Friday, November 17, 2006

Cyril of Alexandria - A study of his third letter to Nestorius

St. Cyril of Alexandria
A study of his third letter to Nestorius

1) Introduction
Cyril’s early years are little known. His birth place and date are usually placed in Theodosios,[1]Egypt around 378. Due to the quality of his writings, he probably received both a good rhetorical education and an intensive education in selected church Fathers (prior patristic tradition) and in the Scriptures.[2] According to McGuckin, Cyril’s written style had an abundance of rare forms and stylizations typically Alexandrian. He was criticized by Nestorius, who considered him stuffy and difficult to read.[3]
Cyril’s maternal uncle Theophilus was Archbishop of Alexandria. In 403, Cyril was ordained Lector of the church of Alexandria by his uncle. In that same year, Cyril and his uncle attended the Synod of Oak, which deposed John Chrysostom. Cyril never doubted Chrysostom’s deposition. However, as his policies shifted from Theophilus to his own, he gradually accepted John’s eventual rehabilitation.[4]
In 412, Cyril becomes the Archbishop of Alexandria, substituting his uncle Theophilus at the age of thirty four. However, it was not a peaceful succession. The Byzantine administration had its own candidate to the throne of St Mark, the archdeacon Timothy. But Cyril, after several days of violence and fighting between his own faction and supporters of Timothy, was installed as the Archbishop of Alexandria despite the opposition of the secular arm.[5]
Once in power, Cyril extended his power beyond the traditional ecclesiastical functions into the area of secular administration.[6] For Susan Wessel, “Cyril’s failure to recognize the boundaries of his bishopric constituted an abuse of Episcopal power that readily explained his most recalcitrant acts.”[7]
Cyril is accused of several controversies during the first years of his reign. Among these controversies are: the closing down of the Novatian churches and deposing their bishops; the fighting against the Jewish community in Alexandria, temporarily expelling them from the city by force after they had mocked some Christians and the Cross;[8] and finally, his implication (indirectly) in the murder of the renowned pagan and neo-Platonist philosopher Hypatia.
Cyril wrote extensive biblical commentaries, a number of dogmatic treatises against the Arians, and his annual festal letters, from the time of the early controversies in 412-415 until the beginning of the Nestorian controversy in 428-429.[9]

2) The Christological Controversy
Two cities represented (Antioch and Alexandria), two bishops involved (Cyril and Nestorius) and a long period of political disputation and theological differences, marked the Christological controversy.
The disagreement began when Nestorius attempted to mediate a theological dispute among certain persons residing in Constantinople, more specifically, between the monastic party (theotokos defenders) and his own chaplain Anastasius (anthropotokos defender), by stating that “Theotokos (Mother of God) did not do justice to the fact that, strictly speaking, Mary was not the mother of God but rather the mother of the man whom Christian faith recognizes as divine and thus calls God. On the other hand, the term Anthropotokos (Mother of the Man) acknowledges that Mary is the mother of this man but can itself be taken to suggest that he is merely a man, which again is offensive to orthodox Christian faith in the deity of Christ.”[10] Actually, what Nestorius was trying to prove was that both Theotokos and Anthropotokos, strictly speaking, would lead one to heretical views about Jesus. He then suggests that the solution would be in the adoption of the biblical notion of Mary as the Christ-mother (Christotokos). For him, to describe Mary as Christ-mother was entirely accurate and capable of no heretical misinterpretation.[11]
When Cyril knew about these statements, he stated that the designation Theotokos was in fact appropriate for the virgin. According to González, “Nestorius’ position denied the Alexandrine principle of the unity of the Savior and was an occasion to reaffirm the authority of the Alexandrine see over that of Constantinople.”[12] Olson is very clear when he affirms that besides the battle for the true doctrine of Jesus Christ, Cyril and Nestorius “were probably equally guilty of mixing that purely theological motive with impure political motives.”[13] Nestorius wanted to “clean” Constantinople of any influence from Alexandria. Cyril, on the other hand, wanted “to vindicate Alexandrian theology by delivering a body blow to Antiochene prestige equal to the blow to his own city’s reputation delivered by Appolinarius’ condemnation.”[14]
The whole discussion about the Virgin Mary turned into a Christological dispute. Nestorius rejected any interpretation that claims that the union of divinity and humanity in Christ is hypostatic. For him, this concept of the hypostatic union of two natures would eventually form a third one – a type of hybrid between the two. Nestorius uses the term “prosopon” meaning “function” and “human individual.” So, for him, “in Jesus Christ, God has united the divine prosopon to a human nature – but this in no way destroys the two natural prosopa, which correspond to each of the two “complete natures” or hypostases which are united in Christ.”[15] For Olson, “Jesus Christ was a conjunction of divine nature-person and human nature-person: eternal divine Logos and human person Jesus in intimate union.”[16] Putting it in a simple form, what Nestorius believed is that the incarnation is as a union of wills – the will of God the Son and the will of the human being, Jesus.[17]
On the other hand, Cyril’s Christology affirms the union of the divine and human natures of Jesus hypostatically.[18] He understood this concept from the Appollinarian formula (ambiguity of Cyril’s thought[19]) “one nature of God the Word incarnate.”[20] Emphasizing Jesus’ one nature doesn’t mean that he never used the concept of two natures. He did, but for him, these two natures cannot be separated. Cyril rejected the idea of conjunction elaborated by Nestorius as a type of adoptionism.
These competing world-views clashed for the first time in an ecumenical setting at the Council of Ephesus where, on 22 June 431, with Cyril of Alexandria and Memnon, bishop of Ephesus, in the seats of authority, a council of bishops deposed and excommunicated Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, and condemned his doctrine as heresy.[21]
But not until 433, with concessions from both sides and Cyril’s “Formula of Reunion,[22]” did these two cities find ecclesiastical peace.

3) Analysis of the text
The Third Letter to Nestorius was delivered on Sunday, 30 November 430, after morning service. The letter can be divided into three distinctive parts: Part 1) chapters one and two contain a brief introduction and the reasons which gave Cyril the impulse to write the letter; Part 2) from chapter three to chapter eleven, Cyril exposes his Christology; Part 3) chapter twelve, Cyril summarizes his thought with the twelve anathemas.

Part 1)
In his introduction, Cyril shows his concern with the proliferation of Nestorius’ Christology which Cyril calls “blasphemies.” He also makes use of the Bible (Matt 10.34, 35, 37; and Heb 11.35) to support his attacks against Nestorius.
Cyril mentions Pope Celestine and the council that met in Rome as a support to his doctrines and as a strong collaborator against Nestorius’ teachings. According to Cyril, “the Holy Synod and at Rome, and all of us here, agree that the letters written to your Reverence by the church of Alexandria were correct and unimpeachable.”[23] As we can see, Cyril attempted to legitimize his doctrines through the influence of the Church of Rome.
Cyril warns Nestorious to dissociate from his distorted and harmful doctrines and embrace the “orthodox” faith. He gives 10 days to Nestorius, from the receipt of the letter, to abandon his heretic doctrines; otherwise, he would not have “place or status among the priests and bishops of God.”[24]
Cyril accuses Nestorius of misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and perversion of the Nicene Creed.

Part 2)
This part constitutes the body of the letter. Cyril starts by quoting the Nicene Creed and exposing his doctrine which he declares sound and orthodox and which Nestorius must follow it. For Cyril, the Word of God is from God and came down for our salvation. From a natural birth, the Word became man “without abandoning what he was but remaining …God, that is, in nature and truth.”[25] Cyril also adds the words “unchangeable” and “immutable,” expressing the ever existent nature of Jesus.
Cyril reaffirms the “hypostatic union” of the Lord. This is a frontal attack to Nestorius Christology, once he rejects any kind of union when regarded to nature. Cyril states that the Word of God was naturally united to flesh, but not changed into it, therefore, “One Christ and Son and Lord, not as though a man simply had a conjunction with God by way of unity of rank or sovereignty – for equality of honor does not unite natures.”[26] Here Cyril shows his antipathy for Nestorius’ concept of the word conjunction. Cyril later says, “in fact we reject the term ‘conjunction’ as being insufficient to signify the union.”[27]
One of the greatest concerns of Cyril was to make Jesus a two person or being type of thing. He says, “Whoever says such things [referring to those who says that worship the visible because of the invisible] again makes a division into two Christs, and posits a man distinctly separate, and a God likewise.”[28]For him, Jesus was one single being with two combined natures. Denying the union of the two natures for Cyril would make man worship flesh along with the divine. At this point, Cyril has in mind the holy sacraments. For him, when we participate in the communion, we become partakers in the holy flesh and precious blood of Christ, not any kind of flesh, nor even “the flesh of a man sanctified and conjoined to the Word in a unity of dignity.” According to Cyril, this flesh is from the “truly lifegiving and [it is] very flesh of the Word himself.”[29]
Cyril, then, compares men’s union of soul and body with Christ’s hypostatic union. His argument is that even though it constitutes different elements, they are considered indivisibly united. Cyril points out passages in which Jesus talks about himself as human (with human limitations), but nonetheless, in cases like this, he is still recognized as God the Word in the likeness of the Father, despite his manhood. For Cyril, this is part of Christ’s self emptying. Thus, Christ’s words were proper of a man, which he was.
However, when Christ is called ‘apostle’ and ‘high priest’, it is the affirmation of His nature as the only Begotten Son of God.
Chapter ten is dedicated to the Holy Spirit and His relationship with the Son. Cyril says that the way in which the Spirit would glorify the Son (Jn. 16.14), can be compared to any person who talks about a special skill as being his/her glory. What Cyril wanted to make clear was the right relationship between Spirit and Son. For him, the Son did not need to receive glory from the Spirit, because the Spirit is neither greater than him nor above him. However, Christ used His own Spirit to manifest His own Godhead. Cyril states, “He himself was believed to be God by nature because he worked personally through his own Spirit.”[30]
In chapter eleven, Cyril enters in the matter of ‘Theotokos,’ by saying that, “the holy virgin gave birth in the flesh to God hypostatically united to flesh, for this reason we say that she is the ‘Mother of God.’ For Cyril, this is the reason that it is not wrong to call Mary “Mother of God.”
The only and true God, coeternal with the Father and maker of all things, substantially united humanity with Himself and was born as any other human being. According to Cyril, the reason that led the Son to do that was to “cease the curse that drives our earthly body to death.”[31]

Part 3)
In chapter twelve, Cyril writes his famous twelve anathemas. The reason and the interpretation of each anathema is explained in his “Explanation of the Twelve Chapters,” written when he was in house-arrest at Ephesus in later summer 431. Two main reasons led to Cyril’s house arrest; first, his ambiguous theology (some antiochenes considered him either apollinarist or monophysitic) and his opening of the Council before the arrival of the Orientals.[32]
Cyril’s anathemas follow the sequence of the Christological controversy and summarize his thoughts. The first anathema is related to the very term Theotokos. For Cyril, if Mary is not the mother of God, then Jesus is not God. The second anathema has to do with Cyril’s coined term hypostatic union. Cyril’s third anathema relates to the nature of the union. For Cyril, the hypostases after the union of the natures led it to one only nature. The fourth is also about natures. In this case, the person would be anathema if the result of the interpretation of the apostolic writings leads him to the separation of the Word’s nature. The fifth anathema involves the concept of “God bearing man” in opposition to “truly God as the one natural son.” The sixth anathematizes those who say that the Word of God the Father is the God of Christ, but do not confess Him as at once man and God. The seventh anathema anathematizes those who consider Jesus as a man as being someone different from the Word of God. The eighth tells that those who worship Jesus as man and Jesus as God in separate ways would be considered anathema. The ninth relates to the relationship between the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ. The tenth says that all those who consider the acts of Jesus as efficient to save his own humanity (as if his humanity needed salvation) would be considered anathema. The eleventh consider anathema all those who do not recognize Jesus’ full humanity as the flesh of the Word of God the Father. Cyril’s last anathema is a confession of faith that anathematizes all those who do not confess the Word of God’s sufferings, crucifixion and death, even though he is life and life-giving.
4) Relevance for today/questions for discussion
As we know, the official orthodox view of Jesus is neither Cyril’s only nor Nestorius’, but a “kind of compromise between their two views that was carved out after their deaths.”[33] It is very easy for us today to agree with most of our Theology/History books on the condemnation of Nestorius as a heretic. However, there are so many factors involved in this Christological controversy that to accept the final report of the councils, without a personal analysis of all the issues that it raises, would be considered too simplistic.
Today more than ever, we cannot close our eyes to what modern historical scholarship has uncovered about Nestorius’ heresy or orthodoxy. We need find an answer to the question: “Was Nestorius a Nestorian?” In an article published in the journal Church History, called “Modern Interpretations of Nestorius,”[34] Carl E. Braaten challenge theologians not to accept passively what has been written over the years about Nestorius, without digging more deeply into the facts.

“Orthodoxy owes a profound debt of gratitude even to the heretics, and modern christologists are especially grateful to the School of Antioch and Nestorius for having fought successfully the fight for the complete humanity of the biblical Christ. It anticipated the final death blow to every kind of docetism and all traces monophysitism which only in our century has become virtually complete.”[35]

In light of the above:

What are the implications of a bad Christology? How important it is for one’s salvation?

Is the term “Theotokos” sound in its all implications? Does the concept of “Theotokos” lead to Mariolatry or any other kind of idolatry?

For each Council studied so far, there was a political agenda behind it. It was not different in Ephesus. How credible are the decisions made in those councils?

What is the legacy of the Christology of the fifth century?
[1] Greek sources later tended to locate his birth in Alexandria. (McGuckin, p.2)
[2] Daniel A. Keating, The Appropiation of Divine Life in Cyril of Alexandria (Oxford University Press, New York), p. 2.
[3] John A. McGuckin, St. Cyril of Alexandria The Christological Controversy (E.J. Brill, Leiden, New York, 1994), p. 4.
[4] Ibid. 5-6.
[5] Lionel R. Wickham, Cyril of Alexandria Selected Letters (Oxford University Press, New York, 1983), p. xiv.
[6] Susan Wessel, Cyril of Alexandria and the Nestorian Controversy The Making of a Saint and of a Heretic (Oxford University Press, New York, 2004), p. 16.
[7] Ibid.
[8] As their drunken escalated, the Syrian Jews purportedly seized a Christian boy, bounded him to a cross and scourged him to death. (Wessel, p. 33)
[9] Keating, p. 4.
[10] John A. McGuckin, St. Cyril of Alexandria The Christological Controversy (E.J. Brill, Leiden, New York, 1994), p.28.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Justo González, A History of Christian Thought (Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1970), p. 354.
[13] Roger Olson, The Story of Christian Theology (Inter Varsity Press, Illinois), p.214.
[14] Ibid.
[15] González, p. 361.
[16] Olson, p. 216.
[17] Lionel R. Wickham, Cyril of Alexandria Selected Letters (Oxford University Press, New York, 1983), p. xxxiii.
[18] the union of two different realities (divinity and humanity) by standing as the sole personal subject of both. (McGuckin, p. 142)
[19] Ibid. p.218.
[20] Gozález, p. 365.
[21] Susan Wessel, Cyril of Alexandria and the Nestorian Controversy The Making of a Saint and of a Heretic (Oxford University Press, New York, 2004), p. 4.
[22] The two natures are only distinct in thought and not in reality. (Olson, p.221)
[23] Third Letter to Nestorius, ch 2.
[24] Lionel R. Wickham, Cyril of Alexandria Selected Letters (Oxford University Press, New York, 1983), p 15.
[25] Third letter to Nestorius, ch. 3.
[26] Ibid. ch. 5.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Ibid. ch. 6.
[29] Ibid, ch. 7.
[30] Third letter to Nestorius, ch. 10.
[31] Ibid. ch. 11.
[32] John A. McGuckin, St. Cyril of Alexandria The Christological Controversy (E.J. Brill, Leiden, New York, 1994), p. 282.
[33] Roger Olson, The Story of Christian Theology (Inter Varsity Press, Illinois), p. 215.
[34] Carl E. Braaten, Modern Interpretations of Nestorius, Church History, Vol. 32, No.3. (Sept., 1963), pp. 251-257.
[35] Ibid.
Note: Copy of this material is allowed and free, since the source is cited / A reprodução dos textos é permitida e gratuita, desde que citada a fonte.
Rodrigo Serrao

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