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Nestorian view: Christ existed as two persons

Nestorianism is a Christological heresy which originated in the Church in the 5th century out of an attempt to rationally explain and understand the incarnation of the divine Logos, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity as the man Jesus Christ. Nestorianism teaches that the human and divine essences of Christ are separate and that there are two persons, the man Jesus Christ and the divine Logos, which dwelt in the man. Thus, Nestorians reject such terminology as "God suffered" or "God was crucified", because they believe that the man Jesus Christ suffered. Likewise, they reject the term Theotokos (Giver of birth to God) for the Virgin Mary, using instead the term Christotokos (giver of birth to Christ) or Anthropotokos (giver of birth to a man).

Origins of Nestorianism

Nestorian ideas were first developed in the writings of Diodore of Tarsus against the heresy of Apollinarius. In refuting Apollinarianism, Diodore wrote that at the time of the Incarnation and 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 whatsoever.

These ideas were further developed by Theodore of Mopsuestia (c.350-429), a scholar in the Antochian tradition. Theodore taught that the human and Divine natures of Christ were so completely separate that there was only contact between them, but no union of any kind. In developing his ideas, Theodore wrote that the Man Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary completely naturally and with all faults of men, and that God the Logos (Word), having foreknown the 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. Because of His triumph over sin, the Man Jesus was made worthy of being called Son of God at the time of the Theophany. Then, after His complete triumph over sin during His passion, He was united even more closely with the Divine Logos, becoming God's tool for the salvation of mankind.

Based on these ideas, Theodore was the first to be opposed to the use of language applying to God as a description of Jesus Christ. Thus, he was opposed to the terms "God was crucified", "God suffered", or "God was born", because, he believed, only the Man Jesus was born and God dwelt in the Man Jesus. For this reason, Theodore called Jesus the Theophoros (Bearer of God). He was also opposed to the term Theotokos (Giver of birth to God) for the Virgin Mary, because, he taught, she gave birth only to the Man Jesus. Theodore's beliefs were quite heretical, since, if taken to their logical conclusion, they deny redemption and salvation; 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 human race?

Nestorianism as a public teaching

Nestorian ideas were originally confined to the writings of Diodore, Theodore of Mopsuestia and their close followers in Antioch. However, in 428, Emperor Theodore II called the Antiochian Priest-monk Nestorius, known for his zeal, to come to Constantinople. Nestorius, who brought with him the Priest Anastasius was made Archbishop of Constantinople. In a series of homilies in Constantinople, Anastasius denied the existence of one Theandric Person (The Godman) in Jesus Christ, teaching in Him a division of persons, and attacked the use of the term Theotokos, using instead the term Anthropotokos. This was quite controversial, since the Constantinopolitan faithful were acustomed to using the term Theotokos for the Virgin Mary. To defend Anastasius, Nestorius also said a series of homilies, preaching the teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, though using the term Christotokos instead of Anthropotokos.

Constantinopolitan theologians rose up against the teachings of Nestorius and accused him of preaching the heresy of Paul of Samosata (see Antitrinitarianism). Nestorius then called a council at Constantinople in 429 and condemned those who disagreed with him.

Resistance to Nestorianism

The fiercest opposition to Nestorianism came from St Cyril of Alexandria, a theologian from the Alexandrian school. In a series of epistles and letters to Nestorius, Emperor Theodore II, and Empress Eudoxia, St Cyril outlined the Orthodox teaching and accused Nestorius of heresy. St Cyril then wrote to Pope Celestine of Rome about the teaching of Nestorius. In 430, Pope Celestine called a council at Rome, which condemned Nestorius and called for him to be deposed. Pope Celestine sent copies of the council's decision to St Cyril of Alexandria, who also called a council in Alexandria in 430. At this council, St Cyril issued his famous 12 anathemas against Nestorius, which stated:

  • If anyone does not confess that Emmanuel is God in truth, and therefore that the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God (for she bore in a fleshly way the Word of God become flesh), let him be anathema.
  • If anyone does not confess that the Word from God the Father has been united by hypostasis with the flesh and is one Christ with his own flesh, and is therefore God and man together, let him be anathema.
  • If anyone divides in the one Christ the hypostases after the union, joining them only by a conjunction of dignity or authority or power, and not rather by a coming together in a union by nature, let him be anathema.
  • If anyone distributes between the two persons or hypostases the expressions used either in the Gospels or in the apostolic writings, whether they are used by the holy writers of Christ or by him about himself, and ascribes some to him as to a man, thought of separately from the Word from God, and others, as befitting God, to him as to the Word from God the Father, let him be anathema.
  • If anyone dares to say that Christ was a God-bearing man and not rather God in truth, being by nature one Son, even as "the Word became flesh," and is made partaker of blood and flesh precisely like us, let him be anathema.
  • If anyone says that the Word from God the Father was the God or master of Christ, and does not rather confess the same both God and man, the Word having become flesh, according to the scriptures, let him be anathema.
  • If anyone says that as man Jesus was activated by the Word of God and was clothed with the glory of the Only-begotten, as a being separate from him, let him be anathema.
  • If anyone dares to say that the man who was assumed ought to be worshiped and glorified together with the Divine Word and be called God along with Him, while being separate from Him, (for the addition of "with" must always compel us to think in this way), and will not rather worship Emmanuel with one veneration and send up to Him one doxology, even as "the Word became flesh", let him be anathema.
  • If anyone says that the one Lord Jesus Christ was glorified by the Spirit, as making use of an alien power that worked through Him and as having received from Him the power to master unclean spirits and to work divine wonders among people, and does not rather say that it was His own proper Spirit through whom He worked the divine wonders, let him be anathema.
  • The divine scripture says Christ became "the high priest and apostle of our confession"; He offered Himself to God the Father in an odour of sweetness for our sake. If anyone, therefore, says that it was not the very Word from God who became our high priest and apostle, when He became flesh and a man like us, but as it were another who was separate from him, in particular a man from a woman, or if anyone says that He offered the sacrifice also for Himself and not rather for us alone (for He who knew no sin, needed no offering), let him be anathema.
  • If anyone does not confess that the flesh of the Lord is life-giving and belongs to the Word from God the Father, but maintains that it belongs to another besides Him, united with Him in dignity or as enjoying a mere divine indwelling, and is not rather life-giving, as we said, since it became the flesh belonging to the Word who has power to bring all things to life, let him be anathema.
  • If anyone does not confess that the Word of God suffered in the flesh and was crucified in the flesh and tasted death in the flesh and became the first born of the dead, although as God He is life and life-giving, let him be anathema.

The Third Ecumenical Council

Not all accepted the position of St Cyril and the Alexandrian council. Nestorius published 12 anathemas of his own, in which he condemned those who attributed suffering and birth to God. Nestorius believed that they denied God the honour due Him by teaching that the Uncircumscribable can be circumscribed or that the Changeless can suffer. Certain Syrian bishops also rose to the defense of Nestorius. Among them was Theodoret of Cyrrhus, who wrote a refutation of the anathemas of St Cyril.

To put an end to the dispute, Emperor Theodore II called a council at Ephesus, which was to convene on the day of Pentecost, 431. This became known as the Third Ecumenical Council. St Cyril of Alexandria arrived with 40 Egyptian bishops; the other churches were represented by Yuvenali of Jerusalem with Palestinian bishops, Thermos of Caesarea in Cappadocia, and Flavian of Thessaloniki. Nestorius arrived with his bishops and two governement officials-Candidian and Ireneaus, representing the Emperor. Memnon of Ephesus hosted the Council. The only representatives not there were John of Antioch and the Syrian bishops and the legates of Pope Celestine of Rome.

After waiting for 10 days for the arrival of the absent delegates, St Cyril of Alexandria decided to convene the Council without them on June 22, 431. The 200 bishops present read the teachings of Nestorius, the teachings of St Cyril of Alexandria, the writings of the Fathers, and found that Nestorius was teaching heresy and the St Cyril's teaching reflected the Orthodox position. The decisions of the Council were signed and sent to Constantinople for the Emperor and the Constantinopolitan faithful. Nestorius was invited to attend and defend himself, but refused to do so, and a wrote to the Emperor accusing St Cyril and Memnon of holding an illegal council and plotting against Nestorius.

At this time, John of Antioch and 33 Syrian bishops arrived at Ephesus. Not recognizing the decision of the Council, John and the Syrian bishops refused to enter into communion with St Cyril, and, together with Nestorius and a few bishops who defected from St Cyril's council organized a rebel council. At this council, they condemned St Cyril, Memnon of Ephesus, and the other Fathers, falsely accusing them of the heresies of Arius, Apollinarius, and Eunomius. The proceedings were signed and sent to Constantinople.

Emperor Theodore, unsure of the proper course of action, ordered both councils to close, the proceedings to be destroyed, and the all the Fathers to convene one Council. While messengers were going back and forward between the Palace and Ephesus, St Cyril of Alexandria convened his Council again. At the second session, the Council found Orthodox the epistle of Pope Celestines, finally delivered by his legates. At the third session, the legates signed the condemnation of Nestorius. At the fourth session, the Council found invalid the condemnation of St Cyril and Memnon by John of Antioch and his council. At the fifth session, St Cyril and Memnon condemned the heresies of Arius, Apollinarius, and Eunomius, and the Council condemned John of Antioch and the rebel council. At the sixth session, the council decreed that no changes or additions can be made to the Nicene Creed. At the seventh, and final session, the Council made decisions concerning the boundaries of various dioceses.

Emperor Theodore, at the time under the influence of the Nestorian party at the Court, ordered Nestorius, Memnon, and St Cyril to be arrested and a new council to be convened. No agreement, however, could be reached. St Cyril, meanwhile, wrote to Abba Dalmatius in Constantinople, calling him to action for the defence of Orthodoxy. Abba Dalmatius, who for 48 years never left his monastery, marched together with the Constantinopolitan faithful to the Palace and called on the Emperor to release the Orthodox bishops and to condemn Nestorius. The people then proclaimed anathema on Nestorius.

The Emperor finally sided with the Orthodox position. To get the Fathers to agree, he called on deputies to be sent to Chalcedon from both councils. The deputies, which included the Papal legates and Bishop Yuvenali of Jerusalem on one side and Theodoret and John of Antioch on the other arrived, but could not agree. While the Syrian bishops agreed in principle to the condemnation of Nestorius, they rejected the anathemas of St Cyril, calling them heretical. The Emperor then ordered all bishops to return to their cathedras, and ordered the deposition of Nestorius.

Nestorianism after the Council

On their way back to their sees, the Syrian bishops called two more councils. At the first council, at Tarsus, they once again condemned St Cyril and Memnon. At the second council, in Antioch, they confessed that the Lord Jesus Christ is fully Divine and fully human, except without sin, based on a unity in Him of Divine and human natures, and that, therefore, the Virgin Mary may be called the Theotokos. Thus they condemned Nestorianism, though they refused to condemn Nestorius. Peace was restored a few years later, by the work of Paul of Emessa, who convinced John of Antioch to condemn Nestorius and St Cyril of Alexandria to agree to the Antiochian confession without, however, refuting his 12 anathemas.

The Ephesian Council was not, however, accepted by some in Syria. Among those who agreed with the Orthodox teaching but rejected the Council was Theodoret of Cyrrhus. Thus, a strong Nestorian party arose in the Syrian and Mesopotamian churches. After agreeing to a common confession with St Cyril of Alexandria, John of Antioch began working on eradicating Nestorianism in the Eastern churches. What could not be accomplished by conviction was done with the help of the civil authorities, who imprisoned several Nestorian bishops.

John of Antioch ordered the destruction of the Edessa theological school, which spread Nestorian ideas. Ibo of Edessa and other theologians who accused St Cyril of unorthodoxy were exiled. At the same time, St Cyril wrote a refutation of Theodore of Mopsuestia. However, this refutation, too, was not accepted by all. Theodoret defended Theodore of Mopsuestia. Meanwhile, Ibo became bishop of Edessa, and spread Nestorian ideas. In his famous letter to Marius the Persian, Ivo of Edessa condemned Nestorius for refusing to use the term Theotokos but also condemned St Cyril for preaching Apollinarianism. In 489, the Edessa school was again destroyed, and Nestorian theologians fled to Persia where they finally broke with the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. In 499, at a council in Seleucia, the Third Ecumenical Council was condemned and the Nestorians formally split from the Church. They formed the Chaldean or Assyrian Church, which governs itself with its own Patriarch. Nestorians also have a community in India, called the Thomites.

Nestorianism and the Fifth Ecumenical Council

In their struggle against Nestorianism, some theologians went as far as the other extreme. They denied completely the presence of human nature in Jesus Christ, accepting only one Divine Nature in one Divine Hypostasis. Thus, they are called Monophysites (believers in one nature). Condemned at the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon, Monophysites accused the Council and the Church of restoring Nestorianism.

The basis for accusation in the 6th Century was the Church's unclear position on Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, and Ibo of Edessa. Their writings, which became known as the Three Chapters were a cause of debate that resulted in the calling of the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553.

At the Council, the Church condemned Theodore of Mopsuestia as a heretic. In addition, the Church condemned the writings of Theodoret against St Cyril and the letter of Ibo of Edessa to Marius the Perian. The Church did not condemn Theodoret and Ibo in their persons, because they repented of Nestorianism and condemned Nestorius.

Nestorian communities today

The Assyrian Church of the East is a Nestorian body with jurisdiction in Iraq and Eastern Iran. It is sometimes referred to as the Assyrian Orthodox Church, not to be confused with the Syriac Orthodox Church, a Non-Chalcedonian body, the Chaldean Catholic Church, an Eastern Catholic body, or the Orthodox Church of Antioch, an Orthodox local church.

The schism between the Assyrian Church and the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church began at the Council of Seleucia in 410, where Mesopotamian Christians declared their independence from the Patriarch of Antioch. The split solidified after the condemnation of Nestorius at the Third Ecumenical Council and the destruction of the theological school at Edessa. There were other issues at play in the schism - the Assyrians resided in the Persian Empire and did not want to be seen as siding with the Roman Emperor. There was also a large influx of Nestorian Christians into Persia fleeing Roman persecution.

In the 15th century, the church decreed that the title of Patriarch could pass only to relatives of then-patriarch Mar Shimun IV. This upset many in the church's hierarchy, and in 1552 a rival Patriarch, Mar Yohanan Soulaqa VIII was elected. This rival Patriarch met with the Pope and entered into communion with the Roman Catholic Church. The Assyrian Church now had two rival leaders, a hereditary patriarch in Alqosh (in modern-day northern Iraq), and a Papal-appointed patriarch in Diyarbakir (in modern-day eastern Turkey). This situation lasted until 1662 when the Patriarch in Diyarbakir, Mar Shimun XIII Denha, broke communion with Rome, and moved his seat to the village of Qochanis in the Turkish mountains. The Vatican responded by appointing a new patriarch to Diyarbakir to govern the Assyrians who stayed loyal to the Holy See. This became known as the Chaldean Catholic Church, an Eastern Catholic body. In 1804 the hereditary line of Patriarchs in Alqosh died out, and that church's hierarchy decided to accept the authority of the Chaldean patriarchs.

Assyrians faced reprisals under the Hashemite monarchy for co-operating with the British, and most fled to the West. The Patriarch of Babylon is currently based in Chicago, Illinois, and less than 1 million of the world's 4.5 million Assyrians remain in Iraq.

The Chaldean community was less numerous at the time of the British Mandate of Palestine, and did not play a major role in the British rule of the country. However with the exodus of Assyrians, the Chaldean Catholic Church became the largest non-Muslim group in Iraq, and many later rose to power in the Ba'ath Party government, the most prominent being Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz.

In 1964, the issue of hereditary succession again caused a schism, with the election of Mar Thomas Darmo as a rival to the hereditary Mar Simon XXIII. Mar Simon resigned in 1973, and was assassinated in 1975 during negotiations over his possible reinstatement. Mar Dinkha IV was elected as Simon's successor, and announced the permanent end of the hereditary succession. While this removes the underlying dispute, the rift between the rival Patriarchs still exists, with Mar Addai as the successor to Mar Thomas Darmo.

On November 11, 1994, an historic meeting of Mar Dinkha IV and Catholic Pope John Paul II took place in the Vatican and a Common Christological Declaration was signed. One side effect of this meeting was that the Assyrian Church's relationship to the Chaldean Catholic Church was improved.

There are also large numbers of Assyrian congregations in Iran. In addition, a few remain in Iraq, a single parish exists in China, and the Church has its headquarters (along with four other houses of worship) in Chicago, Illinois, United States.

Current status:

  • Primate: Mar Dinkha IV, Catholicos and Patriarch of Babylon (Qochanis)
  • Primate: Mar Addai II, Catholicos and Patriarch of Babylon (Baghdad)
  • Headquarters: Chicago, IL
  • Faithful: about 4.5 million


Usually, the Assyrian Church of the East denies that it teaches Nestorianism. On November 11, 1994 Mar Dinkha IV and Pope John Paul II signed a "Common Christological Declaration" which affirmed that Catholics and Assyrians share a union in their understanding of the Son of God. [1] In 1997 the Assyrian Church halted anathemas of other churches in its liturgy.

Nevertheless, the Assyrian Church of the East has recognized Theodore of Mopsuestia as a saint, whose Christology was condemned repeatedly as Nestorian by the Orthodox Church.

Protestant Theology as a form of Crypto-Nestorianism

In their refusal to venerate the Virgin Mary, modern Evangelical Protestants deny the use of the term Theotokos. In defending this, many Evangelical Protestants argue that the Virgin Mary could not have given birth to God but only to the man Jesus. They thus again separate in the Theandric God-man Jesus a human and a Divine person and teach Nestorianism.

The error of this thinking lies in the failure to understand the intricacies of Christology and the doctrine of Incarnation. A proper understanding of the Virgin Mary is required for a proper understanding of Jesus Christ. If Mary is not Theotokos, then Christ is not God-man. Likewise, if Christ is God-man, then Mary is Theotokos. If Mary is not Ever-Virgin, then Christ did not become God Incarnate. If Christ became God Incarnate, then Mary is Ever-Virgin. If Mary is not the Queen Mother, then Christ is not King; if Christ is King, then Mary is Queen Mother.

For more on the importance of Our Lady Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary to a proper understanding of the dogmas of the Incarnation and the Trinity, see George S. Gabriel, Mary, the Untrodden Portal of God


  • Talberg, D. N., История Христианской Церкви (A History of the Christian Church), Moscow, Russia: St Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Institute.
  • Gabriel, George S., Mary: The Untrodden Portal of God, Ridgewood, NJ: Zephyr Publishing, 2000

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