Two Perspectives, Two Reviews, One Book: Part One

One of the distinctive aspects of Wheaton’s PhD program is the valuing of integration between disciplines. How to accomplish this feat continues to be a work in progress, but our attempts have made for some very fruitful discussion. One of the simplest ways to do this is to read the same material and begin a basic discussion.

Below you will find my review (representing a historical theological perspective), and following shortly will be Jordan Barrett’s review of the same work as a systematic theologian.

Comments are welcome and encouraged to foster dialogue.

John A. McGuckin, St. Cyril of Alexandria: The Christological Controversy in History, Theology, and Texts (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004), 427 pgs

With St. Cyril of Alexandria John McGuckin sets forth a “reassessment” of the Cyril of Alexandria, Nestorius and the Christological controversy. This book is meant to be a solid introduction, but it also serves as an attempt to untangle the political, social, rhetorical and theological threads that comprise the noisy discourses of the late fourth and early fifth century. This is no small matter. With this project, McGuckin quietly, but forcefully offers a more gracious reading of Cyril (a rare thing in modern scholarship) and a contextualized reading of Nestorius. The result is not the last word on the subject, but it is certainly an important corrective to narratives that vilify Cyril as the plotting and manipulating éminence grise and paint Nestorius as a sympathetic and chronically misunderstood academic. While this is a bit of a caricature of some of the recent renderings of this controversy, the narrative lends itself to dramatic representation with its violence, intrigue and political maneuverings. The “Byzantine way” certainly played a role in amplifying the drama and it can tend to overshadow what was at stake in this exacting debate: salvation itself. The payoff of McGuckin’s work is in his answer to the question of “[t]o what extent has Cyril advanced christological understanding from the impasse it had reached poised uncertainly between the Apollinarist confusion of natures, and Diodore’s separate subjects?(223)”


St. Cyril of Alexandria is divided into five sections. The first is a historical chapter that surveys the context of the crisis. It includes biographical information about Cyril and Nestorius, along with a section that explores the variety of factors that led up to the crisis, the climax in Ephesus and the long march toward rapprochement in its wake. The second and third sections explore the Christologies of Nestorius and Cyril, respectively, and the fourth traces the reception of Cyrilline Christology after his death in 444 at Chalcedon and beyond. The final section is an offering of new translations of some of the important documents that drove and shaped the controversy. McGuckin is keen to leave the reader with the primary source material to sort out her own mind on the subject. Excepting the final section, of which the contribution is obvious, this review will focus on the nature and contribution of McGuckin’s “reassessment” in the four previous sections.

Tempers run high with respect to Cyril. While the Orthodox consider him a theologian par excellence, “[m]uch modern work on christology and church history is, however, loud in his criticism, yet frequently that criticism only lightly masks the theological contentions from which it springs”(1). McGuckin notes that this was also the case during his lifetime. The loud criticism resounded when he stood stalwartly for John Chrysostom’s deposition at the Synod of Oak in Constantinople (403). The Byzantine administration blanched at the seemingly nepotistic appointment of Cyril in the first place. Socrates despised him for the eradication of Novatianist churches and the Urban Prefect Orestes blamed him for instigating mob violence that left a trail of murder and destruction—and all of this was before the controversy with Nestorius!

McGuckin portrays him as an educated man, one who was groomed for ecclesiastical and political administration from his early years. He was a reformer, one that the populace favored, and with that came automatic defensiveness on the part of many in the Byzantine administration. Cyril set his sights on ridding Alexandria of the remnants of heretics (an imperial priority) and once he had finished that, he ramped up his “purification and evangelism” of the region’s pagans and Jews. McGuckin expects that a modern reader would chafe at such actions so he points to Cyril’s context: Byzantium. This repression was the modus operandi of many of the hierarchs of the time and in that Cyril was not unique, but he was, perhaps, the most skilled at maneuvering circumstances to his advantage. McGuckin cautions against expecting notions of tolerance that are alien to Cyril’s context and situation. This does not, however, diminish the fact that terrible violence occurred in Alexandria on Cyril’s watch: random beatings, retributive acts of destruction and the murder of Hypatia. Blame was left on Cyril’s doorstep for these and other actions, whether Cyril was the architect is not able to be determined, but it is important not to judge Cyril on a standard of ecclesiastical leadership that did not exist at the time. McGuckin’s reassessment of Cyril sounds a gracious tenor, which is a needed counter to many of the presentations of the Alexandrian hierarch.  It does, however, need to be said that for such a skilled administrator who benefited from popular support and zeal, Cyril seems to have had a terrible time inspiring the populace and the violent monks to some amount of Christian charity. While it would not do to segregate Cyril from his contemporaries as more cruel or manipulative in his methods, it seems equally as problematic to assume his lack of complicity. Could it be that Cyril really was that good at remaining in a constant state of plausible deniability?

While Cyril is building up a reputation that would be a bulwark in the face of any affront, Nestorius was doing just the opposite: alienating everyone from the simple people of Constantinople to the Augusta Pulcheria herself. McGuckin reassesses the frame of the Nestorius versus Cyril narrative in such a way that neither man rise to the surface as the “gentlemanly” churchman: “Nestorius has tended to be romanticised by several mid-twentieth century accounts … The facts are clear, however, that Nestorius was no less ‘dogmatic,’ uncompromising, and ready to use the full extent of his powers, both political and canonical, than Cyril or any of the other leading hierarchs of this period”(21). In the story of this controversy the doctrinal trajectories of Alexandria and Antioch become vastly important. They were not entirely opposing viewpoints, but the eruption of this crisis makes it clear that the two were merely tolerating each other’s orthodoxy. Nestorius was the heir of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Cyril the heir of Athanasius. As McGuckin shifts from contextual reassessment into theological reassessment, it is important to keep in mind the bird’s-eye view how the regionally specific discourses of the late fourth and early fifth century aligned or separated themselves. Nestorius’s continued inflexibility would drive a wedge in the oriental church that even exists to this day and Cyril’s ecumenical success was swiftly ousted in favor of a polarizing grip of the Cyrillian legacy that dissolved any reunion that had previously been possible.

In chapter two McGuckin lays out Nestorius’s concerns and why he met with such staunch opposition. The picture that emerges of the archbishop is that of an elitist who could not see beyond his own method of biblical and theological interpretation. McGuckin posits that Nestorius’s propensity to disavow the religious practice of Christians was one factor that drove Cyril to get involved, concerned that a bad theologian representing an already “wooly” Antiochene tradition was appealing to a broad audience (129). Nestorius insisted that in Christ there were two totally distinct, but completely intact natures. Seeing that salvation was at stake if Christ was not fully human, he was spooked by anything that smelled like Apollinarist teaching—of which he continually accused Cyril. Whenever “mixture” of any kind entered the conversation, Nestorius balked and stood firmly on the grounds that if that were the case, the humanity of Christ would be “absorbed” or destroyed. It is no wonder that Nestorius has enjoyed recent rehabilitation considering the increasing concern over a coercive deity in feminist theology for one. Nestorius did not teach the “Two Sons” theory (Diodore) that Cyril and others accused him of, but was ultimately unable, even in his much later Book of Heraclides, to adequately explain how Jesus Christ was the single subject he claimed.

The question in chapter three is whether or not Cyril was able to avoid confusion and separation in service of a constructive Christology. For McGuckin, the answer is yes. Even though Chalcedon would follow Nestorius in part at the cost of alienating the extreme Cyrillians (“monophysites”), Cyril would be lauded as the epitome of theological thought and Nestorius relegated to heretical shame. What it comes down to is that Nestorius never convinced Cyril (whether Cyril listened well on this point is another discussion) that his dual use of prosopon was the necessary semantic hill upon which to die. Nestorius refused to import hypostasis into “yet another theological arena to stand service as a key christological cipher”(149). In the end it was Cyril’s willingness to flex language in service of theology that allowed the Formula of Reunion and eventually Chalcedon. When Cyril saw how his mia physis language (by which he did not mean “one nature,” he meant one subject) drove the Antiochenes from the table, he scrapped it.

McGuckin highlights the central importance of the Incarnation for Cyril: “… the incarnation was a restorative act entirely designed for the ontological reconstruction of a human nature that had fallen into existential decay as a result of its alienation from God”(184). The Incarnation is the point at which the economy eternally binds God to humanity with transformative power. This is what was at stake for Cyril, the restoration and deification of humanity as realized in salvation and as practiced in the life of the Church, especially the Eucharist. McGuckin takes the time to parse out the intricacies of language, the points of confusion and the complete divergences. In the end McGuckin concludes: “Cyril’s originality lay in his demonstration that the concept of Christ’s union of two states did not necessarily connote the destructive absorption of its constituent parts, but at its best signified the enhancement of individual elements within the union and precisely because of their mutual involvement”(196).


Most of McGuckin’s “reassessment” consists in invoking a historically conscious and careful reading. The narrative of events is complex and the characters do not fit neatly into paradigms of “saint” or “heretic.” St. Cyril of Alexandria is a welcome counterweight to traditional views of Cyril as an antiquated thinker (Grillmeier) and others who would dismiss him as a villain who bullies his way into orthodoxy. At times McGuckin leans quite heavily toward too gracious a reading, especially of his political and ecclesiastical maneuverings. It is as if he is so determined to rescue Cyril from being blamed for the entire catalog of dastardly deeds that he sets up a powerful hierarch that could reamin distant from all that was done in the name of the reforms he held so dear. McGuckin does the same thing with theological method. Yes, just as with any theological argument that happens intra ecclesiam, there are grounds for similarity. McGuckin does, however, seem to undercut the vast divide that both Cyril and Nestorius (not to mention the many others involved in the controversy) thought was actually worth such a fuss. It certainly was to them and even if misunderstanding played a role, this was exactly the point: they both saw the dire need for universal, correct and confessable language and they both were willing to fight for it. St. Cyril of Alexandria is, however, indeed a welcome “reassessment.” By forcing the discussion out of the pigeonholes of saint versus heretic and out of modern misreadings, McGuckin as offered a fresh look at a controversial and important theologian.

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One Response to Two Perspectives, Two Reviews, One Book: Part One

  1. Pingback: Two Perspectives, Two Reviews, One Book: Part Two « For Christ and His Kingdom

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