Cyril of Alexandria Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Cyril of Alexandria c. 378-444

Egyptian theologian and homilist.

The following entry provides an overview of Cyril's life and works.

A prominent religious leader and one of the revered Fathers of the Roman Catholic Church, Saint Cyril of Alexandria is considered a seminal authority on the holy doctrine of Incarnation. His thought and writing are inextricably linked to his Christological disputation with Nestorius, Archbishop of Constantinople, and their historical clash during the Third Ecumenical Council held in Ephesus in 431. As presiding figure at the council, Cyril condemned the teachings of his eastern rival, who denied aspects of the Trinitarian unity of Christ. Cyril's view—in which he forcefully and effectively stressed the absolute theological equivalence of Christ the man who was born of Mary and died on earth, and Christ the divine Incarnation of the Word of God—has since been accepted as standard Church dogma. Cyril likewise persuaded the assembly to accept the designation of Theotokos, or “God-bearer,” for Mary; this term that has since become a touchstone of orthodoxy on the subject of the Virgin Mother. The secondary theme of Cyril's profuse theological writings involves his exposition of the sanctifying power of Grace. In addition, Cyril is regarded as an indefatigable defender of church orthodoxy, noted for his polemics against paganism, Christian heresy, and Judaism.

Biographical Information

Tradition holds that Cyril was born in Alexandria, although modern scholars generally place his birth in the outlying town of Theodosion, Lower Egypt, in about 378. His uncle, Theophilus, served as patriarch in Alexandria from 385, a family connection that allowed Cyril access to an education in grammar and the classics in the renowned intellectual center of Egypt. According to some accounts, Cyril spent five years of his young life in the desert of Nitria, devoting himself to theological and scriptural study under noted monastic masters. By the autumn of 412 he replaced his deceased uncle as bishop of the Alexandria see, despite government opposition to his election. He thereafter initiated a sustained attack on the Novatians, closing churches and seizing property from this Christian sect while condemning its adherents as heretics. More strife marred his tenure as bishop in the ensuing years, including an impassioned response to a Jewish riot in Alexandria, against which Cyril reportedly incited a Christian mob. His exhortations are believed to have culminated in the expulsion of Jews from the city and the confiscation of their property.

Mounting tensions over orthodoxy were to become a central focus of Cyril's career. A major conflict erupted in 429 over Cyril's dispute with a rival archbishop, Nestorius, regarding the nature of Christ's Incarnation. Their doctrinal clash over Christ's status as both God and man quickly sent the entire Eastern Church into an uproar, and necessitated a call for an Ecumenical Council to resolve the issue. The meeting, approved by the Roman Emperor Theodosius II, was held at Ephesus in June 431. Cyril chose to convene the council before a number of oriental bishops (largely sympathizers to Nestorianism) had arrived, and thus concluded that Nestorius was a heretic. In the process, Cyril composed Twelve Anathemas and hurled them at his rival's Christological doctrines, meanwhile addressing Nestorius as “the new Judas” in his absence. A few days later, after the oriental bishops led by John of Antioch had arrived from the East, a synod was reassembled, and Nestorius was vindicated. While Cyril's call for the easterner's excommunication continued to hold sway with Pope Celestine I, Emperor Theodosius admonished Cyril for his indiscretion and had him imprisoned. Cyril's release and return to Alexandria came several months thereafter, while Nestorius had meanwhile quietly retreated to a monastery in Antioch. The rift between Cyril and the eastern bishops remained open until 433, when after a period of mediation, Cyril provided renewed explanations of his doctrine with some adjustments in critical terminology. The Antiochenes begrudgingly accepted, heralding Cyril's position as orthodox, valorizing his use of the term Theotokos for the Virgin Mother of Christ, and condemning the retired Nestorius. In 438, the victorious Cyril joined a pilgrimage to Palestine, accompanying members of the imperial court of Constantinople on the journey. His death is recorded in the year 444, and despite some lingering resentment in the East, Cyril's theological position remained intact among church doctrine. Sanctified before modern times, Cyril was made a Doctor of the Church in 1882, thereby granting his works and thought distinctive authority in doctrinal matters. His feast day is celebrated on the ninth of February according to the Roman calendar.

Major Works

Cyril's considerable body of work is generally divided into two periods, with the first half of his career devoted to scriptural exegesis, while the second half focused on polemical writing. In particular, after 428 he wrote largely about Christological themes associated with the Nestorian controversy. Scholars point out that Cyril produced no pieces of devotional writing, settling instead on matters of dogmatic significance, and that his works universally draw upon scripture for allusion, allegory, and authority—although many of his New Testament writings offer a more literal method of interpretation. Prominent among his early exegetical works, De adoratione et cultu in spiritu et veritate (c. 412-29; The Adoration and Worship of God in Spirit and Truth) and Glaphyra (c. 412-29; Elegant Comments) are Old Testament commentaries focused on the Pentateuch. The first of these Cyril crafted in the form of a dialogue between himself and the fictional Palladius, who approaches the theologian with questions concerning the Gospels of Matthew and John. Drawing an equation between spirit and truth, Cyril demonstrates the applicability of the early books of the Old Testament to the Christian faith rather than to that of the Jews. Likewise, the Glaphyra is devoted to the unique relationship between Judaism and Christianity, and to privileging the latter. Cyril's dogmatic and polemical works of the period include criticism of Christological or Trinitarian heresy, such as the views advocated by the Arians and the Antiochenes, who denied the full divinity of Christ with regard to God the Father. Cyril's strongest anti-Arian polemic is contained in his Thesaurus de sancta et consubstantiali trinitate (c. 423-25; Thesaurus on the Holy and Consubstantial Trinity). Other elements of his argument on the subject are evident in his Commentarius in Ioannem (c. 423-28; Commentary on John), which also contains forceful imagery of Christ's work as the savior of humankind. Additional New Testament commentaries such as the fragmentary Commentarius in Matthaeum and Commentarius in Lucam (both c. 412-29) further detail Cyril's doctrinal polemic. Beginning in the year 429, Cyril turned his attention almost exclusively toward his critique of Nestorianism and advancement of his own Christological doctrine. This is particularly apparent in Adversus Nestorii blasphemies contradictionum libri quinque (430; Five Tomes against the Blasphemies of Nestorius) and Scholia de incarnatione Unigeniti (431; Scholia on the Incarnation). Commentators observe that Cyril's dispute with the Archbishop of Constantinople hinges on a number of key applications of terminology. Among these, Cyril objected to Nestorious's use of the word ‘conjunction’ to designate the unification of Christ's dual nature as God and man. Cyril's own Christological theory relies instead on the concept of “hypostatic union”—that Christ's full qualities of humanity and divinity are eternally bound in a single entity, regardless of his brief period of temptation and suffering as a man on earth. Another point of contention between the feuding archbishops, which was later resolved at Ephesus, was Cyril's application of the term Theotokos (“God-bearer”) to the Virgin Mary—with its implication of Christ's divinity within the womb, to which Nestorius took exception. Appealing to the political context of the controversy, Cyril wrote three theological treatises in 430 entitled De recta fide (On the Right Faith), which aim to convince Emperor Theodosius, his wife, and sisters to abandon the teachings of Nestorius. Included in his latest anti-Nestorian works, Quod unus sit Christus (c. 435-40; Christ Is One) summarizes the centrality of the Incarnation to his thought and follows the implications of his belief in and defense of the incontrovertibility of Christ's hypostatic union of divine and earthly natures as the source of humankind's eternal restoration. Among other works of note, Cyril wrote Contra Iulianum imperatorem (c. 433-41; Against Julian), a response to the pagan Emperor Julian the Apostate (who ruled from 361 to 363) and his dismissal of Christianity as the sanctioned state religion of Rome. He additionally wrote a sequence of official letters (Epistolae, 414-42) to the churches of Egypt and several holy sermons collectively referred to as the Homiliae diversai (c. 431; Sermons).

Critical Reception

Cyril's death in 444 appears to have been accompanied by a considerable wave of relief on the part of the Archbishop's theological opponents. A letter concerning him, attributed to the noted cleric Theodoret reads, “At last with a final struggle the villain has passed away. … I am glad to see the fellowship of the Church delivered from such a contagion.” Although such an extreme opinion about Cyril was not the norm outside of the Eastern Church, he was frequently associated with controversy in the fifth century. Later commentators have acknowledged that Cyril's efforts to preserve faith and orthodoxy generally superseded any pettiness of personal rivalry or impulsive, moralistic zeal. However, modern scholarship has also emphasized the polemical character of Cyril's work in regard to paganism, heterodox thought, and Judaism. And, while the culmination of his career focused in a heated confrontation with Nestorius and the allied theologians of the eastern see of Antioch, critics largely affirm a final movement toward reconciliation. Considering the specifics of Cyril's writing, some have acknowledged a lack of stylistic refinement, pointing to deficiencies in his literary application of Attic Greek, which he employed in place of Koiné, the preferred language of the eastern church fathers. While very few critics doubt Cyril's command of scripture or the depth of his spiritual dedication, some have questioned his originality of thought and the breadth of his learning. Several scholars have remarked that, although acquainted with Greek philosophy and the thought of such prominent Neoplatonists as Porphyry and Plotinus, Cyril largely approached these writers indirectly through the work of the preceding tradition of patristic writers. Still, most have accepted, as does Ezra Gebremedhin, the unique “emphasis and the wealth of combinations” in his theological arguments. Overall, scholars have long since agreed that Cyril's extraordinary focus on Christological and soteriological issues indelibly shifted the doctrinal interests of the fifth century, and as Gebremedhin has summarized, Cyril continues to be regarded as “the champion and defender of Catholic Faith in the East.”