Shortly before Nestorius death, the Council of Chalcedon was being convoked. With Pope Leo the Great’s Tome in circulation and with political “leaks” indicating the fall of Dioscorus and the hardline Alexandrian party, it may have appeared that Nestorius was due for a comeback–with the Bishop of Rome this time his ally.
The result of this interesting time of history was the writing of the Book of Heracleides. According to the translator, “[W]hen Nestorius wrote he must have heard of his [Dioscorus’] flight, but not of the formal decision of the Council [of Chalcedon] or of the imperial decree by which sentence of exile was pronounced upon him.” Further, Nestorius believed that “the vindication of Flavian, who had suffered from the same causes and for the same faith as himself, was the vindication of all that he had stood for.” It appears that Nestorius was convinced that Leo would vindicate him, and as a result, wrote quite positively about the Papacy.
So, while in Christian apologetics we are loath to cite condemned heretics, the reason why Nestorius’ writings on the subject are relevant are because he is a “hostile witness.” He is neither Orthodox nor Roman Catholic, and being a contemporary looking to Rome for his salvation as earlier Bishops like Chrysostom and Athanasius did when getting the short end of the stick, he communicated what was (in his mind) a pro-Papal ecclesiology.
Nestorian was clearly a “Papal Primacist.” In one passage he writes:
And I was summoned by Cyril who had assembled the Council, even by Cyril who was the chief thereof. Who was judge? Cyril. And who was the accuser? Cyril. Who was bishop of Rome? Cyril. Cyril was everything. Cyril was the bishop of Alexandria and took the place of the holy and saintly bishop of Rome, Celestinus (Book II, Part 1).
The bishop of Rome was not [there at the Council of Ephesus], nor the See of Saint Peter, nor the apostolic honour, nor the primacy dear to the Romans (Book II, Part 2).
The preceding would make no sense if it was no big deal that anyone can judicially act in the place of the Bishop of Rome. The clear implication is that no one can act in the place of the Bishop of Rome (with perhaps the exception of the Bishop of Constantinople, which was him!)
In this article, I am going to offer passages from Nestorius relevant to his ecclesiology and unpack what it tells us about the ecclesiology of the fifth century Church.
Now the clergy of Alexandria, who were in favour of his [Cyril’s] deeds, persuaded them [of Constantinople] as persons deceived that they should not accept the word ‘Mother of Christ’, and they were stirring up and making trouble and going around in every place and making use of everything as a help therein; for his clergy were sending word unto him, so that he also became their helper in everything, because long since he had been wounded by me; and he was in need of an excuse, because he had not been helped with what are called ‘benevolences:’ [i.e. money given by the Roman government to administer social programs] and he was frightened of me because I had not helped his clergy [i.e. given them this money]. For report went out concerning me and grew strong, that I was neglecting—-which I was not—-him who was being injured [i.e. I did give them some money]… It stirred up, however, the accusers of this man and made them take heart to utter against him before the Emperor charges that should and that should not be said, uttering [them] and asking for me to be judge. But because they were sent unto me and I had no cause to decline, I sent for his clergy, demanding to be informed what the matter was. But they grew angry, saying: ‘Thou admittest every accusation against the patriarch and punishest not forthwith without examination the accusers as calumniators…’ (Book 1 Part 3).
Even though Canons 9, 17, and 28 of Chalcedon did not exist yet, these Canons (which gave Constantinople the ability to act as a court of appeals below Rome for ecclesiastical disputes and to ratify ordinations) by this time had already become “custom” according to Saint Anatolius. In the above, we see precisely the stage being set for the fight between Egypt and Constantinople. It is obviously not fair that Egypt cannot appeal above Constantinople in a case that involves that city.
At first, Saint Cyril was willing to try to maneuver politically in Constantinople without Roman involvement, but if necessary he would appeal to Western Bishops:
[I]f he [Nestorius] is a brother and if it is right that we ought to call him such [i.e. he agrees with us], forward it not at the present time, lest he rise up against you and state before the Emperor my accusation [of him] as an heretic. But otherwise at the same time as you renounce his judgement, you shall state also the nature of his enmity, and, if they are utterly roused up [to proceed] to judgement, you shall forward it to other chief men [i.e. western Bishops, specifically Rome or a council in the West] (Letter of Cyril to his partisans, Book 1 Part 3).
As we can see in the letter, Cyril did not appear to take seriously that Nestorius would relent and he was ready to appeal above (or around) him. Nestorius was offended at such intransigence, viewing himself the superior Bishop, and wrote back:
This is the first letter of friendship which was written to me; and learn therefrom whatsoever had been previously deposed against me. Tell the cause for which thou hast spoken: ‘this disturbance arose concerning my teaching, so that our works when read stirred up all Alexandria as well as all the monks of Egypt.’ But I leave out both Rome and the cities which are under her; ‘and I stirred up all the rest of the East,’ so that thou wast constrained to compose the letter to the monks so that from there thy letter was dispatched also unto me in order that I might be afflicted thereby; thou knewest indeed that I was afflicted. Wherefore didst thou not write first unto me a letter of friendship (Nestorius’ response to Cyril’s letter, Ibid.)
In short, Nestorius seems to be saying, “You are not my friend. If you are offended, I did not offend the Roman Patriarchate and I challenge you to get all of them against me.”
This was a bad idea as the Roman Bishop (apart from a council) took Cyril’s side and then acquiesced to participate through a legate at an Ecumenical Council. (It is not said in the book, but the Pope of Rome did not want a council but Nestorius petitioned the Emperor for one, the idea being the council was sufficient to overturn the Pope. It should be noted that below we see the Emperor literally say this.) Ultimately, the Council of Ephesus decided against Nestorius, but this was because Cyril was “unfair” in his dealings (he did not wait for John of Antioch and his Patriarchate’s input, which would have essentially invalidated the council if it were not retroactively repaired by an agreement between the two parties soon afterwards.)
Nestorius’ comments on this situation gives us some more insight into his ecclesiology:
But suppose that John [of Antioch] ought to have been judged because he delayed and came not in time; he ought not to have been judged by thee but by the Emperor who had jurisdiction over him. And first the bishops from Rome [i.e. sympathetic Italian Bishops, not the Pope’s legates specifically] ought to have been punished for not having come when they were summoned: how then dost thou adhere unto them? In the same way as thou hast treated the latter so also thou shouldest have treated John (Book 1, Part 3).
In short, Nestorius’ point is that if the Council would have been invalid without Roman participation (even though they were running late), Antiochene participation must be accorded the same respect. This is an interesting observation for our purposes because Nestorius is writing this thinking that the likes of Pope Leo and his allies would agree with him. Hence, though trying to be agreeable, we see that a Papal Supremacist view does not prevail in Nestorius’ thinking, as the consent of Antioch may not be seen as equally necessary to Roman participation, but still necessary nonetheless. Rome (or Cyril for that matter) cannot act unilaterally. The consent of all was necessary.
In Nestorius’ book, he quotes letters which give us some insight into how people viewed ecumenical councils at the time. In short, councils required the consent of all Bishops and they were thought to be an appeals process above any Bishop, including the Roman Pope:
We have assembled an oecumenical Council in order that generally and by general consent the inquiry concerning the faith may be confirmed before all men (Letter of governor Palladius in reference to C.o.E., quoted in Book I Part 3).
For people had informed me that there was [one] such as this in Antioch, [speaking] of Nestorius. This man I sent [and] fetched, though I grieved all that city; notwithstanding everything had been like this, I yet caused him to come for the sake of your own advantage which was more precious unto me than theirs. But when it happened, it was not supposed by you to be such. What then is it right to do unto the man? You have not examined him that he may make a defence of that wherewith he is reproached, nor has your bishop been judged by [every?] one[‘s] consent, but the bishop of Alexandria and [the bishop] of Rome have judged that he was one that believes not correctly and ought to be convinced of their decision. But he requested and awaited the judgement as if an injustice were done unto him and blamed them for not having accused him correctly, because he was a bishop and ought to be summoned to the judgement of the bishops and not to my judgement. Nor was it [the case] that any one whatsoever was a judge nor ought the bishop of Constantinople to have been heard before [any] one man [ed-including the Pope, see above]. Did I judge as [was] pleasing unto me? I authorized the Council (Discussion between Theodosius II and Dalmatius, Book II, Part 1).
Nestorius concurs with the view that councils require consent of the parties involved and genuine inquiry. He appears to avoid any direct attack on Papal authority, however:
[I]t is for the Council, which has been assembled for this purpose and for nothing else, to judge whether it shall be laid down or not laid down. For it is not for them to be persuaded by me in any case, but for me to be persuaded of those things which they examine and judge and select for acceptance. For I have called you judges and have made you all judges of a just judgement, but that which justly belongs to the Council have I not given unto one man [Cyril specifically], who has conducted [his case] with violence and prevailed on the whole Council to adopt the faith which seemed [good] unto him (Book II, Part 1).
[T]hey have condemned me without having found difficulty over anything or having quarrelled and without having established anything by question or by answer; but they were hastening in order that those who were about to come might not overtake them, that is, the Council of the East [John of Antioch and his episcopal cohorts], which was near, and those from Rome [apparently sympathetic Italian Bishops] (Book II, Part 1).
It is clear Nestorius thought councils had a legitimate function to make decisions. The Pope could not do this independently, nor can even a council do so without all of its participants. Nestorius conceded he would have obeyed a valid council, which implies that the Pope’s acceptance of Ephesus I alone was not sufficient to make it valid. Nevertheless, the following writing from Nestorius is so profoundly Papal Primacist, that it needs to be quoted in full:
For again indeed they had reached Ephesus [the Robber Council], which is appointed and destined for the deposition of the bishops of Constantinople; and further the bishops of Alexandria and of Ephesus consented together and were aiding one another against the bishop of Constantinople. The bishop of Rome was not [there], nor the See of Saint Peter, nor the apostolic honour, nor the primacy dear to the Romans, but he of Alexandria sat in authority and made him of Antioch also to sit with him; and he of Rome—-and we mean Julian [of Cos], who represented the holy bishop of Rome—-was asked if he was in agreement with the holy Council and wished to read in this account what was done at Constantinople. He [Julian of Cos], as one that had authority, then asked and spoke as though even passing sentence against them [i.e. against the Alexandrian faction via Papal authority]. Yet they [the Alexandrian faction] conceded however unto him their intended purpose, not that he [Julian of Cos] should accept that which they wished nor yet that he should give unto them the primacy, but that, if the bishop of Rome should agree with him [Dioscorus], he [the Pope] should accept him [Dioscorus] as an addition to his [the Alexandrian] party, and otherwise, supposing he [the Pope] were found [to be] against them [the Alexandrians], he [Dioscorus] might remove him [Flavian of Constantinople] afar as one that had not authority even in a single [thing, i.e. because only the Pope or council had this authority above Constantinople], wanting to prove unto every man that they should not look unto the bishop of Rome, since he was not able to aid him of Constantinople. For after Julian [of Cos] had said: ‘For this do we wish, that the deed which was committed should be read out, if the letter of our father [Pope] Leo has first been read,’ afterwards indeed Hilary the deacon of the holy bishop of Rome said: ‘After these records which you now want to read had been read before him, he then sent that which he sent.’ When he [Dioscorus] had heard these things and there was naught that he [Dioscorus] ought to say, he passed the opposite sentence concerning them…(Book II, Part 2).
As we can see, it is clear in the preceding that the Pope had primacy and that Dioscorus could not go above the Bishop of Constantinople without going through the Pope. Yet, primacy was relative. Even Alexandria had a “primacy:”
But again I revert there to the just judgement of Dioscorus, who had received from Cyril the primacy and a hatred for the bishop of Constantinople (Book II, Part 2).
However, the primacy of Alexandria was above lesser sees, not superior sees. Otherwise, the long exchange with Julian of Cos would not make sense. In short, the primacy of Rome, apart from a council, puts Nestorius in a tough spot. He appears to consign himself to his punishment until the Pope or a council makes a new decision, which is quite telling. He was not a Martin Luther looking to upend ecclesiastical authorities because he was not getting his way. Nestorius laments that Pope Leo appears to condemn him due to Leo uncritically believing the “lies” of Cyril and Dioscorus:
[Pope] Leo, who has indeed held well to the faith, but has agreed to the things which these have unjustly committed against me without examination and without judgement … (Book II, Part 2).
Elsewhere Nestorius writes that Pope Leo was in agreement with him. In the following passage, we must understand that Nestorius was not Nestorian and he explicitly condemns the “Two Christs” doctrine in the book:
Can a man, when he hears these things, say that something else was said by him and by those at Chalcedon and by Leo? For openly he is bold and knows the same Christ who is visible in the invisible and the visible nature nor has said two Christs and two sons and Lords. And the Council of Chalcedon said: ‘One and the same Christ, son, lord, only-begotten, in two natures, not changeably, not confusedly, not divisibly’ (Fragment 308).
Conclusion. In short, it is clear Nestorius was a big supporter of Papal Primacy and inherent in his writings is the presumption that Rome has as a Serdician privilege in settling disputes between Sees, particularly between Constantinople and another See. However, it is also clear that both Nestorius and Theodosius II (who convened the Ephesian councils) viewed the work of a legitimate council as above any single man. The relevance of the preceding is two-fold.
First, for those who would say the Pope of Rome and now, the Ecumenical Patriarch, merely have a primacy of honor and no such power over another Bishop would be contradicted by Nestorius and Chalcedonian Canons saying otherwise.
Second, those who would say that a Pope is over and above a council would be contradicted by several statements of Nestorius and another by Theodosius II.
Some might say, “Nestorius is a heretic. So what?” My response is that a writing by a partisan who viewed himself as an ally of Pope Leo I gives insight into how Leo’s allies would have viewed Papal authority. While I personally believe that Pope Leo I was a Papal Supremacist, I do think that the vast preponderance of the Church, even Rome’s allies, were not. They were Papal Primacists.