The teaching of Cyril of Alexandria
As a key to Cyril’s basic position we may take a characteristic passage in his Dialogues on the holy and consubstantial Trinity in which he brings together several passages from the Epistle to the Hebrews (1.3; 4.12, 13, 5.7, 8).1 Here on one hand the only Begotten of God is spoken of according to his divine nature, as the effulgence of God’s glory and the express image of his hypostasis who upholds all things by the word of his power, himself the living and active Word of God who cuts so deeply into our existence even in soul and spirit, discriminating the very thoughts and intentions of the heart, that every creature is laid open to the searching judgment and presence of God; but here on the other hand the only Begotten of God is spoken of in his incarnate and in his likeness to us, as he who in the flesh offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears to him who was able to save him from death, and was heard for his godly fear, for, although he was Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. Cyril was able to offer a consistent interpretation of those apparently disparate accounts of Christ by taking his stand on the position established by Athanasius who, with reference to John 1:14 (ὁ λόγος σὰρχ ἐγένετο), insisted that the Logos became man and did not enter into men2.’ Hence Cyril frequently argued that ‘being God, the Logos became flesh, and was not in man in the way in which he was in the saints in who he dwelt through their participation in the Holy Spirit’.3 Since in becoming man or flesh Christ came as man and not as Son of God conjoined to man, and was man and not just in man, Cyril could think consistently of Christ as him in whom God and man completely concur, so that the same person is at once God and man.4 That is why he could think of the incarnate Son as acting completely as man, in a perfectly human way, and yet as acting completely as God in a perfectly divine way, without having to posit some kind of conjunction between two persons or two realities or some kind of alternation between divine and human activities. The incarnate Son is one divine-human subject or reality.5 Hence Cyril was able to put into developed theological terms the two-fold emphasis found in the fourth Gospel and in the Epistle to the Hebrews in which exalted statements about the divine nature of Christ are made together with the most realistic statement about the humanity, creatureliness and lowliness of Christ, without any need for reserve about his divine activity in the flesh towards us, or his human activity in the flesh towards God the Father. For Cyril this meant that the human experience of Christ were the experiences of God the Son incarnate, but that as such they were authentically and substantively human experiences, for they were the experiences of the man God the Son became.
This basically Athanasian Christology was developed and strengthened by Cyril in two directions:in respect of the human mediatorship of Christ in his earlier work in which he took issue with Arians who applied the concept of’ ‘mediator’ to the Logos apart from the Incarnation, making him to be an intermediary between God and the creature, and interpreted the Incarnation as a compound between the Logos and the flesh without a rational human soul;6 and in respect of the one Person of Christ in his later works in which he took issue with the Nestorians who posited a moral and relational instead of a real union between the Son of God and the humanity he assumed and thus tended to direct worship to the humanity of Christ alongside his deity which had the effect of undermining his human priesthood.7 In his earlier works Cyril was inevitably anti-Apollinarian for his basic starting point, God incarnate as man, involved the union of the Son with complete or perfect humanity, in which one and the same subject acts, not only from the side of God towards man, but from the side of man towards God. In this case Cyril laid emphasis upon the human agency of Christ fulfilled within the measures of what is truly human, and not least the prayer, worship and adoration of Christ in which he became one with us for that too is essential to our humanity.8 In his later works Cyril was even more explicitly anti-Apollinarian, insisting that in becoming man the Son of God assumed and united to himself hypostatically (καθ’ ὑπόστασιν) human flesh animated with a rational soul.9 Although his basic starting point was essentially antithetic to any dualist or diophysite conception of Christ, its development involved a profound understanding of the oneness of Christ in which what was unlike, deity and humanity, were not done away but rather upheld in their difference, for otherwise the fundamental mystery of the saving economy would be undone. Hence far from moving in a monophysite direction, Cyril was more emphatic than ever on the authenticity and the integrity of Christ’s human experience and acts.10
1. Dialogus, I, MPG LXXV, 681A-C
2. Athanasius, Contra Arianos, 3.30
3. Cf. Cyril De recta fide, MPG LXXVI, 1228C, where a similar statement from a later work is found” ‘The Logos of God did not come into a man, but really became man, while remaining God.’ The fact that the same decisive statement comes in the early anti-Arian Dilogues as well as in the later anti-Nesortian De recta fide wrecks the thesis if a basic change in Cyril’s theology, as advocated by Leíbert (La doctrine christologique de Saint Cyrille avant la Querelle Nestorienne, Facultés Catholique, Lille, 1957) and Grillmeier (op cit).
4. See especially the De adoratione et culti in spiritu et veritate II, MPG LXVIII, 213B-C—the word for concur is συνθέω, but Cyril often expresses this concurrence by the terms σύνοδος, συνδρομή, combined with εἰς ἑνότητα or εἰς ἕντι. See especially Quod unus sit Christus for a concise reasoned account of this MPG LXXVII, 1253ff., or Sources Chrétiennes 97, Deux Diologues Christologiques, pp. 302ff.; and Epist. ad Succensum i et ii, MPG LXXVII, 223f, 237ff.
8. E.g. De Adoratione, MPG LXVIII, 604A; 636D; Glaphyra in Gen., MPG LXIX, 297C; in Lev. 576B; Thesaurus, MPG LXXV, 117C-D; 393B-397C; Dialogus IV, LXXV, 925A; V, 976E; VI, 1061B-1064C; 1068D-1069D; VII, 1113D; In Joannis Evangelium, MPG LXXIII, 157D-160A; 293C; 304C; 313C; 484B; 585C; 776C; 1012A; Homilia Paschalis, MPG LXXVII, 8, 569C-D; 573B; 13, 705B; In Psalmos, MPG LIX (POSS TYPO), 1232C-1233C; 1297B; 1253D-1256A; 1444A; 2456C; 1465A-C.
10. De recta fide ad Theodosium, MPG LXXVI, 1160B-1161D; Apol. Adv. Theodoretum x, MPG LXXVI, 437C-441B; De incarnatione unigeniti, MPG LXXV 1212A-1213D; Scholia de incarnatione, MPG LXXV, 1380B; 1404D-1408C; Quod Christus unus, MPG LXXV 1280D; 1288C-1293A; 1329A-1333A; In epistolam ad Hebraeos, MPG LXXIV, 964C-965C