In this series we take a look back at some of the most notorious errors and heresies that have threatened the church over the centuries, as well as the subtle (and not so subtle) ways in which those false teachings continue to haunt 21st century thought and theology.
Nestorius was born in the province of Syria around 381. He was educated in Antioch and became both a priest and a monk in the nearby monastery. There he gained his reputation as a skillful preacher and a learned and devoted theologian, zealous for orthodoxy and not afraid to enter into the controversies of his time. These skills caught the eye of the eastern Roman emperor, Theodosius II, who raised him to the position of patriarch of Constantinople. He had his detractors, as well—some described him as “hasty and imprudent,” and “naively self-conceited, storming and short-sighted.”
He held his high position for only a short time, for he soon found himself embroiled in disputes. A priest had questioned whether it was proper to speak of Mary as the Mother of God. This had already become a common title for her, but some thought this went too far and insisted that “Mother of Christ” was more accurate. Nestorius sided with these people. A general council was convened at Ephesus in 431 to decide this matter.
Mary could not be the Mother of God, said Nestorius, because only the human part of Jesus came from Mary and this did not share in the divine attributes. He spoke as though the divine person and the human person in Christ were so separate within Him that He was in effect two persons in one body! The council was opened somewhat prematurely, not waiting on the supporters of Nestorius, who were late to arrive. His opponents, headed by Cyril of Alexandria, rushed to judgment against Nestorius, and condemned him for heresy before the delegates from Antioch arrived.
Thus, after only three and a half years as Patriarch of Constantinople, he was deposed and retired to his old monastery. Later he was exiled to a remote monastery in upper Egypt and there lived out his life, insisting to the end that he was misunderstood and wrongly condemned.
Luther agreed that Nestorius was not guilty of the specific charges against him, but asserted that he was nevertheless guilty of heresy. He confessed that for a long time he also did not understand Nestorius’ real error. It was not that he made two persons of Christ, but that he did not admit that there was a sharing of divine properties with the human nature. Luther explained it this way: “If I said that Jesus is taking some bread and water to His mother to have lunch with her and that this Jesus is God, Nestorius would agree. But if I said there goes God down the street with bread and water, he would not agree.”
Then he adds the important application: “If I say, ‘The carpenter Jesus was crucified by the Jews and the same Jesus is the true God,’ Nestorius would agree. But if I say, ‘God was crucified by the Jews’ he says, ‘No!’” Luther then added passages to prove this point: Gabriel announces that Mary would bear “the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32). Elizabeth calls Mary, “the mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43), and “God sent forth His Son, born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4).
Followers of Nestorius fled from the Roman Empire to the east and survived as a church for centuries in Persia, India and even China. They called themselves the Assyrian Church and have never admitted that Nestorius was rightly condemned.
But the errors that Luther identified still echo through the ages. Perhaps the plainest example is the refusal by many to agree that the body and blood of Christ is truly present in the Lord’s Supper, since (they say) Christ is present in heaven and thus cannot be present on earth.
Norman Greve is pastor of St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Iron River, Michigan.