Cyril of Alexandria 376-444

In 05 Post-Augustinian Fathers on 2012/01/17 at 9:11 AM

In 412 Cyril succeeded Athanasius both to the bishopric Alexandria and as defender of the faith. This inexhaustible teacher taught with  great clarity. . In his long tenure he wrote theological studies, commentaries on many books of the Bible and innumerable letters.  Outstanding writings include his profound interpretation of Jesusʼ final prayer for unity, in his Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John, where Cyril he expounds on how the Eucharist unites believers to one another, to Christ, and to the Trinity.

Ironically, Cyril was the nephew of the Patriarch of Alexandria who had persecuted Chrysostom. Cyril had been present at the Synod that deposed Chrysostom.

Cyril’s great accomplishment was to prevail over the heretical Patriarch of Constantinople.  Nestorius was  a rationalist who was inclined to semantic fussiness. His favorite phrase was “strictly speaking”.

Nestorius objected and rejected the title Mother of God applied to Mary because he said she did not precede Christ in time.  Cyril’s response was that a mother does not give birth to a nature, but to a person.

Nestorius became defensive when Cyril challenged Nestorius as dividing Christ into two different person.  Nestorius’ arrogant intellectualism drove him from mere idiosyncrasy into actual and explicit heresy, and on Christmas morning in 428 he rashly gave a sermon attacking the maternity of Mary as the mother of the Incarnate Christ.  He maintained that  “He who was formed in the womb of Mary was not God Himself, but God assumed him.”

His hearers were stunned but a courageous lawyer corrected the Patriarch:  “The eternal Word begotten before all the ages submitted to be born.”  And subsequently a bishop, on the feast of the Annunciation challenged Nestorius in his cathedral saying: “The Self-same was in the Fatherʼs bosom and in the womb of His mother…” whereupon the congregation applauded the bishop.

However,  Nestorius was adamant and began a series of sermons that lasted until Easter, repeating frequently that Christ’s humanity was only “ a garment”.

Cyril of Alexandria responded with a letter addressed to all the monks in which he stated: “I am astonished that the question should ever have been raised as to whether the Holy Virgin should be called Mother of God for it really amounts to asking: Is her Son God, or is He not?”

From the Synod of Alexandria, Cyril addressed Nestorius: “Following the Confession of the Fathers…we explain that the only-begotten Logos of God….assumed flesh of the blessed Virgin, made it His own, subjected Himself to human birth and came forth from the woman as Man, without casting off that which He was, but even in the flesh remaining the same, namely, true God in His nature….Even as a child and in his motherʼs bosom, the Logos at the same time filled the whole world. Governor of it along with His Father, for the Godhead has no bounds and limits.”

This brought on an exchange of sharp letters between Cyril and Nestorius.  In 430 Cyril sent the Pope a detailed report on the history and characteristics of the controversy, documenting every item. Pope Celestine summoned a synod at Rome which declared Nestoriusʼ views on Mary’s divine maternity as definitely heretical. Undaunted, Nestorius delivered a sermon declaring that he would never call the Christ-Child God.”

The population of Ephesus rose against him and in 432 in the name of the Pope, Cyril convened the Council of Ephesus.   Mary had been honored in Ephesus and throughout the Empire since Apostolic times.  The first known representation of her is a painting in the catacomb of Priscilla dating from the time of John the Apostle. The people of Ephesus, where had lived John with Jesusʼ mother well remembered that Christ had said to John: “Son, behold your mother” placing her in his care.

The council resolved the issue in a single day: Mary was formally proclaimed Mother of God, the Theotokos or Christ-bearer. The population awaiting the  Councilʼs decision and upon hearing it broke out in joy chanting: “Mother of God, Mother of God.”  In a torchlight procession and singing hymns, the people carried the bishops on their shoulders.

Nestorius was deposed as Patriarch of Constantinople and the clergy and monks began to accept the decision of the Pope and the Council of Ephesus.  This council had also stated that Jesus Christ lives forever and that He governs “and exercised judgment in his successors.”

Athanasius, the two Gregorys and Ambrose had often used the Greek title of “Theotokos” which had been used by Christians from earliest days.  While the recently deceased Augustine, who did not speak Greek never used the term, he often declared his belief in Maryʼs immaculate conception in order to become become Mother of God.

Nestorius’s challenge and demand that the term “Christokos” instead is an example of going off in the strictly literal interpretation of Scripture which led him into a Christological doctrine claiming the disunion between the human and divine natures of Jesus.

Condemned at the Council of Ephesus, this Christological heresy had to be re-condemned at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and this condemnation led to to the Nestorian Schism.  Subsequently, Church in Persia and other Eastern churches began to refer to themselves as Nestorian Christians. However, in the West, it quickly disappeared, never having had a real following there.

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