St Cyril of Alexandria: The Impassible Passibility of the Kenotic Word

“For Cyril,” writes Fr John McGuckin, “the notion of the Eternal One’s self-emptying (Kenosis) as outlined in Phil.2.6f. rises to the status of a master theme throughout his thought—to such an extent that the earthly economy of the Word made flesh is often simply referred to as the Kenosis” (Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy, p. 189). McGuckin’s interpretation is confirmed in St Cyril’s On the Unity of Christ. Cyril quotes the famous Christ hymn of Philippians 2 at three different places, and on multiple occasions he cites individual verses from this hymn.

The Alexandrian comfortably speaks of the Word as having become flesh in Jesus Christ; but he notes that it would be “impious and absurd” to presume that the language of becoming signifies change in God. We must understand the manner of speech in a way that is “more fitting and applicable to the unchangeable God” (p.54). God does not change when he becomes Man. His nature is not affected or altered by the act of embodiment. He does not morph into something else. He does not cease to be the immutable and impassible Deity.

B. If we are to preserve the immutability and unalterability as innate and essential to God, in what sense, then, should we say that the Word has become flesh?

A. The all-wise Paul, steward of His mysteries and sacred minister of the Gospel proclamations, explains this for us when he says, “Let each of you have among yourselves that same mind which was in Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself assuming the form of a slave, coming in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man he humbled himself becoming obedient even to death, death on a cross” (Phil 2:5-8). And indeed, the Only Begotten Word, even though he was God and born from God by nature, the “radiance of the glory, and the exact image of the being” of the one who begot him (Heb 1:3), he it was who became man. He did not change himself into flesh; he did not endure any mixture of blending, or anything else of this kind. But he submitted himself to being emptied and “for the sake of the honor that was set before him he counted the shame as nothing” (Heb 12:2) and did not disdain the poverty of human nature. As God he wished to make that flesh which was held in the grip of sin and death evidently superior to sin and death. He made it his very own, and not soulless as some have said, but rather animated with a rational soul, and thus he restored flesh to what it was in the beginning. He did not consider it beneath him to follow a path congruous to this plan, and so he is said to have undergone a birth like ours, while all the while remaining what he was. He was born of a woman according to the flesh in a wondrous manner, for he is God by nature, as such invisible and incorporeal, and only in this way, in a form like our own, could he be made manifest to earthly creatures. He thought it good to be made man and in his own person to reveal our nature honored in the dignities of the divinity. The same one was at once God and man, and he was “in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:7) since even though he was God he was “in the fashion of a man” (Phil 2:8). He was God in an appearance like ours, and the Lord in the form of a slave. This is what we mean when we say that he became flesh, and for the same reasons we affirm that the holy virgin is the Mother of God. (Cyril, Unity of Christ, pp. 54-55)

Incarnation, therefore, is not a change in God. Cyril prefers to think of it as the assumption or appropriation of a creaturely mode of existence. Hence it may be described as an act of self-emptying but not in the sense that God abandons his divine prerogatives and properties and thus ceases, even temporarily, to be divine. Just as we must think of the Incarnation as a change but not a change, so we must think of the divine self-emptying as an emptying but not an emptying. Kenosis means that God freely chooses to live as a human being, within the conditions of finitude, materiality, corruption, and mortality.  “He made our poverty our own,” writes Cyril, “and we see in Christ the strange and rare paradox of Lordship in servant’s form and divine glory in human abasement” (Unity of Christ, p. 101).

Note above Cyril’s insistence upon the assumption of the human soul. He has learned from the blunder of Apollinarius of Laodicea, who insisted that the Incarnation of the Word required the substitution of divine consciousness for that of the human mind. Apollinarius could not imagine how Jesus could be one personal reality if he possessed both. There can only be one directive faculty.  St Gregory of Nazianzus famously denounced the christology of Apollinarius: “What has not been assumed has not been healed.” The whole man is redeemed in Jesus Christ, not just his physical part. Cyril firmly advanced the Word’s union with the whole of human nature (soul and body), thus defending himself against Nestorian objections that he was only repristinating the Apollinarian heresy.

Yet how is the divine impassibility and immutability not compromised by Cyril’s assertion of the unity of the God-Man? How does this addition of a creaturely mode of existence not alter the divine essence? Such is the gravamen of Nestorius against Alexandrian christology. Divinity, he argues, cannot be born, cannot hunger, cannot weep, cannot suffer cannot die. Cyril, however, refuses to be intimidated by the logic. What God does not and cannot experience in his immutable life, he may experience via hypostatic union. “He suffers in his own flesh, and not in the nature of the Godhead” (Unity of Christ, p. 130). Cyril will not divorce that which God has joined together in Christ.

Christ was hungry, and tired from the journey. He slept, climbed in a boat, was struck by the servants’ blows, was scourged by Pilate, and was spat on by the soldiers. They pierced his side with a spear, and offered him vinegar mixed with gall. He also tasted death, suffered on the cross, and suffered the other insults of the jews. They would say that all these things are applicable to the man, even though they may be ‘referred’ to the person of the true Son. We believe, however, in one God the Father almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible, and also in one Lord Jesus Christ, his Son. And we refuse to separate off the man Emmanuel as distinct from the Word, for we know that the Word became man like us, and so we say that the selfsame was truly God from God, while humanly he was man from a woman, just as we are. We maintain that because of the intimacy he had with his own flesh, he even suffered its infirmities; he retained the impassibility of his own nature, in so far as he was not only man but the selfsame was also God by nature. And in so far as the body with his very own, so too were the natural and innocent passions of the body, as well as those sufferings inflicted on him by the arrogance of others.

He suffered impassibly, because he did not humble himself in such a way as to be merely like us, rather, as I have said before, he reserved to his own nature its superiority over all these things. But if we say that he passed over into the nature of flesh by some change or transformation of his own nature, then we cannot possibly avoid confessing, even if we wanted to, that this ineffable and divine nature was passible. If, on the other hand, he remained unchanged, even though he became man like us (since it is the special characteristic of a heavenly nature to be impassible), then he could make a passible body into his very own by the union, and in that case it would be fitting that he suffers, in so far as the body suffers which is his very own. Nevertheless he himself remains impassible in so far as it is his special characteristic [as God] to be unable to suffer. (Scholia on the Incarnation 35)

In the body and soul he has made his own, the eternal Word genuinely experiences everything that pertains to ordinary human existence, except sin. This assertion of hypostatic union inevitably leads Cyril to the articulation of a paradoxical christology. In fidelity to both a philosophical understanding of deity as transcendent plenitude and the biblical narrative of the Word made flesh, theology must affirm the antinomy of impassible suffering. McGuckin elaborates:

For Cyril, if God is the single personal subject of the incarnation, then when Jesus is said to weep in the Gospels (Jn. 11.35), the christian can rightly conclude that ‘God wept’. The latter statement is an exegesis in, and recognition of, the deity of Jesus. The same exegesis of other texts, on the same basis, might lead the christian to speak of other sufferings, God’s death on the cross, and so on. Cyril is well aware that this language had a very shocking aspect; its paradoxical nature connotes a transcendence of all suffering. If ‘God’ means ‘to be impassible’ then to speak, for example, of a God who suffers, is simply to say ‘the Impassible is passible’, and that would be nothing more than nonsense-talk. There is only one possible way out of the dilemma thus caused by this language of cross-referencing, and that, as Cyril never tired of repeating, is the realization that the statement ‘God suffered’ is only apparently self-contradictory, because the word ‘God’ is being used as a synonym for ‘God-in-the-flesh’, and this crucial qualification is given in the paradox itself, since all christians will, or ought to, admit that suffering, death, sorrow, and suchlike, are inapplicable to ‘God-in-himself’, but no longer inapplicable to God-made-man, in so far as he has appropriated, along with a human body, all that goes to make up a human life, that is soul, intellect, emotion, fragility, even mortality. (Saint Cyril, p. 191)

And so the great patriarch boldly pronounces: “The Logos suffered impassibly.”

(Go to “The Unicity of the Incarnate Word”)

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