Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Who were the Nestorians? 

Who are they? Where did they come from? Well, they came to China from Persia, but they were not originally from Persia. The Persians had accepted the the Nestorians for their own political reasons. So the Nestorians who came to China came directly from Persia.

But were they really heretics? It's a problem of definitions, I think. Goldschmidt and Davidson, in their book Concise History of the Middle East state the following:

In Antioch grew up a school of theologians called the Nestorians. They saw Christ as two distinct persons, divine and human, closely and inseparably joined.
This is technically true, (since they did use the word “person” rather than “nature”), but a bit too loosely stated. It needs to be emphasized that the belief that Jesus was both fully God and fully man is not heresy. It is orthodoxy. But in fact, the Nestorians believed that the human and divine were “loosely joined.” Britannica Encyclopedia has a slightly more nuanced description of the problem, I think:
Whereas orthodox Christology holds that Christ has two natures, divine and human, ineffably united in one person, or hypostasis, Nestorianism so stresses their independence as to suggest that they are in effect two persons, or hypostases, loosely joined by a moral union. Nestorianism envisages the divine Word as having associated with itself at the Incarnation a complete, independently existing man. From the orthodox point of view, Nestorianism therefore denies the reality of the Incarnation and represents Christ as a God-inspired man rather than as God-made-man.
So what do you think? Were they heretics? Well, the Biblical definition of heresy is very simply stated:
1John 4:2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 1John 4:3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.
By this definition, I don’t know whether the Nestorians would really be classified as heretics, or merely regarded as having an unclear understanding of the incarnation. The bottom line, it seems, is that the first chapter of the Gospel of John says,
John 1:14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
So the question is very simple: Do you believe that Jesus is God in flesh? If they said “yes,” they would not be heretics. But if they said “no” they would be regarded as teaching false doctrine.

But more germane to their relationship to China is the extent to which they influenced the religious landscape in this country and culture. The problem is that they completely disappeared after about 150 years. Their presence in China is historically documented, being attested to by an ancient stone document inscribed in 781 AD. Many years ago, I visited the museum in Xi’an where this stone stele is housed, and took a picture of it with my pocket camera. It clearly establishes their presence, but gives not a clue as to what happened to them. They just disappeared from the scene, perhaps dissolving through intermarriage or something. So there is no discernable influence of the Nestorians on modern Christianity in China. But the question of their influence on the Tang Dynasty itself is something that cannot be so easily dismissed. It would be hard to determine, since they vanished, but it really should be studied.

When I first posted this piece, I had finished it at the previous paragraph. But I realized that I had neglected to mention the Theotokos, and I just couldn’t let that omission stand. We need to talk about it.

Theotokos is often rendered in English as “Mother of God,” but that is not an exact translation, and there is some controversy over it. Got Questions has a very good article on this subject, so I will quote from it here:

We should distinguish the term Theotokos from mother of God, because there is a subtle yet important difference. The term mother of God could be taken wrongly as implying that Mary was the source or originator of God, similar to how Juno was the mother of Vulcan in Roman mythology. Of course, Christianity teaches that God is eternal and that Jesus Christ has a pre-existent, divine nature. The idea that Mary is the mother of God in the sense that she was the source of God or somehow predated God or is herself part of the Godhead is patently unbiblical.

The term Theotokos, on the other hand, is more specific and less open to being misconstrued. Theotokos simply implies that Mary carried God in her womb and gave birth to Him. Mary was the human agent through whom the eternal Son of God took on a human body and a human nature and entered the world. The term Theotokos was a succinct expression of the biblical teaching of the Incarnation, and that is how the Council of Ephesus used the word. Mary is the “God-bearer” in that within her body the divine person of God the Son took on human nature in addition to His pre-existing divine nature. Since Jesus is fully God and fully man, it is correct to say that Mary “bore” God.

I think the thing to remember about Theotokos is that, while Mary had no part in creating deity, the baby that was inside her was in fact God at the time he was inside her and did not become God afterwards. That’s the important point about Theotokos. The Nestorians do not accept Theotokos, because they believe that the baby inside Mary was entirely human—that the divine nature was not in the womb. Protestants accuse Catholics of going too far on this point and implying that Mary herself was divine. The Nestorians went to the opposite extreme and denied that the baby while still in the womb had any divinity at all. The orthodox Biblical position is that Mary was not divine, and was, in fact, a sinner in need of a savior (as she herself says in Luke 1:47). That Jesus was fully human and fully divine, and that this was true from the beginning of his humanity, which would include the time in the womb, since we believe that little babies in the womb are human beings and not mere tissue. The best way to understand this is to read the first chapter of Luke, because this chapter talks about both Jesus and John the Baptist while they were in their mothers wombs at the same time and in the same place.

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