Thursday, April 5, 2012

Where did Nestorius go wrong?

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 inseparable.

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 it implies.

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.



  1. I really love the idea that "actions of devotion make the truth underlying those actions incarnate in a way that the (often dry, often complex) theological formulations simply cannot." I think in class we settled on the idea that Proclus seems to be ok with the paradox inherent in his formulation of Christ as fully man and fully divine. However, it is often difficult to find the language to discuss paradoxes, and so I think it is very true that the parts of Christianity for which people struggle to find words end up getting worked through in devotional practices. This is definitely seen in the devotion of Mary. It is very hard to get one's head around the Incarnation, and yet, there is widespread and furious devotion to the Virgin, as though through acts like praying the rosary one can come to some fuller understanding of the utterly mind-boggling theology. I was also struck by the kind of Marian language RCH used to describe the act of devotion - "as making the truth incarnate." Maybe in acts of devotion, Christians take the place of Mary, in that they are obedient, which then leads them to become incarnate with the truth.


  2. Thank you for your thoughts, especially about the inseparable realms of devotion and theology. This is an ancient concept of the Church known as lex orandi lex credendi, “the law of prayer is the law of belief.” This means that how one prays affects how one believes. This teaching, though used often to stress the importance and influence of liturgy (for the liturgy, if altered in any one way or another, will affect the theology of the Church), can help us to better grapple with the seemingly insufficient, or “slippery” as you call them, definitions of theological beliefs that the Councils have produced. So what if you say that Jesus Christ embodies a hypostatic union of two natures? So what if Mary is called Theotokos? What does that really mean for a believer? What it means for someone is determined by how one lives it, that is, one's devotion.

    Another comment I would like to make on this analysis is that as you say, “Would anyone notice Proclus without Nestorius?” it is clear that theological beliefs become solemnly defined as they are needed. We will see this more as the definitions of the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption will come into being in the 19th and 20th centuries. Without this controversy over Constantinople's cult of Mary, perhaps we would not have this sermon by Proclus that has influenced Christian thought to this day. Without being challenged, devotions might peter out of existence as many fads do. This is not to say that theology is created when an action or devotion is challenged, but rather it is like this: when given the opportunity to defend one's actions, one can, as the Church did, clearly state what it is that one is doing, and thus begin to mold a concrete, yet still growing, tradition.


  3. You have hit the nail--that is, the larger theme of our course--squarely on the head: how does theology arise from the practices of devotion, and how dependent is devotion on theology? This, for me, is one of the great challenges of studying the place of Mary in the tradition: without her, it is easy to see theology as simply a process of philosophical development, but with her, theology itself comes alive! Perhaps we would not have had Proclus without Nestorius or the Council of Ephesus without Proclus, but, arguably, we have both the Council of Ephesus and that of Chalcedon because of Pulcheria and her devotion to Mary as Theotokos. It is as LR says, theological definitions are made not out of some abstract need for definition, but only when controversies arise. And controversies almost always arise not out of theology as such, but out of behavior (devotion). This is the dynamic that our course is intended to explore.


    P.S. I'm glad to hear some of you bought rosaries!

  4. Great post. Each paragraph contains fresh insight and all of them together present a compelling argument.

    Regarding the connection of theology to devotional practice (and other comments about their development in particular historical contexts), I suggest that when we are dealing with an institutional setting, theology and devotional practice develop dialectically (at least in terms of orthodoxy).* For example, is there even a potential third way the argument from Nestorius could “threaten to cut off the Body of Christ from God,” as you put it in your post? I am thinking of the development of the doctrine of the transubstantiation of the Eucharist. Would the acceptance of a Nestorian theology nullify the grounds for transubstantiation, rendering the sacrament symbolic only?

    (For any familiar with Nestorian Christianity, what is the nature of this ordinance within the tradition?)

    *Isn’t this, in fact, what the councils are about?