Gibbons’ reductionist approach ignored the central reason for Cyril’s intervention in what became the Christological crisis; he held a cure of souls. Much of his writings remain untranslated, and what has been is not representative of his output. Scholars concentrate on what concerns them. There is no doubt that the quarrel with Nestorius was central to the development of Christian theology, so it is right to translate material germane to it; but much of what he wrote was pastoral in nature. We would be wise to see Cyril’s involvement in the crisis as a pastoral response to a threat to the souls in his care. Little though Gibbon appreciated it, Cyril took with deadly seriousness the soteriological implications of what Nestorius was writing.

The origin of Cyril’s devotion to Our Lady is unclear; its depth is not. Any attempt to deny that St. Mary was the Mother of God cast doubt on the source and fact of our salvation; this point will be returned to later. Cyril agreed with St. Gregory Nazianzus that what was not assumed cannot be healed. If Christ was not both fully divine and fully human, he wrote:

 we have no longer been redeemed by God (how could we have been?) but rather by the blood of someone else. Some man or other, an impostor and a falsely-named son, has died for us. The great and venerable mystery of the incarnation of the Only Begotten has turned out to be only words and lies, for he never really became man after all. We certainly could not regard him as our Saviour who gave his blood for us, we would have to attribute this to that man.

When it came to his ears that the new Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, was denying St. Mary the title of ‘Theotokos’ (God-bearer), he was alarmed.

Our opponents have chosen to hold and teach that the Only Begotten Word of God assumed a man of the line of the divine David and Abraham, and took care to form him in the holy virgin, then conjoined himself to him, made him come to the trial of death, raised him from the dead, took him up to heaven, and seated him at the right hand of God. But if this is the case then it seems to me that the holy Fathers and all the God-inspired scriptures, and we ourselves, are speaking in vain whenever we say that he became man. Nonetheless I think that it is exactly this, and nothing else, that the all-wise John meant when he wrote: “The Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14).

‘Thetokos’ was popularly translated as ‘Mother of God’. The laity had long used this appellation for the Blessed Virgin. Long before any theologian pronounced, the consensus of the faithful was orthodox – the Blessed Virgin was the Mother of Our Lord and Saviour, and since He was the God-Man (Theandros) she was the Theotokos. Popular opinion in Constantinople was outraged at any attempt to deny this; so was Cyril. In his paschal letter of Easter 429, St. Cyril affirmed the reality of the humanity of Christ and insisted on the unity of His Divine Person in terms quoted above. He composed his ‘Letter to the Monks‘ in which he founded his belief in the unity of God in his understanding of the position of Our Lady:

I was completely amazed that certain people should be in any doubt as to whether the holy virgin ought to be called the Mother of God or not. For if our Lord Jesus Christ is God, then how is the holy virgin who bore him not the Mother of God? The divine disciples handed on this faith to us even if they did not make mention of the term. We have been taught to think this way by the holy Fathers. Our Father Athanasius … composed a book for us concerning the holy and consubstantial trinity where, throughout the third discourse, he calls the holy virgin the Mother of God… the exact words are these: ‘This, then, is the purpose and essential meaning of the divine scripture, as we have said many times, that it contains a two-fold statement about the Saviour; firstly that he is eternally God,and that he is the Son being the Word, the Radiance, and the Wisdom of the Father, and secondly that later for our sake he took flesh from the virgin Mary the Mother of God and so became man’ (Contra Arianos 3.29).


Nestorius’ response was to accuse Cyril of agression motivated by ecclesiastical politics. He announced that he was going to investigate complaints from Egyptian monks against Cyril. Further provocation cam in the form of his offering refuge to Pelagians exiled from the West.

Cyril set to collecting evidence of what it was Nestorius taught. The scene was being set for an epic conflict; at stake nothing more than the means of our salvation. Gibbon, who did not believe in such a thing, failed to appreciate that others could, and that such a belief might motivate urgent action. An historian who fails to understand his subject is unlikely to be of much use explaining it to others.