Friday, May 09, 2008

Heretical Friday: Nestorianism


Named after Nestorius, a monk who became the bishop of Constantinople. He was deposed as bishop by the Council of Ephesus and sent to Antioch, then Arabia, and then Egypt. He died in 451. Nestorianism survived until around 1300.

Nestorianism holds that Mary bore only Christ’s human nature in her womb, but not his divine nature. Nestorius denied Mary the title of Theotokos (Greek: God-bearer” or less literally, “Mother of God”). Nestorius’s theory would divide Christ into two distinct persons (one human, one divine), only one of whom was borne by Mary.

In 431, at the Council of Ephesus, the Church defined that Mary can be properly referred to as the Mother of God, not in the sense that she is older than God or the source of God, but in the sense that the person she carried in her womb was, in fact, God incarnate ("in the flesh").

Nestorianism presented a threat to the atonement. If Jesus was two persons, then which one died on the cross? If it was the "human person" then the atonement is not of divine quality and thereby insufficient to cleanse us of our sins.

As a follow-up, there is some doubt whether Nestorius himself held the heresy his statements imply. In 1895, a handwritten 16th-century book containing a copy of a text written by Nestorius was discovered by American missionaries in the library of the Nestorian patriarch in the mountains at Kotchanes. This book had suffered damage during Moslem raids, but was substantially intact, and copies were taken secretly. The Syriac translation had the title of the Bazaar of Heracleides. The original 16th-century manuscript was destroyed in 1915 during the Turkish massacres of Nestorian Christians.

The Bazaar was written towards the end of Nestorius’s life, and in it he explicitly denies the heresy for which he was condemned. Instead he affirms of Christ "the same one is twofold" — an expression that some consider similar to the formulation of the Council of Chalcedon. In the 20th century, the Assyrian Church of the East, historically regarded as a Nestorian church, has signed a fully orthodox joint declaration on Christology with the Roman Catholic Church and rejects Nestorianism. It is now in the process of coming into full ecclesial communion with the Catholic Church.

Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM)
Catholic Answers

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