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Nestorianism
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Nestorianism

Nestorianism is commonly portrayed as the belief that Jesus Christ consisted of two separate persons, one human and one divine. That said, we must bear in mind that at that time, the Greeks had two words for 'person', which did NOT translate well into Syriac (the language of Nestorian theology). The meanings of these terms was not even quite settled during Nestorius's lifetime.

The name Nestorianism is eponymous, coming from the name of its first open, famous proponent, Nestorius, who was Patriarch of Constantinople. Nestorianism was rejected as heretical by the Council of Ephesus in 431, which held that Christ consisted of only one person with two natures, one human and one divine.

Actually what Nestorius said sounds like it differs little from orthodox Christianity. Yet it has far reaching consequences that show marked differences in (for example) soteriology and the theology of the Eucharist, so that during the Protestant Reformation, when the Radicals denied the Real Presence, they were accused of reviving the error of Nestorius. Nestorius preached against the use of the title Mother of God for the Virgin Mary, arguing that Mary was Mother of Jesus Christ but not the mother of God. His argument was condemned as seeming to divide Christ into two persons, one Jesus Christ the human son of Mary, and another, the divine God the Word, 2nd person of the Trinity. Nestorius was accused of teaching that, although they shared one body, they were in effect separate.

Nestorius responded that he believed that Christ was indeed one person (Greek: prosopon), although formed from two natures, but persisted in presenting arguments that implied two personhoods in Jesus, (eg. God could never be a helpless child; God could not suffer on the cross). Orthodox Christianity would soon settle on the definition that Christ was one person (Greek: hypostasis) in two natures, one human, one divine, completely joined.

Some scholars argue that there is a difference between what Nestorius actually said and what his critics charged him with. Yet both seem to leave no room for the "communicatio idiomatum" which became so important to Alexandrian, Roman and Byzantine theology. The modern day Nestorian Church explains the difference (between what Nestorius was accused of and what he actually said) on this page.

However most theologians have argued that Nestorius in dividing Jesus's experiences, by arguing that God the Word did not suffer on the cross, while Jesus the man did, or that God the Word was omniscient, while Jesus the man had limited knowledge, effectively divides Jesus into two separate persons with separate experiences. The theology of Nestorius is also referred to as "the theology of the indwelling Logos", since Christ is viewed as a man in whom the Logos dwelled. The great systemizer of Nestorian theology, (corresponding to Thomas Aquinas in the West), was Babai the Great. A small sampling of his work is available in English translation here.

Nestorius and his teachings were condemned and anathematised at the Council of Ephesus. The pronouncement of the Council of Ephesus is available [1]

The Nestorian belief survived after the banishment of Nestorius, and despite determined efforts by Cyril of Alexandria to remove his supporters and followers from power. Ibas, bishop of Edessa (435 - 457), although he repeatedly anathematized Nestorius, indirectly promoted Nestorian Christianity by founding a school in Edessa where the works of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Diodorus of Tarsus, Theodoret, and Nestorius were read and taught. It was only later that the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553 condemned all these other writers as heretical, realizing that they were Nestorius's predecessors.

Even before the destruction of this school in 489, its students spread through neighbouring Persia; the Christian communities in that country had renounced all subjection to Antioch and the "Western" bishops at the Council of Seleucia in 410. The ecclesiastical superior of the whole was the Bishop of Ctesiphon, who had assumed the rank of Catholicos. At the time of the arrival of the Nestorian professors from Edessa, the prelate was Babaeus or Babowai (sometimes also called 'Babai', not to be confused with 'Babai the Great') (457-484), who appears to have received them with open arms. But Barsauma, having become Bishop of Nisibis, the nearest important city to Edessa, broke with the weak Catholicos, whom he had deposed at a synod in April, 484. In the same year Babowai was accused before the king of conspiring with Constantinople and cruelly put to death. The Bishop of Nisibis was at all events in high favor with King Peroz, whom Barsauma persuaded that it would be a good thing for the Persian kingdom if the Christians in it were all of a different belief from those of the Empire.

Peroz died soon after having murdered Babowai, and the energetic Bishop of Nisibis had evidently less to hope from his successor, Balash. Though Barsauma at first opposed the new Catholicos, Acacius, in August, 485, he had an interview with him, and made his submission, acknowledging the necessity for subjection to Ctesiphon. Barsauma opened a school at Nisibis, which became more famous than its parent at Edessa. The rector was Narses the Leprous, a most prolific writer, but of whose work little has survived. Its rules are still preserved, and at one time the school attracted 800 students. The fame of this theological seminary was so great that Pope Agapetus I and Cassiodorus wished to found one in Italy of a similar kind. The troubled times prevented their wishes from being realized, but Cassiodorus's monastery at Vivarium was inspired by the example of Nisibis.

Barsauma died between 492 and 495, Acacius in 496 or 497. Narses seems to have lived longer. The missions of their students extended deeper into Asia. Nestorianism was the first Christian tradition to reach China (in 635), and about the same time penetrated into Mongolia, and its relics can still be seen in Chinese cities such as Xi'an. An inscribed stone, set up in February, 781 at Chou-Chih, fifty miles south-west of Sai-an Fu, at the time the capital of China, describes the introduction of Christianity into China from Persia in the reign of Tang Taizong. However when Tang Wu Zong decided to suppress Buddhism Nestorianism, which appeared to him a distant Buddhist branch, ceased to exist in China.

The Assyrian Church of the East is Nestorian. English speakers in the West typically classify Nestorian churches as belonging to Oriental Orthodoxy, though this is far more false than true as nearly all of the "Oriental Orthodox" Churches have a christology completely antagonistic to any form of Nestorianism.

See also: Christology, Daqin Pagoda, Nestorian Stele


This article incorporates text from the Catholic Encyclopedia, copyright 1911. Please update as needed.