The Seal of the Fathers

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.

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.


3 comments on “The Seal of the Fathers

  1. […] (rightly) draws upon John McGuckin’s work on St Cyril.   What was Nestorius’ goal?  Gavrilyuk clears away a lot of the debris left by […]

  2. […] does not focus on the “historical dimension” of Christology?    In his landmark study on Cyril of Alexandria, John McGuckin notes concerning the Alexandrian tradition, “It began its consideration of all […]

  3. […] St Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Crisis by John McGuckin.    Shows what Nestorius’ theology really was—positing two acting subjects in the Logos and denying a real transfer of energies in the communication, implications present in Protestant Christologies. […]

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