Until fairly recently, St Cyril of Alexandria, whose feast day it is today, was a neglected figure in Patristics. Thanks to the works of the Rev Prof John McGuckin, and Norman Tanner (SJ) and others, this is changing. This is all to the good, for he was one of the acutest theologians of the Patristic era, but he wrote not simply as a scholar, but as a bishop and also as an historian and the theologian. As St. Cyril pointed out in a letter to Acacius of Beroea: ‘I have been nurtured at the hands of holy and orthodox fathers;’ [Russell, p. 4, note 18, which I have preferred to Fr. McGuckin’s version at p. 339 of his book.] and we see, in his use of Origen, St. Athanasius, St. Basil and St. Gregory Nazianzus, that far from possessing the arrogance attributed to him by his detractors, St. Cyril lies firmly in the best patristic tradition of adapting the insights of the past and adding, where appropriate, glosses of his own. He was steeped in the Holy Scriptures and in the writings of the Fathers; and it was the possession of this armoury which made him such a formidable opponent in the great Christological controversy with Nestorius.
Indeed, St. Cyril became involved in that dispute not because he was, by nature, a controversialist (although he was certainly of a combative turn of mind), but because it touched upon his main concerns as a pastor – and that was soteriology: how is man saved? Only if God truly became man, can man truly become one with God; any message that detracted from the full humanity and full divinity of the Incarnate Word threatened the salvation of his flock; what shepherd would hesitate to deal with such a threat?
This is hardly the place to do more than scratch the surface of this deep mystery, but some of St. Cyril’s comments on St. John’s Gospel give us an insight into the formation of his thought on this important issue.
To our way of thinking, St. Cyril’s Commentary on the Gospel of St. John is an odd one. We are used to commentaries which deal equally with all verses, but this is not the Patristic model. The first book, which when printed covers 168 pages, deals only with St. John 1:1:1-28; the second, which covers 293 printed pages, deal with St. John 1:29-5:34; John 5:35-6:37 are covered in the 116 pages of book 3, whilst book 4 takes 159 pages to comment on John 6:38-7:24; book 5 requires 171 pages to deal with John 7:25-8.43, and it takes him 12 books in all to cover the whole Gospel. So it can be seen that like many of the early exegete, it is the earlier part of the Gospel which commands most of his attention; he takes three chapters to examine John 1:1 alone, and then another hundred pages to get to verse 28. The Incarnation as described by St. John is at the centre of his thought. Although the modern Western practice is to separate Christology from Soteriology, such a distinction was not only unknown to St. Cyril, it would have run counter to his mode of thinking. The Holy Trinity is at the heart of our salvation, as it is of St. Cyril’s theology. [Farag]
A key Cyrilline text is St. John 16:15: ‘All that the Father has is mine, therefore I said that He will take what is mine and share it with you.’ In his writings on the Trinity, St. Gregory Nazianzus had used this verse to emphasise that there was nothing which was ‘peculiar’ to any one of the Persons of the Trinity: ‘For their being itself is common and equal, even though the Son receives it from the Father.’ [P. Schaff and H. Wace, A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series 2, volume VII (Grand Rapids, 1996 edn.), St. Gregory Nazianzen, ‘The Fourth Theological Oration, XI, p. 313.]
This anti-Sebellian line is also emphasised by St. Cyril using the same verse, when he argues that it shows that the Spirit does not possess His wisdom by participation in the Son. If ‘He will take what is mine’, St. Cyril writes, it is because the Spirit ‘is consubstantial with the Son and proceeds through Him as befits God, who possesses in its perfection all the virtue and all the power of the Son.’ The Holy Spirit is like ‘a living and active fragrance from the substance of God, a fragrance which transmits to the creature that which comes from God and ensures participation in the substance which is above all substances.’ It is interesting that St. Cyril, as so often, uses an analogy which is not connected with the thought processes; by such means he emphasises that through the Spirit we not only receive knowledge of the divine nature, we actually participate in it:
If in effect the fragrance of aromatic plants impregnates clothing with its own virtue and in some way transforms into itself that in which it finds itself, how does the Spirit not have the power, since it issues from God by nature, to give, by itself to those in which it finds itself the communication of the divine nature? [In Jo 11:1-2, dealing with St. John 16:14-16.]
St Cyril ora pro nobis