Milpitas Christian Church

Apollinarianism & Nestorianism

How can Christ be both God and man, yet one person?

  • The Church has by now established that:

    • Jesus is fully God and fully human

    • He is only one person, not two persons inhabiting the same body

  • But the next question was:

    • how can Jesus be One and yet fully God and fully man?

    • It was accepted as truth, but people wanted to understand how the divine and human related to each other within Jesus.

  • These arguments are the Christological controversies, and unfortunately Christians didn’t act very Christlike as they argued

How did we get here?

  • Many of the church fathers had tried to explain Christianity through Greek philosophy, especially the ideas of Plato

    • The Greek philosophers thought of God as a Supreme Being far removed from things like physical material and time. The Supreme Being was defined as being not-human in all ways, either by being the opposite of a human or by being extremely superhuman
  • As Christian theologians repeatedly used these Greek ideas to explain God, unfortunately many began to think of God more like the pagan Supreme Being. It became harder for them to conceive of how this God could become human, even though they confessed that it had happened

    • Because God and mankind seem almost like opposites, or like oil and water. How can they mix? Or rather, what if someone asked you to make hot ice cream? If you heat the ice cream, it melts and is no longer ice cream. And if you put ice cream and something hot in the same bowl, they aren’t mixed and can’t be called the same name.

    • So how can a godly nature and a divine nature exist in one person without changing into a different substance altogether?

East and West

  • The Christological controversies were mostly in the Eastern Roman Empire

    • In the East, the government was strong, borders were protected from enemies, and churches had the luxury to focus on theological issues.

    • Two major churches opposed each other theologically:

      • Antioch – wanted to guard Christ’s humanity from getting dissolved into His divinity

        But they risked: separating Christ’s humanity and divinity so much that it sounded like there were two different people in the body of Jesus

      • Alexandria – prioritized Christ’s unity as one person, not two

        Risk: erasing the distinction between His humanity and divinity, with the divine nature overwhelming the human nature to the point where they might say things like “God’s nature suffered and died on the cross”

  • The Western Church acted as a swing vote

    • They were more focused on practical issues related to maintaining church unity while the Western Roman Empire fell to barbarians

    • Eventually, the Roman church’s more moderate views won the day

  • Unfortunately, the big churches become more and more open to using government force to oppress their theological opponents


  • So, Greek philosophy thought of humans as being a rational soul piloting around a physical body. “You” are just a spirit/mind, and you “have” a body so you can interact with the physical world

  • Bishop Apollinaris – who was part of the Alexandrine school – wanted to fight Arianism. So he suggested that in Jesus, the second Person of the Trinity (the eternal Word of God, the Logos) took the place of the rational soul in a human body

    Regular body Jesus' body

Problem with Apollinaris’ suggestion:

  • In order to save humanity from sin, Jesus had to take on Himself the same part of humanity in which human sin lives: the heart and mind, or the soul

  • “What is not assumed is not saved”

  • So if Apollinaris is right, then Jesus could only save the human body but not the soul!


  • Council of Constantinople in 381 declared Apollinarianism a heresy

  • This was a victory for the school of Antioch, and they were supported by the church in Rome

    Gregory of Nazianzus, Epistle 101: To Cledonius the Priest Against Apollinaris

    If any believe in Jesus Christ as a human being without human reason, they are the ones devoid of all reason, and unworthy of salvation. For that which he has not taken up he has not saved. He saved that which he joined to his divinity. If only half of Adam had fallen, then it would be possible for Christ to take up and save only half. But if the entire human nature fell, all of it must be united to the Word in order to be saved as a whole.


  • Bishop Nestorius became patriarch (head bishop) of Constantinople. His theology was Antiochene

    • Constantinople was the capital of the Eastern empire, and so the church there was very influential.

    • However, it did not typically produce its own theologians, and so did not have a strong theological stance on this issue.

    • So, the churches of Antioch and Alexandria were always lobbying to get one of their own as the patriarch of Constantinople

  • Somebody preached a sermon saying that Mary, mother of Jesus, can be called “Mother of Christ” but should not be called “Mother of God”

    • The actual term they used was the Greek theotokos, which literally means “God-bearer” or “the one who gave birth to God”

    • This caused an uproar, as many people were used to calling Mary the “Mother of God”

    • The issue raised was: if Jesus is fully God and fully man, then how can Mary be the mother of Christ but not the Mother of God? Can Christ’s divine and human natures be divided in such a way?

  • Bishop Nestorius defended the preacher, insisting that Christ’s two natures must be kept distinct, otherwise the divine nature would overwhelm the human nature and we would be in danger of Gnosticism again

  • Nestorius was also trying to avoid the implication that God changed His nature in Jesus, because it is essential to Christian theology that God doesn’t change

  • Nestorius developed a formula: in Jesus Christ there are “two natures and two persons”, a divine and a human one of each

    • He suggested the title Christotokos or “Christ-Bearer” for Mary instead
  • The Alexandrine theologians claimed that this nearly denied the entire Incarnation

    • Nestorius made it seem like God just sort of “rested” inside a regular human instead of actually joining a human nature to His own

    Circle inside a square

  • Ex. in the diagram above, the circle rests inside the square. If I move the image of the square, the circle moves too. But does that mean they are united?

    • Can you look at the image and call the whole thing a circle? Or the whole thing a square?

    • So if Jesus has two separate natures AND is two separate persons, can you really call Him either one of those things?

  • Nestorius was vigorously opposed by Bishop Cyril of Alexandria, who wrote him many letters urging him to recant his position and acknowledge that Jesus is one person with two natures

    • Cyril said it is appropriate to call Mary the theotokos “Mother of God” so that we are reminded that the son she bore is literally the eternal God

First Council(s) of Ephesus, 431

  • A church council was ordered by the emperor at Ephesus.

  • The Roman bishop, Celestine I, asked Bishop Cyril of Alexandria to try Nestorius for heresy

  • The Eastern delegates arrive in Ephesus only to find that proceedings had begun without them. They stormed out of the council and met in their own synod. They excommunicated Bishop Cyril and the bishop of Ephesus

  • Bishop Celestine of Rome sent over his excommunication of Nestorius, which convinced the emperor to side with Bishop Cyril of Alexandria. Then the emperor intervened to force a resolution

  • A compromise was finally reached:

    • The Alexandrines gave up some of their more extreme demands

    • The Antiochenes agreed to declare Nestorius a heretic and depose him of his bishopric in Constantinople

  • Notably, Rome also weighed in to support the final compromise. Alexandria won again

Is it over yet?

  • The debate was not quite finished, though. We’ll continue to see this question debated for awhile, and it gets more exhaustively addressed at the Council of Chalcedon in 451

  • Modern Roman Catholics may accuse Protestants of being dangerously close to Nestorianism, as many Protestants refuse to call Mary the “Mother of God”

    • The Reformed tradition, from Luther and John Calvin, historically approves of the term theotokos “Mother of God” for Mary
  • People still are trying to answer questions like: if Jesus is Almighty God and sinless, then how could He have been tempted in all ways as we are? (Hebrews 4:15)


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