Nestorius and the Council of Ephesus

Discussion in 'Church History' started by johnbugay, Sep 30, 2009.

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  1. johnbugay

    johnbugay Puritan Board Freshman

    There was a question in "The Wading Pool" about Nestorius and the Council of Ephesus (431). I've looked into these issues in a good bit of detail. There is controversy, and not everyone sees eye to eye on these things. But our knowledge of them is coming into sharper focus.

    My opinion of this council is largely shaped by Samuel Hugh Moffett, a historian from Princeton, who, writing in his 1991 work, “A History of Christianity in Asia,” describes this council:

    It's interesting to note that the Bishop of Rome at the time, Celestine I, did not attend, but his "papal legates" were honored guests of Cyril.

    The council was called by the emperors, at the request of Nestorius. (There were two emperors at the time -- east and west.) In fact, all of the first seven councils (which were observed by Eastern Orthodox believers) were called by emperors.

    Near the end of his life, Nestorius, from exile, wrote a work called "The Book of Heraclides," in which he gives an explanation of his life and theology. In that work, he describes how Cyril "conducted" this council:

    The anathemas of this council were directed at Nestorius; they ratified 12 “anathemas” that, as Moffett relates, had nothing to do with Nestorius’s actual teachings.

    This, in my opinion, is a travesty of church authority, and yet as Moffett and others have written, this schism was far greater extent than either the 1054 split with the EO’s or the Protestant Reformation. In this split, (effected by Cyril’s armed thugs and a council that bore false witness against Nestorius), the entire eastern portion of the church (farther east than Jerusalem) was cast off and later left to die at the hands of Islam. Yet this church was far larger in numbers and scope than the churches surrounding the Mediterranean see.

    Moffett summarizes this council:

    As for the supposed "infallibility" of this and other councils, Ludwig Ott, writing in "Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma," says,

    What we have is a situation in which this council condemned something that nobody at all believed -- as Cyril's anathemas really didn't touch what Nestorius taught -- and the 2nd Council of Constantinople (553) did "recognize" these "false witness" anathemas as "an authentic expression of Catholic Dogma".

    As for what Nestorius actually DID believe, Moffett says the "doctrine of the unity of the person of Christ" that Nestorius taught "may have rested on the use of a word too weak to support the theological weight it was required to bear, but it was in no sense heresy."

    This was confirmed as recently as 1994 by Pope John Paul, in what is known as the "Common Christological Declaration Between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Churches of the East" in 1994. This agreement stated that Nestorius's use of language (including his term "Christotokos" vs "Theotokos") was "legitimate" and "right".

    For more information on "the Churches of the East" (otherwise known as "Nestorian" Churches), see:

    Philip Jenkins: The Lost History of Christianity

    Mar Bawai Soro: The Church of the East: Apostolic and Orthodox
  2. Christusregnat

    Christusregnat Puritan Board Professor

    Scholars like to pity the bad guy. This story is repeated time and time again. Is it possible that such scholars are simply repeating false witness against Cyril?
  3. johnbugay

    johnbugay Puritan Board Freshman

    Who repeats this time and again? I'm sure it needs to be studied further by Reformed scholars, as it will help to provide a lot of insight into our understanding of how councils and church discipline work (and are supposed to work).

    The only group that basically thinks Cyril was a good guy were the Eastern Orthodox, who are bound to those first seven councils, including Ephesus in 431 but especially Constantinople II in 553 which further condemned Nestorius, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrus, and others, by name.

    But to look at the details, it is clear that Cyril's anathemas did not touch what Nestorius taught. That's a clear instance of bearing false witness. And we've seen the outcome of it (though it's largely been forgotten). The schism of the fifth century was numerically a larger schism than the east/west split of 1054.
  4. Philip

    Philip Puritan Board Graduate

    I've done research on Nestorius and came to the conclusion that yes, he was a bit mistaken and shaky on the unity of Christ, but that Cyril was using this as an excuse to increase the influence of the Alexandrian Papacy. In other words, Nestorius was not a heretic so much as the loser in Church politics (like, say, Gordon Clark in the Clark-Van Til controversy). Nestorius was exiled and his followers fled with him to the newly-independent Patriarchate of Seleucia (formed in 424 with the blessing of the Patriarchate of Antioch) which was outside the jurisdiction of the council, though they would accept Chalcedon.

    The Church of the East would go on to be the most missions-minded body of believers in history, with the exception of the New Testament Church. Within five hundred years, there were thousands of believers in China and by the year 1000, it is believed that the Gospel had reached Japan. The Church continued to thrive under Islamic rule until the Mongol invasions wiped out much of the population of the Middle East. The Church declined from the 1200s on because of association with the Mongols (several Khans were Christians) in addition to the depopulation caused by the invasions. Today, the only surviving branches of this Church are the Mar Thoma Christians of India and the Assyrian peoples of Iraq.
  5. P.F.

    P.F. Puritan Board Freshman

    ChristusRegnat wrote: "Scholars like to pity the bad guy. This story is repeated time and time again. Is it possible that such scholars are simply repeating false witness against Cyril?"

    Lots of things are possible, but there's very little evidence to support Cyril's accusations against Nestorius. The far more common problem, traditionally, is creating a hagiography of church fathers and councils. We see that error in folks like McGuckin, who seem to think that Cyril walked on water.
  6. Christusregnat

    Christusregnat Puritan Board Professor

    What evidence to we have of what Nestorius taught? Above you cited one work in which he complained about Cyril. Anything else?

    It is repeated by men like Abelard who whined about his treatment at the Council of Balboa (if memory serves), where he got his just deserts under the hands of Bernard.

    The point I am making is you may be trusting Nesty's false witness against Cyril.


    -----Added 9/30/2009 at 04:22:00 EST-----

    What evidence do we have to support Nestorius' orthodoxy?

    He did not want to say that God was born of the Virgin; maybe I'm missing something here.

  7. Philip

    Philip Puritan Board Graduate

    Nestorius was simply trying to reconcile the human and the divine in Christ without denying either. He was particularly concerned with immutability, arguing that if Christ was fully God, then his divine nature could not change and therefore, could not become human. Thus, Nestorius argued that Christ must have two natures: a human and a divine. While incorrect, Nestorius' concerns would form the groundwork for the Council of Chalcedon where his Alexandrian opponents, like Dioscorus, a student of Cyril, were anathematized.

    One of Nestorius' later writings (written in exile) is located here.
  8. johnbugay

    johnbugay Puritan Board Freshman

    I have been citing from the three works that I named in my first post. Moffett, of course, is a historian from Princeton. Mar Bawai Soro is a bishop from the Assyrian church (he recently converted to Catholicism, but that was after living in the US, with Catholics, for some time). Philip Jenkins touches on teachings relatively less.

    Moffett says of Nestorius,
    For the above he cites "the most through critical study of the text and its history," L. Abrahamowski's "Undersuchungen zum Liber Heraclidis des Nestorius," 1963. He continues:

    It should be noted that Nestorius was originally from Antioch, and he adhered to the Antiochene hermeneutic, which, at the time, was very similar to the Grammatico-Historical method. Continuing:

    He was not at ease with technical and semantic theological distinctions. He was absolutely convinced that he was biblically orthodox. At no time did he deny the deity fo Christ, as was charged against him. He merely insisted that it be clearly distinguished from Christ's humanity. Nor did he deny the unity of Christ's person, which was the most enduring of the charges against him. It was on this point that he was officially condemned....

    Bear in mind that I myself am not a theologian; the distinctions that were fought about are made in the original languages, and I do not have the ability to analyze those. But I do have the ability to report what modern scholars are concluding.

    You said:
    I'm sure it's the other way around. Moffett goes to some length to describe the character of the various individuals:

    This is corroborated by Mar Bawai Soro in his work, "The Church of the East."

    In 1999, Soro was a speaker at the Lumen Gentium series of meetings. In his introduction of Soro, note that the Orthodox Bishop Timothy "Kallistos" Ware also largely confirmed what Soro said about Nestorius:

    Check out the first couple of video clips here: OL III - Mary and the Church
  9. P.F.

    P.F. Puritan Board Freshman

    We have very little evidence to work with, because Nestorius' enemies destroyed most of his writings.

    The primary evidence we have of his positions from his own pen is the "Bazaar of Heraclides." I think you can probably buy it in paperback these days. That's the evidence for his orthodoxy. It is typically on an examination of that work that scholars acknowledge that Nestorius did not teach that Jesus was two persons, and objected to "Theotokos" because of the potential for it suggesting that the Godhead was born of Mary.
  10. johnbugay

    johnbugay Puritan Board Freshman

    See more about Nestorius, Cyril, Christology, etc., here, too.
  11. Christusregnat

    Christusregnat Puritan Board Professor

    When a cadre of modern scholars agree on something, it is best to be skeptical. Critical scholars are particularly notorious for defending heretics.

    I am contented to consider Nestorius a heretic, until convinced otherwise by his writings; I'll see if I can pick up his book some time soon.

  12. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    Three points worth considering.

    1. The "severity" of the times is no argument for the illegitimacy of the proceedings. Appealing to 20th century sensibilities does not invalidate what took place in the 5th century. The actions of the various parties must be examined according to accepted standards of the time.

    2. The later subjugation of the eastern churches cannot be blamed on their separation from the catholic church; and if it was owing to separation, it still leaves open the question as to who was to blame for the separation.

    3. One ought not to appeal to theological developments since the time of Nestorius in order to paint him as a figure struggling with issues which were foreign to the history of those times. Specific phrases carry meaning within specific contexts. If Nestorius engaged in unorthodox phrases it is because he was unorthodox. His teaching must be evaluated according to what that age considered as orthodox.
    Last edited: Sep 30, 2009
  13. Philip

    Philip Puritan Board Graduate

    I think what we're saying is that the doctrine condemned at Ephesus was rightfully condemned . . . it just wasn't Nestorius' view. Most of the material written since the rediscovery of Nestorius' writings agrees that Nestorius was mistaken, but not badly enough to warrant such persecution. Church politics at its ugliest.
  14. P.F.

    P.F. Puritan Board Freshman

    Archibald Alexander Hodge (1823-1886): "The Nestorian heresy, charged upon Nestorius, a Syrian by birth, and bishop of Constantinople, during the fifth century, by his enemy Cyril, the arrogant bishop of Alexandria. Cyril obtained a judgment against Nestorius in the Council of Ephesus, A.D. 431, to the effect that he separated the two natures of Christ so far as to teach the coexistence in him of two distinct persons, a God and a man, intimately united. But it is now, however, judged most probable by Protestant historians that Nestorius was personally a brave defender of the true faith, and that the misrepresentations of his enemies were founded only upon his uncompromising opposition to the dangerous habit then prominently introduced of calling the Virgin Mary the mother of God, because she was the mother of the human nature of Christ." (Outlines of Theology, Chapter 20, Question 15, 3rd Answer)

    I tend not to think of him (or men preceding him, to which he was referring) as a "modern scholar," but perhaps you would disagree.
  15. johnbugay

    johnbugay Puritan Board Freshman

    I don't know that Moffett is a "Critical scholar". I picked up his work because it was highly recommended by Dr. David Calhoun while auditing his History of Christianity course through Covenant Seminary.

    But aren't these "Christians"? Is not the moral law an objective standard of behavior for all people at all times? I did not argue for the illegitimacy of the proceedings. I reported Moffett's conclusion.

    However, your consideration here would also "not invalidate" something like the Inquisition. I would hope that you would not think that the reasoning in favor of the Inquisition would not be "valid" in any age.

    My understanding is that Theodore, Nestorius, Theodoret, and others from the Antioch school were considered "unorthodox" because they refused to go beyond Scripture (and thus refused to engage in speculations). Pelikan, in his "History of the Development of Doctrine" practically says that Chalcedon was a "vindication" of Nestorius. As Reformed believers, we hang our hats on Chalcedon, but not on Constantinople II, which was the council that really condemned those three.

    I am a great fan of A.A. Hodge (see my signature). And even he, here, seems to be defending Nestorius. Nevertheless, he would not have been familiar with Nestorius's "Book of Heraclides," if he even knew of it at all.

    Yes, it was true that Nestorius saw the dangers in the "Mother of God" language. A more proper translation of "Theotokos" is "God-Bearer," and that yields a proper understanding of Mary's role. But to call her "Mother of God" (Mater Theou in Latin) really introduces an inaccuracy, and we can see the results of that little slip.

    -----Added 9/30/2009 at 09:35:25 EST-----

    Would you consider then that Ephesus "bore false witness" against Nestorius? If he didn't believe the views that were "rightfully condemned," why then were they attributed to him?
  16. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    The name of Servetus comes to mind. The moral law remains the same, but "Christian sensibilities" change from generation to generation. In historical research it is important to paint a complete picture by examining behaviour in terms of accepted norms of the time, not according to modern standards.

    Not sure where this might be coming from, but it sounds odd to me. Surely Ephesus should be the focus.
  17. Philip

    Philip Puritan Board Graduate

    Yes, they bore false witness against him: his supporters weren't given a chance to submit their case.

    To me, the whole issue here was a power struggle. Alexandria was competing with Antioch in Church politics, as well as theology, and saw the recent division of Antioch's territory (the Synod of Seleucia, 410, and the formation of the Catholicate of Seleucia into a Patriarchate in 424) as an opportunity to grab power. The ploy was successful, as Nestorius' supporters arrived late. John, Patriarch of Antioch, called a counter-council which exonerated Nestorius and deposed Cyril.

    But you've already gone into that. The only thing of lasting value that came out of Ephesus was the condemnation of Pelagianism. The Christological decrees were practically overturned (or at least highly modified) at Chalcedon to the point where, in retrospect, modern Nestorians would agree with Chalcedon.
  18. Christusregnat

    Christusregnat Puritan Board Professor

    This sounds like speculation about the character of historical persons; do you have any evidence to support such assertions?

  19. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    I will pass by your power conspiracy as something which sensible people won't be too inclined to fall for, but in the quoted paragraph you are not only exonerating Nestorius, but Nestorians, and that is simply impossible to accomplish.
  20. timmopussycat

    timmopussycat Puritan Board Junior

    While such an exoneration is impossible if modern Nestorians teach the errors condemned at Ephesus, it seems that the moderns do not teach the Ephesian errors: as they are now in sufficient communion with the RCC that a Roman may receive communion in an Assyrian Orthodox (Nestorian) church if an RCC is not available.
  21. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    If that is the case, it doesn't materially alter the tradition's condemnation of Nestorianism. Since that time East has split from West and the West has undergone a Reformation; any "Romanist" acceptance of Nestorianism cannot be construed as a "Catholic" acceptance of Nestorianism.
    Last edited: Oct 16, 2009
  22. johnbugay

    johnbugay Puritan Board Freshman

    It seems as if an old thread has been brought to the front. Here is something though that I probably needed to address at the time:

    The rulings of these three councils (actually four) went back and forth. Ephesus made a particular Christological ruling, which was superceded by Chalcedon, which in turn was ruled on in another way by Constantinople II (in 553 ad).

    In summarizing the work of Mar Aba, a 6th century Patriarch of Seleucia (Baghdad), here is what Moffett says concerning later efforts within the "Nestorian" church, "The Church of the East" to work past what had transpired at Ephesus:

    Just a few years later, in 553, the Council of Constantinople II condemned Theodore, Nestorius, and Theodoret (and another individual named Hiba) by name.

    Summarizing, Moffett says:

    Last edited: Oct 16, 2009
  23. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    Chalcedon's words: "the frenzied folly of Nestorius" (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, second series, 14:264).

    Constantinople II's words: "the blasphemies of the heretics Theodore and Nestorius" (ibid., 310).

    Chalcedon affirms the judgements of Nice, Constantinople I, and Ephesus in express words. Constantinople II affirms the judgements of Nice, Constantinople I, Ephesus, and Chalcedon in express words.
  24. johnbugay

    johnbugay Puritan Board Freshman

    It was not this simple though. While they condemned the man, in the words of Pelikan,

    So then we are back to that business of a council (Ephesus) not having condemned Nestorius's teaching as it had been stated (except to disagree with his cautions on "theotokos"), but again, on what basis does Chalcedon call that a "frenzied folly," when they are adopting very much akin to his "one person after the union of two natures" christological formulation?

    I am not saying that we need to welcome Nestorius with open arms; again, my point is to question precicely "how" the Holy Spirit spoke in the council of Ephesus? This was one council that Nestorius refused to attend because (a) his people hadn't arrived in the city, and (b) Cyril was presiding, having "compelled" people to come in, quite evidently at the hand of armed gangs of thugs who were terrorizing people to see things his way. (This is why the Emperorer originally threw out both Cyril's and John of Antioch's council).

    Reymond gives a large analysis of the council of Chalcedon, and it is largely seems to be "fencing off" a particular set of guidelines, within which was "orthodox Christology."

    So it is true that they used "Theotokos" as a title, but they specifically did not use the "Mother of God" language which Cyril had specifically used (there are multiple ways to translate "Theotokos," one as "God-bearer," which Nestorius could have accepted, and "Mother of God," which is Cyril's way of using it, which had become a popular expression, and which ultimately opened the door for "Marian devotion".)

    It was muddy, and while I understand that you are looking to attribute "the work of the Holy Spirit" in the entire history of the church (in the spirit of the Magisterial Reformers), I still do not see how, precisely you are dividing up what was "the work of the Spirit" and what was not "the work of the Spirit" in these councils.

    Especially Ephesus. That council has almost nothing going for it, except that Chalcedon (interested in making peace) said, "That was The Ecumenical Council" of the several held at that time. But what it offered with one hand, it took back with the other.
  25. TimV

    TimV Puritanboard Botanist

    ? Speaking of magisterial Reformers, have you read what any of the magisterial Reformers said about Ephesus? And it's relationship with the Spirit?
  26. johnbugay

    johnbugay Puritan Board Freshman

  27. timmopussycat

    timmopussycat Puritan Board Junior

    Nobody is claiming that the tradition was wrong to condemn "Nestorianism" when some of Nestorius' followers embraced the errors condemned by Ephesus. But the term "Nestorians" is equivocal. Some of his early followers did walk down the Ephesianly condemned path. Others (and his modern descendants) did not.

    As I understand the matter, there are no significant differences dividing the RCC from Protestantism in the area of Christology. If yes, what are they? If no, is there any theological reason why Reformed Protestants should treat the contemporary Assyrian Church of the East (Nestorius contemporary followers) as different from, say, the Greek Orthodox, since both bodies accept Chalcedon?
    Last edited: Oct 17, 2009
  28. TimV

    TimV Puritanboard Botanist

    You could have turned one page back to 4.9.8, where he says ...we willingly embrace and reverence as holy....Ephesus..... ;-)
  29. johnbugay

    johnbugay Puritan Board Freshman

    Calvin at 4.9.8 lists the first four councils as "concerned with refuting errors--in so far as they relate to the teachings of faith. For they contain nothing but the pure and genuine exposition of Scripture, which the holy fathers applied with spiritual prudence to crush the enemies of religion who had then arisen.

    At any rate, if what he says in my quote is the qualification for what he said in your quote, What is it of "Nestorius's impiety" that was contrary to Scripture? Nestorius was from the school of Antioch most careful not to be "contrary to Scripture". If you read Nestorius's letter, cited in the Council of Ephesus, he is most careful to adhere to Scripture.

    On the other hand, as we've discussed here, Cyril, via a logic trick, got a council full of his own followers (all of Nestorius's people, including John of Antioch and his contingent were not present) not to vote on Nestorius's own words, but on this logic trick:

    Nestorius nowhere says "two sons". Nowhere. As best as I can tell, his ONLY "impiety" was not to use the word "Theotokos."

    Now, I've searched through the confessions that are generously published at this site. And I do not find any Reformed believers staking their faith on the word "Theotokos". They all manage to adequately describe Chalcedonian Christology without using that word.

    I do not understand how, given that what we know now is far more extensive than what Calvin knew, any Reformed believer would continue to condemn Nestorius as a heretic.
  30. TimV

    TimV Puritanboard Botanist

    Now we're talking past each other. You said Ephesus has almost nothing going for it. Then you said

    and I showed you where Calvin called Ephesus holy, and reverent and to be embraced. Surely you see a difference between something that's holy and to be reverenced and to be embraced and something that has almost nothing going for it!
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