The rejection of the term Theotokos by Nestorius of Constantinople and the refutation of his teaching by Cyril of Alexandria

Eirini Artemi


Cyril of Alexandria was not only one of the finest Christian theologians of his day, he also stands out in the ranks of the greatest patristic writers of all generations as perhaps the most powerful exponent of Christology the church has known. Nestorius was enthroned as archbishop on April 10th 428. The contemporary historian Socrates Scholasticus called Nestorius a proud and ignorant man whose innate and undisputed oratorical power masked a weakness of incisive thought. Nestorius argued that Theotokos did not do justice to the fact that, strictly speaking, Mary was not the mother of God but rather the mother of the man whom Christian faith recognizes as divine and thus calls God. On the other hand, the term Anthropotokos acknowledges that Mary is the mother of this man but can itself be taken to suggest that he is merely a man, which again is offensive to orthodox Christian faith in the deity of Christ. In Cyril’s letters against to Nestorius, Cyril not only defends the title Theotokos against accusations that it was reviving the heresy of Apollinarianism, but he denies the very legitimacy of using alternative Christological schemes as such as the “association of personas” the Antiochian thinkers had spoken of. For Nestorius, the language of the exchange of properties was generally suspect, and often odious. He found, in the expressions “Mother of God” and “God suffering”, little more than an ignorant piety that had cut so many corners in its implications that it stood very close to pagan mythical conceptions of the deity. For him, God the Logos raised the dead Lazarus, while the man Jesus wept at the tomb. In Nestorius’ letter to Cyril, he argues that Cyril was right to teach the two natures were united in one person, and right to say that the divinity cannot suffer in itself, but that when he goes on to speak of the deity “participating in suffering” he undoes all his good work. Cyril insists that while of itself human nature is not powerful but passible, in its union with the godhead, as in the dynamic act of Incarnation, the human nature of the Logos thereby becomes an instrument of omnipotent power and thus, in a real thought paradoxical sense, an omnipotent instrument. It is at once powerful and fragile, majestic and humble. One of his favorite phrases is: “The Logos suffered impassibly”. Christ had two natures. Jesus Christ was both fully human and fully divine. Cyril insists that Mary, the mother of God, should be called Theotokos. If Jesus was only human, Cyril argues, and God was elsewhere, the Incarnation, the Word become flesh, would be meaningless. Cyril plunges into the debate with sharp invective, addressing one document “To Nestorius, the new Judas”.



Theotokos; Anthropotokos; Christology; Mariology; Cyril of Alexandria; Nestorius.

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