Does the living God die?

Most of the heresies of the early church period had to do with either the source of knowledge of God (Montanism, Marcionitism) or who Jesus was (Arianism, Docetism and others). From our perspective, the debates around the Christological heresies look technically complicated and quite irrelevant.

But who Jesus was is bound up completely with what Jesus accomplishes for us in salvation. The incarnation gives the work he did for us on the cross its true meaning. Describing the divine-human nature of Jesus as accurately as possible became – and remains for us – no insignificant matter. We can see this already on view in 1 John, where people were apparently denying that Jesus had ‘come in the flesh’.

Nestorius (c.400 – c. 451) was a monk and a presbyter in the city of Antioch, but was appointed to the grand position of Patriarch of Constantinople by the Emperor Theodosius II.
The heresy to which he gives his name is the teaching that there were two persons, divine and human, existing in the incarnate Christ. As Nestorius saw it, there was in Christ two separate and clear-cut natures. The man Jesus was imbued with the divine logos, with the two not united in any sense. In one of his sermons he said ‘Not one nature but two are we constrained to concede to Christ’.
The controversy had arisen as people had discussed the virgin birth. How could the Mary of flesh and blood be called ‘the Mother of God’, as some were claiming? Surely she gave birth to Christ’s manhood, which was joined to the divine Son.

Nestorius asserted that no union between Christ’s divine and human natures were possible – otherwise the divinity and the humanity would each be fatally compromised. What’s more: how could the truly divine nature of Christ have been involved in the suffering and change of the human Jesus? The only way, in Nestorius’ view, to account for both of these distinct elements was to see them as separately present in Jesus Christ.

The problem here for our view of Christ’s work is that in his supreme act – that of dying on the cross – we are tempted to see only a human being at work, the divine Son remaining somehow aloof to the whole process. Likewise, when Jesus is seen to miraculous works in the Gospels, this is viewed as proper to his divine nature and so therefore not something done by a human being.
It is undoubtedly less difficult to speak of the two natures as being separate. Does the Son of God die on the cross? Does he suffer and become weary? But that is precisely what the Bible and Christian orthodoxy invites us to consider. It challenges us not to evade the immortal God embracing mortality, or the eternal God entering time, or the holy God coming in the likeness of sinful flesh – but rather to see this as pretty much the central reality of the Christian gospel.

Under the force of the irascible Cyril of Alexandria’s criticism, Nestorius’ teaching was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431 and he was apparently exiled. The Nestorians, however, were great missionaries; and they took the gospel to India and even to China where they flourished until the Mogul invasions in the 13th and 14th centuries.

The Nestorian controversy, among other enticements, led to the development of the ‘Chalcedonian Definition’ in 451. You can see how the definition safeguards against Nestorianism:

‘the one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation, the distinction of the natures being in no way abolished because of the union, but rather the characteristic property of each on ebeing preserved, and concurring into one person and one being’.

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