Cyril of Alexandria, Bishop & Teacher

June 27 – Cyril of Alexandria, Bishop and Teacher –

Ten years after the death of Athanasius, the great champion of faith in Christ as fully God, the bishopric of Alexandria was bestowed on one Theophilus. He was a man of fiery temperament, and ruthless and violent in the pursuit of what he conceived to be his duty. Having obtained the consent of the government, he destroyed pagan temples, and the monasteries of monks whose views differed from his own. He is on the Egyptian (Coptic) and the Syrian calendars, but not on most eastern or any western ones. Summary: unpleasant but orthodox (Right but Repulsive). Upon his death in 412, he was succeeded by his nephew Cyril.

Cyril began his career as Bishop of Alexandria by showing himself to be an ill-tempered, quarrelsome, hasty, and violent man. He shut the churches of the Novatianists (a group of Christians who were indistinguishable in doctrine and manner of worship from other Christians, but who as descendants of those who had stood firm in the persecutions 260 years earlier could have nothing to do with the descendants of those who had not — nearly a century earlier, the emperor Constantine had disgustedly told their leader to set up a ladder and climb to heaven by himself), he drove out the Jews, he quarreled with the imperial prefect Orestes, and with Orestes’ friend Hypatia, a distinguished neo-Platonist scholar. (Hypatia was murdered by a mob. There is no evidence that Cyril was directly guilty, but the murderers were persons who regarded him as their leader.) In short, he made a bad beginning.

Then there arose a controversy over the relation between Christ’s Divinity and His Humanity. One view, associated with the name of Nestorius, spoke of Jesus as a sinless man in whom the Spirit of God fully dwelt, suggesting that the difference between Jesus and any other good man was a matter of degree. This may not do justice to the subtlety of the Nestorian position, but it is the danger that others saw in it, and the Nestorians were unable to explain what safeguards their position had against this danger. Cyril wrote learnedly and with great logic and conviction against the Nestorian position, and was largely instrumental in getting it condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Afterwards (surprisingly in view of his earlier record), he worked to reconcile the two parties, and to bring many of the less extreme Nestorians back into the fellowship of the church. But it is as a theologian and a scholar, not as a bishop or human-relations man, that Cyril is honored.