St Cyril of Alexandria: Holy Scripture and the Grammar of the Son

I recently finished reading On the Unity of Christ by St Cyril of Alexandria. Somewhat surprisingly, I found it slow-going—not because of its philosophical difficulty but rather its exegetical density. Cyril is a biblical theologian, and he would counter the heresy of Nestorius with a comprehensive reading of the Scriptures. He believes that the Nestorians have interpreted Scripture through a dualistic hermeneutic and for this reason have grievously distorted the catholic understanding of the Incarnation and rendered the evangelical narrative incoherent. How is the eternal Word united to the man Jesus? Does the Word assume a human being in the womb of Mary, thus necessitating a conjunction of Word and Jesus (resulting in two agents), or does he actually become a human being, with body and soul (resulting in one incarnate agent)? If the former, then Jesus is but a prophet—perhaps a prophet perfectly indwelt by the Word and thus intimately associated with the divine Sonship but ultimately not any different than believers who have been adopted as sons through baptism. Cyril puts it like this, in the dialogical form that characterizes the tract:

A. Doubtless we will find their way of thinking to be offering us two sons and two Christs?

B. No, not two. They say that the Word of God the Father, who is Son by nature, is one; but that the man who is assumed is by nature the Son of David, and is the Son of God insofar as he is assumed by God the Word. They say that he has come to such dignity and has the sonship by grace, because God the Word dwells within him.

A. What happened to their brains and their intelligence—people who hold such opinions? How can they possibly say there is not a duality of sons when they split off man and God from each other? If, as they say, one is truly the Son by nature, but the other has the sonship by grace and came to such dignity because of the Word dwelling with him, then what more does he have than us? For the Word also dwells in us. For the most holy Paul confirms this point for us when he says: “For this reason I bend my knees before the Father, from whom all fatherhood is named in heaven and on earth. May he grant that you are strengthened in power through his Spirit, according to the riches of his glory, that Christ may dwell in your hearts” (Eph 3:14-17); and he is within us by the Spirit, “in whom we cry out Abba, Father” (Rom 8:15). And so, if we have been granted the same dignity by God the Father, our position is in no way inferior to his. For we too are sons and gods by grace, and we have surely been brought to this wonderful and supernatural dignity since we have the Only Begotten Word of God dwelling within us. It is completely wicked and foolish for them them to say that Jesus has been granted the dignity of the Sonship and has won this glory as a matter of grace. (pp. 79-80)

On the Unity of Christ demonstrates, in the words of Christopher A. Beeley, Cyril’s “clear commitment to the practice of single-subject biblical interpretation” (The Unity of Christ, p. 264). When interpreting the Scriptures, we must eschew any separation between the divine Son and the son of Mary: they are one indivisible subject and agent. There is only one incarnate Word, and of him we may simultaneously predicate divine and human properties and actions:

B. Then must we confess that it [the flesh of Jesus] has become entirely the personal body of the Word of the Father with no one else intervening, even though it is understood as animated with a rational soul?

A. Exactly so, if we are to define the doctrine of faith correctly and without error, and are lovers of the doctrines of the truth, who follow in the track of the faith of our holy fathers. … This is why we believe that there is only one Son of God the Father. This is why we must understand Our Lord Jesus Christ in one person [prosopon]. As the Word he is born divinely before all ages and times, but in these last times of this age the same one was born of a woman according to the flesh. To the same one we attribute both the divine and human characteristics, and we also say that to the same one belongs the birth and the suffering on the cross since he appropriated everything that belonged to his own flesh, while ever remaining impassible in the nature of the Godhead. This is why “every knee shall bend before him, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10-22). (p.133)

Seven years earlier, Cyril had personally instructed Nestorius on this fundamental grammatical principle:

We do not divide out the sayings of our Saviour in the Gospels as if to two hypostases or prosopa. The one and only Christ is not twofold even though he is understood as compounded out of two different elements in an indivisible unity, just as a man is understood as consisting of soul and body and yet is not twofold but rather is one from out of both. No, we think correctly and so we must maintain that both the manly as well as the godly sayhings were uttered by one subject. When he speaks of himself in a God-befitting way: ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’ (Jn. 14.90), and ‘I and the Father are one’ (Jn. 10.30), we are given to understand his divine and ineffable nature in which he is one with his own Father by identity of essence, the ‘image and impress and effulgence of his glory’ (cf. Heb. 1.3). On the other hand when, not despising the limitations of the manhood, he speaks to the Jews: ‘Now you seek to destroy me; a man who has told you the truth’ (Jn. 8.40), we nonetheless recognize him as God the Word in the equality and limitations of his manhood. … This is why all the sayings in the Gospels are to be attributed to one prosopon, and to the one enfleshed hypostasis of the Word, just as according to the scriptures there is One Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 8.6). (Third Letter of Cyril to Nestorius 8)

The grammatical rule can also be formulated in negative form:

If anyone interprets the sayings in the Gospels and apostolic writings, or the things said about Christ by the saints, or the things he says about himself, as referring to two prosopa or hypostases, attributing some of them to a man conceived of as separate from the Word of God, and attributing others (as divine) exclusively to the Word of God the Father, let him be anathema. (3Ep.Nest. 12 anathema 4)

Cyril thus promulgates the kind of “partitive exegesis” exemplified by St Gregory of Nazianzus and other Nicene theologians in the fourth century:

For the Nicenes, on the other hand, Scripture speaks throughout of Christ, but the Christ of the kerygma, the crucified and exalted Lord, and speaks of him in a twofold fashion, demanding in turn a “partitive” exegesis: some things are said of him as divine and other things are said of him as human—yet referring to the same Christ throughout. (John Behr, The Nicene Faith, p. 14)

Latin theologians would later term this exegetical practice as communicatio idiomatum.

(Go to “The Impassible Passibility of the Kenotic Word“)

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13 Responses to St Cyril of Alexandria: Holy Scripture and the Grammar of the Son

  1. tgbelt says:

    Just got Cyril’s book in the mail last week. Looking forward to reading it, perhaps over Christmas/New Year.

    Two things: (1) I’m glad to see Cyril make the point that Nestorius’ (dualistic) Christology actually describes divine-human union as it relates to believers. We are all sons by grace in the Nestorian sense, so it’s not the manner of divine-human relations described by Nestorius that is impossible or incoherent per se (since we are all instances of it). It is Christ who not an instance of it. Then (2), I may be misunderstanding, but at the end you say “Cyril thus promulgates the kind of partitive exegesis exemplified by St Gregory of Nazianzus in the fourth century.” Exactly what is partitive about Cyril’s hermeneutic? His previous point is that we don’t ‘partition’ the actions and sayings of Christ. I would think Cyril’s hermeneutic is “unitive,” no?

    Tom

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Tom, thanks for raising the question about “partitive exegesis.” That is Fr John Behr’s phrase. Your question forced me to go back to The Nicene Faith to see what he means by the expression. He cites this sentence from Athanasius: “As it fits well the Son of God to be eternal in the bosom of the Father, so to him become human befit the words ‘the Lord created me’ as also do his hunger, thirst, ignorance (of where Lazarus lay), death and rising again.” Behr then comments:

      Rather than applying in a uniform manner to Christ everything that is said of him, to conclude that he is both created and divine in the same respect, and so neither fully (“a creature but not as one of the creations,” divine but not as God himself), the partitive reading of Scripture advocated by Athanasius enables him to affirm that Christ is fully both God and human, or more precisely, God become human, with the object being his death. (I:210)

      I agree with you, though, that the expression is confusing.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Here’s another quotation from Behr:

      Seen from this perspective, the issue between the Nicenes and the non- Nicenes is a matter of exegesis. Both sides took Scripture as speaking of Christ. The non-Nicenes, however, insisted on an absolutely univocal exegesis, which applied all scriptural affirmations in a unitary fashion to one subject….For the Nicenes, on the other hand, Scripture speaks throughout of Christ, but the Christ of the kerygma, the crucified and exalted Lord, and speaks of him in a twofold fashion, demanding in turn a “partitive” exegesis: some things are said of him as divine and other things are said of him as human – yet referring to the same Christ throughout. Seen in this way, the conflict turns upon two different ways of conceptualizing the identity of Christ. (I:14)

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      • brian says:

        I am somewhat reticent to jump into Christological disputes. I am away from my library, so I cannot properly check this, nor am I certain I am reading the import of Behr correctly. Nonetheless, it sounds like what he is proposing is precisely what Bulgakov resists pretty vigorously in The Lamb of God. A perusal of the chapter on Emmanuel the GodMan indicates his dissent from the partitioning of Christ’s activity, some to his humanity, some to his divinity. In any event, I know that some are dubious about his kenotic theology, apart from his sophiology.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Brian, Behr contrasts the “partitive” exegesis of the NIcenes with the univocal exegesis of the non-Nicenes:

          The non-Nicenes, however, insisted on an absolutely univocal exegesis, which applied all scriptural affirmations in a unitary fashion to one subject, who thus turns out to be a demigod, neither fully divine nor fully human—created but not as one of the creatures.”

          I think the the adjective “partitive” may be confusing and misleading us. Both forms of exegesis presuppose a single subject, but the non-Nicene hermeneutic disallows the communicatio idiomatum. Nor do I find Behr’s reference to the univocity of non-Nicene exegesis helpful. The Nicene practice is just as univocal. The difference, it seems to me, is that the Nicene practice generates a paradoxical christology, which the non-Nicene does not.

          Perhaps we need to find a different adjective to replace “partitive.” I’m sure Fr John would be eternally grateful for any assistance we can offer. 🙂

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          • brian says:

            Thank you, Father. I find your explanation helpful. Chesterton and the Russian sophiologists have stressed the importance of paradox. I actually think your term “paradoxical christology” is accurate and ought to be considered.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I have included a quotation from Behr in the article which I hope will clarify “partitive exegesis.”

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  2. Is the SVS press translation the only one of St. Cyril’s work or does the CUA press have one of it as well?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Daniel, as far as I know, the SVS translation is the only English translation of the work. For some reason, translations of Cyril have lagged far behind those of other patristic authors.

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      • hmmm…very interesting. I suppose it may have something to do with his being a Greek father and not well-known to the West? But then I do believe that the CUA press has published translations of St. John Chrysostom’s works.

        Any way, back on topic–I very much agree that this incarnation stuff makes my head go wild. Try as one might, one shall never fully understand or be able to explain the mysteries of God.

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  3. cal says:

    It’s also helpful to note the partitive exegesis on account of wild uses of the communicatio idiomatum. Lutherans and Reformed fought over this post-Reformation. Some Lutherans accused Reformed for being Nestorians, calling on Cyril for this purpose. But then you start hearing weirdish things like Christ’s Humanity being omnipresent. The communicatio idiomatum swings to the other extreme and another kind of unitive exegesis occurs. I think this is where the extra calvinisticum (per Athanasius) can help maintain Nicaea’s partitive exegesis. This concept is helpful for a lot of things. It maintains an unbreakable unity yet not collapsing one into the other.

    Some initial rough thoughts,
    cal

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  4. tgbelt says:

    On p. 47 at the end of his summary of Cyril’s Christology, McGuckin notes that the issues for which Cyril fought have once again become issues of debate, causing “considerable christological revision in Western churches,” including attempts to revive Nestorius. He writes: “In several influential modern studies [he refers to the European literature of the last one hundred years, perhaps that’s where these “several influential modern studies”], the Antiochene tradition which Cyril attacked…has been offered as a legitimate and ancient past of an authentically pluralist Christian vision, and Cyril has been censured as one who arrogantly crushed it.”

    I’d be very interested in knowing who/what these modern studies are.

    Tom

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I know that McGuckin is particularly critical of Aloys Grillmeier’s presentation of patristic christology.

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