Cyril of Alexandria

“The patristic understanding of the Incarnation owes more to Cyril of Alexandria than to any other individual theologian.” So L.R. Wickham wrote in the introduction to his volume on the selected letters of Cyril, who died on this day in the year 444.  That may sound like a random statement to begin a blog on a Saturday morning, but let us consider for a moment the importance of Cyril for the understanding that we hold today of the Christian belief that Christ is both human and divine.

In the early centuries of the Church, there were a small number of important centres of Christian thought, which formed schools of theologians, and Alexandria was one such, and another was at Constantinople, where, as we shall see, the orthodoxy of the mainstream Christian community was put to the test.  The Church agonised over crucial matters that found their definition ultimately in the Creeds.  The person of Jesus was wrestled with, in particular.  How could Jesus be a man walking this earth, yet also be divine?  How was his knowledge limited; his divine power restrained?  Had he always been, or was he adopted and raised to the Godhead?   All of these questions and many more led to the bulk of the Nicene Creed that we recite at the Eucharist being about Christ.

Cyril, whom we remember in the Church’s calendar today, was born in about 375-380 and became a vital protagonist in the debate.  His reputation has been seen to be tarnished over the centuries because of mistakes and poor decisions, though whether or not these are justified is open to debate.  However, what is not in doubt is that in 428 when a man called Nestorius became Bishop of Constantinople, Cyril took up the cudgels of what has become orthodoxy against this man, who denied the accepted role of Mary as Theotokos (literally one who gave birth to God).

Cyril was like a terrier at the heels of a Nestorius, penning letters to him, but also to the Imperial Court in Rome, and to the Pope, eventually at the Council of Ephesus in 431 he managed to have Nestorius condemned and deposed.  Two years later there was a reconciliation brought about by John, Bishop of Antioch, by Nestorius assenting to a declaration, whereby Mary’s divine motherhood was affirmed, with an assertion that Christ is consubstantial (of the same nature) with God the Father and with us.  This was all dealt with through official Imperial channels and much money changed hands to oil the wheels of the courts, Cyril’s involvement with which is something his critics highlight.

A prolific writer, we still have numerous of Cyril’s works (over a hundred of his letters still exist, for example), many of those written later in his life, which are dominated by the debates about the nature of Christ, as he exposed what he saw was the muddle and error of Nestorianism.  Bearing in mind this is long ago and there is a lot that one could say, let us recognise that Cyril played a vital part in establishing as orthodox belief throughout the Church what we still hold today as our understanding of the incarnation of Christ.  

This understanding entered the spirituality of the Church too, not just its doctrinal formularies.  The Church became imbued with a profound sense that as divine and human were perfectly united in Jesus Christ, so the closer the believer grew towards him, the very essence of our humanity becomes transformed by grace into a fullness of life that is experienced in the Kingdom now, but completed in the risen life of glory, yet to come.

John Mann