The doctrine of the Person of Christ implies especially four factors. Christology, of course, includes other doctrines besides the Person of Christ, such as the truths concerning His names, His offices, and His states. The doctrine of the Person of Christ, however, implies especially four factors. First of all, it implies the true and proper conception of the divinity of the Lord. We must confess Christ to be very God. Secondly, this doctrine refers to the true and proper humanity of Christ. We must not only confess that He is very God but also that He is very man. In the third place we must confess that these two natures, the divine and the human, are united in the one divine Person. And, finally, the proper distinction between these two natures must be maintained, so that they, although united in the one divine Person, retain their own peculiar properties. The two natures of the Christ must never be mixed or confused.
All the heresies or wrong conceptions which have arisen and developed about the Person of Christ in the course of history are rooted in an erroneous conception of one or more of these factors. Arius, e.g., would not concede the existence of a truly and properly divine nature in the Person of Jesus Christ. Others went to the opposite extreme of error and denied His humanity. Opollinaris denied the true and complete humanity of the Christ, contending that the son of God, the Logos, (the Eternal Word) took the place of the human spirit in Christ. Nestorianism, which is the subject of this essay, denied the union of the two natures in the one Person of the Son of God.
Nestorius belongs to the fifth century, although the date of his birth and of his death is not known. He was born in the Syrian city of Germanicia. He belongs to the school of Antioch and was a disciple of Theodore of Mopsuesta, the most famous representative of that school. There were at that time two schools, the one at Alexandria and the other at Antioch. The school at Alexandria, whose chief representative at this time was Cyrillus, was characterized by a tendency to obliterate the difference between the two natures of Christ. The school at Antioch on the other hand emphasized the distinction between the two natures and revealed a tendency to separate them. Nestor is soon gained for himself a wide reputation as a monk and as a presbyter (a ruler in the church), especially because of his ardent defense of the orthodox truth over against heretics. He is known as an eloquent and pious man, although hasty and imprudent, with little knowledge of the world and human nature, and immoderately severe against heretics.
Nestorius became bishop of Constantinople in 428. Soon he began a controversy about the Person of Christ. He criticized severely a phrase, much in vogue at the time, which designated Mary as “the mother of God.” Nestorius objected to this phrase and would rather speak of the mother of Christ. This action of the church leader aroused a storm of opposition. Clergymen began to preach against him. Laymen opposed him while he was in the pulpit, even to the extent of interrupting him in his sermons. Cyril of Alexandria rose against him and bitter anathemas were exchanged between the two leaders.
At a synod of Rome in 430 Nestorius was condemned. His views were condemned again at the general Synod of Ephesus, 431, although it must be said that the truth of Christology was not very clearly stated by the opposing party. Moreover, the followers of Nestorius, in a separate gathering, also condemned Cyril. At First Nestorius found many friends and supporters. Later, however, these friends forsook him and made a compromise with Cyrillus in 435. In the year, 435 Nestorius was banished by the emperor to Peter in Arabia. In later life he probably lived in Egypt, where he was driven from one place to another until the day of his death. Nestorianism did not flourish for any length of time, undoubtedly due to the fact that the Church gradually restated the doctrine of the Person of Christ.
Appraising the heresy of Nestorianism we must bear in mind that we refer to Nestorianism. It may be considered doubtful whether Nestorius himself was a heretic. He is surely a sad and tragic figure in the history of the Church. Much uncertainty as well as bitter jealousy between him and Cyrillus entered into the controversy. On the one hand, it may be noted that Cyril, the most ardent opponent of Nestorius, did not entertain a correct conception of the Person of Christ. He taught that the Logos (the eternal Word) did not merely assume the human nature, but became man. After the incarnation there was only the nature of the incarnated Son of God. The predicates of the human and divine natures became the common property of both. He thereby certainly lost sight of the distinction between the two natures. On the other hand it may be said that Nestorius maintained that the two natures were united in the one Person, although, in the heat of the controversy, he probably did not always, express himself clearly.
We must certainly be careful before we condemn a man because he preferred the expression “mother of Christ” to “mother of God”. This was already a moot question before Nestorius came to Constantinople. In his sermons against the expression “mother of God” he declared that “Mary did not give birth to divinity, but to man, the instrument of divinity.” Here his motive was his desire to exalt the divinity of Christ, holding, as he did in his first sermon, that “the creature hath not given birth to the uncreatable.” Who among us would object to such a presentation? It is certainly a fact beyond dispute that the Son of God was born of the virgin Mary our flesh and blood. Mary certainly did not give birth to divinity. To teach this would render one guilty of pantheism, which is, of course, the denial of the line of demarcation between the Creator and the creature, and therefore a denial of the living God. On the other hand this does not imply that the expression “Mary, the mother of God” is therefore necessarily wrong and to be rejected. I am of the opinion that this expression should not be used without a careful explanation. But, if the term be properly defined and explained, it can hardly be denied that it has much in its favor. We must, of course, be careful to distinguish between the two natures of our Lord and maintain that they are united in the one Person of the Son of God “unchanged, unmixed, undivided, and inseparable.” However, we must never lose sight of the fact that they are united in the one Person of the Son of God, that it was the living God who assumed our flesh and blood, that it was Jehovah, Who is and remains true an d eternal God, who also became man. I believe that we may safely say that this truth is expressed beautifully by asserting that Mary was the mother of God. This, expression teaches, as far as I am concerned, that the true and eternal Son of God the eternal Word, took upon Himself, out of the virgin Mary, our human nature, and that therefore the divine and human natures are inseparably united in the one Person of the Son without at any time losing any of their peculiar properties.
Whatever opinion one may entertain, however, with respect to Nestorius himself, Nestorianism is a heresy. It certainly separated the divine and human natures and really believed that Christ was two persons. Nestorianism would concede a true and proper deity and a true and proper humanity. But they are not united in a single self-conscious personality. The Nestoriao Christ is two persons—one divine and the other human. The important distinction between “nature” and “person” is not observed, and the consequence is that there are two separate and diverse selves in Jesus Christ. Instead of a blending of the two nature in the one divine self, the Nestorian scheme places two selves side by side. The result is that the acts of each nature derive no character or are not influenced by the qualities of the other. Nestorius appears to have regarded the association of deity with humanity as occurring at birth, and to have represented the humanity as laid aside again after Christ’s death and resurrection. There is no divine humiliation because the humanity is confessedly the seat of the humiliation. And there is no exaltation of the humanity because the divinity is confessedly the source of the exaltation. Hence, although Nestorianism acknowledged the alliance of God with man in Christ Jesus, it so separated the two natures from each other in His Person, that the suffering which the Redeemer endured derived no character or value from His divinity, and was in reality not different from that of any mere man. There is a God, and there is a man; but there is no God Man in the one Person of the Son.
It is surely unnecessary to refute this heresy, that Christ was actually two persons, from Holy Writ. Suffice it to say, that Scripture literally teaches us that a virgin would conceive, that she would bring forth a son, and that His Name would be called Immanuel, Gold with us. The truth that Christ is the Son of God, the Eternal Son of God, and that the mystery of salvation is that God is revealed in the flesh, is the rock upon which the Church of God is built, is the confession to which the Church has clung tenaciously throughout the ages with all the power at her command.
To separate the two natures in the Christ and believe that our Lord was two persons is a very grave error. It is tantamount to Deism which hats, no place for God’s immanency because it divorces the divine from the human in our Lord, and it must lead to Pelagianism which denies the atoning character of the suffering of Christ and regards the Lord’s passion as merely that of an example. Indeed, to believe that Christ was two persons is tantamount to a denial of the atonement. To be sure, the Son of God suffered only in the human nature. Nestorianism, however, separates the divine from the human in the passion of Christ and regards His suffering as not differing from that of any other mere man. Atonement is possible only in the way of full and complete satisfaction of the justice of God. The guilt of Zion must be paid. The wrath of God must be borne unto the end. We believe that our Redeemer must be the eternal Son of God, God Himself in the flesh, not only because it is only the eternal God himself who can pay the eternal price and bear His own eternal wrath, but also because it is only the Person of the Son of God, who, because He is the divine Person and therefore not personally guilty of the sin of Adam, can take upon Himself the guilt of others, the guilt of the elect human race and of the whole world as it shall be redeemed in and for the sake of God’s chosen race. Remove this divine element from the passion of the Lamb of God and the only thing that remains is the suffering of a mere man who cannot satisfy the justice of God. We thereby lose the atoning character of Calvary and retain merely an exemplary suffering. Our guilt has, then, not been paid. We are yet in our sins. The people of God are, of all men, the most miserable.