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The Fifth-Century Christological Controversy Between Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius of Constantinople: The Mariology Controversy as an Example


There is no doubt that one of the biggest conflicts in the history of the Church is the Christological controversy that culminated in the fifth century. This controversy is forever linked to the names Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius of Constantinople. Shortly after he was elected as Patriarch of Constantinople in 428, Nestorius opened the door to great controversy when he refused to call the Virgin Mary Theotokos (Mother of God). The main part of the conflict between Cyril and Nestorius was about the two natures of Christ, and this appeared in the Mariology controversy which took the largest share of their disputes, in the Fifth-Century Christological controversy. So, this paper will attempt to focus on the Christological controversy through the Marian controversy as an example and trays to answer many questions like Was Nestorius a heretic? Was he the main reason for the Christological controversy and the division of the church in the fifth century? How did the political conflict background between the Church of Alexandria and Antioch play the main role in this controversy?  This paper will argue that the main reason of the Christological controversy was the historical background of the political conflicts between the two churches. And this is through looking at the background of the early life of the two bishops, and the controversies over the term Theotokos that led the events to the council of Ephesus in 431 A.D.

  1. The Early Life of the Two Bishops

First, we need to shed light on the lives of both Cyril of Alexandria (c.378–444) and Nestorius of Constantinople (c.381–c.451) before touching on the conflict between them. This background is very important because it shows the basis for the Christological controversy.

  1. Cyril of Alexandria

Cyril was born in 378 A.D. at Theodosion, Lower Egypt.[1] There’re not many details about Cyril’s paternal family. Theophilus the patriarch of Alexandria was a brother to Cyril’s mother.[2]  He succeeded his uncle Theophilus and became the patriarch of Alexandrea in 412 A.D. After a disturbance between Cyril’s supporters and the followers of his competitor Timotheus. He had ruled the Alexandrian Church for a total of fifty-nine years.[3] Cyril followed the policy of his uncle Theophilus who had a great influence on Cyril’s life in his upbringing, his ordination, and by the way, Theophilus ruled the Alexandrea church. Norman Russell said: “Cyril and his uncle Theophilus belong to the new era inaugurated by Theodosius I’s laws against polytheism, an era characterized by Christian violence not only towards pagans and Jews but also towards dissident fellow-believers.”[4] Others tried to connect Cyril to the death of Hypatia, the pagan teacher who killed by a mob, but there’s no enough evidence to support this claim.[5] Cyril gained his power from these violent practices against pagans and Jews which made him a violent trend for everyone who differs from him.

Cyril is considered one of the controversial figures among historians. There are many opinions about him. For example, many historians see him as the defender and protector of the faith, knight of Orthodoxy, and the doctor of the church. Other historians like Russell describe him as a “villain”[6], and narrow a story about people talking after his death that they need “to place a very big and heavy stone on his grave to stop him coming back here.”[7] Also, Henry Chadwick describes him as “an acute theologian and a determined zealot in church politics.”[8] On the other hand, Cyril is considered a great theologian. His writings show that he was a masterful theologian, organized into his ideas, and carefully selected his words with linguistic depth. For example, John McGuckin describes him as “one of the most important theologians on the person of Christ in all Greek Christian writings.”[9] Based on what mentioned above, I see it’s important to look at the Christological controversy from understanding the life and the character of Cyril.  

  1. Nestorius of Constantinople

Few of the information we know about Nestorius, and his writings. Nestorius was born in 381 A.D. in Germanica in Syria. He was a student of Theodore of Mopsuestia who was the bishop of Mopsuestia (North of Antioch) from 392 to 428 A.D.[10] Nestorius lived in Antioch as a monk and priest, he gained his reputation for his sermons, and “he was ably trained in the logical rhetorical school of Antioch.”[11] He was elected in 428 A.D. to be the bishop of Constantinople.[12] McGuckin argues that Nestorius owed his appointment by the personal recommendation of his childhood friend John bishop of Antioch, in addition he was also a close friend of Bishop Theodoret of Cyrrhus.[13] Russell sees that “ Nestorius’ actions were not very different from those of Cyril.”[14] But the main difference that he was a weak politician not like Cyril, and sometimes he described as ruthless like Cyril.[15] But McGuckin describes him with “no less dogmatic, uncompromising, and ready to use the full extent of his powers, both political and canonical, than Cyril or any of the other leading hierarchs of the period.”[16] We do not have most of Nestorius’s writings. But what made me agree with McGuckin is one of the newly discovered manuscripts on Nestorius’s live, which is written by himself, is the Persian manuscript the Bazaar of Heracleides. Nestorius told Emperor Theodosius that he pledges he will eliminate all heretics, such as the Arians and others. He addressed the following famous words to the emperor, “Sire, give me your empire purged of heretics and I will give you the kingdom of Heaven. Give me power over the heretics, and I, I will subjugate the Persians who make war on you.”[17] This is what Nestorius did later, he stared this war and practiced violence against heretics, Macedonians, and Quartodecimans.[18]

            I see that there are many similarities between Cyril and Nestorius. Both had the authority and were very powerful men except Cyril was a better politician than Nestorius, I totally agree with what Russell said, “What marks him off from his Alexandrian colleague is his much weaker political acumen.”[19] They were good theologians and thinkers, and each one of them represented his theological school and they were faithful to it. So, it is not surprising to see that the Christological controversy intensified in this way between them, and this theological conflict continued for a long time. One of the main reasons for this was the background of their lives and characters.  

  1. The Christological Controversy
  2. Nestorius’s Rejection of Theotokos

The dispute about the term “Theotokos(Θεοτοκος) takes the largest share in the Christological Controversy between Cyril and Nestorius. This term became the largest dispute in the church history, when Nestorius the bishop of Constantinople, in his sermons, rejected using the term Theotokos. It’s all started for Nestorius when a delegation came to him to ask what he thought on a disputed theological question. Should the blessed Mary be called Theotokos, “she who gave birth to God”, or Anthropotokos, “she who gave birth to man”?[20] According to Russell, Nestorius ruled that neither was wrong, but the expression Christotokos was a much better one because it was closer to the language of the New Testament.[21] Nestorius did not consider either of the terms completely wrong or heretical, but he gave his own term Christotokos through his understanding of the nature of Christ. Gerald Bray argues that Nestorius didn’t reject the term Theotokos, but he wanted to use it when accompanied by the term Anthropotokos to reflect the humanity of Christ.[22] Or to use the term Christotokos which Nestorius saw it a biblical term and a good compromise and appropriate way to describe the nature of Christ

First, A priest called Anastasius who was a member of the entourage Nestorius had brought with him from Antioch, preached a sermon in the Great Church in which he rejected the term Theotokos: “Let no one call Mary Theotokos, for Mary was only a human being, and it is impossible that God should be born of a human being.”[23] Then Nestorius began many lectures to correct the theological mistakes included in the term Theotokos and against the use of it. Nestorius said, “That God passed through from the Virgin Christotokos I am taught by the divine Scriptures, but that God was born from her I have not been taught anywhere. Those who call Mary Theotokos are heretics.”[24] Nestorius’ words were a great shock to many, Russell describes it, “If Anastasius’ sermon had caused a sensation, Nestorius’ lectures came as a bombshell.”[25] A lawyer called Eusebius accused Nestorius and his party of teaching the adoptionism of Paul of Samosata.[26] Nestorius’ lectures caused many disturbances and a local dispute in Constantinople between the newly elected bishop, and a set of clerics, monks, and members of the royal family.[27]

            At the beginning of his rule in Constantinople, Nestorius was faced with a strong disagreement between different parties in Constantinople: Was it was proper to call the Virgin Mary Theotokos (God-bearer) or Anthropotokos (man-bearer)?[28] I see Nestorius was clear from the beginning not to make any heretic judgment about both terms, but he gave his own terminology Christotokos (Christ-bearer). He was trying to forge his own understanding of the nature of Christ in his own words, not because he was Apollinarian or Adoptionist. Even the differentiation between the divine and human nature of Christ in Nestorius thought was not theologically wrong. Hubertus R. Drobner sees that what Nestorius taught was “theologically entirely correct.”[29] I see that the main struggle of Nestorius in the Christological controversy lay in the unpopularity of his term Christotokos in front of Cyril’s term Theotokos, and that’s why Nestorius was criticized. 

  1. Cyril’s defense of Theotokos

After Nestorius declared his refusal to use the term Theotokos, Cyril soon learned about the conflict in Constantinople. But how did the Nestorius’ sermons so quickly reach Cyril that made him politically involved in this matter? Susan Wessel argues that, “Several Nestorius’ sermons

were brought into Egypt, perhaps by Cyril’s detractors.”[30] Immediately, Cyril began mobilizing strong opposition to get the support against Nestorius. First, he wrote to the monks and priests of Egypt, later the monastic support played an important role in the events at Ephesus.[31] Cyril declared to them that “if Mary is not Theotokos, as Nestorius’ sermons claimed, then Christ is not God.”[32] Cyril succeeded to make the monks in his side. Even some of the monks, who were influenced by Nestorius’ thoughts, Cyril persuaded them. One of the strong arguments that Cyril used to defend Theotokos is that Athanasius himself used this term while he was familiar with all the traditions of the Church Fathers.[33] Cyril sought as much as possible to demean Nestorius, we cannot ignore the historical background of the political competition between Alexandria and Constantinople. When Cyril’s uncle Theophilus exiled John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople. McGuckin agrees with this view, that the “innate rivalry” between Alexandria and Constantinople was an important factor in the controversy between Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius.[34] Cyril inherited from his uncle this tension between the two churches and the struggle over Who was worthy of leading the Christian world.

Cyril and Nestorius exchanged many letters arguing each other. They failed to persuade each other, in some letters they exchanged sharp words and heresy charges.  Both had a mutual appeal to Pope Celestine in Rome that ended with the emperor condemning both in 430 A.D. After that the emperor Theodosius called for an ecumenical council to be held in the summer of 431 A.D. at Ephesus.[35]

We can summarize Cyril’s attitude towards Nestorius, the Christological controversy about the nature of Christ and Theotokos title, in two main theological and political reasons:

Firstly, for theological reasons. Cyril emphasized the teachings of Athanasius about the one nature of Christ, and his famous sentence “After the union one nature.” But Nestorius emphasized the human nature of Christ. Michael Parker argues that the dual nature of Christ was the reason for controversy between two Christian centers: Alexandria and Antioch. The school of Alexandria,  led by Cyril, agreed that Christ was both God and human but focused more on the unity of Jesus as a person. The school of Antioch, led by Nestorius, saw that Alexandria was focusing more on the divine nature of Jesus neglecting the human nature. Antioch decided to believe in the human and divine nature of Christ, but with more focusing on the human nature of Christ.[36] 

Secondly, for political reasons. Cyril was seeking to spread his influence and authority in the east from a theological and political point of view.[37] The conflict between Alexandria and Constantinople was an ancient and deep one, when the second Ecumenical Council held in Constantinople in the year 381. This Council decided to rank Constantinople in the second place after Rome and grant the Archbishop of this chair an ecumenical title that made Alexandria jealous because the church of Alexandrea now in the third place. Beside bishop Theophilus, the uncle of Cyril, was the leader of the trial and exile the Archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, in the year 403.[38]  I believe that these reasons of long history of political conflicts between the two churches caused Cyril to take a negative stance against Nestorius.

  1. Theotokos at the Council of Ephesus

The emperor Theodosius II convened a third ecumenical council, to be held in Ephesus in 431, traying to resolve the disagreement between Alexandria and Antioch. But before that, the Pope of Rome, Celestine, held a local council in 430 to discuss this conflict. The local council in Rome relied on many sources, that were not objective, including Cyril’s letters about Nestorius. The German Catholic scholar Grillmeier comments about this local synod that, “neither the Pope of Rome nor his synod was worthy to judge Nestorius because the information on him was distorted.”[39] We see that from the beginning the judgment on Nestorius was unfair and he was condemned by the Pope of Rome even before the events of the Council of Ephesus.

The emperor ordered that any decision be prevented before the start of the council of Ephesus, and any new decision would be taken by majority vote. The Council of Ephesus was accompanied by complicated events, Parker describes it that, “The behavior of this council was a scandal, and it has always been an embarrassment to the church.”[40] That’s because the first to arrive the council was Cyril with fifty bishops and the forty bishops Antioch delegation headed by John the Patriarch of Antioch had been a few days behind the date of the council opening.[41] The Pope’s delegates did not arrive at Ephesus, nor the Antioch Bishops, even though they told the council of their delay, yet Cyril opened the council in the presence of one hundred fifty-three bishops, despite the protest of sixty-eight bishops, and despite the warning of the representative of the emperor, who asked Cyril to wait for the coming of the Eastern Bishops. The council illegally began its sessions. Cyril wanted to obtain confirmation of the decisions that were taken before in the Rome and Alexandria local synods. Cyril considered himself the representative of the Pope and the president of the council. Nestorius was invited three times to appear before the council, to present his teachings. But he refused to attend, saying: “We will speak after the coming of all bishops.” Finally, the council had issued its ruling condemning Nestorius. When John of Antioch arrived, he declared the Council of Ephesus illegal and held another Council condemning Cyril.[42] After that Emperor Theodosius arrested both Cyril and Nestorius. Cyril succeeded to get out of jail and return to Alexandria, but Nestorius submitted the emperor’s decision and accepted to be exiled from Constantinople.[43]

For a long time, many historians agreed in condemning Nestorius as a heretic, but these charges were from his enemies’ perspective.[44] But thanks to the discovery of the Nestorius’ book “Bazaar of Heracleldes” It is very clear from Nestorius’ book that he was not a heretic. Many scholars like E. Amann, Galtier, Friedrich Loofs and others confirm that Nestorius never teach any ideas about adoptionism or two Christs.[45] Nestorius taught that Christ had two natures that were united in one person (dyophysitism).[46] That is why Cyril thought that Nestorius was teaching about two persons of Christ. 


It is dangerous to judge history from only one angle, without objectivity. This applies to the Christological controversy when we study it without the historical background and the political conflicts between the Church of Alexandria and Antioch at that time. Although Cyril was politically malicious and violent sometimes, and his manipulation is evident when he led the Council of Ephesus, but he was a brilliant theologian. Cyril succeeded to make a legacy for him between the church fathers. Although Nestorius was trying to understand the nature of Christ, but his expressions and ideas that he used were not clear and used against him. The Christological controversy led to the making of a saint and a heretic. Finally, I want to leave the audience with a hypothetical question, was it possible for the Church to find some way to avoid the Christological controversy and the church division as a result of it? Or was the division of the Church inevitable, regardless of the Christological controversy between Nestorius and Cyril?


Al-Khūḍari, Ḥanna. Tārīh̲ al-fikr al-masīḥī: Yasūʻ al-Masị̄ḥ ʻabra al-aǧyal, “History of the Christian Thought.” Vol. II. Cairo: Dar al-Thaqafah, 1986.

Benedetto, Robert and James O. Duke. The New Westminster Dictionary of Church History. The Westminster dictionary of church history. Vol. 1. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

Bray, Gerald. Creeds, Councils, and Christ. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984.

Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.

McGuckin, John Anthony. St. Cyril of Alexandria: the christological controversy: its history, theology, and texts. Leiden, New York: E.J. Brill, 1994.

McGuckin, John Anthony. The SCM Press A-Z of patristic theology. London: SCM Press, 2005.

Nestorius. The Bazaar of Heracleides. Edited by G. R. Driver, and Leonard Hodgson. London: The Clarendon Press, 1925.

Parker, Michael. A history of the Church. Translated by Marian Katkot. Cairo: Dar al-Thaqafah, 2019.

  1. Drobner, Hubertus Siegfried S. Schatzmann, and William Harmless. The Fathers of the Church: A Comprehensive Introduction. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2016.

Russell, Norman. Cyril of Alexandria. New York: Routledge, 2000.

The Student’s Companion to the Theologians. Edited by Ian S. Markham. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2013.

Wessel, Susan. Cyril of Alexandria and the Nestorian controversy: the making of a saint and of a heretic. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

[1] Norman Russell, Cyril of Alexandria (London: Routledge, 2000), 4.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 3.

[5] Robert Benedetto, and James O. Duke, The New Westminster Dictionary of Church History, The Westminster dictionary of church history, vol. 1 (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 186.

[6] Russell, Cyril of Alexandria, 3.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), 194.

[9] John Anthony McGuckin, The SCM Press A-Z of patristic theology (London: SCM Press, 2005), 93.

[10] Hubertus R. Drobner, Siegfried S. Schatzmann, and William Harmless, The Fathers of the Church: A Comprehensive Introduction (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2016), 461. 

[11] The Student’s Companion to the Theologians, ed. Ian S. Markham (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2013), 73.

[12] Ibid, The Fathers of the Church, 461. 

[13] John Anthony McGuckin, St. Cyril of Alexandria: the Christological controversy: its history, theology, and texts (Leiden, New York: E.J. Brill, 1994), 20.

[14] Russell, Cyril of Alexandria, 32.

[15] Ibid.

[16] McGuckin, St. Cyril of Alexandria, 21.

[17] Nestorius, The Bazaar of Heracleides, ed. G. R. Driver, and Leonard Hodgson, (London: The Clarendon Press, 1925).

[18] Russell, Cyril of Alexandria, 31.

[19] Ibid., 32.

[20] Russell, Cyril of Alexandria, 33.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Gerald Bray, Creeds, Councils, and Christ (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984), 155.

[23] Russell, Cyril of Alexandria, 33.

[24] Russell, Cyril of Alexandria, 34.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., 35.

[27] The Student’s Companion to the Theologians, 48.

[28] Ibid., 54.

[29] R. Drobner, The Fathers of the Church, 461.  

[30] Susan Wessel, Cyril of Alexandria and the Nestorian controversy: the making of a saint and of a heretic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 76.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., 79.

[34] McGuckin, St. Cyril of Alexandria, 12.

[35] The Student’s Companion to the Theologians, 48.

[36] Michael Parker, A history of the Church, trans. Marian Katkot (Cairo: Dar al-Thaqafah, 2019), 76- 77.

[37] Ḥanna Al-Khūḍari, Tārīh̲ al-fikr al-masīḥī: Yasūʻ al-Masị̄ḥ ʻabra al-aǧyal, “History of the Christian Thought.” Vol. II (Cairo: Dar al-Thaqafah, 1986), 204.

[38] Al-Khūḍari, 204.

[39] Ibid., 219.

[40] Parker, A history of the Church, 77.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid, 77-78.

[45] Al-Khūḍari, 193

[46] Ibid.

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