St Cyril and the Christological Controversy (McGuckin)

McGuckin, John. Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

From the movie Agora

St Cyril of Alexandria is the sphragidis of the Fathers, the seal of the Fathers. While he is not the last word in Christology, he was an able summarizer of Christological thought and was remarkably consistent. He’s also disliked among academics today. St Cyril played hardball and it seemed like he used unsavory means to keep heretics from being represented at Council.

Prof McGuckin dismantles these myths. McGuckin a) exposes the postmodern and elitist presuppositions of the university professors and b) offers a different angle on the Nestorian Controversy—and he does it with dash, flair, and humor.

To be fair, though, it is difficult to know exactly what Nestorius actually believed. Nestorius was accused of maintaining there were two persons in Christ, a position he seemed to deny. Yet McGuckin makes clear that Nestorius believed in two prosopon in Christ. This word can mean “person” but doesn’t always, and that appeared to give Nestorius an out. Yet as McGuckin and St Cyril make clear, Nestorius nonetheless held to two operating principles in Christ. (At this point McGuckin gives a long summary of Nestorius’s Christology. In short, it reads:

• Extreme divine impassibility: the Logos cannot suffer (131).

• Christ’s two natures remain ontologically apart, existing side by side (135).

• The Church’s confession of Christ should always begin with his double reality (156).

On pp. 138ff McGuckin gives a helpful summary of the meanings of ousia, physis, hypostasis, and prosopon.

Ousia: Essence, substance, being, genus, or nature.

Physis: Nature, make up of a thing. (In earlier Christian thought the concrete reality or existent.)

Hypostasis: The actual concrete reality of a thing, the underlying essence, (in earlier Christian thought the synonym of physis.)

Prosopon: The observable character, defining properties, manifestation of a reality.

Even at first sight it is clear that the words bear a range of meanings that overlap in some areas so as to be synonymous.  This is particularly so with the terms Physis and Hypostasis which in the fifth century simultaneously bore ancient Christian meanings and more modern applications.. In relation to Physis, Cyril tended to use the antique meaning, Nestorius the modern. In relation to Hypostasis the opposite was the case.”

McGuckin, 138-139.

7. “Ousia is the genus of a thing.  Once can think, for example of the genus ‘unicorn.’  Such a genus exists, but only theoretically, not practically or concretely.  It does not exist, that is, ‘in reality’ as we would say today.  Nonetheless, it makes sense to talk of the necessary characteristics of a unicorn such as its magical horn, its horse like appearance, its whiteness, its beard and lion’s tail, and so on. Thus the genus of unicorn is the ousia, that which makes up the essential being of a thing.. The notion of the physis of our unicorn is intimately related to this.  It connotes what we might call the palpable and ‘physical’ characteristics of a unicorn such as outlined above-but always understanding that his possession of a physis-nature still does not necessarily imply that such a creature is real…In some circles, especially those represented by the Christian thinkers of Alexandria following Athanasius, the word physis signified something slightly different from this sense of ’physical attributes’ and had been used to connote the physical existent-in the sense of a concrete individual reality.  

In the hands of Cyril the word is used in two senses, one in what might be called the standard ‘physical usage where it connotes the constituent elements of a thing, and the other in which it serves to delineate the notion of individual existent-or in other words individual subject.  This variability in the use of a key term on Cyril’s part goes some way to explaining Nestorius’ difficulties in following his argument over the single Physis of the Incarnate Word (Mia Physis tou Theou Logou Sesarkoene).  By this Cyril meant the one concrete individual subject of the Incarnated Word. Whereas Nestorius heard him to mean the one physical composite of the Word (in the sense of an Apollinarist mixture of fusion of the respective attributes of the natures of man and God.)

McGuckin, 139-140.

The prospon is the external aspect or form of a physis as it can be manifested to external observation and scrutiny.  It is a very concrete, empirical word, connoting what appears to outside observation.  Each essence (ousia) is characterized by its proper nature (physis), everything that is, which makes it up, and in turn every nature that is hypostatically real presents itself to the scrutiny of the senses in its own prosopon-that list of detailed characteristics or ‘propria’ that constitute this thing individually and signal to the observer what nature (physis) it has and thus to what genus (ousia) it belongs.  In the system Nestorius is following, every nature has its own prosopon, that such of proper characteristics (idiomata) by which it is characterized in its unique  individuality and made known to others as such.  The word carried with it an intrinsic sense of ‘making known’ and appeared to Nestorius particularly apt in the revelatory context of discussing the incarnation.”

McGuckin, 144.

Cyril’s Christology

Before examining St Cyril’s Christology, McGuckin surveys Apolloniarius’s Christology. While denounced as a heretic (and rightly so), Apollonaris put his finger on many important points. To put it another way, while Apollonaris’s heresy was bad, it set the stage for Cyril’s triumph. Apollonaris saw the important point that had to be maintained: the single subject of the Logos (179).

Redemptive Deification

St Cyril’s Christology was tied to his soteriology: “The incarnation was a restorative act 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 Logos appropriates human nature—and this human nature becomes that of one who is God—the human nature is lifted up to extraordinary glory.

St Cyril also offers us a way to think about divine impassibility: we should see the intimacy of the connection between the two realities of Christ…In the incarnation the power of the one transforms and heals the fallibility of the other.

“The human nature is conceived as the manner of action of an independent and omnipotent power—that of the Logos; and to the Logos alone can be attributed the authorship of, and responsibility for, all its actions” (186). The subject is unchanged, but that subject now expresses the characteristics of his divinely powerful condition in and through the medium of a passible and fragile condition.

Of course, St Cyril ties this in with the holy mysteries (188). The believer is deified because the encounter brings him into life-giving proximity with the Logos—and this proximity was the metaphysical root of all being.

St Cyril’s vision was the transformation of the human race according to the paradigm of divine appropriation of a human nature in the incarnation (188).

The Ecumenical Reception of St Cyril

Cyril preferred to say that Christ was of two natures, placing the stress on the Incarnation (231).

McGuckin scores major points in noting that St Leo’s Tome actually had to pass muster before it was excepted. The Church didn’t merely receive it and note, “Leo has spoken. The end.” They said this, but only after it passed a Cyrillene test. Why did they praise Leo? Because his Tome agreed with Cyril and the Fathers, not merely because he was “pope.”


This was a fantastic book. It is truly one of the great books written on Christology. Because of the timeline it does not deal with later concerns about the energies and wills of Christ. However, it wonderfully ties in ecclesiology, Christology, soteriology, and the Eucharist into one prism which then sheds multi-perspectival light on the Church.


One thought on “St Cyril and the Christological Controversy (McGuckin)

  1. Quote:,,“The human nature is conceived as the manner of action of an independent and omnipotent power—that of the Logos; and to the Logos alone can be attributed the authorship of, and responsibility for, all its actions” (186). The subject is unchanged, but that subject now expresses the characteristics of his divinely powerful condition in and through the medium of a passible and fragile condition.”

    If that the subject is unchanged means that the Hypsotasis pf the Logos after the Incarnation remains one, although complex in the sense that now two natures subsisted in it without confusion, division, separation and mingling – the eternal divine nature and the created human nature, this is true. The created human nature which does not have its own, human hypostasis, took the eternal Hypostasis of the Logos as its hypostasis.

    But if by the unchangeability of the subject there is understood that all actions belong to the Logos alone, that the Logos alone is the author of all actions of the human nature of Christ, that is not true. (This is what Severus of Antioch taught.) Because, although the mode of all actions of Christ – both divine and human, is hypostatic after His Hypostatis is one and remains one after Incarnation, the actions belong to the nature and energy and not to the Hypostasis, and so to say that the human actions belong to the Logos alone would mean to say that the human actions proceed from the divine energy and so belong to the divine nature of the Incarnated Logos. But that would mean that the humanity does not have its own energy, a human energy and that would mean that the human actions and will proceed from the divine energy of the Incarnated Logos and belong to His divine nature.

    The Tome stated that ,,the Word, that is, performing what belongs to the Word, and the flesh carrying out what belongs to the flesh“, i.e. the divine actions are performed by the Word Itself and the human actions arer performed by the human nature. By suggested that St.Cyril rejected that, father Anthony implies that what St.Cyril taught what is contrary to the Tome of St.Leo taught and was accepted by Chalcedon, and that what Cyril taught is rather in unison with what Severus taught. Because if the human actions proceeds form the divine energy, the humanity is not perfect. But St.Cyril clearly acknowledges the perfection of Christ’s humanity:,,But since both the perfection in the humanity and the assertion of our human essence is implied by the word ‘incarnate’ then let them stop leaning on this broken staff (Is.36.6). For if anyone took away from the Son his perfect humanity he could rightly be accused of throwing the economy overboard, and of denying the incarnation.“

    Also the suggestion that the human actions of Christ and His human will proceed from His divine energy and that the human nature does not have its own, human energy, whereby it is not perfect, contradicts Scripture where it is said:,,Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. † ” (Matthew 4:1, Orthodox Study Bible). If His human actions and will proceed from the Logos alone, i.e. from His divine energy, then it would turn out that it is the Logos alone Who was led by the Holy Spirit, i.e. the Logos was led according to His divinity by the Holy Spirit. But that would mean that one of the Persons of the Trinity has become inferior to another Person of the Trinity which is impossible because there cannot be any change in God. Therefore Christ was led by the Holy Spirit only according to the actions of His human nature as actions proceeding from His human energy and from His divine energy, i.e. His human nature has it own, human energy and so is perfect.

    Also if Christ’s human actions and will proceeded from His divine energy, would mean that besides the common divine actions and will of the common divine nature of the Holy Trinity, Christ’s divine nature has one more will and kind of actions and so has two wills and kinds of actions after the Incarnation. That would mean that as a result of the Incarnation the divine nature of the Incarnated Word underwent a change. And that would mean either that the whole Holy Trinity Incarnated since the divine nature is common, or that only the divine nature of the Word changed which would mean that as a result of the Incarnation there occured a split in the Trinity because the Word’s divine nature was now different from the divine nature of the Father and the Holy Spirit. The first suggestion is untrue because only the Word became flesh (John 1:14). The second is untrue because there cannot be a change in God. He is unchangeable. Therefore Christ’s human nature has its human energy from which there proceed His human actions and will, so they do not proceed from the Logos alone, i.e. from the divine energy of the Incarnated Logos.

    Also, if as a result of the Incarnation the Logos had another will and kind of actions belonging to His divine nature, besides the common divine actions and will of the Holy Trinity, that new will introduces a fourth Hypostasis/Person to the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity and adds to the Person of the Word another Person of the Word, thus turning Him into two Persons but not in a Nestorian sense because in Nestorianism there is a human hypostasis/person of Christ while here there is not a human hypostasis/person of the Incarnated Logos. But that is impossible because a change in God is impossible. Therefore Christ’s divine nature and energy do not have another will and kind of actions but His human actions and will belong to His created human nature and proceed from the human nature’s human energy.


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