Ancient Heresies in the Sixteenth Century I: The Nestorians

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an October 2017 series of posts on the Reformation and Protestantism written by O&H authors and guest writers marking the 500th anniversary of the nailing of Martin Luther’s 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Articles are written by Orthodox Christians and discuss not just the Reformation as a historical event but also the spiritual heritage that descended from it.

A friend had written that some Calvinist detractors of Orthodoxy sought to attack us as Monophysites since we held to what they thought was a Lutheran doctrine: ubiquity, that the human nature in which Christ now lives is everywhere his divine nature is (which doctrine you won’t find in the Lutheran divines). We Orthodox have to hold this, my friend’s debaters maintained, in order to believe that Christ is physically present in the Sacred Eucharist.

But this errs on three counts.

First, we humans are more than our bodies, and also, bodily deficiency doesn’t make us less human: as if one were less human if bald, one-legged, blind, deaf, etc. Being composite, humans have bodies, and they are part of our human nature, but these bodies can corrupt, and even at death, while sundered from the body, we are still human. Thus, while necessarily having bodies, we are neither only our bodies, but we are not human without them.

Secondly, and more to the theological point, on the ubiquitarian front, in Orthodoxy there is no need for it. For the Orthodox, Christ is made present physically on the altar by the same Spirit that made him physically present in the Virgin’s womb. For the Orthodox it is the presence of the Spirit that brings Christ’s body to the altar, though you will also find that in a number of Fathers (including St. John Chrysostom) that the blessing of the bread and the repetition of the words of institution (“This is my body”) also effects the change, though of course St. John uses an epiclesis. Christ’s risen body, like the multiplied loaves, like his ability to appear and vanish, is not bound to space and time, though it is a body in space and time. As it needed not male agency but only the power of the Holy Spirit to be conceived in the Blessed Virgin’s womb, so it needs only the power of the Spirit to come on the altars.

But the whole question of my friend’s interlocutor errs thirdly, and more importantly, in that it would be news to the Fathers at Chalcedon that they denied the communicatio idiomatum (the communication of what is proper to each nature to the Person of Christ, so that one may say, e.g., that “God has died”). They revolted when the Roman legates and the Imperial senate wanted to seat Theodoret of Cyr, for he had denied this doctrine in his writings defending Nestorius against St. Cyril of Alexandria. Indeed, the Fathers of the council had not seated him. Only when Theodoret had appealed to the Pope and the imperial power, asserting his agreement (falsely, it now has been shown) with Cyril of Alexandria on this matter, was he allowed to attend.

Further, the whole defense of Chalcedon, both during the Council and afterwards, was predicated on that doctrine, and that Chalcedon was consonant with everything that Cyril of Alexandria taught. When the Fathers took up Pope St. Leo’s tomus they balked at his formula of “in two natures,” for it was not Cyrillian. But the commission that investigated the tomus came back with strong recommendations that it be adopted, all based on its consonance with St. Cyril.

When the bishops, some 160 of them, signed that they accepted Leo, it was with acknowledgments that “Cyril speaks through Leo,” and that St. Leo’s formula did not differ from Cyril’s, even though it did not use his “God-honored language.” But the rub came when the final formula of Chalcedon set aside St. Cyril’s “from two natures,” for it was seen that this formula did not guard against the conclusions that Eutyches had drawn from them, and the fathers opting for “in two natures” (an earlier version had used “from two natures”). The “in two natures” language, drawn from pope St. Leo, had clearly defended St. Cyril’s and the formula of union’s teaching on communicatio idiomatum1 Thus, far from denying the sharing of properties in the one Lord Jesus Christ, Chalcedon was at great pains to defend and assert this.

So why do my friend’s Calvinist interlocutors want to deny this? It’s quite simple: their theology (which was Calvin’s and Peter Martyr Vermigli’s) forces them to deny that most fundamental of all Christian truths: that there is but one God and one Mediator between God and man, Himself man, Christ Jesus.

The Reformed denied that the sharing of properties was anything but verbal, and you can read both Calvin and Vermigli on this (look up any decent discussion of the so-called extra-calvinisticum). Vermigli goes so far as to deny that God actually shared our human nature in anything but a seeming way (videatur), or that the Logos suffered (contra “One of the Holy Trinity suffered in the flesh,” as emperor St. Justinian put it).

The Reformed are in their most fundamental essentials Nestorian, and this has to be the case, for they deny that the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son, the Word, mediates and is the only mediator between God and man, and instead erect another mediator, called “covenantal righteousness” or “justice,” and all on account of their doctrine of covenant. (Nestorius claimed it was another fictive device called the prosopon of union.)

The “merit” of this covenant, performed by the man Jesus, and not the Second Person of the Trinity, brings us to God. Vermigli brings all of this out in his Dialogue on the Two Natures in Christ, ostensibly written against the Lutheran Eucharistic doctrine of the theologian Johannes Brenz to teach him what “Chalcedon taught” but which in the end denies not only what Chalcedon taught, but also Ephesus and Constantinople I, and St. Gregory the Theologian, for it is the assumption of our nature by Christ that heals it (what is not assumed is not redeemed).

Note what Vermigli says (he’s here actually citing and using Theoderet of Cyr):

In his third dialogue [Theodoret] adds, “Saint Peter in his catholic epistle says that Christ suffered in the flesh. But he who hears Christ understands not the incorporeal God the Word, but the incarnate Word. The name of Christ signifies both natures. That the Word was subjected to suffering in the flesh signifies that one nature, not both, suffered. He who hears that Christ suffered in the flesh again recognizes him as the impassible God, but attributes the suffering to the flesh alone.”2

This quote obliterates the union that the Word has with human nature, for at best it makes it a fiction, and effectively creates, as had Nestorius, two Words. A few folios on, Vermigli cites Theodoret’s citation of Eustathius, and observes that, “These words also show which properties are so much a part of human nature that they cannot be communicated to the Word.”3 One must ask, is anything created communicable then to the Word? Can anything be assumed? What might Gregory of Nazianzus think of this theology? He already told us, we don’t have to guess.

Vermigli then quotes Cyril of Alexandria from his letter to John of Antioch, standing him on his head by his translation: 

Besides, we all confess that the Word of God is impassible even though in distributing wisely this mystery the Word seems to have attributed to itself the suffering that happened uniquely to the flesh. That wise man Peter says as much, ‘Christ suffered in the flesh’ for us; he did not say, ‘in the nature of his ineffable divinity.’” …. From this passage it is already taken for granted that the sufferings of Christ belong to his flesh, but it speaks about the Word insofar as the Word attributes them to itself. And so they belong to the Word in the judgment and statement of Scripture, not because the Word Itself really suffered and died. 4

And while someone might argue that it was the divine Christ who obeyed God, and thus in his divine activity is the mediator of the covenant, and not just his obedience as a man, Calvin explicitly states that there was nothing about Christ as divine that was worthy of God accepting his obedience (cf. Institutes 2.17).

Further, Calvin states that the actions of Christ are two, whose humanity can act independently of the divine Logos (cf. his commentary on Matthew 24; other places can be drawn, such as Calvin’s statement that the person of the Incarnation comes from both natures). No, it was merely by God’s good will that anything is accepted (verging here on Luther’s nominalism). Thus, in Covenant theology (as supposed by Calvinists) Christ obeys the law that Adam failed to do, and by this merits us justice in his justice. The legal debt is paid, and Christ suffers God’s wrath on the cross. The denial of the communication of properties turns Christ into the executor of a legal fiction like a corporation, instead of it being his personal, hypostatic union that effects salvation for us.

Contrary to what these Reformers wrote, the Second Person of the Divine and ever-blessed Trinity, God the Word, assumed a human nature, but was no human person. In his divine person he mediates divinity to humanity, and humanity to divinity. This is what St. Cyril saw as the great error of Nestorius, that he had posited yet another person (which then takes residence in the Trinity) arising out of the union of Christ-God and Jesus-man, a sort of legal fiction if you will, though Nestorius’s doctrine was what was termed the prosopic union.

I cannot see how the legal status attained by Christ is of any essential difference in creating a tertium quid by which we come to God. This same point is repeated throughout the Christological controversies, and can even be found in Maximus the Confessor’s Disputation with Pyrrhus.

  1. Cf. St. Leo’s Tomus, beginning on line 126, or in the Hardy ed., Christology of the Latter Fathers, p. 366, section 5: Propter hanc ergo unitatem personae in utraque natura intellegendam, et filius hominis legitur descendisse de coelo cum filius Dei carnem de ea virgine de qua est natus adsumpserit, et rursum filius Dei crucifixus dicitur ac sepultus, cum haec non in divinitate ipsa qua unigenitus consempiternus et consubstantialis est Patri, sed in naturae humanae si infirmitate perpessus.
  2. This is from Fr. John Patrick Donnelly’s translation of the Dialogue, pp. 63-64. Fr. Donnelly’s translation has an opening quote at the beginning of the quotation from Theodoret, but no closing quote. He also attributes the quotation to I Peter 3:18, but it is I Peter 4:1 (which reads “He was put to death for us in the flesh”). The citation of Theodoret is from PG 83: 263 A.
  3. Donnelly, p. 66
  4. Donnelly, p. 67. The letter is often referred to by its Latin title, Laetentur coeli. Emphasis added. Vermigli translates ὁρèτο (the middle and passive present optative forms of ὁράω) as “seems” instead of “is seen”. I am working off the text in Migne, v. 77, col. 180. In Martyr’s original text (Dialogus, 39v), he translate ὁρèτο, as videatur. It could be translated into English as “is seen,” yet this would then go against Vermigli’s argument, and I agree fully with Fr. Donnelly’s translation of “seems.”

11 comments:

  1. Thank you. From my studies in Western Theology in my Protestant Seminary days, your post rings true. It seems that with the Reformation, according to our class text book, all the old heresies sprung to life again and plague the Western churches until the present. As your post points out accurately, Nestorianism was amog the leading ones.

  2. I’m not sure if I understand this post correctly.
    According to the Apokathelosis, the Great Friday Vespers:
    “The fall of Adam resulted in the death to Man, but not God; for though the substance of Your earthly body suffered, Your Divinity remained passionless, transforming the corruptible into incorruption.”
    And again St John of Damascus says:
    “Hence it is that the Lord of Glory is said to have been crucified(5), although His divine nature never endured the Cross, and that the Son of Man is allowed to have been in heaven before the Passion, as the Lord Himself said(6). For the Lord of Glory is one and the same with Him Who is in nature and in truth the Son of Man, that is, Who became man, and both His wonders and His sufferings are known to us, although His wonders were worked in His divine capacity, and His sufferings endured as man.”
    How is this different to what Vermigli says?
    And do we Orthodox hold that the Divine nature of Christ suffered or not. Sorry, I feel very much confused.

    1. Beth, the second part of the second antiphon, “Only Begotten Son and Immortal Word of God,
      Who for our salvation didst will to be incarnate of the holy Theotokos and ever virgin Mary,
      Who without change became man and wast crucified, O Christ our God, Trampling down death by death, Who art one of the Holy Trinity, Glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit, save us,” encapsulates the theology of the emperor St. Justinian (and this is sometimes termed St. Justinian’s hymn) in that it repudiates certain elements of Nestorianism, those very ones that Vermigli affirmed, namely that by a confusion of the person of the Word with the divine nature he separated Christ the Word from our human nature. The divine nature indeed is beyond passion and suffering (impassable), but the Word, the Son of God, but assuming our human nature still suffers, and suffers in his human nature just as surely as we suffer in ours. So, the Apokathelosis doesn’t contradict what is here written, for divinity does not change as regards the divine nature. Two more technical books treat this: Fr. Thomas Weinandy’s Does God Suffer (he’s a Franciscan, and I am acquainted with him, but also his book is highly recommended by Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon), and Paul Gavrilyuk’s The Suffering of the Impassable God.
      And to your citation of St. John Damascene, this is also consistent with what is said above. The Divine nature does not suffer, but the divine Person of Christ does. This is what the Reformed (as opposed to the Lutheran’s) denied. Thus for the Reformed the union of Christ with our nature, which they confess, is a union nonetheless that has no communication of properties in the One Person of Christ the Word. For the Orthodox, Christ the Son is the mediator, for through his Divine Person he mediates divinity to our humanity, and our humanity to our divinity. This is why we believe we have a participation in the divine nature, theosis, a doctrine which the Reformed adamantly deny. In the end, Vermigli confused and compounded nature and Person, and thus ended up actually removing Christ from human feeling.

  3. A superb article, which confirms that the lawyers of the Reformation, who eschewed the inherent mystery of the Incarnation, reasoned erroneously when addressing theology.

    Notwithstanding all of the arguments made over the centuries regarding the Chalcedon formulations, I can’t help but sense that in going beyond Cyril’s dictum of “One Person of Christ the Word” the door to all manner of heresies old and new was left ajar. It’s hard not to have some sympathy with the non-Chalcedonian churches.

    This is not merely a matter of theological controversy, however.

    Many years ago, when I first moved to the US, for a short while I attended St Andrew’s Chapel in Orlando, which as many may know was founded by RC Sproul and other leaders of Ligonier Ministries. The very Nestorianism highlighted in the article was reflected in, for example, changing the words of hymns. In “And Can It Be” the words “that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me” became “that Thou, my Lord, shouldst die for me”. And in “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending”, “Christ” rather than “God” appears on earth to reign.

    Charles Wesley was right, and this sort of tinkering with praise must have spiritual consequences.

    1. The same things were done at my college “fixing” the theological error of Charles Wesley. I now like to belt out that song whenever I think about it. It causes as much consternation as running around my campus going “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty . . . I believe in one God, the Father Almighty . . . I believe in one God, the Father Almighty!”

  4. Cyril,

    As always, thank you. I often find myself still wrestling with this. Reading St Cyril has been helpful, but until the difference between Person and Nature is parsed…and held to…the debate always falters because language gets confused during debates. Here’s how I try to graphically represent it:

    The Second Person of the Trinity is a distinct Person, yet shares the same Nature (ousia) with the Father and the Spirit (which cannot “suffer,” that is, change).
    In the Incarnation, the Second Person takes on human nature, but not another Person (another “actor” or “subject”): two natures in one Person. The human nature can suffer, i.e. change (it is finite, mortal, etc.).
    When Christ dies, His divine nature is unchanged (impassible), while His human nature is changed (from life to death); as a Person, He experiences death in that human nature, even though He cannot in the divine (which is why He doesn’t cease to exist altogether…and why He is able to overcome death by Himself).
    So, God truly suffers in the flesh while remaining impassible.

    Is that about right? Or do I err?

  5. RVW, you are right, particularly in your use of the term “actor”. For while Christ acts through his divine and through his human nature, it is always one actor (and thus we confess “One Lord Jesus Christ”); and also because he is the Person of the human nature, and why we thus confess our Lady to be the Mother of God. I actually had a member of the presbytery’s ordination committee (on which at that time I served) say to me we cannot call Mary the Mother of God, for she was only the mother of Christ. Pure and unalloyed Nestorianism!

  6. Cyril,

    Calvin held that the person of the Incarnation is the result of both natures coming into union. According to Fr. John Behr’s (and others) reading , Severus of Antioch also held that Christ’s Person was the result of the Incarnation. St. Maximus, St. Justinian (and many others) actually accused him of Nestorianizing because of this.

    Fr. Behr:

    …Severus presents his Christology in the following terms : When the simple hypostasis of the Word of God, who is before all things, united manhood to himself, it is not possible that a specific prosopon could be ascribed to either the Godhead of the Word nor to the manhood which is united unchangeably to the Word. Both the Godhead and the manhood are only perceived in their composition, not as having concrete existence apart from each other. It is by the coming together, in a natural or hypostatic union, of the Godhead and manhood, each remaining without change or diminution, that the one composite hypostasis of the incarnate Word receives His prosopon. As Severus writes in Ep.15:

    “For those hypostases or natures, being in composition without diminution, and not existing separately and in individual existence, make up one prosopon of the one Lord and Christ and Son, and the one incarnate nature and hypostasis of the Word.”

    …That Severus speaks quite plainly of the union “from two hypostases,” is probably what gave occasion to the charge levelled at him by Justinian – that he has fallen, somehow, into the opposite errors of Nestorianism and Eutychianism. It is interesting to note that a similar charge of “sounding Nestorian” was made by Romanides in response to Samuel’s papers presenting the Christology of Severus at the Unofficial Consultations in Aarhus and Bristol. For those not familiar with the particularities of Severus’ language, it must indeed seem so.

    However, a further, more important, issue was raised by Samuel in his subsequent publications, to which I alluded earlier: the question concerning the identity of the hypostasis of Christ in Severan and “neo-Chalcedonian” Christology. Samuel is emphatic that Severus draws a clear distinction between the hypostasis of the Word of God and the hypostasis of Christ: “the hypostasis of Christ is not simply the hypostasis of God the Son, but it is the hypostasis of God the Son in His incarnate state,” that is, it is the composite hypostasis formed from the union between God and man in the Incarnation. (Severus of Antioch: Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Perspectives)

    Fr. John’s essay can be found in the internet. He goes on to claim that the Miaphysite tradition rejects the doctrine of “enhypostasia”, wherein the Christ is the Logos that hypostasizes the humanity.

    I always found it strange that Calvin could affirm both Nestorian christology and monergistic soteriology. Historically, Nestorianism was always associated with Pelagianism. Many contemporary people find it unnecessarily polemical to accuse Severus of Monophysitism AND Nestorianism but Fr. D. Bathrellos explains how this could be so:

    For Maximus, the distinction between person/hypostasis, on the one hand, and nature/essence on the other, is indispensible for the articulation of a proper Christology. Severus’ fatal mistake consists precisely in his refusal to distinguish between them, because, without this distinction, it is not possible to denote unity and and distinction in a satisfactory way. Maximus argues that by identifying hypostasis with nature, Severus confuses divinity and humanity. By the same token, by arguing that there is a distinction in the natural qualities too, because, since nature and hypostasis are the same, ‘natural qualities’ equals ‘hypostatic qualities’; thus, for Maximus, Severus falls into Nestorianism (Ep. 15, 568D) (Byzantine Christ, pg. 101).

  7. If you keep reading Fr. John Behr’s article, he also shows a corrected reading of Severus of Antioch based on how “hypostasis” is defined. So it would still be absurd to accuse him of BOTH Monophysitism and Nestorianism because something was lost in translation.

    But it’s not impossible to see Nestorianism associated with Monotheletism because that is arguably what Nestorius’s predecessors taught.

    And Severus rejected Chalcedon precisely for the same reason the author of this blog entry defends Chalcedon and rejects Calvinism, which I find assuring.

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