Fully God and Fully Man: Cyril of Alexandria and the Council of Chalcedon (Part 3)

In PART 1, we began to consider the Chalcedonian Definition – that is, the Church’s creedal confession of the two natures of Jesus Christ, as recognized by the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in the year 451 AD. While the Nicene Council (325 AD) had condemned the heretic Arius for his denial of the full divinity of the Son of God, thus vindicating Athanasius and upholding the truth that the Son was “very God of very God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father …”, the precise nature of the relationship between the two natures (i.e., human and divine) was yet to be fleshed out. This matter fell to the Council of Chalcedon in the following century.

In PART 2, we considered the weaving road that led to the Council of Chalcedon – in particular, the important roles played by Apollinaris of Alexandria, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Nestorius of Constantinople, and Cyril of Alexandria, the champion of orthodox Christology. It was the Council of Ephesus (433 AD) that carried Nicene orthodoxy forward, setting the stage for the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. To the the former we turn our attention in the present post.

As we saw last time, Cyril’s predominant concern with the Christology of Antioch was its insistence on “two distinct natures ‘after the union’” (Chadwick, 194).  Cyril reasserted the appropriateness of calling Mary ‘Theotokos’ (God-bearer), and this brought him into conflict with Constantinople’s newest archbishop, Nestorius.  Nestorius would go no further than calling Mary ‘Christotokos’ (Christ-bearer), holding to a Christology of “two natures and two persons” (Gonzalez, 254).

In a personal letter addressed to Nestorius by Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria made it clear where he stood on the matter of the two natures.  Cyril believed that he was simply adhering to the “holy and great Synod” of Nicea (Schaff, 405).  Cyril was adamant:

… that the Word having personally united to himself flesh animated by a rational soul, did in an ineffable and inconceivable manner become man, and was called the Son of Man, not merely as willing or being pleased to be so called, neither on account of taking to himself a person, but because the two natures being brought together in a true union, there is of both one Christ and one Son; for the difference of the natures is not taken away by the union, but rather the divinity and the humanity make perfect for us the one Lord Jesus Christ by their ineffable and inexpressible union … We must not, therefore, divide the one Lord Jesus Christ into two Sons.  Neither will it at all avail to a sound faith to hold, as some do, an [sic] union of persons; for the Scripture has not said that the Word united to himself the person of a man, but that he was made flesh … This was the sentiment of the holy Fathers; therefore they ventured to call the holy Virgin, the Mother of God. 

Cyril of Alexandria (cited in Schaff, pp. 406-407).

Cyril did not consider himself an innovator when it came to the two natures teaching.  As Hans von Campenhausen has pointed out, Cyril considered himself to be “the heir of all previous ecclesiastical teachers”, with Athanasius leading the pack (von Campenhausen, 160).  At the same time, however, Cyril’s Christology cannot be considered as merely an echoed restatement of previous christological articulations.  His early letter to Nestorius reveals an attempt to uphold Nicene orthodoxy while at the same time synthesizing it and carrying it forward to deal with the debates of the period, namely, the relationship between the two natures of Christ.  

A second consideration involves Cyril’s recognition that the two natures debate had undeniable implications for the doctrine of salvation.  This is evidenced by Cyril’s drawing from the Nicene Creed the words “ … for us and for our salvation” in his defense of the unity of the natures in one person.  This recognition of the intimate connection between the incarnation and the atonement (i.e.: person and work of Christ) would only intensify as the Church continued to aim at defining an orthodox Christology.

A third consideration involves Cyril’s insistence on a single hypostasis after the union.  Had this statement not been balanced out, Chalcedonian history could have potentially played out quite differently.  As it was, however, Cyril did concede “that the difference between the divine and human natures in Christ [was] not abolished by the union” (Chadwick, 195).  This concession on Cyril’s part, while fully orthodox, would later be misrepresented or set aside entirely by his more extreme supporters who were adamant on maintaining ‘one hypostasis after the union’ at all costs.

In no apparent rush to respond to Cyril, a whole five months elapsed before Nestorius would finally write back and simply re-articulate the Antiochene Word-Man christology of the East.  This only bolstered Cyril’s motivation to quell the errant teachings of Nestorius.  Cyril’s vehemence with which he attacked his rival, while not exempt from blame, nevertheless ignited the fire that would spread over Christendom and culminate in the advancement of orthodox Christology.  Cyril’s attacks on Nestorius led to the latter’s eventual condemnation at the Council of Ephesus in 433 AD.  Another victory was gained for Nicene orthodoxy in the church’s ratification of a “closure” on the Nicene Creed, preventing any further additions.  

Cyril himself, however, did not come away from Ephesus unscathed.  Nestorius’ late-to-arrive supporters would convene their own council and in fact condemn the bishop of Alexandria.  When the emperor was appealed to, he simply ratified the decisions of both councils as if they were the proceedings of only one.  Thus, Nestorius and Cyril were both condemned and imprisoned following the events of the third ecumenical council.  The former would give up his cause and return to his old monastery.  The latter, however, would return to the front lines in the battle for Alexandrian Christology.

The stage was now set for the Council of Chalcedon. To that we will turn in our next post.  

Henry Chadwick, The Early Church. Revised Edition (London: Penguin, 1993).

Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity. Volume 1 (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1984).

Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 28 volumes. PDF version (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, nd).

Hans von Campenhausen, The Fathers of the Greek Church (London: Adam & Charles Black, c1963).


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