Thursday, February 09, 2012

Seal of All the Fathers

Today is the feast of one of the most important theologians in Christian history, St. Cyril of Alexandria, confessor and Doctor of the Church, defender of the truth, consistent teacher of orthodoxy, glory of Alexandria, and many more titles. It's difficult to pin down a lot of details about Cyril's life, because he was born, was raised, and lived in Alexandria during a time of tumult that was unusual even for that famously tumultuous city. The Alexandrians were famous for rioting at the least notice, the politics was mean and ruthless, and the whole city constantly turned this way and that by political factions. Cyril seems to have become Patriarch of Alexandria in 412, and thrown himself into navigating the jungle of Alexandrian life and maintaining the eminence of Alexandria among other sees. There was not a single moment of his thirty-two year career as Pope of Alexandria that was not spent in some heated dispute or other. What is remarkable is how many of these disputes ended well, and in great measure this was due to Cyril's skill, indefatigability, and focus on argument. No one involved in Alexandrian politics, whether ecclesiastical or secular, could avoid making controversial decisions; Alexandrian politics was famously contentious, and it was notoriously difficult to make any decisions in that city without someone somewhere trying to incite people to a violent uprising over it. Even Cyril did not manage to keep things under control all the time. What is notable is how often he did. And his influence has been extraordinary, being found in the third, fourth, and fifth ecumenical councils (he was the major player in the third council, the Council of Ephesus).

From the Scholia on the Incarnation of Christ, section 36:

Saint Paul sets forth to us the Saving Passion, for he saith at one time, By the Grace of God for all tasted He death and also, For I delivered to you in the first place that which I too received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures and that He was buried and that He rose again the third day: moreover the most wise Peter also saith, Forasmuch as Christ suffered for us in the Flesh. Seeing therefore we believe that One is our Lord Jesus Christ, i. e. God the Word beheld in human form or made man as we, in what manner can we attribute Passion to Him and still hold Him impassible, as God?

The Passion therefore will belong to the Economy, God the Word esteeming as His own the things which pertain to His own Flesh, by reason of the Ineffable Union, and remaining external to suffering as far as pertains to His own Nature, for God is Impassible. And no wonder, since we see that the soul itself of a man, if its body suffer somewhat, remains external to the suffering as far as belongs to its own nature, yet is it not conceived of as external to suffering, in that the body which suffers is its very own: and albeit it be impalpable and simple, yet is that which suffers not foreign to it. Thus will you understand of Christ too the Saviour of all.


  1. branemrys4:57 PM

    John Wilkins had a comment that, because he is Australian, got sent into the Australian limbo for comments that I mentioned before. I'm copying it below:

    <span>I have to say that even if he didn't order Hypatia's murder himself, he certainly encouraged the civic politics that led directly to it. I don't find him all that admirable.</span>

  2. branemrys5:22 PM

    It's very difficult to pin down what Cyril's role was in it, in part because we have only a vague notion of why Hypatia was killed, and a fair amount, although not all, of the explicit information on the events comes from people known to be enemies of Cyril or opponents of his later theological positions. He certainly was engaged in a jurisdictional dispute with Orestes, largely inherited in its basic structure from his predecessor; he certainly did seem to have claimed that the monk tortured and killed by the prefect Orestes was a martyr for the faith; Socrates Scholasticus who may or may not have had good reason to say it said that Hypatia was killed by a mob that thought she was trying to prevent Cyril and Orestes from coming to a peaceful solution; and this was all very early in his long career, and, barring purely theological attacks and complaints from his opponents about how he outmaneuvered them in the Council of Ephesus, the only real blot on his record. That's pretty much all we know, although bits and pieces can be added depending on how we weight the credibility of sources. It's certainly true that no one thinks that Alexandrian politics of the day was admirable, so to the extent that he was a participant in it, you are quite right -- if we consider only this early stage in his career, not all that admirable. But admirableness is not a measure of importance in influence, nor is it the criterion of sanctity; and even if it were the whole life would have to be taken into account.


Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.