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St. Cyril the Great of Alexandria, called the Pillar of the Faith in his own tradition, is the 34th Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and should be, indisputably, one of the greatest Fathers of the Early Church.[1]

The Coptic Church has always preserved his reputation and venerated his memory, acknowledging, as it does, the tremendous part he paid in establishing orthodox Christian teaching on the Virgin Mary and on the nature of God; of all the successors of Athanasius, Cyril was the greatest. Yet he is almost entirely absent from the great nineteenth century collections of the Fathers, edited by Newman and entirely absent from that edited by Philip Schaff. Indeed, in the West he has remained a figure of controversy, better known, if known at all, for various episodes in his career, than for his theology and his pastoral care.[2] This is in part due to the brilliance of the eighteenth century historian, Edward Gibbon, whose Decline and fall of the Roman Empire has been a classic since its publication. In the forty-seventh chapter, Gibbon tells his readers that ‘the title of saint is a mark that his opinions and his party have finally prevailed’, accusing him of having ‘imbibed the orthodox lessons of zeal and dominion’ in ‘the house of his uncle … Theophilus’. We are told that St. Cyril ‘extended round his cell the cobwebs of scholastic theology, and meditated the works of allegory and metaphysics, whose remains, in seven verbose folios, now peaceably slumber by the side of their rivals.’ Accusing him of an arrogant and bigoted zealotry, Gibbon records that the ‘murder of Hypatia [a famous Greek female philosopher and mathematician] has imprinted an indelible stain on the character and religion of Cyril of Alexandria.’ [3]

Well, that has certainly been so until recently, and even now, when St. Cyril is being re-evaluated in the scholarship of the West, his name is most commonly associated with the Nestorian controversy and the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. [4]

But gradually this process is bringing back from their ‘slumber’ those ‘verbose folios’ of which Gibbon wrote with such scorn. The collection of essays edited by Professor Weinandy finally offers some coverage of the whole scope of St. Cyril’s achievement, whilst Professor Keating’s work helps us towards a better understanding of the Saint’s views on theosis. [5]  But, as The History of the Patriarchs of the Church of Alexandria (recently republished as part of the invaluable Oriental Orthodox Library) points out, in the Coptic tradition he is remembered also as a great pastor and teaching who ‘never wearied of composing discourses and homilies by the power of the Holy Ghost.’ [6] Thanks to that Library we now have four volumes of  St. Cyril’s writings readily available. [7]

The scholarly world has also begun to evince an interest in the Saint’s theological writings outside of the Nestorian controversy, with Lars Koen’s, The Saving Passion concentrating on the Incarnational and Soteriological aspects of St. Cyril’s Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John[8).] There is also an excellent recent work on St. Cyril as a New Testament Exegete, by a learned Coptic Nun, Sister Lois M. Farag. [9] Her work, from entirely within the Coptic tradition, provides the most sympathetic understanding yet of what, until late on his career, St. Cyril himself would have regarded as his main achievement – his elucidation of the Holy Scriptures.

To cover all the areas in which St Cyril’s writings illuminate our understanding of Scripture would be the work of a scholar with more time than I have, but in this short series I want to single out what he has to tell us about salvation by way of his commentary on the Gospel of St John.

[1] Fr. Matthias F. Wahba, He Became Flesh: St. Cyril the Great: the pillar of the Faith (St. Antonius, Ca. 1992) p. 5

[2] N. Russell, St. Cyril of Alexandria (London, 2000) p. vii

[3] E. Gibbon, The History of the decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, volume VII London, 1988 edition, pp. 30, 31, 33

[4] Recent works must be headed by Fr. John McGuckin, St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy (NY, 2004); other recent works include:  N. Russell, St. Cyril of Alexandria (London, 2000); Susan Wessel, Cyril of Alexandria and the Nestorian Controversy (Oxford, 2004)

[5]T.G. Weinandy & D.A. Keating. The Theology of St. Cyril of Alexandra: a critical appreciation (London, 2003); D.A. Keating, The Appropriation of Divine Life in St. Cyril of Alexandria (Oxford, 2004)

[6]  B. Evetts (ed.)  The History of the Patriarchs of the Church of Alexandria (Oriental Orthodox Library, vol. VIII, 2006), p. 104][vi]

[7] Volumes IV and VI are the Commentary on the Gospel of St. John; volume IX, Selected Writings, and volume XII, Commentary of the Gospel of St. Luke part I (all 2006).

[8] Lars Koen, The Saving Passion concentrating on the Incarnational and Soteriological aspects of St. Cyril’s Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John (Uppsala, 1991).

[9] Lois M. Farag, St. Cyril of Alexandria, a New testament Exegete (Gorgias, 2007)