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An Introduction to Cyril of Alexandria

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Cyril of Alexandria (c.376 – 444AD) is something of a Marmite figure in Church history. There aren’t many people who have managed to collect so many fiercely loyal friends alongside so many equally fiercely raging enemies. In the seventh century, one scholar called him ‘the seal of the fathers’, believing his theological influence to be so weighty and important as to affirm and encapsulate all that had gone before. Conversely, on Cyril’s death, Theodoret of Cyr – a theological opponent – wrote,

'At last and with difficulty the villain has gone… His survivors are indeed delighted at his departure. The dead, maybe, are sorry. There is some ground of alarm lest they should be so much annoyed at his company as to send him back to us…’ 1

Cyril’s theology of the person of Jesus is widely seen as a vital underpinning of orthodox Christology, and the landmark Council of Chalcedon in 451AD is regarded by most people as having run with Cyril’s basic ideas, though he died almost ten years before it. He is undoubtedly a significant character. Yet the Church has often struggled with him, and secular historians are suspicious of him, often portraying him as a power-hungry bully. Edward Gibbon called Cyril ‘an episcopal warrior’ (he wasn’t paying a compliment) and the depiction has stuck. Theologians have assumed he was married to the Platonic philosophy that is routinely landed on any thinker from Cyril’s home of Alexandria in Egypt. His work is not presented in the Post-Nicene Fathers collection; the Eastern Church is shy of making much of him in earshot of the West; and the Western Church overlooks him almost altogether. He has a feast day in the calendars of most historic denominations, but the West only added the date in the nineteenth century, and the East’s he shares with Athanasius who tends to overshadow him somewhat. In the last few decades, though, Cyril has been gradually rediscovered as an expert biblical scholar, a first class theologian, and wise pastor. A number of writers have shown very convincingly that his theological contribution has been criminally neglected and his character deeply misunderstood.

Going Clubbing in Alexandria

Cyril was born in Theodosios, Egypt, and was raised in a Christian family. His uncle Theophilus was Archbishop of Alexandria, a role that was almost as much municipal as religious. Alexandria at this time was famous for its rioting and tense clashes between its various populations. The historian Socrates wrote that,

The Alexandrians are more delighted with tumult than any other people: and if they can find a pretext, they will break forth into the most intolerable excesses; nor is it scarcely possible to check their impetuosity until there has been much bloodshed. 2

When Theophilus died in in 412AD and Cyril took his uncle’s place, it was into this kind of turbulent environment he entered as the head of the city’s Christians, but also as a figurehead and leader in the civic arena. Relatively little was recorded of the early years of Cyril’s episcopate, but what we do know about it is marked by Alexandria’s special brand of conflict. It is also shaped by the fact that most of those who chose to record it later had an axe to grind against Cyril. These disapproving reports of Cyril’s activity during 412–428AD were significant in forming the bad reputation he has suffered down the years, and they concentrate around four main factors.

First, Cyril closed down the churches of a sect called the Novationists. This was an old group originating in Rome who called themselves ‘Purists’ and held that any Christian who had denied their faith under persecution or sacrificed to a pagan god could never be readmitted to the Church. The historian Socrates was himself a Novationist, and made much of Cyril’s suppression of the group, but in truth this heresy was old news and the Church has long opposed it. Nevertheless, Socrates’ account has earned Cyril a reputation as intolerant and harsh.

Second was the fighting between Alexandria’s Jewish and Christian residents. Alongside its ancient pagan roots and the dominant Christian Church, Alexandria had a large and longstanding Jewish population, making the city a melting pot of religion and culture. This led to constant low-level friction between the communities and occasional riots and street fights. A significant episode took place when Orestes, the Urban Prefect (governor), was announcing legislation about Sabbath entertainment to the Jewish leaders. A prominent Christian figure had arrived to listen-in on the notice but was taken for a spy and beaten up by the crowd. Cyril issued a formal warning to the Jewish authorities. In the middle of the night shortly afterwards, a Jewish group sent runners through the streets shouting that the Church of Alexander was burning down, drawing local Christians to the site in panic. Once they had arrived to no fire, they were ambushed, a number of them being killed. The following morning a Christian mob gathered at the Cathedral and, led by Cyril, proceeded to the synagogues of the perpetrators, destroying the buildings and chasing the suspects out of the city. Neither group surfaces from the rubble looking very honourable. Some early writers suggest that Cyril officially expelled the whole Jewish community from Alexandria, but there is no evidence of any action on this scale. The Jewish population in the city actually remained strong and influential for many years, while a particular group from within it certainly were exiled in response to the ambushes.

Third was the on-going feud between Cyril and the Urban Prefect. Orestes was unhappy with the increasing secular power wielded by Alexandria’s Archbishops, while Cyril attempted to expand it. This he did with some success. After Cyril had taken the law into his own hands with the Jewish rioters, Orestes was furious, and wrote a letter to the Emperor attempting to tell his side of the story. Cyril did the same. The relationship between the two men was consistently marked by lack of communication, mutual mistrust, and perhaps envy. Cyril attempted to put things right with Orestes by visiting him and extending the Gospel book for him to kiss, hoping to reconcile over a symbol of their common faith. Orestes snubbed him and refused to listen to his explanations. A group of Cyril’s diocesan employees, the parabalani, probably aggravated the conflict. These were a crew of hospital attendants-turned-bodyguards at the disposal of Archbishops of Alexandria, known for arming themselves with clubs and batons. They were undoubtedly a formidable group. As Cyril and Orestes’ relationship continued to sour, a group of visiting monks of 'a very fiery disposition'3  arrived in Alexandria to support Cyril alongside the parabalani. On their arrival, finding Orestes in his chariot, they shouted abuse and threw stones. The missile of one monk struck Orestes' head and drew blood, causing his bodyguards to run away, and leaving the surrounding crowd to protect Orestes and capture the monk. Orestes had the monk publicly tortured so severely that he died. Cyril indignantly responded by honouring the monk as a martyr. This was perhaps his most unwise and inflammatory move yet, and both Orestes and Cyril again submitted conflicting reports to the emperor. 

This led to the fourth factor: the murder of the pagan philosopher, Hypatia. Hypatia was a prominent woman in Alexandria, and rumours began that the real cause of Orestes’ dislike for Cyril was the Urban Prefect’s close relationship with her. She was seen as manipulative and cunning, perhaps even as using sorcery to turn Orestes against the Christians. It seems that a mob, led by a Christian man named Peter, dragged her from her carriage, stripped her, and killed her with shells and pieces of broken pottery. After the event, a number of writers attempted to lay the blame for the murder at Cyril’s door4, and he has been easy to villainise. He has often been caricatured as an example of anti-intellectual and oppressively patriarchal Christianity, while Hypatia is often held up as tragic heroin and proto-feminist, murdered for her progressive beliefs. The 2009 film Agora by Alejandro Amenábar and Mateo Gil shows Hypatia happily inventing heliocentrism and charming young men, while Cyril is cloaked in black, plotting a witch-hunt and instigating her death. It is cleverly constructed for the screen, but complete nonsense. This was undoubtedly a horrific act of murder and, while Cyril was not involved, historians tend to agree that his relationship with Orestes probably indirectly contributed to the tragedy. 

Cyril’s early years were no doubt tempestuous and he doesn’t emerge looking especially appealing, especially to modern western thinkers for whom religious tolerance, non-violence, and the separation of faith and politics are almost beyond question. Cyril was perhaps immature as a leader and no doubt was unable or unwilling to exercise authority over elements of the Christian population who saw themselves as fighting for him. Yet we must see Cyril and these events in their context: as products of a specific time and place where they were seen as normal in some sense. We must also remember that Cyril would have been occupied by far more ordinary things during the majority of this sixteen year period; being a pastor, preaching, leading worship, and writing biblical commentaries. He will also have participated in the life of the wider Church in his capacity of patriarch of Alexandria, one of the Roman Empire’s great cities – a position which brought him to prominence later in the providence of God. 

Cyril’s Theology

Cyril’s best-known theological work surrounds the Nestorian controversy from 428 onwards, but the foundations of his robust defence of orthodox Christology at this time were laid very solidly during his early career. He had written a survey of Athanasius’ work, Against the Arians, called the Thesaurus, commentaries on Isaiah, the Minor Prophets, and the third and fourth Gospels, as well as a work on the Trinity: the Dialogue. These works are slowly making their way into contemporary English and the commentary on John can be found online. These show Cyril as a warm and pastoral theologian of real ability. His opposition to the influence of Arius and his skill as a biblical interpreter were to prove vital when he faced Nestorius.

The Nestorian Controversy

To get the full flavour of Cyril’s Christology, we need to contrast it with Nestorius’ theology, which provides the context for Cyril’s writing. The Nestorian controversy began when, in 428, Nestorius, a presbyter trained in Antioch, became Archbishop of Constantinople, then the Empire’s most important city, and perhaps the most influential pulpit in the world. Quite early into his stint in the role, he preached a series of sermons against one of the most commonly used titles for Mary, Theotokos, which means ‘God-bearer’. To modern evangelical ears, the idea of having a special title for Mary (let alone one that calls her ‘Mother of God’) makes us a little uncomfortable, and we tend to think Nestorius probably had a point. Yet this wasn’t a question of devotion to Mary – a much later development – but of the nature of the incarnation. The title Theotokos was widely used in liturgy as a reminder that Mary’s baby was indeed God the Word made flesh (John 1:14). Squaring up to the influence of Arianism, which denied the eternal divinity of the Son, the Church had incorporated into its worship the theology that the child born of Mary was God himself. The title was designed to capture both the very normal pregnancy and birth of the baby, and yet the incredible reality of that baby’s eternal Personhood. Mary was not the mother of a mere man, however special or important; her child was God, and the Church sought to protect this doctrine against sustained attack through the use of the title Theotokos. At the time, it was also popular to speak of ‘God wrapped in swaddling bands.’ These were all designed to invoke the collision of Christ’s humble entrance into the world with the weight and glory of his divinity.

Nestorius was firmly opposed to these ways of speaking. He was not happy with the idea that God the Word could be born, suffer, and die, for, he believed, this would contradict his divinity. In his crosshairs was the earlier heresy of Apollinarius, who had taught that in Jesus, the divine and human had mixed together to form a new composite of God and man. Surely, he thought, the idea of Theotokos slipped into mixing the ‘God’ and ‘Man’ in Christ as Apollinarius had. Nestorius, following his teacher, Theodore of Mopsuestia, believed instead that in the incarnation, Christ must have had two physes or ‘natures’ – one divine and one human, and that Mary could only have been mother of his human physis.

Having established this, he wanted to maintain an on-going distinction between the two natures of the incarnate Jesus in such a way that they continued to exist side-by-side and manifested individually at various times, each having a distinct being and set of characteristics. According to Nestorius, it was not proper to speak of the Word not knowing the day or hour of his return (Matthew 24:36) for he is divine, and divinity meant omniscience; the reference must be to the human physis, the man Jesus. It was equally impossible to speak of Jesus of Nazareth performing miracles, because he possessed only normal human abilities and no more; the Word was on the one who was endowed with power. Nestorius refused the idea of the ‘pre-incarnate Christ’, arguing that since Christ was not the eternal Word, the two were not synonymous. Instead, the Word and the human nature were united by their mutual will and love; the Word graciously willing to be joined to a human physis, and the human submitting to be one with the Word. The man Jesus, therefore, was brought to share in the divinity and status of the eternal Word through their union.

Although Nestorius (and Theodore) strongly denied it, this idea looks perilously close to the earlier theology of Diodore of Tarsus. Diodore had proposed a ‘partnership’ of persons (prosopa) or physes in a theological move that became known as ‘Two Sons’.  He wrote,

We worship the purple for the sake of Him who is clothed in it, and the temple because of Him who dwells in it; the form of the servant because of the form of God; the lamb because of the High priest; him who was assumed because of Him who assumed him; him who was formed of the Virgin because of the Maker of all. 5

Here are two very clearly distinct ‘him’s in Christ. One is worthy of worship by nature, and the other becomes worthy by participating in the other. They are the Word, and Jesus of Nazareth respectively. After him, in a very similar vein, Theodore wrote,

The Man is Son only by virtue of His indissoluble union with the Divine Word; when we call Christ ‘the Son of God’, we think principally of Him Who is truly and essentially Son, but we include in our conception the man who is indissolubly One with Him, and therefore shares His honours and His Name. 6

Similarly, in his memoirs, The Book of Heraclides, Nestorius says that Christ is the subject of two natures which are 'separated in essence, but united by love, and in one and the same prosopon.'  7

Nestorius wanted theological and liturgical language to be carefully regulated in the light of all this. He understood divinity to have certain characteristics which would be compromised by allowing the human Jesus to shape our conception of it. He felt that the liturgy of the time was confused and ignorant, even dangerous and verging on the blasphemous. He thought himself to be someone badly needed in the Church to remedy such sloppiness. Against the concensus of the Church before him, Nestorius never wanted to think of the eternal Word as synonymous with Jesus Christ. Indeed, the separation was vital to his theology. The incarnation clearly pressed his doctrine of God so as to make him extremely uncomfortable. As he said, ‘I cannot describe as God, an infant of two or three months.’ 8

Cyril’s Christology of Union

In answering Nestorius and Theodore, Cyril attempted simply to restate the theology he had inherited from Athanasius and the Nicene Fathers that had been encapsulated in the Theotokos title. The person in view from manger to cross to ascension was God the Son made flesh, and that any sense of contradiction or tension in this was to be embraced. The great shock of the incarnation was precisely that the Word became a helpless baby, suffered, died, and was resurrected. While Nestorius thought the idea of the Word dying on the cross was theological inaccuracy or liturgical flannel, Cyril saw that it was the whole point of the gospel. The eternal Word himself was the subject of all the acts of the incarnation – he did not join himself to a separate physis in order to maintain a philosophical definition of ‘divinity’, Rather, God the Son himself knew tiredness, temptation, and death in his flesh for the sake of our salvation.

It is so that we might see side by side the wound together with the remedy, the patient together with the physician, that which had sunk towards death together with him who raised it up towards like, that which has been overcome by corruption together with him who drove out corruption, that which had been mastered by death together with him who was superior to death, that which was bereft of life together with who is the provider of life. 9

Cyril speaks about the relationship of the Word to his incarnate flesh as henosis (union) of the two realities. The union, he says, was hypostatic, a word which captures ontology – that which is fundamentally real. Cyril’s point was that the Word personally and really united flesh to himself, meaning that the flesh of the Word was to be spoken of as him for it actually was him. Where Nestorius spoke of two on-going and co-existing natures in the incarnation, Cyril would speak of ‘one enfleshed nature of God the Word’. 

While the natures that were brought together into this true identity were different, nonetheless there is one Christ and Son from out of both. 10

Cyril would not accept Nestorius’ idea of separate acts of the Word or of the Man: everything done by Jesus in the Gospels was to be assigned to the one eternal Son who was enfleshed in history. Nestorius’ attack on this was ‘not an attack on misguided piety, but on the essential heart of the gospel.’11  The hypostatic union between the Word and his flesh signified his personal commitment to the scheme of salvation. God in Christ is not dealing with humanity at arms’ length, but entering into the fallenness and death of our sinful state so that he might redeem and restore us. Astonishingly, what was not possible before the union is now possible because of it: God the Son knows now what it is to be spat upon, flogged, and nailed to the tree, because he personally experienced this in his flesh. Likewise, it was the Lord’s flesh—with all the associated limitations and weaknesses—that healed the sick, and 'rises immortal from its own death.' In Christ, something definitive has happened in the relation between God and man.

Since the Word had taken flesh for the purpose of salvation, Cyril believed that what is said of the Word may be said of his flesh, and what happens to his flesh was owned by and should be ascribed to the Word himself.  Theologians refer to this as the ‘communication of idioms’: if the incarnate Lord suffered and died, then it was accurate to speak of this as happening to the Word in his incarnate state. Cyril's language in this area is full of subtlety, qualification, and care, yet he never seeks to distance the eternal Word from humanity, limitations, and suffering in the way that Nestorius did. In his second letter to Nestorius, he writes that the Word ‘suffered impassibly’. This is not sneaky wordplay, but rather a statement about the union of human and divine in Christ. In John McGuckin’s words, the flesh ‘allowed the Word of God a new condition of expression. In his divine nature he could not possibly suffer, in his human nature he can.’12  The suffering of the Word is always said to be 'in the flesh', and it is always said to have been appropriated for the purpose of salvation rather than inflicted incidentally – but the suffering still belongs to the Word. Cyril thus insisted on the singularity of subject for all the acts and speech of Christ, warning his colleague that to reject the hypostatic union and conceive of the humanity of Jesus as its own separate physis was to fall into Didore’s ‘Two Sons’ mistake. He genuinely hoped Nestorius would agree with his theory of hypostatic union because he saw that not only was the theology of the person of Christ was at stake, but so too was the basis of human salvation.

In Cyril’s scheme, the Word takes full and complete humanity to himself from the Virgin Mary. This flesh is united with him eternally and ontologically for the sake of fallen humanity. In order to purchase our salvation, the Word himself is said to experience birth, life with all its trials and sufferings, death, and resurrection in his own flesh. The Word became what we are, participating in our nature, in order to make us like him, participating in his divine life.

It was not otherwise possible for man, being of a nature which perishes, to escape death, unless he recovered that ancient grace, and partook once more of God who holds all things together in being and preserves them in life through the Son in the Spirit. Therefore his Only-Begotten Word has become a partaker of flesh and blood (Heb. 2:14), that is, he has become man, though being Life by nature, and begotten of the Life that is by nature, that is, of God the Father, so that, having united himself with the flesh which perishes according to the law of its own nature…he might restore it to his own life and render it through himself a partaker of God the Father… And he wears our nature, refashioning it to his own life.13

It’s clear to see that, like Athanasius before him, Cyril keenly saw the connection between the picture of Christ one has and the shape of salvation that results. Even though Jesus is the incarnate divine Word, it is right to say that he suffered and died. The Son of God suffered in his flesh. It is not a separate person who suffers the nails and whipping and spitting of the crowd, but the eternal second Person of the Trinity. Without this incredible assault on all our notions of what God ‘must be like’, the gospel of salvation is emptied of its power. Cyril has no problem seeing a real and concrete union between God and human flesh in Christ; in fact, he believes that nothing less than this could accomplish a salvation in which humanity is brought to participate in the life of God (2 Peter 1:4).

The Twelve Chapters and the Council of Ephesus

Cyril’s third letter to Nestorius contains an ultimatum, outlining twelve points of doctrine which he hoped Nestorius would assent to. Anyone who cannot agree to them, Cyril writes, is anathema (cursed). The Twelve Chapters include a theological defence of the incarnate Christ’s divinity using the Theotokos title for Mary and Cyril’s construction of the hypostatic union. They also attack conceptions of the incarnation that rely on two joined but ongoingly separate hypostases or prosopa as two subjects in Christ. They also include reflections on the role of the Spirit in Christ’s miracles and power, Eucharistic theology, and they specify the manner in which the Word could suffer and die in his flesh. They encapsulate Cyril’s objections to the theology of Nestorius as well as Theodore and Diodore before him. Cyril’s cards were on the table, and Nestorius’ response was to be crucial: he rejected the letter out of hand. 

The Council of Ephesus, convened by Emperor Theodosius II in June and July 431 was finally called to examine Nestorius’ theology which was extremely controversial. Nestorius had hoped the council would recognise his orthodoxy, but Cyril’s Twelve Chapters were taken as the basis for discussion. Cyril hoped his opponent would be condemned and took a chairing role in proceedings, and as more than 250 bishops arrived from all over the Empire and declared their loyalties, tensions rose and factions formed. Significantly, the delegation of Syrian bishops expected to side with Nestorius, led by John of Antioch, were delayed on their journey, postponing the beginning of the council by about two weeks. Count Candidian, the Emperor’s representative, was sympathetic to Nestorius and attempted to hold off for as long as possible for the sake of Syrians. Cyril, however, had begun to win over undecided bishops to his side, and some were beginning to suspect that John was deliberately staying away because he knew his man was sure to lose. 

With the pressure mounting, and Nestorius ignoring summons to appear and disputing Cyril’s authority to chair the council, Cyril began proceedings without John and the Syrians. He was certain he was able to do so as far as Church law went, and gathered most of the bishops in the Church of St Mary. But Candidian and a group of bishops stormed into the church in protest, pointing out that the gathering could not considered legal until the Emperor’s decree had been read out. This was in Candidian’s care and for him to read, and he demanded the assembly disperse until he had convened it with the Emperor’s authority. Cyril and the bishops asked to hear the terms of the Emperor’s decree for themselves, and Candidian read it out loud with some annoyance. When he had finished reading, he and the whole assembly realised what he had done: he had officially begun the Council by mistake. Nestorius still refused to appear, choosing to hide in his quarters and using his armed guards to threaten and humiliate any who came to collect him. Documentation of his teaching and recent provocative sermons was brought alongside testimony from others, and Cyril’s two theological letters to Nestorius were particularly highlighted. Cyril’s theology was agreed by the council to reflect the orthodox Nicene faith, and the case against Nestorius strengthened by the acceptance of the Twelve Chapters. By the end of the first day of the council, over half of the pro-Nestorius party had abandoned him, leaving him around 30 supporters, while more than 200 signed a document calling for his removal from office.

It seems that almost the whole of Ephesus celebrated and partied that night, believing the whole business to be over. Nestorius wrote to his supporters that, 

 ‘the followers [of Cyril]… went about in the city girt and armed with clubs… with the yells of barbarians, snorting fiercely… carrying bells about the city and lighting fires… They blocked up the streets so that everyone was obliged to flee and hide, while they acted as masters of the situation, lying about, drunk and besotted and shouting obscenities.’ 14

The description is undoubtedly embellished a great deal, if not entirely fictitious. Popular feeling was certainly against Nestorius and the streets were buzzing, but Cyril had no way to command the crowds of a foreign city, and it is more likely that Nestorius hoped to cast his enemy as a barbarian. Nestorius was, in any case, surrounded by his own troop of armed bodyguards, supported by Candidian and his troops, who attempted to restrict supplies to the Cyrillian camp and block their communications with the outside world. At one point, Cyril smuggled a letter to Constantinople out of the city in the hollowed-out staff of a man disguised as a beggar.

Against everyone’s hopes for a speedy conclusion, the council would drag on for a further four months as Nestorius’ supporters, joined by the Syrian latecomers, protested, holding their own council deposing Cyril as a heretic. It was a messy affair. The complexities of the council are too many to detail here, but by the end, both Cyril and Nestorius has been placed under house arrest. Nestorius was deposed. Cyril was deposed and reinstated. Many bishops had died in the intense summer heat. There was something of a deadlock as the Syrians wanted Cyril condemned as an Apollinarian heretic, while many others wanted Nestorius condemned as teaching ‘Two Sons’. Neither side got entirely what they hoped. Cyril accepted that his Twelve Chapters could not be taken as a standalone doctrinal statement with which to win over the Syrians, but only as a specific response to Nestorius; the Syrians accepted the Theotokos title and the union of the two natures of Christ on Cyrillian terms. There was some sense of dented pride on both sides, yet the Council was a decisive victory for Cyril: Nestorius was deposed and retired, protesting his orthodoxy. A number of the Syrian bishops still maintained Nestorian doctrine but were eventually removed from their sees. Cyril, though initially deposed, was reinstated (perhaps with the aid of bribery15) and remained the champion of the anti-Nestorian party whose theology had triumphed. 

After Ephesus

John of Antioch was among those who initially left Ephesus furious at Nestorius’ condemnation and upheld his orthodoxy. In time, though, John realised he could not support Nestorius any longer. After some correspondence and wrangling, John accepted Cyril’s ‘Twelve Chapters’ as orthodox and disowned Nestorius, prompting a letter from Cyril in 433, which is sometimes called The Formula of Reunion. It outlines the Theotokos title, the ‘union of the two natures in Christ’, refutes Apollinarianism, and asserts the suffering of the incarnate Word in his flesh. It was soon required reading and considered a test of faith, especially for those who were suspected of leaning more towards Nestorian views.

The agreement was rickety, though, since it was really only based on the personal goodwill between Cyril and John. Neither it nor Ephesus had set down any clear terminology (except for the affirmation of the Theotokos), and Cyril, it has to be said, was not entirely consistent with his Christological language – sometimes using physis and hypostasis to mean the same thing, other times not. This meant that each side of the Ephesus debate produced its own 'fundamentalists'. A few Eastern bishops, including Nestorius, felt betrayed by John and continued to campaign against Cyril, while others assumed that Cyril had finally diluted his theology. On the other side of the fence, at least two bishops were concerned that Cyril had surrendered his original position, and by acknowledging ‘two natures’ in Christ, was giving ground to John. Cyril was forced two write a number of times to various friends and colleagues to assure them he had not changed his theology. Cyril had in fact turned his attention to attacking the work and influence of Nestorius’ teacher, Theodore of Mopsuestia, if anything cementing his strength of conviction. The Syrians, though, were offended, since Theodore and Diodore were held in high respect, and Cyril was forced to tone-down his rhetoric for the sake of unity. Evidently there were widespread and serious misunderstandings about the terms of the agreement between the Cyrillian party and John and the Eastern bishops. Cyril died in June 444, aged 69, having finished his time as Archbishop relatively peacefully, and unaware that his theological work would continue in the spotlight as Christological debates one again occupied another ecumenical council. 

Eutyches, an abbot in Constantinople, taught that Christ's humanity was not the same as our humanity since it was 'deified' by his divine Person from the moment of his conception. This 'monophysitism' was condemned in 448 by Flavian, Nestorius' successor as Archbishop of Constantinople. Dioscoros, Cyril's successor as Archbishop of Alexandria, immediately rehabilitated Eutyches at the controversial 'Robber Council' of Ephesus II in 449, and denounced Flavian – along with Theodoret of Cyr, who was now the intellectual leader of the East. It was clear that, long after Cyril's death, the theology that spawned Nestorius was far from dead, and that there was a stripe of Alexandrian theology which attempted to 'out-Cyril' Cyril himself. The tensions between these two led to the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Here, the influence of the Western church (especially the Letter – or Tome – of Pope Leo to Flavian) would prove vital in finding a way forward.

Nestorius and Cyril take turns in rehab

The early 20th century saw a serious scholarly rehabilitation Nestorius. The discovery in 1895 of a 16th century copy of The Bazaar of Heracleides gave unprecedented access to Nestorius' mature theology first-hand. Especially important was Loofs' 1905 collection, Nestoriana, whose aim was to 'open a door... to a more favourable attitude' towards Nestorius.16   The surge of interest in Nestorius meant that he, Theodore, and Didore were increasingly seen as having been misunderstood and undervalued. They were trumpeted as serious biblical exegetes who read the scriptures literally and were often thought of, with others as an ‘Antiochene School’ of theology. They were often contrasted with the biggest names from Alexandria – Clement, Athanasius, and Cyril – who, so the story went, tended to be rather allegorical in their Bible reading and overly committed to Platonic philosophy. It became popular to talk about two rival ‘schools’ of theology, and some scholars advocated balancing them somehow, while others didn’t disguise their preference for the Antiochene. Certainly, the Council of Chalcedon has been seen as a synthesis or ‘healthy’ balance of the two.

In recent years, this rather two-dimensional picture of ‘two schools’ has begun to fall apart, and alongside this (perhaps because of it) Cyril's profile has risen. Since the 1930s, a gradual increase in respect for him can be detected, and especially in the English-speaking world Cyril has become a favoured subject for theological monographs, journal articles, and textbooks17. A number of scholars have now argued persuasively that Diodore, Theodore, and Nestorius stood quite outside the boundaries of orthodox, Nicene, Christianity (as Cyril tried to show), and that Cyril merely represented and fought for the faith of the wider Church broadly speaking.18 Certainly, the categories of 'Alexandrian' and 'Antiochene' are not nearly as cut and dry as some introductory texts would suggest – the lack of clarity around terminology leading to Chalcedon being a case in point.

Cyril’s theology is gradually being recognised again as worthy of study, and his reputation is now a little less tattered than it has been. The ups and downs of his early career cannot be separated from the genius of his later theology, and his politicking and scheming cannot be abstracted from his obvious passion for the glory of Jesus Christ. While something of a loose canon, Saint Cyril demonstrates for us that sainthood and saintliness aren’t necessarily related, and that the Lord will choose to use even the most unlikely people to defend his gospel. Cyril’s mission was to preserve the mind-expanding truth that the Word was made flesh for us and for our salvation, and we certainly owe him for making sure we never forget it.

 

Endnotes

1 Letter of Theodoret, as Some Suppose, to Domnus, Bishop of Antioch, Written on the Death of Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria

2 Socrates, Eccl. Hist. b. VII c. xiii

3 Scorates, Eccl. Hist. b. VII c. xiv

4 Notably the C5th pagan writer Damascius. 

5Quoted in H. M. Relton, A Study in Christology, SPCK, 1917: 23

6 From a fragment of the Treatise on the Incarnation, Book VIII.

7 The Book of Heraclides, Book 1 part 1, para. 58

8 Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum, Ed. E. Schwartz, 1927: 1.1.38

9 Commentary on John 1:14

10 Second Letter to Nestorius, 3

11 McGuckin, Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy, 2004: 153

12 Ibid: 203

13 Commentary on John 14:20

14 Nestorius, Bazaar of Heraclides, Book 2, part 1.

15 Cyril’s letter 96 lists various gifts and presents given to courtiers. It is not entirely clear that they relate to this time, but it is often assumed Cyril bought his position back.

16 R. Kyle, ‘Nestorius: The Partial Rehabilitation of a Heretic', in Journal of Evangelical Theological Studies, 32/1 (1989), 74.

17The must-read is surely John McGuckin’s Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy, SVS Press, 2004.

18See especially, Donald Fairbairn, Grace and Christology in the Early Church, OUP, 2006.

Daniel Hames

Daniel Hames is Associate Director at Union and lectures in theology and preaching. He is a minister at St Aldates, Oxford, and is completing a PhD in theology at the VU Amsterdam.

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