St. Cyril of Alexandria: Power Monger or Scripture Scholar?

St. Cyril of Alexandria, the fifth century patriarch of Alexandria who was instrumental in defeating the Nestorian heresy, has not been treated kindly by history.

Secular historians might say they have treated Cyril no worse than he treated his own theological and political foes. Indeed, Cyril lived at a time when theological controversies—such the centuries-long debate over the dual natures of Christ—were sometimes waged as much by the pen as by the sword.

When Cyril, whose feast day is this Friday, became the spiritual leader of the church at Alexandria in 412 he had already seen firsthand how effective violence and political muscling could be, having watched his predecessor and uncle depose St. John Chrysostom as the patriarch of Constantinople—a see that was a bitter rival of Alexandria.

Historians have often seen his uncle’s violence-prone episcopate as shaping Cyril’s own attitudes. Historian Philip Jenkins well sums up the secular consensus in his provocatively titled book, Jesus Wars. Writing of his uncle’s influence on Cyril, Jenkins concludes, “But if he learned one thing above all, it was that few problems or conflicts were so stubborn that they could not be resolved by enough bludgeoning and buffaloing.”

It doesn’t help that the beginning of Cyril’s episcopate was marked by a new outbreak of violence. He became patriarch in October 412 after a riot between his partisans and his rival for the seat, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. After his consecration, the violence only continued. As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it:

[O]ne of his first acts was to plunder and shut the churches of the Novatians. He also drove out of Alexandria the Jews, who had formed a flourishing community there since Alexander the Great.

It’s because of incidents like those recounted above that Jenkins compares Cyril and other Alexandrian patriarchs to pharaohs, calling them “ecclesiastical vigilantes.” All this forms the backdrop to how some historians usually view Cyril’s conflict with Nestorius and the heresy that bears his name.

The story is a familiar one to students of Church history. Soon after becoming patriarch of Constantinople, in 428, Nestorius preached a series of sermons denying that Mary could be called Theotokos, Greek for God-bearer, or Mother of God, as it is sometimes translated. Nestorius simply could not fathom the idea that the human Mary could be mother of the divine Creator of the universe.

But his rejection of the term Theotokos had severe heretical implications. If Mary had not given birth to God, to whom had she given birth? Nestorius’ answer was that Mary had merely prepared a human body which was later to be assumed by the divine Christ. This amounted to a denial of the full union of the human and divine natures of Christ—and ultimately, a denial of His humanity, a sort of reverse of the dreaded Arian heresy, which denied Christ’s divinity.

Cyril recognized the problem and a war of letters between him and Nestorius ensued. Just like it took an ecumenical council to repudiate Arianism—the Council of Nicaea in 325—so it would take another, the Council of Ephesus in 431, to draw the lines between orthodoxy and the Nestorian heresy.

Cyril played a leading role in the council, which condemned both Nestorius and his flawed theology, helping the Church steer clear of another deadly heresy in its earliest centuries. In theological terms, Cyril was one of the good guys, but historians still fault him for how he ran the council.

But, by the standards of the fifth century, this council was among the better-behaved. (Just how bad could it get? One of the lowest points was the Robber Council of Ephesus in 449, where a mob of armed monks, Egyptian sailors, and a band of religious vigilantes broke into the meeting chambers, instigating a melee around the altar.) About the biggest fault of Cyril’s—according to secular historians—is that the Alexandrian patriarch convened the council without waiting for Nestorius’ supporters to show up, putting his opponent’s anathemas on the fast track for approval. (In fairness, Nestorius’ supporters were running late.)

Cyril’s heavy-handed control over the council fits into a larger conventional narrative about how his conflict with Nestorius was less a genuine theological debate and more just another chapter in the long-standing political conflict between Alexandria and Constantinople. Cyril’s opposition to Nestorianism, according to this theory, was the product of deep-seated rivalry and part of a power grab.

But there is much to suggest that Cyril’s battle with Nestorianism was the product of profound theological reflection and a lifetime of Scripture study.

You won’t find them on most online lists of readily available patristic writings, but Cyril was actually one of the most prolific Scripture commentators of his time. In his book, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, theologian and historian Robert Wilken comes up with an impressive tally: two large commentaries on the Pentateuch, a verse-by-verse commentary on Isaiah, a verse-by-verse commentary on the Minor Prophets, and a commentary on the Gospel of John.

And those are just the ones which have survived in complete form. We also have fragments of commentaries on at least five other biblical books, including the Song of Songs and the Psalms.

And that’s just the commentaries. Cyril also wrote 20 books against Julian the Apostate, of which 10 have survived and he also produced three theological treatises, including one on the Trinity, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.

Wilken concludes: “Though he was a vigorous polemicist who touched off the Christological controversy by criticizing the teaching of his fellow patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, Cyril was much more than an ecclesiastical politician. Cyril’s thinking was shaped by the Bible, the fruit of years of patiently expounding the Scriptures verse by verse.”

When you take faith out of the equation, it’s easy to see the theological conflicts of Cyril’s time as little more than a mask for bitter personal rivalries and political power plays. But any fair and honest appraisal of Cyril’s life and work cannot ignore the role that faith played in his thinking and actions. However much he may have been an actor on a political stage, Cyril came from a place of profound theological reflection and personal devotion. And, while he might not have started out as a saint, he certainly ended up one.

image: José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Stephen Beale

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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  • Jesse Salinas

    I was reading on the Early Church Fathers the last two evenings at my parish’s 40 Hours devotion. The Nestorian heresy and Saint Cyril of Alexandria’s contributions to refuting it were covered, but this article casts a new and complimentary light on his efforts. A great read, thank you!

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