Publications: Articles - Saints & Patristics
Mary Theotokos and the 3rd Ecumenical Council
The Christology of St Cyril of Alexandria
One of the most prolific writers of the early Church, whose works contributed not only to Christology, in his dispute with Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople, but also to biblical exegesis, Trinitarian theology, was St Cyril of Alexandria (b. 375AD) whose theology was to remain normative in the Eastern Christian Churches throughout the ages. It is precisely for this reason that he is rightfully considered to be one of the greatest father of the fifth century. St Cyril produced wrote many works against the false teachings of Nestorius - indeed one of his dogmatic writings included specifically a treatise entitled, Against those who do not acknowledge Mary to be Theotokos. He belonged to the Alexandrian school of theology, which emphasized not only the divinity of Jesus Christ but also His personal unity. St Cyril and the fathers of the 3rd Ecumenical Council in general were most concerned to defend that the man Jesus, born from the Virgin Mary was none other than the Word of God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity. That is, it was not that the Logos had indwelt into a man born of Mary, but that it was the Logos, Himself, who was born in time from the blessed mother.
Accordingly, it was these truths that St Cyril believed were affirmed with the title 'Theotokos' since this term stated most clearly that Mary had given birth to the divine Son and Word of God. Accordingly, he fought hard to have this term formally ratified by the whole Church at the Council of Ephesus in 431AD, since the term carried with it a saving significance. Without the title 'Theotokos', St Cyril would argue, there was danger of thinking that Christ was a mere man and not the divine Son of God. But if Christ were a man then He could not be in a position to offer the fullness of life to the world – i.e. to save it from death and destruction by being victorious over death. And so, it becomes clear why this term was rightly considered, not only by St Cyril but the Church at large, to be of salvific importance since it proclaimed that the One born of the Virgin Mary was the divine 'Son and Word of God'.
Moreover, the term 'Theotokos' was able to emphasize the unity of the humanity of Jesus with the divine Word of God allowing no room for misunderstanding that the Virgin Mary had given birth to a mere man who was only later conjoined to the divine Logos of God. On the contrary, St Cyril declared that Mary had given birth to the divine Son of God and therefore Jesus Christ was divine with exactly the same divinity as God His Father. It is understandable that St Cyril's theology, shaped by the Arian controversy, which had taken place only fifty years before, would want to affirm the absolute divine character of Jesus since Arius had falsely believed that Christ was a mere creature. Therefore, upon formally refusing the title 'Theotokos' for the Virgin Mary in 428AD, Nestorius found himself on the opposing end of St Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria. As we shall see, the situation between the two men became so tense, that in 431, it was deemed necessary to convene, what came to be called the Third Ecumenical Council to settle this matter.
St Cyril's justification of the term 'Theotokos' was clearly indicated in his second epistle to Nestorius:
When the fathers dared to call the Holy Virgin Theotokos, they did not mean by this that the nature of the Word or His Godhead originated from the holy Virgin. But because His holy body, endowed with life and reason, was born from her, and because the Word, was hypostatically [personally] united to that body, He is said to have been from her according to the flesh.9
The first point to be noticed from the above quote is that St Cyril correctly considered the phenomenon of motherhood as a relationship between 'persons' and not with 'nature'. Obviously any claim that Mary gave birth to the Godhead or that the Godhead as such could undergo birth is erroneous. Rather, for St Cyril, just as a mother in general gives birth, not to a faceless nature but to a person, so too the person that the Virgin gave birth to was none other than the divine second person of the Holy Trinity and in this sense she could be called 'God-bearer'. That is, he understood the mystery of the incarnation not from within the dimension of abstract ideas but as a mystery between a mother and a child, since what a mother gives birth to is not a nature (as Nestorius thought) but a person. On this matter Florovsky wrote:
Christian thought moves always in the dimension of personalities not in the realm of general ideas. It apprehends the mystery of the Incarnation as a mystery of the Mother and Child.
Therefore Jesus Christ was the Logos of God, God incarnate and not a mere man to which the Logos subsequently conjoined.
In the case of Christ, for St Cyril there was no other personal subject except for God the Word (i.e. the second person of the Holy Trinity). The Scriptures, according to St Cyril were clear in stating that the man Jesus was the very Logos of God who, having come down from heaven was incarnate not only of the Holy Spirit but also the Virgin Mary thereby being perfectly united, in time, to His blessed mother. In his treatise entitled Against Those Who are Unwilling to Confess that the Theotokos is Theotokos, he wrote:
We know Christ not as a man united to God, but as God assuming the human realities, i.e. the body and the soul and the mind, and as God perfectly united in the holy Virgin without sin.
It was precisely for this reason that Mary could be called 'Theotokos' since she had given birth to the divine Word of God. For Cyril, if the term Theotokos were not accepted, there would be a danger of dividing the incarnate Christ into two personal subjects [i.e. the divine Logos and the man Jesus], loosely coexisting in a single body. The title 'Theotokos' was therefore not an optional title of worship but a theological presupposition of true doctrine in the incarnation. And so, to quote Florovsky again, the title 'Theotokos' was "a doctrinal definition in one word."
The teaching of St Cyril regarding the person of Christ as both God and man (i.e. as Theanthropos) was witnessed in all the writings of the New Testament. Firstly the opening of the Gospel of St John makes it very clear that it was the divine Logos who was made flesh - it does not speak about the Word of God subsequently descending upon a man who had already been born from a woman:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (Jn 1:1;1:14).
Clearly the above passage underscores the fact that Jesus Christ was not a mere man like the saints, as Nestorius had falsely believed, but the same divine Word of God who became a true human being. Furthermore, the reason for Christ's incarnation [i.e. that He became a true human being] is made clear, for St Cyril in St Paul's letter to the Hebrews:
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil (Heb 2:14).
Indeed, if Jesus were a mere man, as Nestorius had declared and not the Son of God who became alike to human beings in all respects except for sin, then He could not save humanity since only what Christ assumed could He also save.
Stressing the divinity of Christ, the Scriptures even attribute to Christ actions and works that took place before his incarnation which show beyond doubt that Christ could not have been a mere man as Nestorius had asserted:
Now I desire to remind you, though you are fully informed, that the Lord [i.e. Jesus Christ], who once for all saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. (Jude 1:5).
The above passage affirms in a simple yet profoundly explicit manner that Jesus Christ was the eternal Logos of God who had worked mighty deeds throughout the history of the people of Israel. It was for this reason that the Church, and the 3rd Ecumenical Council would convene to proclaim, against Nestorius and his followers, that Christ was eternally God who had become man in time and came forth from the Virgin Mary. As a brilliant Scriptural exegete, St Cyril was able to show beyond any doubt that Christ was a single person, a single hypostasis and thus Mary had given birth to the same Person as the divine Word of God. In the next issue we will turn our attention to the historical events of the 3rd Ecumenical Council, which came to proclaim triumphantly this saving Christological truth.
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
1 Letter 4.7. This letter came to be known as St Cyril's Dogmatic Letter because it was accepted as the criterion of Orthodoxy at the 3rd Ecumenical Council.
2 Georges Florovsky, Creation and Redemption, Collected Works, vol. 3 (Massachusetts: Norland Publishing Company), 179.
3 Against Those Who are Unwilling to Confess that the Theotokos is Theotokos, 1.9.
4 Georges Florovsky, 'The Ever-Virgin Mother of God', Collected Works III, 171.
5 This verse is quoted by St Cyril in his treatise entitled Against Those Who are Unwilling to Confess that the Theotokos is Theotokos, 1.3.