As far as Presbyterian scholarship goes, Robert Letham is probably the best. He’s actually read (if not always understood) the Church Fathers and their leading interpreters, usually going across traditions to understand them (something unheard of in Calvindom). His book on Eastern Orthodoxy, while deeply flawed at the basic level of argumentation, is mainly backhanded praise for Orthodoxy (I still don’t know how the Reformed church didn’t bring him up for trial for that book; Leithart has been grilled for less).
Speaking psychologically of others is dangerous, for who can see inside another’s head? (Incidentally, that sentence refutes all of psychology as a scientific discipline; as magical arts psychology might have some validity, but not as “science”). That said, I think I know why Letham continues these backhands of Orthodox fathers. First, we must consider some things Letham has said. In his other books Letham has come very close to denying the heart of Western theology: The Filioque. He admits most of the problems in Western theology (and offers no real solution), which seems to lean him towards Orthodoxy. Letham sees the difficulty of his position.
Anyway, to the passage in question. It is found in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church periodical New Horizons. Letham is offering a list of books to read on Christology. He mentions St Cyril of Alexandria’s On the Unity of Christ and has this to say of Cyril, “One of the Church’s most brilliant theologians and most vicious thugs,” p.13). I know I should be careful in speaking of elders in the Church, but should not the elders be careful in speaking of the holy fathers?
This is wrong on so many levels. For one, I have worked with thugs and Cyril is not one of them! If Cyril is a thug for out-politicking Nestorius, then John Calvin is a mafia don for what he did to Servetus!* Why is Letham calling Cyril a thug? It seems like Cyril played unfairly with Nestorius, having called a council while Nestorius was still traveling to it. As John McGuckin makes clear, Nestorius was already summoned by the emperor and delayed leaving; therefore, Cyril was justified in his actions.
Just because Cyril looked overly efficient in marginalizing Nestorius doesn’t mean he was a thug. Nestorius ridiculed popular piety (and Orthodox belief), used hair-splitting distinctions, and spoke on a quasi-scholastic level that few could understand. He was destined to lose this battle. Cyril didn’t engage in thuggery; he simply allowed Nestorius to show himself for what he really was.
*Most Orthodox people like to rail on Calvin for what he did to Servetus and Geneva. While I have no love for Calvin or Geneva, I’m not too bothered by the fact. Calvin had little political power in Geneva (he wasn’t even a citizen of the city!) and was unable to do most of what he wanted in the city (he couldn’t even have communion on a weekly basis for the city authorities forbade it). Anyway, it seems the Code of Justinian made idolatry on Servetus’ level a capital crime.
Letham, Robert. “Four Favorites: Books on Systematic and Historical Theology.” New Horizons April 2011: 13. Print.