Theodoret the Nestorian vs. Cyril the Monophysite

Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. III: The Golden Age of Patristic Literature (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1990) 546.

At the request of John of Antioch Theodoret wrote at the beginning of 431 a sharp Refutation of the Twelve Anathemas of Cyril of Alexandria against Nestorius, from November 430. Therein he explains the Antiochene point of view, defends the orthodoxy of Nestorius and accuses Cyril of Monophysitism.

In the fifth century, there was a lot of debate about the incarnation of Christ. Most Christians today believe that Jesus was both divine and human, God and man. The problem is that the divine nature and the human nature are mutually contradictory. God is eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, and does not change. Humans, by contrast, eventually die, can only be in one place at a time, don’t know everything, and do change (since they mature). How could Jesus on earth be God and human at the same time, when the divine and human natures contradict one another?

Christians offered different solutions. Monophysitism  was a point of view that had two schools. One school was Apollinarianism, which held that Jesus’ body was human but his mind was divine. According to this idea, Jesus did not have a human soul like everyone else, for his divine-mind (or logos) was his soul. The other Monophysite school was Eutychianism, which maintained that God the Word became a mixture of human and divine at his incarnation, meaning he was a “superman” who was unlike other human beings (at least that’s my impression of this viewpoint).

Nestorians believed that Jesus had two separate and distinct natures (divine and human) in the same person. A friend of mine at Harvard once compared the Nestorian Jesus to a bag with two different kinds of fruit, an apple and an orange.

After reading Theodoret’s response to Cyril, I understand the Nestorian point of view a lot better (albeit not perfectly). Cyril’s point seems to be that Jesus was God on earth, a fusion of human and divine. Cyril disagrees with the idea that the Holy Spirit from the Father empowered Jesus to perform his miracles, for he thinks that Jesus could do them through his own Spirit. After all, why would God on earth need someone else to empower him, when he could do them all by himself?

Theodoret responded that Jesus technically was not God on earth. He pointed out what I mentioned above: God is eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, and does not change. Jesus, by contrast, died, could only be in one place at a time, said he didn’t know when the Son of Man would return (Mark 13:32), and changed when he grew from a baby into an adult. At one point, Jesus even prayed that God would remove from him the cup of his crucifixion, indicating he had some disagreement with God the Father. How could Jesus do this, if he was God and agreed with his Father all the time? Against Cyril, Theodoret also quotes Bible passages claiming that the Holy Spirit empowered Jesus to do his work.

For Theodoret, it was not the case that God the Word was transformed into a God-man, as Cyril argues. Rather, God the Word took on a human body: God fashioned a baby’s body, and God the Word entered into it. For Theodoret, Jesus’ body was like a temple or a garment that clothed God the Word. And does not Jesus in John 2:19-21 call his body a temple?, Theodoret asks.

Theodoret also notes that the Bible distinguishes between the body and the soul. Paul, for example, contrasts his bodily tabernacle with his inward man (II Corinthians 4:16). That means that one person can have two distinct aspects of him, a soul and a body. So why can’t we assume that Jesus had two distinct natures at the same time, a divine one and a human one? For Theodoret, as the soul is clothed with the body, so was God the word clothed with human nature.

But Theodoret is not an Apollinarian, one who believes that Jesus’ mind or soul was divine whereas his body was human. Theodoret actually accuses Cyril of holding this position. Rather, Theodoret maintains that Jesus had a human soul. After all, if Jesus did not know the time of the Son of Man’s return (meaning he lacked omniscience), then his soul had to be the part that lacked that knowledge, since the soul is the part that knows or doesn’t know.

Here we run into problems. Did the divine part of Jesus know when the Son of Man would return, whereas the human part did not? Did Jesus have a split personality? Theodoret’s answer is that the divine nature of Jesus permitted Jesus’ human nature to have limitations.

But, as I said a while back in my post, The Incarnation: Orthodoxy is Confusion!: “Does this make any sense at all? It makes Jesus look like a split personality. Jesus is Jesus, right? He’s one being, not two in one.” Did Jesus know the time of the Son of Man’s return, or didn’t he? Can you really have both at the same time?

Monophysitism (both schools) and Nestorianism both came to be considered heresies in the Catholic Church, which attempted to iron out the incarnation issue at the Council of Chalcedon in the fifth century. And the Chalcedonian Creed says that Jesus had two natures, divine and human, which were united yet distinct (see here). So I guess Chalcedon tried to have it both ways!

But I found Quasten’s quote interesting because both sides accuse one another of heresy. Cyril thought the Nestorian position was heretical, and Theodoret responded that Cyril was a heretical Monophysite.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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6 Responses to Theodoret the Nestorian vs. Cyril the Monophysite

  1. Polycarp says:

    See, at this point, I think that Fathers were just arguing just to argue.

    Excellent post, James.


  2. James Pate says:

    Plus, who can really win in these debates? We have to believe Jesus’ natures are separate and distinct, yet united. You go one way, and you’re a Nestorian, you go another, and you’re a Monophysite.

    The same goes for the Trinity. We have to believe the persons are distinct, yet united in one being. You go one way, and you get criticized. You go another way, and you get criticized.


  3. Polycarp says:

    Amen to that, James. This is why I try to maintain only biblical words for my discussions. Hopefully all can agree on that!


  4. James Pate says:

    I’d be interested in learning more about your position. You seem to believe in oneness, yet you also seem to acknowledge that the Father and Son were in different locations when Jesus was on earth. Have you written any posts on this?


  5. Polycarp says:

    I have, some, but they need to be modified a bit. They are under Unus Deus.

    I fully see the distinction on Earth, in the Incarnation. The distinction is in the Eternal and the Temporal. Plus, in function.


  6. Pingback: Church Write-Up: Christ’s Transfiguration and Miracles; Real Presence; Agape | James' Ramblings

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