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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Return to the Sources (Ressourcement)

In the 1920’s, there was a papal call to ‘return to the sources’ which produced a number of Catholic theologians who worked on the ancient and mediaeval theologians, seeking to bring their wisdom to today and seeking to make their words available today, both through scholar editions such as Sources Chrétiennes and translations such as Sources Chrétiennes. This movement was and is the Ressourcement, and produced major works such as Henri de Lubac’s Exégèse Mediévale.

In the English-speaking world, today’s Christian who is seeking to discover the Fathers has many thanks to render unto the Catholics and their publishing houses.

Paulist Press – Ancient Christian Writers and The Classics of Western Spirituality

Paulist Press, the publishing house of the Missionary Society of Saint Paul the Apostle, has produced two great series of English translations and editions, the Ancient Christian Writers and The Classics of Western Spirituality. The former is a series of highly scholarly translations of a vast range of ancient Greek and Latin Christian texts. A full list is available here.

The Classics of Western Spirituality is broader than Ancient Christian Writers, covering mediaeval and modern texts as well, including Protestants such as John & Charles Wesley alongside the Catholic mainstays such as Sts. Francis & Clare of Assisi. This series comes with very competent introductions, but at times the selections have been edited, as with John Cassian’s Conferences which are incomplete (however, the ACW translation is complete). The Patristic resources in this series are:

Augustine of Hippo: Selected Writings, The of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus by Athanasius, Apocalyptic Spirituality includes selections from Lactantius but is mostly mediaeval, The Life of Moses by Gregory of Nyssa, The Conferences by John Cassian, The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus, Maximus the Confessor: Selected Writings, Origen: Selected Writings, Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, The Fifty Spiritual Homilies and the Great Letter by Pseudo-Macarius, Hymns by Ephrem the Syrian, and On the Song of Songs and Selected Writings by the Venerable Bede.

While this series covers the Western Church very well for the Middle Ages, it is too bad they are missing much of Western Patristic spirituality.

Catholic University of America – The Fathers of the Church and The Library of Early Christianity

The Fathers of the Church is a long-running, high-quality series of English translations of the Fathers. A list of works translated is available here. This series is very large.

The Library of Early Christianity is a new venture started by CUA, and I’m excited about it. It seeks to present Loeb-style editions of early Christian texts in Latin, Greek, and Syriac (I’m not sure if other languages such as Coptic will be included) with facing-page English translations. This series will be a blessing to many as it gets up and running, I am sure!

Apart from these series of translations, Catholic scholars have been involved in translation projects with Routledge’s Early Church Father’s series, SVS Press’s Popular Patristics Series, Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, and so forth.

To go into the Ressourcement work beyond translation would be too much for now, but Eerdmans’ Ressourcement: Retrieval and Renewal in Catholic Thought series is worth looking into here. The series includes the English translation of Lubac’s Medieval Exegesis.

For later: The Evangelical Ressourcement?

The next step …

In “This Week in Patristics” for May 30 – June 4, Phil Snider ponders, “It does make me wonder what the next step is, now that we have so many competant introductions.” This is a good question. I, myself, have read a few good introductions of various types, such as Thomas C. Oden’s The Rebirth of Orthodoxy which is a call for mainline Protestants to rediscover the Church Fathers, Christopher A. Hall’s three volumes from IVP, Robert E. Webber’s Ancient-Future Faith, and Boniface Ramsey’s Beginning to Read the Fathers.

One answer, of course (and I’m pretty sure Phil thought of this), is to read more and more of the Fathers. The Age of the Fathers contains an enormous volume of content, much of which is worth reading more than once, spanning the Mediterranean world and beyond, covering a multitude of genres both prose and poetic, and providing wisdom for many different aspects of our lives.

If the bigness of the Patristic world overwhelms you, I recommend working through something like Ramsey’s “Patristic Reading Program” as at the back of Beginning to Read the Fathers. I also recommend, if you’ve read a lot about the Fathers but not much from the Fathers, that you get Henry Chadwick’s translation of St. Augustine’s Confessions, the SVS translation of St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, and the Penguin Classics edition, by Maxwell Staniforth and Andrew Louth, of the Apostolic Fathers called Early Christian Writings. These will give you a variety of different writings from East and West in different genres. You can move on from there based on what you found of interest.

If you are already reading the Fathers but are looking for guides, a good idea is to get a book of essays on Patristic themes. One of my first introductions to the secondary material on the Church Fathers was Ancient and Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-orthodoxy in the 21st Century, ed. Kenneth Tanner and Christopher A. Hall, a collection of essays about patristic themes and the question of orthodoxy in today’s Church. A similar volume, also from IVP, was Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future, a collection of conference papers on Patristic questions and their application to today’s situations.

Another, similar, idea is to find authors of series of books on Patristic questions, such as Robert E. Webber’s series that began with Ancient-Future Faith but also includes Ancient-Future Evangelism and Ancient-Future Worship. These books tend to point you towards others, both primary material and secondary sources, that may interest you.

I have a friend who is a missionary in Cyprus, and because St. John Chrysostom is such a big deal in the Greek Orthodox world, he got his hands on J.N.D. Kelly’s book Goldenmouth. If you are a Jerome enthusiast, Kelly also has Jerome.

Along similar lines to a modern biography/study of an ancient Christian figure is the Routledge series The Early Church Fathers. Who has caught your eye, but the bibliography seems too big? St. Leo? No problem! Or Severus of Antioch? Or Evagrius Ponticus? Or Ambrose of Milan? Or Cyril of Alexandria? Or Athanasius? No problem!

Alternatively, browse through a handbook to see what material there is. I realise that non-specialists with not a lot of time on their hands will be less excited by Daniel Hombergen’s The Second Origenist Controversy than I am, but handbooks also point you less weighty, more readable material along the way; there is Quasten’s multi-volume Patrology as well as Hubertus Drobner’s single-volume The Fathers of the Church. If a book looks like it will kill you from boredom, don’t be ashamed to put it down! The whole point of Patristics is edification and drawing nearer to Christ. We only have so many hours in our lives, so wasting time with boring or excessively long books that will profit us little is not to be recommended.

Finally, why not take your daily Bible readings and the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and read along that way? And if a passage is particularly striking, see if you can find it in context and find more Church Fathers and connexions that way. You will learn more about Scripture at the same time! To save time, for those who use the Revised Common Lectionary, the companion volumes Ancient Christian Devotional (Year A doesn’t specify the year, Year C is out, and I hope to see Year B by Advent) are aligned with the Lectionary. Also interesting may be Hendrickson’s Day by Day with the Early Church Fathers.

This is all for now, but even if you choose a single one of these, you will have taken an important step beyond reading introduction to the Fathers after introduction!