Saving St. Cyril
Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy
reviewed by Mike Aquilina
St. Cyril of Alexandria ranks high among the “bad boys” of the patristic era, at least in the view of many modern scholars. He was famously intolerant of doctrinal dissent. He steadfastly refused to celebrate religious diversity in his home city. And it was he who brought the Nestorian controversy to its crisis, sniffing out the heresy even before it had been stated explicitly. For a couple of centuries, hostile historians have portrayed Cyril as an operator, manipulating the imperial court and ignoring popular opinion for the sake of his own power. If anything bad happened in fifth-century Alexandria, you can bet that the blame for it has been laid on Cyril.
Now comes a new and more nuanced look at Cyril in Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy by John McGuckin of Union Theological Seminary. McGuckin’s Cyril is no less an operator, but he does it all for holy ends, keeping the means always within the bounds of moral action. Wheeling and dealing are not necessarily incompatible with great sanctity.
Cyril prevailed over Nestorius at the Council of Ephesus—a council that Nestorius himself had maneuvered into being. There the bishops overwhelmingly acclaimed the doctrine long hallowed by the worship of the Church: that Christ the God-man is a single subject, and so Mary could be called “Mother of God.” She must not be called mother of his human nature alone, because mothers do not give birth to a nature, but to a person. The title “Mother of God” (Theotokos, literally, “God-bearer”) preserved the integrity of the incarnation of the eternal Word.
Cyril held the day because of his sustained, consistent, and subtle theological argument. Theological truth won the war, but the victory belonged to more than the theologians. Throngs of common people celebrated the council’s decision by carrying the bishops aloft in a torchlit procession and singing hymns throughout the night.
McGuckin’s is a rare sort of history, theologically astute yet accessible to lay readers. The bare facts could have made for a boring read (and elsewhere indeed they have), but McGuckin gives political intrigue and theological chess matches the dramatic development they deserve. The result is a page-turner, a geopolitical, ecclesiastical, and psychological thriller. McGuckin shows how arrogant intellectualism makes it easy for a man to slide from mere idiosyncrasy into rank heresy, even when perhaps he does not intend to do so.
The author also deserves a gold medal for revealing the ancient authors’ rich sense of humor; the Fathers parodied the style of the heretics even as they pronounced their anathemas. Nestorius had a penchant for semantic fussiness; he was fond of the phrase “strictly speaking.” The Fathers rarely passed up an opportunity to use the phrase in their refutations. The Christian rabble picked up on it and used it in their anti-Nestorian slogans.
McGuckin moves from historical narrative to theological analysis, providing in-depth studies of the competing Christologies of Cyril and Nestorius. These sections are remarkably clear and even serve as excellent primers in metaphysics, as they review all the controversial terms from classical philosophy: ousia, physis, hypostasis, prosopon, and so forth. The author’s analyses lead into the final documentary section of the book: more than 150 pages of well-selected primary texts in English translation.
St. Cyril’s vindication is at hand. In the last generation, he has had able defenders, including the great Robert Louis Wilken, whose Judaism and the Early Christian Mind (1971) examines another controversial aspect of Cyril’s episcopate. But McGuckin’s book certainly marks a high point in the ancient patriarch’s historical rehabilitation.
The virtues of this book are so great that they overwhelm its few small vices: shoddy editing and occasional unnecessary (and apologetically ineffective) anti-Roman and anti-Western asides. The story is so riveting that these distractions hardly matter.
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“Saving St. Cyril” first appeared in the November 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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