|Unknown Master — The Madonna and Child, c.1310: The Musée du Petit Palais, Avignon. France|
Nestorius was a man of extreme rigour of life and disposition. When he first comes before our notice as Patriarch of Constantinople, we find him leading an ascetic life, living almost entirely amongst his books, but mercilessly harsh in his dealings with the Arians against whom he waged implacable war. Given over to pride and love of novelty, he was soon to fall into a heresy as fatal to the true Faith concerning the Incarnation as the heresy of Arius himself.
Arius had denied that the Everlasting Word was of one Substance with His heavenly Father; Nestorius denied that He was born of a human Mother.
There were, he taught (as had, in effect, Theodore of Mopsuestia before him), two distinct Persons in Christ, the Person of the Man Jesus, and the Person of the Eternal Word of God. These two Persons were joined by a strict union, which was only moral in its character, that is to say, by a perfect agreement of the wills, affections and operations of the two natures—so that the Divinity dwelt in the Humanity of Christ as in a Temple. There was, however, no substantial union between the two natures of Christ. From this it necessarily followed that there was not One Lord Jesus Christ, but two Christs—one God and the other Man. Thus was Christ divided. Another conclusion was inevitable. The Blessed Virgin was not rightly called Theotokos, or God-bearing (Mother of God)—the appellation freely given her by great Doctors of the Church such as Athanasius, Basil and Gregory of Nazianzum, a title dear to the Christian people—but only Christotokos, or Christ-bearing (Mother of Christ) and even Anthropotokos, or man-bearing (Mother of a Man). At first, Nestorius did not venture to teach his profane novelty from his patriarchal Chair. In the early days of his Episcopate he contented himself with insinuating it by means of his disciples. Soon, however, he grew more bold, and from the pulpit of the great Cathedral, which had listened to the pure doctrine and sublime eloquence of Gregory of Nazianzum and John Chrysostom, Nestorius did not fear to say:
"I am asked if it be lawful to give to Mary the Virgin the title of Theotokos, or if it be right to term her simply Anthropotokos. Can it be that God has a Mother? . . . No, the creature has given birth not to the Creator, but to a Man, who was instrument of the Divinity. The Holy Spirit, by His operation from which was born the Son of Mary, merely prepared for God the Word a temple in the Virgin's womb."
We read that immediately these words fell from the lips of their Patriarch the whole congregation emitted cries of horror and fled from the church. The heresy, though, by striking at the Unity of the Person of Christ, it is destructive of the dogmatic basis of the Faith, was very subtle, and possibly might not have evoked such widespread and fierce indignation amongst the Faithful had it not openly struck at our Lady's honour and dignity. There was no longer room for subtlety. Stripped of all verbiage, it had been proclaimed by the Patriarch of Constantinople that Mary was not in truth the Mother of God. An issue had been suddenly raised such as all could comprehend. It was felt by Bishops, priests, and people that the very foundations of their religion, as they had received it from their fathers, had been assailed by the Bishop of that which had already become, after Rome, the most important See in Christendom.
Throughout the Christian world there was the greatest agitation. Bishop after Bishop wrote to Nestorius to protest, but in vain. The heretic, now supported by all the influence and power of the Emperor Theodosius, was spreading his false doctrine far and wide by every means at his disposal. He had, however, failed to reckon aright with three great factors with which he had to deal—the authority of the Roman Pontiff, the loyalty of the Catholic Episcopate, and the devotion of the Catholic people to the Holy Mother of God. St. Celestine I. sat on the Chair of Peter, and the great Cyril was the successor of Athanasius as Patriarch of Alexandria.