Nestorius and the Nestorian Church

Nestorius and the Nestorian Church
Nestorius and the Nestorian Church

Nestorius is the bishop associated with the Assyrian Church established in the realm of the Persian Sassanid Empire. Nestorius has been called a heretic, but most likely his theological rivals misunderstood him; moreover, he is sometimes viewed as the father of the Assyrian Church (Nestorian Church), but his own theological positions are sometimes markedly different than those of his namesake church.

Nestorius grew up in Antioch and distinguished himself by his fasting, prayer, and preaching. His pious reputation caused him to be named as bishop of Constantinople (428 c.e.), the capital city of the Byzantine Empire and the center of the Greek Church.

One of the ambitious theologians of rival city Alexandria, Cyril of Alexandria, criticized Nestorius for an alleged heresy involving the nature of Jesus (Christ) of Nazareth.

He claimed that Nestorius taught that Jesus Christ was the union of two persons, one that suffered and died and the other that was divine and eternal. However, Nestorius did not teach that there were two persons in Christ but rather that he had two natures in one person.

This position was vindicated at the Council of Chalcedon, though the council emphasized the unity of the divine and human natures in the person of Jesus. This was too late and too little noticed by the Greek Church and Latin Church, for the brand of heresy had already emblazoned the name of Nestorius.

He was stripped of his office, his literary works were burned, and then he was exiled. He spent 10 years in the area of the Nabataeans in the Jordanian desert and then 10 years at the Great Oasis in the Libyan Desert, before dying in 451.

The popular association of Nestorius with the Assyrian Church occurred because many followers of Nestorius migrated from Antioch to Edessa, the intellectual center for the whole Syriac Church. Here they found sympathy among the Christians who were not allied with the Greek or Latin Churches.

Eventually, pressure came against Edessa’s intellectuals so that the dissidents moved into the Persian domain to the city of Nisibis, where they established their own school of theology. From there they dispersed into other parts of the Persian Sassanid Empire.

By the sixth century the Assyrian Church had become "Nestorianized", as Nestorius’s followers were welcomed into high ecclesial and educational positions. Their school at Nisibis was held in high esteem among the Persian Christians.

The Assyrian Church had severed ties with the Greek and Latin Churches anyway and was little interested in the nuances of the controversy. As refugees from the Byzantine Empire they were not suspected of subversion or disloyalty.

Thus, the Assyrian Church grafted the followers of Nestorius and other Syriac Christians into their fold and received the name of their figurehead. The irony of history is that it never officially adopted Nestorius’s position on the nature of Christ, nor did it accept the alleged heresy for which he was exiled many generations before. The Assyrian Church has always been on the fringes of Persian society, whether the society was Zoroastrian or Muslim.

This diminished and flexible status perhaps explains how the Assyrian religion so readily penetrated other people groups and political boundaries. The scope of its mission is remarkable for such a small group of believers: Their communities spread within 300 years to India, Sogdiana, Turkestan, Turfan, Manchuria, Siberia, and China.