Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Cyril received an excellent religious and humanistic education in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities of its day, but his intellectual arrogance and stubbornness caused him difficulties. Cyril pillaged and closed the churches of a heretical group with which he quarreled, expelled the Jews from Alexandria, and sparred with the Roman prefect Orestes. Cyril fought with almost everyone and spent much of his later life quarreling with various heretics. To the modern reader, such fierce disputes appear senseless, and rational people willing to seek common cause over a cup of tea could have settled many, but that was not the atmosphere of fourth-century Alexandria. Emerging Christianity was one of several competing religious and philosophical systems, and within Christianity there were divergent doctrinal tendencies, each with strong advocates. What would later become orthodoxy was then being hammered out on the anvil of sharp discourse among church leaders.
One of Cyril’s first disputes was with the Nestorians, another Christian group with distinctive theological views about the nature of Christ. Nestorians argued Christ was two separate persons, one human, the other divine. Orthodox Christians believed Jesus Christ was both fully human and fully divine. The early church often used the Greek word Theotokos, God-bearer, for Mary, the mother of God. The Nestorians rejected this term, arguing that God could not have been born from a human being, and preferred the term Christokos, Christ-bearer, which Nestor thought was a clearer expression of the dual nature of Christ. Both they and Cyril were reacting against others who used the word anthropotokos (man-bearer), which they asserted denied the combined (for the Orthodox) or dual (for the Nestorians) divinity and humanity of Christ. If Jesus was only human, Cyril and his followers argued, and God was elsewhere, the Incarnation, the word become flesh, would be meaningless. Cyril plunged into the debate with sharp invective, addressing one document “To Nestorius, the new Judas.”
Cyril’s prickly nature was demonstrated when a council denounced his handling of the Nestorian question and deposed him as bishop, placing him under guard for three months. The pope intervened, declaring his support for Cyril, who emerged as a local hero in Alexandria. Nestor, his rival and powerful patriarch of Constantinople, retired to a monastery, and Cyril, fueled by his earlier experiences, went on to write extensively about the nature of Christ. He was a prolific writer, and from his pen poured forth a stream of biblical commentaries, letters, sermons, and theological discourses, for which he was eventually named a doctor of the church, meaning an important contributor to its body of doctrine.
Lord of all life and power, who through the mighty resurrection of your son overcame the old order of sin and death to make all things new, grant that we, being dead to sin and alive to you in Jesus Christ, may reign with him in glory. Amen.
–Celebrating Common Prayer, 18
1.”St. Cyril of Alexandria,” Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 4, 1908, online edition 1999 by Kevin Knight, www.newadvent, org/cathen/O4592b.htm.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from African Saints: Saints, Martyrs, and Holy People from the Continent of Africa, copyright © 2002 by Frederick Quinn, Crossroads Publishing Company, New York, New York. All rights reserved.