, that is, it held that the first and unique absolute principle of divinity is the Father. Consequently, any other divine reality was considered by him as secondary to the Father. He applied this view of all to the Logos, the Word of God, the Son who becomes the instrument of the divine plan of creation and salvation. The Son, being bound to the decision of the Father in the very process of his generation as the Son, is not eternal in the same sense as the Father is eternal; more important, he is not eternal because only the Father is ungenerated. On the other hand, being the instrument of the fulfillment of the Father's will, the Son is by nature linked with the divine creation. He is, so to speak, the first transcendent creature, the principle of all things.--Mircea Eliade, Encyclopedia of Religion, "Arianism", Vol. 1, p. 405

How did Lucian and Arius and others come up with the idea that the Logos was a creature? How did they justify it?

The same way scholars and theologians who support false doctrines do today; they appealed to flawed interpretations of selected verses of Scripture taken out of context. Lucian, Arius, Eusebius and others based their false Christology on eisegesis of four passages of Scripture. One of them, taken from the Septuagint, reads:

The Lord made me the beginning of his ways for his works--Proverbs 8:22

Here is an excellent example of the dangers inherent in using prooftexts selected without regard to context. Lucian and his followers no doubt believed sincerely that this passage had reference to Jesus. Why would they believe such a thing? Because they wanted to believe that it referred to Jesus. When they searched the Scriptures, perhaps they were looking for verses to support a suspicion they already held: that God the Father created all things, including His Logos. With that thought to guide them, it likely was not difficult to read support into verses like Proverbs 8:22. But is that what the verse says?

In the King James Version, the Old Testament is based on the Hebrew Masoretic Text, not a hodge-podge of texts as was the Greek Septuagint translation. Proverbs 8:22 reads this way in the KJV:

The LORD possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old.

Wow! Major difference between "made me" and "possessed me," but even that is not the major flaw when using this verse to support the idea that God the Father created His Logos. The BIG mistake fairly shouts at one when the verse is read in context. Verse 22 is part of a larger passage dealing with, not the Logos, but wisdom. Turn to the online Septuagint and read Chapter 8, paying especial attention to verse 12.

I wisdom have dwelt with counsel and knowledge, and I have called upon understanding. (Septuagint)

I wisdom dwell with prudence, and find out knowledge of witty inventions. (KJV)

Three other verses were used to support the Arian view of the Logos. I have no idea what source they used. Perhaps it was one of the Old Latin Bibles in circulation at the time, or perhaps the Peshitta, an ancient Aramaic New Testament. A dear friend copied the verses from his 1851 translation of the Peshitta (by James Murdock, S.T.D.):

Ye have heard what I said to you that I go away, and come [again] to you. If you had loved me, ye would have rejoiced, that I go to my Father; for my Father is greater than I.--John 14:28 (Logos subordinate to the Father)

And he is altogether superior to the angels, as he hath also inherited a name which excelleth theirs--Hebrews 1:4 (Logos a created being)

1) Wherefore, my holy brethren, who are called with a calling that is from heaven, consider this Legate and High Priest of our profession, Jesus the Messiah: (2) who was faithful to him that made him, as was Moses in all his house.--Hebrews 3:1-2 (Logos a created being)

In its efforts to counter the spread of Arianism, the church convened a council in Nicea in June of 325. The creed produced by this council is widely regarded as the basis of orthodox Christianity in both the eastern and western churches. What follows is a translation of the Nicean Creed made from the Greek. Those interested in the translation from Hilary of Poitiers’ Latin version can find it in Denzinger 54:

We believe in one God, the Father, the almighty, the maker of all things seen and unseen.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God; begotten from the Father; only-begotten – that is, from the substance of the Father; God from God; light from light; true God from true God; begotten not made; of one substance with the Father; through whom all things in heaven and on earth came into being; who on account of us human beings and our salvation came down and took flesh, becoming a human being; he suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended into the heavens; and will come again to judge the living and the dead.

And in the Holy Spirit.

As for those who say that "there was when he was not," and "before being born he was not," and "he came into existence out of nothing," or who declare that the Son of God is of a different substance or nature, or is subject to alteration or change – the catholic and apostolic church condemns these.--Alistair E. McGrath, Ed., The Christian Theology Reader, Blackwell (1995), p. 7

At the time the church was busy suppressing Arianism, the term Theotokos, or Mother of God, was increasingly being used in reference to Mary, in whose virgin womb Jesus Christ was conceived. The growing use of this term may have been due, in part at least, to a popular reaction to the heretical claim of the Arians that Christ was not truly divine, having been created, and therefore cannot be God.

And now it is time to look at Nestorius and his teaching concerning the nature of the Logos.

Nestorius, a Syrian-born priest and monk, had acquired a reputation as a dynamic speaker, and this may have influenced emperor Theodosius II to appoint him to the see of Constantinople. Whatever the reasons behind his appointment, Nestorius immediately moved against heretics. He had only been bishop a few days when he had an Arian chapel razed. The following month, he persuaded the emperor to issue an edict against heresy. Then he moved against the Quartodecimans, the Novatians and the Macedonians. Interestingly, he took no action against the Pelagians, apparently for lack of solid information concerning them.

Nestorius hadn’t been in office for even a year when he preached his first sermon against the use of the word Theotokos (God-bearer). He also spelled out his Antiochian view of the incarnation. From this point on, things began sliding downhill for the Patriarch of Constantinople.

What doctrines had Nestorius espoused that led to his being condemned by a hastily convened council in 430, a decision that was ratified by Emperor Theodosius II and confirmed by Pope Sixtus III?

Nestorianism considers Christ to be two persons, one fully divine and one fully human. The heresy takes two forms. According to Nestorius, there is no communication of attributes between the two persons; they are joined only by Jesus’ will. None of the human acts of Jesus, including His suffering and death, could be attributed to His divine nature. His human person bore the entire burden of our sins to the cross.

The principle spokesman for the other position was Nestorius’ teacher, Theodore of Mopsuesta, who believed the two natures were joined in a moral union; that theirs was a functional relationship. His understanding was that Jesus’s human nature was in submission to and under the direction of His divine nature.

"But," some might ask, "isn’t it true that Jesus had two natures? That He was both fully human and fully God?"

Absolutely true. The heresy derives from the Nestorian teaching that the two natures of Christ were joined in a moral union, and acted independently of one another. The Scriptures are clear that Logos, Second Person of the Godhead, actually became flesh. He did not just occupy a human body; He became a human being in a metaphysical union. In other words, Jesus of Nazareth, Logos Incarnate, is a single entity, not a mixture of separate parts.

Cyril of Alexandria explained this metaphysical bonding, known to theologians as the hypostatic union, in a letter to Nestorius:

…In declaring that the Word was made to "be incarnate" and "made human," we do not assert that there was any change in the nature of the Word when it became flesh, or that it was transformed into an entire human being, consisting of soul and body; but we say that the Word, in an indescribable and inconceivable manner, united personally to himself flesh endowed with a rational soul, and thus became a human being and was called the Son of Man. And this was not by a mere act of will or favour, nor simply adopting a role or taking to himself a person. The natures which were brought together to form a true unity were different; but out of both is one Christ and one Son. We do not mean that the difference of the natures is annihilated by reason of this union; but rather hat the divinity and humanity, by their inexpressible and inexplicable concurrence into unity, have produced for us the one Lord and Son Jesus Christ. It is in this sense that he is said to have been born also of a woman after the flesh, though he existed and was begotten from the Father before all ages…It was not that an ordinary human being was first born of the holy Virgin, and that afterwards the Word descended upon him. He was united with the flesh in the womb itself, and thus is said to have undergone a birth after the flesh, inasmuch as he made his own the birth of his own flesh…

In the same way, we say that he "suffered and rose again." We do not mean that God the Word suffered blows or the piercing of nails or other wounds in his own nature, in that the divine is impassible because it is not physical. But the body which had become his own body suffered these things, and therefore he himself is said to have suffered them for us. The impassible was in the body which suffered.--Lionel R. Wickham, Ed., Cyril of Alexandria: Select Letters, Letter IV, 3-5 (Second Letter to Nestorius); Clarendon Press (1983), 4.22-6.28

Why is this important?

It is immeasurably important because if Jesus Christ were not truly man, but the Logos dwelling inside a man, then His sacrifice would not have been sufficient to save all of mankind. Sure, the man inside whom Logos was living might have been saved, but the rest of us would still be looking at an eternity in Hell. It was only because Logos actually became a man and could identify with all humanity that His sacrifice could be applied to all mankind. Because the God-man Jesus took upon Himself the sins of all mankind, whom He represented, when He died our debt to God was paid. Had just the man Jesus died on that cross, while the indwelling Logos was but a bystander, His death would have been grossly insufficient to satisfy even my great debt owed to God.

While the foregoing may have been useful as a foundation for what is to come, it does not explain why that staunch defender of all things Catholic continued to flap his arms and shout, "Nestorian, Nestorian," when he reads some of the posts on the PTG message board. In my experience, it is the rare Catholic apologist or polemist who gets emotional over perceived heresies against Jesus Christ. Not even slights against the Real Presence seem capable of generating a continuing barrage of accusations such as this fellow had sustained for days.

To understand the reason for his upset, we need to travel back to the 5th century and Nestorius’s battles over the term Theotokos.

Nestorius’ position as patriarch of Constantinople and the fact that he had been favored by his emperor over local contenders gave him a bully pulpit to defend his friend and teacher, bishop Theodore of Mopsuesta. He opposed the common practice of referring to Mary as the Theotokos, or Mother of God, and in so doing he incurred the condemnation of the church. This condemnation did not end with Nestorius’ excommunication. It continued to be denounced by popes, councils and others.

The 3rd Ecumenical Council, convened at Ephesus in 431, read and approved in action Cyril of Alexandria’s 2nd letter to Nestorius, thereby setting in theological concrete, as it were, the miraculous combining of Jesus's two natures in what has come to be known as the hypostatic union and also legitimizing referring to Mary as the Mother of God. I include the full text from Denzinger, even though it mostly is the same paragraph from Wickham quoted above, because I find the differences in the translations interesting.

For we do not say that the nature of the Word was changed and made flesh, nor yet that it was changed into the whole man (composed) of soul and body but rather (we say) that the Word uniting with Himself according to person is a body animated by a rational soul, marvelously and incomprehensibly was made man , and was the Son of man, not according to the will alone or by the assumption of a person alone, and that the different natures were brought together in a real union, but that out of both in one Christ and Son, not because the distinction of natures was destroyed by the union, but rather because the divine nature and the human nature formed one Lord and Christ and Son for us, through a marvelous and mystical concurrence in unity…For in the first place no common man was born of the holy Virgin; then the Word thus descended upon him; but being united from the womb itself he is said to have endured a generation in the flesh in order to appropriate the producing of His own body. Thus, (the holy Fathers) did not hesitate to speak of the holy Virgin as the Mother of God.--Cyril of Alexandria, The Incarnation, Council of Ephesus, Denzinger 111a

I know a number of non-Catholics, including myself, who have trouble with one of Rome’s pet names for Mary. I cannot speak for the objections others may have, but my resistance has to do with that ubiquitous Catholic prayer known to all the world as the Hail Mary. That was the first prayer I learned as a Catholic and was the prayer I reckon I prayed a bazillion times in the classroom, CCD classes, during Mass, while praying the Stations of the Cross and the Rosary, etc. For me, the hail Mary symbolizes the Roman Catholic Church. When I encounter that name of Mary, I think of all that I dislike about the RCC.

Can Mary rightfully be called the Mother of God? Yes, she can. No she can’t. It has to do with semantics, I believe.

Did Mary give birth to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit? No, she did not.

Did Mary give birth to God the Son, yes, she did. I shall try to explain.

In the hypostatic union of the divine and the human natures of the incarnate Logos, there existed a metaphysical bonding of the two natures that came about in a way that cannot be explained. It is one of God’s mysteries. At no time in His earthly existence was Jesus the man ever separate from Jesus the Second Person of the Trinity. When He was preborn Jesus in Mary’s womb, He was true God and true man. We have precious little information about His life prior to the beginning of His public ministry, but it is certain that He was always true God and true man, even when as a small child He made the messes that infants make. We are provided a glimpse of how that wonderful union functioned when we read the account of His teaching in the synagogue when He was but a child. He was fully God and fully man when He stood before the Sanhedrin and He was fully God and fully man when He was nailed upon the cross. When He died, He was fully God and fully man. I cannot explain how eternal Logos, Who is spirit and omnipresent could exist while the divine nature of Jesus, in communion with his human nature died that afternoon on Golgotha. It is one of those mysteries I cannot comprehend. All I know is that, had not both of Jesus’ commingled natures died, my sins would not now be forgiven.

In that God the Father, the Logos and the Holy Spirit had no beginning, Mary, a created being, could not have been the Mother of God. In the sense that the Logos, God the Son, was fully present and hypostatically united with the human nature of Jesus from the moment of conception, then I believe it is correct to say that in this very limited sense Mary gave birth to God. She was, in this limited sense, the mother of God--the vessel from which Jesus of Nazareeth, God and man, was birthed.

And with this, I hope, the issue of Theotokos is settled.

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