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…
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