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2 Literary Activities
3 Cyril's Teachings
Life and Character
His early life is known only from notices in Socrates Scholasticus and a few elsewhere.
He was a nephew of the archbishop Theophilus, whom he accompanied in 403 to Constantinople to attend the synod Ad Quercum (see John Chrysostom).
When his uncle and predecessor Theophilus died on October 15, 412, Cyril succeeded him in his see. The government was not pleased with this choice. It feared, not without reason, that the new bishop would show too much independence; and, indeed, on every occasion Cyril proved that he was master in Alexandria. He closed the churches of the Novatians, expelled the Jews from the city in spite of the opposition of the prefect Orestes, and when soon afterward Nitrian monks insulted the prefect in the open street, he praised their leader as a martyr.
He may not have ordered the murder of Hypatia, but his lector and the parabolani were well aware that the female philosopher was an irritant to the archbishop. His restless, violent conduct, which excited the masses, seems to have hurt him at the court. However, Emperor Theodosius II as well as Pulcheria listened to him rather than to the prefect.
For the rest of the archbishop's life, which is closely connected with the dogmatic controversies of the times, see Nestorianism. From the very beginning Cyril opposed Nestorius. It was the climax in his life when the emperor confirmed the deposition of his opponent which he had decreed at the Council of Ephesus in 431, whereas he retained his office, though the Syrian bishops had declared him also deposed.
In general Cyril's literary activity was in the dogmatic and exegetical field. In his homilies and epistles dogmatic subjects are often touched upon. As an apologist Cyril became famous by his refutation of the attack of the emperor Julian upon Christianity, in thirty books, of which only the first ten are extant entire, eleven to twenty in fragments.
The dogmatico-polemical literary activity of the archbishop was very comprehensive. At the head stand the writings on the doctrine of the Trinity composed before the Christological controversy. The controversy itself caused a large number of treatises against Nestorianism.
The results of the exegetical labor of the patriarch are contained in the seventeen books "On Worship in Spirit and in Truth," in the thirteen books of "Elegant Expositions" on the Pentateuch, as well as in numerous commentaries on the Old and New Testaments.
The typico-allegorical interpretation, characteristic of the Alexandrian school in opposition to the Antiochian school, is very prominent in Cyril's exegesis. The most important work in that direction is the comprehensive commentary on the Gospel of John.
Cyril not unjustly bears the title of "Seal of the Fathers," as the one who finally fixed the doctrine of the Trinity. As important as his contribution was to that subject, the question has often been raised whether his Christology does not contain traces of a relationship with Apollinarianism, which he himself opposed from conviction.
At any rate, his Christology approaches very near the limit which separates orthodoxy from Monophysitism. It rests on the suppositions of the older Alexandrians (e.g. Athanasius) and the Cappadocian Fathers by which they knew themselves in agreement with Apollinaris against every theory that denied the substantial unity of the incarnate Redeemer with the second person of the Trinity.
Looking at the personality of the Redeemer, the energetic assertion of the unity of the person resulted from it indeed, but also a reckless neglect of the individual man in him. The God-Logos remained, with the human nature which he has assumed, the same one inseparable subject which he was before. The "physical union" is "not confounded," though both natures are to be distinguished "in theory alone."
The attacks to which this view was exposed on both sides Cyril could only meet by giving to the idea of "nature" a meaning which disregards everything individual. In this way alone does the assertion become explicable that before the incarnation two natures existed, the divine and the human, but after the incarnation only one, the definite divine-human nature, or, as Cyril expressed it in the words of the creed regarded by him as Athanasian, but in reality composed by the hated Apollinaris, "one nature of God the Logos made flesh." The nature is here only thought of as "common." Christ is no man like Paul and Peter; he is the author of a new humanity.
Nevertheless, Cyril makes all dependent on the Redeemer's assuming the perfect human nature. But Cyril's assertions do not help over the contradiction that this Redeemer in spite of his "rational soul" had no free will, but was "inflexible in mind." They are, indeed, not intended for that, because by his use of the idea of nature Cyril did not need to take exception to the "perfect man," like Apollinaris. He could speak the easier in favor of a mutual communication of the properties of the divine and human nature in the Redeemer (communicatio idiomatum), and thus avoid the danger of a fusion at least for his belief.
The "in two natures" of the Chalcedonian formula of 451 found no support in Cyril's Christology. But his Christology overcame that formula, for the Byzantine theologians who had to interpret it did so by explaining the doctrine of the two natures according to Cyril's teaching of one nature (see Leontius of Byzantium; Monophysites).