Cyril of Alexandria’s Battle for the Gospel

by William Witt   (A summary of a larger work, see bottom for source)

StCyrilpic02A Jesus who is not truly God become fully human cannot save because he at most can provide an example or illustration to encourage us in our own feeble attempts to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. A Jesus who is merely a God-filled man cannot pronounce a divine Word of forgiveness because he is not God. He cannot recreate our sinful humanity, but rather leaves us to save ourselves. The Jesus who is truly the divine Word became flesh pronounces the divine Word of forgiveness. He alone provides hope of changing human nature from within to enable us to do what we cannot do ourselves.

In Cyril’s own day, the horns of the Christological dilemma were represented by Eutyches and Nestorius. Both realized correctly that the problem of Christology is a unique version of the general problem of the relation between God and creation, and more specifically of the coming together of God and humanity in Jesus Christ. If the Church affirmed over against the Arian heretics that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human, then the ontological problem becomes one of explaining the relationship between the two natures in the man Jesus Christ, one divine and one human, one infinite and one finite.

As long as the problem remains at the level of a union of natures, its solution is irresolvable. If one truly wishes to maintain that Jesus’ identity is that of God, and that Jesus is one, then incarnation must truly be a case of a becoming, of a divine nature somehow transforming itself into a human one, so that in itself the human identity becomes lost in the divine. This was the solution of Eutyches to the Christological problem, the solution of monophysitism. Or, as Apollinaris expressed it, in the incarnate Christ, the mind of the Logos takes the place of the human soul.

Conversely, Nestorius intended to preserve the deity of the incarnate Son in such a manner as not to exclude the humanity. The “become” of the incarnation could not be understood in turns of transformation, for that would imply either that deity had ceased to be deity and had become a created reality, which is impossible, or that the human nature would be suppressed by the divine reality, or that a tertium quid that was neither truly human nor truly divine would be formed by the intermingling of the two. Accordingly, the incarnation had to be understood not as a transformation, nor as a mixture, but in terms of the conjunction of the two natures, divine and human [hence his solution of dyophysitism – RAS]. The incarnation takes place through the interpenetration of the prosopa of the divine and human natures.

It was Cyril’s realization that neither one of these solutions provided for a true incarnation. For Eutyches and Apollinaris, there was no true incarnation because there was no longer any true humanity. For Nestorius, there was no incarnation because there was no real union of deity and humanity, but rather a juxtaposition of two persons, one divine, one human. As had been the case earlier with the doctrine of the Trinity, Cyril realized that it was necessary to posit the union of incarnation at the level of person, not that of nature. As in the Trinity there were not three natures and three persons (which would be tritheism) or one nature and one person in three appearances (which would be modalism), so in the incarnation there was one person, but two natures. Only so could one avoid the mutually exclusive dilemma of the divine nature overwhelming the human, or of human and divine natures juxtaposed without an intelligible way to explain how Jesus Christ is truly one.

The Mediator

In all of his thinking about Christology, Cyril of Alexandria was concerned to safeguard the truth that Jesus Christ is the One mediator between God and humanity. For Jesus to mediate between the divine and the human, it was necessary that he be fully God and fully human, not an intermediary being, nor a hybrid, nor a God-filled man, but the very Word of God made flesh.

As Cyril said:

The Word has been both sent and has been made consubstantial with us, i.e., man, yet abiding consubstantial with God the Father himself . . . As Mediator, too, has he been set forth, combining through himself into a union of relation things completely dissevered one from another as to the plan of their nature.

Cyril returned again and again to John 1:14—“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . .” — a central biblical text in his Christology. Against his Nestorian opponents, Cyril insisted that the text did not mean merely that the Word had taken a human body, nor that he had indwelt a man, but that he truly had become human. As Cyril paraphrased the passage:

“It is as though [John] said more nakedly the Word was made Man . . .”

Cyril’s interpretation of the text is helpful as a guideline in considering three aspects of his Christology: his doctrine of the hypostatic union; his treatment of the rational mind and soul of Christ; his understanding of the relationship between Christology and soteriology.

The Hypostatic Union

Against Nestorius, Cyril insisted that the Word became flesh—that the Word himself actually became human, this against the Nestorian view that led, at least as Cyril was convinced, to the conclusion that Jesus Christ was not God become human, but merely a God-filled or inspired human being.

The cornerstone of Cyril’s polemic against Nestorius was the doctrine of the hypostatic union—the notion that the two natures of the incarnate Son of God, divine and human, found their unity in the single person (hypostasis) of the divine Logos. Cyril said:

The Word out of God the Father was made flesh, i.e., was without confusion and personally (kath hypostasin) united to flesh, for not alien to him is the body that was united to him and born of a woman.

The two natures find their union in the one divine hypostasis and yet maintain their distinction. In the words of Cyril:

The natures, however, which combined into this real union were different, but from the two together is one God the Son, without the diversity of the natures being destroyed by the union. For a union of two natures was made, and therefore we confess One Christ, One Son, One Lord . . . two natures, by an inseparable union, met together in him without confusion, and indivisibly.

The flesh is flesh and not Deity. The Word is God and not flesh, although for the sake of the economy, the Word assumed the human nature and made it his own.

Because of the unity of the two natures in one person, it is possible to predicate two sets of names to Jesus Christ. Before the incarnation he is called God, Only-begotten, Word, Image, Brightness, and Life. After the incarnation he is called man, Jesus Christ, propitiation, mediator. The unity of person makes it possible to attribute properties that belong properly to either of the natures to the single person of the Son. Mary could therefore be called theotokos—God-bearer or Mother of God—not because she is mother of the bare Godhead that sustains the entire creation (an insane idea!), but because the only-begotten Son was truly made human, and was born of her in a truly human manner. There were therefore two births, but one Son: the eternal generation of the Son of God from his Father before all creation, and the incarnation of the same Son when he assumed a human nature and was born of a woman.

Because of his concern to account for the unity of the Son of God in the incarnation, Cyril reacted strongly against the Nestorian attempt to account for the incarnation in terms of the juxtaposition of two prosopa (one human and one divine) in the incarnate Jesus. Cyril rejected this notion on the grounds that it demanded and yet could not account for some sort of external connection between the two prosopa, and was accordingly really the belief in two sons. Cyril said that Nestorius, by “parting him (Christ) into two persons, wholly severed one from the other.” . . . .  .  . .

Cyril attacked the Nestorian position with several weapons.

First, he insisted on retaining the title given to the virgin Mary in the worship of the church—theotokos.

Second, he argued that the Nestorian Christology of two persons was not a doctrine of incarnation at all, but merely the adoption by God of a God-filled or inspired human being. According to Cyril, the Word of God, in becoming human, neither came down into the flesh of any man, nor did he descend upon someone as he did upon the prophets, but he actually made his own the body that was borne by a woman. It is true that the man Jesus was glorified and the Spirit worked divine signs through him. This was necessary so that he could fully be identified with our humanity. But Jesus was not glorified as a God-clad man, receiving a Spirit that was alien to him, but rather received his own Spirit, since he was God by nature. And because the Spirit is both within him and from him, he is able to give it to others without measure.

Cyril pointed out that if Nestorius’ views were correct, there would be only a quantitative difference between Jesus Christ and the rest of humanity. It might well be said that God had been made incarnate in anyone who had been made a partaker of the divine nature. Conceivably, we might well argue, the Word has been made flesh many times, since there have been (and are now) many in whom God has dwelt, and is dwelling, for example, prophets and saints.

Third, Cyril argued that, on the basis of Nestorius’ Christology, salvation would be impossible. As a result of the sin of Adam, human nature has been brought down to darkness, death, and corruption. Only the incorruptible can restore it to incorruption, and how could a man, who did not know the divine nature (and was himself defiled by sin like all human beings as a result of Adam’s sin) hope to accomplish such a thing? It is only fitting “that the incorruptible should lay hold on the nature subject to corruption, that he might free it from corruption . . .” Only God himself, by taking the initiative, and becoming human, could do this. In other words, Cyril implied that the Nestorian doctrine of God leads to a sort of Pelagian doctrine of grace, that the human being could somehow impinge on God’s freedom. On Nestorian views, salvation becomes an act performed by a human being in order to influence God, not an act performed by God incarnate to redeem human beings who can do nothing for themselves.

In his final critique of the Nestorian position, Cyril pointed to the worship of the Church. Just as the incarnate Son of God worships through the Spirit, so is he also worshiped in the Church. If Jesus Christ is one and God by nature, it is well to worship him. If, however, the unity is severed, then Jesus is merely a human being honored by God with grace, and to worship him is to be guilty of idolatry. The Christian worships Jesus Christ not as a God-filled man, but as God incarnate, who not only worships with the Church in his human nature, but is worshiped by the Church.

The Human Mind of Christ

That the incarnate Son of God worships with the Church in his human nature leads to the second dimension of Cyril’s Christology. The Word became flesh—that is, God truly became a human being.

Against Arian attempts to make the incarnate Jesus Christ an intermediary being and Apollinarian attempts to portray Jesus Christ as the Logos using a human body, Cyril affirmed repeatedly that Jesus Christ was fully human. Only so could he redeem humanity. Cyril embraced the patristic notion that what is not assumed is not redeemed. According to Cyril:

“If [Jesus Christ] had not been born as we according to the flesh, if he had not taken part like us of the same, he would not have freed the nature of man from the blame (contracted) in Adam.”

Human beings are rational creatures, composed of souls and bodies, and if the Word became human, it was necessary that he have a human soul and rational mind. Apollinarian theology is inadequate because it provides no ground for the salvation of the entire human creature, both body and soul. Cyril said:

“The Word being God was made perfect man taking a body endowed with soul and mind . . . The human mind defines that the Word was united to the Body having a rational soul . . .”

Cyril repeatedly appealed to Phillipians 2:5 ff. in developing his theme of the divine kenosis, the self-emptying of God the Word in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Cyril was faithful to the patristic tradition in maintaining that the nature of God is immutable, that is, unchangeable. God the Word is fully actualized by nature, and his being can neither be enhanced nor debased. The divine nature is thus immune from the limitations of passion or ontological change. In becoming flesh, the Word did not violate his proper nature; nor was he in any way made inferior. The incarnation did not alter the divine nature in any way, nor was it transformed into or mingled with the human nature. Rather, the divine Word was emptied by taking the human nature into himself. The Son of God assumed the poverty of human nature and made it his own, taking upon himself the form of a slave, and yet remained what he was, equal with the Father, and his likeness and visible expression.

The assumption of human nature by the Word was no illusion. The Word truly became flesh and made himself subject to all the limitations of human nature. While the changes and passions of his humanity belong not to the divine, but to the human nature of Jesus, and are to be understood in light or the economy of salvation, the incarnate Word truly experienced them and took them as his own. In becoming human, God fully identified himself with our lot. Cyril said:

It was necessary that he who refused not our poverty should withdraw from nothing whatsoever that belongs to man’s condition . . . Most suitably therefore to the economy of grace does he endure with us the things of man’s estate; for where otherwise shall we see him emptied, whose in his divine nature is the fullness? How became he poor as we are if he were not conformed to our poverty? How did he empty himself if he refused to endure the measure of human littleness?

We thus see Jesus, as represented in the gospels, eating, drinking, becoming weary, sleeping. As a human being, he truly endured for us the things that belong to the human condition.

The kenosis of the divine Word is displayed in various events and activities in the life of Jesus. The boy Jesus advanced in knowledge and wisdom according to the habits and laws characteristic of human nature. Cyril emphasized that, just as Jesus’ physical body grew in stature, so his human soul grew in wisdom. It would have been possible for the Word of God (being Deity) to have sprang forth from his mother’s womb possessing the knowledge of a perfect man, but this would have been contrary to the laws and habits of human nature. It would have been strange and irregular (to say the least) if Jesus had made a demonstration of God-like knowledge and wisdom as a babe in his mother’s arms.

Jesus also demonstrated the kenosis in his baptism and anointing with the Holy Spirit. Although sinless and without need of baptism, Jesus humbled himself to be baptized because, as our example, it was necessary that he set a pattern for every good work. The Son of God divinely anoints those who believe in him with the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, as human, he himself was anointed with the same Spirit. For Cyril, the title “Christ” refers to this human anointing of Jesus with the Spirit.

Worship plays a central role in the agenda of Cyril’s Christology. The Son is worshiped as God, but he also worships as man, and the church worships in the power of the Holy Spirit given by the risen Christ.

“For he worships as having assumed the nature that pays worship, he again the same is worshiped as surpassing the nature that worships in that he is conceived of as God.”

Cyril developed this notion most fully in his commentary on John 4:22 ff. Cyril appealed in this passage to Paul’s request to the Phillipians that they “Let this mind be in each of you, which was also in Christ Jesus . . .” The incarnate Word has been emptied to the level of human beings, and it is a most fitting thing for human beings to pay worship to God. By worshiping the Father, Jesus has numbered himself with those who also worship.(19) The incarnate Son of God prays and worships but also exercises his mediatorship before God the Father as high priest in his human nature and with his human mind. In his discussion of Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17, Cyril said:

But Christ who manifested himself in the last times above the types and figures of the Law, at once our high priest and Mediator, prays for us as man, and at the same time is ever ready to cooperate with God the Father, who distributes good gifts to those who are worthy.

If Jesus had not had a human mind he could not have offered prayer for us. He could not have been our mediator and we could not offer prayer through him. As it is, he is priest and sacrifice, mediator and victim, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Finally, Jesus’ humanity was demonstrated most completely in his suffering and death. It was only by dying that the Word, who is Life and life-giving, could “transelement” into incorruption the body that had become tyrannized by death. Although his divine nature is impassible and cannot suffer, the Word has truly assumed human nature, and he can truly suffer and die—in his human, not his divine, nature. Because he genuinely became human, the incarnate Word experienced all of the pains and frustrations of human existence, including experiences that were contrary to his will. Because he was human, Jesus truly dreaded the death on the cross:

“To die in the flesh was ignoble, and unwonted . . . and repugnant to him, yet has he endured this too for our sakes.” Thus, he “suffered without suffering,” not in the sense that his sufferings were unreal, but that they belonged to the economy of the human, not the divine, nature. Cyril said, “He suffers when the body suffers, in that it is said to be his own body. He remains impassible in that it is truly his property to be unable to suffer.”

“The Word became flesh”— a human being of rational soul and mind. On this Cyril insisted against Apollinarian views that seemed to deny that the incarnate Word was a true man. God the Word was subject to the limitations of human nature. He hungered, prayed, suffered, and died.  . .  . .


“The Word became flesh.” God truly became a man. He did not merely come upon or inspire a man. “The Word became flesh.” He became truly human with a rational soul and body. But the Word became flesh for a reason. The Word became human that he might redeem humankind. Like Athanasius his predecessor, Cyril’s interest in Christology was finally soteriological. Despite his heated polemics, Cyril’s concern for orthodoxy was undergirded by a deep understanding of the need for human redemption. Only a true mediator between God and humanity—one who was himself truly God and truly man—could redeem fallen humanity. Cyril agreed with the Athanasian dictum, “God was made man that man might be made God.”(30) Cyril put the same thought in his own words:

“He that is God by nature became, and is in truth, a man from heaven . . in order that . . . he might enable man to share and partake of the nature of God.”

In line with Athanasius, Cyril saw the effects of sin as being primarily corruption and death. Because of Adam’s sin, human nature has become subject to evil and death; sin reigns in fallen human nature and the Holy Spirit has fled from humanity. Since only the incorruptible can restore the corrupted to incorruption, the only-begotten Word of God became human to raise humanity to life. In him alone was human nature free from sin and filled with the Holy Spirit, and reformed by God, in order that grace might pass from him to us, as he, the Son, sent by the Father, gives the Spirit to the saints.

The relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit is further developed in Cyril’s doctrine of the coinherence of the Trinity. The Son has an independent existence but still inheres in the Father who begets him. The Spirit of the Father is also the Spirit of the Son, and the Spirit is sent by both the Father and the Son who share an identity of substance with each other. Although there are three distinct persons (hypostases) in the Trinity, there is one nature (ousia) and one operation. Whatever things the Father does and wills, the Son and Spirit do in an equal manner.

Grace comes to the saints, from the Son, through the Spirit. Just as the Word became truly human, with a rational soul and body, so we are made partakers of his grace, “both intellectually, and by our senses,” or physically. The risen Christ dwells in us first by the Holy Spirit (given in baptism). Even as Jesus Christ was anointed and sanctified with the Spirit as man, although he is by nature God, so now, Christ is formed in us, through the Holy Spirit, making us partakers of his divine nature. By becoming as we are, the incarnate Word has made us brothers to himself, enriched “with the birth of God through the Spirit.” Cyril uses the word “transelementing” (metastoicheisis) to describe the transformation of human nature through the Spirit, as we participate in the sanctified human nature of Christ.

For the Word out of God the Father has been with us born after the flesh that we too might be enriched with the birth out of God through the Spirit, no longer termed children of the flesh but transelemented rather into what was above nature and termed sons of God by grace.

The understanding is that grace does not override our humanity, but just as the incarnate Word preserved the integrity and freedom of his own human nature, although fully divine, so grace perfects our humanity, making us truly free and human, elevating us to a new relationship with the divine.

It is not only fitting that the Word be in us intellectually through the Holy Spirit. Our bodies have also become subject to corruption and death and the Son of God “was made in our likeness and clothed himself in our flesh that by raising it from the dead he might prepare a way henceforth by which the flesh which had been humbled unto death might return anew unto incorruption.”

The very body of Christ was sanctified by the power of the incarnate Word who was made one with it. Cyril uses the imagery of bread dipped into wine or oil, or iron brought into contact with fire to illustrate the transformation brought by the incarnate Word to his body. As iron when heated becomes filled with the energy of fire, so the life-giving Word by uniting himself to his flesh, endowed it with life-giving power. Since the body of the Word is life-giving, having been united hypostatically to his divine nature, those who “partake of his holy flesh and blood are quickened in all respects, and wholly, the Word dwelling in us divinely through the Holy Spirit, humanly again through his holy flesh and precious blood.” Through partaking of the one body of Christ in the eucharist, those who believe in Christ are united with his risen body and with each other. The Church is, therefore, Christ’s body, and believers are individually his members. Jesus Christ is the one bond of union, at once both God and man. Through him we all receive the same Spirit who binds our individuality to each other and to God, and through the power of his flesh in the eucharist, he makes us one body.

The primary concern behind Cyril’s Christology, is therefore, the union of God with humanity, reconciliation between estranged and sinful human beings, who by themselves are incapable of rising from death and corruption, and the living God, who can alone restore us to life, and has done so by becoming human himself in Jesus Christ. It is because such a salvation can come only from God, who is incorruptible life, and who always seeks out sinful human beings, that only God can save. On the other hand, it is humanity that needs salvation, and yet cannot save itself. Cyril’s concern to safeguard these two truths, and their coming together in the God-man Jesus Christ led him to reiterate the faith of the orthodox, catholic, and evangelical Church, that Jesus Christ is the mediator between God and humanity. Against Christologies that seemed to deny that Jesus Christ was truly God, but perhaps a man in whom God had been pleased to dwell, Cyril had affirmed that the Word truly became human (for humanity cannot save itself) and thus, there is only one Jesus Christ, God and man. Against all attempts to deny that Jesus Christ was not fully human (and therefore could not truly redeem human beings), Cyril affirmed that the Word had truly emptied himself, that he had assumed a human nature with rational soul and mind. This same Jesus Christ meets us through the Holy Spirit in the worship of the church and the sacraments and “transelements” our human natures to share in his divine nature. This is the doctrine of salvation that Cyril was concerned to uphold.

. . . . . . Cyril of Alexandria understood correctly what is at stake in the assertion that “Jesus saves.” Jesus saves because he is truly God become human. He saves because his personal identity is that of God the Second person of the Triiune God become a human being. Only God can save.

Jesus saves because in assuming human nature, the Word truly became a human being. Only because he is one of us, truly taking on himself humanity with all its weaknesses and limitations, can he truly recreate and transform sinful humanity.


Taken from the larger article “The Christology of Cyril of Alexandria and Its Contemporary Implications” Click link for full article including all sources and citations.

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  1. I’d never heard of Cyril of Alexandria, but his view of Christ is what I’ve always held since the day I returned to the Christian faith 28 years ago.

  2. Dr. Witt was one of my Systematics teachers at Trinity School for Ministry. He’s an excellent scholar. Glad to see this reposted here!

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