There are two things I know about Cyril of Alexandria: (1) he was the one who sought to bury Nestorianism and (2) he comes across as a thug.
Nestorianism is attributed to Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople. He sought to separate the divine and human natures of Christ or at least emphasize their distinction. This point was most important in the discussion over whether Mary the mother of Jesus should be called the “Christ-bearer” (Christotokos) or the “God-bearer”(Theotokos). Nestorius seemed to have feared calling Mary Theotokos because the divine nature of Christ was incarnate and eternal as the Word, not “born” which seems to indicate “coming into existence”. Others like Cyril argued that Christotokos seemed to deny the incarnation, as if the one born was somehow less than God. At least this is how I understand the debate.
Eventually Cyril won the day. Nestorianism because a heresy. The Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon seemed to have sided with Cyril, though there is a bit of tension here. Cyril’s view seems quite close to that of the monophysites, those who saw only “one nature” in Jesus, either God fully emptied into man or man fully engulfed into deity, not not two distinct natures. Chalcedon attempted to maintain the tension of Jesus being “fully God, fully man” with two natures that are not morphed into one yet completely united. I don’t know if Nestorius really, really disagreed or if he was framed as disagreeing by his opponents.
Cyril came across as a Christian mafioso in my estimation. He lead gangs of monks. He played the political game with much vigor. I don’t recall all I read, but I remember thinking of him as less of a pastor, more of a punk. I don’t know that he handled his dispute with Nestorius correctly. In fact, I doubt he did. That said, the past is the past and all our interpretations are history!
Let me know your thoughts on this man!
See my other posts wherein I prepare for my Th.M. oral defense:
If you’d like to discuss Origen of Alexandria and Irenaeus of Lyons, go here.
If you’d like to discuss Athanasius of Alexandria, go here.
If you’d like to discuss Basil the Great, go here.
If you’d like to discuss Gregory of Nazianzus, go here.
If you’d like to discuss Gregory of Nyssa, go here.
If you’d like to discuss John Chrysostom, go here.
Thanks for this – great to see Cyril still making waves!
There’s a significant move at the moment to rehabilitate Cyril as a biblical exegete and pastor, as well as to exonerate him (at least in part) from the violence/bribery/machismo that surround some reports from the Council of Ephesus etc. I think these are pretty convincing actually, and highlight a lot of misguided antipathy towards him inherited from the likes of Loofs and Gibbon.
There’s also been a lot of sympathy towards Nestorius who’s still often cast as misunderstood and naive… I’m not sure that washes, quite. It seems to me that while Cyril definitely won the day, he actually gets a bad rap, while we go soft on Nestorius, whose theology is deeply damaging.
Two excellent reads I’d suggest here are John McGuckin’s ‘Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy’ and Donald Fairbairn’s ‘Grace and Christology in the Early Church’. Both address these issues brilliantly, and help us reassess the historical details and theological implications of the debate.
Very best wishes!
Thank you for your challenging response! It does seem like the popular depiction of Cyril is a negative one and that is how I remember him from my readings. I haven’t seen the movie Agora, which i have not seen, is said to depict him as quite the thug. Have you seen that film?
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