by Mark Dickens
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1) Theological Background
2) Political Background
The Christological question which formed the background to the
controversy: "How are divinity and humanity joined together and related
to each other in Jesus Christ?"
The Western Church affirmed Tertullian's formula: in Christ, there are
two natures united in one person.
The Eastern Church had two schools of thought: the Antiochene and the
The Antiochene school was influenced by Aristotle and adhered to an
exegesis (i.e. concentrating on what the Bible actually said),
that Jesus was fully human, that the Godhead dwelt in him, but did not
eclipse his humanity.
The Alexandrine school was influenced by Plato and followed an
tradition (i.e. tending to attach several layers of meaning to every
affirming that Jesus' divinity must take precedence, even if at the
of his humanity.
The Antiochenes spoke of two natures in Christ, so they came to be
as Dyophysites (from the Greek duo physis, "two natures"),
the Alexandrians insisted upon one nature, at once divine and human, so
they came to be known as Monophysites (from mono physis, "one
In order to preserve the emphasis on oneness, it was difficult for the
Alexandrians not to weaken either the deity or the humanity of Christ;
in the view of Antioch, they tended to do the latter.
Antioch considered that Alexandria devalued the humanity of Jesus,
Alexandria looked upon Antioch as overemphasizing his humanity.
3) Nestorius and His Theological Influences
Prior to the fourth century, Alexandria had been second only to Rome as
the greatest patriarchate.
The Council of Constantinople in 381 had declared that Rome and
were equal, thus demoting Alexandria from its former position.
Since Constantinople held a higher position than Antioch or Alexandria,
the bishops of both competed for the honor of being the Patriarch of
Since the Antiochenes were more successful than the Alexandrines in
the Patriarchate, the latter regarded both Antioch and Constantinople
There was a history of animosity between the Patriarch of Alexandria
the Patriarch of Constantinople.
John Chrysostom, a presbyter in Constantinople, became Patriarch in
he was a fearless and dedicated reformer, as well as a former pupil of
Diodore of Tarsus (d. 394) and fellow student with Theodore of
Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria, an ambitious prelate, was
to be John's consecrator.
Theophilus lived as a great magnate, while John was an ascetic whose
concern was social justice and charity to the poor.
John's campaign to evangelize the city resulted in opposition from
and others who resented his pure life and uncompromising zeal.
His greatest opponent was Theophilus, who was jealous of the popularity
of his rival and of the priority of honour enjoyed by Constantinople.
Theophilus assembled a synod of bishops (most from Egypt) in
in 403 and summoned John before them, but he did not appear, so they
him in his absence on various false charges.
John protested his innocence, but surrendered to the Imperial bodyguard
and left Constantinople
4) The Teaching of Nestorius
Nestorius, a Syrian monk from Antioch, was elected Patriarch of
in 428, possibly because he was a popular preacher.
Prior to his election, he had been a relatively obscure priest.
Upon election to his new position, he embarked on a campaign of
against Arians and other heretics.
He had been influenced by the Christology of Diodore of Tarsus and
of Mopsuestia, under whom he probably studied.
Diodore presented Christ as having two natures, human and divine; the
indwelt the human body of Jesus in the womb of Mary, so that the human
Jesus was the subject of Christ's suffering, thus protecting the full
of the Logos from any hint of diminishment.
Theodore, the father of Antiochene theology, taught two clearly defined
natures of Christ: the assumed Man, perfect and complete in his
and the Logos, consubstantial with the Father, perfect and
in his divinity, the two natures (physis) being united by God in
one person (prosopon).
Theodore maintained that the unity of human and divine in Jesus did not
produce a "mixture" of two persons, but an equality in which each was
whole and intact.
Diodore and Theodore were considered orthodox during their lifetime,
came under suspicion during the Christological controversies of the
The Syriac Fathers (including Diodore, Theodore, and Nestorius) used
Syriac word kyana to describe the human and divine natures of
in an abstract, universal sense, this term embraces all the elements of
the members of a certain species, but it can also have a real, concrete
and individual sense, called qnoma, which is not the person,
the concretized kyana, the real, existing nature.
The Greek word prosopon (person) occurs as a loan word parsopa
in Syriac; thus, the Syriac Christological formula was "Two real kyana
united in a single parsopa, in sublime and indefectable union
confusion or change."
Whereas Antioch taught that Christ had two natures (dyophysitism),
interpreted their position as teaching that he had two persons
Whereas the Syriac Fathers were willing to leave the union of Christ's
humanity and divinity in the realm of mystery, the Alexandrians sought
a clear-cut doctrine that would guard the church against heresy.
5) Cyril of Alexandria
At the time, Theotokos ("bearer/mother of God") was a popular
in the Western Church (including Constantinople) used to refer to the
Mary, but it was not used in Antioch.
Nestorius maintained that Mary should be called Christotokos
of Christ"), not Theotokos, since he considered the former to
accurately represent Mary's relationship to Jesus.
Nestorius promoted a form of dyophysitism, speaking of two natures in
(one divine and one human), but he was not clear in his use of
Nestorius spoke of Christ as "true God by nature and true man by
The person [parsopa] is one... There are not two Gods the Words,
or two Sons, or two Only-begottens, but one."
Alexandria understand him to mean that the second person of the Trinity
was actually two persons: the man Jesus who was born, suffered and died
and the divine Logos, eternal and unbegotten.
Part of the problem lay in his use of the Greek word prosopon
for "person"; this word was weaker in meaning than hypostasis,
word used by his opponents.
At no time did he deny Christ's deity; he merely insisted that it be
distinguished from his humanity.
6) The Council of Ephesus
Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria (412-444) and the nephew of Theophilus,
opposed Nestorius (he was a more able politician and theologian).
His zeal for Orthodoxy was not accompanied by charity to his rivals and
from the first his rule was marked by the acts of violence of his
Cyril was driven by the ambition to assert Alexandria's primacy over
Cyril maintained that in Christ the divine and the human nature were
complete and that the latter included the rational element; the unity
Christ was through the Logos who became incarnate in Christ and
took on the general characteristics of man.
Cyril saw Christ's humanity as that of humanity in general, not that of
an individual man; salvation was accomplished by the personal Logos
who assumed impersonal human nature, thus uniting it with the divine
Cyril championed the use of Theotokos and accused Nestorius of
that Christ had been a "mere man."
Cyril's critics had been complaining of him to Emperor Theodosius II
to Nestorius, so Cyril was eager to shift attention away from himself
Cyril gained the support of the Western and Eastern Roman Emperors and
7) The Council of Chalcedon
Emperor Theodosius II convened an ecumenical council at Ephesus in 431.
A synod at Rome in 430 had ordered Nestorius either to recant or to be
At another synod in Alexandria in 430, Cyril issued 12 anathemas
Nestorius and various propositions taught in Antioch; apart from his
to use Theotokos, Nestorius was not guilty of any of the
brought against him.
Nestorius and others of the Antiochene school counter-attacked,
Cyril of heresy.
Nestorius' supporters, the Oriental bishops led by John, Patriarch of
were delayed on their way to the council; Nestorius himself refused to
attend the council until John's party had arrived.
Cyril summoned his followers, opened the council, and excommunicated
before John's arrival.
When John and his party reached Ephesus and heard of this, they in turn
excommunicated Cyril and his ally Memnon, Archbishop of Ephesus.
When Celestine, the Bishop of Rome (i.e. the Pope) arrived, the
council excommunicated John and his party.
Both sides appealed to the Emperor, who confirmed the excommunications
of Cyril, Memnon and Nestorius.
Nestorius accepted the verdict and spent the rest of his life in exile
in Upper Egypt, dying in obscurity.
Cyril bribed his way back to power, returning to Egypt, where he
on as Patriarch, dying amidst the trappings of ecclesiastical splendour.
In 433, a peace by compromise was concluded between Cyril and John;
retained his patriarchate, but withdrew his anathemas against Antioch,
while the Oriental bishops accepted the use of Theotokos and
Nestorius by agreeing to his excommunication.
After the deaths of John in 442 and Cyril in 444, the compromise
The Council of Chalcedon (451) produced a "Definition of Faith" about
that was essentially Dyophysite in nature, thus alienating the
churches (the Syrian, Coptic, Armenian and Ethiopian Orthodox
who separated from the Western Church after this council.
Chalcedon defined Christ as "one person in two natures [rather
the Monophysite form "out of two natures"], human and divine."
Chalcedon was unable to define the relationship of the two natures to
other, but confessed that the two are not destroyed by the union in the
one person, but are preserved "without confusion, without change,
division, without separation."
From his exile, Nestorius condemned the heresy falsely attributed to
that the human Jesus and the divine Christ were two different persons,
and asserted that Jesus Christ was one Lord, indivisible in his person
(prosopon), but containing two natures (ousiai),
the divine and the human.
Nestorius spoke of Christ as one person (prosopon) in two
(physis), human and divine.
The Monophysites spoke of him as one person (hypostasis) and one
nature (physis), both God and man.
Chalcedon referred to Christ as one person (hypostasis) in two
(physis), in essence a compromise between the Nestorian and
The Nestorian bishops, in a statement drawn up in 612, stated: "There
a wonderful connection and indissoluble union between [Christ's] human
nature, which was assumed, and God the Word who assumed it, a union
from the first moment of conception. This teaches us to recognize only
one Person (parsopa), our Saviour Jesus Christ, Son of God,
in the nature of his Godhead by the Father before all ages, without
and born finally in the nature of his Manhood of the holy Virgin, the
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3. Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christianity. New
York: Harper & Brothers, 1953.
4. Maloney, George. "Dialogues Between the Assyrian Church of the
and the Church of Rome," in
Diakonia, Vol. 29, No. 3 (1996), 204-214.
5. Moffett, Samuel Hugh. A History of Christianity in Asia.
Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.
6. Zernov, Nicholas. Eastern Christendom. New York: G.P.
© Mark Dickens 1999