by Peter Klapes

With its origins in the 5th century, Nestorianism- also known as the Nestorian Heresy- is a Christological doctrine teaching that Christ existed as two separate persons: human and divine. The doctrine of Nestorianism, thus, denies the term Θεοτόκος (Theotokos) for the Virgin Mary, which means giver of birth to God, and rather uses the term Χριστοτόκος (Christotokos) or Ανθροποτόκος (Anthropotokos), meaning giver of birth to a man and giver of birth to Christ, respectively, to describe Mary.

Nestorianism was initially developed by Diodore of Tarsus, who served as Bishop of Tarsus from 378-390, in his writings that countered Apollinarianism, a position of monophysitism that holds that Christ lacked a human mind. Nonetheless, in his writings, Diodore held that the divine and human natures of Christ were divided so significantly that they bore no union whatsoever.


Theodore of Mopsuestia, a bishop of the Antiochian tradition, furthered this idea of the separation of the persons of Christ, writing that Christ was born as a flawed man whose eventual triumph over sin brought him closer to the divine Logos, to be, subsequently, an agent for the salvation of the human race.


In 428, when Emperor Theodore II called the Antiochian Priest Nestorius to Constantinople, the doctrine now known as Nestorianism entered the public sphere. When Nestorius arrived at Constantinople, he was appointed archbishop, and thus began to teach a division of persons in Christ, rejecting the term Theotokos, and replacing it with Anthropotokos.


Theologians in Constantinople began to rise against Nestorius’ teachings. In 429, Nestorius called a council at Constantinople to condemn his objectors. Saint Cyril of Alexandria, one of Nestorius’s most outward opponents, accused him of heresy, and at the council, outlined twelve anathemas against Nestorianism. Finally, in 431, Theodore II called a council at Ephesus, which would become known as the Third Ecumenical Council. At the council, the two-hundred bishops present found Nestorius guilty of heresy and accepted St. Cyril’s position as that which reflects the teachings of the Church. Shortly thereafter, a council of Syrian bishops who refused to enter into communion with St. Cyril, along with Nestorius, organized a rebel council.


By this time, some of the Syrians, such as Theodoret of Cyrrhus, erected a strong Nestorian party within the Syrian church, and by 499, the Nestorians had fled to Persia after formally splitting from the Church. There, the Nestorians formed the Chaldean, or the Assyrian Church.


Before fleeing to the West, members of the Assyrian Orthodox Church lived primarily in Iraq and Eastern Iran. There remain significant Assyrian congregations in Iran, but, the Church’s headquarters have since moved to Chicago, with approximately 4.5 million faithful.


Protestantism is often regarded as indirectly adopting Nestorian doctrine, due to the religion’s objection to the veneration of the Virgin Mary and the term Theotokos. Many Protestant sects believe that Mary gave birth to a man, not God.


Nestorianism presents an interesting polemic for the Church. Even as we consider the Vicarious Atonement, we must ask ourselves if the Christ, whose death atoned for our sins, were a man, would his suffering—the suffering of a man, and not God Himself—redeem humanity? 


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