Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Scriptural Christology of St. Cyril of Alexandria

The following is my paper for Patristics 102 which I took this past semester under the tutelage of Fr. John Behr. I post it because of several extended conversations between Perry Robinson of Energetic Procession and Rhology, my good friend of many years who comments frequently on theological posts on this blog. A recent post of Rhology's from last month deals with nature and person, as talk of christology is wont to do, and the confusion in Protestant circles of Orthodox talk of matter-that-deifies has risen again, as it is wont to do given the--I won't say Nestorian, but lets say "Traditionally Antiochene"--leaning of many reformed Protestants. If you wish to follow some of these discussions, you can follow the link above. If not, then I present this paper for information's sake. I pray it edifies.


St. Cyril’s Scriptural Christology

St. Cyril of Alexandria (†444) was a vehement proponents of the doctrine that the only Son of God had Himself come down from heaven and become the very man who had been crucified for mankind’s salvation. This doctrine contradicted very influential opponents, who taught that God had not died for us as a man, but only took to Himself a man who had died. St. Cyril’s work, That Christ is One,[1] addresses this convincingly and thoroughly because it refutes Cyril’s opponents’ arguments while also putting forward many Scriptural proofs which preserve his central thesis of the oneness of Christ. The categories within the work which best prove this point are the main passages of Scripture which St. Cyril engages to prove his premise (while refuting and correcting those of his opponents), the consequences of his opponents’ doctrine, and the reasons for stating that St. Cyril’s premise is so essential. The scholars Daniel A. Keating, Fr. John McGuckin, and Norman Russell comment about various aspects of the conflict in which St. Cyril found himself. While Keating elaborates on the divine, economic narrative which flows from St. Cyril’s teaching, Russell tends to clarify the differences of emphasis (and the unintended consequences thereof) of both St. Cyril and Nestorius. McGuckin analyzes both why and how it is that both St. Cyril and Nestorius wrote as they did. Through a careful reading of St. Cyril’s work and the secondary literature, it is clear that the oneness of Christ, based on an exposition of Scripture, maintains the centrality of the communication of the divine life of God to mankind through Christ’s death —a centrality which is lost in his opponents’ teachings.

Throughout the work That Christ is One, St. Cyril makes much use of Scripture in proving the essential oneness of Christ. Two passages that predominate in his argument are Philippians 2.6-11 and John 1.14.[2] The passage in Philippians concerns itself with the self-emptying (κένωσις) of Christ. Cyril’s opponents ask how, if the Word is truly Himself the One who was crucified, how it is that He as “the Only Begotten, who is from God by nature, [could] ever be given what he already possesses,” namely the “name above every name”?[3] St. Cyril, however, works the question the other way and bids his opponents “demonstrate how [a man] pre-existed in the form of God and did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, and how he assumed the form of a slave, evidently as though he did not already have it and did not exist in this way before he assumed it.”[4] One sees the different approaches that St. Cyril and Nestorius are taking with regard to their reading of Scripture, as well as the superiority of St. Cyril’s approach. Cyril is aware that a mystery of κένωσις is at work here; Nestorius seems to “[appeal] to semantic clarity and logical necessity like a true scholastic.”[5] For St. Cyril, the primary importance was preserving “an insight basic to Christianity”—the self-emptying of God for our salvation—even if this meant engaging in something that Nestorius might consider sloppy apologetics and flirting with blasphemy.[6] Yet insisting on a precise categorization of who does what is not only unnecessary in St. Cyril’s mind, but also damages the whole of the κένωσις passage. One cannot work the passage from Nestorius’ direction, for in attempting to break apart the acts of one person from some other person in order to safeguard the dignity of the divinity causes more problems than it solves. Rather, one must approach the passage with an a priori, Johannine lens in place which assumes that the One who emptied himself is also the One who spoke of the “glory [He] had with [God] before the world was.[7]

St. Cyril then turns to answer a modified question from his opponents: If, then, we cannot see the κένωσις passage as addressing separate works with separate subjects, how then should we view what appears to be God receiving something He already possessed before the Incarnation? St. Cyril, mindful of the need to preserve the majesty of God in our thought, asks whether it would not thus “be incomparably better to say that the name was given by the Father to the natural son who was made man for our sake, so that even in the manhood he might be understood to be God, and though he endured the abasement of our condition, to be in the most transcendent heights?”[8] For St. Cyril, the κένωσις passage stated that it was only as an enfleshed One that the Word could save us, and it is as this God-Man, crucified in His flesh, that He is glorified with the name above every name: Jesus, the name given at His Incarnation.

In his use of John 1.14, St. Cyril establishes what becomes a sort of rallying cry for him concerning the unity of Christ. The phrase “the Word made flesh” (ο Λóγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο) was for St. Cyril proof positive that one could not say that Christ had taken a man to himself; the very language of the verse precluded such a possibility. Cyril’s insistence on denying “a distinct human person who self-activates” apart from the Word, however, was problematic for him, as his Antiochene opponents were quick to accuse him of preaching Apollinarianism: the idea “that the Word occupies the place of the soul in Christ,” leaving only a mindless flesh assumed by Christ as an instrument.[9] Cyril counters that, though the Scriptures do indeed describe Christ as the Word made flesh, and thus imply instrumentation, we must nonetheless be diligent in teaching “that the body which he united to himself was endowed with a rational soul, for the Word, who is God, would hardly neglect our finer part, the soul, and have regard only for the earthly body. Quite clearly in all wisdom he provided for both the soul and the body.”[10] Cyril then furthers his argument by pointing out that John 1.14 is clearly an example of synecdoche; Just as the Prophet Joel clearly did not mean that the Holy Spirit would be poured out on all soulless corpses when he made use of the word flesh, or as Moses did not speak of disembodied wraiths when referring to “seventy-five souls” going down to Egypt, so St. John was not saying that Christ made His own a mere, fleshly puppet devoid of a mind.[11] Thus, he explicitly denies Apollinarianism while still remaining faithful to his lynchpin verse which safeguards his central idea of the Word becoming a man, rather than assuming a man.[12]

It is primarily this fidelity to John 1.14 which allows St. Cyril to counter the objections of his opponents, also taken from Scripture. These objections, along with the faulty exegetical methods that give rise to them, are the result of a confusion of what the Incarnate Christ did through the economy of his Incarnation (οικονομíα) and what the Word of God is nakedly in his divinity (θεολογíα). To Nestorius’ thinking, it could not be possible for the Word of God to be the one who was born of the Virgin Mary and crucified on the cross; a theological system which suffered divinity to endure such indignities would be intolerable. He, therefore, attempted to point out yet other examples of Scripture that supposedly proved their prosopic union of persons. St. Cyril first challenges his opponents’ treatment of Hebrews 13.8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” The Nestorians claimed “that this [man] Jesus who is the same yesterday and today shall always remain the same, that is ‘recent,’ of yesterday and today, whereas God the Word coexists [“forever”] with his own Father” as a second πρóσωπον in Christ.[13] St. Cyril continues his use of «ὁ Λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο» by quoting the gospel of John, stating that Christ himself said that He was before Abraham (Jn. 8.58) and came down from heaven (3.13), and quoting John the Baptist’s testimony that Christ is “a man who is preferred before me because he was before me” (Jn 1.29.30).[14] Once again, St. Cyril points out that, in contrast to the testimony of Scripture, Nestorians abuse partative exegesis, for they do not attribute both man’s temporality and the Word’s eternality to one subject, but rather attempt to make “yesterday and today,” apply to the man Jesus, and “forever,” to the Word. In contrast, St. Cyril can and does say that the whole Christ is before Abraham, for the eternal Word was the same man who stood before the Pharisees.

St. Cyril continues to the Nestorian treatment of Christ’s word from the cross, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Mt. 27.46) as well as the passage which states that the “son learned obedience from the things he suffered” (Heb. 5.7-9). St. Cyril counters the Nestorians, who stated that such words of despair and ignorance could only be attributed to a man apart from the Word. He states that “the Word of God became an example for us in the days of his flesh, but not nakedly or outside the limits of the self-emptying.”[15] The Word, then, did these things Himself, but not in His divine, unmovable nature. St. Cyril repairs again to the Scriptures for proof of his assertion: He Who is eternal according to θεολογíα “became like us in all things” according to οικονομíα, yet remained without sin.[16] Thus the Word did indeed “learn obedience,” yet not as a simply divine Word somehow eternally learning obedience. Rather, the enfleshed Word learned obedience economically in his humanity. For St. Cyril, this does not diminish the glory of the Word but rather increases it, for “he who was truly and naturally the Son, and eminent in the glories of the Godhead, should bring himself to such abasement as to undergo the abject poverty of the human state.”[17] Likewise, Christ’s cry from the cross, far from being “the saying of one who was distraught because of human faintheartedness” as Nestorius would put it, was rather an economic cry of identification. St. Cyril states that Christ “‘did no sin’ (1 Pet 2.22),” yet “in becoming man, the Only Begotten spoke these words as one of us and on behalf of all our nature,” thus making “the nature of man…clean, its faults corrected, made holy and pure.”[18] St. Cyril finishes his treatment of the verses by asking a question regarding Christ’s rebuke of Peter; why would Peter receive the Lord’s rebuke for rejecting the idea of the Cross unless the Cross was necessary?[19] Thus, in spite of the sin the Word encountered in His humanity, He suffered obediently and spoke for us as the Word made man, as attested to in Scripture.

A fourth objection of the Nestorians is based on a phrase in Luke 2.52, where Jesus is said to “advance in stature and wisdom and grace.” If the Word is eternal and all-knowing, how can this refer to something other than a mere man who must do the advancing while being attached to the Word? St. Cyril’s refutation of this point is one of the most attention-grabbing parts of the work. The continued contrast of οικονομíα and θεολογíα are in play here; the “quiet mystery” of Christ’s economically allowing the limitations of His manhood to dominate the situation is mentioned, along with the fact that “human things are [Christ’s] by an economic appropriation, and along with the flesh all the things belonging to it.”[20] St. Cyril, however, does not stop with merely refuting the idea that a self-activating human could be the subject of advancement; he presses the teaching of the oneness of the Word made flesh so far that he runs the risk of appearing grossly Apollinarian. St. Cyril reminds the readers of the language of St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which states that St. Paul’s apostleship is “not from a man or by a man, but through Jesus Christ,” and his Gospel “is not according to man [but] by the revelation of Jesus Christ.”[21] Thus, St. Cyril states that Christ is so much the one subject of the Word made flesh that He, in His flesh cannot be spoken of purely as a mere man.

The final objection of the Nestorians that St. Cyril addresses is out of Hebrews 2.9-17, wherein God is described in verse ten as “perfect[ing] the author of…salvation.” How could one who is eternal and perfect ever need perfecting? St. Cyril begins his refutation by citing the passage in its immediate context; it is highly unlikely that, were St. Cyril and Nestorius dealing with a mere man, that said man would be described a verse earlier as having to be “brought lower than the angels” because of the cross. It would be even less likely that, were said man only conjoined to the Word of God, that this same man “through the suffering of death…[would have] thereby ‘been crowned with honor and glory.’”[22] St. Cyril quotes St. Paul yet again to say that God did not put a mere man to death for us, but rather that “He did not spare his own son but gave him up on behalf of us all.”[23] The perfection comes from what the Word has done by becoming flesh economically and, in that economy, suffering and dying on the cross. As Cyril puts it, “the Word who shines forth from God’s essence is his proper Son, but that he is not given on behalf of us nakedly, as it were, or as yet without flesh, but rather when he became flesh.” Thus, by reading Scripture through John 1.14 and contrasting θεολογíα and οικονομíα, St. Cyril more than put to rest the objections of his opponents.

One can clearly see that St. Cyril is intent on making this point thoroughly and clearly. Yet why would he go to such great lengths to prove that Christ is one? Simply put, for St. Cyril, if the Son of God is not the One suffering on the cross, then the divine life of God cannot be communicated to man. If Nestorius is correct in saying that it was not God Himself who became flesh and was crucified on the cross for our salvation, if it was only a mere man who suffered while the Word remained detached from any suffering, then the whole of the divine economy is a sham and mankind is not saved. St. Cyril’s language in That Christ is One conveys very clearly that he equated the dividing of Christ into two sons as an “overthrowing of the divine and sacred kerygma,”[24] and the beauty of the union of the Word with humanity as “the most wonderful part of the economy.” The Nestorian division, then, reduces this economy “to… nothing more than idolatry,”[25] for falling down before the man Christ Jesus, we give to a mere man “a glory which is not his, for then he is not truly God but someone who has fellowship and participation with God, and is thus a falsely named son, a saved savior, a redeemed redeemer.”[26] St. Cyril much prefers the language of St. Paul who, in speaking with St. Titus, calls Jesus Christ “our great God and Savior” who was himself given for us by His Father.”[27] If Christ is not Himself our God and Savior, St. Cyril reasons, we can neither enter into nor progress through the divine life of God, for the death into which we enter for our salvation is not the death of God which destroys death, but that of a mere man, whose death is soteriologically impotent.

This vital aspect of our salvation which hinges on the oneness of Christ is shown very clearly by Daniel A. Keating, in his article “Divinization in Cyril.” Keating speaks of a “narrative of divine life” by which divinity is made available through the crucified Christ to a human race which then appropriates it.[28] Keating references a humanity which had lost communion with the Father via the Holy Spirit. Christ as Word had no need of restoration to communion, yet in His baptism received communion economically, as a man, on behalf of all mankind. We see, then, that “the Spirit flew away (πέπτη) from the human race in the first Adam because of sin, and now, in the form of a dove, alighted (κατέπτη) back on the human race in the second Adam.”[29] We, thus, through our baptism, incorporate the reception of the Spirit and are thus able to participate in the life which He Himself set up. St. Paul is clear that participating in baptism is participating “in the likeness of His death, [through which] we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection.[30] Christ’s baptism is not merely a charging of humanity with a pneumatological energy proper to the rite itself; such a rite is dependent on His being the One “crucified before the foundation of the world” and only thus able to receive the Spirit economically for us. St. Cyril says that, if the Word was not Himself the One baptized in the form of the death He Himself would undergo, then there would be no way for the Holy Spirit to come back upon humanity. However, to be baptized into the Son is to be baptized into Christ,[31] for Christ is the Son who gave Himself for us[32] and reconciled us “in his own fleshly body through his death.”[33] Through baptism, we participate in Creation’s spiritual (πνευματικς) renewal which is based on the crucified One.

Yet, as Keating says, we are not meant merely to benefit from spiritual communion through the death of Christ; we are to benefit bodily (σωματικς) though His death, as well.[34] Once men have been brought into what Keating calls “the divine plan of salvation” through baptism, they are in place to receive the second part of the divine narrative: “the gift of divine life,” [35] or the divine body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. The treatment of communicatio idiomatum is nowhere more overt in St. Cyril’s writing than when he speaks about the Eucharist, for he makes clear that an exchange of properties takes place between natures based on their common point of union, namely, that they are both proper to the one, divine Son and Word of God. Thus we can see that statements like “the radiance of the divine and ineffable glory of God the Father shines “in the face of Jesus Christ[36] can be made without fear, for ““the Word who is God can introduce the life-giving power and energy of his own self into his very own flesh,”[37] though without thinking “that the divine nature of the Word had changed into something which formerly it was not…or that the flesh was changed by some kind of transformation into the nature of the Word himself.”[38] The bread which is his flesh, then, is “living bread,” the flesh of life broken on the cross, and no mere man’s flesh, unable to communicate life as can the “holy and life-giving” flesh of the Word, “full of divine energy.”[39] Thus, as Keating concludes, “Cyril’s theology of the Eucharist appears to be quite straightforward: by eating of the consecrated bread, we in fact partake of the flesh of Christ, and so receive into ourselves the life that is in Christ through the medium of his very flesh, flesh which has become life-giving by virtue of the ineffable union of the Word to this flesh.”[40] It is evident, then, that the One who offers this flesh on the cross must be the divine Son and Word of God Himself; a mere taking of a man alongside the Word would not allow for a communication of the life of God through the sacrificed, vivified, and energized flesh given to us in the Eucharist.

St. Cyril, in his work That Christ is One, argues meticulously for the unity of Christ as one Person and against the Nestorian idea of the Word’s mere assumption of a man. He proves himself admirably through a systematic use of Scripture and masterful discourse on the sacramental life made possible by the Incarnation and Passion of that same, theanthropic Christ. While an essay of this scope neither addresses the work to the degree it obviously warrants nor takes into account the potential terminological pitfalls within St. Cyril’s system, it does drive home the point that the overarching, dominant theme which was non-negotiable for St. Cyril was that the Son and Word of God had emptied Himself and, in a kenotic act, become a man, suffered on a cross, and died for us so that we might be initiated into the new life of God which His death had made available to us. With this as his unshakable focal point, St. Cyril remains for us a true guardian and sure proclaimer of the Gospel of Christ.

[1] Although all quotations from this work will be from the edition put out by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press in 1995 entitled On the Unity of Christ, the work itself will be referred to within the paper as That Christ is One out of a desire to be faithful to the original, Latin title, Quod unus sit Christus.

[2] Norman Russell. Cyril of Alexandria (New York: Routledge, 2000), 41.

[3] St. Cyril of Alexandria. On the Unity of Christ (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 85.

[4] Ibid., 85.

[5] McGuckin, Fr. John. St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004), 188.

[6] McGuckin, 190.

[7] Jn 17.5, cf. Cyril, 86.

[8] Cyril, 122.

[9] Russell, 41.

[10] Cyril, 64.

[11] Ibid., 78.

[12] Ibid., 69.

[13] Cyril, 92.

[14] Ibid., 93, 109. Scripture quotation from the Douay-Rheims for clarity.

[15] Ibid., 103.

[16] Heb. 4.15, cf. Cyril, 58.

[17] Cyril, 103.

[18] Ibid., 105-6.

[19] Ibid., 104.

[20] Ibid., 110.

[21] Ibid., 110.

[22] Ibid., 114.

[23] Rom. 8.32, cf. Cyril, 114.

[24] Cyril, 68,

[25] Ibid., 71.

[26] Ibid., 89.

[27] Tit. 2.13; Jn. 3.16, cf. Cyril, 120: “When God the Father so exalts his love for the world, explaining how immensely great and vast it is, then why do our opponents so belittle it, saying that it was not the true Son who was given for us?”

[28] The Theology of St. Cyril of Alexandria: A Critical Appreciation (New York: T and T Clark, 2003), 152.

[29] Ibid., 156.

[30] Rom. 6.5.

[31] Rom. 6.3.

[32] Gal. 2.19-20.

[33] Col. 1.21-22, emph mine.

[34] 160.

[35] Ibid., 152.

[36] Cyril, 108, cf. 2 Cor. 4.6.

[37] Ibid., 133.

[38] Ibid., 77.

[39] Jn. 6.51, cf. Cyril, 61, 132.

[40] 163.

1 comment:

Andrea Elizabeth said...

Thanks for sharing!

I hope you don't mind that I borrowed a segment to go off on a tangent with.