Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy
by John McGuckin
St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 430 pp. $22.95 paper

All great writers, all important writers, sooner or later fall victim to the received wisdom of the secondary literature about them. Just ask Plato. How many people know anything more about Plato than his Allegory of the Cave, with maybe his Divided Line thrown in? Who goes beyond these shopworn clichés to discover that Plato also leveled the most severe criticisms against the very theory he is supposed to have fathered? Or that his dialogues are so rich in dramatic give-and-take that they usually end up leaving the reader in continued perplexity, not in settled doctrine?

Imagine, then, the problem if the writer is not someone as well known as Plato. Cyril of Alexandria, for instance, is certainly great and important, for without him we would have neither the Council of Ephesus (which declared Mary to be the Mother of God) nor the Council of Chalcedon (which vigorously defended the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus). But in Cyril’s case, translations of his works are spotty. The controversies that most engaged him now seem mind-numbingly arcane. And, perhaps worst of all, the author of the received wisdom about Cyril is no less a figure than Edward Gibbon, who in his epochal Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire determined for the next two centuries our image of the irascible patriarchal bishop of Byzantine Alexandria. Here, for example, is Gibbon’s account of Cyril’s campaign to drive the Jews out of his diocese:

Without any legal sentence, without any royal mandate, the patriarch, at the dawn of day, led a seditious multitude to the attack of the synagogues. Unarmed and unprepared, the Jews were incapable of resistance; their houses of prayer were leveled with the ground, and the episcopal warrior, after rewarding his troops with the plunder of their goods, expelled from the city the remnant of the unbelieving nation. Perhaps he might plead the insolence of their prosperity, and their deadly hatred of the Christians, whose blood they had recently shed in a malicious or accidental tumult. Such crimes would have deserved the animadversion of the magistrate; but in this promiscuous outrage, the innocent were confounded with the guilty, and Alexandria was impoverished by the loss of a wealthy and industrious colony.

Clearly anyone who sets out to give a sympathetic portrait of Cyril, let alone an outright defense of the man, has his work cut out for him. But John McGuckin, a Greek Orthodox priest now teaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, succeeds brilliantly. McGuckin is not so foolish as to try to defend the indefensible. Instead, he tries to set Cyril in his context in fifth-century Alexandria. Almost half of Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy consists of McGuckin’s translation of works by Cyril that have been either unavailable in English or available only in rather musty Victorian versions. McGuckin also gives us a monograph on Cyril’s theology that is a model of clarity, fairness, and subtlety.

As to Cyril’s reputation for intolerance”admittedly, a well-deserved one”McGuckin argues that we should be wary of imposing on pre-Enlightenment figures like Cyril what Herbert Butterfield called the Whig interpretation of history, according to which all prior ages are to be judged by the standards outlined in John Locke’s Essay on Toleration . It is an established fact of history that in the late Roman Empire no consensus had developed for dealing with moral and religious pluralism. Christians saw both Judaism and paganism as the enemies of their religion, just as Judaism and paganism regarded Christianity”and each other”as false and dangerous. Hence the persecution of the Christians by the Roman emperors and the pagan pogroms against the Jews in Alexandria before the advent of Christianity. As to Cyril’s campaign to destroy or expropriate pagan shrines, McGuckin reminds us that “the early church did not regard the pagan temples as barren conventicles of false superstition,” but “as the active centers of demonic enmity and malice to local Christians.”

After this mostly sympathetic biographical section, the book opens out onto a vista of remarkable theological brilliance, both McGuckin’s and Cyril’s. Unfortunately, what counted as theological brilliance in Cyril’s time can seem like vain or obnoxious hairsplitting in our post-Humean age. Here McGuckin is at his most successful, for he succeeds in showing the importance of fifth-century debates about the Person of Christ”not only to people of the fifth century but to us.

The problem at first seems merely conceptual: How can Jesus be both human and divine” fully human and fully divine”without his divinity crowding out his humanity, or vice versa? One solution came from Apollinaris not quite a century earlier. He taught that the Logos of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, was in Jesus a substitute for the human soul (or at least its “higher” rational element). But this position was condemned in 381 AD by the first Council of Constantinople, which insisted that what Jesus has not assumed has not been saved: since sin is first and foremost a rational act of will, Apollinaris has in effect robbed us of our salvation.

In reaction to Apollinaris, theologians from Antioch claimed that since both God and human beings are possessed of their own subject-centers, the same must hold of Jesus: the Logos of God and the human soul of Jesus must sit separately behind the “mask” (the original meaning of “person”) of the divine-human actor. This position, however, ran into its own intolerable antinomies. For if the Antiochenes are right, who was the “I” speaking when Jesus used the first-person pronoun? When he said “I thirst,” was the “I” different from the “I” that said, “Before Abraham was, I am”? Startlingly, most of the Antiochenes, led by Nestorius, agreed”at least before they had to meet the objections of the formidable Cyril. For Cyril, Antiochene exegesis had lurched into soteriological schizophrenia, with Jesus switching off his divine power to weep over the death of Lazarus and switching it on again to bring him back to life. But after the condemnation of Apollinaris the option of ascribing the “I” of Jesus only to the divine Logos was equally impossible.

Cyril’s achievement was to have pointed the way toward a solution to this great riddle, perhaps the greatest in Christianity. Cyril began by focusing not so much on the philosophical conundrum entailed by the Incarnation as on God’s purpose in sending His Son to die in our place. As McGuckin lucidly summarizes Cyril’s approach:

This is the way he answers two key questions about the incarnation: “Why did it happen?” and, “How did it happen?” To both queries he replies: “As an economy of salvation.” To say that the Logos was born is, for Cyril, not the nonsense Nestorius thought it to be, any more than to say the Logos suffered or died, because the apparent paradox brings home to the believer the constantly presumed context”that these things, birth, suffering, death, and resurrection, took place “economically,” that is, as a practical exercise of the Logos who assumed a human bodily life not pointlessly but in order to work out the salvation of the human race in and through that bodily condition.

The great merit of this position is that it enabled Cyril to follow through on the implications of the decree of the Council of Ephesus, which had declared Mary to be the Mother of God precisely because she bore the single-subject Jesus, who is both God and man. The bishops at Ephesus had joined Cyril in claiming that the Incarnation entailed an “exchange of attributes” (the communicatio idiomatum ). But Cyril went further: He saw that if Mary is the Mother of God precisely because she is the mother of Jesus, then the human nature of Jesus is at once powerful and fragile, majestic and humble. Cyril took these paradoxes to their ultimate limit, bluntly declaring, “The Impassible One suffered” ( ho Apathos epathen ).

Here Cyril was certainly bolder than the Latin theologians, but the lack of theological daring in Latin Christology has somewhat slanted McGuckin’s interpretation of Pope Leo I, whose famous Tome was read out before the assembled bishops at Chalcedon to unanimous acclaim: “Peter has spoken through Leo!” The standard Western account of that episode claims for Rome a balance of approach lacking in the more disputatious Greek theologians, who were still too besotted by the neo-Platonic speculations common in the East. McGuckin disagrees. He points out, rightly, that the bishops not only accepted Leo’s intervention as the voice of Peter but went on to say, “So also did Cyril teach.” (Cyril had died seven years before Chalcedon.) According to McGuckin, the bishops accepted Leo because, and only because, he taught the same thing as Cyril, who alone was the test for Christological orthodoxy. McGuckin also makes the much more radical claim that the decree of Chalcedon was meant as a deliberative corrective to Leo’s Tome .

This thesis will not stand up to scrutiny. The decree the Eastern bishops supported clearly represented a middle passage between the extremes of Antioch and Alexandria. Cyril had favored the term “hypostasis” to denote the union of divine and human in Jesus, while the Antiochenes preferred “person.” Chalcedon used both terms. Similarly, Cyril generally spoke of a hypostatic union “from” two natures, whereas Leo and the Antiochenes insisted on the union taking place “in” two natures”and that is the formulation Chalcedon chose. Finally, we know that the Alexandrians themselves detected these “concessions” to Antiochene theology because Cyril’s more hotheaded successors (Eutyches and Dioscorus, primarily) actively rejected the Council. That rejection soon led to the Monophysite heresy, which lives on to this day in the Coptic and Ethiopian churches.

That problem aside, John McGuckin’s Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy is a book to be welcomed and recommended. Students of this difficult period will be amazed at the verve and clarity the author has brought to his study. Its erudition and speculative brilliance recall John Henry Newman’s The Arians of the Fourth Century . Even more, McGuckin has amply justified Newman’s famous observation in the Development of Doctrine that Antioch is “the very metropolis of heresy” whereas it “may almost be laid down as an historical fact that [Cyril’s] mystical interpretation and orthodoxy will stand or fall together.”

Edward T. Oakes, S.J. is co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar .

Articles by Edward T. Oakes