The Younger Cyril and the “Logos-Sarx” Christology

Home / The Younger Cyril and the “Logos-Sarx” Christology

From A Grillmeier Christ in Christian Tradition Vol. 1

Cyril may be the most easily understood if we return once more to the classic figures of orthodox and heretical Logos-sarx christology, to Athanasius and Apollinarius, and attempt to describe his thought and language with reference to them. He reaches the final form of his picture of Christ by retaining some elements from these two writers and deleting others, to replace them with new ideas. Without doubt Athanasius is his chief tutor.

If we examine the characteristics of the christology of the earlier works of Cyril, we find nothing but Athanasius. The whole controversy with Apollinarianism waged by the Antiochenes, Cappadocians and even by the Alexandrines themselves seems to have passed without leaving any traces on his theology. Once again we find the Athanasian Logo-sarx christology in its pure form. Like his predecessors, Cyril has only the Arians in view in writing the christological chapters of his Thesaurus (chs. 22-4 and 28). They are merely a paraphrase of the decisive section of the Contra Arianos 3 (35-57),but in a weaker and milder form. Cyril certainly makes alterations to the argument of his spiritual ancestor, but in doing so he has no intention of making any inner changes in it. He is merely bent on making it acceptable. Here, as also in Dialogue 6, the Athanasian setting of the problem and the solution go together. From time to time, however, the copy frees itself from the original and produces independent formulas, though of course no new trend of christology emerges.

In the way in which the problem is put we still find ourselves firmly in the period before the Council of Ephesus. The christological question as such, how God and man are one in Christ, is not yet acute. One element in particular has yet to make an appearance—the soul of Christ. Even if Cyril recognises it—and this must surely be assumed after the previous controversies—he never considers it a ‘theological factor’ right up to the emergence of Nestorius. In the theology of the Greek church,Christ is once again only Logos and sarx. The Thesaurus and the Dialogues gives no indication that Cyril recognises a human knowledge in Christ and the development of human understanding. The Logos is the spiritual power of Jesus, and the progress of the Lord is no more that a gradual revelation of the wisdom of the Logos. Cyril thinks as little as Athanasius of repudiating the difficulties advanced by the Arians against the immutability of the Logos by referring to the soul of Christ.Both Alexandrians recognise the reality of the sufferings, and both attribute them to the ‘sarx’. There are only πάθη τῆς σαρκός, sufferings of the flesh, and no real sufferings of the ψυχή. The ‘flesh is also the recipient of gifts, of holiness and of glory. Throughout his argument, which is directed at the Arians, Cyril never once thinks of attacking the basic christological principle on which they rely, that the Logos is the soul of Christ. He only disputes the consequences which the heretics draw from it for the nature of the Logos. Apollinarianism and the church’s struggle against it seem to be virtually unknown to the author of the Thesaurus and the Dialogues.

Hence the younger Cyril is no ‘diphysite’ in the later sense of the word, nor is he intent on the ontological interpretation of the two natures in Christ. We have not yet reached the classical period of the ‘doctrine of the two natures.’ The interpretive principle of the distinction of the ‘two times’, which Athanasius had developed in his struggle against Arius, must still help Cyril to preserve the transcendence and immutability of the Logos. The statements of the gospels are to be divided between the Logos before the incarnation and the Logos after the incarnation; a dynamic, historical approach which is to be replaced by a more static, ontological one. Now because the latter is not to be found in Cyril, he is also not concerned to make a closer definition of the character of the nature that been taken in Christ. True, even in the earlier writings the means of christological expression at his disposal is richer that that of Athanasius: Christ took ‘flesh’ or ‘what is of man’ (ἀνθρώπινα), finally even ‘man’ and ‘human nature’. But his last word should not lead us to assume the presence of the ontological approach mentioned above. For Cyril, as for Athanasius, this word signifies primarily the sum of all that is meant by humanity, human states in their totality. To be sure, we find some Aristotelian definitions of man with reference to Didymus, but these do not signify any transference of an Aristotelian anthropology to christology. For this reason, none of the christological formulas of the earlier writings (Thesaurus and Dialogues)allow us to conclude quite simply that in Cyril’s picture of Christ the soul has become a ‘theological factor.’

Liébert makes a detailed investigation of the christological formulas of Cyril’s earlier period, to see how far they can be regarded as an expression of the Logos-sarx theology. Consequently we shall be content with the indications which have already given and make only a brief examination of Cyril’s christological terminology before Ephesus. But the points which have been made so far are sufficient for us to draw an important conclusion: Cyril can move completely with the limits of the Logos-sarx christology and still recognise a soul of Christ. He advances a verbal Logos-sarx framework in which the soul of Christ is certainly a physical factor, even if it is not yet a theological one. Here he is exactly like Athanasius, but differs from him in one very important respect: in Cyril, the idea of the vital, dynamic relationship between Logos and sarx, as it was developed in the early writings of Athanasius, could no longer attain its old significance.

It is especially significant that the chief formula of the Athanasian interpretation of Christ recurs, the formula which as become the basic expression of the whole Logos-sarx christology of all types: ‘The Word became man and did not come into man.’ Cyril also takes over the two frameworks which were to give a first, unconsidered explanation of the relationship between God and man in Christ, the frameworks of ‘indwelling’ and ‘appropriation.’ The Word is ‘in’ the body—and the body is ‘appropriated’ by the Word.

In the Thesaurus and in most texts of the Dialogues Cyril limits himself to repeating the formulas of Athanasius. If he goes beyond them, this does not mean that there is any basic reorientation of this christology. Christ, in the theological interpretation given by the young Cyril, is not more that Logos and sarx.