views updated


Bishop, theologian, Father and Doctor of the Church; b. Egypt, second half of the 4th century; d. Alexandria, June 27, 444.

Relatively little is known of Cyril's life and activity before 429. Nephew of Patriarch theophilus of alex andria, he received a comprehensive classical and theological education in that cultured city and was received by Theophilus into the ranks of the clergy. A monastic formation, though often asserted, is difficult to establish. Some personal and epistolary contact with monks of the desert in his formative period is likely, but an extended stay in the desert is open to serious objection.

Episcopate. The first clear date in Cyril's life is 403, when he accompanied Theophilus to Constantinople and, apparently convinced of the guilt of St. john chrysos tom, was present at his deposition by the Synod of the oak (Chalcedon). Elected to succeed Theophilus despite fierce opposition (Oct. 18, 412), he revealed affinities to his impetuous, highhanded uncle, especially in the early years of his episcopate (Socrates, Hist. eccl. 7.7, 1315). Until 417, or even later, he refused to include Chrysostom's name in the diptychs of the Alexandrian Church. He pillaged and closed the churches of the novatians.

In retaliation for Jewish attacks on Christians, possibly perturbed as well by the attractive power of Judaism and its proselytizing activity, he expropriated the Jews and expelled them from Alexandria. Serious animosity severed him from the imperial urban prefect Orestes. For a time he honored as a martyr the Nitrian monk Ammonius, who had been fatally tortured not for his faith but for violence done to Orestes. The persistent tradition, based unjustifiably on Socrates' account (Hist. eccl. 7.15) of the incident, that Cyril provoked or was otherwise responsible for the murder of the famous Neoplatonist philosopher Hypatia, torn to pieces by a fanatical Christian mob in March of 415, lacks genuine foundation.

The regrettable violence of these early years was followed by a decade or more of peace, marked by much exegetical and theological writing, directed in part against 4th-century Arianism (cf. Ep. pasch. 12.36, for the year 424).

Nestorianism. Cyril's significance for theology and Church history stems from his opposition to nestorian ism. nestorius, enthroned as patriarch of Constantinople on April 10, 428, found the expression Theotokos (Godbearing) difficult to harmonize with his conception of the relationship between the divine and the human in Christ. He preferred Christotokos (Christ-bearing) for its seeming lack of ambiguity and as a via media between Theotokos and anthrōpotokos (man-bearing). His intemperate language in this regard roused violent opposition in Egypt, Constantinople, and Rome. Cyril, with his Alexandrian background, found in Nestorius's position the 4th-century Christological error of two sons linked by a sheerly moral union, thus making the Incarnation an illusion, undermining the redemption, and reducing Communion to cannibalism. To the refutation of this doctrine Cyril devoted a special letter to the Egyptian monks (Ep. 1) and his pastoral letter for Easter 429 (Ep. pasch. 17), in which he declared that to deny or even abandon Theotokos would be equivalent to denial of the Council of Nicaea.

A sharp exchange of letters between Cyril (Ep. 2 and4) and Nestorius (Loofs, Nestoriana 168169, 173180) only confirmed their opposition. To counteract Nestorian influence at the imperial court, Cyril wrote three memorials in 430 On Correct Belief in Christ, the first addressed to theodosius ii, the second to his younger sisters, Arcadia and Marina, the third to his elder sister, pulcheria, and his wife, Eudocia. In the same year both patriarchs presented their case to Pope Celestine I (Ep. 11; Loofs, 165172), who held a synod at Rome (August 430) that pronounced in favor of Theotokos and condemned Nestorius, "the denier of God's birth." Celestine warned Nestorius that unless he retracted his doctrine in writing within ten days of receiving this notification and adopted the doctrine "of Rome, Alexandria, and the whole Catholic Church" (Celestine, Ep. 13.11), he would be considered excommunicate.

Council of Ephesus. Cyril, delegated to act for Celestine, held a synod in Alexandria in November, then sent a letter to Nestorius (Ep. 17), appending for his acceptance 12 anathemas couched in uncompromisingly Alexandrian terms that carried to Antiochene ears Apollinarian overtones. On Nov. 19, 430, Theodosius, persuaded by Nestorius (who did not learn of his Roman condemnation until December 7), summoned a general council to meet at Ephesus on June 7, 431 [J. D. Mansi, Sacrorum Concilliorum nova et amplissima collectio, 31v. (Florence-Venice 175798); repr. and cont. by L. Petit and J. B. Martin 53 v. in 60 (Paris 18891927; repr. Graz 1960) 4: 111216]. The council thus convoked was accepted by Celestine [see letters written in May of 431 to the court and to Cyril; P. Jaffé, Regesta pontificum romanorum ab condita ecclesia ad annum post Christum natum 1198, ed. S. Löwenfeld et al., 2 v. (2d ed. Leipzig 188188; repr. Graz 1956) 1.377], but he still regarded Nestorius as condemned; his three legates were to conform in all respects to Cyril's views (ibid. 1.378379).

Cyril opened the council on June 22, though the Oriental bishops (in large measure supporters of Nestorius) and the papal legates had not arrived. In these circumstances Nestorius understandably refused to appear, despite the three canonical citations. That first day, the council declared Cyril's second letter to Nestorius (Ep. 4) in full accord with Nicaea, condemned Nestorius as a heretic and deposed him, and proclaimed Mary Theotokos. The same evening, Nestorius was notified of the council's action in a document that began, "To Nestorius, the new Judas."

John of Antioch. Four or five days later, John of Antioch and the Oriental bishops arrived in Ephesus, held a synod (43 or 53 participants), denounced the condemnation of Nestorius, and deposed Cyril and the local bishop, Memnon (Mansi 4:137273). On July 11 the papal legates approved what the council had done before their arrival and confirmed the deposition of Nestorius. Theodosius, on his part, approved the depositions of Cyril, Memnon, and Nestorius, had them imprisoned, and reproved the council for not heeding his instructions. Cyril, under guard for almost three months, was released in mid-October and returned to Alexandria, where he was welcomed on October 30 as a second Athanasius. Nestorius retired to a monastery in Antioch.

Sequel of Ephesus. The rupture between Cyril and the Orientals was not healed until 433. The chief obstacles were the 12 anathemas of Cyril and the condemnation of Nestorius. Thanks in great part to the mediation of Acacius of Beroea and to legitimate compromise on both sides, an accord was reached. Cyril, still suspected of Apollinarian tendencies, provided explanations of his doctrine (e.g., Ep. 33, to Acacius), especially to refute the charge of change or confusion of the two natures in Christ. These explanations were found acceptable, and the leading Antiochenes were persuaded, reluctantly, to abandon Nestorius.

Symbol of Union. The instrument of agreement, the Symbol of Union, was contained in a letter from John to Cyril (Ep. 38, in the correspondence of Cyril). Apart from the closing sentence, it reproduced a formula, drafted by theodoret of cyr, that the Oriental bishops had approved at Ephesus in August 431 and had sent to Theodosius. Cyril welcomed this formula with enthusiasm (Ep. 39).

Cyril's reaction to the Symbol of Union reveals a remarkable maturing on his part. As with Athanasius after Nicaea, so here too terminology was seen as secondary and deceptive. He made concessions: the 12 anathemas were played down; such favorite expressions as "one nature" and "hypostatic union" were dropped; Antiochene language such as "one prosōpon " and "union of two natures" was accepted; safeguards were appended to Theotokos; the Antiochene description of Christ's humanity as the Word's "temple" was recognized as legitimate; Cyril's far-reaching communicatio idiomatum had limits placed on it. But in substance he was vindicated: Nestorius's condemnation was accepted; Theotokos, properly understood, was pronounced orthodox; the "two sons" doctrine was clearly rejected; the identification of the subject in the God-man with the eternal Word was indisputably recognized; all talk of "conjunction" of the two natures had given place to henōsis (union).

Policy of Moderation. Tragically but understandably, the Symbol of Union did not achieve more than a partial, fragile unity. Cyril's own allies were not altogether convinced that he had sacrificed language only, and not orthodoxy. Especially outside Egypt, he was obliged time and again to defend his position on the "two natures": in answer to Acacius of Melitine (Ep. 40), Eulogius of Constantinople (Ep. 44), Valerianus of Iconium (Ep. 50), and Successus of Diocaesarea in Isauria (Ep. 45, 46). He had to write to Maximus, a deacon of Antioch (Ep. 57,58), to urge continued communion with Bishop John.

For a large number of the Oriental bishops, e.g., Theodoret of Cyr, Nestorius had been illegitimately deposed and his doctrine unjustifiably condemned. The bishops of Cilicia Secunda severed Cyril from their fellowship until such time as he should retract his anathemas. Until his death, however, Cyril's policy of moderation kept his extreme partisans under reasonable control; on his deathbed he refused, despite personal inclination and uncommon pressure, to condemn theodore of mopsuestia, the teacher of Nestorius. With his death were unleashed the forces that brought monophysitism to a head and led to the Council of chalcedon.

Writings. Cyril's extant works fill 10 volumes of J.P. Migne's Patrologia Graeca. Diffuse and ornate save in polemics, they are rich in ideas, sometimes profound in their development, often penetrating in argumentation. His literary activity is divided by the Nestorian controversy: until 428 he concentrated on exegesis and anti-Arian polemics; from 429, he was all but exclusively concerned with Nestorianism.

Scriptural Exegesis. Cyril's exegetical works form the major, but not the more impressive, portion of his literary production. His Old Testament exegesis was highly influenced by Alexandrian allegory and typology, though he insisted that not all the details of the Old Testament have a spiritual meaning. His New Testament exegesis was more literal, particularly in doctrinal controversy, but the historical-philological approach is still not the hermeneutic of his predilection. His Old Testament commentaries include: Adoration and Worship in Spirit and Truth (after 412, before 429), 17 books proving from texts of the Pentateuch that the Law was abrogated only in its letter; 13 books of Elegant Comments or Polished Explanations (Glaphyra; same period), exegeting select passages of the Pentateuch in their proper sequence; Commentary on Isaia (after Adoration and Glaphyra, but before 429), five extensive books in 12 main sections.

Extant in catenae are numerous fragments from other Old Testament commentaries: Kings, Psalms, Song of Songs, Proverbs, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. New Testament exegesis includes: Commentary on John (before 429, but terminus a quo strongly disputed), 12 books (7 and 8 not extant) of a dogmatic-polemic tendency-e.g., against Arianism, Eunomianism, and Antiochene Christology; Commentary on Luke, actually a series of homilies (perhaps from 430 on), practical rather than dogmatic, with anti-Nestorian polemic (only three complete sermons in Greek, though a Syriac version gives 156 homilies); Commentary on Matthew (after 428), fragmentary, but covering all 28 chapters of Matthew. Extant in catenae are fragments from lost commentaries on Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Hebrews.

Dogmatic and Polemic Works. The earliest of Cyril's dogmatic-polemic works were directed against the Arians. The more important is the Thesaurus on the Holy and Consubstantial Trinity (early in his episcopal career, or 423425), a summa of Arian objections and their refutation, almost a third of it a reproduction of Athanasius, C. Arianos 3; the other, On the Holy and Consubstantial Trinity (shortly after Thesaurus ), is in the form of seven dialogues: one to six on the consubstantiality of the Son; the seventh on that of the Spirit.

Anti-Nestorian Writings. Against the Nestorians Cyril wrote Five Tomes against the Blasphemies of Nestorius (spring 430), a critical examination of sermons published by Nestorius in 429; On Correct Belief in Christ (430), three memorials to the imperial court; three apologies (431) defending the 12 anathemas (cf. Ep. 17), viz, Against the Oriental Bishops (answering charges of Andrew of Samosata), Letter to Euoptius (answering accusations of Theodoret of Cyr), and Explanation at Ephesus (written while in prison, August or September 431); Apology to the Emperor (immediately after release and return to Alexandria), justifying his actions before and during the council; Scholia on the Incarnation (after 431), explaining the names Christ, Emmanuel, and Jesus, and defining the hypostatic union as opposed to a mixture or external relationship only; Against Those Who Refuse to Acknowledge the Holy Virgin to Be Mother of God (between 435440?), insisting that to reject Theotokos is to oppose Scripture; Against Diodore [of Tarsus] and Theodore [of Mopsuestia], teachers of Nestorius (c. 438), extant in considerable Greek and Syriac fragments; and On the Unity of Christ, a dialogue on the union of divine and human in Christ so mature in thought and expression that it seems to be one of Cyril's last anti-Nestorian writings.

The Apology against Julian (between 433 and 441) is an effort to refute Julian the Apostate's three books Against the Galileans (363); the first ten books are extant in their entirety in Greek, books 11 to 20 only in Greek and Syriac fragments. The work suggests that paganism was still very much alive in 5th-century Egypt.

Letters, Sermons. There have survived 29 of Cyril's annual Paschal Letters to the churches of Egypt (years 414442), announcing the date of Easter and the preceding fast, and exhorting to fast and abstinence, vigilance and prayer, almsgiving and works of mercy, with some polemic against paganism, Judaism, and heresy. Of the Sermons, no more than 22 survive (called Homiliae diversae in the editions), some of them fragmentary; most of them demand careful investigation for authenticity, even the famous Marian homily (Hom. 4) supposedly delivered at Ephesus between June 23 and 27, 431. Cyril's Letters (71 in Migne, five more published by Schwartz), mostly of dogmatic importance (cf. the three "ecumenical" letters to Nestorius: 4, 17, and 39), have also some significance for the history of church-state problems, East-West relations, episcopal sees, and theological schools.

Doctrinal Significance. Cyril was primarily a dogmatic theologian. Although in the course of his prolific production he touched most of the important areas of theology (creation, sin, grace, Church, Sacraments, eschatology, faith), systematically and ex professo he dealt only with the Trinity (the first 15 years of his episcopate) and the Incarnation (from 429). His Trinitarian doctrine gathers up the Eastern heritage of the 4th century (especially Athanasius and the Cappadocians) and is rich and suggestive on the Holy Spirit, not only within the Trinity but in His mission to men.

Christology. Cyril's claim to theological immortality rests on his role in the development of Christology, for the Council of Ephesus, the controversies that raged around Theotokos, and even Cyril's Mariology were basically Christological issues, primarily an effort to plumb the meaning of St. John's "The Word was made flesh." Cyril's principal preoccupation here was to preserve the unity of Christ, which he felt was compromised by Nestorius and other Antiochenes. In the Incarnation, he insisted, the eternal Word took to Himself, and made His own, human flesh animated by a rational soul. The union between the Word and this humanity is a true, real union, as opposed to a merely moral or accidental union, or a union by sharing the same honor or adoration.

One Hypostasis. Because the union is so intimate, one may and must say not simply that the Word is in a man as in a temple, or that the Word assumed a man, but that the Word is man. In Christ there is only one Son of God, namely, the eternal Word who is both God and man. There is only one "hypostasis" or "nature" existing independently in the real order, the Word Incarnate; therefore there is only one incarnate "nature" of the Word of God. Consequently, He who was conceived and born of Mary, He who suffered, died, and was buried, is identically He who was eternally begotten of the Father. For the same reason Mary is truly and properly Theotokos. Nevertheless the flesh of Christ does not cease to be human. It is the Word's flesh, but it is not the Word. There is no mixing of humanity and divinity, no conversion of one into the other; each retains its properties. Though the Word of God actually suffered, He did so in His humanity, not in His divinity.

The fact is that the Nestorian question need not have developed so acrimoniously or ended so tragically. The tragedy was born of the two protagonists, different in theological background, in approaches to the Christological problem, and in personal defects and mistakes.

Complicating Factors. The different theological backgrounds are understandable: Cyril's thinking is rooted in the School of alexandria; Nestorius's in that of antioch. In approach, as Grillmeier has shown, Nestorius stressed the distinction in Christ; his insight lay in seeking the unity and the distinction on different levels: unity on the level of the prosōpon, distinction on the level of the natures. Cyril stressed the unity of Christ, without being able to explain the distinction adequately, and he sought a solution not on different levels but in the mia physis (one "nature") and the picture of Christ that this produces. Especially contributory were the defects of each man. Nestorius's faults were imprudence on the pastoral level: he had publicly attacked a key word in the Church's preaching of the Incarnation; and confusion on the theological: he did not really understand the communicatio idiomatum. Cyril's deficiencies lay in the area of the interpersonal: e.g., his designation of Nestorius as "the new Judas"; the political: e.g., his refusal to wait for the Oriental bishops before opening the Council of Ephesus; and the philological: his terminology lent credence to the charges of apollinarianism; e.g., the famous mia physis tou theou Logou sesarkōmenē (one incarnate nature of God the Word) derived not, as he thought, from Athanasius but from Apollinaris.

An unemotional discussion, aimed at clarity and informed by charity, might well have found the two in substantial agreement. Cyril's effort to draw out of Nestorius's rejection of Theotokos all its abstract objective consequences resulted in an impersonal heresy, which was then attributed to Nestorius as its progenitor. The fact is that Nestorius, for all his theological inadequacy, repudiated any theory of "two sons." He was seriously concerned with maintaining the traditional unity in Christ and wanted very much to provide a clear distinction of the natures in the face of apparent heresy.

The problem was further complicated in that Rome was not in a position to provide a via media between Constantinople and Alexandria, did not have the philological and theological equipment to play the role of mediator, and did not even recognize the real significance of the Christological problem raised by Nestorius. Cyril's own deeper recognition of the Nestorian issues came too late. Ironically, the whirlwind of monophysitism reaped by Alexandria was sown in Cyril's terminology.

Redemption. For Cyril, Christology was not an abstract, isolated issue: on the solution of the Nestorian question hung the reality of man's redemption. Only if it is one and the same Christ who is consubstantial with the Father and with men can He save us (Monumenta Germanie Historica 75: 1288; 76:144), for the meeting ground between God and man is the flesh of Christ. Only if this is God's own flesh can man come into contact with Christ's divinity through His humanity, and through His divinity come into contact with the Trinity. In consequence of our kinship with the enfleshed Word we are sons of God in imitation of and participation in the relation of filiation that the Son bears to the Father: we are sons in the Son. This redemptive relationship of men with God the logic of Nestorianism seemed to threaten.

Similarly for the Eucharist, by which we participate in the flesh of Christ in a fashion that is quasi-physical: through this contact with the life-giving body of Christ, we participate in His divinity. For Cyril, the Eucharist consummated our kinship with the Word, our communion with the Father, our participation in the divine nature, by adding to these supernatural relations that already exist what Janssens calls "a special nuance and a superlatively intimate character, because it realizes them by means of a very real contact between our body and that of the Word."

Spirituality. Preoccupation with Cyril's polemics slights his rich spirituality. This spiritual doctrine, nowhere presented systematically, pervades much of his writing. Flowing from dogma and theology, it is Christocentric: Christians, solidary with the Christ who is con-substantial with God and with men, must reproduce mystically and communally, especially through the Eucharist, the mysteries of Christ. But this Christocentrism has a Trinitarian framework: it is through the Spirit of Christ that the Christian is conformed to Christ, and so to the Father, whose Image the Son is.

Spirituality. Perhaps here is the focal point of Cyril's spirituality: his doctrine of the image of God in man. For here lies man's dignity (Monumenta Germaniae Historica 75:740) and his happiness (ibid. 75:808). Six facets of the Cyrillan image can be isolated: reason, freedom, dominion, holiness, incorruptibility, and sonship splendidly present in man's creation. Sin marred the beauty of this primeval image. Adam, and humanity in him, remained essentially rational but lost a certain perfection of intelligence, of wisdom; remained essentially free, but did not preserve the original unreserved response to grace; was stripped of sovereignty over earth; lost ontological and dynamic holiness, i.e., participation in God's nature and conscious imitation of God; became subject to passions and corruption; and, remaining a child of God, ceased to be His son.

Restoration of the image comes through Christ. It is achieved radically in the Incarnation, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ, with His death as a central facet; it is achieved individually in Baptism, where the image is recovered because man receives the Spirit of Christ. Concretely, reason is perfected by faith; freedom is consummated by grace; dominion is recovered, though it will not be actualized until the next life; man shares in the divine nature, and virtuous activity is once again possible; unending life is restored, to be made definitive at the resurrection, and man is freed from slavery to passion; adoptive sonship is given through the indwelling Spirit of adoption, the Spirit of Christ.

Feast: June 27 (Western Church); June 9 (Eastern Church).

Bibliography: Sources. Patrologia Graeca, ed. j. p. migne, 161 v. (Paris 185766) v.6877. More recent critical edition of certain treatises (esp. Minor Prophets, John, and anti-Nestorian works) by p. e. pusey, 7 v. (Oxford 186877). Critical text of many anti-Nestorian works in e. schwartz, Acta conciliorum oecumenicorum (Berlin 1914 ). For details on editions, see j. quasten, Patrology, 3 v. (Westminster, Md. 195053), 3:116142. Studies. Kyrilliana: Spicilegia edita sancti Cyrilli Alexandrini XV recurrente saeculo (Cairo 1947). j. n. hebensberger, Die Denkwelt des hl. Cyrill von Alexandrien (Augsburg 1927). g. jouassard, in Mélanges E. Podechard (Lyons 1945) 159174; Studia Patristica 6 (Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 81; Berlin 1962) 112121. h. du manoir de juaye, Dogme et spiritualité chez saint Cyrille d' Alexandrie (Paris 1944). a. kerrigan, St. Cyril of Alexandria: Interpreter of the Old Testament (Rome 1952). j. van den dries, The Formula of St. Cyril of Alexandria μία φύσις το[symbol omitted] θεο[symbol omitted] λόγου σεσαρκωμένη (Rome 1939). j. liÉbaert, La Doctrine christologique de saint Cyrille d'Alexandrie avant la querelle nestorienne (Lille 1951). p. galtier, "Saint Cyrille et Apollinaire," Gregorianum 37 (1956) 584609. h. m. diepen, Aux origines de l' anthropologie de saint Cyrille d' Alexandrie (Bruges 1957). e. weigl, Die Heilslehre des hl. Cyrill von Alexandrien (Mainz 1905). o. blanchette, Sciences ecclésiastiques 16 (1964) 455480. a. eberle, Die Mariologie des hl. Cyrillus von Alexandrien (Freiburg 1921). l. janssens, "Notre filiation divine d'après saint Cyrille d' Alexandrie," Ephemerides theologicae Lovanienses 15 (1938) 233278. a. struckmann, Die Eucharistielehre des hl. Cyrill von Alexandrien (Paderborn 1910). j. b. wolf, Commentationes in S. Cyrilli Alexandrini de Spiritu Sancto doctrinam (Würzburg 1934). l. malevez, Recherches de science religieuse 25 (1935) 257291, 418440, ecclesiology. w. j. burghardt, The Image of God in Man according to Cyril of Alexandria (Washington 1957). n. m. haring, Mediaeval Studies 12 (1950) 119, influence on Latin theology (4301260). l. welch, Christology and Eucharist in the Early Thought of Cyril of Alexandria (San Francisco 1994). j. houdek, Contemplation in the Life and Works of Saint Cyril of Alexandria (Los Angeles, 1979). r. l. wilken, Judaism and the Early Christian Mind; A Study of Cyril of Alexandria's Exegesis and Theology (New Haven 1971). j. a. mcguckin, St. Cyril of Alexandria: The Christological Controversy: Its History, Theology, and Texts (Leiden 1994). s. a. mckinion, Words, Imagery, and the Mystery of Christ: A Reconstruction of Cyril of Alexandria's Christology (Leiden 2000). r. a. norris, "Christological Models in Cyril of Alexandria," Studia Patristica 13 (Berlin 1975) 255268.

[w. j. burghardt]

About this article

Cyril of Alexandria, St.

Updated About content Print Article Share Article