Thursday, March 6, 2014

How NOT to Handle Conflicts in the Church: the Nesotrian Controversy

For my more academic-loving readership, here is the most recent paper I wrote for my Master's class. It chronicles in brevity the controversy surrounding fifth century Bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius and his interlocutor, Cyril of Alexandria. What we see is a sad story of Christians abusing theology and arguing semantics in order to serve their egos and political position.

 On Nestorius

            When considering controversies in Christian history, one that may stand out against the multitudes as more poorly handled than most is the Nestorian controversy. The storm surrounding the teachings and espousals of Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople from 428 to 431 A.D., was a cloud of miscommunication and hidden agendas. We see clearly in the story of this theologian, deemed heretic, a marked turn from early Christendom in which the meek and marginalized were striving for Christ-likeness and towards a more imperial approach in which rival centers of Christian thought in Antioch, Rome, Alexandria and Constantinople were vying for political influence. It is in this context that Nestorius becomes the hub of a Christological conundrum[1].
Nestorius’ Dangerous Ideas
            While Nestorius’ most controversial teachings center on the nature or natures of Christ, the phrase that set fire to the prepared pier of tension between the Alexandrian and Constantinople sees was theotokos, or God-bearer. It was the title that had been utilized in the western church for Mary, mother of Jesus. For Nestorius, this phrase loomed too closely to making God out to be a lesser being than orthodox Christianity taught and, zealous as he was against heresies, he honored his nickname, “Firebrand” by taking up theological arms brazenly[2].
            The most distinctive characteristic of Nestorius’ Christology is his emphasis on the distinct qualities of Christ’s nature or person. While he utilizes different language than what had been decided upon at the first ecumenical council, his intention was never to make Jesus out to have two different natures; only two distinct natures. One particularly problematic issue with this highlighting was that it was incredibly difficult for Nestorius to explain exactly what he meant. This was due to his having to explain his terminology along with his belief and this did not bode well with those who were comfortable with the earlier established linguistics. Another concern of his opponents lay within the idea that Christ could not reconcile to God what he did not take on and so if he was not truly human in the fullest sense, he could not truly restore humanity. This, in hindsight, was not what Nestorius was saying, but the aforementioned breakdown of communication inhibited the circumvention of controversy on this point. So, his accusers claimed that he essentially did not affirm a real incarnation. Thus, we see the early church divided, not over beliefs, but mere linguistics and pride[3].
Nestorius’ Interlocutor
            Now, we turn our focus to the man who became the main opponent of this Bishop from Antioch: Cyril of Alexandria. In order to truly understand why Nestorius ended up classified as a heretic and Cyril is memorialized as a church father, we must give a look at both men together. This is because many of their actions and the decisions they made were all in the context of striving for a greater influence in the wider church and in asserting themselves as the greater theologian and authority. Also, it has been noted by several historians that both bishops were similar enough in temperament that they likely would have had difficulty getting along regardless of linguistics and theologies.
            Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria from 412 to 444 A.D., was a self-proclaimed peace-lover regardless of the ruthlessness with which he took on Nestorius. As far as we can ascertain from his own writings, he sincerely believed that he was protecting not only orthodoxy but the church itself by wrestling through this Christological controversy. Herein lays some irony as both men claimed in their respective writings to be willing to lay down their life for truth and orthodoxy. Truly, it was Nestorius’ innovative streak that offended Cyril; new language in Christology debates meant new problems and it seemed unwarranted and dangerous to the Alexandrian[4].
            It is commonly agreed on that Nestorius’ greatest downfall was his over-estimation of his ability to explain himself and thus maintain pull in political circles. Couple this with his abrasive and somewhat cold personality and he is left with many personal hurdles to overcome in order to get his ideas heard. It was this tendency toward hard and fast statements that led him to refute the title theotokos in the first place, thus opening himself up to misunderstanding and misconstruction. In all fairness, he did not simply say that this title was inappropriate, but offered a couple of viable alternatives. His first, Christotokos seemed acceptable as he felt it was more specific to the event; namely the birth of Christ. The second, anthropotokos was even less well received than his first suggestion, but seemed right to him as it was the man himself whom Mary bore and not the metaphysical God in his divine essence[5]. Tragically for Nestorius, he gained almost no stage to defend himself.
Questionable Proceedings
            True to form, it was Nestorius’ idea to have a sit-down with Cyril and other leaders in order to hash out the details of their respective Christologies[6]. What he failed to realize was the political wit of his opponent. Prior to the meeting of the council, Cyril sent a packet of Nestorius’ teachings to Roman Pope, Celestine I (422-432) for consideration[7]. As a result, the council was moved from Nestorius’ region in Constantinople, where he would have found some support by mere association to Ephesus, the legendary retirement place of Mary, mother of Jesus. One can see how this was not going to go well for the one who seemed to hold a low view of the virgin mother[8].
            After receiving the packet, Celestine I, assuming he was being asked for a ruling and not merely his opinion, enlisted the help of John Cassian who was also a supporter of Cyril. Clearly at a disadvantage, the council convened under Emperor Theodosius II in Ephesus. Unfortunately, Nestorius’ supporters were slow coming and after tarrying for a few weeks, the council proceeded despite objections from many attendants. Not surprisingly, Nestorius was deemed wrong and, almost as if to add insult to injury, Cyril was charged with the task of carrying out the excommunication orders. When the Nestorian proponents finally arrived and discovered the ruling, they assembled their own council and deemed it the true gathering, the outcome of which was the excommunication of Cyril. Nearly as quickly, Cyril and his supporters met again and condemned the participants of the pro-Nestorius council and reaffirmed their initial ruling. Embarrassed, Theodosius II had both Cyril and Nestorius arrested and ordered to reconcile[9]. Once again, Cyril proved himself the more cunning of the two and Nestorius was indeed condemned to exile in 430 A.D. and officially banished in 431 A.D.[10]
Reflections on Nestorius
            From his exile, Nestorius wrote a thorough espousal of his beliefs entitled Proceedings of Heracleides by which he clarified some of the ways that his opponents committed themselves to destroy him by way of an elaborate straw-man fallacy[11]. Still, he was never again influential in Christian circles.
            So what can be said of this once prominent church leader who ended alone in exile? Mostly that it is a terrible thing when theology is utilized to realize political endeavors. Also that what is at one time deemed heresy may resurface again in the mouths of those who may advocate the view with more clarity as can be seen in the Protestant aversion to referring to Mary as the theotokos. In all things, this is a story which contemporary Christians must look at in all its bareness; though there was theological progress made it was at the expense of community between Christians. Let the future church be diligent against such tragedy.

Ferguson, E., Woodbridge, J. D., & James, F. A. (2005). IV. The Second Phase, 381-433: Nestorianism. In Church history (pp. 258-261). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
González, J. L. (1987). The Nestorian Controversy and the Council of Ephesus. In From the beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon (pp. 353-367). Nashville: Abingdon Pr.
Hall, C. A. (2002). Christ Divine and Human. In Learning theology with the church fathers (pp. 83-90). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Hart, D. B. (2007). The Formation of Orthodox Christology: The 'Mother of God' In The story of Christianity: An illustrated history of 2000 years of the Christian faith (pp. 94-96). London: Quercus.
Hurley, P. J. (2012). Informal Fallacies: 3.2 Fallacies of Relevance. In A concise introduction to logic: Using traditional logic (pp. 89-90). Mason, OH: Cengage Learning.
Litfin, B. M. (2007). Cyril of Alexandria. In Getting to know the church fathers: An evangelical introduction (pp. 239-258). Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.
Sheppard, J. (2005). At the Crossroads: Midieval Contributions. In Christendom at the crossroads: The medieval era (pp. 5-6). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

[1] (González, 1987, pp. 353-367)
[2] (Hall, 2002, pp. 83-90)
[3] (Hart, 2007, pp. 94-96)
[4] (Hall, 2002, pp. 83-90)
[5] (Hall, 2002, pp. 83-90)
[6] (Litfin, 2007, pp. 239-258)
[7] (Sheppard, 2005, pp. 5-6)
[8] (Litfin, 2007, pp. 239-258)

[9] (Sheppard, 2005, pp. 5-6)
[10] (Ferguson, Woodbridge, & James, 2005, pp. 258-261)
[11] (Hurley, 2012, pp. 89-90)

Thanks for reading! Have you ever experienced such division in the church; that is, division over semantics and not beliefs? Do tell! Let's all resolve to prize community over being right.

The Dread

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