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Allies or Merely Friends? John of Antioch and Nestorius in the Christological Controversy



Starting with the fact that John of Antioch and Nestorius were friends, this article asks whether they were also theological allies, as is commonly assumed. Based on an examination of a letter written by John to Nestorius in November of ad 430, as well as other pertinent letters and documents, the author concludes that the two were not on the same side theologically, but that John was unaware of how fundamentally they disagreed. The relationship between John and Nestorius is then used to help interpret the proceedings at Ephesus in ad 431, the action of John and of Cyril of Alexandria in the Reunion of 433 and the Christological controversy as a whole.



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1 See Donald Fairbairn, Grace and Christology in the early Church, Oxford 2003, 211–16.

2 The letter consists of four paragraphs and is found in PG lxxvii.1449–57. The critical text (from which my translations have been made) is in Acta conciliorum oecumenicorum, ed. Eduard Schwartz, Berlin 1914ff, tome 1, vol. i/1, 93–6. (Citations from this collection of texts will hereinafter follow the form ACO–6.) No complete English translation exists, but a French translation may be found in Ephèse et Chalcèdoine: actes des conciles, trans. A. J. Festugière, Paris 1982, 139–43.

3 See Cyril of Alexandria: select letters, Oxford 1983, ed. Lionel R. Wickham, pp. xix–xxv, xxxv–xxxvii. See also John A. McGuckin (ed.), St Cyril of Alexandria: the Christological controversy, Leiden 1994, 20–53. Also immensely useful in sorting out the historical events are the many indices, lists and comments that Schwartz includes in ACO (tome 1, vols i–v, contain the documents relating to the Council of Ephesus).

4 Para 3: ACO, lines 4–6.

5 For the date of Nestorius' receipt of John's letter see ACO 1.5.6, lines 8–9. For the date of Nestorius' receipt of Cyril's letters and the anathemas see ACO 1.3.35, line 16; 1.2.51, line 33.

6 ACO 1.4.4, lines 33–5. (My translation.)

7 Nestorius' letter to John is found in ACO 1.4.4–6. John, writing to Firmus of Caesarea, indicates that he has received Nestorius' letter, the two sermons and Cyril's anathemas: ACO 1.4.8, lines 3–7.

8 Adolph von Harnack, History of dogma, trans. from the 3rd German edition by N. Buchanan and others, London 1897, iv. 186, 188. In n. 2 on p. 186, Harnack suggests that John may have been a false friend who actually wanted to eliminate both Nestorius and Cyril, so that he would be the preeminent eastern bishop. Harnack does believe, however, that false friend or not, John sided with Nestorius and the other Antiochenes theologically.

9 Robert V. Sellers, The Council of Chalcedon: a historical and doctrinal survey, London 1953, 6.

10 Justo L. González, A history of Christian thought, Nashville 1970, i. 365, 377.

11 Norman Russell (ed.), Cyril of Alexandria, London 2000, 39.

12 Ibid. 216 n. 40.

13 Cyril of Alexandria: select letters, pp. xxxvi–xxxvii. See also Louis Duchesne, Early history of the Christian Church, trans. Claude Jenkins, London 1924, iii. 238. Duchesne writes: ‘As for John he at once adopted the position of the man of good sense. He wrote to Nestorius both in his own name and in that of some other Syrian bishops a letter of very affectionate tone in which he tried to persuade him to do what the Pope asked of him and to give up his opposition to the Theotokos.’

14 McGuckin, St Cyril of Alexandria, 45.

15 Christiane Fraisse-Coué, ‘Le Débat théologique au temps du Théodose ii: Nestorius’, in Jean-Marie Mayeur and others (eds), Histoire du Christianisme: des origines à nos jours, Paris 1995, ii. 516. (My translation.)

16 Also noteworthy is Galtier who, writing in 1939, does not deal with the letter's chronological place in the controversy, but who quotes and explains a portion of it. Galtier writes: ‘The very insistence with which he [John] urges him [Nestorius] to accept it [the title Theotokos] demonstrates that the error of which he knows his friend to be accused consists of denying the sense of this title. The true faith he invites him to profess is that which he [John] personally, together with the entire Church, considers to be the foundation of Christian hope: namely, that God himself has been born for us from the virgin Mary’: L'Unité du Christ: être, personne, conscience, 2nd edn, Paris 1939, 54 (my translation).

17 Para 2: ACO, line 19–, line 4. (All translations from this letter are my own.)

18 Celestine wrote letters to Cyril (ACO 1.2.5–6), to John and other oriental bishops (ACO 1.2.21–2), to Nestorius (ACO 1.2.7–12) and to the clergy and people of Constantinople (ACO 1.2.15–20). These letters are dealt with briefly in Fairbairn, Grace and Christology, 217–18.

19 This is ep. xiii in the collection of Cyril's letters and is found at ACO–3.

20 ACO, line 27–, line 2. This English translation is from St Cyril of Alexandria: letters 1–50, trans. John I. McEnerney, Washington 1987, 72.

21 Para 3: ACO, lines 6–11.

22 Ibid. lines 19–25. The Acacius whom John mentions in this passage is Acacius of Beroea, the most eminent of the Syrian bishops and the only bishop living at this time who had participated in the Council of Constantinople half a century earlier. He was initially very cool toward Cyril but later played an important role in effecting the Reunion of 433.

23 Para 3: ACO, lines 5–10.

24 Para 4: Ibid. lines 11–21.

25 Ibid. lines 23–32.

26 Nestorius' view of Christ is discussed in Fairbairn, Grace and Christology, 53–62.

27 Para 4: ACO, line 32–, line 7.

28 Para 4: ACO, lines 16–19. Schwartz gives the locations of the bishops' sees in his ‘Catalogi episcoporum’, ACO–25.

29 Para 1: ACO, line 9. Count Irenaeus accompanied Nestorius to Ephesus in an unofficial capacity, took part in the Conciliabulum and represented its concerns before the emperor, and was banished with Nestorius in 435. Early in his exile he wrote a work called Tragoedia Irenaei, which survives in Latin translations of substantial fragments and which is a major source for our understanding of the politics of the controversy. However, by the end of his banishment, Irenaeus had apparently become satisfactorily orthodox, and he was elected bishop of Tyre in 436.

30 See John's letter to Firmus of Caesarea in ACO 1.4.7–8. At the end of this letter (line 34) there is a note that John wrote similar things to many archbishops.

31 These sermons are not extant in Greek, but fragments of Marius Mercator's Latin translations are collected in Nestoriana: die Fragmente des Nestorius, ed. Friedrich Loofs, Halle 1905. Loofs numbers them as sermones xviii (Nestoriana, 297–313) and xix (Nestoriana, 313–21). The text of the first sermon is also found in ACO 1.5.39–45; that of the second in ACO 1.5.45–6 and 1.4.6–7.

32 This letter is found in ACO 1.4.4–6. The second of Nestorius' sermons, preached on 7 December, is attached to the letter, which might lead one to conclude that Nestorius sent John only one of the two sermons. (Duchesne concludes as much in Early history of the Church, iii. 238.) However, as I have mentioned above, John wrote to Firmus indicating that he had received two sermons from Nestorius, not just one.

33 ACO 1.5.43, line 16.

34 ACO, lines 13–15.

35 ACO 1.5.43, line 5.

36 ACO 1.4.7, line 8.

37 Ibid. lines 6–7.

38 ACO 1.4.5, lines 13–14. (My translation.)

39 See, for example, Friedrich Loofs, Nestorius and his place in the history of Christian doctrine, Cambridge 1914, 41.

40 In Fairbairn, Grace and Christology, 212–14, the various versions of the Formula of Reunion are discussed; in the process the fundamental agreement between Cyril and John of Antioch is demonstrated.

41 This point is illustrated by the fact that of the six bishops John mentions at the end of his letter to Nestorius, four (Apringius, Theodoret, Helladius and Macarius) took part in and signed the decrees of John's Conciliabulum: see ACO–4 for the list of signatories. If John were right when he wrote previously that all six of them agreed with him, Cyril, and the rest of the Church, and if four of those six (along with John himself) took part in the Conciliabulum, then clearly the true theological lines of division were not yet evident.

42 See especially Fairbairn, Grace and Christology, 9–11, 130–1, 200–3.

43 John S. Romanides makes this point in ‘Highlights in the debate over Theodore of Mopsuestia's Christology and some suggestions for a fresh approach’, Greek Orthodox Theological Review v (1959–60), 159. See also his ‘St Cyril's “One physis or hypostasis of God the Logos incarnate” and Chalcedon’, Greek Orthodox Theological Review x (1964–5), 84–5.

44 See the elaboration of this point in Fairbairn, Grace and Christology, 220–1.

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