It has become quite popular to malign the church fathers, especially St. Cyril of Alexandria. Since the advent of historical scholarship, scarcely any church father has been more slandered than he. Edward Gibbon, a historian of the eighteenth century, is a noteworthy exemplar of this interpretation. St. Cyril’s motivations, according to Gibbon, were impregnated with duplicity and malice. Nothing was more important for Cyril, so Gibbon writes, than “to satiate his revenge against the unfortunate Nestorius.” Yet it is my view that this reading of the Saint, prevalent as it still is today, is ultimately a distortion of reality.
St. Cyril was not “the Catholic tyrant of Alexandria,” as Gibbon labeled him. He was rather a man of remarkable courage, a man possessed not only with the ability to detect heresy, but a man who also had the capacity to take action against it. Though my statements might seem preposterous, I am convinced that the evidence is incompatible with the interpretation of Gibbon & Co. Yet I need not get ahead of myself. I realize that there are some who are uninformed about the controversy swirling over Cyril’s legacy. So let me briefly recapitulate some salient points from his life.
Being the patriarch of Alexandria, Cyril was the head bishop in Egypt, a post he held in the early fifth century. His most important contribution was defending the unity of Christ. Some might think it an oddity that the unity of Christ would be questionable. Yet in the fifth century there was an important bishop, Nestorius by name, who argued that Jesus was not Lord according to his human nature, but only according to his deity. Nestorius wrote that, Jesus “is the son of David according to the flesh but Lord according to his Godhead”(Nestorius’s Second Letter to Cyril). Thus, when the church confesses Jesus as Lord, according to Nestorius, we are referring not to the man who was born of Mary, but to the Logos who has united himself to human nature.
Here is an analogy. A man speaks with his wife on the telephone. He kisses the microphone, knowing that his wife will interpret this as care for her, rather than some bizarre affection for his plastic phone. In like manner, Nestorius taught that the deity of Christ, not his humanity, is to be embraced as Lord. The humanity of Christ is creaturely humanity, and it is therefore unworthy of the worship reserved for God alone. We might bow down and kiss the physical feet of Jesus, but we only do so as a man kisses his wife through the phone, knowing that the phone, in itself, is worthy of little affection.
Cyril opposed this position furiously, believing that Nestorius’s position implied two Christs: one divine and one human. Many contemporary scholars, however, have reassessed the evidence, and they disagree with Cyril’s assessment. Nestorius is to be understood as an orthodox theologian, one who would never admit of two Christs; and Cyril’s portrait of Nestorius, therefore, must be dismissed as a caricature. Yet it seems that Cyril was correct. How is it possible that the Christian Church, who worships Jesus as Lord, only renders that worship to his divine nature? Cyril’s point, contra Nestorius, was that Jesus was one Lord, in an inseparable union of deity and humanity. It has pleased the Father to govern the universe through the instrumentality of his Son, whose Lordship cannot be bracketed to his incorruptible deity, but it is rightly applied to the totality of his being, including his pierced hands and his Virgin birth.
In the next post, we will examine Cyril’s specific actions against Nestorius. Our conclusion will be favorable to Cyril, and we will argue that the common refrain against Cyril, namely that his demagoguery knew no restraint, is ill founded.