Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The "I" of Christ

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The "I" of Christ

Article excerpt

The "I" of Christ SAINT CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA AND THE CHRISTOLOGICAL CONTROVERSY By JOHN MCGUCKIN St. Vladimir's Seminary Press 430 pp. $22.95 paper.

ALL GREAT writers, all important writers, sooner or later fall victim to the received wisdom of the secondary literature about them. Just ask Plato. How many people know anything more about Plato than his Allegory of the Cave, with maybe his Divided Line thrown in? Who goes beyond these shopworn clichés to discover that Plato also leveled the most severe criticisms against the very theory he is supposed to have fathered? Or that his dialogues are so rich in dramatic give-and-take that they usually end up leaving the reader in continued perplexity, not in settled doctrine?

Imagine, then, the problem if the writer is not someone as well known as Plato. Cyril of Alexandria, for instance, is certainly great and important, for without him we would have neither the Council of Ephesus (which declared Mary to be the Mother of God) nor the Council of Chalcedon (which vigorously defended the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus). But in Cyril's case, translations of his works are spotty. The controversies that most engaged him now seem mind-numbingly arcane. And, perhaps worst of all, the author of the received wisdom about Cyril is no less a figure than Edward Gibbon, who in his epochal Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire determined for the next two centuries our image of the irascible patriarchal bishop of Byzantine Alexandria. Here, for example, is Gibbon's account of Cyril's campaign to drive the Jews out of his diocese:

Without any legal sentence, without any royal mandate, the patriarch, at the dawn of day, led a seditious multitude to the attack of the synagogues. Unarmed and unprepared, the Jews were incapable of resistance; their houses of prayer were leveled with the ground, and the episcopal warrior, after rewarding his troops with the plunder of their goods, expelled from the city the remnant of the unbelieving nation. Perhaps he might plead the insolence of their prosperity, and their deadly hatred of the Christians, whose blood they had recently shed in a malicious or accidental tumult. Such crimes would have deserved the animadversion of the magistrate; but in this promiscuous outrage, the innocent were confounded with the guilty, and Alexandria was impoverished by the loss of a wealthy and industrious colony.

CLEARLY ANYONE who sets out to give a sympathetic portrait of Cyril, let alone an outright defense of the man, has his work cut out for him. But John McGuckin, a Greek Orthodox priest now teaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, succeeds brilliantly. McGuckin is not so foolish as to try to defend the indefensible. Instead, he tries to set Cyril in his context in fifth-century Alexandria. Almost half of Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy consists of McGuckin's translation of works by Cyril that have been either unavailable in English or available only in rather musty Victorian versions. McGuckin also gives us a monograph on Cyril's theology that is a model of clarity, fairness, and subtlety.

As to Cyril's reputation for intolerance-admittedly, a well-deserved one-McGuckin argues that we should be wary of imposing on preEnlightenment figures like Cyril what Herbert Butterfield called the Whig interpretation of history, according to which all prior ages are to be judged by the standards outlined in John Locke's Essay on Toleration. It is an established fact of history that in the late Roman Empire no consensus had developed for dealing with moral and religious pluralism. Christians saw both Judaism and paganism as the enemies of their religion, just as Judaism and paganism regarded Christianity-and each other-as false and dangerous. Hence the persecution of the Christians by the Roman emperors and the pagan pogroms against the Jews in Alexandria before the advent of Christianity. As to Cyril's campaign to destroy or expropriate pagan shrines, McGuckin reminds us that "the early church did not regard the pagan temples as barren conventicles of false superstition," but "as the active centers of demonic enmity and malice to local Christians. …

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