St. Cyril of Alexandria
A Zealous Defender of the Faith
BY John Lilly
October 14-20, 2007 Issue | Posted 10/9/07 at 12:57 PM
During his general audience on Oct. 3, Pope Benedict XVI offered his reflections on St. Cyril of Alexandria, as he continued his series of teachings on the early Fathers of the Church. The Holy Father highlighted St. Cyril’s staunch defense of the Christian faith at a time when the faith was under attack by heretics and an apostate emperor. Most notably, he defended the divinity and humanity of Christ and was of utmost influence at the Council of Ephesus, which recognized the Virgin Mary as the “Mother of God.” A prolific writer, Pope Leo XIII proclaimed St. Cyril a Doctor of the Church in 1882.
Today, as we continue our journey with the Fathers of the Church, we encounter yet another great figure — St. Cyril of Alexandria.
St. Cyril was associated with the Christological controversy that led to the Council of Ephesus in 431 and was the last important representative of the Alexandrian tradition.
In the Greek East, Cyril was later described as a “custodian of accuracy” — that is, a guardian of the truth faith — and as the “seal of the Fathers.” These ancient formulae highlight a fact that is characteristic of Cyril, namely, his constant reference to those Church authorities who preceded him (especially Athanasius) in order to show the continuity of theology with tradition.
In a very deliberate and explicit way, he placed himself within the Church’s tradition, where he recognized a guarantee of the Church’s continuity with the apostles and with Christ himself.
Venerated as a saint both in the East and the West, St. Cyril was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII in 1882, and, at the same time, conferred the same title on another important champion of Greek patristics — St. Cyril of Jerusalem. This fact reveals Pope Leo XIII’s love and care for the Christian traditions of the East. He later proclaimed St. John of Damascus a Doctor of the Church, thereby showing us that both the Eastern tradition and the Western tradition express the teaching of Christ’s one Church.
There is very little information on the life of Cyril before his election to the important see of Alexandria. He was the nephew of Theophilus, who, as bishop, administered the Diocese of Alexandria with prestige and with a firm hand, starting in 385. Cyril was probably born in this Egyptian city between 370 and 380.
At an early age, he set out on the path of a life within the Church and received a good education in culture and theology. He went to Constantinople in the year 403 as part of the entourage of his powerful uncle, and took part in the synod referred to as the Quercia, which deposed the bishop of that city, John (who was later called Chrysostom), thereby marking the triumph of Alexandria over its traditional rival, Constantinople, where the emperor resided.
When his uncle Theophilus died in 412, Cyril, who was still quite young, was elected bishop of Alexandria, which was an influential center of the Church that he governed with tremendous energy for 32 years, always striving to affirm its primacy throughout the East while maintaining its strong, traditional ties with Rome.
Two or three years later — in 417 or 418 — as bishop of Alexandria, Cyril demonstrated his realistic approach by resolving the rift with Constantinople that had been in effect since St. John Chrysostom was removed from office in 406. However, the longstanding rivalry with Constantinople was rekindled 10 years later when Nestorius, a stern and autocratic monk, who was educated in Antioch, was elected bishop of Constantinople.
The new bishop of Constantinople quickly stirred up opposition because he would refer to Mary by the title of Christotòkos (Mother of Christ) instead of Theotòkos (Mother of God) — a beloved title in popular piety — whenever he was preaching. Bishop Nestorius preferred to use this title because of his allegiance to a Christology that was inspired by the church in Antioch, which, in an effort to safeguard the importance of Christ’s humanity, eventually led to the assertion that his humanity was separated from his divinity.
Thus, the union between God and man in Christ was no longer true, and, as a result, one could no longer speak about the “Mother of God.”
At the time, Cyril was the leading champion of Alexandrian Christology, which, on the contrary, sought to emphasize unity within the person of Christ. His reaction was almost immediate.
Starting in 429, he utilized every means possible, even writing letters to Nestorius himself. In the second letter that Cyril wrote to Nestorius in February of 430 (see PG 77:44-49), we read a clear affirmation of the duty of pastors to protect the faith of God’s people. His criterion remains valid to this day. The faith of God’s people is an expression of tradition and is the guaranty of sound doctrine. “The teaching of the faith must be presented to people in the most flawless way possible,” he wrote to Nestorius, “and people need to be reminded that whoever scandalizes even the least of those who believe in Christ will suffer unbearable punishment.”
In this same letter to Nestorius — a letter that was later approved during the fourth ecumenical council, the Council of Caledonia, in 451 — Cyril clearly described his Christ-centered faith: “We thereby affirm that the two natures being brought together in a true union are different, but the result of the two is one Christ and one Son; for the difference of these natures is not taken away by this union, but rather the divinity and the humanity, by their ineffable and inexpressible union, make perfect for us the one Lord Jesus Christ.”
This is important. Indeed, true humanity and true divinity are united in one person, our Lord Jesus Christ. For this reason, Cyril of Alexandria goes on to say, “Therefore, we confess one Christ and one Lord, not in the sense that we worship the man along with the Logos — we do not wish to suggest any idea of division by saying “along with the Logos” — but in the sense that we worship him as one and the same insofar as the body of the Logos with which he sits with the Father is not separated from the Logos himself, as if two sons were sitting with him, but is one by the union with the flesh.”
Thanks to some astute alliances, Cyril of Alexandria quickly assured that Nestorius was condemned on several occasions — first by the See of Rome, then in a series of 12 anathemas that he himself composed, and finally at the Council of Ephesus in 431, the third ecumenical council.
This assembly, which took place amid great tumult and various ups and downs, concluded with the first great triumph of devotion to Mary and with the exile of the bishop of Constantinople, who refused to recognize the Virgin Mary as the “Mother of God” because of an erroneous Christology that brought about divisions in Christ himself.
After having prevailed over his rival and his rival’s doctrine, Cyril was able to formulate a theological compromise and reconciliation with the Antiocheans in 433. This fact is significant, demonstrating, on one hand, his clarity in the doctrine of the faith and, on the other hand, his ongoing quest for unity and reconciliation.
In subsequent years, he devoted himself to defending and clarifying his theological position in every way possible, up to his death on June 27 of the year 444.
Cyril’s writings — which are truly numerous and were widely circulated in various translations, both in Latin and in the Eastern languages, throughout his lifetime as a testimony to their immediate success — are of primary importance in the history of Christianity. His commentaries on many of the Old and New Testament books are important, and include the entire Pentateuch, Isaiah, the Psalms and the Gospels of John and Luke.
His many doctrinal works are also important: His defense of the Trinitarian faith against the Arian heresy and Nestorius’ heresy is a recurring theme. The tradition of the Church is fundamental to Cyril’s teachings, particularly — as I have already mentioned — the writings of Athanasius, who was his great predecessor in Alexandria.
Finally, among Cyril’s other writings we must also recall his series of books, Against Julian, which constitute his final response to the anti-Christian debate. Cyril probably dictated these works in the final years of his life as a response to Emperor Julian’s work, Against the Galileans, that the emperor — who was called Julian the Apostate for having abandoned the Christian faith in which he was raised — composed many years before in 363.
Christian faith is, above all, an encounter with Jesus, “a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (see Deus Caritas Est, 1).
St. Cyril of Alexandria was a staunch and tireless witness to Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, emphasizing his unity, which he reiterated in his first letter to Bishop Succensus in 433 (see PG 77:228-237): “There is but one Son and there is but one Lord Jesus Christ, both before the incarnation and after the incarnation. Indeed, there was not one Son, the Logos, who was born of God the Father and another that was born of the Blessed Virgin. Rather, we believe that it is precisely the one who existed before all time who was born of the flesh by woman.”
This statement, besides its doctrinal significance, shows us that faith in Jesus, the Logos who was born of the Father, is well-rooted in history, because — as St. Cyril affirms — this same Jesus came in time with the birth of Mary, the Theotòkos, and will always be with us as he has promised.
This is important. God is eternal, he was born of a woman, and he remains with us daily. It is in this faith that we live and in this faith that we find or path in life.
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