Defender of orthodoxy
St Cyril was born in Egypt in the 370s. His life was dominated by the defence of orthodoxy: specifically, the truth that Jesus had two natures – one human, one divine – united in a single person. His opponent Nestorius thought this was impossible, and that Jesus had two persons. The dispute was a fairly technical one, but it came down to a single question: should Mary be described as Theotokos (God-bearer)?
Cyril received a solid classical education and rose to become Patriarch of Alexandria shortly before his 40th birthday. The Church in Alexandria was intellectually vibrant, drawing out much truth from the classical philosophy which flourished in the city. Alexandria was also the home of allegorical readings of Scripture. The School of Antioch – where Nestorius had had his training – was given to literalist readings of the Bible, and tended to divide Christ’s divinity from his humanity.
Released from a curse
In 428 Nestorius became Archbishop of Constantinople. Pope Celestine sought Cyril’s advice, and was persuaded that Nestorius was wrong. However, Emperor Theodosius II took Nestorius’s side and arranged for a council to be called at Ephesus.
The controversy came to a head over the title Theotokos (previously employed by St Athanasius and St Augustine). Mary could not be considered the “Mother of God”, Nestorius argued, because then Christ would be fully part of the fallen human race.
Cyril responded that only by being fully man could Christ redeem us. He was born of Mary “to bless the very beginning of our being and that, because a woman bare him united to the flesh, the curse against our whole race might at length be stopped”.
Both sides accused the other of heresy; the emperor flip-flopped; but Cyril won the argument – though he would not see the full demise of Nestorianism within his lifetime.
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