He was the Ultimate Adversary
What appears from a modern perspective to be theological hairsplitting and intellectual contortionism was, in the fourth and fifth centuries, the stuff of intense, erudite, and sometimes violent debate. Today’s saint was of that heroic age when the Church, just legalized, came bursting out of her cage like a lion. She had been locked up, roaming her cramped space, half starved and small muscled when, all of a sudden, the door was lifted and the world was hers. There followed two centuries of aggressive debate, sharp criticism, harsh reactions, rough counter reactions, and prolific letter writing until several Church Councils standardized the Church’s basic theology. Saint Cyril was a key actor in this theodrama. He was educated, irascible, strong willed, politically astute, brilliant, and utterly convinced that his theology of Christ was correct. It was. What mattered in the fifth century still matters today.
Saint Cyril was the Patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt, from 412–444 A.D, when it was a major city in the late Roman Empire. The Patriarch of Constantinople as of 428 was a monk from Antioch named Nestorius. He taught that Saint Mary was the Christ-bearer but not the God-bearer. Nestorius is also associated with the related false teaching that there are two hypostatic unions in Jesus Christ, one divine and one human, a theory which locates two persons in the one body of Jesus. Various critics immediately identified the errors in Nestorius’ teachings, but Cyril of Alexandria was the most tenacious in denouncing him. Cyril wrote to the Pope and demanded that the Patriarch of Constantinople either retract his false teaching or be excommunicated.
A church council was called in Ephesus in 431 to settle the matter. The forceful Cyril took total command of the Council’s proceedings, and, after numerous machinations as political as they were theological, the council declared Mary the Mother of God—and Nestorius a heretic. With explicit papal support, Nestorius was removed from his see. Recriminations and counter-recriminations followed, damaging the reputations of all involved. Some regions of Syria followed Nestorius’ teachings and separated from the Church over the question of Christ’s natures. Certain divisions remain even until today. But the teachings of the Council of Ephesus, and the related Council of Chalcedon in 451, dogmatically defined the Church’s Christology for posterity. Cyril and his followers saved the day.
The theological issue at stake was theoretical, but not merely theoretical. How could one person, Jesus of Nazareth, be both fully human and fully divine? Wouldn’t the superior divine nature crowd out His human nature like light crowds out darkness? Some theologians before Cyril taught that the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, was a replacement for Jesus’ human soul. This idea was condemned. Others, like Nestorius, claimed that behind the mask of Jesus, a Logos and a human soul lurked side by side. This created problems too. Most obviously, when Jesus said “I thirst” from the cross, was He speaking as God or man? What about when He said “Before Abraham was, I am”? Who wept over the death of Lazarus? Who raised him from the dead? Who lifted the chalice and spoke at the Last Supper? Who, precisely, was the “I” of Jesus of Nazareth? The Christ riddle needed to be solved. By the early fifth century, many had tried and failed. Saint Cyril solved this perennial riddle by teaching that the subject behind the “I” of Jesus was one, not two. Jesus was a complex God-man of two natures, united in one person, and these two natures continually exchanged their respective theological and human attributes.
Despite Cyril’s theological accomplishments, the tensions inherent to understanding a God-man still perdure. There are images of a tan Jesus with sandy blond hair and radiant white teeth tossing a frisbee: California Jesus. There is stained glass of a crowned Christ on His throne, sceptre in hand, robed in majesty: Christ the King. And there is the wounded, naked, forlorn Jesus, hungry for air on the cross: The Suffering Servant Jesus. The Church’s theology places guardrails on the road to make sure we don’t veer off into heresy. Yet much is still left to the realm of prayer, spirituality, and mystery. Saint Cyril placed those guardrails. Don’t go beyond here. Be careful there. Stay on the well-trod path. One person. Two natures. Indivisible. Without confusion. Perfect in Godhead. Perfect in manhood. Truly God. Truly man. Born of the Virgin Mother of God. Every heresy conquered is not a gravestone but a brick in the huge theological cathedral of the Church. Saint Cyril laid many of the bricks in the lower courses of our theological home.
Saint Cyril of Alexandria, assist and inspire all teachers, preachers, writers, and thinkers to follow your example of rigorous analysis, of fidelity to Church councils, and of understanding tradition not as an anchor but as a dynamic force.
Lives of the saints are valuable not only for the virtue they reveal but also for the less admirable qualities that also appear. Holiness is a gift of God to us as human beings. Life is a process. We respond to God’s gift, but sometimes with a lot of zigzagging. If Cyril had been more patient and diplomatic, the Nestorian church might not have risen and maintained power so long. But even saints must grow out of immaturity, narrowness, and selfishness. It is because they—and we—do grow, that we are truly saints, persons who live the life of God.
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