Cyril’s Connection Between Eucharist and Christology

A few posts ago I quoted from McGuckin how St Cyril of Alexandria let what he believed about Christ shape how he believed everything else–not a bad method, mind you. Scholars like Sergii Bulgakov pointed out that Cyril really wasn’t a brilliant thinker. He did have moments of sheer greatness, but he wasn’t an Athanasius or an Augustine. Perhaps. But he did stay doggedly to his few premises and carried the argument out, and it was this doggedness that prevented him from falling into heresy and ultimately led the Church to the Council of Ephesus.

I am quoting from Jaroslav Pelikan’s summary of how Cyril viewed the connection between Eucharist and Christology. First some background: Cyril’s opponents, the Nestorians, affirmed in one way or another that instead of two natures of Christ in one person, there were two persons of Christ (or more precisely, two centers of subjectivity in Christ). Cyril’s whole work is to refute that. Cyril maintains 1) that the divine Logos assumed human nature (alongside his divine nature) and 2) from this the Logos operates with a single source of subjectivity. What that means is the Logos determines the actions committed. In other words, we don’t see the man Jesus eating food and the divine person Jesus raising the dead on the other hand. Jesus isn’t schizophrenic.

That’s the context, now on to Pelikan.

The difference between Theodore and Cyril was that Theodore didn’t base a christology upon this Eucharistic doctrine, but Cyril did. The key to Cyril’s christological interpretation of sacramental theology lay in his emphasis upon the life-giving and transforming power of salvation in Christ, a power conveyed by the sacraments, especially the Eucharist…His proof text for the doctrine of Eucharist was not the account of its institution in 1 Corinthians, but the sixth chapter of the gospel of John: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” These words meant, he said, that Christ “as God makes us alive, not merely by granting us a share in the Holy Spirit, but by granting us in edible form the flesh he assumed.

Commenting on these same words elsewhere, he insisted that the body given in the Eucharist could not be life-giving unless it had become the very flesh of the Logos who gives life to everything. The body received in the Eucharist was like a vivifying seed, by which the communicant was intimately joined with the Logos himself and made to be like the Logos, immortal and incorruptible.

Pelikan I: 237-238

A few sites, until I finish McGuckin

I’m almost finished with McGuckin’s book on St Cyril. I plan to do a big review of it here when I am done.

On another note, I found a few Eurasianist sites that are fairly intelligent. They are slightly more left of center than I would normally care for, but they do a good job exposing the shrillness of American media.

Sublime Oblivion

Mark Adomanis

I normally avoid Facebook now, but I do occasionally check it. Anatoly had a side link saying “Join the Russophile Union,” which is essentially questioning Western media’s bizarre and dark view of Russia. It is not, as some say, a rose-garden view of Russia. Anyway, Anatoly had a list of links, most of which I have not yet checked out. I copied and pasted them here.…

Cyril of Alexandria: Let Christology Dominate Everything

A friend of mine who is much more learned on these matters told me that we shouldn’t try to make Christology the focal point of everything. Barth tried this back in the day and nothing came of it. I guess I think it depends on how you look at it, for in a certain sense I agree.

My thoughts:
Barth was borderline heretical, if brilliant, on many points (and I am not a Barth-basher by any stretch). Barth’s Christology project is worlds different than the early church. And while not so much Barth himself, many scholars today read the early history of the church, of the fathers, not so much for guidance (see Hebrews 13:7) but for intellectual gratification and mental speculation. If that is your underlying point, then yes, coming up with a new and dazzling Christological project is dangerous.
But contrast the academic scholar’s vision with St Cyril.
The Christology of St Cyril is the major driving force of his entire theological vision. Like Athanasius before him, Cyril understands the church’s christological doctrine to be the central point to which and from which all other comprehensions run. The Christological argument, thus, is fundamentally about soteriology and worship…
Cyril’s mind had already been formed in the living Christological tradition of the church, summarized in the great Athanasius…It began its consideration of theology with the narrative of the eternal Lord’s acts of salvation toward his people.
John McGuckin, Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy, p.176-177. It’s the fundamental difference between receiving a tradition (2 Thessalonians 2:15) and clarifying it in light of new challenges on one hand, and simply inventing a new project altogether.

Patristic Bibliography and Medieval Bibliography

A reference list of some things I’ve found helpful. I’ll be updating this page. And I am limiting this page to books I’ve actually read or am in the process of reading.

Summaries of the Faith

  • St Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures. Good defense of Nicene orthodoxy without some of the specific terminology. Most famous are his Sacramental Lectures. Originally given to catachumens in the faith. I found his lecture on Eschatology (XV, I think) to be particularly helpful.
  • St Gregory of Nyssa’s The Great Catechism. Actually kind of difficult to read. Interesting responses to Jewish polemics against Christianity. More philosophically inclined.
  • St Augustine’s Enchiridion. Nice and succinct summary of Latin-leaning Christianity. Each section is quite short and to the point. Interesting arguments on evil as privation of good and the innateness of Truth. Will give pause to many readers. Affirms absolute predestination on one hand, yet believes that alms-giving on behalf of the dead helps their condition–doesn’t see the contradiction there. A hermeneutic of charity, thus, requires us to formulate a context in which these two propositions make sense. That’s for another day. Also, I’ve never been impressed or convinced with St Augustine’s reading of 1 Corinthians 7.
  • St John of Damascus, The Orthodox Faith. Famous line on “heretics confuse nature and person.” Spent the past few months trying to figure out what that means.

Doctrine of God and Trinity

  • St Basil, Works and Letters. His book on the Holy Spirit is a landmark. Defends the coeternity of the spirit and the monarchia of the Father. Also of extreme importance is Letter 234 outlining the essence/energies (he calls them “operations”) distinction. Paradigm-shifting in terms of theology.
  • St Gregory Nazianzus’s Theological Orations. Excellent response to Eunomious.
  • John Meyendorff, Saint Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality. Shows how utterly relevant monasticism is to society and the Church. Does a good job on contrasting Palamism and Barlaamism. Two different ways of looking at God.


  • Hans urs von Balthasar, The Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to St Maximus the Confessor. Impressive synthesis of many strands of patrology. Remarkable discussions of nature and person. A few problems, though. HuvB has a myopic and almost irrational hatred of anything non-Roman Catholic. He goes out of his way to highlight Byzantine political flaws which are often irrelevant to the discussion. Tries to make the argument that Russian theological thought naturally leads to Soviet terror (I’m not kidding!). He reminds one of the drunk fan at the baseball game, always heckling the umpire. Still, an important read.
  • Joseph Farrell, Free Choice in St Maximus the Confessor. Excellent discussion of the monothelite controversy. Great overview of Origen’s theology. The second half is a critical evaluation of Augustinianism.
  • John McGuckin, St Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy. Very thorough (or too dense?) discussion of Nestorianism. Has a bunch of important texts by St Cyril.
  • St Maximus the Confessor, The Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ. Superb. Above the ordinary line of thought. It’s one of those books that must be read at least twice. Very good introduction.


  • Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies. The first three books are very difficult to read. Mainly refuting certain gnostic heresies. The latter half of the book highlights the importance of reading Scripture in light of the Church. Sets forth the “two-hands” view of God creating the world.
  • Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics. Same view on Scripture as above, yet more succinct and focused.
  • St Vincent of Lerins. The Commonitory. Outlines that the faith is what has always been believed everywhere and by all (universality, antiquity).
  • D. H. Williams, Scripture, Tradition, and Interpretation. Done by an evangelical, surprisingly. Fantastic overview (using primary sources) of how the church viewed Scripture and Tradition. Doesn’t shy away from hard realities, yet also doesn’t pursue some very obvious questions.

Background/Culture/Blessed Augustine

  • Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. Awe-inspiring.
  • St Augustine, City of God. Probably most important book written. Maybe. Deconstruction of Roman political narrative. Exposes the Empire’s mythos of salvation. A few howlers here and there, though. I have to reject his identification of God’s attributes with God’s essence.
  • God, History, Dialectic: Theological Foundations of the Two Europes. Excellent discussion on pre-schism Europe. I’m still wondering how seriously to take this book, though.
  • Fr Seraphim Rose, The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church. Sane and charitable evaluation of St Augustine. Avoids the typical “anti-anything Western mentality.” Beautifully written.
  • David Bradshaw, Aristotle East and West. Very interesting and erudite discussion of Greek philosophical influence on both Eastern and Western Christendom. Shatters some convenient scholarly paradigms.

Medieval Stuff

  • Peter Kreeft, Summa of the Summa (yeah, you probably need to read the entire Summa Theol yourself, but this is more accessible). The pros of the book: Kreeft’s footnotes make for wonderful reading; lots of good Chesterton and Lewis. Cons of the book: Kreeft dodges all of the hard questions that Thomists and Eastern Orthodox have since raised. Not a word on the de Lubac controversy. Acknowledges Absolute Divine Simplicity but seems to ignore every challenge against it. Ignores the fact that Thomas believed in predestination. Still, I’ve enjoyed this book for several years.

    While I’ve become more critical of Thomism, I still hold to a form of Thomistic ethics, especially social ethics. I wish more “Thomists” took Thomas seriously on economics and the “local” village.

  • Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy. Landmark of early medieval philosophy. Everyone eventually read and interacted with this book. Lots of important issues raised.
  • Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Excellent snapshot of early English Christianity.
  • The Life of St Columba, read in conjunction with Bede it helps defuse the myth that St Patrick and the Irish Culdees were good ole’-fashioned Sudn’ baptists (a claim that is often made). While an argument could be made that the Culdees believed in immersion baptism, this proves nothing. They also believed in venerating relics, saints, angels, appearances of the divine light, miracles, apostolic succession, unity of the church, and the importance of the Calendar. Southern Baptists, on the other hand, do not. More importantly, though, it is a glimpse into pre-schism Western orthodoxy.
  • Anselm of Canterbury, The Major Works. I’ve become more critical of Anselm over the years, but much of it is written in the spirit of St Augustine, and regardless he is one of the most important representatives of “scholasticism.”
  • G. K. Chesterton, The Medieval Biographies. I know they aren’t “scholarly,” and that’s precisely why they are useful. I think these do a good job of “getting the feel” for how great saints once lived.
  • John Meyendorff, Byzantium and the Rise of Russia. Attempts to rebut the charge that Eastern Christianity is necessarily “caesaro-papist” while the Western Church (either Protestant or Catholic, depending on the apologist) necessarily breathes free air. A bit dry at times, and I think it could have been improved had he lengthened his timeline past Ivan the Terrible.
  • Matthew Raphael Johnson, The Third Rome: Holy Russia, Tsarism, and Orthodoxy. Without a doubt the most influential historical work I’ve read in the past two years. His style is wonderfully entertaining (or cynically bitter–the line is often blurred). Strengthened what I believed about medievalism and monarchy, changed me from a free-market capitalist to something along the lines of distributivism. Got me to rethink basically every category. Utterly lays waste to American politics (yeah, the book is on medieval Russia). Shows how utterly saturated with Christianity medieval Russia was. Your average Cossack had the Psalter memorized in order to endure torture by Muslims.

    Johnson advances the thesis that there are actually two Russias: Holy Russia and Petrine Russia. The Petrine revolution was in many ways more earth shattering than the Communists.

  • Colin Wells, Sailing from Byzantium. Fine overview. Ironically, the section on the Greeks was weak. The section on Greeks under Islam was better (reminded one that the Muslims didn’t invent all those cool civilizational niceties, but rather stole them from Christians, Islam being parasitic and all). The section on the Slavs was masterful.
  • Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis. Reminds one to be humble in interpreting Scripture. We moderns (call yourselves conservative Christians, even) scorn those silly medievals for believing in allegory. Well, see for yourself. Anyway, what you call allegory isn’t. The medievals loved Scripture (most monks had the Bible memorized). In fact, for the medieval “theology” was nothing else than studying the Bible.


  • Orthodox Church History. I’ve listened to few lectures as much as these. The lectures on individuals are of good quality. The ones on the councils suffer from a lot of background noise.
  • Peter Kreeft. More on culture and popular philosophy and apologetics. Some are howlers. Has a bizarre view of ecumenicism: not simply Protestants and Catholics, but even Mormons and Muslims! Still, the stuff on Tolkien and CS Lewis are good, and Kreeft is a really good speaker.
  • Relevance of the Church Fathers Today/Maximus and Modern Science, by Andrew Louth. Fine overview of St Maximus’s Christology. Sells the farm at the end, though, by capitulating to evolution. Why do so many Prelates, both Catholic and Orthodox, feel the need to throw a bone to unbelieving thought? Yes, St Maximus is directly relevant to modern science, but since scientific paradigms change with every generation, I would be more skeptical of jumping on the ship right when it is sinking.

The mask of Zorro and reading theology books

Okay, this is a terrible analogy. I know, but it seemed to “click” with me. In The Mask of Zorro, when Anthony Hopkins is teaching Antonio Banderras how to sword-fight, he mentions at the beginning (when the hero is first learning how to duel) that he is standing in a ring of concentric circles. As he progresses in skill, he moves inward to yet a smaller circle. When he is ready he will be in the smallest circle. (I know little about fencing. I presume he means when you first start out you have to move around a lot to avoid being hit, but as you get better you do not need to “dodge” as much, but rather can more easily parry and thrust. I guess.)

I’ve noticed something similar in reading history and theology books. I’ve finally realized that reading good and tested books (I am avoiding the word “classics”) means you get to move to a smaller and smaller library. I have in mind something like the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series. The more I read and refer to these, the less I feel I have to go to the store and buy yet another book. Likewise, the more I feel like I can get rid of some books. Of course, need may arise to buy another book now and then, but sticking to the above argument, it won’t be so bad. Penguin and Signet have done a good job in making classics (sorry!) accessible and cheap. You can buy Plato’s Dialogues for under $7. Same for much of Aristotle’s works.

I realize that instead of buying yet the latest piece of scholarship in history, I can instead rely on classics, like the following:

  • John Julian Norwich’s History of Byzantium. Always worth a second read.
  • The Patristic Fathers, as mentioned earlier. They will take a long time to read, thus sparing bookcases and wallets. They are also nicely cross-referenced, never minding the occasional Hegelian bias of the editors. Following their footnotes can give the reader a fine theological education.
  • C.S. Lewis’s major works. It has been one of my goals to read The Screwtape Letters at least once a year. Mere Christianity is good, but it’s not as pressing.
  • Tolkien’s stuff.
  • Leo Tolstoy’s major corpus will take a good year and a half. It took me about three months to read Dostoevsky’s major stuff.
  • Rereading Plato isn’t bad either.
  • Peter Brown’s biography of St Augustine profits a second reading.
  • Alexander Solzhenitsyn read Tolstoy half a dozen times.

Of course, this doesn’t even touch the tip of the iceberg. I’ve only dealt with books that I’ve read in the past few years. I’ve left out (unintentionally) many more worthy reads.

Review of *The Place of Blessed Augustine…*

The Place of Blessed Augustine in Orthodox Church

I’m tempted to skip the review of the book and simply sing its praises. It is that good (and cheap, and short and easy to read). Fr Seraphim Rose felt he had to write this book because many in the Orthodox church were bashing Augustine. Most of these attacks were done from ignorance and overreactions to what St Augustine said on grace, original sin, and the Trinity. Other attacks were done because people feared any kind of “Western” influence.

Fr Seraphim remains serene at all times. He makes the point that Orthodox people simply aren’t allowed to “bash” St Augustine. The 5th Ecumenical council refers to him as a saint. Even when he errs, the great Orthodox writers like St John Cassian, St Photios, and St Mark of Ephesus, if not calling Augustine a saint specifically, remark he is a useful Orthodox teacher.

This is an important point to make. It is not so much defending Augustine’s teaching from criticism (I am actually quite critical of St Augustine on a number of points). There is a fear of anything “Western.” This is a tricky philosophical and historical card to play. If by “Western” you mean the post-Charlemagne church, the high medieval scholastics, and the ecclesiastical descendants of Renaissance humanism? Yeah, I’d probably agree. But the way the argument is set up, we are asked to write off St Ambrose, St Hilary of Poitiers, St Irenaeus of Lyons–the whole early Western church of the first six centuries: men who gave us great teaching on the Incarnation, the Church, and the Trinity. This means that the early Irish and British churches are actually good children of Roman Catholicism (I’ve long held to the thesis that the Norman invasion of England was a papal invasion of a “anonymous” Orthodox nation). As you can see, rejecting anything “western” is too high a price to pay.

Augustine’s Real Errors?
Okay, sure. St Augustine did err in his theology. So what? If you look at it and read the historical context closely, they are not so much errors as over-reactions to particular heresies. That’s partly why the Council of Orange soon removed the “harder” aspects of his teaching on grace, kept his original points, but never condemned him specifically. Orthodox monks like St John Cassian did specifically correct some of Augustine’s overreactions, but they never called him a heretic.

I’ll admit. I have problems with how St Augustine formulated his doctrine of God. I simply can’t accept Absolute Divine Simplicity. I think St Basil is a more reliable guide, nor can I accept the thesis that the Cappadocians taught the same view as St Augustine. I don’t know how people can get away with saying this. Letter 234 of St Basil teaches the essence/energies distinction and specifically refutes the idea that God’s essence is interchangeable with his attributes.

But a Reliable Guide to Piety
So St Augustine erred on some big issues. Here’s where he’s helpful:

  1. He loved Christ. His Confessions are beyond compare in terms of lyrical piety. I’ve read them through two or three times. People who go overboard in criticizing all of St Augustine’s errors need to ask if their piety matches up to his.
  2. He stayed faithful to the unity of the visible church during difficult times.
  3. He knew he made mistakes. He wanted his theology and writings to be judged by Scripture and the wisdom of what has been handed down.

A Warning Against Over-Syllogizing the Faith
This used to be a big problem with me. I used to be very good with logic and could put any problem into a syllogism. Fr Seraphim warns us against a hyper “either-or” mentality: for example, if you can’t view every theological issue as simply the horns of a dilemma, then you are denying the rationality of God. Here’s what he means:

The Roman Catholics told St Mark of Ephesus that certain fathers, including St Augustine, believed in either Purgatory or the Filioque and thus St Mark should accept the teaching of the Roman Church. St Mark responded, “So what?” Just because a few teachers teach something doesn’t mean it is automatically dogma.

The papals responded that if the great teachers like Augustine, Ambrose, and Gregory of Nyssa erred, what hope could the church have? They were arguing, “Either accept what we say as dogma, or be left to relativism.” This was an example of over-syllogizing the faith. Of course, they were pushing for papal infallibility. St Mark responded that we judge all the teachers by Scripture interpreted in the community of the church. If a teacher taught correct doctrine, well and good. If he erred, well he erred. No big deal. The measuring stick is not some individual man (the Pope) or a body of men who must be absolutely correct at all times, the rather the deposit of faith handed down by the fathers (Jude 3).