An Overview of the work St Cyril of Alexandria

From: Patrology: the live and works of the fathers of the church, pp. 360ff, Freiburg im Breisgau, St Louis, Mo, 1908

  1. His Life Before 428

We know but little concerning St Cyril before his elevation to the patriarchal see of Alexandria, in 412. He was probably born in that city and was a nephew of its patriarch Theophilus. His extensive theological knowledge was certainly acquired in its Christian schools. From the four very frank letters of St. Isidore Pelusiota to the patriarch Cyril we learn that Cyril lived for a time in the desert with the monks and received from them training in Christian ascetism. He went with his uncle to Constantinople in 403, and took part in the «Synod of the Oak» near Chalcedon at which Chrysostom was deposed. Theophilus died October 15, 412, and two days afterwards Cyril was elected Patriarch, but not without opposition. We know but little of the beginnings of his administration, and that little is coloured by the partisan temper of the narrative Socrates. — The youthful patriarch’s treatment of the Novatians and the Jews of Alexandria may have been characterised by a certain precipitation and a want of feeling. It is impossible to obtain a clear knowledge of the dissensions between Cyril and the imperial city-prefect Orestes at Alexandria; Socrates insinuates, without proof for the murder by the Christians (March 415) of the female philosopher Hypatia, a close friend of the prefect. It was only after a long resistance that Cyril caused (about 417) the name of St. Chrysostom to be replaced in the diptychs of the Alexandrian church. After 429 the sources of our information multiply; thenceforth Cyril is a prominent factor in the great problems of ecclesiastical and dogmatical history. Amid perils and trials his spirit and character shine as in a noonday splendour and exhibit in him an instrument especially chosen by God.

2. The Conflict with Nestorianism

In 428 Nestorius became bishop of Constantinople, and at once began to disseminate by means of his sermons the Christological teaching of Diordorus of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia. He denied the unity of person in Christ, asserted that the Blessed Virgin could not be called Mother of God (θεοτόκος) and that to speak of God in swaddling clothes and crucified was only a heathen fable. As early as the spring of 429 Cyril gave a general reply to these false theses and defended the orthodox teaching in his Festal Letter of Easter of that year and in an Encyclical Letter to the Monks of Egypt. It was not the divine nature of the Incarnate Word, but the Incarnate Word that was born of Mary; the human nature in Christ does not belong to any human person but to the Divine Word. After fruitless efforts to arrive at an understanding, both Cyril and Nestorius appealed to pope Celestine, with the result that at a Roman synod, held in 430, Nestorius was declared a heretic and threatened with deposition unless within ten days from the receipt of the synodical decision he retracted his errors. Cyril was charged with the duty of communicating this decision to Nestorius and, in the name of the pope, of excommunicating him, in case he proved rebellious; he added to the pope’s letter a profession of faith approved by an Alexandrine synod of 430, in which he developed more fully the doctrine that Nestorius was to accept, and also twelve «anathematisms» that described the errors that Nestorius was to reject. Nestorius replied with twelve counter-anathematisms, and by that the rupture was completed. Some days before the reception of Cyril’s anathematisms at Constantinople, the emperor Theodosius had yielded to the instances of Nestorius and convoked (Nov. 19, 430) a council of Ephesus for the Pentecost of 431. The pope delegated Cyril as his representative. In its first session (June 22, 431), the council deposed Nestorius and confirmed both the profession of faith and the twelve anathematisms of Cyril. Throughout its sessions the latter was the soul of the council, and fulfilled his mission, amid many difficulties, with prudence, courage and perseverance. The bishops of the Antiochene province, under the leadership of John of Antioch, had separated from Cyril and the other bishops, and taken part more or less openly with Nestorius. It was not until 433 that a reconciliation was effected: in that year Cyril signed a profession of faith (very probably drawn up by Theodoret of Cyrus, the most learned of the Antiochenes) that was capable of an orthodox interpretation and acknowledge in particular the divine Maternity of the Blessed Virgin. Although in this manner a schism was formally avoided, Cyril was obliged to devote the remainder of his days to its final extermination. His death took place June 27, 444. If we except Athanasius, none of the other Greek fathers exercised so far-reaching an influence on ecclesiastical doctrine as Cyril; and if we except Augustine, there is none among all the other Fathers whose works have been adopted so extensively by ecumenical councils as a standard expression of the Christian faith.

3. His Apology against Julian

We may place first among his writings the work «For the holy religion of the Christians against the books of the impious Julian» (ὑπὲρ τῆς τῶν Χριστιανῶν εὐαγοῦς θρησκεὶας πρὸς τὰ τοῦ ἀθέοις Ἱουλιανοῦ), composed in 433 and dedicated the Theodosius II. The three books of Julian «Against the Galileans» (of the years 362-363) must have been still very popular in anti-Christian circles. It was probable that the work of Cyril originally included thirty books; only the first ten have reached us entire, while of books 11-20 only Greek and Syriac fragments have been preserved. The first ten books are a reply to the first book of Julian and deal with the relations of Judaism and heathenism, and of Christianity to both Judaism and heathenism. Julian asserted that Christianity was only a debased Judaism with an admixture of heathenism. Cyril follows his adversary step by step, and always places before the reader the text of Julian’s own arguments; Cyril’s work is, therefore, the principal source of our knowledge concerning the (lost) anti-Christian work of the unfortunate emperor. In this work, as elsewhere, Cyril lays more stress on precision of statement and closeness of argument than on fluency and elegancy in diction.

4. Dogmatico-Polemical Writings

The polemical note dominates in all his dogmatic writings. The earliest of them are his two great works on the Trinity: ἡ βίβλος τῶν θησαυρῶν περὶ τῆς ἁγίας καῖ ὁμοουσίον τριάδος, in 35 theses (λόγοι assertiones), and περὶ ἁγίας τε καὶ ὁμοουσίου τριάδος in the form of seven dialogues (λόγοι dialogi) of the author with his friend Hermias. Both works were written against the Arians, and treat principally of the true divinity of the Son. When compared with the later Christological writings of Cyril they exhibit certain imperfection and obscurity in the concept and exposition of the doctrine of the union of the two natures in Christ. A brief and popular work on the Trinity (περὶ τῆς ἁγίας καὶ ζωοποιοῦ τριάδος), first edited by Cardinal Mai, is regarded as spurious. It is clearly the first part of a larger work, the second part of which treated of the Incarnation and which was also discovered by Mai: περὶ τῆς τοῦ κυρίου ἐνανθρωπήσεως. Ehrhard has shown (1888) that is is the work of Theodoret of Cyrus. Shortly after the beginning of the Nestorian conflict, 429-430, Cyril remitted to the imperial court three memorials on the true faith: προσφωνητικοὶ περὶ τῆς ὀρθῆς πίστεως, the first of which was addressed to the emperor Theodosius II, the second to his two younger sisters Arcadia and Marina, and the third to Pulcheria, the elder sister of the emperor, and to his wife Eudocia. To the same period belongs the work against the blasphemies of Nestorius: κατὰ τῶν Νεστορίυ δυσφμιῶν πεντάβιβλος αντίῤῥησις, in five books, directed against a collection of the heresiarch’s sermons, and distinguished for solidity of argumentation and cutting sarcasm. The twelve «Anathematisms» of 430 were defended by Cyril in an «apology» to the emperor Theodosius: λόγος ἁπολογητικὸς. He also wrote on the Incarnation of the Divine Word: περὶ ἐνανθρωπήσεως τοῦ θεοῦ λόγου; on the unity of the person in Christ: ὅτι εἰς ὁ Χριστός; the treatise (first edited by Mai) against Nestorius: διάλεξις πρὸς Νεστόριον, and against those who do not acknowledge Mary to be the Mother of God: κατὰ τῶν μὴ βουλομένων ὁμολογεῖν θεοτόκον τὴν ἁγίαν παρθένον, and finally and especially the so-called Scholia de Incarnatione Unigenitiπερὶ τῆς ένανθρωπήσεως τοῦ μονογενοῦς, highly prized in antiquity but now extant for the most part only in a Latin version. The dialogue on the Incarnation of the Only-begotten is but another edition of his treatise on the true faith addressed to Theodosius. The genuineness of the work against the Anthropomorphites: κατὰ ἀνθρωπομορφιτῶν, or those who attributed to God a human figure, is denied, and justly so. Many of his dogmatico-polemical works have perished. He wrote one book against the Synousiasts (Apollinarists), three books against Theodore of Mopsuestia and Diodorus of Tarsus, one book on the true faith and other writings, of which only fragments have reached us. Photius gives a brief summary of a work written by Cyril against the Pelagians and addressed to Theodosius II.

5. Exegetical Writings

In the complete editions of his writings the exegetical works take up the greater part of the volumes. The 17 books on adoration and worship of God in spirit and in truth: περὶ τῆς ἐν πνεύματι καὶ ἀληθεία προσκυνήσεως καὶ λατρείας, undertaken to prove that the law was abrogated only in the letter and not in the spirit, and the spiritual adoration was typically prefigured in the institutions of the Old Testament. This work is completed by the thirteen books of «elegant comments»: γλαφυρά, devoted to a typical exposition of the Pentateuch passages. He wrote detailed and continuous commentaries on Isaiah, and on the twelve minor prophets. There are also extant fragments or catenae-scholia on the books of Kings, on Psalms, on some Canticles, on Proverbs, and the Canticle of canticles, and the prophets Jeremiah, Baruch, Ezekiel , Daniel. He wrote also on the New Testament; among, a large and valuable commentary of the Gospel of St John, that has not reached us in its entirety. We also possess fragments on Matthew, on Luke, on Romans, First and Second Corinthians and Hebrews. An ancient Syriac version, though not without several gaps, exhibits a text on the commentary on Luke more complete and trustworthy than the remnants of the original Greek. His commentaries on the New Testament must have been written after 428, since the commentary on the Gospel of St John, the earliest of these writings, refers to the Nestorian heresy. His labours on the Old Testament were completed at an earlier date. His intellectual progress is visible in the distinctness with which the literal sense is grasped and adhered to in the New Testament commentaries. But even in the writings of the Old Testament the historico-philological exposition is not neglected, eg. in the commentary on the twelve minor prophets.

6. Homilies and Letters

Only a small number of his discourses have preserved: of the Homiliae paschales of Festal Letters 29 have come down, quite miscellaneous in their contents. Among the Homiliae diversae the most interesting are those delivered at the Council of Ephesus in 431, especially the fourth, famous among all the Marian panegyrics of antiquity. The Enconium in S Mariam Deiparam is only a much later edition, re-touched and enlarged, of the fourth Ephesine homily. 88 Letters of Cyril are published, but among them are several addressed to him by others. The earliest, and also the most important letters are those addressed to Nestorius, the latter two were read and accepted at the Council of Ephesus in 431, and again at Chalcedon in 451, and at Constantinople in 553. Most of the letters, however, were written after the Council of Ephesus, and deal especially with the relations between himself and the schismatic Antiochenes. The letter to John of Antioch known also as the Symbolum Ephesinum was approved and accepted by the Council of Chalcedon.

7. His Christology

Nestorius had maintained that Christ there were two personalities united only in a moral sense. It fell to Cyril to maintain and defend the traditional doctrine of the unity of person in Jesus Christ. We have already called attention to the difference between the concept and exposition of this truth in the earlier as compared with the later writings of Cyril. We have here to describe only the doctrine found in his writings after the beginning of 429. The Word became man, he teaches, but did not assume man: γέγονεν ἄνθρωπος, οὐκ ἄνθρωπον ἀνέλαβεν; He humbled Himself, but did not raise to Himself a man; He made His own our human nature: ἰδίαν ἐποιήσατο σἀρκα; He united Himself with our human nature in a substantial or personal union: κατ’ οὐσίαν, κατὰ φύσιν, καθ’ ὑπόστασιν. He is after the Incarnation what He was before, εἶς καὶ ὁ αὐτός; He assumed our human nature to the unity of His own being, and is now both God and man, one in two natures: ἐκ δυοῖν τελείοιν, ἐκ δυοῖον πραγμάτοιν, ἐξ ἀμφοῖν. This one divine not human person is sometimes called ἕν, sometimes ἕν πρόσωπον, and again μία ὑπόστασις or μία φύσις τοῦ θεοῦ λόγου σεσαρκωμένη. It is to be noted that Cyril uses as if equivalent the terms ὑπόστασισ and φύσις. The phrase μία φύσις τοῦ λόγου σεσαρκωμενον, taken from the profession of faith περὶ τῆς σαρκώσεως τοῦ θεοῦ λόγου, among the works of St Athanasius, caused Cyril to be accused of teaching a commingling of the two natures in Christ. We must note, therefore, his frequent insistence that he believes the two natures to be united ἀσυγχύτως (not confused), ἀτρέπτως (unchangeable), ἀναλλοιώτως (not another), ἀμεταβλήτως (without alteration)without commingling or confusion (σύγχυσις [confusion], σύγχρασις [a mixing together, commixture, blending, tempering], συνουσίωσις [fusion of essences]) of any kind. The phrase that he frequently uses after the reconciliation with the Antiochenes, caused a certain surprise: he says that before the union there were two natures, φύσεις, and after it but one φύσις. By this phrase, however, Cyril intends only to admit for an ideal moment the conceptual distinction of two individual entities; in other words, he teaches the union of the Logos with a perfect human nature, composed of a body and a (rational) soul; this nature, however, does not subsist independently in itself but in the Logos. He declares elsewhere: «We say that two natures, δύο φύσεις, are united, but that after the union there is no longer a division into two (natures); we believe, therefore, in one nature of the Son, μίαν εἶναι πιστεύομεν τὴν τοῦ υἱοῦ φύσιν, because He is one, though become man and flesh» (Ep. 40 ad Acac.). Here as elsewhere Cyril expresses the union of both natures in Christ by the word ἕνωσις, a term of Christian origin, to which he often adds a more specific qualitative: ἕνωσις φυσική, κατὰ φύσιν, καθ’ ὑπόστασιν, κατ’ οὐσιαν. He often rejects, as a Nestorian term the word ἐνοίκησις (dwelling in a place) which seemed to diminish the Incarnation to a mere indwelling of the Logos in the man Jesus. Still more positively does he reject another beloved term of Nestorius, the word συνάφεια (moral union): «we reject the term συνάφεια», he writes to Nestorius, «because it is not fitted to express the union» (ἕνωσις) (Ep. 17 Ad Nest.). As a consequence of this union of the two natures, whatever is proper to the human nature may and ought to be predicated of the one divine person (communicatio idiomatum). It was God who suffered and was crucified; the Logos Himself underwent the sufferings of His human nature because that which suffered was His humanity, His body and His soul. Especially it was also God who was born, and Mary is truly the Mother of God, for the man whom she bore was God. The word θεοτόκος as opposed to the Χριστοτόκος or ἀνθρωποτόκος of the Nestorians, he found the formula of the true doctrine. He saw clearly that this word was a kind of compendium of the ecclesiastical Christology inasmuch as it presupposes the unity of person and the duality of natures in Christ. He says: «A correct sufficient, and irreproachable profession of faith is found in the assertion of the divine maternity of the Blessed Virgin: ἀρκεῖ τοιγαροῦν πρὸς ὀρθὴν καὶ ἀδιάβλετον τῆς πίστεως ἡμῶν ὀμολογίαν τὸ θεοτὸκον λέγειν καὶ ὁμολογεῖν τήν ἁγίαν παρθένον (Hom. 15 de Incarn Dei verbi).