St Cyril of Alexandria, ‘On the Unity of Christ’

On the Unity of ChristOn the Unity of Christ by Cyril of Alexandria

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Anthony McGuckin’s translation of St Cyril of Alexandria’s dialogue Quod Unus Sit Christus is a highly readable presentation of a text by the fifth-century Greek church’s greatest theologian. It begins with a helpful introduction that is refreshingly confessional — McGuckin, although he tries to set out ‘the facts’, also tries not to be anything other than what he is — an Eastern Orthodox Priest.

I, of course, read Cyril with Pope St Leo the Great always in mind. As I began this piece of anti-Nestorian polemic, I was thinking, ‘If I were a fifth-century western Christian, I would not see why this would conflict with traditional western conceptions of the nature of Christ at all.’ Indeed, at sompe places Cyril seemed to affirm that Christ was God by nature, others that he had a human nature. Later on, however, I was disabused of this notion when Cyril plainly stated that you could never say that Christ had two natures. I have a theory on that that will have to be fleshed out somewhere else, but in short it is: natura ≠ φύσις (at least not always).

Not that western Christological was ever something Cyril was concerned with. Rather, his sights were set on Nestorius, erstwhile (this text is from ca. 438) Bishop of Constantinople, now in exile in the desert. Whether Cyril is fair to Nestorius/-ianism, I cannot say. Certainly, some things Nestorius is recorded as having said would justify much of Cyril’s argumentation.

The two main concerns of Cyril herein are the theology of the ‘assumed man’ (assumptus homo) and two-person Christology. Both are associated with that group of theologians we designate with the short-hand ‘Antiochene’, the latter especially with Nestorius.

Throughout, the main position of Cyril comes home again and again: Jesus Christ, fully man and fully God, is a single person (πρόσωπον). He is a fully united, complete personal entity. The man Jesus is the same person as God the Word Incarnate. God the Word did not take up to himself the man of the line of David, Jesus of Nazareth. God the Word actually took flesh and literally became the man Jesus. The implication of assumptus homo theology is that, even if God the Word is homoousios with the Father, somehow Jesus has still been adopted into the Godhead — and so the Incarnation is a sham and our salvation was wrought by a liar.

To take us back to mid-fifth-century (and beyond) concerns, Cyril is so convinced of the unity of persons that he actually says that you cannot say of any action, ‘This is human,’ or, ‘This is divine.’ All actions are of Christ. This, of course, goes against what Leo does in the Tome (Ep. 28), which is why so many easterners were opposed to it (so-called Monophysites).

However, although Cyril continually asserts that Christ has all the attributes of humanity, including a human soul, he denies substantial reality to the moments when He is at His most human, at his weakest — the Garden of Gethsemane and the cry of dereliction on the Cross (‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’). These were, essentially, play-acting on Jesus’ part so we could learn how to face suffering and not fall. Sadly, this sort of theology paves the way for some of the un-orthodox manifestations of the conservative Cyrillian camp (those ‘Monophysites’ again) in the decades and centuries to come.

Finally, although styled as a dialogue, as an example of that literary genre, this text is … well … it’s not Plato. Let’s leave it at that.

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5 thoughts on “St Cyril of Alexandria, ‘On the Unity of Christ’

  1. I don’t agree with your assessment of St. Cyril’s interpretation of the cry of dereliction. Cyril says that by His cry, it is as if Jesus is saying the following: ________. He then gives a profound theological interpretation of the cry of dereliction as being the diversion of God’s righteous wrath from the sinner to Christ Who has swallowed up the penalty for sin. The same kind of rhetoric is common today. I have often made the point that when Jesus performed some action “It’s like He is saying . . .” I don’t think anything in the text would lead you to believe that Cyril is guilty of a docetic interpretation. I really don’t see how you got “play-acting” from his comments.

    Fr. Jonathan Trebilco

    • I honestly would have to re-read this text. But what I think I thought Cyril was saying is that Christ is not actually undergoing these trials in any real, emotive sense, but, rather, showing us an example. I may be wrong, but that’s what I think he was saying. Perhaps if you could refer me to where Cyril gives his interpretation, I could doublecheck the text and re-evaluate my interpretation.

      And it’s not docetism — it’s aphthartodocetism, which believes itself to be in line with Cyril (even if it’s an aberration). We should be able to note if/when Cyril slips. ‘Even Home nods,’ as Horace says.

      • No, it would be docetism if Jesus’ sufferings were not real and He was only play-acting. Isn’t aphthartodocetism the belief that the body of Christ was impassible? That’s not in view. If the cry of dereliction were play acting–in appearance only–that would be, by definition, a form of docetism. At least some level of docetism.

        John McGuckin, in his introduction wrote: “Cyril is no docetic, who is denying the reality of Christ’s sufferings. On the contrary, he points to the whole experience of incarnation as adding a unique aspect to the divinity the personal experience of human suffering and death. . . . although God experiences suffering and death, just as he experiences all other human factors, he does not become dominated by suffering or death.”

        The section in Cyril on the cry of dereliction does not in any way indicate that this act was in appearance only, only that He made this cry for our benefit. What Cyril does deny is that there was any kind of split within the Blessed Trinity between the Persons of Father and Son.

        Fr. Jonathan Trebilco

  2. Thanks for this clarification — I’ll definitely have to re-read the pertinent sections (or, frankly, the whole treatise) when I next get a chance.

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