But here’s the short version of the story:
1) Yes, Cyril was a jerk in the way he treated Nestorius.
2) But Cyril did not treat Nestorius any worse than Nestorius treated Cyril at the time that Nestorius thought he had the upper hand. In his Book of Heraclidis, written much later from exile, Nestorius seems to have forgotten this fact and he whines incessantly about the way Cyril treated him. But he does not back down on his Christology at all, and he does not seem to remember how badly he treated Cyril.
3) The way Cyril treated Nestorius would have been inexcusable IF a major truth of the gospel were not at stake.
4) Modern scholars don’t think that a major truth of the gospel was at stake, because they believe Nestorius adequately affirmed the “deity of Christ.”
5) But as Cyril knew all along, as John of Antioch came to recognize, and as virtually the whole church eventually realized, Nestorius did NOT adequately affirm the deity of Christ. For Nestorius, Christ as a man in whom God the Son dwelt, just as the Spirit dwells in each of us. But the rest of the church, led by Cyril, correctly recognized that such a definition of “deity” missed the central point: Christ had to BE God the Son, not just be INDWELT by God the Son, or he could not save us.
6) Modern scholars generally speaking hold to a Christology very much like that of Nestorius. Their notion of the “deity of Christ” means little more than some sort of divine spirit dwelling in this man. It certainly does not mean that he was the eternal Second Person of the Trinity. Since the modern scholars believe that, and want that to be acceptable, they assume Nestorius’ thought was acceptable, and they assume that Cyril’s vehemence toward Nestorius was only the result of politics. It wasn’t. Behind the politics and the mistreatment of Nestorius lay the fundamental, correct recognition that Nestorius’ Christ could not save us, because he was not God the Son incarnate.
7) One of the sad ironies of this is that evangelicals emphatically hold to Cyril’s Christology, but we do not realize that we are doing so. And we often passionately defend Nestorius and defame Cyril, not realizing that in doing so we have bought into a liberal, 19th-century way of viewing the controversy that has nothing in common with our own faith.
P.S. – Nestorius’ use of Christological language was not the problem. The problem was his view of salvation and the view of Christ that came out of it.
P.P.S. – Jenkins’ The Lost History of Christianity
is a fascinating book, but he knows basically nothing about the theological issues of the time, and he virtually admits as much. He is willing to say that anyone who calls himself a Christian is one.