Nestorius’ Understanding of the Person of Christ (3/4)

Cyril of Alexandria readily opposed the bishop of Constantinople. The Alexandrian See had

been demoted in ecclesiastical authority to third place behind the See of Constantinople. Cyril’s character was in direct contrast with that of Nestorius. He was cunning, ambitious, politically astute, and desirous of power.[1] After Cyril was made aware of what he believed to be Nestorius’ theological divergence, he sent letters both to the bishop of Rome, Celestine I, informing him of Nestorius’ error, and also to Nestorius, demanding his recantation. Cyril’s third letter included twelve separate anathematizations. The first of these stated, “If anyone does not confess that Emmanuel is God in truth, and therefore the holy Virgin is theotokos—for she bore in the flesh the Word of God become flesh—let him be anathema.”[2] The remaining eleven anathemas centered on the mechanics of Christ’s incarnation. The surface argument of the theotokos ultimately led to underlying Christological disparities between the Antiochene and Alexandrian traditions.

Debating theology from similar worldviews assumes the possibility for many pitfalls, but debating theology from opposing worldviews will only lead to disaster. The difficulty began with the term hypostasis. An Alexandrian understanding of this term was couched in a Neo-Platonic purview. Cyril most likely interpreted this word as a “concrete realization of the ousia [nature], corresponding to the concrete person.”[3] His assumption formulates the idea that in the incarnation both the divine nature (ousia) of Christ and the human nature (ousia) of Christ coalesced into one person (hypostasis). Cyril’s argument holds to one hypostasis to the extent of causing ambiguity concerning the distinction between the natures. Aloys Grillmeier notes, “In the end, the formula of the one physis-hypostasis [one person/hypostasis] necessarily leads to the idea of a unity of person . . . . [But] does not distinguish it either in language or concept from the concept of nature.”[4] According to Nestorius, Cyril’s argument fell uncomfortably close to Apollinarianism, and so he took drastic steps to articulate his position, which appeared to be diophysitism.

Nestorius and the Antiochene tradition understood the term hypostasis from an Aristototelian sense, “as a material reality bound up in its species.”[5] The hypostasis is an individual representation of the nature but does not necessarily have a substantive existence. In other words, it is immaterial. Nestorius used the term prosopon to refer to the concrete person or substantive existence. Therefore, the argument was presented in an atmosphere of terminological confusion, which escalated the polemics and alienated both parties in the process. Baum accurately defines Nestorius’ terminology in that “[the term] ‘person’ [prosopon] denotes the external appearance and ‘hypostasis’ the inner reality.”[6]

Figure 1. A Comparison of Cyrilian and Nestorian Christological Arguments.

In Cyril’s second letter to Nestorius, he wrote, “Two different natures came together [in Christ] in a hypostatic union, in order to form a unity.”[7] Because Nestorius understood the term ‘hypostatic’ as a non-material (nature) existence prior to the coalescing of the natures into the prosopon, the concept of a ‘hypostatic union’ made little sense and appeared to mix the natures. From Nestorius’ perspective, Cyril’s Christological mechanism distorted the natures by combining them into an indistinguishable amalgamation. As a result, Nestorius angled his attacks toward Cyril as if Cyril was arguing for a restricted Apollinarian (logos-sarx) position.

If the two natures in Christ were to make a substantive exchange, meaning if the logos ousia admitted entrance to the anthropos ousia, and if the anthropos ousia admitted entrance to the logos ousia, each nature would cease to be what it is and would result in a divine/human hybrid (i.e. Apollinarianism). Milton Anastos accurately summarizes Nestorius’ position with these words: “Uncreated God the Word, who is eternal, cannot be transformed into that which is created (body), nor can the human body of Christ be changed into the ousia of God the Word.”[8] Nestorius was confused by the terminology used by Cyril. They were explicating their arguments using the same words but with different meanings.

The misunderstanding between Cyril and Nestorius was primarily because Nestorius believed Cyril downplayed the significance of Christ’s humanity. Mar Bawai Soro articulates this with exemplar clarity:

“For Cyril, the only principle operating in the union was, by necessity, the Logos. In contrast, such a concept of the union was totally unacceptable to Nestorius because it meant accepting that the Logos appeared to be capable of earthly birth, suffering and dying. Therefore, the divine nature would be altered in and of itself. Nestorius then, like any other fourth and fifth century Antiochian Christologist, was confronted with the problem of the human and the divine existing as two concrete and real natures in the unity of Christ—a problem that was to be encountered on the ontological level….Nestorius states that the union in Christ is not between two independent subjects, or persons, but it is between the two natures (divine and human) in the one prosopon[9] of Jesus Christ. The human Jesus receives his prosopon—not as an individual, separate self, but at the moment of his conception (See figure 1) as God-man; there is a distinction between the natures, but most significantly for Nestorius, there is no separation between the two natures. They are inseparably united in the prosopon of union of Jesus Christ.”[10]

Cyril accused Nestorius of denying the one God-man, Jesus Christ, in that Nestorius’ prosopon precluded unity of the natures. Cyril argued that God the Logos “[assumed] flesh and blood, yet still remaining what he was, that is, God indeed in nature and truth.”[11] His understanding of Nestorius’ position was muddled because of the confused definition of hypostasis. Cyril writes, “Confessing the Word united hypostatically to flesh, we worship one Son and Lord Jesus Christ, neither putting apart and dividing man and God…but knowing only one Christ, the Word of God the Father with his own flesh.”[12] To Nestorius, this formulation did not highlight the distinction between the natures. Nestorius replied, “We ought not to say that God was born and suffered, and that Mary was the God-bearer; that was heathenish, Apollinarian, Arian.”[13] Nestorius held that the Logos, (God) was immutable and therefore unable to experience birth, suffering, and death. His understanding of birth necessitated the concept of “generation—the coming into being, or the rising to existence out of another of the same nature.”[14] However, if the Logos ousia was joined together with an anthropos ousia by means of distinct hypostases (immaterial-inner reality), one unified prosopon could be attained which would allow for the Christ to be born, to suffer, and to die.  Nestorius articulated his understanding of the prosopic union in the Bazaar of Heracleides. Nestorius writes,

“In virtue of the prosopon thou [God] raisest him above all humanity, in such wise that he on the one hand, who is eternally even as he is and began not nor gradually advanced nor was perfected, is one, but he who began and gradually advanced and was perfected both in the union and in the manifestation in one prosopon, is another, God who was made man and man who was made God. He was not transformed and changed from his divinity, just as also the humanity of Christ is not changed in nature from [that of] men except in honor and in prosopon; for he is God of all and Lord and Son; and in all the things which are the divinity in ousia, in them exists the humanity in honor, not by another honor but by the same as that of him who took the prosopon: the humanity making use of the prosopon of the divinity and the divinity of the prosopon of the humanity, since for this it has been taken and for this he has taken it, not indeed so that we should not confess him who was taken but that we might confess him. Confess then the taker as he took, and the taken as he was taken, wherein [each is] one and in another, and wherein [there is] one and not two, after the same manner as the manner of the Trinity.”[15]

The language used by Nestorius’ to articulate his prosopic union, allowed him to express his understanding of the unity of Christ. Soro concludes, “Each prosopon becomes the “eikon and prosopon” of the other nature in such a way that, in the final analysis, there is only one coalesced prosopon of Jesus Christ, both God and man.”[16]

In Nestorius’ prosopic union, the role of Christ’s humanity enabled him to accomplish that which Adam failed to. Through Christ’s perfect obedience (Phil 2:8), he reversed the curse and conquered sin and death. Through his death and resurrection, he ensured certain victory over God’s enemies (Gen 3:15; 1 Cor 15:24-25) and won victory for all those who will follow him. In so doing he has made them co-heirs of his kingdom and children of the living God. Nestorius expresses it in these words:

“For until the time of his victory he was striving to make firm in God the image which had been given unto him. But because he established his own image in all temptations perfectly and without failing/and without falling short in anything, he comported himself on our behalf, being zealous to rescue us captives from the violence of the tyrant and to draw us towards him and to make all of us the sons of his own kingdom, the associates and the heirs and the sons of God….His own victory sufficed him not, but it must henceforth be also ours for which sake he strove; and those who are obedient unto him he then brings unto him voluntarily and not by force, and those who come he persuades of their own will to part from him and not of their own will to become his disciples.”[17]

[1]Baum, The Church of the East, 46.

[2]Edward R. Hardy and Cyril C. Richardson, eds., Christology of the Later Fathers (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1954), 353.

[3]Baum, The Church of the East, 46.

[4]Aloys Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition, vol. 1, From the Apostolic Age to Chalcedon (451), trans. John Bowden (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975), 482.

[5]Baum, The Church of the East, 46.



[8]Soro, The Church of the East, 239.

[9]Soro defines prosopon with these words: “It is the prosopon that is capable of presenting the properties, faculties, operations and characteristics of each nature in Christ as intact and perfectly integral.” See Mar Bawai Soro, The Church of the East: Apostolic & Orthodox (San Jose: Adiabene Publications, 2007), 239.

[10]Ibid., 240.

[11]Hardy, Christology of the Later Fathers, 350.


[13]Metropolitan Bishoy, “The Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, the Christological Controversies of the 4th and 5th Centuries,” in Christianity: A History in the Middle East, ed. Habib Badr (Beirut: Middle East Council of Churches, 2005), 201.

[14]Soro, The Church of the East, 250.

[15]Nestorius, The Bazaar of Heracleides, 206-07.

[16]Soro, The Church of the East, 249.

[17]Ibid., 67.


3 thoughts on “Nestorius’ Understanding of the Person of Christ (3/4)

  1. This is a very interesting description of the differences between Cyril and Nestorius. It is interesting that the earlier Bishop of Antioch, Paul of Samosata, represented the idea of a developmental henosis and avoided the problem these two bishops had concerning the henosis. Moreover, Paul advocated a single heavenly hypostasis (God the Father) and did not consider “the Word made flesh” (John 1:14) to mean that a hypostasis was made flesh through some kind of a transmutation or hypostatical hybridization.

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