Summary of St Cyril of Alexandria, Bishop, Doctor of the Church. Born at Alexandria (Egypt) about 370; died there on this day in 444. An able theologian and bishop of his native city, but somewhat confrontational in attacking non-Christians and heretics.
Patrick Duffy explains.
Nephew of Patriarch Theophilus
Cyril was born near Alexandria in Egypt. His mother’s brother Theophilus had become the patriarch of Alexandria. Cyril was well-educated and when his uncle died in 412 he succeeded him as patriarch. Cyril was vigourous in his attacks on Neoplatonism, he put pressure on the civil authorities to expel Jews and closed down churches and seized the sacred vessels of Novatianist schismatics. This led to tensions and violence in the city streets that resulted the murder of a Neoplatonist woman philosopher named Hypatia and a serious quarrel with the city prefect.
The power of Cyril’s personality again came into play when the new patriarch of Constantinople Nestorius (428) began preaching against applying the title theotokos (= “bearer of God”) in reference to Mary. Nestorius said it compromised Jesus humanity, insisting that Christotokos (“bearer of Christ”) was more appropriate. Cyril’s response was that Nestorius was actually denying the reality of the Incarnation, making Jesus Christ into two different persons, one human and one divine, in one body. He referred the matter to Pope Celestine I who charged him with seeing that Nestorius retracted.
Council of Ephesus (431 AD.)
The Emperor Theodosius II convened a council at Ephesus (431), a centre of Marian devotion where theotokos was popular. Two diametrically opposed points of view were at play here: the Antiochian catechetical school from which Nestorius came, emphasised a literal approach to Scripture and the human nature of Jesus, while the Alexandrian school, from which Cyril came, took an allegorical approach to Scripture and emphasised the divine nature.
Cyril presided at the Council of Ephesus in 431, and defended orthodox Christianity against Nestorius. The council approved the title Theotokos for Mary, thereby affirming Mary’s motherhood of God. Noted for his ardent defence of orthodoxy, even at the cost of provoking condemnation and schism.
Impulsive and intelligent, Cyril was energetic in defending what he saw was true doctrine, especially insisting on the validity of the title of Mary as Theotokos, mother of God, and on the full divinity of Jesus.
The Emperor favoured the Nestorian view, while the Pope favoured Cyril’s view. Cyril led the way at the Council, and before John of Antioch and his bishops arrived he had condemned Nestorius, who refused to plead before the council. John and his bishops attacked Cyril. The eventual outcome was that Nestorius was condemned as a heretic and deposed, even though there was a considerable minority that did not consent to the condemnation.
Jesus fully God and fully human
The Theotokos doctrine triumphed and the theme became central to Byzantine identity especially in the 6th century through the Akathistos (= “no sitting”) Hymn in praise of Mary Mother of God. It was sung in the Temple of Santa Sophia when after a victory in war all the people gathered and stood singing. About Jesus the Council decreed that decreed that Jesus was one person, not two separate people: completely God and completely man, with a rational soul and body.
Legacy of bitterness and division
But there was a legacy of bitterness and not all the problems of christology were solved. Cyril felt the end justified the means and on balance his formula seems to have been proved right. But he made little effort to achieve a real meeting of minds. The bishops who supported Nestorius were subsequently removed from their sees. And it took four years before the emperor Theodosius could bring himself to banish Nestorius to a monastery in Egypt. A separate Nestorian Church broke off at that time and still exists today in Iran, Iraq and Malabar, India.
John of Antioch eventually accepted the condemnation of Nestorius and was reconciled with Cyril. But there then appeared an over-emphasis on the divine nature (Monophysitism) which was not resolved until the Council of Chalcedon twenty years later (451).
Death and doctorate
Cyril certainly had a clear grasp of the issues and continued to defend what he saw was the truth with energy and conviction. But he was impulsive, intransigent and somewhat triumphalist in his approach. He died in 444. Pope Leo XIII declared him a doctor of the church in 1883.