I have always felt a little sorry for Nestorius. Maybe this is because the first time I learned about him was at a small (Protestant, in the American Evangelical tradition) Christian university, where the consensus in the theology class was "Yeah, his Christology was off, but his heart was in the right place." The right place being, of course, the place of not overstating the role of Mary.
Because as Proclus and the Akathistos hymn and Ephrem's poetry show us, the
devotional consequences of this name for Mary are astounding. We were scandalized by the
devotional practice that seems like the oh-so natural consequence of that word:
theotokos, Mother (birth-giver) of
God. Nestorius was scandalized both by certain devotional practices, but more
centrally, by the idea of God suffering as creatures do.
But the other reason I've always felt a little sorry for Nestorius is that
orthodox Christology is such a slippery thing, and the harder you try to grasp
it the more easily it slips away. Our language often seems to be as insufficient for speaking
about the Incarnation as it is for speaking about God. Fundamentally, Nestorius
does try to affirm a Christ who is both God and human. His objections at the
surface of things seem entirely reasonable. How can he who is without beginning
be born in Mary? How can he who is incomprehensible be contained in the womb or
in flesh? How can he who is impassible suffer and die on the cross? Gut check:
Nestorius versus the-guy-who-says-God-died.
Even Proclus struggles with finding language to talk about the Incarnation. He gets away with the imagery of the robe, I think, because it is clear
he's saying that Christ's humanity was, properly, more than a robe, and that
the robe is just a metaphor and not even the primary metaphor in his text—rather,
it seems to be in service to the metaphor of Mary as loom, as the place in
which Christ’s humanity, whatever form it ultimately takes, is woven. The robe
metaphor is helpful so far as it goes in portraying how the robe of Christ’s
humanity can be said to bound the boundless God, thus showing how God, in
joining himself to humanity took on singularly un-Godlike characteristics. But
metaphor is like a cloth in its own way, in that as one gets further from the central
conceit, one tends to observe fraying. If all Proclus had said was "God
wore his humanity like a robe," he too would have been condemned.
Or would he? Would anyone notice Proclus without Nestorius? Would anyone
notice Nestorius, had he not attacked the popular devotional practice of a very
powerful woman? The devotional practice may not determine the Christology and
yet once again it seems that the devotional practice and the Christology are
Historically, certainly, at the Council of Ephesus that appears to be the
case. Cyril’s letters, focused though they are on the hypostatic union of
natures in Christ—whatever that might mean at this time—conclude with defense
of that name, theotokos, and all that
This interconnectedness of the devotion and the theology is, I think, what
makes Nestorius’s crimes truly severe in the eyes of orthodoxy, even if the
debates focus on the theology. The language we use to describe Christ may be
slippery indeed, and one may be forgiven for getting it wrong, but when belief
crosses over into practice and theology into devotion, the potential damage of
theological error is amplified. Only a few will debate whether Christ’s two
natures are a conjunction or a hypostatic union, but many will devote themselves
to Mary or not devote themselves to Mary (and later, many will venerate icons or
not venerate icons) depending on what you teach about Christ and whether you
call Mary theotokos.
This raises the question of the place of devotional practice in the life of
the Christian. Is practice simply the cultivation of a habit of virtue? Or is
it that the actions of devotion make the truth underlying those actions
incarnate in a way that the (often dry, often complex) theological formulations
simply cannot? That, in fact, a devotional practice can help the Christian to
live out a theology where language fails? That, by extension, a Christian who honors
Mary as “Mother of God” can affirm a truer Christology simply through her acts
of devotion than one who does not, even without theological knowledge?
Nestorius attacked both the theology and the devotion, and by attacking one
he attacked the other. In attacking the theology, he might have avoided notice—the
Incarnation is a slippery concept. But by attacking the devotion, he threatened
to cut off the Body of Christ from God twice, not only in the theological
formulation of his Christology, but in denying the members of Christ’s Body, the Church,
access to devotion that celebrates the union of that humanity and that Godhead
which began in Mary’s womb.
It was the recognition that the theology and devotion are so linked, I
think, that made a classroom full of Protestants (mostly in the American
Evangelical tradition) nervous eight years ago. Some of us came to a grudging
acceptance: yeah, okay, theotokos, I’ll
acknowledge it but that’s where it ends. Some of us shrugged our shoulders and
decided to live with a contradiction of our own—an orthodox Christology coupled
with a rejection of any special place for Mary. Others, I’m sure, found
Nestorius’s Christology much more sensible.
But some of us bought rosary beads.