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The term Nestorianism is eponymous, even though the person who lent his name to it always denied the associated belief. The Assyrian Church of the East is commonly called Nestorian, but it too does not teach Nestorianism. The reason for this confusion is mostly historical and linguistic. For example, the Greeks had two words for 'person', which did not translate well into Syriac. The meanings of these terms were not even quite settled during Nestorius's lifetime.



Nestorius (c.386-c.451) was a pupil of Theodore of Mopsuestia in Antioch in Syria and later became Patriarch of Constantinople. He preached against the use of the title Mother of God (Theotokos) for the Virgin Mary and would only call her Mother of Christ (Christotokos). He also argued that God could never be a helpless child, and could not suffer on the cross. His opponents accused him of dividing Christ into two persons: arguing that God the Word did not suffer and die on the cross, while Jesus the man did, or that God the Word was omniscient, while Jesus the man had limited knowledge, effectively implies two separate persons with separate experiences. Nestorius responded that he believed that Christ was indeed one person (Greek: prosopon).

Nestorius was opposed by Cyril of Alexandria and finally condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431, which held that Christ is one person, and that the Virgin Mary is the mother of God. The pronouncement of the Council is available here. The condemnation resulted in the Nestorian schism and the separation of Assyrian Church of the East from the Byzantine Church. But even Ephesus could not settle the issue, and the Byzantine Church was soon split again by the Monophysite schism over the question whether Christ had one or two natures.

Today it is generally accepted that the accusations against Nestorius and the Assyrian Church were exaggerated. The real question should have been whether properties of the Divine Word can be ascribed to the man Jesus Christ, and vice versa. This sharing of properties is called Communicatio idiomatum, and is part of Alexandrian, Byzantine, and Roman doctrine. For the position of the Assyrian Church look at this page.

Christological implications

The teaching of Nestorius has important consequences that deal with soteriology and the theology of the Eucharist.
The concept that Jesus did not die on the cross was in opposition to a statement by Paul the Apostle in an Epistle stating that If Christ is not risen from the grave our faith is in vain and during the Protestant Reformation, when some groups denied the Real Presence, they were accused of reviving the error of Nestorius.

The involvement of the Assyrian Church

Cyril of Alexandria worked hard to remove Nestorius and his supporters and followers from power. But in the Syriac speaking world Theodore of Mopsuestia was held in very high esteem, and the condemnation of his pupil Nestorius was not received well. His followers were given refuge. The Sassanid Persian kings, who were at constant war with Byzantium, saw the opportunity to assure the loyalty of their Christian subjects and supported the Nestorian schism:

  • They granted protection to Nestorians (462).
  • They executed the pro-Byzantine Catholicos Babowai who was then replaced by the Nestorian Bishop of Nisibis Bar Sauma (484).
  • They allowed the transfer of the school of Edessa to the Persian city Nisibis when the Byzantine emperor closed it for its Nestorian tendencies (489).

At Nisibis the school became even more famous than at Edessa. The main theological authorities of the school have always been Theodore and his teacher Diodorus of Tarsus. Unfortunately, only few of their writings have survived. The writings of Nestorius himself were only added to the curriculum of the school of Edessa-Nisibis in 530, shortly before the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553 condemned Theodore of Mopsuestia as Nestorius's predecessors.

At the end of the 6th century the school went through a theological crisis when its director Henana of Adiabene tried to replace Theodore by his own doctrine, which followed Origen. Babai the Great (551-628), who was also the unofficial head of the Church at that time and revived the Assyrian monastic movement, refuted him and in the process wrote the normative Christology of the Assyrian Church, based on Theodore of Mopsuestia.

A small sampling of Babai's work is available in English translation here. The Book of Union is his principle surviving work on Christology. In it he explains that Christ has two qnome (essences), which are unmingled and eternally united in one parsopa (personality). This, and not Nestorianism, is the teaching of the Assyrian Church.

Book: Wilhelm Baum and Dietmar W. Winkler: The Church of the East. A concise History, London-New York 2003

The spread of "Nestorianism"

The Assyrian Church produced many zealous missionaries, who traveled and preached throughout Persia and Central and East Asia in the seventh and eighth centuries. "Nestorian" Christianity reached China by 635, and its relics can still be seen in Chinese cities such as Xi'an. About the same time Nestorian Christianity penetrated into Mongolia, eventually reaching as far as Korea. The Nestorian Stele, set up on 7 January 781 at the then-capital of Chang'an, describes the introduction of Christianity into China from Persia in the reign of Tang Taizong.

The Christian community later faced persecution from Emperor Tang Wu Zong (reigned 840-846). He suppressed all foreign religions, including Buddhism and Christianity, which then declined sharply in China. A Syrian monk visiting China a few decades later described many churches in ruin. Marco Polo in the 1200s and other medieval Western writers indicate many small Nestorian communities remaining in China and Mongolia; however, they clearly were not as vibrant as they had been during Tang times. The legacy of the missionaries remains in the Assyrian churches still to be found in Iraq, Iran, and India.

Modern Nestorianism

In addition to the Assyrian Church of the East, some Protestant and Reformed organizations foster or tolerate doctrine that could be seen as Nestorian, specifically the doctrine that the Virgin Mary is merely the mother of "Christ's humanity" and denying that she could be seen as the mother of the Son of God.

See also

Last updated: 10-18-2005 00:03:31
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