Cyril won, but, asks Hugh Bates, was he fair to Nestorius?

The Background

To begin at the end of the story, the outcome of the third Ecumenical Council, held at Ephesus in the summer of 431, was the deposition and exile of Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, and the condemnation of his false teachings about the person of Christ. Nestorius contradicted, it was alleged, the formula of the later Athanasian Creed, ‘Who though he be God and man: yet he is not two but one Christ.’

The Fathers of Nicaea had confessed that Jesus Christ, the Son, the Word of God is consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father. If the Godhead is, by definition, omnipotent, omniscient, immutable and impassible, how is it able to be united with a human being who is the opposite of all of these in every respect?

Broadly speaking, attempts to solve the christological problem proceeded along two distinct lines, which may be labelled for convenience The Word made flesh and The man assumed. The weakness of the former lies in the difficulty of its being able to do anything like justice to the Saviour’s humanity. Reluctance to allow for a human soul stemmed, in part, from its association with Origen’s speculation about the pre-existence of souls, and partly from the condemnation of Paul of Samosata who was said to have taught that Christ was a mere man. It has been noted that Athanasius himself had paid little more than lip service to this, while Apollinaris had maintained that it was the Logos and not the human soul that was the centre of Christ’s personality. The problem with the latter is that, while seeking to give full weight to the Saviour’s humanity, it never quite manages to give a fully coherent account of the union of godhead and manhood in a single subject. The two remain separable, at least in theory. The condemnation of Nestorius highlighted the problem.

The Protagonists

As the Formula of Union declared, when it was all over for the time being, at least, the council of Ephesus should never have happened. That it did is due in large measure to the personalities of the two protagonists. In modern times it has been fashionable to demonize Cyril and rehabilitate Nestorius. Cyril’ s bad reputation rests on the opening years of his patriarchate (412–15) and his conduct at the Council of Ephesus itself. These early years were the subject of a recent drama on Radio Three1 which followed the story of his troubled relationships with Orestes, the nominally Christian City Prefect, and the female philosopher Hypatia, the eponymous heroine of Charles Kingsley’s novel. The drama, culminating in Hyptaia’ s brutal murder is played out against the background of communal violence between the Jewish and pagan communities of the city and the Christian population led by a heavy mob of fanatical Nitrian monks. Certainly the events do no credit to any of the parties involved. Nevertheless, after this initial upheaval, the next thirteen years of Cyril’s episcopate were peaceful and uneventful.

Nestorius was consecrated Archbishop of Constantinople in 428. He was a compromise candidate, a monk from Gennanicia in Cilicia on the western border of Syria. He had the reputation of being a powerful and fluent preacher, but was otherwise inexperienced, and without practical or pastoral common sense. His sole declared aim was to disinfect his diocese of all heresies completely. This is the context in which the famous (or infamous) outburst of his chaplain Anastasius should be placed. ‘Let no one call Mary Theotokos, for Mary was but a woman, and it is impossible that God should be born of a woman.’ If this was only intended to flush out a few lurking Apollinarians (or maybe Arians) it was a bad mistake. The word theotokos was known to Origen, Alexander of Alexandria and Athanasius. Gregory Nazianzen uses the term semi-technically to insist that the Saviour’s birth was no illusion. Nestorius, however, was quite paranoid about the word’s use. For him, Mary was not ‘the bearer of the eternal Word’ but only of ‘the man assumed’. He was too blinkered even to consider the validity of other approaches to the mystery of the incarnation and was threatening to unchurch several blameless and orthodox churchmen of standing. Many (Cyril included) were becoming alarmed. Nestorius was trouble, and he did have imperial support.

The Council

Once the affair had moved into the area of church politics Cyril was to show himself an apt pupil of his uncle and predecessor Theophilus. First, he wrote to the Egyptian monks in his annual Paschal Letter for 429 announcing the date of Easter, to alert them to the situation. Next he despatched a treatise De recta fide to the Emperor Theodosius and the ladies of the imperial household, which was somewhat coolly received. At the same time he sent his first (fraternal ) letter to Nestorius as a warning shot across the bows. He was to have more success with his letter to Pope Celestine in Rome informing him of the situation and enlisting his support. Early the following year Cyril increased the pressure with his second letter to Nestorius, in which he sets out his position in detail in the hope that this will be understood and accepted. In August 430 the Roman synod declared against Nestorius, and Celestine wrote to Cyril commissioning him to ensure that Nestorius retract his errors and embrace the faith of Rome and Alexandria within ten days of receiving this ultimatum.

At this point Theodosius intervened to try and defuse the situation by summoning a Council to meet in Ephesus at Whitsuntide (June 7th) the following year. The purpose was to restore peace and to save everybody’s face. We should remember that, unlike modern Synods, the outcome was not determined by simple (or even a two thirds) voting majority. Instead, each bishop rises to give his opinion and the Council’s discussion continues until a common agreement is reached. The hope was that things would go on and on until tempers had cooled and reason prevailed. Cyril, however, was not to be deterred. His response to this new development was his third and final letter to Nestorius, an uncompromising repetition of his previous position, concluding with the twelve anathemas to which Nestorius was to subscribe. He could not possibly have done so. It is generally thought that Cyril overplayed his hand at this point. Not only are some of the anathemas themselves rather dubious. His refusal to drop them was to leave himself later with little room for compromise or negotiation. But the immediate and intended effect was to put Nestorius on the defensive. The forthcoming Council would be no longer a way of escape but an ordeal. Whitsuntide came and neither the Roman delegation nor the seventy Eastern bishops let by John of Antioch had appeared. On June 22nd the Romans were still absent and the Orientals were drawing ever nearer. So Cyril acted. Mindful perhaps of the Pope’s instructions, together with the local bishop Memnon, he hijacked the proceedings. The imperial commissioner protested vainly, but Nestorius was duly deposed and his teachings condemned. Four days later the Orientals arrived, held a counter synod deposing and anathematizing Cyril and Memnon, and reinstating Nestorius. He, however, had had enough, and returned to his monastery.

For the next eighteen months the East was in a state of turmoil and schism. Space forbids any account of the attempts to heal the breach, but in the end a reconciliation of sorts was effected. The Orientals gave up their efforts to restore Nestorius, and Cyril quietly forgot about the twelve anathemas. The Formula of Union recognized both theological positions as proper.

‘As for the terms used about the Lord in the Gospels and apostolic writings, we recognize that theologians treat some of them as shared because they refer to one person, some they refer to two natures, traditionally teaching the application of the divine terms to Christ’s Godhead, the lowly to his manhood.’

The Issue

Cyril insisted that it was enough to give mere verbal assent to the Nicene Creed. It was necessary accept the full and correct meaning.

‘These declarations and these doctrines we too must follow taking note of the Word of God’s ‘being incarnate’ and ‘being made man’. We do not mean that the Word was changed and made flesh, or on the other hand that he was transformed into a complete man consisting of soul and body, but instead we affirm this: that the Word substantially united to himself flesh endowed with life and reason in a manner mysterious and inconceivable and became man and was called Son of Man, uniting it substantially, not merely by way of divine favour or good will. Yet neither by the assumption merely of an outward appearance (prosopon ) …’

The operative words are ‘substantial’, ‘substantially’. Nothing less than a ‘hypostatic union’ of the godhead and manhood will do justice to the faith of Nicaea.

Refuse all alternatives:

Whoever divides the subjects in respect to the one Christ after the union, joining them together in a conjunction involving rank, i.e. sovereignty or authority instead of a combination involving actual union, shall be anathema’

The Formula of Union summarizes:

‘A union of two natures has been effected, and therefore we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord. By virtue of this. we acknowledge the holy Virgin to be Mother of God because God the Word was made flesh and united to himself the temple that he took from her as the result of her conception.’

The fourth anathema condemns anyone who allocates the divine terms of scripture to Christ as God, and the human terms to him as man, as if to two distinct subjects or persons. Instead, by virtue of the hypostatic union, it is now possible to exercise cross-predication, so that the human terms like suffering and death may be attributed to the Word, and the divine ones like wisdom and foreknowledge attributed to the man.

As Lionel Wickham observes, the controversy established the parameters of the later patristic understanding of the incarnation.2 ‘The classic picture of Christ the God-man is the picture that Cyril persuaded Christians was the true, the only credible, Christ.’ He may have had the best of the argument, but was he entirely fair to Nestorius, ‘neither by the assumption of a merely [my italics] outward appearance (prosopon)? The rehabilitation of Nestorius began with the discovery of his apologia The Bazaar of Heracleides at the end of the ninteenth century. Its dating (did all or it or parts precede or follow the Council?) is uncertain.3 Nevertheless, it sheds some light on how ‘the assumption of an outward appearance’ might work. I am old enough to remember the last days of the magic lantern. Indeed, I possessed a battery-powered version. One trick was to pass two slides in opposite directions before the lens until they met in the middle, so that two distinct frames coincided exactly to project a single image. Perhaps the model would have appealed to Nestorius. Luigi Scipioni has shown4 how his thought was dominated by the idea of the second Adam in Romans 5.12, who learned obedience through the things that he suffered, until the man assumed achieved a perfect coincidence with the one who had assumed him. The idea may well prove attractive to those who are no longer entirely at ease with concepts of ‘substance’ and ‘hypostasis’.

Scipioni points out that Nestorius’ christology is not to be taken in isolation. Rather, it is the starting point of his wider theology of the Christian life. ‘Christ, by his birth, deigned to transform earthly life into heavenly society (in caelestem conversationem).’ Christ is the athlete, the ascetic, par excellence, and his followers are ‘to run the race set before them, looking to Jesus who leads us to faith and brings it to perfection.’ Was this why Nestorius took such strong exception to theotokos, with its overtones of divine initiative at the expense of human effort? We can understand why Pelagius expected to find a safe refuge in Syria. St Augustine might well have had something to say, had he lived to read The Bazaar.

Hugh Bates is a retired priest in the Diocese of York.