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Nestorius was a bishop who lived during the first half of the fifth century. He was Archbishop of Constantinople for three years and is most famous for his position during the Christological controversies in which he is considered the originator of the heresy known as Nestorianism. His chief antagonist during the Christological debates was Cyril of Alexandria, the Patriarch of Alexandria.


Nestorius is believed to have been born in 386 Germanicia in Syria Euphoratenis. Little is known of his early life. He was educated in Antioch and is considered to be a disciple of Diodorus of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia, who were Cilician bishops and opponents of Arianism. Nestorius enjoyed a high reputation for eloquence in his orations and was zealous in his confrontations with heretics, principally the Arians. He was a hieromonk at the monastery of Euprepius when Emperor Theodosius II chose him to be Archbishop of Constantinople, being consecrated April 10, 428. Upon assuming the see of Constantinople he actively took action against the heretics.

About the end of 428, Nestorius began to preach in his sermons the Antiochian doctrine against the use of the title of Theotokos in reference to the Virgin Mary, preferring the title Christotokos. This immediately brought an outcry from the Constantinoplian clergy and laity who had not been well disposed to this Antiochian stranger in the first place. The dispute spread beyond Constantinople when Cyril of Alexandria, representing the Alexandrian school, raised the issue within the imperial court. In an attempt to rid himself of Cyril, Nestorius recommended to Emperor Theodosius II the convening of a council. To Nestorius' chagrin Theodosius convened the 431 Council in Ephesus instead of Constantinople. Ephesus was a place more friendly to Cyril being that it was a special seat for the veneration of Mary and where the title Theotokos was popular. The council proceeded with much infighting and maneuvering, but in the end Nestorius was removed from office on June 22, 431 and labeled a heretic. In this dispute between the schools of Antioch and Alexandria, the Bishops of Rome, Celestine and Sixtus III, sided with Cyril.

Theodosius had favored Nestorius. But, under the influence of his sister Augusta Pulcheria he issued an imperial edict, on August 3, 435, condemning Nestorius and his writings. Nestorius initially retired to a monastery in Antioch but later was exiled to the monastery of the Great Oasis of Hibis in Thebaid, Egypt. He is believed to have died in Thebaid in 451.

The Controversies

Christology controversies centered over the manner of union between Godhead and Manhood in Christ. The era of these controversies extended over the period from the fourth through sixth centuries and involved disputes between factions on defining, that is expressing in words, the manner of the union of the two conditions of Christ: the divine and the human. In the language of the day these arguments involved the expression of exact combinations of the semantic variables: ousia, physis, hypostasis, prosopon. The Cyril/Nestorius arguments were one of the battlegrounds during this interval of time. The dispute between Cyril and Nestorius was heightened by their use of same words differently. Nestorius used the words in a rigid manner, not recognizing recent changes in their meaning and usage, and failing to recognize the context that Cyril used. While Nestorious argued from a rigid semantical position and noted Cyril's inconsistent usage, Cyril felt Nestorious was advocating a two son definition as implied in Nestorius' adamant use of the title Mother of Christ. In the event, Cyril's arguments would prevail in the later councils, but Nestorious' banishment would also result in the split in the Church as a heretical group called Nestorians would form, centered in Persia.

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Preceded by:
Sisinnius I
Archbishop of Constantinople
Succeeded by:
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  • John Anthony McGuckin, (2004), St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, New York ISBN 0-88141-259-7

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