A fair, albeit incomplete, summary of the findings of the first two councils is as follows:
Nicaea: Jesus is really God
Constantinople: Jesus is really human
The controversy was basically settled in regards to what Jesus was. However, over the next century the remaining controversy of exactly how Jesus could be what he was ensued. The next controversy came to a head in the teachings of Nestorius, who was then the Archbishop of Constantinople
Nestorianism – It’s History and Development
Now, at the onset I want to recognize something. There is some dispute as to whether or not Nestorius actually taught the things he was accused of. Cyril was a shrewd theologian, and some of what he imparts to Nestorius may actually have been blown out of proportion. However, for the sake of this argument I am going to lay that aside.
That being said, lets proceed.
Nestorius’ fundamental error was the idea that although the two natures of Christ were indeed complete, that there was no real communication between the two. They were so separate that they seemed to constitute two separate persons. This came to a head in Nestorius’ rejection of the popular term theotokos (God Bearer, or Mother of God) in reference to Mary. The argument, as it appears to have been formulated, was that it is not possible for Mary to be the mother of the 2nd person of the Trinity, because that would mean that the 2nd person of the Trinity had an origin in time.
Instead Mary was the mother of the human Christ. This is expressed in his replacement term Christotokos (Christ Bearer, or Mother of Christ). The argument then was that the human nature of Christ was not simply an impersonal nature, but an actual person to whom the divine person was joined.
This however had later implications for biblical interpretation such that any time Jesus did or experienced something that seemed unbecoming of God (hungering, thirsting, weeping, factual ignorance, dying, suffering), that it was only the human person who was doing or experiencing these things.
If this sounds familiar and unproblematic to you… then you absolutely need to keep reading.
Unfortunately, much like Arianism and Apollinarianism, there is an abundance of modern examples of this error. However, unlike Arianism (which finds its foothold outside of orthodoxy) and Apollinarianism (which tends to find its foothold among philosophically oriented Christians), Nestorianism finds its home within the Reformed. While it is a false accusation to say that Reformed theology as a whole is Nestorian… there are certainly some prominent theologians in the Reformed world who hold to positions that tend this direction. This happens for a number of reasons.
Most prominent is the beloved Reformed theologian, RC Sproul. Now, before you stop reading I want to say that I love RC Sproul and think of him as a kind of Theological Grandfather. Renewing Your Mind radically impacted me during my life as a young Reformed thinker, and it is still a regular staple in my podcast diet. However, I would not be faithful to the Reformed principles of Sola Scriptura and Semper Reformanda if I did not call to account someone who I believe is teaching an error.
Sproul, and others who share the position, resist affirming the phrase “God died on the cross.” They do so for exactly the same reasons that Nestorius denied the idea that “God was born of the Virgin Mary.” God, so argues Sproul, cannot die, thus it was only the human Jesus who died on the cross.
If the being of God ceased for one second, the universe would disappear. It would pass out of existence, because nothing can exist apart from the sustaining power of God. If God dies, everything dies with Him. Obviously, then, God could not have perished on the cross.
This, however, is a fundamental mistake on two levels.
- Natures don’t experience things, persons do. It is not the divine nature who upholds the universe, it is the person of the Father, through the person of the Son, by the power of the person of the Holy Spirit. Treating the nature as though it were an active agent is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Cappadocian Clarification between Hypostasis and Ousia.
- It appears to be a mistake in understanding what death is. Death for a human person is not a ceasing of existence. Sproul would affirm that the human person, albeit in an altered state, continues to exist after death. Death then is not the obliteration of existence, it is the separation of a human spirit from a human body. Christ then, as fully human, experienced human death when his human spirit was separated from his human body.
The point of this is not to go into a long explanation of Sproul’s error. Rather, it is to demonstrate that this error exists not only at the fringes of Reformed Christianity, but in many ways in the center of it. The so-called doctrine of the Extra Calvinisticum adds to the confusion. Although the doctrine itself is not Nestorian, if we are not careful as we explain it we can leave people with the impression that Christ is indeed two persons.
At this point, you may be asking… what’s the problem?
Well, the problem here is the same as it was in Apollinarianism. Apollinarianism can be viewed as a sort of reduced form of Nestorianism. In Apollinarianism, part of the divine nature (the rational soul) was unified with part of the human nature (the body and spirit). Like Apollinarianism, the Son does not heal that which he does not assume. In Nestorianism, the Son does not assume anything… he merges with it, and incompletely so. So what you have is a human person being empowered by a divine spirit in order to obtain salvation. However, as it would later be demonstrated by Anselm later, unless it was God himself who died on our behalf, the payment is insufficient to atone for an infinite cost. In a Nestorian Christology, the payment for sin is made by a finite human person, who simply is not sufficient in his finiteness to obtain the infinite recompense necessary to cover our sin.
 It has been persuasively argued by Donald Fairbairn in Grace and Christology in the Early Church that there is a correlative relationship between our Christology and our Soteriology. Deficient Christology tends to bring about deficient Soteriology. For example, both Arius and Nestorius held to a Soteriology that was essentially salvation by human effort. Where orthodox understandings yield Soteriology that affirms that salvation is fundamentally by God’s action toward us.