Fully God and Fully Man: Cyril of Alexandria and the Council of Chalcedon (Part 2)

In our last post, we began to consider the Chalcedonian Definition – that is, the Church’s creedal confession of the two natures of Jesus Christ, as recognized by the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in the year 451 AD. While the Nicene Council (325 AD) had condemned the heretic Arius for his denial of the full divinity of the Son of God, thus vindicating Athanasius and upholding the truth that the Son was “very God of very God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father …”, the precise nature of the relationship between the two natures (i.e., human and divine) was yet to be fleshed out. This matter fell to the Council of Chalcedon in the following century.

The road to Chalcedon was a rough one. While the Church had condemned Arius as a heretic at Nicea in 325 AD, thus upholding the full divinity of the Son, an ensuing showdown between two men, one from the west and one from the east, was clear evidence that the precise relationship between the two natures of Christ was far from being settled. The showdown was led by Apollinaris of Alexandria and Theodore of Mopsuestia.

Heavily influenced by his rich Athanasian heritage, Apollinaris was keenly sensitive to any real or apparent compromise on the full divinity of the Son.  Thus, he perceived in the eastern (Antiochene) Christology being articulated by Theodore a lack of emphasis on the Son’s deity, especially in Theodore’s refusal to attach to Mary the title of ‘Theotokos’ (God-bearer). Apollinaris confronted head-on the teaching of Theodore. 

In response to Apollinaris’ challenges, Theodore insisted on upholding a clear distinction between the two natures of Christ, going so far as to assert that although the two natures are united in one person, this “in no sense destroys or qualifies the permanent duality” of both divinity and humanity.  Thus, Theodore could forcefully assert that the title ‘Theotokos’ was not an appropriate title for Mary simply because it destroyed the permanent duality of the two natures. In other words, Mary may rightly be called the mother of Christ, but not the mother of God.

Apollinaris was not convinced, however.  As far as he was concerned, Theodore, in emphasizing such a sharp distinction between the two natures, was in fact dividing Christ into “two sons”.  The only acceptable Christology, according to Apollinaris, was one that unequivocally upheld Mary as ‘Theotokos’.  On this basis, Apollinaris dug his feet into the ground and championed a definition of the union of the two natures of Christ in terms of “one nature and one hypostasis”.  

Of significance is that at this time no clear definition had been put forward with respect to the theological import of the word ‘nature’ (phusis).  This would lead to a certain amount of misunderstanding and misrepresentation between Theodore and Apollinaris.  What the latter meant by ‘one nature’ was one person, however, Theodore interpreted Apollinaris through his own lens and understood ‘one nature’ to be pointing to “an absorption of the humanity within the divine Being”.  For Theodore, this was just as unacceptable as the dismissal of ‘Theotokos’ was to Apollinaris, for it did away with the full humanity of the Son. Apollinaris would eventually be condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD, however, his insistence on “one nature and one hypostasis” lived on in western (Alexandrian) Christology. 

Enter Cyril of Alexandria. By 412 AD, Cyril ascended the bishopric of Alexandria and set his sights on establishing the primacy of both the Alexandrian see as well as the Alexandrian Christology over against what he  considered to be the heterodox Christology of the east (Antioch). While Theodore’s views had officially prevailed over those of Apollinaris, Cyril was not content to simply accept defeat.  The Bishop of Alexandria saw himself as a champion of Nicene orthodoxy, considering western (Alexandrian) Christology to be the inheritor of a rich Athanasian heritage. 

Cyril’s predominant concern with the Christology of Antioch was its insistence on “two distinct natures ‘after the union’” (Chadwick, 194).  Cyril reasserted the appropriateness of calling Mary ‘Theotokos,’ and this brought him into conflict with Constantinople’s newest archbishop, Nestorius.  In direct opposition to Cyril, Nestorius would go no further than calling Mary ‘Christotokos’ (Christ-bearer), holding to a Christology of “two natures and two persons” (Gonzalez, 254).

In a personal letter addressed to Nestorius by Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria made it clear where he stood on the matter of the two natures.  Cyril believed that he was simply adhering to the “holy and great Synod” of Nicea (Schaff, 405).  Cyril was adamant:

… that the Word having personally united to himself flesh animated by a rational soul, did in an ineffable and inconceivable manner become man, and was called the Son of Man, not merely as willing or being pleased to be so called, neither on account of taking to himself a person, but because the two natures being brought together in a true union, there is of both one Christ and one Son; for the difference of the natures is not taken away by the union, but rather the divinity and the humanity make perfect for us the one Lord Jesus Christ by their ineffable and inexpressible union … We must not, therefore, divide the one Lord Jesus Christ into two Sons.  Neither will it at all avail to a sound faith to hold, as some do, an [sic] union of persons; for the Scripture has not said that the Word united to himself the person of a man, but that he was made flesh … This was the sentiment of the holy Fathers; therefore they ventured to call the holy Virgin, the Mother of God. 

Cyril of Alexandria (cited in Schaff, 406-407)

It was this understanding of the two natures of Christ that Cyril would eventually bring to the table at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. The road to Chalcedon, however, continued to be a rough one for the Bishop of Alexandria. In our next post, we will consider the final events that set the stage for the ecumenical Council that officially recognized the orthodox teaching on the relationship between the two natures of Christ.

Mark Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. 3rd Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012).

Henry Chadwick, The Early Church. Revised Edition (London: Penguin, 1993).

Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity. Volume 1 (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1984).

Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 28 volumes. PDF version (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, nd).

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