Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Cyril and the Christological Controversy

Today, June 9 (New Calendar), the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates St. Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria. Sometimes considered a controversial figure, especially in context of the Christological debates which were going on at the same time, Cyril was an ardent defender of Orthodoxy and foe of the Nestorians who believed, wrongly, that Mary should only be venerated as "Christotokos" (Mother of Christ) as opposed to "Theotokos" (Mother of God), which is the title that the Holy Orthodox Church proclaims as the Truth since Mary gave birth to the Theanthropos (God-Man), Jesus Christ. To say otherwise, as the Nestorians contended, suggests that Jesus and the Logos were two distinct persons (hypostases) rather than one person in two natures which is the formula that was adopted at the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451. Nestorius was condemned and Cyril vindicated following the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 which codified and confirmed the title "Theotokos."

Though considered a staunch bulwark of Christian Orthodoxy, Cyril is sometimes attacked as being a crypto-Monophysite. Such is unfair if only because Cyril's acquittal of himself on one issue made him open to attack on another. For instance, Cyril when expressing his Christology used the formula "one nature [physis] of God the Word assumed flesh" which was not from St. Athanasius, as he had believed but from Apollinarius. The Apollinarian party believed that Christ had take on only a human body, not the full human nature; that the Logos had "taken the place of the rational and mimmaterial elements in the human body" (Meyendorff, 1975, 20). Cyril's lack of precise theological category should not be grounds enough for leaving him open to modern attack as a heretic, though this is often done.

Cyril, like Augustine, who is often attacked (and somewhat rightly) for overemphasizing the grace of God in man's salvation to the point that man becomes a puppet (Augustine, at the end of his life, made many clarifications and revisions of his earlier theological works which were compiled in his famous Retractationes, Retractations, NOT Retractions; Augustine was still working on this until he died in 430), does embrace the Christology which was upheld at Chalcedon in 451. Though he would not demand that the Antiochians adopt his terminology (Meyendorff, 1975, 21) and Chalcedon served as a necessary corrective for his defective vocabulary, Cyril clearly believes that the two natures of Jesus are not complements to each other, as the Apollinarians suggested, but united hypostatically in the person of Jesus Christ.

Now, why does this matter? Why do the arguments of calling Mary "Theotokos" as opposed to "Christotokos" matter? Why does the Chalcedonian Christology of Christ matter for us lowly, non-academic, non-theological people? They matter because the crux of the issue is theosis, which is where Man becomes God, not in substance, but by participation in his energies. The Athanasian and Irenaen dictum of "God became man so that man might become God" is really misunderstood by those outside of the Eastern Churches.

Western Christendom has been anchored in the Anselmian idea of redemption through the "penal satisfaction" of Christ on the cross for the sins of mankind. What happens through this strictly juridical interpretation of Christ's saving work on earth is that Christology becomes a separated category from both anthropology and pneumatology which the East strives to maintain. Whereas Western Christendom is so driven by a need to have theology nicely sorted and separated into respective categories, the East sees theology holistically. If Christ's redemptive work is separated to a category all its own, then theosis is out the window with it. Fr. John Meyendorff writes: ...[t]he true nature of man means life in God [theosis], realized once and for all, through the Holy Spirit, in the hypostatic union of the man Jesus with the Logos and made accessible to all men[emphasis mine], through the same Holy Spirit, in the humanity of Christ, in His body, the Church, Christology acquires a new and universal dimension. (Meyendorrf, 1979, 32).

Thus, the Christological controversy cannot be separated anthropology or life in the Spirit and it cannot be separated from soteriology. Christ's humanity, wholly human, wholly "appropriated" by the Logos creates in reality the destiny we seek (Meyendorff, 1975, 21). To call Mary only "Christotokos" rather than "Theotokos" is to say that Christ's flesh was independent of Him that was incarnate. It was in the flesh, as we confess, that Christ died, suffered and rose again. It was in that flesh that we find ourselves redeemed for communion with the Holy Spirit. And that is what theosis is--true communion with God! Thosis is how we become truly human! To be human is to dwell with the divine as Adam was.

The Anselmian juridical model provides no framework for this communion with God nor did the Antiochene Christology which Cyril opposed. More categories only divide and conquer the holistic nature of Eastern Christian thought; such is why the Eastern Churches are so apprehensive about adopting Western Christian definitions and categories and systems. The Cappadocian Fathers and other early Greek Christians were not opposed to using Greek philosophical problematics but were determined not to be imprisoned by strict systems (Meyendorff, 1979, 25).

Such a need for systems even spoiled over to debates regarding the Eucharist. If the East viewed the Eucharist from only one action of Christ's Life--the Crucifixion--then there would still be no room for theosis. As we confess in the Synodikon from the Sunday of Orthodoxy, Christ "reconciled us to Himself by means of the whole mystery of the economy, and by Himself in Himself, reconciled us also to his God and Father, and, of course, to the most holy and life-giving Spirit."


  1. If you haven't read it, Fr. John A. McGuckin's St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy: Its History, Theology, and Texts (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2004) is mandatory reading for this subject. SVS's The Church in History series is also helpful - I can't remember which volume deals with the Monophysite Controversy.

  2. You can read some of McGuckin's book here:

    Here is a review from Touchstone:

    The various documents from the Orthodox/Non-Chalcedonian dialogues from the last half of the last century are also helpful, but really only after reading McGuckin.

  3. Thanks,Chris. I have that book in the bookstore at the church and maybe I'll get to it sometime. Right now, I'm plowing through so much I've got a headache!