Monday, February 9, 2009

St Cyril of Alexandria, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

2 Timothy 4:1-8 / Matthew 5:13-19

For there will come a time when they will not endure the sound doctrine ...

Does all that theological precision really matter? After all, we are talking about the mysteries of God, and surely mysteries cannot be so easily exhausted by formulas, especially not by formulas derived not from the inspired Scriptures but from the genius of the human mind. In light of the scandal of division in the body of Christ, ought we not to set aside our worry about the soundness of our doctrine and worry more about the authenticity of our witness? The world is supposed to note how Christians love one another; does this mean they need to agree with one another?

Now, at this point, any right thinking, which is to say orthodox believer will rightly be annoyed. St Paul's words to Timothy could not be clearer. We are to preach the word in season and out of season. We need to show care for those who turn away their hearing from the truth and turn aside rather to fables. Right teaching matters! We cannot direct ourselves to love a God, or anything else, we do not know. Love requires knowledge, a knowledge of the truth. The point is not that agreement is the goal. The goal is a unity in love, but there is no unity in love where there is not the same object of love, loved rightly, loved in accord with the truth.

Even so, rightly minded believers require due caution here, lest for the sake of a seeming adherence to the truth, we divide needlessly and tragically from our brothers in the faith. Consider, for example, the great confession of St Cyril of Alexandria. For him, the truth of coming in flesh of the Son of God is best expressed is the formula mia physis tou theou logou sesarkomene, "the one Incarnate nature of God the Word." Now, as good sons and daughters of the Latin West, something in this expression sounds not quite right. One nature? Do we not confess two natures? Is that not the very teaching of the Gospels, as repeated by Pope St Leo I and held up by the Council of Chalcedon? What is a Doctor of the Church doing espousing one nature in the Incarnate Word?

Of course, to Cyril, and to the Oriental Orthodox, the in duabus naturis ("in two natures") so dear to Latin orthodoxy was and is just as worrisome. This formula, after all, was used by Nestorius and other like-minded teachers to assert that the man Jesus and the Son of God were not the same person. They held that "Christ" was only one in the way two people intimately bound in will and love are one, but that, ultimately, it was the man Jesus who died on the Cross and rose from the dead, not the Son of God.

The fact is that the Church admits, since the Council of Chalcedon, that Cyril and Leo are in agreement, and thus it is, oddly enough, both true to say one nature and to say in two natures, and true to worry about each of these expressions. The sense here is not one of a broad, theological pluralism. The claim is not that each of these Doctors has his "own" Christology, and thus there is a legitimate plurality of incompatible understandings of the apostolic faith. Rather, what the Council Fathers in the fifth century knew, and what has been made explicit to Christians East and West in the twentieth, is that what Cyril taught is the same as that handed on by the apostles, as much as what Leo taught is the handing on of Peter's confession. What this also means, then, is that one can have "rightly worded" expressions of the faith which fail to communicate Catholic truth, even as one can have historically legitimate, but verbally incompatible strategies of expressing that same faith.

What then are we to do? Paul's answer to us is clear, and we knew it all along. On the one hand, we are not to accept any odd-sounding teaching as truth simply because of its credentials and degrees, but we are to be watchful in all things. At the same time, we must be ready to endure a little bit of suffering with our sisters and brothers who at least seem to differ with us, and with kindness and charity bear with tribulation patiently, even if that means working harder at understanding than being understood. In the end, we are to pray, pray that where there is true error it will be taken away, so that all those who love His coming may rejoice even in this life in the same Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead by His coming and by His kingdom.


Mike T said...

"Thus it is ... true to worry about each of these expressions."

Wow, as a compulsive worrier, I can't remember the last time I felt so validated :)

And I am particularly grateful for the respectful treatment of this difficult era in Christian history. Today we regret that we have been divided into Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Egyptian Coptics. (And I guess there are Nestorian roots in Indian and Iraqi Christianity as well.) We look back at the fine distinctions that were drawn by the bishops of the fourth and fifth centuries. Sometimes we may be tempted to imagine that the fine theological distinctions simply served as camouflage for political and cultural animosities. (And perhaps this was true for some church leaders.) And it is therefore good that we are called to honor the memory of holy doctors such as Cyril and Leo, mindful that it was genuine devotion to Our Lord that drove them to invest such care and precision to the study of theology. Let us not cease to thank Almighty God for raising up such saints, particularly in our contemporary laid-back world, in which so-called theologians can casually ask whether there is value in a doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The Gospel is reinforced by the lives of these holy doctors to provide us with some degree of immunity to the treacherous suggestion that togetherness and congeniality can be achieved by watering down the truth.

Fr. Dominic Holtz, O.P. said...

"The Gospel is reinforced by the lives of these holy doctors to provide us with some degree of immunity to the treacherous suggestion that togetherness and congeniality can be achieved by watering down the truth"

Indeed! One of the least helpful ways of understanding the historical divisions of Christendom is to suggest that this is all groping towards a truth we don't really know anyway, and so the words can't possibly matter. It is because we do know the truth handed us by the apostles that we are able to see why both and Cyril and Leo were right. Indeed, that is precisely what the Fathers at Chalcedon did. Likewise, the could see just as clearly the way that the teachings of Nestorius and Theodore (inter alios) were *not* simply another way of saying the same thing, but were indeed inclined to a falsification of the apostolic faith.

Oh, and thanks for stopping by!