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A letter from Nestorius…

November 17, 2010

(This post was an assignment completed for my Christian Tradition I class at Eastern Mennonite Seminary.  We were to choose one of the perspectives which was deemed by imperial church as a Christological heresy and argue for that view. I assumed the voice of Nestorius.)

Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, to Flavius Theodosius, Emperor of Rome:

I am writing to appeal for your support. Ever since you have appointed me as the Patriarch of Constantinople in 428 A.D., I have been troubled by the religious disputes taking place in the Western Church.  These controversies came to a head last year (430) when a synod in Rome ordered me either to recant or to be excommunicated.  In these matters, Cyril of Alexandria has been my biggest adversary.  I appeal to you in advance of the ecumenical council which you have called at Ephesus next month (431), to consider the legitimacy of my theological perspective.

The doctrinal controversies surrounding the nature of Christ have overtaken a spirit of peace and mutual respect.  It has been difficult to participate fully in these discussions because of the constant threat of attack from invading armies here in the eastern part of the Roman Empire.  Nevertheless, I shall attempt to lay out in this letter my views of what the Church must teach concerning Christ.

At the ecumenical councils of the last century—first at Nicea in 325, then at Constantinople in 381—the bishops continued the important theological work of finding words to talk about the Incarnation.  At the center of this work is the question of how we talk about Jesus Christ in a way that holds together all that we believe about God and all that we believe about humanity.  In the formulation of the Nicene Creed the church says:  “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father…of one Being with the Father.  For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human.”

This is the faith of the church.  This is the faith to which I hold.  What is being contended is a matter of how we talk about this belief.  Before moving ahead to parsing the theological issues, it is important to note that the current debate is undoubtedly impacted by politics.   Your Excellency will of course remember that prior to the fourth century, Alexandria had been second only to Rome as the greatest patriarchate.  Then the Council of Constantinople in 381 declared that Rome and Constantinople were equal.  Ever since then, there has been an underlying antagonism from the bishop of Alexandria.  The history of animosity and competition between the Patriarch of Alexandria and the Patriarch of Constantinople has been well documented.  I have no doubts that this has something to do with the motives behind the unfounded attacks of my primary antagonist—Cyril of Alexandria.  As we move into the questions which are a part of this controversy we will see that this political tension is sparked also by a clash between Semitic thought and Greek philosophy.  It is the schools of Plato and Aristotle battling it out once again.

Now to the question at hand:  How are divinity and humanity joined together and related to each other in Jesus Christ?  Tertullian has asserted that in Christ, there are two natures united in one person.  In the Eastern Church there are two schools of thought.  Antioch—representing the school of Aristotle—affirms the divine nature in Christ while emphasizing the humanity of Jesus.  Alexandria is influenced more by Plato and the allegorical tradition.  Their position is that Jesus’ divinity must take precedence, even at the expense of his humanity.

It is critical that as the Church talks about the Incarnation we do so in a way that preserves the integrity of the divine nature.  As we describe what takes place in the Incarnation, it is critical that the Church not water down the mutually exclusive contradictions that are present in the incarnation.  We cannot use words like “mystery” to convolute the way the infinity becomes finite, the Uncircumscribable can be circumscribed or that the Changeless can suffer.  So when we talk about the birth of Christ it is appropriate that we call the Virgin Mary Christotokos, not Theotokos.  The eternal Word of God which was with God in the beginning takes on flesh but remains a separate nature acting in one person [parsopa].  The divinity that dwells in Christ is separate from his humanity.  To formulate our Christology otherwise is to deny the existence of one or the other aspects of who Christ is as the Second member of the Trinity.

My concern in all of this is to find a way in which we might talk about what happens in the incarnation in a way that has integrity with our understanding of God.  In my view, it is problematic to suggest that the nature of God which is by definition infinite and uncontainable can be circumscribed in the womb of Mary.  How can Mary give birth to God who is her creator?  Thus, I contend that the designation for Mary that is used both in the East and the West—Theotokos (“bearer/mother of God”) should be replaced by one that more accurately represents Mary’s relationship to Jesus–Christotokos.

Alexandrians weaken the humanity of Christ as they read Platonic ways of thinking into the Christ story.  The doctrines of Cyril in this regard weaken the humanity of Christ.  We must develop a Christology that is consistent with the witness of the gospel of John which clearly states:  “The Word became flesh….”  Language is inadequate to describe how this takes place.  What we can say is this that Christ has two natures—divine and human—in one person.  It is the work of the divine which is able to be in supernatural ways—walking on water, multiplying bread and fish, healings.  It is the human dimension that represents the human aspects of personhood.  These two do not overlap, but co-exist in the same person.  So we want to say that Christ dies on the cross as a man, for how can the divine suffer?  These two natures must be preserved inviolate—impassable—for the representation to be true in the person of Christ.  We could say it this way:  it is the Word that performs the miracles and the human nature experiences the suffering.

In summary, if we talk about Christ as a composite of both human and divine natures, we must be careful to preserve the impassible nature of God.  Our critics in Alexandria will press us to provide an answer to how it is that Christ is able to be born and to suffer as a man while retaining the unity with the divine nature.  We maintain that the Word remains incomposite even after the divine nature.  Like two strands of rope woven together to form one braid, so Christ is composed of divinity and flesh after the incarnation.  Thus it is that the Word and the assumed man are able to carry out separate activities within one person.

Cyril wants to express the idea of union using Greek ideas such as hypostatic union without having to make any claims about the identity or unity or mingling of the divine and human natures of Christ.  The resolutions that are being presented in Ephesus next month make no claims about anything happening to either the divine or human nature.  As such, I return to my opening thesis, that this Council has more to do with how power will be used in the Church and which philosophical mindset will be predominant than it has to do with truth of ideas.

My opponents are using the machinery of power and politics to enforce their orthodoxy.  I appeal to you on the basis of honor and reason, not to be swayed by these insidious means and consider the truth of my ideas.  The twelve anathemas issued by Cyril of Alexandria are far too harsh.  The impending Council at Ephesus where I am to be judged as a heretic is a farce.  The claims of orthodoxy represent more the methodologies of power than a spirit of discernment.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 17, 2010 10:45 pm

    Brian, I’d be very interested to hear what Nestorius thinks of the Advent piece I wrote about Mary in the December issue of The Mennonite. I don’t think he’s going to like it…

    • just an apprentice permalink
      November 18, 2010 1:04 pm

      Isaac, I look forward to reading the piece you wrote about Mary. Not sure if Nestorius will weigh in or not.

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