“Saint Thomas Aquinas was a man of the Church. When he searched through the writings of the Church Fathers, it was not to bolster his own theories or to advance his own ideas. He wanted instead to know what the Church believed and to teach it to the next generation. Because of this, he paid special attention to the councils of the Church, where the heart of Christian reflection is brought to fruition. As we begin our examination of the luminaries that guided this man of the Church, then, we turn to these councils and their teaching.
The first seven ecumenical councils were held in the Eastern, Greek-speaking part of the Roman Empire from the fourth to the eighth centuries. These councils—Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon, Constantinople II and III, and Nicaea II—were especially concerned with teaching about Christ: He is one person who is fully God and fully man. His divinity and humanity remain distinct, but his personhood one. Unfortunately, because of a difference in culture and language, these councils were somewhat remote from the goings on in the West. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Latin theologians worked to conserve the teaching elaborated at the councils, but without direct access to the texts of the councils.
By the time St. Thomas came around, confusion had arisen regarding the personhood of Christ. The majority of theologians correctly taught that the Son of God assumed human nature, and was thus one person with two natures. There was never any merely human Jesus who was later assumed by God. Some theologians, however, “conceded the one person of Christ, but posited two hypostases or two supposits, saying that a certain man, composed of body and soul, from the beginning of his conception was assumed by the word of God” (ST III, q. 2, a. 6). This was called the Homo Assumptus theory. Although it was not popular, theologians who did not hold it generally thought it to be an acceptable Catholic position.
But Thomas did his homework. In the 1260s, while teaching at Orvieto near the Papal Court, he had the opportunity to study the texts of the early ecumenical councils. In these texts, he read about the error of Nestorius, who taught that Christ subsisted separately as human and divine. The Council of Ephesus in 431 condemned him, teaching that “If anyone does not confess that by God the Father the Word was united to the flesh according to subsistence, and that Christ is one with his flesh, namely the same God and man, let him be anathema.” The Second Council of Constantinople in 553 clarified that, “If anyone tries to introduce into the mystery of Christ two subsistences or two persons, let such be anathema” (cited in ST III, q. 2, a. 3). Nestorius’s teaching was excluded because it failed to safeguard the unity of Christ’s person.
Several years later, when Thomas took up the Homo Assumptus theory in the Summa Theologiae, he had these texts ready in mind. With the help of Boethius, a sixth-century Western Christian thinker, Thomas clarified that there can be no meaningful difference between the subsistence, hypostasis, supposit, and person. Thus, to say that there are two of any of these in Christ falls into the error of Nestorius condemned at Ephesus. Thomas was then able, unlike his contemporaries, to condemn the Homo Assumptus theory as heretical, because “it is the same to posit two hypostases or two supposits in Christ, as to posit two persons” (ST III, q. 2, a. 6). This theory was not just a bad theory. It was a condemned theory that no Catholic could hold.
Nestorianism has consequences. It would mean that Mary was the mother of Christ’s humanity, but not the Mother of God, and that the person who died on the cross was not the Son of God, but merely a man conjoined to Him. The heresy is dangerous, and that is why the early councils condemned it. The heresy could have seen a resurgence in the West if it were not for Thomas’s careful integration of sources both Eastern and Western. We who inherit Thomas’ teaching do well to attend both to his masterful synthesis and to his attention to the sources at the heart of the Church.”
“Virtually as soon as the revelation brought by Christ was delivered to the Church he had established, some of those within the Church got it very wrong about what it meant and entailed. Even some of the bishops, successors of the apostles, got it wrong. The history of the first four or five centuries of Christianity, especially as reflected in the first four ecumenical councils, is largely a history of how the Church developed, formulated, and explained its Creed—beliefs based on the teachings of Christ.
In the process of developing and formulating that Creed—the same Nicene Creed that we profess today at Mass—the Church was obliged to identify and to eliminate various false and mistaken ideas about Christ’s original revelation. These false and mistaken ideas about the Church and the faith came to be called heresies. The word heresy comes from the Latin haeresis, meaning “act of choosing.” Those adhering to these false and mistaken ideas, i.e., heretics, were understood to have chosen a different interpretation of the faith than the one the Church proclaimed.
Once they were identified as false doctrines, there was no question in the minds of the Fathers of the Church but that these heresies needed to be condemned. Today, of course, the idea of condemning anybody for holding any belief is not very popular. Indeed, the idea that heresy is something necessarily false and harmful is not very popular. In the modern mind heresy is often thought to be something to be proud of; “heretics” are as likely as not to be considered cultural heroes. But if all ideas are accorded equal status regardless of whether or not they are true, then very soon truth itself inevitably goes by the board.
To a great extent, this is what has happened in our world today: Toleration is valued more than truth. Pope Benedict XVI just prior to his election called it a “dictatorship of relativism.” It is a situation that the Fathers of the Church, who believed in the primacy of truth, would not have understood at all.
Today’s failure to identify and affirm truth doesn’t mean that there are no harmful consequences. On the contrary, the harm to souls in need of sanctification and salvation becomes all the greater to the extent that people believe it doesn’t matter whether or not they adhere to true belief and practice. For heresy is necessarily harmful—and even fatal—to souls.
Moreover, heresies abound today every bit as much as they did in the days when the Creed was being hammered out at the first great ecumenical councils. Indeed, some of the heresies that are commonly encountered today are virtually the same as those condemned in ancient times—they just go by different names. Let us look at a few examples.
“A Great Moral Teacher”
Arianism was perhaps the most typical and persistent of the ancient heresies. Basically it involved a denial of the divinity of Jesus Christ. It was first effectively advanced by Arius (256–336), a priest of Alexandria in Egypt, who denied that there were three distinct divine Persons in the Holy Trinity. For Arius, there was only one Person in the Godhead, the Father. According to Arian theory, the Son was a created being. The Arians liked to say that “there was a time when he was not.” For them, Christ was “the Son of God” only in a figurative sense, or by “adoption” (just as we are children of God by adoption), not in his essential being or nature.
Arianism was formally condemned by the First Council of Nicaea in 325. Indeed, it was the spread of Arianism and Arian ideas among the faithful, and the disputes and disorders that resulted, that prompted Emperor Constantine to call the Council of Nicaea in the first place. What the Council decided—against Arius and his adherents—was that the Son was homoousios (“one in being” or “consubstantial”) with the Father. In other words, that the Son of God was himself God, was therefore eternal, and hence that there never was a time when he was not.
The fathers of Nicaea issued their Creed precisely to insist on the three Persons in one substance in the Trinity and on the divinity of Christ. If Christ was not divine, then the world was not redeemed by his sacrifice on the cross. Eventually the faith itself dissolves if Christ is not understood to be divine; after all, he very plainly insisted in the Gospels that he was (cf. John 10:30, 38; 14:10, 11).
Yet today nothing is more common, even among some who consider themselves Christians, than to hold that Christ was not really divine: He was just a good man, a great moral teacher, a model to follow; perhaps he even represented the highest ideal of a man for mankind. But, as an all-too-common human skepticism asserts, he was surely not God for the simple reason that no human being could be God. Common sense revolts against it. Indeed, the Church teaches that it is only by divine grace infused in our souls that we can believe in the divinity of Christ.
Thus, there is a human temptation to believe the doctrine of Arianism. Today’s Arians, though, do not call themselves Arians; for the most part they are not aware that they are Arians. Yet a religion such as Unitarianism is nothing else but Arian in its denial of the divinity of Christ and of the Trinity. Similarly, a modern American religion such as Mormonism is wholly Arian in its account of a divine being, even if it is ignorant of Arianism historically.
Because it is so easy to doubt that any human being could possibly be divine, though, Arianism was not only the most basic and persistent of all the ancient heresies; it also assumed a number of variant forms. Adoptionism is the belief that Jesus was just a man to whom special graces were given when he was “adopted” by God. Modalism held that there is only one Person in God who manifests himself in various ways or modes, including in Jesus. Semi-Arianism held that the Son was of like substance with God (homo-i-ousios), though not of identical in substance with Him. All of these variants of Arianism were sometimes classified under the name Subordinationism (i.e., Christ as “subordinate” to the Father). Even today, poorly instructed Christians can be found espousing one or more of these variants when they are examined closely concerning Who and What they think Jesus Christ was and is.
What Is a Person?
Growing out of the long-running Arian controversies were the two opposed heresies of Nestorianism and Monophysitism. Nestorianism was a heresy promoted by a bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius (d. c. 451), who held that there were two distinct persons in Christ, one human and one divine. Thus, the Nestorians claimed that it could not be said that God was born, was crucified, or died. Mary merely gave birth to a man whose human person was conjoined to that of God. The Nestorians saw Christ’s divinity as superimposed on his humanity.
Nestorianism was condemned by the Council of Ephesus in 431, where the argument raged over the question of whether Mary was Theotokos (“God-bearer” or “Mother of God”) or was merely the “mother of Christ,” a man conjoined to God. From the words of the Hail Mary we can figure out what the Church decided at Ephesus, but even today poorly instructed Christians can be found opining that Christ was a “human person.” (The same characterization is sometimes even to be encountered today in defective catechetical texts.)
But Christ was not a “human person.” He was a divine person who assumed a human nature. The whole question of what a person is was a key question in the Trinitarian and christological definitions formulated by the ancient councils. The ancients were not clear in their minds about what constituted a “person”; it was not apparent to them that there was a “somebody” in each human individual. It was as a direct result of the Church’s definitions concerning the three distinct divine Persons in the Trinity that the very concept of what we understand as personhood today was achieved and that the Roman philosopher Boethius (480–524) was able to formulate his famous definition of a person as “an individual substance of a rational nature.”
Once this concept of personhood became clear, the Church was able to promulgate the truth that remains valid and operative to this day, namely, that Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Second Person of the blessed Trinity, is a divine person but possesses both a divine and a human nature.
Monophysitism, the heresy opposed to Nestorianism, arose as a corrective to the latter, but it went too far in the other direction, holding that in Christ there is only one nature (Greek: mono, “single,” physis, “nature”), a divine nature. This position entailed a denial of Christ’s true human nature. Monophysitism was condemned by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. This great Council taught that Christ was true God and true man, a divine person possessing both a divine and a human nature, thus rounding out the Church’s permanent understanding of Christology.
Yet even today some ill-instructed Christians will tell you that Christ, being the Son of God and hence divine, must also necessarily have a divine nature, without understanding that Christ had a fully human nature as well. Professing some form of Monophysitism is rather common among self-consciously “spiritual” people, as a matter of fact—people who, meanwhile, are not always prepared to affirm and follow Christian moral teaching as the Church defines it.
Entire churches or communities broke away from the Church as a result of the christological definitions of Ephesus and Chalcedon. Some of these breakaway communions still exist today in the ancient churches of the East, such as the Assyrian, Armenian, Coptic, Syrian (Jacobite), etc. Today many of these ancient communions, in ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church, are rethinking their positions and are close to agreement with the Catholic Church on doctrinal essentials, stating that their ancient disagreements stemmed at least in part from misunderstandings of exactly what Ephesus or Chalcedon had taught or affirmed—for these ancient councils also had condemned by name certain individuals (such as Nestorius) who commanded personal followings. In ancient times, some of these communities were unwilling to accept the judgments of the councils regarding their then-leaders.
Holier Than Thou
Donatism was a fourth- and fifth-century African heresy that held that the validity of the sacraments depended upon the moral character of the person administering the sacraments. Donatists also denied that serious sinners could be true members of the Church. Donatism began as a schism when rigorists claimed that a bishop of Carthage, Caecilian (c. 313), could not be a true bishop because he had been ordained by a bishop who had caved in under pressure and apostatized during the Diocletian persecutions around 303.
The Donatists ended up as a widespread sect that ordained its own bishops, one of whom was Donatus, who gave his name to the movement. Vigorously opposed by the great St. Augustine (354–430), the Donatist movement persisted in northern Africa until the Muslim conquest in the seventh century.
Today the continuing temptation to a modern kind of Donatism can be seen in such phenomena as the Lefebrvist schism after Vatican II, when some people who objected to certain teachings and acts of the Council decided to found their own little church, the Society of St. Pius X. The SSPX has its own bishops, validly but illicitly ordained by French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. The group is thus not just a group of disgruntled traditionalists who want to retain the old Latin Mass; rather, the SSPX has serious doctrinal and pastoral disagreements with the Church. They consider the pope and the bishops who have governed the Church since the Council to be unworthy to carry on what they hold to be the true “tradition” of the Church. Basically their reasoning is that the leaders of the Church were wrong at and after Vatican II; hence their acts since then have been invalid. This kind of reasoning is similar to that by which the ancient Donatists decided that the ordination of the bishop of Carthage was invalid because of the unworthiness of his ordaining bishop.
But the truth is, of course, that sacraments correctly administered with the proper intention by a validly ordained minister are valid regardless of the moral character or condition of the minister. Thus, even if mistakes were made in the implementation of the Council, the pope and the bishops nevertheless remain the Church’s legitimate rulers, in accordance with the Church’s constant teaching going back at least to the condemnation of Donatism. The powers and authority conferred by Christ on the apostles and their successors are not dependent upon the worthiness of those on whom they are conferred—think of Peter’s threefold denial of Christ!
We also see a revival of Donatist-type thinking in those who have recently left the Church because of the much-publicized sins of priests guilty of sex abuse and bishops guilty of enabling and covering up for them. The idea that the wrongs or sins of the clergy invalidate their acts or status has frequently recurred in the history of the Church. As early as the second century, for example, a morally rigorous priest named Novatian set himself up as an anti-pope in 251 because the followers of the true pope, St. Cornelius, were allegedly too lenient toward Christians who had lapsed during the Decian persecutions in 249–251. The Novatianists rejected the Church’s authentic belief and practice that the lapsed and other serious sinners could be readmitted to Communion after doing penance.
“If It Feels Good, Do It”
A recurring phenomenon in the history of the Church is that heresies often arose because of either moral rigorism or moral laxity. An example of the latter was the heresy of Pelagianism, championed by a monk from the British Isles named Pelagius (355–425). Pelagius denied that divine grace in the soul is necessary to do good; his doctrine included a number of heretical tenets such as that Adam would have died even if he had not sinned and that Adam’s fall injured only himself. Essentially, Pelagianism amounted to a denial of the doctrine of original sin, and it also entailed a denial of the supernatural order and of the necessity of divine grace for salvation. Augustine, who had discovered from bitter personal experience that he could not be chaste without the help of grace, strongly and persistently contested Pelagius and his teaching.
In modern times, Pelagianism has sometimes been called “the British heresy” because of its resemblance to a certain species of modern British-style liberalism (which, the suggestion is, goes all the way back to Pelagius!). But nothing is more common in modern thinking than the denial of original sin. Outside the Catholic Church, it is nearly universal, and it persists in the face of all the evidence against it.
Probably the whole range of behavior related to the contemporary sexual revolution, for example, as well as to the theological dissent that is still rife in the Church—particularly on matters of sexual morality—can be ascribed to a basic Pelagian impulse. People today, including too many Catholics, simply do not recognize or take seriously that there are or could be any harmful consequences stemming from what is erroneously thought to be sexual liberation, as evidenced, for example, by the widespread rejection by Catholics of Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. The harmful consequences have long since been obvious to anyone who cares to look at today’s multiple plagues of divorce, pre- and extramarital sex, cohabitation, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and abortion, not to speak of the contemporary acceptance of homosexuality as a normal condition.
In an important sense, even the clerical sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church goes back to the explosion of sexual immorality that began in the 1960s and both helped cause and was in part caused by the rejection of Humanae Vitae. Modern opinion nevertheless generally goes on stoutly and obstinately maintaining that the so-called sexual liberation ushered in by the sexual revolution, along with the moral acceptance of contraception, is a good and necessary thing. All this is Pelagianism with a vengeance.
“I’m in with the In Crowd”
Gnosticism is the idea that salvation comes through knowledge—usually some special kind of knowledge claimed by an elite. Think of the New Age, for example. Think of Dan Brown’s runaway bestseller The Da Vinci Code, which, along with other falsehoods, exhibits a good deal of Gnostic-style thinking that the book’s millions of readers seem to have embraced wholly and uncritically. Most varieties of Gnosticism also hold that matter and the body are evil while only “spirit” is good. Some forms of Gnosticism even see human beings as trapped in our bodies. The theory thus denies the truth of the biblical teaching that “God saw that it was good” (Gen. 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25). For the true Gnostic, the Incarnation is a scandal—God would not contaminate his spirit by taking on a body.
Gnosticism existed before Christianity and attached itself to it as a convenient vehicle for its own very unChristian ideas about reality and God’s creation. The surprising thing, perhaps, is that it ever attempted to use Christianity for its purposes. The historical fact of the matter, though, is that Gnosticism has been a persistent element in practically every major Christian heresy. Probably one of the reasons for this is that, in some ways, our bodiliness is a burden to us. As Paul remarked, “the whole creation has been groaning in travail” (Rom. 8:22) until we can realize the fullness of our salvation in Christ—thus the temptation to look for salvation in some kind of escape from our bodiliness and creatureliness as God has created us in this world.
But true salvation lies elsewhere; it comes uniquely from Jesus Christ: “There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). This revelation of salvation in Christ is essentially what Gnosticism denies. Like all heresies to which we might be tempted, any form of Gnostic thinking is therefore to be avoided as we cleave to the truths revealed by and in Jesus Christ and unerringly taught by the magisterium of the Catholic Church.”
-1688 AD, Nestorius as envisioned by the 17th century dutch printmaker Romeyn de Hooghe, in the book “History of the church and heretics”
Nestorius (386-450 AD) rejected the traditional doctrine of the Incarnation by implicitly denying the hypostatic union of human and divine natures in the one divine person of Jesus. This denial was characterized notably by the rejection of the title “Theotokos” (“God bearer” or “Mother of God”) for the mother of Jesus. He claimed that Mary was the mother of Christ’s human nature but not the mother of God and concluded that only Jesus the man suffered and died on the cross.
From the definitions and condemnations of the Arian heresy of the fourth century several things resulted. The divinity of Christ and the reality of his Incarnation were clearly established in the minds of the faithful. Consequently, the exaltation and veneration of Mary by the faithful became more widespread. Since Jesus was truly God and Mary was his mother, she was venerated with the title of Theotokos. This veneration was especially popular in the East.
Controversy erupted in 428 when Nestorius, the newly installed bishop of Constantinople, attacked the title Theotokos from the pulpit in the cathedral on Christmas day, claiming that Mary was the mother of Christ but not the mother of God. He stated that to call Mary the Mother of God implied that the divine nature was born of a woman, thus making her a goddess.
Immediately his teaching was attacked by the laity and the clergy of Constantinople. When word spread of this new doctrine, neighboring bishops condemned him outright. Chief among his critics was bishop Cyril of Alexandria who responded, “I am astonished that the question should ever have been raised as to whether the Holy Virgin should be called Mother of God, for it really amounts to asking, is her Son God or is he not?” He wrote to Nestorius condemning the heretical.aspects of his doctrine and asking him to explain and defend himself. The reply betrayed even further the depth of his heresy.
Cyril sent his personal correspondence with Nestorius as well his own five-book response titled Against Nestorius to Pope Celestine in Rome for the pontiff’s decision. The Holy Father gave a general condemnation of the teaching of Nestorius regarding Mary’s divine maternity and commanded him to recant within ten days. Cyril was to receive the recantation or depose Nestorius. Far from submitting, Nestorius demanded an ecumenical council and proclaimed his beliefs more loudly than ever.
While claiming to believe in one Christ in two natures, his explanation described the union of two distinct persons: “He who was formed in the womb of Mary was not God himself, but God assumed him. Through him that bears I worship him who is born.” A mother cannot bear a son older than herself, he contended. Therefore, Mary did not give birth to the incarnate Word of God, only to Jesus, the temple or vessel of God. Rejecting the orthodox sense of Theotokos, he opted instead for Christokos (“Mother of Christ”), saying that he could never bring himself to call the Christ-child God. Nestorius concluded that it was not God who suffered and died on the cross, but only the man Jesus.
The main problem with Nestorius is that free acts originate from persons and not from natures. What Nestorius called “natures” should have been called “persons.” His error was to divide Christ into two persons – human and divine. Christ is only one Person and Mary is the mother of that Person. Mothers give birth to persons and not natures.
Besides St. Cyril, many other clergy and laymen rose to defend the divine maternity of Mary against the attack of Nestorius. Among these were Philip of Side, Proclus, Leo of Rome, and the layman Eusebius, later to become a bishop. Eusebius, while still a lawyer, is said to have risen from the congregation after Nestorius’ initial Christmas homily and to have indignantly responded, “The eternal Word begotten before the ages had submitted also to be born a second time.”
With Nestorius holding firm to his position, the emperor proposed to have a council meet in Ephesus to decide the matter once and for all. The council opened in the name of Pope Celestine I on June 22, 431.
Nestorius, who refused to attend, had his teachings anathematized, along with all who held communion with him, and he was deposed as bishop of Constantinople. Mary was officially proclaimed Mother of God to the delight of the faithful of Ephesus.
The controversy created by Nestorius made it obvious that a clearer terminology was needed to define the doctrine of the Incarnation which protected the divinity as well as the humanity of Christ. The solution, arrived at by Pope St. Leo the Great, was the use of the word “person,” for which there was no well-defined concept before that time. Leo summed it up in his Tome 20 years after the Council of Ephesus: Each nature performs the actions proper to it, but every action is performed by the one person, Jesus the Word of God.
Today most Protestant denominations display an element of Nestorianism. Protestants typically reject the title “Mother of God” while echoing Nestorius’ contention that a son cannot be older than his mother. They find it difficult to say that God was born in Bethlehem, that God suffered and died on the cross at Calvary. Many Protestant theologians, on the other hand, recognize this element of Nestorianism and assent to the title “Mother of God,” though they use it only infrequently.
After taking a look at the life of St. Cyril, it’s easy to see him as a man who always came into a situation with both barrels blazing. Seriously, Cyril took no prisoners.
Cyril was born at Alexandria, Egypt. He was nephew of the patriarch of that city, Theophilus. Cyril received a classical and theological education at Alexandria and was ordained by his uncle. He succeeded his uncle Theophilus as patriarch of Alexandria on Theophilus’ death in 412. Before Cyril became Patriarch, he had to survive a riot that ensued due to a rivalry for the Patriarchy with his rival, Timotheus. Thus, Cyril followed his uncle in a position that had become powerful and influential, rivaling that of the Roman prefect.
When he became Patriarch of Alexandria in 412, he “assembled a mob” that plundered and closed the churches of the Novations1. Novations had been persecuting Christians in the area. Cyril also drove out of Alexandria the Jews, who had formed a flourishing community there since Alexander the Great. The Jews of Alexandria were also political backers of the Roman Prefect of Alexandria, governor of the Roman Diocese (political, not ecclesiastical) of Egypt. Expulsion from a territory was a secular power that belonged to the pagan Roman Prefect. But the Jews had caused tumults and had massacred the Christians. Expelling their enemies may have been the only possible defense for the Christians. The Roman Prefect of Egypt, Orestes, though was very angry at Cyril for usurping power that was his. Cyril offered Orestes a Bible; a gesture which would mean Orestes’ acquiescence to Cyril’s religious authority and policy, which Orestes rejected.
Yes, you guessed it, a serious brawl ensued as a result of the conflict between Cyril and Orestes. 500 (yes, five hundred) monks came swinging out of the lower deserts of Egypt (Nitria) to defend Cyril. Can you imagine 500 men with big beards and worn-monastic habits storming into a fight against Orestes’ soldiers? One word comes to mind: Fortitude. One of the monks, Ammonius, actually beamed Orestes with a rock during the skirmish. Orestes had Ammonius tortured to death. Cyril actually honored the remains of the rock lobbing monk for a time.
Prefect Orestes enjoyed the political backing of Hypatia, a pagan female astronomer, philosopher and mathematician who had considerable moral authority in the city of Alexandria, and who had extensive influence. Indeed many students from wealthy and influential families came to Alexandria purposely to study privately with Hypatia, and many of these later attained high posts in government and the Church. Several Christians thought that Hypatia’s influence had caused Orestes to reject all reconciliatory offerings by Cyril. Modern historians think that Orestes had cultivated his relationship with Hypatia to strengthen a bond with the pagan community of Alexandria, as he had done with the Jewish one, to handle better the difficult political life of the Egyptian capital. A Christian mob, however, led by a lector named Peter, took her from her chariot, dragged her to a church and tore her flesh with potsherds till she died, finally burning the pieces outside the city walls. Cyril did not support this action and it caused him much embarrassment and political difficulty after the fact, but since this Peter was only a lector, and not a member of the clergy, Cyril could distance himself from this event.
Cyril, in league with Pope Celestine I, is most known for intellectually duking it out with Nestorius, who was the Patriarch of Constantinople (present day Istanbul). At one point, the Emperor (Theodosius II) had both Nestorius and Cyril arrested. The emperor, however, cut Cyril loose after Papal Legates showed up on his doorstep saying that Pope Celestine endorsed Cyril’s condemnation of Nestorius.
So what was the big deal with Nestorius? Well, he promoted the heresy of Nestorianism, which says that “Mary was not the Mother of God, Theotokos(Θεοτόκος), since Christ was Divine and not human, and consequently she should not have the word theotokos (God-bearer) applied to her.” Dyophysitism. (Caution to the reader: there are LOTS of “physitisms”. Don’t ask. It gets very long, shades of grey, & complicated! Don’t say I didn’t warn you. 🙂 And you thought ecumenism was easy?)
Nestorianism goes, well, “out-of-its-way” to overly emphasize the disunion, or, at best, a very loose union between the human and Divine natures of Jesus, preferring the term Christotokos, in terms of whom Mary gave birth to; arguing that it was only the humanity of Christ which was born at the Incarnation, and not the Deity. Conversely, the implication, at least, with Theotokos, possibly, Nestorians would argue, was it suggesting the Divine nature was also somehow created at the Incarnation?, which they could not stand. However, Theotokos, properly understood, contains none of these objected to and objectionable connotations. Nestorianism is a clear heresy from orthodox Christianity, negating the hypostatic, ὑπόστασις, union. (How’s that for ten cent words? Church techno speak! It helps to know a little Greek, Latin, & Hebrew. It does. Nicean orthodox Christianity says “True God & True Man”, in which it means: two unique, full, complete natures, perfectly united in one person. Dear Reverend Fathers on this distribution, how did I do? Whew! Did I pass? These distinctions are NOT trivial, meaningless, nor unimportant. Depending on how the Church defines the nature of Christ, it gives a whole new reading, meaning, & coloring to the interpretation of Scripture, tough enough as it is. Better get it right! Better! 🙂
Cyril was the bedrock for the third general Council of Ephesus in 431, which declared Nestorianism a heresy. Oddly enough, a group of bishops that sided with Nestorius convened their own council after the one at Ephesus and deposed Cyril (this is the point where Cyril and Nestorius got arrested by the Emperor).
The exegetical works of St. Cyril are very numerous. The seventeen books “On Adoration in Spirit and in Truth” are an exposition of the typical and spiritual nature of the Old Law. The Glaphyra or “brilliant”, Commentaries on Pentateuch are of the same nature. Long explanations of Isaiah and of the minor Prophets give a mystical interpretation, after the Alexandrian manner. Only fragments are extant of other works on the Old Testament, as well as of expositions of Matthew, Luke, and some of the Epistles, but of that of St. Luke much is preserved in a Syriac version. Of St. Cyril’s sermons and letters the most interesting are those which concern the Nestorian controversy. Of a great apologetic work in the twenty books against Julian the Apostate ten books remain. Among his theological treatises we have two large works and one small one on the Holy Trinity, and a number of treatises and tracts belonging to the Nestorian controversy.
-Cyril, from the 2009 film “Agora”
“By nature, each one of us is enclosed in his own personality, but supernaturally, we are all one. We are made one body in Christ, because we are nourished by One Flesh. As Christ is indivisible, we are all one in Him. Therefore, He asked His Father “that they may all be One as We also are one.” – Saint Cyril of Alexandria
“If you wish to explore the Holy Scripture, and you overcome your laziness and apply yourself, thirsting for the knowledge, then every good thing will be yours. You will fill your mind with the divine light. Then, when you apply that light to the doctrines of the Church, you will very easily recognize everything that is true and unadulterated, and lay it up in the hidden treasures of your soul.” —St. Cyril of Alexandria
“That anyone could doubt the right of the holy Virgin to be called the Mother of God fills with astonishment. Surely she must be the Mother of God if our Lord Jesus Christ is God, and she gave birth to him! Our Lord’s disciples may not have used those exact words, but they delivered to us the belief those words enshrine, and this has also been taught us by the holy fathers. The divinely inspired Scriptures affirm that the Word of God was made flesh, that is to say, he was united to a human body endowed with a rational soul. He undertook to help the descendants of Abraham, fashioning a body for himself from a woman and sharing our flesh and blood, to enable us to see in him not only God, but also, by reason of this union, a man like ourselves. It is held, therefore, that there is in Emmanuel two entities, divinity and humanity. Yet our Lord Jesus Christ is nonetheless one, the one true Son, both God and man; not a deified man on the same footing as those who share the divine nature by grace, but true God who for our sake appeared in human form. We are assured of this by Saint Paul’s declaration: “When the fullness of time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law and to enable us to be adopted as sons.” – from a letter by Saint Cyril of Alexandria
But the biggest reason why St. Cyril of Alexandria is a ‘Trooper’ is his doctrine, which has been quoted by multiple Church councils—Cyril has the title Doctor of the Church. Here is an excerpt from his book on the Divine Motherhood of Mary:
“In the third book of his work on the holy and consubstantial Trinity, our father Athanasius, of glorious memory, several times refers to the holy Virgin as “Mother of God.” I cannot resist quoting his own words: “As I have often told you, the distinctive mark of holy Scripture is that it was written to make a twofold declaration concerning our Savior; namely, that He is and has always been God, and that for our sake in these latter days He took flesh from the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and became man.”
Prayer in Honor of Mary, Mother of God
“Hail, Mary, Mother of God, venerable treasure of the whole universe, lamp that is never extinguished, crown of virginity, support of the true faith, indestructible temple, dwelling of Him whom no place can contain, O Mother and Virgin! Through you all the holy Gospels call blessed the One whom comes in the name of the Lord.
Hail, Mother of God. You enclosed under your heart the infinite God whom no space can contain. Through you the Most Holy Trinity is adored and glorified, the priceless cross is venerated throughout the universe. Through you the heavens rejoice, and the angels and archangels are filled with gladness. Through you the demons are banished, and the tempter fell from heaven. Through you the fallen human race is admitted to heaven.
Hail, Mother of God. Through you kings rule, and the only-begotten Son of God has become a star of light to those who were sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death.” -Saint Cyril of Alexandria, Bishop and Doctor
1Novation was born about the year 200. He was a man of considerable learning, apparently educated in literary composition; the first writer to use Latin in the Church. His immediate rival in Rome, Bishop Cornelius, spoke of him sarcastically as ” that maker of dogmas, that champion of ecclesiastical learning”. During the persecutions of emperor Decius in mid third century, Novatian took the position that those who had stopped practicing Christianity, the “Lapsi”, during the persecutions, to save themselves, could not be accepted back into the Church even if they repented and that the only way to reenter the church would be by re-baptism. Cornelius and Cyprian of Carthage did not believe in the need for re-baptism. Instead they thought that the sinners should only need to show contrition and true repentance to be welcomed back into the church.
During the election of the bishop of Rome in 251, Novatian opposed Cornelius because he was too lax in accepting the return of Christians who had lapsed during the persecutions. His party then consecrated him as a rival bishop (antipope) to Cornelius. He announced throughout the empire his election, as had Cornelius, as both parties appointed bishops and priests in cities where the incumbent favored his rival, thus creating a widespread schism in the Church.
By the end of 251, Bishop Cornelius assembled a council of sixty bishops that condemned and excommunicated Novation apparently over the legitimacy of his claim to the ecclesiastical throne of Rome. It was only later that Novation began to be called a heretic and this appeared to be over the question of the Church having the power to grant absolution in certain cases. Novatian is known for his writing of which only two have survived, the De Cibis Judaicus and De Trintate (On the Trinity), an interpretation of the early church doctrine on the Trinity which is his most important work. Novationists called themselves καθαροι (“katharoi”/Cathari) or “Puritans” reflecting their desire not to be identified with what they considered the lax practices of a corrupted Catholic Church. They went so far as to re-baptize their own converts. Because Novatianists (including Novatian) did not submit to the bishop of Rome, they were labeled by Rome as schismatics.
Novations were Montanists, another name for a heretical group, who took their name from a priest and Anti-pope, Montanus. Montanus preached that those who fell from grace were out of the church forever, as opposed to the orthodox position that by sincere contrition and repentance the fallen might be readmitted. In addition they believed that the value of the sacraments depended on the purity and worthiness of the priest administering the rites. In time they merged with the Donatists who sprang up in Carthage, 4th century in a split with Rome over the failure of a their man to win the bishop’s seat. The Novations also held second marriages were not valid.
Summa Catechetica, "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam." – St Anselm, "Let your religion be less of a theory, and more of a love affair." -G.K. Chesterton, "I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men and women who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, and who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it."- Bl John Henry Newman, Cong. Orat., "The harm that comes to souls from the lack of reading holy books makes me shudder . . . What power spiritual reading has to lead to a change of course, and to make even worldly people enter into the way of perfection." –St. Padre Pio, "Screens may grab our attention, but books change our lives!" – Word on Fire, "Reading has made many saints!" -St Josemaría Escrivá, "Do you pray? You speak to the Bridegroom. Do you read? He speaks to you." —St. Jerome, from his Letter 22 to Eustochium, "Encounter, not confrontation; attraction, not promotion; dialogue, not debate." -cf Pope Francis, "Without good books and spiritual reading, it will be morally impossible to save our souls." —St. Alphonsus Liguori, "God here speaks to souls through…good books“ – St Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, "You will not see anyone who is really striving after his advancement who is not given to spiritual reading. And as to him who neglects it, the fact will soon be observed by his progress.” -St Athanasius, "To convert someone, go and take them by the hand and guide them." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP. 1 saint ruins ALL the cynicism in Hell & on Earth. “When we pray we talk to God; when we read God talks to us…All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.” -St Isidore of Seville, “Also in some meditations today I earnestly asked our Lord to watch over my compositions that they might do me no harm through the enmity or imprudence of any man or my own; that He would have them as His own and employ or not employ them as He should see fit. And this I believe is heard.” -GM Hopkins, SJ, "Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book." — St. John Bosco, "Why don't you try explaining it to them?" – cf St Peter Canisius, SJ, Doctor of the Church, Doctor of the Catechism, "Already I was coming to appreciate that often apologetics consists of offering theological eye glasses of varying prescriptions to an inquirer. Only one prescription will give him clear sight; all the others will give him at best indistinct sight. What you want him to see—some particular truth of the Faith—will remain fuzzy to him until you come across theological eye glasses that precisely compensate for his particular defect of vision." -Karl Keating, "The more perfectly we know God, the more perfectly we love Him." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP, ST, I-II,67,6 ad 3, “But always when I was without a book, my soul would at once become disturbed, and my thoughts wandered." —St. Teresa of Avila, "Let those who think I have said too little and those who think I have said too much, forgive me; and let those who think I have said just enough thank God with me." –St. Augustine, "Without good books and spiritual reading, it will be morally impossible to save our souls." —St. Alphonsus Liguori "Never read books you aren't sure about. . . even supposing that these bad books are very well written from a literary point of view. Let me ask you this: Would you drink something you knew was poisoned just because it was offered to you in a golden cup?" -St. John Bosco " To teach in order to lead others to faith is the task of every preacher and of each believer." —St. Thomas Aquinas, OP. "Prayer purifies us, reading instructs us. Both are good when both are possible. Otherwise, prayer is better than reading." –St. Isidore of Seville “The aid of spiritual books is for you a necessity.… You, who are in the midst of battle, must protect yourself with the buckler of holy thoughts drawn from good books.” -St. John Chrysostom