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The Great Heresies: Nestorius and Eutyches

Category Articles, Resources
Date June 19, 2017

We have made these studies of the so-called Great Heresies because they represent significant false steps in the history of Christian teaching; in each of them a true teaching is distorted, and so becomes false. Each precipitated a crisis that forced the Church to look deeper into the Scriptures and consider the fullness of God’s revelation there.

Our previous study, that of Apollinarius, marks a move from the question of the deity of Christ to that of the relationship between the Divine and human in Christ. Opposing the ruinous heresy of Arianism, Apollinarius took a crude approach, teaching that the Divine replaced a part of the human nature, a position that was rightly condemned on the ground that it made the Incarnate Christ less than human. The next great theological controversy would be driven at least as much by politics as theology, and ended in the great Council of Chalcedon. The two men who gave their names to the heresies condemned there were Nestorius and Eutyches, and they came from Antioch and Alexandria respectively.


After the Council of Constantinople in 381, theologians in the Eastern Church continued to debate the questions that had been raised by the Arian controversy, and consider how best to keep from falling into error on the question of the person of Christ.

Broadly speaking there were two main approaches, characterizing schools of thought based in Alexandria and Syrian Antioch respectively. The Alexandrians laid great stress on the unity of Christ’s person, while the Antiochenes stressed the two natures and the true humanity of Christ. The different emphases were not too much of a problem so long as they were only emphases, but there was always a danger of losing proportion; the Alexandrian emphasis could too easily result in a view of Christ that down-played his humanity, while the Antiochene approach might lead to a view of Christ that divided the two natures rather than just distinguishing them. Not only that, but there was a risk that the two schools might mistake a difference in emphasis for outright heresy.

This is what actually happened in the Nestorian controversy; Nestorius has perhaps the unique distinction of being the only one of the ‘great heretics’ who almost certainly did not teach the heresy that his name has become attached to. Complicating this were political issues; the church, freed from persecution and favoured by the Caesars, had developed its own complex political system of parishes, dioceses, bishops, archbishops, and patriarchs. The Patriarchs were archbishops of five particularly significant cities. These were Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople. Jerusalem was always small and rather insignificant, while Rome, away in Europe, was distant and had its own concerns. In the East, Alexandria and Antioch were political as well as academic rivals. Caught in the middle was the bishopric of Constantinople, the Imperial capital. Alexandria and Antioch both claimed that their bishoprics had been founded by Apostles; no such claim could be substantiated for Constantinople, yet the Imperial Capital held more or less equal rank. And if an Antiochene bishop sat in the Cathedra in Hagia Sophia, Alexandria was likely to seek a reason to remove him. When Nestorius of Antioch was elevated to the bishopric of Constantinople in 428, conflict became all but inevitable.

Nestorius, born about 386, was a Syrian who trained and ministered in Antioch, trained in the theology of the Antiochene school. By this time monasticism had become widespread in the Church, and Nestorius became a monk in the monastery of Euprepius. We must not think in terms of the enclosed, secluded life of later medieval monks, for Nestorius became a popular preacher in the city, and a theological teacher. Because monks were supposed to be more devout than parish clergy, it became customary (as it still is in the Eastern Orthodox Churches) for bishops to be selected from their ranks. Bishops were required not only to administer their dioceses, but to preach and to teach, so a monk who was a noted preacher was likely to be a candidate for any See that might fall vacant. When Patriarch Sisinnius of Constantinople died in 428, Emperor Theodosius II selected Nestorius to take his place.


Cyril of Alexandria had been elevated to the Egyptian Patriarchate in 412. While he was certainly one of the most able theologians of his age, his character was marred by a fierce, one might say fanatical, dislike of the school of Antioch, and indeed of the Patriarch of Constantinople – whoever that might happen to be. Cyril took things personally; with him there could be no cordial disagreement, to disagree with him was to be his enemy. Therefore he viewed Nestorius as his enemy, and looked for reasons to attack him.

This reason was not long in coming. As Patriarch, part of Nestorius’ task was to mediate conflict in the Church of Constantinople. As the Imperial capital, the city contained presbyters from Alexandria and Antioch, as well as other areas of the Empire, and indeed beyond. He was asked to intervene in a bitter partisan dispute between two groups, one of Alexandrians who referred to the Virgin Mary as Theotokos, the one who gave birth to God, and another who seem to have been extreme Antiochenes, who insisted that she was merely Anthropotokos, one who gave birth to the human nature. Attempting, as bishops are wont to do, to bring about a compromise, Nestorius suggested that the term Christotokos, the one who gave birth to Christ, be used.

At this point it is important to explain what the controversy was; it was not really about Mary at all, but about Jesus. Theotokos is often translated into English as “Mother of God,” which term brings with it all sorts of Roman Catholic baggage about the adoration of Mary and her elevation in Romanism to the level of almost a demi-goddess. But the debate in the 5th century was not about Mary, it was about something much more fundamental; was the person born of Mary God?

If Jesus was not God at his birth, it follows that he must have become God later on, the heresy of Adoptionism. The Anthropotokos party, in saying that Mary simply gave birth to the human nature, at least gave the impression that the human nature of Christ existed independently from the Divine nature, which would logically lead to the conclusion that there were two persons in Christ. The Theotokos party, on the other hand, insisted that the union of natures in Christ was such that there is only one person, who has two natures, so that the person whom Mary carried in her womb and gave birth to is God, though she gave birth to a man. Nestorius’ compromise suggestion, like most theological compromises, failed to actually address the matter at hand; both parties affirmed that Mary gave birth to Christ, they differed on the nature of the union of the two natures in Christ. ‘Use neither,’ Nestorius said. What he probably hoped for was to force an end to the debate; in fact he poured oil onto the flames.

When Cyril heard the news, he was furious. In his mind, Nestorius’ refusal to use the term Theotokos, joined with his insistence on the word Christotokos, had to mean that Nestorius denied the union of the two natures in Christ. Rather than asking further questions or engaging in debate to discover whether this perception was correct, Cyril launched a blistering attack on the younger Patriarch. Nestorius divided Christ! The Patriarch of Alexandria wrote to Nestorius demanding that he recant his heresy, and confess that there was in Christ ‘one Incarnate nature of the Logos.’

This further confused matters. Probably Cyril merely used the word ‘nature’ loosely, in a way that was more or less identical to Person. But the tone of his letter, joined with this phrase, left Nestorius with the impression that Cyril was out to get him (which was true) and that Cyril was a heretic (which he was not). Cyril ensured there would be no coming to a better understanding of one another, and so began what Nestorius himself would later refer to as ‘the tragedy.’

Cyril believed that Nestorius was teaching that Christ was two persons, a human and a Divine, joined by a merely moral and voluntary union, while Nestorius believed that Cyril was teaching that in Christ the human and Divine natures are mixed up to form a single composite nature. Each condemned the other as heretical. As the historian G.L. Prestige has put it, ‘Never have two theologians more completely misunderstood one another’s meaning.’1 The result was catastrophic.

The disagreement between the two sides can hardly be called a debate; they were talking past each other and hurling insults. Had it merely been an academic quarrel, it would have been bad enough, but it swiftly became political. Cyril had the ear of the Emperor, and in 431 Theodosius II called the Council of Ephesus to try to settle the matter. It was a disgrace; Cyril made sure to open the Council before the Antiochenes had arrived, and not surprisingly the Council condemned Nestorius as a heretic on Cyril’s misunderstanding of his position, and deposed him from the Patriarchate. On their arrival, the Antiochenes held their own Council, and condemned and deposed Cyril. The two rival councils then appealed to Theodosius, who found in favour of Cyril’s Council and upheld Nestorius’ deposition, branding him a heretic without the benefit of a fair hearing.

The Council of Ephesus did not only address the Nestorian debate, it also condemned the Pelagian heresy, and for that we should be thankful. However, its handling of Nestorius was nothing short of scandalous. The result, predictably, was that the question was not actually settled at all.

After Ephesus

Given the disgraceful way in which Nestorius was handled at Ephesus, the debate did not die down; if anything, it became more heated. They continued to dispute, and to lobby the Emperor for justice. Like many Emperors, Theodosius wanted peace more than anything else, and eventually in 433 he persuaded Cyril and John to sign a “Formula of Agreement.” John and the Syrians had to accept the deposition and exile of Nestorius, and the term Theotokos; this they were willing to do. It helped that Maximianus, Nestorius’ successor, was eager for peace, and was no violent partisan; although he supported Cyril, Maximianus urged Cyril to moderate his language in the interests of peace. For their part, Cyril and the Alexandrian party had to accept that in the one Christ there is a union of two natures. Cyril, to his credit, accepted the agreement, saying that it taught everything that he had been contending for. Others, however, called him a traitor for doing so, and continued to insist on the term “one nature.” The seed had been sown for another dispute.


It was not long in coming. In 444, Cyril died, and the controversy broke out again in Constantinople. This time the focus was an Alexandrian, an Archimandrite (a senior Abbot) named Eutyches. Eutyches was precisely what Nestorius and his supporters had feared, a man who had taken the Alexandrian position to its extreme, so emphasising the union that in his teaching all distinction of the two natures had been lost. Eutyches taught that in Christ the human nature had been swallowed up in the Divine nature, ‘like a drop of wine in the sea.’ The Deity had absorbed the humanity, and Christ could no longer properly be spoken of as human.

This was out-and-out heresy, not a confusion of ideas; Eutyches knew what he was saying, and spoke clearly. The Patriarch Flavian opposed and publicly condemned him, removing him from office. But the political element meant that this was not the end of the matter, for Eutyches had powerful friends. Flavian was an Antiochene, and he found himself, like Nestorius, confronting a powerful and angry Patriarch of Constantinople. Cyril had been succeeded by Dioscorus, a man who had all the temper of Cyril and none of the theological insight. Dioscorus was little more than a thug in a bishop’s robe, but he too had influence at court. So in 449 Theodosius summoned a second Council at Ephesus to consider whether Flavian had been right to remove Eutyches. If the first had been unfair, it was a model of impartiality compared to this second.

The Robber Synod

Just as Cyril had controlled the first Council of Ephesus, Dioscorus was the absolute master of the second. Because the Council was met to consider the legality of Flavian’s deposition of Eutyches, Flavian did not take part. Had this really been in the interests of fairness, it would have been admirable, but it was not; his opponents were in absolute control of the Council. Eutyches’ accuser was not allowed to speak, and anyone who Dioscorus thought might possibly favour Flavian was silenced. Bishop Leo I of Rome had not been able to make the journey, but he had sent a letter outlining his thoughts on the controversy; this was not allowed to be read because Dioscorus did not trust the Western delegates to take his side. To further ensure his control, Dioscorus brought with him a large number of Alexandrian monks to ‘persuade’ those he was not sure of, usually by violence.

The outcome of this Council was a foregone conclusion; Eutyches was reinstated, and Flavian was condemned. In an action that seems thoroughly in keeping with the nature of the Council, Flavian was assaulted by Alexandrian monks, and died of his injuries soon afterwards. He was replaced by a friend of Dioscorus named Anatolius. When he heard about the proceedings, Leo I was disgusted, and gave the council the title ‘The Robber Synod;’ the name has stuck. Much as the decisions of this council were disliked, there was no way that they could be reversed as long as Theodosius was alive. This proved not to be very long; in 450 he was killed in a riding accident, allowing the whole issue to be reopened. Theodosius’ successor, Marcian, was more favourable to Leo and the Antiochene theologians, and so he convened a fresh council at Chalcedon, near Constantinople.

The Council of Chalcedon

The Council of Chalcedon was much more balanced, largely because Emperor Marcian was, unlike his predecessor, not a partisan of Dioscorus. A tough man who had been taken prisoner by the Vandals at one point in his career, he was not one to be intimidated, and he arranged for the majority of members of the Council to be drawn from the ranks of the moderate Alexandrians, who opposed Eutyches. These were not sure how to express the orthodox position, at first adopting an expression that in fact agreed with the Eutychians, saying that Christ was ‘incarnate from two natures.’ It was here that Leo I of Rome stepped in, insisting that such language was unacceptable; the two natures remained two after the Incarnation, though in union. The wording was changed to ‘in two natures’, and this had the desired result of excluding Dioscorus and Eutyches, while satisfying the great majority of Bishops. Anatolius, unexpectedly, affirmed this statement, much to the annoyance of Dioscorus. He saw the way that the wind was blowing, and trimmed his sails accordingly.

The Council proceeded to issue the Definition of Chalcedon, also known as the Chalcedonian Creed, which states:

‘Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.’2

It will be noted that the Definition insists on both the distinction of the two natures of Christ and the union in one person. It also expresses the propriety of the word Theotokos, yet qualified with ‘according to the flesh.’ It simply expresses the Biblical teaching and cautions against certain errors. Chalcedon emphasises that the union is in the person of Christ, hence the common theological term used for it, the Hypostatic Union (hypostasis being the Greek word used for ‘person’). Chalcedon set boundaries drawn from the Bible, and in a balanced statement, tried to bring Antioch and Alexandria together.

Chalcedon was accepted by the majority of the Church with just a few exceptions, primarily (unsurprisingly) in Syria and Egypt. Dioscorus was deposed, but his followers continued to support him, resulting in a division in the Egyptian Church between the Chalcedonians and the Dioscorian party, who were named Monophysite (believers in the One Nature) by their opponents.

In an odd, yet fitting postscript to this, Patriarch Anatolius of Constantinople is said to have been murdered in 458 by supporters of Dioscorus, presumably enraged that Anatolius had not supported the Eutychian party. So ended the great Christological debate of the 5th century.

After Chalcedon

The ecclesiastical division that followed Chalcedon remains to this day, with the Oriental Orthodox Churches such as the Coptic and Syriac tracing their descent directly to the followers of Dioscorus. Yet theologically the modern Oriental Orthodox Churches do not teach the views of Eutyches, though some of their members have attempted, unsuccessfully, to accuse those who hold to the Chalcedonian teaching of Nestorianism; in reply, the Orthodox have often said that the Coptic Orthodox teaching is false because it leads to actual Monophysitism. The actual theological debate, however, is over, what remains is largely political, since both Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches agree that there is a union of two natures in Christ, but express it differently.

The ancient Nestorian Churches, founded by supporters on Nestorius who refused to be reconciled to the Orthodox after Chalcedon, never taught ‘The Nestorian Heresy,’ for Nestorius himself never did. For several centuries these churches flourished beyond the Empire, with bishops as far afield as China and India. Persecution and the rise of Islam, however, decimated these Eastern Churches, leaving only a few communities in modern-day Iraq.

The Reformation Debate

The condemnation of Ephesus and Chalcedon meant that through the Middle Ages, Nestorius was regarded as a heretic who had divided Christ. With the Reformation, however, there came a desire to re-evaluate what really happened, and what he had really taught. Martin Luther was perhaps the first of many Protestant theologians to realise that Nestorius was almost certainly not a Nestorian. Since the Reformation, many historians and theologians have also concluded that Nestorius was no heretic, though Eutyches certainly was.

Actual Nestorianism (the name has stuck) and Eutychianism remain dangers in the Churches, because both are, like Apollinarianism, naive errors into which people may fall unaware, by not holding both the union and the distinction of the two natures in the one Christ. There are very few who formally hold to either, but there are probably a fair number who express themselves according to these heresies, and hold them without knowing it.

During the Reformation-era debate over the Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, the issue arose again. Followers of Martin Luther, desirous to retain a corporeal presence of Christ in the elements, developed the doctrine of the Communicatio Idiomatum, the idea that the properties of Christ’s Divine nature are communicated to his human nature, allowing the human nature to be in every place at the same time. The Reformed denial of this novel doctrine was interpreted by some Lutheran theologians as Nestorianism, and even today there are modern orthodox Lutherans who accuse the Reformed of Nestorianism. On the other hand, to the Reformed the Lutheran teaching appeared to come close to Eutychianism; if the properties of the Divine nature are communicated to the human nature, does that not imply that the human nature is in some sense confused with the Divine.

The Dangers

Nestorius, we have argued, was not a Nestorian, so the heresy of Nestorianism is really what Cyril mistakenly thought his opponent was teaching. Very simply it is this; that in the Incarnation there is actually no Incarnation at all. Instead there is a moral union between two persons, one a holy, upright, righteous man called Jesus, the other the eternal Son of God. These two persons are one in will and intention, but that is the sum of their union. It is a union of persons, not a union in a person.

The implication of this for salvation is startling; it means that human salvation becomes a matter of cooperation with God, the union of our wills with the will of God. There is no actual redemption, because only a man died on the cross. Jesus is saved, but Jesus does not really save. He provides an example and a pattern, but not salvation. It becomes salvation by obedience.

Contrast this with the Scriptures, ‘For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit’ (1 Peter 3:18). For Christ is one person, with two natures. So Paul can write of the Jews in Romans 9:5, ‘Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.’ Mary is rightly called Theotokos because of what is recorded in Luke 1:35, ‘And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.’ So he, who is Lord and God, is not ashamed to call men his brethren (Hebrews 2:11).

On the other hand, Eutychianism is the natural theology of the mystic. The Roman Catholic Quietists, led by Miguel de Molinos (not to be confused with the Jesuit Luis de Molina), taught a contemplative mysticism the aim of which was that the human will would be swallowed up in God’s will, and the human personality extinguished. This is not Christianity, which teaches a dying to self, but is closer to Buddhism, a dying of self. The self is not saved at all in a consistent Eutychian scheme, because man cannot actually dwell with God at all – God swallows up all finite beings that come to him.

But Christianity is different. The Bible opens for us a glorious future, in the vision given to the Apostle John, ‘And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God’ (Revelation 21:3). The distinction between God and man remains for ever, and so we can have fellowship with God.

The danger of lapsing into Eutychianism is also very real in debate with those who outright deny the deity of Christ, or hold to a teaching that practically denies it. In facing the challenge of theological liberalism, some conservative Christians have fallen into an opposite extreme and spoken in such a way as to suggest that the divine nature in Christ swallows up the human. Here Chalcedon provides us with a useful means of retaining a proper balance that respects all the Bible says about Christ.

On the other hand, some Calvinists have fallen into the trap of refusing to acknowledge the Hypostatic Union in their speech. So we have heard the language of Charles Wesley’s hymn And Can it Be criticized for the line, ‘That thou, my God, shoulds’t die for me.’ ‘The divine nature cannot die,’ the criticism goes, ‘therefore the line is false.’ No, it is not; because Christ is one person in two natures, and since the one person who is God died according to the human nature, then it is as right to speak of Christ as ‘the crucified God’ as it is for Paul to speak of ‘The Lord of Glory’ as having been crucified (1 Corinthians 2:8), or in Acts 20:28 to speak of ‘The Church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.’ The divine nature has no blood, but since Christ is both God and man in one person, his blood is the blood of God, though entirely human blood.

We do not have to use the term Theotokos; for some the word is too filled with connotations of Mariolatry and Roman error, and we should be kind to such. On the other hand, it is absolutely vital that we confess that Jesus is fully God and fully man, and one person, and that this union began at his conception. The one who was born of Mary in Bethlehem is true Almighty God.


God can bring good out of man’s evil; that is certainly the case in the history that we have examined in this article. The relentless politics of the ancient Church is wearying and hard to read of, yet out of it at last came the careful, balanced, Biblical guidelines of Chalcedon.

We are once again reminded of the importance of balance in theology. That balance, when it comes to the Incarnation, is best preserved by remembering that it was ‘For us and for our salvation,’ that Christ was born. Fully God, he is able to save; fully man, he is able to save his people from their sins.

And man and God may dwell together without man ceasing to be; as ‘Rabbi’ Duncan put it, ‘There is a man in the glory,’ and this gives hope to us his people that we too may dwell with God,

‘O Jesus, thou hast promised
to all who follow thee,
that where thou art in glory
there shall thy servant be. ‘

– E.J. Bode

And what a glorious hope the God-Man gives to us.


    1. G.L. Prestige, Fathers and Heretics (London, SPCK, 1940) p. 127
    2. English translation courtesy of

This article first appeared in the May 2017 edition of Peace & Truth and has been used with the permission of the author.

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