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Saving St. Cyril

St. Cyril of Alexandria ranks high among the “bad boys” of the patristic era, at least in the view of many modern scholars. He was famously intolerant of doctrinal dissent. He steadfastly refused to celebrate religious diversity in his home city. And it was he who brought the Nestorian controversy to its crisis, sniffing out the heresy even before it had been stated explicitly. For a couple of centuries, hostile historians have portrayed Cyril as an operator, manipulating the imperial court and ignoring popular opinion for the sake of his own power. If anything bad happened in fifth-century Alexandria, you can bet that the blame for it has been laid on Cyril.

Now comes a new and more nuanced look at Cyril in Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy by John McGuckin of Union Theological Seminary. McGuckin’s Cyril is no less an operator, but he does it all for holy ends, keeping the means always within the bounds of moral action. Wheeling and dealing are not necessarily incompatible with great sanctity.

Cyril prevailed over Nestorius at the Council of Ephesus — a council that Nestorius himself had maneuvered into being. There the bishops overwhelmingly acclaimed the doctrine long hallowed by the worship of the Church: that Christ the God-man is a single subject, and so Mary could be called “Mother of God.” She must not be called mother of his human nature alone, because mothers do not give birth to a nature, but to a person. The title “Mother of God” (Theotokos, literally, “God-bearer”) preserved the integrity of the incarnation of the eternal Word.

Cyril held the day because of his sustained, consistent, and subtle theological argument. Theological truth won the war, but the victory belonged to more than the theologians. Throngs of common people celebrated the council’s decision by carrying the bishops aloft in a torchlit procession and singing hymns throughout the night…

Read the rest of my review on Touchstone magazine’s website.

I regularly write about the Fathers in Touchstone. You’ll find some of that work by searching Touchstone’s archive here. (Just plug in my last name: Aquilina.)

Touchstone is one of the very few magazines that treat the Fathers as contemporaries and as newsworthy. Subscribe to Touchstone here.

3 thoughts on “Saving St. Cyril

  1. I liked this on Cyril from William Witt, orthodox Anglican.

  2. I enjoyed McGuckin’s book a lot. I also recommend his book on Gregory of Nazianzus.

  3. Thanks, Simon. I plan to post my review of the Gregory book in the next few days. McGuckin writes very clearly, and he knows how to tell a story. He has a certain peevishness about the West, Scholasticism, Rome, the papacy that grates on my nerves — but not enough to make me stop reading! I’m pleased that his more recent books, the patristics manual and the primer in Byzantine spirituality, are better edited and proofread than the earlier numbers were.

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