December 15, 2005

Nestorius lives!

In the late fourth century, the bishop of Laodicea, Apollinarius, developed a novel doctrine of the natures of Christ. He taught that Jesus had a true human body and soul; however, he did not have a human spirit, but instead was animated by the divine Logos. This view was condemned as heretical at the Council of Constantinople, in 381. Other Christian leaders were quick to condemn Apollinarius and propose alternative Christologies, but none were particularly helpful. (Millard Erickson has written, in his Christian Theology, that there is effectively no orthodox understanding of the relationship of the human and divine in the person of Jesus. Every time one has been attempted, it has been condemned as heresy.)

One of Apollinarius' opponents was Nestorius, who became the patriarch of Constantinople in 428. Nestorius wanted to correct the deficiency of Apollinarius' Christology, which downplayed the humanity of Jesus. But he, too, went too far. He denied that Mary could be in any sense the theotokos, or "God-bearer," since giving birth was an essentially human activity. He preferred terms like christotokos ("Christ-bearer") or anthropotokos ("man-bearer"). What he wound up doing was dividing the two natures of Christ: instead of human and divine in organic union, Christ was simply a perfect man linked to deity. It is debatable how much of this reflects Nestorius' personal theories, as opposed to his followers'; nonetheless, this Christology, too, was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431.

Why is this important? Because it is inevitable that a historically myopic subculture like contemporary Evangelicalism will repeat the same kinds of errors, not realizing they have already been dealt with conclusively.

Case in point: the statement that Mary was the theotokos, or the "Mother of God." Properly understood in its historical context, this title is perfectly orthodox. It says that Jesus, whom Mary bore, was true man and true God, and that the union of human and divine was a true union, not merely a linking of human and divine attributes. In other words, the point of calling Mary theotokos was actually to say something about Christ - not, as later theological developments would do, to exalt the person of Mary herself. However, because of the association of Rome with the veneration of Mary, many Evangelicals are "Romophobic" to the point of rejecting this title, even though properly understood it has nothing to do with Romanist dogma concerning the Virgin.

Read this thread on the BaptistBoard, where you will find such statements as:

Mary the mother of Jesus is correct. [as opposed to "Mary the mother of God"]

Mary is the mother of only the 100% man.

Not one single atom of what Mary gave birth to was, is, or will be God. Mary gave birth to a physical vessel used by God.

Mary gave birth to Jesus, to His physical humanity but she did not give "birth" to ANY of His divinity.

That made her the physical mother of the physical child, Jesus. . . . However, when we speak of GOD, we are talking about spirit, and there is NO mother of God.

Mary simply gave birth to the physical human part of Jesus.

And these occur just in the first few pages of what became a very long thread! (I asked numerous times whether Jesus was fully divine in the womb, or where his "divine part" was hanging around while Mary gave birth to his "physical human part," but never received an answer.)

It gets worse as you read the thread, as a number of participants are, for lack of a better word, "cornered" into making other heretical affirmations rather than admit that they are misunderstanding or misconstruing what "mother of God," properly understood, has meant to the Church all these centuries. (And if you value your sanity and don't want to give yourself a concussion from banging your head against the desk, definitely don't go read this thread, where one of the participants in the first thread attempts to make the same arguments in a non-denominational forum and is drawn to make even more extreme claims. [Give a guy enough rope . . .])

One of the arguments that later develop is that Mary was not truly the mother of Jesus, but was actually an "incubator" or a "surrogate mother" of some kind. This, too, is heretical: it is a variation on the theme of Docetism, the denial of Jesus' humanity. Not that the BaptistBoard denizens are denying that Jesus' flesh was merely an illusion, as did the Docetists proper. But it nonetheless remains an implicit denial that Christ was a member of the human race, because it removes him from the family line of Adam.

The early church correctly realized that the Incarnation had soteriological ramifications, which is why they were so determined to refute false Christologies. This was especially true in the Eastern Church where Appolinarius, Nestorius, Cyril of Jerusalem (who oppoesed Nestorius at Ephesus), and, significantly, Athanasius, the great defender of the Incarnation, were. If Jesus were not God, then he could not have been a perfect sacrifice. But if Jesus were not a true man, then he could not have been a suitable substitute for sinful men. And if Jesus were not truly a descendant of David the king, then he has no valid claim to be King of the Jews, and we can throw his Messianic claims out the window as well. We are, as Paul might say, "of all people most to be pitied" (1 Cor. 15:19).