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Church History Debates: Was Jesus One or Two Persons?

In its early centuries, the church wrestled with how exactly to describe Jesus. When Arius taught that Jesus wasn’t fully God, the church consensus clarified that Jesus was, in fact, fully God. Then, when Apollinarius swung the pendulum to the other side, suggesting that Jesus couldn’t have been fully human, the church clarified that Jesus was fully God and fully human. So with two natures capable of two different sets of activity, does it make better sense to see Jesus as one unified person—or as having the appearance of being one person? This was essentially the question central to the debate between Cyril (of Alexandria, Egypt) and Nestorius (of Antioch, Syria).

Background and Summary

Because the theological leadership at Antioch, Syria (the “Antiochene School”) emphasized literal interpretation of Scripture, they were quite embracive of the full humanity of Christ. Following Aristotle, they saw human nature as both body and soul. At the incarnation, the two natures remained separate. So, it was not too large a step to begin assigning one action of Jesus to His humanity and another to His divinity.

Opposing Apollinarianism (the belief that Jesus was of only one nature, the divine), Theodore of Mopsuestia stressed this dichotomy of action. When Theodore’s student Nestorius became bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius carried these Antiochene ideas with him. His major controversy centered on those who called Mary the name theotokos, or God-bearer.[1]

To Nestorius, using the word theotokos of Mary was acceptable—if also used in conjunction with anthropotokos (man-bearer). Nestorius mainly preferred the use of Christotokos (Christ bearer), but this was unpopular with those who wanted to emphasize the deity of Christ and with the growing “cult” of Mary. Nestorius believed that Christ’s two natures joined in one prosopon. By prosopon, he may have meant one person, but his opponents took the ambiguous Greek term to mean one “appearance.”[2]


“Nestorius believed that Christ’s two natures joined in one prosopon. By prosopon, he may have meant one person, but his opponents took the ambiguous Greek term to mean one ‘appearance.'”


When Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria, was informed of Nestorian’s ideas, Cyril began his attack in 428, by demanding that Nestorius agree to twelve anathemas against the Antiochene Christology. When Theodosius II called the Council of Ephesus in 431, Cyril was able to get Nestorius deposed.

Many believe Nestorius was condemned more for ecclesiological than theological reasons.[3] However, his theology might have come dangerously close to teaching not only two natures, but two persons.[4] The defeat at the Council of Ephesus rendered Nestorianism powerless to recover within the Empire.[5]

Proponent of Jesus as One Person

As patriarch of Alexandria, Cyril convened the Council of Alexandria in 430 and wrote the twelve anathemas against Nestorius. In 431, he then convened the Council of Ephesus. His aim was to preserve the unity of Christ’s person. In doing so, however, Cyril paved the way for the future heresy of Monophysitism. He is known for his ruthless theological attacks.[6]

(Possible) Opponent of Jesus as One Person

Nestorius, student of Theodore of Mopsuestia and later bishop of Constantinople, fought against Arianism. In doing so, however, he went a step too far in separating the human acts from the divine nature, so that Jesus was no longer one unified whole. His teachings brought his condemnation at the Council of Ephesus.[7]


“Nestorius went a step too far in separating the human acts from the divine nature, so that Jesus was no longer one unified whole.” 


Biblical Basis of Jesus as One Person

It seems Cyril mistakenly thought that Nestorius believed Christ was actually two persons. But in fact, Nestorius never actually claimed this. If Cyril’s perception was right, then essentially, Nestorius would be expanding the Trinity to include a fourth Person.[8] Against this, the Scripture that follows would confirm Cyril’s position:

“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

Excerpt

From the “Second letter to Nestorius” by Cyril:

“Thus it is one Christ and Lord that we acknowledge, and as one and the same we worship him, not as a man with the addition of the Word…because the body of the Lord is not alien from the Lord; and it is with this body that he sits at the Father’s right hand.”[9]


[1] Wright, David F. Wright, “Councils and Creeds,” in Introduction to the History of Christianity, ed. Tim Dowley (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 179.

[2] Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988), 173-174.

[3] Wright, “Councils and Creeds,” 181.

[4] Paul P. Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago: Moody Press, 1997), 422.

[5] Brown, 172.

[6] H. Dermot McDonald, “Cyril of Alexandria,” in Introduction to the History of Christianity, ed. Tim Dowley (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 182.

[7] H. Dermot McDonald, “Nestorius,” in Introduction to the History of Christianity, ed. Tim Dowley (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 180.

[8] Brown, 175.

[9] Cyril, “Cyril’s Exposition,” in Documents of the Christian Church, ed. Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 51-52.

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