I reviewed Michael Kruger’s new book on Hebrews this week, my review is available here. One of the major things that stuck out to me about Kruger’s book was his attention to detail. As he walked through the book of Hebrews, Kruger picked up on individual words or phrases that it would be easy to simply gloss over, to great effect.
This got me thinking. Details matter. The little things, the finer points, they’re often more important than we realise. Not just in reading individual verses of Scripture, but in all of our Christian lives. It brought to mind one of the early controversies of the Christian Church…
The Nestorian Controversy
In the fifth century, a huge crisis arose that destabilised the early church for many years. It all began when one simple detail was questioned. The new church leader in Constantinople, Nestorius, questioned how we ought to describe Mary. He rejected the traditional title used in the early Christian movement – Θεοτόκος (meaning ‘bearer of God’) – and instead proposed Χριστοτόκος (‘bearer of Christ’). This small detail might not seem like much of a big deal to us, but it sparked a fierce and intense debate, that rocked much of the ancient church.
This linguistic shift provoked a debate as to the nature of Christ Himself. What exactly was the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ? The wider Christian Church began to divide into two. One side, led by John of Antioch, firmly separated the two natures of Christ. The other side, led by Cyril of Alexandria, committed to the view that the two natures of Christ were inherently united, something that in itself revealed more of His divinity.
The debate raged on for several years, and the Emperor himself, Theodosius II, called an ecumenical council in Ephesus at Easter, 431 AD. Neither side would reconcile, and in fact proceeded to hold two separate councils, excluding and voting to excommunicate their respective opponents. It took two years before Cyril and John would make peace, and receive one another into fellowship. Nonetheless, many church leaders remained hostile to the biblical Alexandrine teaching, and the controversy rumbled on to varying degrees until 451 AD, when the Council of Chalcedon was called.
Council of Chalcedon
Called by the Emperor Marcian, this is traditionally understood to have been the fourth of seven ancient ecumenical councils. The Council sought to affirm the following statement: that Jesus was “perfect both in deity and in humanness; this selfsame one is also actually God and actually man.”
Cyril had died in 444 AD, and shortly after his death a monk named Eutyches begun teaching a variation of Cyril’s (biblical) Christology, possibly in response to a new rise in Nestorian teaching. The combination of the underlying Nestorian heresy and Eutyches’ new, unorthodox teaching, led to a series of meetings and councils, culminating in Chalcedon. Though the above statement was affirmed, some churches refused to ratify it, leading to a major schism in the Eastern church.
The schism of 451 was not the direct result of Nestorius’ challenge to the description of Mary as Christ’s mother. But his teaching was influential, and it is no coincidence that the subsequent heretical movement bore his name. This subtle shift in emphasis regarding Christ’s divinity led Nestorius down a long path of unbiblical teaching, with disastrous results for the faith of many in the fifth century.
Details really do matter. Kruger is just one example of the richness of dwelling on the details of Scripture; Nestorius gives us one example of why the perversion of detail can be such a slippery and dangerous slope.
We should not expect perfection in one another, but one of the great blessings of the Christian Church is that God has given us one another. As Solomon wrote – “as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” (Prov 27:17) Sharpen one another. Encourage one another in the joyful details of Scripture, and challenge one another when error or falsehood creeps into the details of our lives. As Solomon wrote earlier in that same chapter:
“Better an open rebuke than love that is concealed. The wounds of a friend are faithful, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” (Prov 27:5-6).
The global church has seen several examples recently of the pain and horror that unfolds when these wise words of Solomon are not heeded. It can be so incredibly dangerous to disregard the details, but the privilege of being a part of God’s family is that we do not go through this life alone.