1. The Development of the Christological Controversy’ (through A.D. 429)

Prologue: Four Ecclesiastical Centers and Four Imperial Players

By the beginning of the fifth century there were four major centers of administration and influence within the Christian church under Roman rule – Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch. While Milan and Carthage were still important voices in the western Latin half of the empire, Rome had become the unquestioned voice there. In the Greek east, however, the three cities with their regional leaders or patriarchs all had both credits and debits in their histories.

Antioch could claim to be the oldest, and associated itself with the apostles including Paul. Its influence had been severely weakened by the long-standing internal contentions between multiple rival groups and bishops that had begun about 360 and was not definitively ended until 415.

Alexandria was the next oldest center, claimed St. Mark the Evangelist as its putative founder, and could boast of such champions of orthodoxy as Athanasius. It, however, also had been the home of Origen, whose orthodoxy had been increasingly questioned, and, under Bishop Theophilus (385-412) Christian groups were involved in the civic unrest that resulted in pogroms against Jews, Christian sects, and pagan cults and philosophers.

Constantinople, founded by Constantine in 325, coopted the bishops of the previous city (Byzantium) into its ecclesial family tree. But its claim to influence was as the capital city of the eastern empire. At the Second Ecumenical Council, which it hosted in 381, it was declared to be second in rank/honor to Rome alone. This created tensions not only with the Antioch and Alexandria, but also came at the expense of the other nearby ancient see of Ephesus. In addition, it experienced major disruptions when its patriarch John Chrysostom was deposed by a council in 403, restored briefly, then permanently exiled.

Outwardly, by 418 all of the four major sees were enjoying fairly harmonious relations with each other; Underneath, there were still major political and historical tensions. There were theological tensions as well. The ones most commonly discussed are the Antiochene tendency towards a more literal interpretation of Scripture and a focus on the total manhood of Christ, as opposed to the Alexandrine penchant for a more spiritual (sometimes referred to as allegorical) approach to interpretation, and a stronger concern to emphasize the total deity of Christ. Rome, on the other hand, was more concerned about eliminating the influence of Pelagianism, and less with the interpretational and Christological discussions of the eastern church. All of this would play into controversies of the first-half of the fifth century.

When the eastern emperor Arcadius died in 408 (his wife Aelia Eudoxia had died in 404), he left behind four surviving children. Although 10-year old Pulcheria (b. 398/399) was the eldest, her 7-year old brother Theodosius II (born in 402) was technically declared emperor (Augustus), with two aristocrats serving as regents. In 414, however, the 15-year old Pulcheria had the regents dismissed and she was given the title Augusta and in essence she ruled for her brother. At the same time, she also took a vow of virginity and continued to live a quite ascetic life inside the palace in Constantinople. Even after Theodosius was declared Augustus (416), Pulcheria remained a powerful force in the imperial household.

When Theodosius married Eudocia in 421, the latter became a palace rival to Pulcheria. The ascetic Pulcheria, devoted to the virgin and supported by the local monastic communities, eventually became an opponent of Nestorius although this might not have been until after the council of 431. Eudocia, allied with the eunuch Chrysaphius, seems to have been more supportive of the new patriarch Nestorius. Theodosius attempted to remain objective towards the issues, but may have been pressured by both women.1

Theodosius had no male heirs at the time of his death in a riding accident in 450. A month after his death, the military leader Marcian became the new Augustus after marrying into the royal line by wedding the aging Pulcheria. It has been suggested that the negotiations included Pulcheria’s demand that the new Augustus convoke a church council to deal with the lingering Christological problems. This Platonic marriage allowed her to both continue her political influence and her virginal lifestyle until her death three years later (453). Marican died four years later in 457.

Thus Pulcheria and Eudocia were major players in the controversy, perhaps almost as much as Theodosius and Marcian.

The Development of the ‘Nestorian Controversy’ (through A.D. 429)

In late 419, Bishop Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria from 412-444, sat down to write his annual letter to the clergy of Egypt announcing the dates for Lent and Easter for the following year (Festal Letter 8, CPG 5240.08). Each year it was composed several months before its reading on the Festival of Epiphany; this would allow time for it to be copied and distributed. This was also the patriarch’s opportunity to encourage and admonish the church in matters that he deemed important. That letter, read on Epiphany day of 420, spent the last 40% of its text (4.2-6.6) in warning against aberrant teachings about Christ’s two natures, attributing the problems to Jewish attacks and to unnamed hypothetical heretics (5.1). Cyril writes that when God “binds the Word together with an inseparable and indefinable unity of the incomprehensible union, he intends that Christ be confessed by us as one —both before he had flesh and afterwards when he did have flesh” (5.2).

It was only some years later that the disagreements about how to describe the relationship between Christ’s two natures began taking center stage. This took place after the elevation of the Syrian monk Nestorius to the bishop’s throne in Constantinople (April 10, 428). Nestorius had been elevated with the approval of Emperor Theodosius who wanted the new bishop to be an impartial outsider and not someone already embroiled in local debates. Coming from Syria, Nestorius also enjoyed the good will of John, the recently elected bishop of Antioch (428/9-441). Upon his arrival, Nestorius lost no time in taking a firm position on the dissensions within the church that he had inherited. Numerous monks had become increasingly active not only in charitable works but also in political events, and they were increasingly difficult for the bishop to control. They had found sympathy with the acetic Augusta, Pulcheria, elder sister to emperor Theodosius II, whose devotion to the Virgin Mary was shared by other influential figures (such as the former candidate for bishop, Proclus, and the lay lawyer Eusebius). Nestorius failed to bring the monks in line with his policies, but he was more successful in cultivating a relationship with the emperor’s wife, Eudocia.

That the Christological debate had already spread further afield can be seen from Cyril’s paschal letter for 429 (no. 17, CPG 5240.17), written in late 428. Without naming names, he devoted almost half his letter (2.4-3.10) to explaining what can be said of Christ’s incarnation, calling Mary the mother of God (μήτηρ…θεοῦ) and saying ‘ the Virgin giving birth may be said to become then mother not simply of flesh and blood (as are, of course, the mothers we have in our [human] condition) but rather mother of the Lord” (2.8).

The church historian Socrates, writing a decade or two after the events, gives what appears to be a first-hand description of how events unfolded in Constantinople (CPG 6028, 7.32). In late 428, a close associate of Nestorius, the Syrian priest Anastasius, gave a public lecture or sermon against the use of the term theotokos for Mary. Then, during a Christmas sermon, with Nestorius listening, a local priest named Proclus responded with a sermon praising Mary and her offspring (CPG 5800).2 “What a mystery! I see his miracles and I proclaim his divinity; I see his sufferings and I cannot deny his humanity; yet while Emmanuel was opening the gates of human nature as a man, as God he left the bolts of virginity’s door intact. … Listen to that clear testimony to the Holy and God-bearing (theotokos) Mary” (9).

Probably in early 429, Nestorius gave a series of his own lectures as well as a sermon on Mary (CPG 5716). In it. Nestorius exclaims that it is proper to praise Mary for “she became the temple for the Lord’s flesh” (1). Yet one must be careful not “to say that the Deity itself needed to be gestated for months (2). … Do not say either that the human nature mingled with the divine Word which took it up; or that only a human was born; or that the divine Word was tempered or mingled together, [for in so doing] the nature loses its proper essence” (3). He fends off accusations that he follows the teachings of the heretic Photinus (d. 376), for “Photinus thinks that the divine Word came into being with his birth of Mary, but I say that the divine Word existed before the ages.”

The lay lawyer Eusebius, an ally of Pulcheria and Proclus and later bishop of Dorylaeum, composed and spread throughout the city a tract (CPG 5940) in which he compared Nestorius’s language to that of Paul of Samosata (d. c. 275), the notorious and reviled third-century heretic from Syria. The controversy grew steadily, and the respected archimandrite Hypatius of Chalcedon, one of Pulcheria’s spiritual advisors, already began refusing to fellowship with Nestorius.

Meanwhile, by the spring of 429, Cyril composed a more detailed and lengthy warning on the subject to the monks of Egypt (CPG 5301). Although he still does not mention Nestorius by name, the Constantinople controversy has clearly come to Egypt. Not only have the reports circulated, but Cyril tells them that “some men” were going about in Egypt  seeking to “destroy your simple faith” by “saying that one must clearly state whether or not the holy Virgin Mary is to be called theotokos” (4). While Cyril goes on to say that he would prefer that discussions of such doctrinal fine points not trouble the life of these monks, he now has to make clear the truth. “If our Lord Jesus Christ is God, how is the Virgin who bore him not theotokos (mother of God)?” (5). He then cites several examples of his revered predecessor Athanasius using that term of Mary.

Sometime in the first half of 429, Nestorius had opened contact with the Roman bishop Celestine (CPG 5665). His letter began inauspiciously by seeking details about several men who had been excommunicated at Rome for their Pelagian beliefs and who had since fled to Constantinople, seeking redress from the emperor and others. This may well have appeared as another attempt by a bishop of Constantinople to put his authority to judge in such matters on the same level as that of the Roman bishop. Nestorius then decries the ‘corruption of orthodoxy” he has found among some in Constantinople, and the lack of discipline against those with Apollinarian and Arian beliefs. In what follows he several times mentions the Virgin Mary as properly Christotokos, while the errorists are not afraid to call her theotokos, even though the holy fathers of Nicaea” did not. Part lecture and part defense of his own views and conduct, it is hard to see how this letter could fail to irritate Celestine.

By mid-429, the controversy was full-blown and the ease of communication between the provinces ensured that it had become widespread. The patriarchate of Alexandria had a permanent delegation by this time residing at the capital, representing the Egyptian church before the emperor, and feeding reports back to the home office in Alexandria. Cyril thus received extensive reports of the position being taken by Nestorius and the chaos being caused. We have a private letter which he penned in mid-year to those representatives (apocrisiarii) at the imperial court (CPG 5309). Because of the private nature of this letter, it is especially valuable in giving us an inside look at Cyril and his position at the time. Early in the letter Cyril mentions a meeting between his representatives and Nestorius’s deputy, the priest Anastasius. In their meeting Anastasius seemed to accept Cyril’s position in his letter to the monks but then claimed that the letter also admitted that the term theotokos was not approved at Nicaea (1). Cyril goes on to prepare his emissaries for the next meeting with Nestorius’s people. They are to say that this is not a personal attack against the bishop, but a matter of proper biblical teaching (3). If theotokos is not a term used in Scripture, Christotokos or theodoxos (God-receiving) are also not found there either (7). The apocrisarii have already drafted an appeal to the emperor, but Cyril tells them to hold back with that at present; for if he were to accuse the bishop of Constantinople of heresy, all hope of a resolution would be lost (8).

Meanwhile, word arrived in Egypt that Nestorius had seen Cyril’s letter to the monks and was fulminating against it, spreading word that the entire controversy was of Cyril’s making. This led Cyril to open direct communication with Nestorius on this subject for the first time. (CPG 5302). Cyril explains that his letter to the monks was a response to the problem that already existed in Constantinople, and whose leaven was spreading throughout his own diocese of Egypt. Therefore, he had no choice but to get involved. Because of what Nestorius has either said or not said, some were coming very close to denying that Christ is God, but implying rather that he was just a divine “tool or instrument” (2). Both at Rome and in the East the sermons of Nestorius have created an uproar, and this could be corrected if Nestorius were only to call the Virgin Mary the theotokos (3).

Cyril’s letter to Nestorius seems to have been dispatched in the hands of an Egyptian priest named Lampon. Lampon then parked himself on Nestorius’s doorstep, waiting for a reply. Eventually Nestorius became exasperated and dashed off a very curt answer (CPG 5666), consisting essentially in a complaint about Lampon’s behavior. Besides the standard greeting and farewell, the only additional sentence was a complaint about the “many things” Cyril had done that were “not in keeping with brotherly love.” There was nothing about the controversy at hand.

Meanwhile, by mid-429 other written attacks against Cyril began appearing, accusing him of lovelessly speaking out against Nestorius. They cited his letter to the monks (CPG 5301) as having inflamed Nestorius and the situation. In a letter to those critics (CPG 5307), Cyril cites a sermon in Constantinople in which Dorotheus declared anyone who called Mary theotokos to be anathema. He, Cyril, however, had refrained from anathematizing those who denied that Mary was theotokos, even though he could have produced a wealth of examples of previous church leaders who have used the term theotokos of Mary.

About the same time, mid to late 429, someone fairly well known to Cyril wrote to him in support of Nestorius. In Cyril’s brief reply (CPG  5308) he emphasizes his commitment to the biblical principal of love and maintaining harmony among brothers in the faith. Yet in this case, the matter had now become a public offense and a danger to the faith of many within the church across the empire. Therefore, Cyril had not been able to remain silent, and it is now up to Nestorius to dispel all the rumors by making a clear denial of the teachings that were now being associated with him. The letter to which Cyril is responding may well have mentioned Nestorius’s influence at the imperial court and warned of repercussions against Cyril from that quarter, for Cyril declares that he must confess the truth even if it means persecution or death.

Nestorius had written his first letter to the Bishop of Rome during the first half of 429 (CPG 5665), requesting details on Rome’s excommunication of several men for Pelagianism. After waiting several months without receiving a reply, he sent the cubicularius Valerius to Rome with a second letter (CPG 5667) even more insistently demanding documentation on the excommunications and again implying that the verdict may have been unjust. He then transitions to a discussion of Christological heresies, charging that certain “blind men” were still infected with the errors of Apollinaris and Arius when thinking that there was a “mixture” of Christ’s divine and human natures; and that his bodily sufferings passed into his divine nature and his divine immutability into his human nature. The Roman bishop must have viewed the request as a questioning of its decision and as an attempt by Constantinople to increase its own patriarchal authority. In any case, the letter only increased Rome’s ire and again went unanswered.

Updated by GLT Sept. 23, 2021

  1. In his introduction to the translation of the Council of Ephesus documents (p. 24-25), Graumann urges caution about seeing the two augustae/empresses as having hardened positions on Nestorius before the council.
  2. While the sermon is undated, Christmas of 428 is the date that best fits the chronology. Proclus had served as an assistant to Bishop Atticus of Constantinople (406-425) and may well have been one of the local candidates passed-over for the outsider Nestorius during the election of the bishop the previous spring. He had been appointed bishop of Cyzicus but failed to occupy that see; later he would become patriarch in Constantinople (434-446).

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