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[published in Phronema (Annual Review of St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College) vol.


With the second half of the XIXth century, Christianity and Hellenistic culture proved to be a long debated topic. Coming from non-Orthodox scholars, an avalanche of superficial accusations fell upon the theological tradition of Alexandria, claiming basically that this epicentre of ancient culture ended by prioritising Hellenism against Christianity.1 From practically the same camp originated extremely laudatory appreciations for what seemed to be the heroic resistance of Antioch against the pressure of Hellenism. Fortunately, like in numerous cases, a new generation of scholars2 arrived to abandon the preconceived ideas during the last decades, unravelling the philosophical addictions of Antioch. The present article continues this trend, contrasting the rationalistic and ontological Christology of Antioch, as represented by Nestorius, and the existential and traditional Christology of Alexandria, as represented by St Cyril. The purpose is to emphasise the role of St Cyril in the ecclesial effort to Christianise the legacy of philosophy, as reflected in his Christological thinking. This paper considers the correspondence between St Cyril and Nestorius, on the one hand, and St Cyril’s letters to Succensus, on the ……….48………. other, and will progress by analysing (a) the ontological frame of Nestorian Christology, (b) the incarnational realism and the soteriological perspective operating within Cyrillian Christology, and (c) the existential dimension behind St Cyril’s Christological vocabulary. A Metaphysical Anatomy of Christ: The Ontological Framework Nestorius’ doctrine emerged not out of nothing. Although extremist and later rejected by his initial defenders, his Christology was rooted in the dualistic soil of the Antiochian mind (as previously illustrated by Eustathius of Antioch, Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia). What made the difference, transforming his case into a public scandal were a sum of complex external circumstances, like the traditional rivalry between Alexandria and Antioch, along with inner issues characterising his thinking, mostly his feeble ecclesial awareness. Immediately after ascending as Archbishop of Constantinople, Nestorius became notorious by professing a dualistic teaching, a two-subjects Christology.3 Ambitious to solve the theological controversy disturbing the imperial city, he came up with challenging assertions, denying the Holy Virgin the traditional title of God-bearer (θεοτόκος). The dispute involved the group of those venerating the Holy Virgin as God-bearer and the group of those calling her man-bearer (ἀνθρωποτόκος). Nestorius endeavoured to make peace by imposing what he considered a ‘more biblical’ and appropriate expression – Christ-bearer (χριστοτόκος).4 The term, no matter how justified seemed to be, indicated however the dualistic character of his Christology. By way of his correspondence with St Cyril, it soon became obvious his philosophical concerns with affirming divine impassibility, together with his inability to articulate impassibility and incarnation. Denying the Holy Virgin’s traditional title represented just the visible side of the iceberg.

According to Nestorius, the Holy Virgin has given birth to a mere man who only afterwards came to be inhabited by the divine Logos.5 And since she bore a perfect human person, there was no justifiable reason ……….49………. for her to be called Theotokos. Nestorius’ major argument against the traditional title originated from the metaphysical concept of the ontological gap, allowing him to sharply dissociate divinity and humanity. To him, it was unthinkable for the transcendent and impassible Logos to become one with a human mortal flesh – as if the living God of the Scripture, compassionate and kenotic, represented not the object of his meditation. It seemed nonsensical to appropriate to the Logos himself, as impassible God, the experience of human birth, growth, sufferings and death. It was therefore ‘the nature of the body’ or the flesh ‘which was joined to the nature of the divinity’ what suffered in Christ.6 Nestorius proceeded by accusing St Cyril of having misinterpreted the Creed of Nicaea by preaching the suffering of the Logos and suggesting the changeable character of divinity, or ascribing him lower qualities.7 Against such dangerous idea, he considered necessary to assert that the Logos only inhabited or indwelled an already existing human person, without mixing with the flesh.8 Consequently, he thought, one should distinguish in Christ two persons or acting subjects (δύο πρόσωπα), the Son of David and the Lord of David,9 corresponding to his separate natures, divine and human. This represented an oversimplification of the mystery of incarnation.10 To St Cyril, this was synonymous with interpreting Christ in terms of a ‘man bearing God’ (ἂνθρωπος θεοφόρος, a formula previously used by Eustathius), a mere man serving as God’s instrument, the way the saints are tools of divine will.11 According to Nestorius, being a human person Christ was indeed a God-bearing individual, receiving this quality in accordance to his moral worthiness (κατὰ τήν ἀξίαν), an idea later abandoned by the Antiochians.12 And although he affirmed that what occurred in Christ represents a unique case, with no correspondence among the saints, Nestorius was altogether incapable of acknowledging in Christ more than a mere man maintaining a close relationship, participatory (κατὰ µέθεξιν σχετικήν)13 with his God, the Logos. However, speaking of Christ as a name designating the union of God and man, (τὸ κοινὸν τῶν δύο […] τῶν φύσεων ὂνοµα) Nestorius managed to verbally overcome his precursors’ radical dualism of two-sons theory. Actually this was an expression he never used verbatim. He confirmed this ……….50………. progress by emphasising the union – ‘in the oneness of filiation’ – of the Son of David with the Son of God.14 Furthermore, and along with the two appearances (πρόσωπα) as manifestations of the two unconfused natures, he pointed out the existence in Christ of a single manifestation (πρόσωπον)15 of the union, designating what is ‘common to both natures’. Notwithstanding this progress, St Cyril suspected behind Nestorius’ phraseology a subliminal propensity to divide Christ.16 Indeed, despite his attempts to overcome the earlier Antiochian dualistic scheme, for Nestorius the mutual participation (συνάφεια) of Christ’s two natures represented no more than an external link whatsoever. In line with this interpretation, during his earthly life the mere man Christ received strength and glory from the Logos and the Holy Spirit; however, given the fact that the two natures subsisted as two separate persons, the idea of sharing of properties looked nonsensical to the Antiochian. Consequently it seemed to him imperious to sharply distinguish between the attributes pertaining to Christ’s divinity (the impassible essence) and respectively his humanity (the passible essence).17 By this he unconsciously nourished St Cyril’s suspicions of transforming the virtues of the ‘man Jesus’ in object of an impious ‘man-


worshiping’.18 Although he later refuted, in his Book of Heraclides of Damascus, the Cyrillian interpretation of his ideas,19 Nestorius’ teaching still encapsulated serious issues nonetheless. First, his emphasis on the separate subsistence of the two natures in Christ has put at risk the apostolic doctrine of incarnation together with its soteriological consequences. Apparently Nestorius took literally the anti-Apollinarian Christology of the second ecumenical council – which affirmed two distinct and complete natures in Christ but paid no particular attention to their relationship –, proving rather inability than lack of conviction when expressing the unity in Christ. Second, his problems originated mostly in his commitment with classic metaphysics, carelessly assimilated with the ecclesial piety, preventing him from acknowledging the living God, the divine dynamics of economic passibility. Suspecting St Cyril’s corruption of the concept of divine immutability by teaching a too intimate nearness of divine and human,20 ultimately Nestorius was ready to sacrifice the traditional doctrine for ……….51………. the sake of a philosophical concept. Third, and closely connected to the previous, paying too much attention to a non-ecclesial ontology, he gave priority to the natures over the person. Interpreting Christ’s person in light of the two natures, his Christology represented a step back compared to the Cappadocian personalistic revolution. Fourth, choosing to reduce the Christological mystery to a relation between the two natures his thinking betrayed a lack of mystical perspective. A mystical perspective is indispensable to any Orthodox approach to Christ, as evident in St Cyril’s teaching. Fifth, and related to the first problem, Nestorius’ weak Christology built rather upon the model of communion between God and the saints, manifesting no particular interest in acknowledging the datum of the divine Logos who ‘became flesh.’ The image of Christ he depicted was indeed that of a virtuous man, but not necessarily of the world’s saviour. One could justifiably assert that Nestorius’ ideas of Christ were characterised by lack of Christology. Coming from the Antiochian camp and rather from Theodore of Mopsuestia than from Nestorius himself, the question which was raised on the active role of Christ’s humanity within salvation, remains however important; this concern was not alien to the Alexandrine Christology either.21 A powerful idea in itself, the theme has been later assimilated on safer Orthodox grounds and meticulously refined between the 4th and 6th ecumenical synods, especially within St Maximus the Confessor’s complex theological laboratory. Dismissing a Philosophical Scheme: Incarnational Realism and Soteriological Framework This presentation will not speculate whether or not St Cyril’s reactions had anything to do with ecclesiastical politics, personal ambitions or the rivalry between Alexandria and Antioch. Instead it will focus on the existential substance and soteriological intention manifested throughout his traditional Christology – an inner coherence traceable beyond the various nuances occurring with his teaching. ……….52………. The first concerns expressed by St Cyril about Nestorius’ ideas came to the public attention by his Paschal letter of 429 and an additional epistle to the monks in Egypt.22 It was only one year after the Antiochian’s enthronement as Archbishop of Constantinople. A few letters followed, exchanged between the two men, unveiling the mutual suspicions of both sides but with no positive result. This correspondence indicated the estrangement from one another of the theological presuppositions of Alexandria and Antioch. Fearing a worldwide scandal, St Cyril appealed to the arbitration of pope Celestine I, who gathered a council in Rome where Nestorius’


ideas came to be condemned (August 430). It was together with the Roman decision that St Cyril sent to Constantinople his own third letter, appended with the famous twelve anathemas, or ‘chapters’ (according to their actual title), adopted by an Alexandrian synod (November 430). The twelve anathemas have been later assumed by the ecumenical council held in Ephesus (431) as a key-document. Representing the landmark of Cyrillian Christology, the twelve chapters share the traditional perception of incarnation, as stated in the Nicene Creed and the Gospel according to St John, a biblical book commented by St Cyril a little before 429. It is not by surprise that the Johannine expression the Logos became flesh occurs so persistently in the anathemas both literally (5, 6, 8) and in paraphrase (1, 2, 10, 11, 12). Given his insight into the biblical mystery of the incarnation, St Cyril perceived Nestorius’ rationalistic approach as denial of divine economy (οἰκονοµία – here, incarnation). His criticism, although the idea was not explicitly uttered as such in the twelve chapters, addressed the feeble understanding of the incarnation traceable within Antiochian Christology. To him, Nestorius, together with his forerunners and followers, professed a false piety, distorting the meaning of economy, for philosophical scruples alien to the tradition of the fathers. A faithful witness of the incarnational realism of ecclesial Christology, St Cyril observed that the Logos truly became man (γέγονεν ἂνθρωπος) and did not assume a man (οὐκ ἂνθρωπον ἀνέλαβεν).23 He was however aware of the fact that the simple affirmation of incarnation proved to not be sufficient to dismantle the erroneous doctrine: the ultimate cause of the unconvincing Nestorian opinion on incarnation ……….53………. was the metaphysic idea of divine impassibility. Thus it was precisely this prejudice which should have been challenged. This is the reason why the Alexandrian emphasised so strongly – on solid scriptural grounds24 – the necessity of acknowledging the one Christ as the Logos of God who, becoming flesh, suffered in the flesh (παθόντα σαρκὶ), was crucified in the flesh (ἐσταυρωµένον σαρκὶ), and tasted death in the flesh (θανάτου γευσάµενον σαρκὶ) for our salvation.25 The statement is crucial; St Cyril believed that there is no true salvation if the ‘acting subject’ is not truly God, unchanged26 even if incarnate and suffering. Therefore the sufferings were of the divine Logos who has really experienced our flesh. What is to be contemplated in Christ is not a divinely inhabited (indwelled) human person or a mere man who came to be considered Son. Christ is one subject, the Son, the Lord, the Logos of God who hypostatically (καθ’ ὑπόστασιν or sometimes καθ’ ἓνωσιν φυσικήν)27 integrated the human nature (τὸ ἀνθρώπινον) he has taken from the Holy Virgin by the incarnation. And Christ being truly God incarnate, his mother is Theotokos. The binding connection between Christology and Theotokology was unambiguously asserted by St Cyril from the outset, in the first chapter/anathema, by way of a syllogistic formulation: Emmanuel is truly God, therefore the Holy Virgin is Theotokos, for she bodily bore the Logos of God made flesh. The Holy Virgin cannot be surnamed Theotokos if the one who was born from her is not true God. However, acknowledging her as God-bearer does not suggest St Mary’s involvement in the eternal origination of the Son; she participated just in the temporal birth of the same Son/Logos according to the flesh (κατὰ σάρκα), he assumed from her.28 The main point in this statement is soteriological: being truly Theotokos, the Holy Virgin warrants the realisation of divine salvific economy through the incarnation of God the Logos.29 Against Nestorius’ observations concerning the risk of mixing eternity and time, divine and human births – for him, a strong reason to refute the title of Theotokos – St Cyril distinguished clearly the eternal begetting from the Father and the historical birth from the Theotokos. But being mainly concerned with bridging the gap between eternity and time, his emphasis fell upon the identity of the one who


……….54………. experienced both births and the personal action of the divine Logos who operated the two births.30 It was the same eternal Son of God who came to be bodily born by his mother. Opposing Nestorius’ idea of the ethical achievements of the man Jesus, the Alexandrian endeavoured to emphasise the existential, salvific and deifying dimension of the incarnation. Because the Logos has hypostatically taken upon himself our very humanity, the flesh is properly his. It was in his flesh that he operated the inner reshaping of the entire human nature, freeing it from the slavery of sin, decay and death. Consequently, Christ’s deified flesh is the major demonstration of the soteriological efficiency of the incarnation. This reshaping began with the transformation of Christ’s body into a ‘life-giving’ and holy flesh.31 Here a note on the Cyrillian use of flesh (σάρξ) is required. Flesh played in St Cyril the role of a generic term designating human nature.32 Always on biblical grounds (like in Ephesians 2:15), flesh indicated the existential mode (τρόπος) of the fallen humanity. But within strict Christological contexts the term came to be charged with soteriologic density. By relentlessly repeating the Johannine expression the Logos became flesh, St Cyril pointed toward the kenotic condescendence of the Logos incarnate who assumed flesh to heal the wounded humanity and to grant it immortality. This was undoubtedly the purpose of the mysterious ‘mode of the economy in flesh’ (italics added).33 Therefore the use of flesh represented in St Cyril not just a realistic accent on the incarnation, but also, and correlatively, a soteriological statement. Bridging the Ontological Gap: Existential Christology St Cyril instrumented the above analysed elements to refute the extreme variant of the Antiochian Christology, which sharply dissociated the attributes of the ‘mere man Christ’ from those belonging to God. This oversimplifying scheme was notedly incompatible with the ecclesial icon of Christ, as depicted by the liturgy. By comparison Cyrillian Christology pointed to the living Christ of the Church. Exactly the liturgical roots of his teaching – as confirmed by his appeal to the eucharistic criterion34 ……….55………. – allowed St Cyril to challenge the ontological framework and to courageously introduce an existential, more traditional in spirit, perspective in Christology. Overcoming the reductionist scheme of the unbridgeable ontological gap, the crucial position of the living Christ in St Cyril became evident with his elaborations on the communication of characteristics.35 Representing the most prominent feature of Jesus’ complex hypostasis, the syntagm designates the unmixed (although real) sharing of characteristics, occurring with the two natures within Christ’s single subject. The process of sharing represented simultaneously the confirmation and explanation of St Cyril’s doctrine of the hypostatic unity of the two natures in Christ. As an exemplification, he pointed to the paradoxical aspects of the impassible suffering of the Logos made flesh and the deified body of Christ, aspects subsumed by the soteriological efficiency of the incarnation.36 Having these aspects at its core, Cyrillian Christology displayed complete independency from metaphysical schemes and proclaimed a dynamic existential concreteness where divinity and humanity share each other in an indivisible act of living (an aspect ecclesially confirmed by the single act of adoration addressed to Christ).37 St Cyril’s innovative formulae had no other purpose than to nuance as accurately as possible the inner unity of Christ’s person. This was also the case with his controversial formula ‘one incarnate nature of (God) the Logos’ (µία φύσις τοῦ (θεοῦ) λόγου σεσαρκωµένη) and the alternate version of ‘one incarnate hypostasis’ (µία ὑπόστασις…σεσαρκωµένη).38 Referred to the


economic mode of the Logos who came down to us, the formula had no relation with the Antiochian’s ontological concerns (the domain of essence, οὐσία). It rather answered existential concerns (the domain of living, τρόπος) – the way it was rightly interpreted by the ‘Scythian’ (proto-Romanian) monk John Maxentius,39 a century later. Expression of St Cyril’s deep reverence in front of divine kenosis, the formula affirmed the completely new existential mode inaugurated through the incarnation, of the Logos who, willingly becoming passible, lived earthly life. The perspective opened by the formula proved to be ……….56………. intensely paradoxical: whilst preserving his natural immutability, the only-begotten Son of God arrived to experience passibility by means of assuming our flesh. Therefore, the Logos became passible in human manner (ἀνθρωπίνως) or rather economically, and not divinely (θεϊκῶς).40 This last clarification was doubtlessly meant by St Cyril to alleviate the impact produced by his daring teaching on the Hellenising Antiochian camp.41 But even if such clarification served mainly prophylactically, it remains altogether true that within the Cyrillian context there was no problem with affirming the unconfused character of the two natures. Given this clarification, the label of divine passion (θεοπάθεια) ascribed to his Christology finds no literal support in his works; at least not in an ontological perspective. However, his intention being to prevent any interpretation of passion as being that of a mere man, he directed all his energy to indicate the complex oneness of the subject who experienced human life. St Cyril was not ignorant in matters concerning the ontological interpretation of the event of Christ. As a churchman, however, he felt compelled to operate radical adjustments to contemporary metaphysics42 in order to bring its terminology to express as closely as possible the content of the ecclesial experience with Christ. In short, he managed to clearly distinguish between person and natures and to interpret Christ in light of existential criteria, relevant to the Church. It is this principle that should be discerned behind his uncompromising confession of one Son, Christ and Lord, who arrived to live a new and unique ‘nature’ (φύσις) – the complex incarnational mode.43 From this point of view, the Cyrillian formula ‘one nature’ (µία φύσις) represents a traditionally existential answer to the rationalistic scheme of two-sons. This is ultimately the meaning of the statement in his first letter to Succensus: [A]fter the union we do not separate the natures from one another, nor do we cut the one and indivisible Son into two sons, but we say that there is one Son, and as the holy fathers have stated, that there is one nature of the Word made flesh.44 ……….57………. Conclusion Facing, like before the Cappadocians (for the domain of Trinitarian theology), the attempt of canonising the ontological framework in Christology, as supported by the Antiochian camp, St Cyril managed to articulate the traditional existential perspective of the Church in a daring and admirable synthesis. His own terminological problems, which were not addressed here, cannot be rightly interpreted without the awareness of his intense effort to overcome the rationalistic scheme of the ontological gap. By strenuously working with the distinction between ontology and life, and prioritising the dynamic domain of the existential mode (τρόπος) as the necessary context to treat the theme of divine passibility, St Cyril proved to be a creative disciple of the Cappadocians and important contributor to the reflective process which led to the elegant formulation (with Saints Dionysius the Areopagite and Maximus the Confessor) of the


Christology of theandricity. Notes:
Cf. J. Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes (New York: Fordham University Press, 1983), 2, 23-24. 2 Cf. R. Kearsley, ‘The Impact of Greek Concepts of God on the Christology of Cyril of Alexandria’ Tyndale Bulletin 43:2 (1992), 313; J.J. O’Keefe, ‘Kenosis or Impassibility: Cyril of Alexandria and Theodoret of Cyrus on the Problem of Divine Pathos’ Studia Patristica XXXII (Leuven: Peeters, 1997), 359, 365. 3 Cf. J.W. Smith, ‘Suffering Impassibly: Christ’s Passion in Cyril of Alexandria’s Soteriology’ Pro Ecclesia vol. XI, no. 4 (2002), 463. 4 Cf. his second epistle to St Cyril, PG 77, 53B. 5 Cf. St Cyril’s 45th letter, PG 77, 229C. 6 Cf. his second letter to St Cyril, PG 77, 52BC & 53C. 7 Cf. Ibidem, PG 77, 49CD. Cf. O’Keefe, ‘Impassible Suffering? Divine Passion and Fifth Century Christology’ Theological Studies 58 (1997), 52-54. 8 Cf. St Cyril’s 4th letter, PG 77, 45D.

Cf. Nestorius’ second letter to Cyril, PG 77, 56A. J. Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1969), 18. 11 Cf. St Cyril’s first letter to Nestorius, PG 77, 41A. 12 Cf. S. Alexopoulos, ‘An Example of Ecclesial Reconciliation in the early Church: Three Homilies by Paul of Emessa and Cyril of Alexandria’ St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 45:4 (2001), 352. 13 Cf. St Cyril’s 17th letter, PG 77, 112ABC. Cf. D. Maxwell, ‘Crucified in the Flesh: Christological Confession or Evasive Qualification?’ Pro Ecclesia vol. XIII, no. 1 (2004), 78-79. 14 Cf. his second letter to St Cyril, PG 77, 52AB & 56A. See J.A. McGuckin, St Cyril of Alexandria – The Christological Controversy – Its History, Theology, and Texts (Crestwood: SVS Press, 2004), 126, 157-158. 15 Cf. McGuckin, St Cyril of Alexandria, 138-151. 16 Cf. St Cyril’s 45th letter PG 77, 229ABC. 17 Cf. his second letter to St Cyril, PG 77, 52BC & 56AB. 18 Cf. letter 46, PG 77, 244C. 19 Cf. R. Kyle, ‘Nestorius: The Partial Rehabilitation of a Heretic’ The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 32/1 (1989), 83. See also McGuckin, St Cyril of Alexandria, 126 sq. 20 Cf. his second letter to St Cyril, PG 77, 53A. 21 Cf. L.J. Welch, ‘Logos-Sarx? Sarx and the Soul of Christ in the Early Thought of Cyril of Alexandria’ St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 38:3 (1994), 276-288. 22 PG 77, 9A-40B. 23 Cf. letters 45 (PG 77, 236) and 46 (244B). Cf. N. Russell, Cyril of Alexandria (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 179. 24 Cf. O’Keefe, ‘Impassible Suffering,’ 43 & 47-48. 25 Cf. anathema 12, PG 77, 121D. Cf. letters 4 (PG 77, 48AB), 17 (113AB), 45 (233C-236A), 46 (244C). 26 Cf. letters 17 (PG 77, 109CD) and 45 (232B).
10 9

27 28

Cf. anathemas 2-3, PG 77, 120C. See also letters 4 (PG 77, 45D) and 17 (109D). Cf. letter 4, PG 77, 48D. See also letters 17 (PG 77, 117D) and 45 (229D-232A). 29 Cf. letters 17 (PG 77, 120AB) and 46 (244B). 30 Cf. letter 45, PG 77, 229D-232A. 31 Cf. letters 17 (PG 77, 113AD) and 45 (233C-236D).


Cf. Commentary on the Gospel according to John, PG 73, 160D. Cf. letter 46, 241C & 244A. See also Welch, ‘Logos-Sarx’ 276-282. 33 Cf. letter 45, PG 77, 232C. 34 Cf. letter 17, PG 77, 113C. Cf. D. Keating, ‘The Twofold Manner of Divine Indwelling in Cyril of Alexandria: Redressing an Imbalance’ Studia Patristica XXXVII (Leuven: Peeters, 2001), 544-549. 35 Cf. letters 17 (PG 77, 109CD), 45 (236CD), 46 (241AB). 36 Cf. letter 45, PG 77, 236CD. 37 Cf. anathema 8; see also letter 17, PG 77, 113A. 38 Cf. letters 17 (PG 77, 116C), 45 (232C), 46 (244AC). 39 Cf. Maxwell, ‘Crucified in the Flesh’ 77. 40 Cf. letter 46, PG 77, 240CD, 244BC. Cf. Smith ‘Suffering Impassibly’ 469-470, 472. 41 Cf. Maxwell, ‘Crucified in the Flesh’ 74-75. 42 Cf. Kearsley, ‘The Impact of Greek Concepts of God’ 312-321. 43 Cf. letter 46, PG 77, 240C & 241B. 44 Letter 45, PG 77, 232D.


Rev Dr Doru Costache is a graduate of the University of Bucharest and now parish priest, St Mary’s Romanian Orthodox Church in Sydney. He is Lecturer in Patristic Studies at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College. Fr Doru is a Member of the Executive of the National Council of Churches in Australia and a Co-founder of the Romanian Association for Science and Theology.