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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St Basil the Great, ‘On the Holy Spirit’ (for Pentecost!)

On the Holy SpiritOn the Holy Spirit by Basil the Great

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have read this treatise twice, once in the older, Anglo-Catholic Victorian translation, and once (most recently) in this translation. This book is the classic exposition of why we can call the Holy Spirit ‘God’. St Basil begins with a liturgical complaint, which he deals with using all of his grammatical skills, then moves along to demonstrate through the Scriptures using logic as well as the life of the Church, why it is that we can call the Holy Spirit ‘God’ alongside God the Father and God the Son.

In today’s milieu, unless you’re a Oneness Pentecostal or a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness or a Christadelphian, the divinity of the Holy Spirit is practically a non-issue. And, in the decades since the Charismatic Renewal came upon mainline Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, the logic parsing and proof-hunting St Basil provides here will seem pointless to many living believers. I would imagine that most people today think of the Trinity in economic terms, so they would approach a book entitled, ‘On the Holy Spirit’ expecting a long discourse on the role of the Spirit in Christians’ lives and church history. That figures only a little in this book.

Read it anyway

The divinity of God the Holy Spirit is an integral part of orthodox Christian faith. St Basil of Caesarea wrote this text at a time when many people were doubting this Person of the Trinity’s equality and consubstantiality with the other two Persons. We need to be reminded, day by day, Who Is the God we worship, and why we express that belief in certain ways. As far as that is concerned, there are few guides better than St Basil when we ponder, ‘Well, we’ve settled the whole, “God is Jesus” thing fairly well. Why do we think the Spirit is God as well?’

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