Cyril of Alexandria

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CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA (c. 375444), church father, theologian, and saint. Cyril succeeded his uncle Theophilus as bishop of Alexandria in 412. His aggressive nature involved him in a series of polemics against heretics. His rhetorical skills were sometimes stronger than his theological judgment, and he was often forgetful of evangelical moderation. In the early days of his studies in the humanities and in religion, he had not been trained to distinguish between the authentic treatises of Athanasius, his most admired predecessor, and those by Apollinarius, listed under Athanasius's name in the episcopal library of Alexandria. Thus he mistakenly urged a form of Christology best expressed by Apollinarius's phrase, which he believed to be Athanasian: "the unique incarnate nature of God the Logos."

Cyril's most famous controversy was with Nestorius, his colleague in the imperial metropolis of Constantinople. A monk from Antioch, made bishop of Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius II in 428, Nestorius preached against Arian and Apollinaristic factions in the monasteries surrounding the capital. Both groups called Mary theotokos (Mother of God) in claiming that the Logos incarnate was born, grew up, and suffered. Nestorius became suspicious of this epithet and preferred Mother of Christ. Denounced to Cyril, who ignored the local circumstances and was eager to interfere in the debates at Constantinople, Nestorius was accused by his powerful Alexandrian rival of dividing Christ into two beings, a mere man and the Logos. An exchange of several letters between January and June 430 did not help. Nestorius, with an obvious lack of needed theological acumen, was unaware of the coming storm. Cyril gained strength speedily, and now without diplomatic maneuvers, he garnered the full support of the Roman bishop Celestine and the ear of the emperor. The latter called for a general council in Ephesus, at Pentecost, on June 7, 431. Before numerous Eastern bishops, led by John of Antioch, could arrivethey were moderate supporters of Nestorius and opposed to the passionate initiatives of CyrilNestorius was condemned as a heretic and deposed, on June 22. It took Cyril two years to become reconciled with his Eastern colleagues. Nestorius was sent into a bitter exile in Petra, and later to the Great Oasis in southern Libya. His supporters were all sent to work camps as prisoners.

The literary and theological legacy of Cyril focuses on his christological system and on biblical exegesis. In the wake of anti-Nestorian polemics, he demonstrated a strong opposition to the Antiochene school of scriptural hermeneutics. The main teachers and actual founders of this school were Diodorus, bishop of Tarsus from 378 to around 394, and Theodore, bishop of Mopsuestia from 392 to 428. They were accused by Cyril of having paved the way for Nestorianism, and were condemned by the imperial court. Most of their invaluable biblical commentaries were destroyed.

Cyril's commentaries include an interpretation of christological evidences taken by him from the Pentateuch. These are known as Glaphura, which includes extensive interpretations of Isaiah and the Minor Prophets, as well as commentaries on John, Luke, Matthew, and the Pauline letters. In his exegesis he uses the traditional Alexandrian method, laying out the literal, typological, and moral teaching of scripture. His knowledge of different Greek versions and of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament was complemented by his familiarity with allegorical and etymological techniques of interpretation. His dogmatic works on trinitarian theology popularized the notion of one divine substance in three persons. The main contribution of Cyril in the christological debate was to prepare a clearer notion of the interrelated properties of God and man in the unity of Christ, the so-called communicatio idiomatum.

Through the centuries (in both the East and the West), Cyril has been regarded as one of the main defenders of imperial orthodoxy as it was transmitted into the Middle Ages.

See Also

Nestorianism; Nestorius.


Grillmeier, Aloys. Christ in the Christian Tradition. 2d ed., rev. Atlanta, 1975.

Kerrigan, Alexander. Saint Cyril of Alexandria, Interpreter of the Old Testament. Rome, 1952.

Scipioni, Luigi I. Nestorio e il concilio di Efeso: Storia, Dogma, Critica. Studia Patristica Mediolanensia, vol. 1. Milan, 1974.

Charles Kannengiesser (1987)