Reflection: Nestorius and Cyril

This paper was initially written for the course Early and Medieval Christianity in Winter 2011.

In the years leading up to the Council of Chalcedon, the two dominant figures in the Christological Controversy were Nestorius and Cyril.  The question at stake was the nature of Jesus and just how exactly Jesus could be said to be both divine and human.  As Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius took the Antiochene answer to this question of the nature of Jesus.  As bishop of Alexandria, Cyril took the Alexandrine position.  Fundamentally the Antiochene position came down to a belief that Jesus’ nature could be separated into two natures – human and divine – and the Alexandrine position that they were joined together so fully as to be unable to separate them.

While others had been talking about the issue beforehand, the question came to a divisive head beginning with Nestorius’ sermon against the Theotokos.  The specific focus of this sermon was, as the title suggests, opposing the use of the term Theotokos, or Bearer of God, as a title for Mary.  Nestorius’ fundamental argument is that God cannot have a mother (or a bearer) because, as established as a result of the Trinitarian Controversy, the Logos was fully divine and has always existed.  To say that she was the bearer of the human nature of Jesus would be acceptable but it is impossible to claim that she was the bearer of the divine nature.   Thus the use of the term Theotokos must be stopped.

What is particularly remarkable about Nestorius’ sermon is the frequent use of Scripture, much more than used by Cyril against him.  He points out Hebrews 7:3 which says that Christ is without a mother.  He quotes John 1:1, which was central to the Trinitarian Controversy as well, saying that the Logos existed since the beginning.  If he existed from the beginning, the logical argument flows, then he could not have been born of Mary.  Nestorius repeatedly references words of Jesus himself and of others that sometimes refer to Jesus as a man and other times as divine and still other times as both together yet distinct.  It is a very clear and plain reading of a variety of Scripture texts.

Cyril of Alexandria on the other hand tends to directly use Scripture less, but relies more on allegorical understandings of Scripture and, as Nestorius did, on some of the Greek philosophical concepts which have been dominating so many discussions so far.  Perhaps most importantly of all, however, he is much more tactful than Nestorius’ very direct approach to the controversial issue.  He agreed with many of Nestorius’ viewpoints, including that the Logos did not have beginning in the womb of Mary.  Reading Nestorius came across as very divisive, seeming to focus primarily on disagreements – such as the call to stop using the term Theotokos – but Cyril comes across almost as if he agrees but then brings in why he doesn’t.  I could imagine Nestorius reading Cyril’s letter to him and be almost nodding along in agreement and then suddenly and gently there is a very different conclusion.

Cyril’s teaching can be seen summarized well with the heart of his second letter to Nestorius, found on 132-133 of Norris.  The goal is to “comprehend what is meant by saying that the Logos from God took flesh and became human” (132).  Compared to Nestorius whose answer seemed quite clear, Cyril doesn’t really give an answer.  All he says is that “in an unspeakable and incomprehensible way, the Logos united to himself, in his hypostasis, flesh enlivened by a rational soul, and in this way became a human being” (132-133).  Cyril again doesn’t really provide an explanation when he says that even though there were two natures to begin with, through an “unspeakable and unutterable convergence” they become one.

Cyril does not wield Scripture in his defense in nearly the same way that Nestorius does.  This difference of approach was a common one between Antioch who read the texts more literally and Alexandria who read it more allegorically.  In fact, the next section, found on 133 of Norris, is devoted to providing alternate interpretations to the more obvious interpretations which were presented by Nestorius.  He agrees with Nestorius that of course the Logos did not need a fleshly birth, having already existed beforehand, but since he chose to join himself with the flesh right from the womb, it is still right to say that he had a fleshly birth.  Therefore it is also still right to use the term Theotokos as Mary still gave birth to this united flesh-divine being.

In summary, I know this is an anachronism, but I am having a hard time seeing how the two positions are really that different.  For all practical purposes, they are saying the same thing.  They both agree that both natures are fully present in some way.  They both support the pre-existence of the Logos and that the Logos was in Jesus the Christ.  They both agree that the Logos, as God, cannot suffer.  They both support that the Logos is present in the Eucharist.  Of all these things that agree, from the modern viewpoint it is hard to see why the exact breakdown of the relationship between the divine and the human in Jesus really makes that big of a difference.  Really the only difference it makes as far as I can see is that in the Alexandrine position you cannot distinguish the two natures to say that it was the human nature that did x, or the divine nature that did y, as you can in the Antiochene position.  Yet viewing it through today’s lens, I am still not sure why that is important, even while fully acknowledging that it was clearly very important to them.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.