1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Nestorius

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NESTORIUS (d. c. 451), Syrian ecclesiastic, patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to 431, was a native of Germanicia at the foot of Mount Taurus, in Syria. The year of his birth is unknown. He received his education at Antioch, probably under Theodore of Mopsuestia. As monk in the neighbouring monastery of Euprepius, and afterwards as presbyter, he became celebrated in the diocese for his asceticism, his orthodoxy and his eloquence; hostile critics, such as the church historian Socrates, allege that his arrogance and vanity were hardly less conspicuous. On the death of Sisinnius, patriarch of Constantinople (December 427), Theodosius II., perplexed by the various claims of the local clergy, appointed the distinguished preacher of Antioch to the vacant see. The consecration took place on the 10th of April 428, and then, almost immediately afterwards, in what is said to have been his first patriarchal sermon, Nestorius exhorted the emperor in the famous words—“Purge me, O Caesar, the earth of heretics, and I in return will give thee heaven. Stand by me in putting down the heretics and I will stand by thee in putting down the Persians.” In the spirit of this utterance, steps were taken within a few days by the new prelate to suppress the assemblies of the Arians; these, by a bold stroke of policy, anticipated his action by themselves setting fire to their meetinghouse, Nestorius being forthwith nicknamed “the incendiary.” The Novatians and the Quartodecimans were the next objects of his orthodox zeal—a zeal which in the case of the former at least was reinforced, according to Socrates, by his envy of their bishop; and it led to serious and fatal disturbances at Sardis and Miletus. The toleration the followers of Macedonius had long enjoyed was also rudely broken, the recently settled Pelagians alone finding any respite. While these repressive measures were being carried on outside the pale of the catholic church, equal care was taken to instruct the faithful in such points of orthodoxy as their spiritual head conceived to be the most important or the most in danger. One of these was that involved in the practice, now grown almost universal, of bestowing the epithet Θεοτόκος, “Mother of God,” upon Mary the mother of Jesus. In the school of Antioch the impropriety of the expression had long before been pointed out, by Theodore of Mopsuestia, among others, in terms precisely similar to those afterwards attributed to Nestorius. From Antioch Nestorius had brought along with him to Constantinople a co-presbyter named Anastasius, who enjoyed his confidence and is called by Theophanes his “syncellus.” This Anastasius, in a pulpit oration which the patriarch himself is said to have prepared for him, caused great scandal to the partisans of the Marian cultus then beginning by saying, “Let no one call Mary the mother of God, for Mary was a human being; and that God should be born of a human being is impossible.” The opposition, which was led by one Eusebius, a “scholasticus” or pleader who afterwards became bishop of Dorylaeum, chose to construe this utterance as a denial of the divinity of Christ, and so violent did the dispute upon it become that Nestorius judged it necessary to silence the remonstrants by force. The situation went from bad to worse, and the dispute not only grew in intensity but reached the outer world.

Matters were soon ripe for foreign intervention, and the notorious Cyril (q.v.) of Alexandria, in whom the antagonism between the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools of theology,[1] as well as the jealousy between the patriarchate of St Mark and that of Constantinople, found a determined and unscrupulous exponent, did not fail to make use of the opportunity. He stirred up his own clergy, he wrote to encourage the dissidents at Constantinople, he addressed himself to the sister and wife of the emperor (Theodosius himself being known to be still favourable to Nestorius), and he beggared the clergy of his own diocese to find bribes for the officials of the court.[2] He also sent to Rome a careful selection of Nestorius’s sayings and sermons. Nestorius himself, on the other hand, having occasion to write to Pope Celestine I. about the Pelagians (whom he was not inclined to regard as heretical), gave from his own point of view an account of the disputes which had recently arisen within his patriarchate.[3] While ordinarily Rome might have been expected to hold the balance between the contrasted schools of thought, as Leo was able later to do, it is not surprising that this implied appeal proved unsuccessful, for Celestine naturally resented any questioning of the Roman decision concerning the Pelagians and was jealous of the growing power of the upstart see of the Nova Roma of the East. He was not slow to use the opportunity of gaining what was at once an official triumph and a personal satisfaction. In a synod which met in 430, he decided in favour of the epithet Θεοτόκος, and bade Nestorius retract his erroneous teaching, on pain of instant excommunication, at the same time entrusting the execution of this decision to the patriarch of Alexandria. On hearing from Rome, Cyril at once held a synod and drew up a doctrinal formula for Nestorius to sign, and also twelve anathemas covering the various points of the Nestorian dogmatic. Nestorius, instead of yielding to the combined pressure of his two great rivals, merely replied by a counter excommunication.

In this situation of affairs the demand for a general council became irresistible, and accordingly Theodosius and Valentinian III. issued letters summoning the metropolitans of the catholic church to meet at Ephesus at Whitsuntide 431, each bringing with him some able suffragans. Nestorius, with sixteen bishops and a large following of armed men, was among the first to arrive; soon afterwards came Cyril with fifty bishops. Juvenal of Jerusalem and Flavian of Thessalonica were some days late. It was then announced that John of Antioch had been delayed on his journey and could not appear for some days; he, however, is stated to have written politely requesting that the opening of the synod should not be delayed on his account. Cyril and his friends accordingly assembled in the church of the Theotokos on the 22nd of June, and summoned Nestorius before them to give an account of his doctrines. The reply they received was that he would appear as soon as all the bishops were assembled; and at the same time the imperial commissioner, Candidian, presented himself in person and formally protested against the opening of the synod. Notwithstanding these circumstances, Cyril and the one hundred and fifty-nine bishops who were with him proceeded to read the imperial letter of convocation, and afterwards the letters which had passed between Nestorius and his adversary. Almost immediately the entire assembly with one voice cried out anathema on the impious Nestorius and his impious doctrines, and after various extracts from the writings of church fathers had been read the decree of his exclusion from the episcopate and from all priestly communion was solemnly read and signed by all present, whose numbers had by this time swelled to one hundred and ninety-eight. The accused and his friends never had a hearing. As Nestorius himself said, “the Council was Cyril”; it simply registered the Alexandrian patriarch’s views.

When the decision was known the populace, who had been eagerly waiting from early morning till night to hear the result, accompanied the members with torches and censers to their lodgings, and there was a general illumination of the city. A few days afterwards (June 26th or 27th) John of Antioch arrived, and efforts were made by both parties to gain his ear; whether inclined or not to the cause of his former co-presbyter, he was naturally excited by the precipitancy with which Cyril had acted, and at a conciliabulum of forty-three bishops held in his lodgings shortly after his arrival he was induced by Candidian, the friend of Nestorius, to depose the bishops of Alexandria and Ephesus on the spot. The efforts, however, to give effect to this act on the following Sunday were frustrated by the zeal of the Ephesian mob. Meanwhile a letter was received from the emperor declaring invalid the session at which Nestorius had been deposed unheard; numerous sessions and counter-sessions were afterwards held, the conflicting parties at the same time exerting themselves to the utmost to secure an effective superiority at court. In the end Theodosius decided to confirm the depositions which had been pronounced on both sides, and Cyril and Memnon as well as Nestorius were by his orders laid, under arrest. Representatives from each side were now summoned before him to Chalcedon, and at last, yielding to the sense of the evident majority, he gave a decision in favour of the “orthodox,” and the council of Ephesus was dissolved. Maximian, one of the Constantinopolitan clergy, a native of Rome, was promoted to the vacant see, and Nestorius was henceforward represented in the city of his former patriarchate only by one small congregation, which also a short time afterwards became extinct. The commotion which had been thus raised did not so easily subside in the more eastern section of the church; the Antiochenes continued to maintain for a considerable time an attitude of antagonism towards Cyril and his creed, and were not pacified until an understanding was reached in 433 on the basis of a new formula involving some material concessions by him. The union even then met with resistance from a number of bishops, who, rather than accede to it, submitted to deposition and expulsion from their sees; and it was not until these had all died out that, as the result of stringent imperial edicts, Nestorianism may be said to have become extinct throughout the Roman empire. Their school at Edessa was closed by Zeno in 489. As for Nestorius himself, immediately after his deposition he withdrew into private life in his old monastery of Euprepius, Antioch, until 435, when the emperor ordered his banishment to Petra. in Arabia. A second decree, it would seem, sent him to Oasis, probably the city of the Great Oasis, in Upper Egypt, where he was still living in 439, at the time when Socrates wrote his Church History. He was taken prisoner by the Blemmyes, a nomad tribe that gave much trouble to the empire in Africa, and when they set him free in the Thebaid near Panopolis (Akhmim) c. 450, they exposed him to further persecution from Schenute the great hero of the Egyptian monks. There is some evidence that he was summoned to the Council of Chalcedon,[4] though he could not attend it, and the concluding portion of his book known as The Bazaar of Heraclides not only gives a full account of the “Robber Synod” of Ephesus 449, but knows that Theodosius is dead (July 450) and seems aware of the proceedings of Chalcedon and the flight of Dioscurus the unscrupulous successor of Cyril at Alexandria. Nestorius was already old and ailing and must have died very soon after.

The Nestorian Heresy.—What is technically and conventionally meant in dogmatic theology by “the Nestorian heresy” must now be noticed. As Eutychianism is the doctrine that the God-man has only one nature, so Nestorianism is the doctrine that He has two complete persons. So far as Nestorius himself is concerned, however, it is certain that he never formulated any such doctrine;[5] nor does any recorded utterance of his, however casual, come so near the heresy called by his name as Cyril’s deliberately framed third anathema (that regarding the “physical union” of the two hypostases or natures) approaches Eutychianism. It must be remembered that Nestorius was as orthodox at all events as Athanasius on the subject of the incarnation, and sincerely, even fanatically, held every article of the Nicene creed. Hefele himself, one of the most learned and acute of Cyril’s partisans, is compelled to admit that Nestorius accurately held the duality of the two natures and the integrity of each, was equally explicitly opposed to Arianism and Apollinarianism, and was perfectly correct in his assertion that the Godhead can neither be born nor suffer; all that he can allege against him is that “the fear of the communicatio idiomatum pursued him like a spectre." But in reality the question raised by Nestorius was not one as to the communicatio idiomatum, but simply as to the proprieties of language. “I cannot speak of God,” he said, “as being two or three months old,” a remark which was twisted to his disadvantage. He did not refuse to speak of Mary as being the mother of Christ or as being the mother of Emmanuel, but he thought it improper to speak of her as the mother of God, and Leo in the Letter to Flavian which was endorsed at Chalcedon uses the term “Mother of the Lord” which was exactly what Nestorius wished. And there is at least this to be said for him that even the most zealous desire to frustrate the Arian had never made it a part of orthodoxy to speak of David as θεοπάτωρ or of James as ἀδελφόθεος. The secret of the enthusiasm of the masses for the analogous expression Theotokos is to be sought not so much in the Nicene doctrine of the incarnation as in the recent growth in the popular mind of notions as to the dignity of the Virgin Mary, which were entirely unheard of (except in heretical circles) for nearly three centuries of the Christian era. That the Virgin should be given a title that was quasi-divine mattered little. The danger was that under cover of such a title an unhistorical conception of the facts of the Gospel should grow up, and a false doctrine of the relations between the human and the Divine be encouraged, and this was to Nestorius a double danger that needed to be exposed. He was thus forced into the position of one who brings technical objections against a popular term.

The fact that Nestorius was trained at Antioch and inherited the Antiochene zeal for exact biblical exegesis and insistence upon the recognition of the full manhood of Christ, is of the first importance in understanding his position. From the days of Ignatius, down through Paul of Samosata and Lucian to the great controversies of the 5th century which began with the theories of Apollinarius, the theologians of Antioch started from the one sure fact, that Christ lived on earth the life of man, and without questioning the equally genuine Divine element laid stress on this genuine human consciousness. There is no reason to suppose that Nestorius intended to introduce any innovations in doctrine, and in any estimate of him his strong religious interest and his fervent pastoral spirit must have due weight. He was a great extempore preacher and exposed to the peril of the unconsidered “telling” phrase. That a man of such conspicuous ability, who impressed himself at the outset on the people of Constantinople as an uncompromising opponent of heresy should within a few short years be an excommunicated fugitive, sacrificed to save the face of Cyril and the Alexandrians, is indeed, as Duchesne says, a tragedy. No successor of Chrysostom was likely to receive much good-will from the nephew and successor of Theophilus of Alexandria.

It is only within recent years that an attempt has been made to judge Nestorius from some other evidence than that afforded by the accusations of Cyril and the inferences drawn therefrom. This other evidence consists partly of letters from Nestorius, preserved among the works of those to whom they were written, some sermons collected in a Latin translation by Marius Mercator, an African merchant who was doing business in Constantinople at the time of the dispute, and other material gathered from Syriac manuscripts. Since the helpful collection of Nestoriana published by Dr F. Loofs in 1905 there has also come to our knowledge the most valuable evidence of all, Nestorius’s own account of the whole difficulty, viz. The Bazaar[6] of Heraclides of Damascus. This pseudonym served to protect the book against the fate that overtook the writings of heretics, and in a Syriac version it was preserved in the Euphrates valley where the followers of Nestorius settled. Ebed Jesu in the 14th century mentions it together with Letters and Homilies, as well as the Tragedy, or a Letters to Cosmas, the Theopaschites (of which some fragments are still extant) and the Liturgy, which is still used by the Nestorian Church. The discovery of The Bazaar, which is the Apologia of Nestorius, was made public by Dr H. Goussen (though members of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Mission to the Assyrian Christians had previously been acquainted with the book). The text has been edited by P. Paul Bedjan (Leipzig, 1910) and a French translation has been made by M. l’abbé F. Nau. A representative selection of extracts has been given to English readers in J. F. Bethune-Baker’s Nestorius and his Teaching (Cambridge, 1908), chapter ii. of which describes the MS. and its accounts. Much of the argument is thrown into the form of a dialogue between (1) Nestorius and an imaginary opponent Superianus, (2) Nestorius and Cyril. The book reveals a strong personality and helps us to know the man and his teaching, even though we have to gather his own views largely from his criticism of his antagonists. He is throughout more concerned for the wrong done to the faith at Ephesus than to himself, saying that if he held the views attributed to him by Cyril he would be the first to condemn himself without mercy. All through the years of conflict he had “but one end in view, that no one should call the Word of God a creature, or the Manhood which was assumed incomplete.” In his letters to Celestine he had laid stress on the point that the teaching he attacked was derogatory to the Godhead and so he called its champions Arians. “If the Godhead of the Son had its origin in the womb of the Virgin it was not Godhead as the Father’s, and He who was born could not be homoousios with God, and that was what the Arians denied Him to be.” It is thus increasingly difficult to believe that Nestorius was a “Nestorian.” Père J. Mahé has shown (Revue d’Inst. ecclés. July, 1906) that in spite of notable differences of terminology and form the chronologies of Antioch and Alexandria were in essence the same. Personal rather than doctrinal reasons had by far the larger part in determining the fate of Nestorius, who was sacrificed to the agreement between the two great schools. This view is confirmed by the evidence of the Synodicon Orientale (the collection of the canons of Nestorian Councils and Synods), which shows that the Great Syriac Church built up by the adherents of Nestorius and ever memorable for its zeal in carrying the Gospel into Central Asia, China and India cannot, from its inception, be rightly described as other than orthodox. The “attenuated” (i.e. un-“Nestorian”) form which some historians have noted in the early centuries of Persian Nestorianism was really there from the beginning. The Nestorian Church, following its leader, formally recognizes the Letter of Leo to Flavian and the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon. “When I came,” said Nestorius (Baz. Herac.), “upon that exposition and read it, I gave thanks to God that the Church of Rome was rightly and blamelessly making confession, even though they happened to be against me personally.” His aim, he tells us, had been to maintain the distinct continuance of the two natures of Christ when united through the Incarnation into one Person. “In the Person the natures use their properties mutually. . . . The manhood is the person of the Godhead and the Godhead is the person of the manhood.” The ultimate union of these two natures appears to lie in the will—“For there was one and the same will and mind in the union of the natures, so that both should will or not will exactly the same things. The natures have, moreover, a mutual will, since the person of this is the person of that, and the person of that the person of this.” The manner in which this union is realized is thus stated by Nestorius: “The Word also passed through Blessed Mary inasmuch as He did not receive a beginning by birth from her, as is the case with the body which was born of her. For this reason I said that God the Word passed and not was born, because He did not receive a beginning from her. But the two natures being united are one Christ. And He who was born of the Father as to the Divinity, and from the Holy Virgin as to the humanity is and is styled one; for of the two natures there was a union.” it may truly be said that the ideas for which Nestorius and the Antiochene school strove “won the day as regards the doctrinal definitions of the church. The manhood of Christ was safeguarded, as distinct from the Godhead: the union was left an ineffable mystery.”

Authorities.—On Nestorius, in addition to the modern literature cited in the article, and the standard histories of dogma (A. Harnack, F. Loofs, R. L. Ottley’s Doctrine of the Incarnation, &c.) see R. Seeberg, Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte, Bd. ii. § 27 (Leipzig, 1910), L. Duchesne, Histoire ancienne de l’église, vol. iii. chs. x. xi. (Paris, 1910).  (J. S. Bl.; A. J. G.) 

  1. At Alexandria the mystic and allegorical tendency prevailed, at Antioch the practical and historical, and these tendencies showed themselves in different methods of study, exegesis and presentation of doctrine.
  2. Letters of the archdeacon Epiphanius to the patriarch Maximianus (Migne, Patr. Gr. lxxxiv. 826).
  3. The letter is given in F. Loofs, Nestoriana 166-168, partly translated in J. F. Bethune-Baker, Nestorius and his Teaching, p. 16 seq.
  4. Coptic Life of Dioscorus (Rev. Égyptologique, 1880–1883).
  5. J. F. Bethune-Baker, Nestorius and his Teaching, ch. vi.
  6. Syriac, tēgūrtā, lit. “merchandise.” The Greek word may have been ἐμπόριον. Nothing is certainly known of any such Heraclides.