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Nestorius and the Argument over Mary being the Theotokos

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Nestorius (c.381-c.451) is one of the more tragic figures in church history, who ended his life condemned and exiled. His condemnation was probably more of the result of a personality clash and misunderstandings in defining terms, than through any significant differences in theology.

Nestorius became patriarch of Constantinople in 428, the most important church leader in the Eastern Church. His theological background was in Antioch, where the traditional emphasis was on the humanity of Christ and the historical approach to Scripture. This emphasis on the human nature of Christ appeared to the Alexandrians to make too great a separation between the two natures in Christ. In common with many other theological disputes through church history, the opposing views became polarised to extremes, and many unjustified accusations were made by each side in the argument. Differences in terminology, a lack of love, and insufficient effort towards true reconciliation also deepened the disagreement. This conflict was also provoked y the continuing rivalry between Alexandria and Constantinople as the ecclesiastical capital of the Eastern Church.

The controversy started when Nestorius was reluctant to use the word ‘theotokos’ (mother of God) to describe the Virgin Mary, saying that ‘Christotokos’ (mother of Christ) was a more accurate and appropriate description. Cyril of Alexandria reacted to this, accusing Nestorius of separating the two natures of Christ, which was almost certainly not what Nestorius had taught. This reaction came from the Alexandrian point of view, which emphasised the transcendence of God, and the divine nature of Christ, at the expense of his humanity.

After a sharp exchange of letters between Cyril and Nestorius, Cyril appealed to the Pope and the Emperor in 430. Pope Celestine favoured Cyril because he had shown greater humility in his letter, and condemned Nestorius, giving him ten days to retract. On request from the pope, Cyril wrote a second letter to Nestorius. This letter had twelve anathemas added, one of which stated Mary to be ‘theotokos’. The other anathemas condemned the position which he incorrectly supposed that Nestorius held, which stressed the separation between the divine and human natures in Christ, so that the Christ was described as merely a God-bearing man.

Nestorius appealed to the emperor, who called a council in Ephesus in 431. Cyril arrived first and at his direction the council condemned and deposed Nestorius before he even arrived. The council also accepted Cyril’s second letter but without the anathemas, a decision which was endorsed by Rome. In 433, the new pope, Sixtus III, desired to see reconciliation and compromise, so Cyril sent a third letter, which was answered by John of Antioch, and has become known as the ‘Symbol of Union’. ‘Theotokos’ was declared orthodox and the twelve anathemas were dropped, and Antioch accepted the condemnation of Nestorius.

Nestorius was banished to a desert monastery and died in obscurity. However, the views associated with his name were adopted by the church in Persia, known as the Nestorian Church, and which spread Christianity over a vast area of Asia until the ninth century.