History of Doctrine: Nestorius

The Nature of the Battle over Nature


Remember the Nicene Creed? Just as most treaties following wars pave the way for the next war, so the resolution of the controversy surrounding the Trinity gave way to a new controversy. The focus of disagreement simply moved from the nature of the Trinity to the nature of the Christ.

Those in the 4th and 5th centuries found it difficult, by human reasoning, to understand how perfect humanity and complete deity could combine in one man. Some, such as the Dynamic Monarchians simply denied the deity of Christ; others such as Gnostics denied His humanity.

While these were the extreme views, most gathered themselves around two major schools of thought. On the one hand were those who were known as the Alexandrian school which stressed the divine nature of the Lord Jesus, at times to the minimizing of His perfect humanity. Arrayed against them was the Antiochene school which stressed the manhood of the Lord Jesus. The Arians denied His full deity while some, such as Apollinaris, one of the ecclesiastical bishops of the day, denied His true humanity.


Apollinaris offered what he felt to be a brilliant solution to the problem. He did not believe that two natures which were in such contrast could possibly co-exist in one person. How could the divine and eternal be linked with the human and the corruptible? If the human were to sin, it would touch on the divine. In his view, man was composed of body, soul, and mind. If Christ had two natures, then He would really be two persons, not one. He reasoned that in Christ, the Logos took the place of His mind or reason. Since it was in the realm of the mind or reason that man sinned, this would make Christ impeccable, yet maintain both His deity and humanity. But his critics pointed out that although the divine nature or Logos was complete, Apollinaris doctrine left the Saviors humanity a bit wanting. His opponents, known to history as the Cappadocians, pointed out that if Christ is not a complete man, then He could not be the Redeemer of man.


Anathema after anathema was issued against Apollinaris. But controversy usually breeds extremism, and this was to be no exception. From the battle emerged Nestorius and Cyril.

Cyril was a Patriarch of Alexandria. He was bellicose, pompous, shrewd, extreme, and adept at political maneuvering. It may well be that Cyril was motivated more by personal ambition and a desire to challenge Antioch and other centers for prominence. His doctrine was both hazy and questionable. It was he who championed the phrase, “Mary, mother of God” as the touchstone of the debate.

Nestorius was from the Antioch school. With tremendous intensity, these men studied the life of Christ as seen in the gospels. One of Nestorius teachers, Theodore of Mopsuestia, taught that the Lord Jesus was a real and complete man. He went so far as to say that the Lord struggled with human passions and knew conflict with temptation. He owned that God indwelt Christ, but only to a greater degree than He indwelt other believers.

Nestorius, following the lead of his mentor, challenged the “Mary, mother of God” concept, claiming that Mary brought forth “only” a man accompanied by the Logos. His critics quickly responded, pointing out that this would make Him a defective Redeemer. Nestorius was saying that the Man, Christ, was not God, but simply a “bearer of God.”

His teaching gave us a perfect specimen of humanity, but, by compromising His deity, took away the source of our salvation, security, and joy.

When a meeting was held in Ephesus in 431, of all the ecclesiastical bishops, Cyril and his friends arrived first. They hastily convened a meeting without the other bishops and proceeded to excommunicate Nestorius for heresy.


Nestorius was not always tactful and was known to attack those who challenged his views and teaching. Nestorius was ultimately exiled by the church and died in exile. His followers became one of the many splinter churches which continued to exist for centuries in the Persian empire.

Councils and creeds did not settle the issue of the exact relationship of the human and divine in the person of Christ. As long as human wisdom, logic, and reasoning were the criteria, controversy and opinion continued. It is when revelation is allowed to speak for itself that we come to understand the transcendent truth that in this one blessed Person, deity and humanity are combined without compromise. “There is one God and one Mediator, (Himself man) the man, Christ Jesus.”

We fall into the thinking of Nestorius when we begin to ascribe an act to either the Lords deity, or to His manhood. A careful adherence to the language of Scripture will preserve us from the errors of a past age. Mary was not the “mother of God,” but brought forth the Man-child who was eternally the Son of God.