Two Perspectives, Two Reviews, One Book: Part Two

Many thanks to Amy for providing an excellent review of McGuckin’s book. As one doing systematic theology, my review was written with different, yet related, questions in mind and made for interesting discussions.

First published with Brill in 1994, this work was originally designed to be a “student-friendly introduction.” It offers a reassessment of Cyril of Alexandria, Nestorius, and others in the context of fifth-century Alexandria and the surrounding Christological controversies. McGuckin summarizes and clarifies the particular terminology, arguments and misunderstandings that created the controversies and which eventually led to Chalcedon (451) in order to initiate readers into the “contextual exegesis of patristic writings” (xi). In order to avoid repeating Amy’s summary, my review will draw attention to the importance that terminology played within the controversy.

In chapter two (the Christology of Nestorius), McGuckin presents and defines four important terms: ousia (essence, substance), physis (nature), hypostasis (underlying essence), and prosopon (defining properties; see 138–51). Both Nestorius and Cyril defined and used these terms in different ways, especially the latter three:






“it connotes the constituent elements of a thing” and “it serves to delineate the notion of individual existence” (140) – antique sense

Nature (e.g., human or divine), equivalent to ousia – newer sense


Subsistence or actual reality; equivalent to physis – newer sense

Nearly synonymous with physis (understood above) or ousia – antique sense


Equivalent to hypostasis

The observable reality

Cyril spoke of a “single physis” (or mia physis), not in the sense of “one nature” as if Jesus had a composite nature made up of humanity and divinity. Rather, he meant “one concrete individual subject”, a single subjectivity; however Nestorius still heard Cyril arguing for a single composite nature and this was a key point of tension.

With hypostasis, Nestorius argued that “every ousia had to be hypostatized separately” (141). If Jesus had two ousia then each ousia must have a hypostasis to be a “real existent.” That is, “if Christ’s humanity did not have its own hypostasis then that humanity was only notional, not real” (143). There could be no such thing as one hypostasis and more than one physis or ousia. Cyril, on the other hand, understood hypostasis to be the unity of two different realities (humanity and divinity) and thus the hypostasis became the sole subject of both realities (142).

In terms of prosopon, Nestorius spoke of two prosopa and one prosopon of union through grace. This was confusing to Cyril, though later theology would agree that prosopon was acceptable once it was redefined as a synonym for hypostasis.

The point is that both the use of different terms for similar concepts and identical terms for varying concepts led to confusion, misunderstanding, and false accusations. As Amy pointed out, one unfortunate aspect of this story is that exact language and definitions were extremely important for Nestorius, while Cyril’s approach was much more dynamic and possibly careless.[1]

McGuckin writes with great clarity and masterfully synthesizes complex issues, and this makes the book a helpful introduction for the non-specialist (I wish I would have read this book years ago!). However, the book does raise some questions and concerns.

First, McGuckin concludes that Cyril, not Leo, was the “primary authority” for Chalcedon. While Leo’s Tome was not given immediate acceptance, the council eventually accepted it because out of one-hundred and sixty bishops, “almost every one of them included a specific judgment that Leo had been faithful to Cyril” (235). Even though the council adopted Leo’s version of “in two natures” (compared to Cyril’s “out of two natures”), McGuckin argues that Cyril still believed this phrase could be orthodox with particular qualifications (cf. 240). Unfortunately, McGuckin betrays his otherwise careful approach and seems to remove the complexity inherent within the debate. Even given the possibility that Western scholarship overemphasizes Leo’s role in determining the Chalcedonian definition, McGuckin’s conclusion is so bold and contrary to Western scholarship that he needed more space to give to this issue. Instead, this conclusion is merely asserted rather than argued.

Lastly, McGuckin fails on occasion to balance his bias for an Eastern and Alexandrian framework. Antiochene Christology is sometimes dismissed, and the charity extended to Cyril is sometimes missing from discussions regarding Nestorius. Furthermore, McGuckin’s anti-scholasticism creeps into the discussion (e.g., 189) and the reader is left to wonder how this supposed assumption effects his reading of Antiochene and Western viewpoints. Positive developments are attributed to Cyril whereas negative developments seem to be the result of a deviation from Cyril. 

Cyril and McCormack
Bruce McCormack has recently argued that Cyril represented one of two strategies (the other is Nestorius) that both “served the interests of preserving the idea of divine impassibility.”[2] Cyril argues, according to McCormack, that the divine Logos instrumentalizes the human nature of Christ, a point that McGuckin appears to agree with: “[the human nature] becomes the economic instrument of the divine Logos . . . the Logos is, therefore, an instrument of divine energy” (McGuckin, 184–85). McCormack’s concern is that this ignores the Synoptics’ view that Jesus’ work was performed by and in the Spirit. Why, he asks, should the Father pour out the Spirit on the man Jesus to empower him if, as a consequence of the hypostatic union, he was already the instrument of omnipotent divine power?[3] Furthermore, Cyril speaks of a communicatio idiomatum but does not follow through or resolve the issue it creates, namely the human experiences in relation to the divine Logos. If the Logos really did take human experiences into his own subjectivity “and therefore into his very being” then, for McCormack, this must have ontological implications. Cyril never resolves this problem.

McCormack also challenges the view that the person of Jesus Christ is the pre-existent divine Logos simpliciter. The “performative agent is the God-man in his divine-human unity” and therefore “every act of the God-man is both fully divine and fully human.”[4] For Cyril, the acts appear to be merely divine actions through a human nature. This raises the issue of Cyril’s contribution to a single-subject operation and the identity of the single-subject. While we may accept a single-subject Christology, who is the subject?[5] Whether one follows McCormack, Cyril, or someone else, the answer will have many implications for the way we view the actions and identity of Jesus.

[1] There are two further points to note in the controversy: first, how one identifies the source of Jesus’ operation or actions. Nestorius divides the operations (McGuckin calls this one of Nestorius’ “great axioms”; see 135), attributing some actions to Jesus’ humanity and some to his divinity. In other words, the two natures and their “spheres of operation” must be kept separate from one another. To Cyril, this implied that the divine son is attributed some actions while a human son must be attributed others. In contrast, Cyril argued for a single operation which could only be ascribed to the divine Logos, the single-subject of the Incarnation.

Second, the communication of attributes (communicatio idiomatum) played a significant role in the disagreements and misunderstandings between Cyril and Nestorius. As McGuckin notes, the exchange “meant linguistically associating both sets of attributes . . . indiscriminately as a result of the incarnation whereby they were concretely associated in the life of Christ.” Moreover, “the viability of the entire method . . . stood or fell on [the] matter of single subjectivity” (153, n. 45). Cyril was a proponent of this view and often spoke in strong paradoxes (e.g., the impassible is passible; God wept). Nestorius took this to imply an “unskilled theological mind” (191). Cyril was aware that the language was shocking and often difficult to comprehend. However, to ascribe weeping to Jesus’ humanity alone was to divide him and create, or at least imply, a distinction that resulted in two persons. For more on McGuckin’s treatment, see 190–93.

[2] Bruce L. McCormack, “The Only Mediator: The Person and Work of Christ in Evangelical Perspective” (presented at the Renewing the Evangelical Mission, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, October 13, 2009). We are still awaiting the publication of two other lecture series that will extend and clarify McCormack’s christological revisions: the T. F. Torrance Lectures (2007) and the Croall Lectures (2011). [I would also add the 2011 Kantzer Lectures that were given after I wrote this review]

[3] Ibid. Cf. Bruce L. McCormack, “‘With Loud Cries and Tears’: The Humanity of the Son in the Epistle to the Hebrews,” in The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology, ed. Richard Bauckham et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 40.

[4] Ibid., 42.

[5] For those interested in McCormack’s view in relation to Barth’s single-subject Christology, see Bruce L. McCormack, “Divine Impassibility or Simply Divine Constancy? Implications of Karl Barth’s Later Christology for Debates over Impassibility,” in Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering, ed. James F. Keating and Thomas Joseph White (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 173–80. See also McCormack, “Karl Barth’s Christology as a Resource for a Reformed Version of Kenoticism,” IJST 8 (2006): 243–51. Readers may also want to consult George Kalantzis, “Is There Room for Two? Cyril’s Single Subjectivity and the Prosopic Union” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 52 (2008): 95–110.


About Jordan P. Barrett

PhD, Systematic Theology, Wheaton College
This entry was posted in Book reviews, Integration and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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