Nestorian controversy

Nestorius (c. 386 – c. 451) was Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to 431, at which point he was condemned by the Church as a heretic because he believed that Christ was actually two persons – divine and human. Upon condemnation, Nestorius and his followers formed a new Christian sect, which today is known as Persian, or Nestorian Church. Most of its members (numbering fewer than 200,000 people) live in Iraq, Syria, and Iran. At one time, however, the Nestorian Church reached as far as India, Mongolia, and China.

The Chalcedon Council of 451

Nestorius objected to calling the Virgin Mary Theotokos (“Mother of God”). Mary, he said, was human who had given birth to the “human” Jesus. The “divine” Jesus, he added, was God Himself, who had no human mother. Saint Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria, vehemently opposed Nestorius’s claim, believing that the human and divine characters of Christ were united. A special council was called in the city of Epheseus, near the Turkish city of Izmir. The council was presided over by Saint Cyril, so not surprisingly, it resulted in the condemnation of Nestorius.

Saint Cyril of Alexandria

Later, a group known as the Monophysites put forth the argument that the divine and human natures of Christ were indentical. This was as offensive to many Christians as the Nestorian claim. The Council of Chalcedon, which met in 451, decreed that Christ had two natures in one person.

Ephesus fresco – The Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431

After the Arabs conquered Persia in the seventh century, the Nestorian Church was recognized as a separate, legally protected religious community. The church spread throughout Asia, becoming the established religion. By the end of the tenth century, the Nestorian Church counted 15 metropolitan (ecclesiastical) provinces in the Persian caliphate and five abroad.

Nestorian Archbishop and his secy and servants, Persia between 1910-15

Nestorianism waned toward the end of the Middle Ages; in the sixteenth century many Nestorian groups joined the Roman Catholic Church and later the Syrian Jacobite Church.

Nestorian cross

The third letter of Nestorius to Celestine of Rome

To Celestine the Pope, from Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople.

“I have learned that Cyril, the most distinguished bishop of the city of Alexandria, has become worried about reports against him that we received, and is now hunting for subterfuges to avoid a holy synod taking place due to these reports. In the meantime he is devising some other disturbances over terms and has chosen [as a point of controversy] the term Theotokos and Christotokos: the first he allows, but as for Christotokos, sometimes he removes it from the gospels, and sometimes he allows it, on the basis of what I believe is a kind of excessive prudence. In the case of the term Theotokos, I am not opposed to those who want to say it, unless it should advance to the confusion of natures in the manner of the madness of Apollinaris or Arius. Nonetheless, I have no doubt that the term Theotokos is inferior to the term Christotokos, as the latter is mentioned by the angels and the gospels. And if I were not speaking to Your Worship who is already so knowledgeable, I would need to give a very long discourse on this topic. But even without a discourse, it is known in every way to Your Beatitude, that if we should think that there are two groups opposed to each other, the one using only the term Theotokos, the other only Anthropotokos, and each group draws [others] to what it confesses or, if they have not accomplished this, puts [others] in danger of falling from the church, it would be necessary to assign someone to such an affair if it arises who exercises concern for both groups and heals the danger of both parties by means of the term taken from the gospels that signifies both natures. For as I said, the term Christotokos keeps the assertion of both parties to the proper limits, because it both removes the blasphemy of Paul of Samosata, who claimed that Christ the Lord of all was simply a human being, and also flees the wickedness of Arius and Apollinaris. Now I have written these very things to the most distinguished bishop of Alexandria, as Your Beatitude can tell from the copies I have attached to this letter of mine, as well as from the copies of what he wrote to us. Moreover, with God’s help it has also been agreed to announce a world-wide synod in order to inquire into the other ecclesiastical matters. For I do not think it will be difficult to investigate a uncertainty over words, and it is not a hindrance for a discussion of the divinity of Christ the Lord.”

Nestorian church in modern day Baghdad