The Nestorian Heresy
Nicea and Constantinople had declared the church's faith in the Triune God. The next attack on the faith centered on the Person of Christ. Jesus Christ is both God and man: but what does that mean? The Gnostics had held forth a divine Christ masquerading in the appearance of flesh. Apollinaris had argued that the divine Word had taken to Himself a human body and soul, but no human spirit: the Word Himself functioned in the place of the human spirit. These heresies had been condemned by the Apostles' Creed and Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed respectively. Now new heresies entered the field. The first was championed by Nestorius.
Nestorius became Patriarch of Constantinople in 428. On coming to office, he exercised great energy in persecuting heretics.1 Among his victims were those who did not forthrightly confess the two distinct natures in Christ. Nestorius, however, understood "distinct" to meant separate. Nestorius conceived of the divine Logos and the human Jesus as two separate persons who were joined together in some sort of moral or sympathetic union. According to Nestorius, the Son of God had joined Himself to the child or man named Jesus because of Jesus' own moral excellence. And so Jesus was born, grew to manhood, hungered and thirsted, suffered pain, and was crucified, dead, and buried. The Son of God, on the other hand, endured none of these things. He was with Jesus — so much so that Nestorius taught that the man Jesus ought to be worshipped — but He was a different person altogether, one incapable of experiencing anything human.
As the church confronted Nestorius, Cyril, the patriarch of Alexandria, took the lead. He wrote to Nestorius repeatedly, and then to the emperor, Theodosius II, and to Pope Celestine, who entered the battle against Nestorius, condemning his doctrine at a council in Rome (430). Cyril followed suit in Alexandria and hurled Twelve Anathemas at the Nestorian heresy. The first read:
If any one does not acknowledge that Emmanuel is in truth God, and that the holy Virgin is, in consequence, 'Theotokos,' for she brought forth after the flesh the Word of God who has become flesh, let him be anathema.2
Within the church, it had become common to speak of the Virgin Mary as the theotokos, "the God-bearer." But Nestorius objected strenuously to the term. God is eternal and infinite, he argued, and cannot be "borne" or brought forth. So far he was correct. But from this he concluded that the Child born of Mary could not be God, could not be the Son of God, the eternal Logos. In this he rejected the gospel.
"The Word was made flesh," John writes in his Gospel (John 1:14); and later in his first epistle he warns us:
Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world (1 Jn. 4:2-3).
God did not descend upon Jesus; the Son did not attach Himself to a man. Jesus is the Son of God; He is the Christ come in the flesh. In the womb of the Virgin, the eternal Logos assumed true human nature. Without giving up His deity, the Son of God took to Himself true humanity. This is the Incarnation, and it is the explicit and implicit teaching of the New Testament writers. For Paul tells us plainly that we have but one Lord ( 1 Cor. 8:6; Eph. 4:5). And to that one Lord, he and the other New Testament writers attribute birth, hunger, and blood as well as eternity, omniscience, and sovereignty.
The language of the New Testament is some times startling in this regard. Some texts, for example, attribute to the divine Son things that are true only of His human nature. "The Son" did not know the time of His Second Coming (Mark 13:32). "God" shed His blood for us (Acts 20:28). The princes of this world crucified "the Lord of glory" (1 Cor. 2:8). The apostles heard and saw and handled the very "Word of life" (1 Jn. 1:1-2). And then there are other texts that speak of Jesus "coming down from heaven," though with regard to His humanity He had never been in heaven and with regard to His deity He never left it ( John 3:13; 6:33-62).
Cyril spoke of texts of the first sort as examples of "economic appropriation": the Son "refers the sufferings of His own flesh to Himself by economic appropriation."3 All of these texts together reflect the communion of attributes in the Person of Christ: the one Person is partaker of the attributes of both natures, so that whatever may be said of either nature may be said of the one Person, who is the Son of God.4
So when Elizabeth greeted Mary, calling her "the mother of my Lord," she spoke in terms of this communion of attributes (Luke 1:35): her words recognize that the Lord of heaven claimed the birth of His flesh as His own by economic appropriation. Mary was in truth the mother of our Lord, and the Child she brought forth was truly God.
Nestorius rejected true Incarnation with disgust. So set was he against the doctrine that he seemed scarcely capable of understanding it. Time and again, he spoke as if Cyril and the orthodox party were guilty of mixing Christ's two natures together. His rationalism could not allow a God who would or could humble Himself to suffer conception and birth or to endure pain and death. Man could become God; God could not become man. In the name of exalting God, he made God inactive and irrelevant and introduced the worship of man.
The Council of Ephesus (431), under Cyril's leadership, declared Nestorius and his doctrine of the Incarnation anathema. The Council confessed the reality of Christ's two natures, and yet recognized Mary as theotokos, the God-bearer. The Council's decision and authority were contested immediately and for years to come, but its work was confirmed by the fifth ecumenical council, the Council of Chalcedon.
The Council of Chalcedon
As Nestorius erred in one direction, the Monophysites erred in the other. They believed that Christ's human nature had been absorbed into His divine nature, thus destroying it altogether or creating a mixture of the human and the divine. In the name of preserving the one Person, they confused the two natures.
The Monophysite movement became identified with one Eutyches, an elderly monk, and is often called after his name. Its practical leader, however, was Dioscurus, Cyril's successor at Alexandria. To exonerate Eutyches, Dioscurus induced emperor Theodosius to convene a second council at Ephesus (449). Dioscurus ruled this council with armed violence and forced a Monophysite confession upon the Eastern Church.
But upon the death of Theodosius, Leo the Great, bishop of Rome, pressed for another council. The new emperor consented and named first Nicea and then Chalcedon as its site. Leo sent his own agents to preside, and his own writings were much to the fore. Leo's letter to Flavian, the late patriarch of Constantinople, was read aloud to the assembled bishops and received with loud acclaim. Leo declared in part:
For it was the Holy Ghost who gave fecundity to the Virgin, but it was from a body that a real body was derived; and "when Wisdom was building herself a house," the "Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us," that is, in that flesh which he assumed from a human being, and which he animated with the spirit of rational life. Accordingly, while the distinctness of both natures and substances was preserved, and both met in one Person, lowliness was assumed by majesty, weakness by power, mortality by eternity; and, in order to pay the debt of our condition, the inviolable nature was united to the passible, so that as the appropriate remedy for our ills, one and the same "Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus," might from one element be capable of dying and also from the other be incapable. Therefore in the entire and perfect nature of very man was born very God, whole in what was his, whole in what was ours . . .. For each of the natures retains its proper character without defect; and as the form of God does not take away the form of a servant, so the form of a servant does not impair the form of God.5
The Council of Chalcedon condemned the second Ephesus Council ("the Robber Council"), deposed Dioscurus, and adopted a confession that struck equally at the Nestorian and Monophysite heresies:
Therefore, following the holy Fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the Fathers has handed down to us.6
The Christology of Chalcedon
The Incarnation lies at the heart of the gospel. Any attempt to redefine it is an attempt to replace Christianity with another religion and Jesus with another Christ. For if Jesus Christ is not truly human, then we have in Him no Mediator or Substitute. If He is not a divine Person, then His death was mere martyrdom and no help or value to us who stand in need of atonement. In either case, His salvation is inadequate. We must find another Savior, one more relevant and useful. If Jesus Christ is a man who became God, then other men can become God. Salvation becomes a matter of works, of moral effort or magical manipulation, and its goal is deification. If Christ's two natures are confused or if one is absorbed into the other, then there is no final distinction between Creator and creature. Satan was right: God is fundamentally no different from man, and we are all potentially or actually divine. "Who will play God?" becomes a legitimate question.
The Christology of Chalcedon recognizes an infinite gulf between the being of God and that of His creatures. Man cannot become God; God became a man exactly once, and even there, in the Person of Christ, there is no mixture or confusion of being. Deity remains deity; humanity remains humanity. The political and sociological implications of this doctrine are profound.
Chalcedon leaves no room for private or collective mysticism. Put simply, no man, group of men, or human institution can become God or act with divine sovereignty. None of us is God. None of us will become God. Our thoughts, actions, and feelings will never be anything more than human. Salvation is not deification, but the restoration of man to his proper role within creation. Jesus Christ alone is the Son of God; He alone has all power in heaven and earth. All human authority is, therefore, necessarily derivative, limited, and under law. Chalcedon is thus crucial to constitutional, decentralized government and to Western liberty.
Furthermore, the Incarnation means a good creation. The Son of God took to Himself a body "and was united with the Dust and made it glorious forever."7 He did not abhor the Virgin's womb, nor does He abhor our humanity, our creatureliness. Whereas every other religion tries to rescue man from creation and history, Biblical Christianity says that God came into His creation and united Himself with it forever.
The Formula of Chalcedon answers the mysticism and pietism that is so prevalent in the modern church. It answers statism and political liberalism. It points us to one Savior, one Lord, and bids us place all our confidence in Him.
1. Excepting the Pelagians, who rejected the doctrine of Original Sin.
2. "The Anathemas of Cyril of Alexandria" in Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church (London: Oxford University Press, 1963), 46.
3. The Letter of Cyril to John of Antioch from James Crystal, The Third World Council, vol. I, 409f, n. in Rousas J. Rushdoony, Foundations of Social Order (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: n. p., 1972), 59.
4. See Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. II (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1973 reprint), 392ff.
5. "The Tome of St. Leo" in Henry R. Percival, ed., The Seven Ecumenical Council of the Undivided Church (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Comapany, 1979 reprint), 255.
6. Bettenson, 51.
7. C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1944), 215.
- Greg Uttinger
Greg Uttinger teaches theology, history, and literature at Cornerstone Christian School in Roseville, California. He lives nearby in Sacramento County with his wife, Kate, and their three children.