Friday, October 9, 2009

The Theology of Cyril of Alexandria

Weinandy, Thomas G and Keating, Daniel A., Eds. The Theology of St. Cyril of Alexandria: A Critical Appreciation. New York: T&T Clark, 2003. (Available from Logos.)

Due to a few factors, including a 19th century "History of Dogma" approach to patristics that was interested only in Cyril's role in the Nestorian controversy, modern Christologies that wish to downplay the divinity of Christ and distaste for the rather fierce polemics and religious controversies of the time (not to mention misgivings about means used in establishing Christianity's dominance in the Roman Empire), Cyril of Alexandria has tended to either be neglected or vilified in the last couple of centuries. The Theology of St. Cyril of Alexandria attempts to address this situation with a set of essays fill in some gaps in our understanding and restore proper appreciation to St. Cyril.

Essays include discussions of Cyril's approach to scripture (Robert Louis Wilken), his Christology (Thomas Weinandy), the Theotokos and Mary-Eve typology (Frances Young), his understanding of the Holy Trinity (Marie-Odile Boulnois) and the Holy Spirit (Brian Daley), theosis (Daniel Keating) and an attempt to sketch out Cyril's eschatology and its significance (John O'Keefe). The book is rounded out with evaluations of Cyril as a bishop and pastor (John McGuckin) and of his enduring influence (Norman Russell).

Wilken's essay on Cyril's interpretation of the Old Testament reminded me quite a bit of Origen, as described by de Lubac in History and Spirit. I'm not sure this is due more to Origen's influence on Cyril or to de Lubac's influence on Wilken, but the central point--that both Origen and Cyril are best understood as attempting to read all of Scripture in the light of Christ--is certainly valid.

Weinandy attempts to provide some context for the Nestorian controversy from the Christology evident in Cyril's earlier (exegetical) works that are often neglected, showing how its logic is driven by soteriological concerns and how a correct understanding of the Incarnation was arrived at through the quest to preserve the communication of idioms in the face of Nestorius's denial. Weinandy also gives an answer to modern objections that Cyril's Christology minimizes Christ's humanity and reconciles Cyril's mia physis with the Chalcedonian understanding of the two natures of Christ.

Here and in several other places, it is evident how important the thought of Cyril is in several contemporary ecumenical discussions, both with the Church of the East, which never received the Council of Ephesus (where Cyril was vindicated over Nestorius), and the Oriental Orthodox Churches, who rejected the council of Chalcedon, seeing in it's acknowledgement of two natures in Christ a reversal of Ephesus. Cyril's relation to Chalcedon comes up several times, particularly in Weinandy's reading of Chacedon "through Cyril's eyes" and Russell's exposition of the history surrounding the controversy. Boulnois and Daley also touch on how Cyril's writings on the Holy Spirit, though they have been enlisted by both the East and the West in the controversy over the filioque, cannot be easily placed on either side of the debate.

I found Keating's essay in Chapter 6, "Divinization in Cyril: The Appropriate of Divine Life", especially good. Cyril is often regarded as the theologian par excellence of theosis, but paradoxically, he rarely uses the term himself. Keating explains how Cyril is deserving of this reputation, even if he doesn't often employ the normal technical vocabulary, by laying out what he calls Cyril's "narrative of divine life", a
movement or passage of life itself within the narrative of salvation: a movement first from the Father to the Son and the Spirit (who each possess this life by nature), and then through the Son and the Spirit—in creation and in the Incarnation and redemption—to the human race. This narrative not only depicts salvation as the outworking of the life of the Triune God; it also casts the goal and end of salvation in terms of participation in this same divine life (151).
Interestingly to me, two other essays in the book use somewhat parallel patterns of progression and return as keys to other aspects of Cyril's thought: Young, using the pattern of fall and redemption, via Eve-Mary typology to understand to Cyril's thought on the Theotokos, and Boulnois, using the pattern of deployment and recapitulation to understand his thought on the Trinity.

Keating lays out Cyril's thoroughly sacramental account of our union with Christ by following his commentary on Our Lord's baptism, where Cyril sees signified the re-creation of the human race, with Christ, as man, receiving the Spirit on our behalf; on John 3:3-6 where Cyril explains the priority of the gift of the Spirit in our own sanctification and its relation to baptism; and on John 6, to which Cyril gives a liturgical structure explaining how we are fed by the Word of God in Scripture and receive the life that is in Christ by partaking in his flesh in the Holy Eucharist.

Though it is actually quoted in O'Keefe's essay rather than Keating's, this imagery from his comments on John 6:54 is particularly striking:
Even though death, which by transgression sprang on us, compels the human body to the debt of decay … yet since Christ is in us through his own flesh, we shall surely rise … For as if one took a spark and buried it amid much stubble, in order that the seed of fire preserved might lay hold of it, so in us too our Lord Jesus Christ hid life through his own flesh and inserts it as a seed of immortality, abolishing the whole corruption that is in us. (Commentary on John 6:54, quoted by O'Keefe, 200)

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