1902 Encyclopedia > Cyril of Alexandria

Cyril of Alexandria
One of the fathers of the Christian church

CYRlL, of Alexandria (376-444), is a more distinguished father of the church than his namesake of Jerusalem. He was born in 376, and died in 444. Becoming patriarch of Alexandria about 412, he soon made himself known by the violence of his zeal against Jews, pagans, and heretics or supposed heretics alike. He had hardly entered upon his office when he closed all the churches of the Novatians and seized their ecclesiastical effects. He assailed the Jewish synagogues with an armed force, drove the. Jews in thousands from the city, and exposed their houses and property to pillage. The prefect of Egypt, Orestes, who endeavoured to withstand his furious zeal, was in turn denounced himself, and had difficulty in maintaining his ground against the fury of the Christian multitude. It was during one of the violent commotions kindled by the strifes of these parties in Alexandria that the illustrious Hypatia, famed for her beauty and her eloquent advocacy of the Neo-Platonic philosophy in opposition to Christianity, was murdered. Her murder has been attributed to the direct instigation of the patriarch himself; but this charge is held unsupported by others, although there can be no doubt that " the perpetrators were officers of his church," and undoubtedly drew encouragement from his own violent proceedings. Hypatia was a friend of Orestes, and the hostility betwixt the prefect and the patriarch overflowed towards her, and undoubtedly led to her destruction.

But Cyril's violence was not merely confined to those who might be considered enemies of the church. He inherited from Theophilus, his uncle and predecessor in the see of Alexandria, a strong aversion to John Chrysostom, the noble bishop of Constantinople, and even after his death opposed for a time all attempts to remove the unjust sentence of condemnation which had been passed upon him. Afterwards he so far yielded to remonstrances, and allowed the name of Chrysostom to appear in the list of distinguished martyrs and bishops mentioned in the prayers of his church. These names were inserted in what were called " diptychs " (_______), or two-leaved tablets preserved in the churches—a usage which the Greek Church has preserved to this day. Nestorius, a succesor of Chrysostom in the see of Constantinople, received a still larger share of Cyril's intemperate opposition. Nestorius had refused to apply the title "Mother of God " to the Blessed Virgin. The patriarch of Alexandria denounced this heresy to Nestorius himself, to the emperor (the feeble Theodosius II.), and to the empresses, the mother and sister of Theodosius. The altercation grew in bitterness as it advanced, until at length Nestorius was excommunicated and driven from his see in 430. The two opponents met at the oecumenical council summoned at Ephesus in the following year to dispose of the intricate question raised by the use of the terminology in dispute. Each came "accompanied by a rabble of followers — Cyril by the bath men and a multitude of women from Egypt, Nestorius by a horde of peasants and some of the lower populace of Constantinople " (Milman's Latin Christ, i. 160). The result was the condemnation of Nestorius, although Cyril also incurred the charge of heresy from the Oriental bishops. Satisfied, however, with the deprivation and exile of his opponent, he returned to Alexandria in triumph as the great champion of the faith, and thence continued, by the " unscrupulous use of all the means at his command," the theological strife for years.

Altogether Cyril presents a character not only unamiable, but singularly deficient in all the graces of the Christian life. He may, as Milman says (Latin Christ, i. 145), be a hero or even a saint to those "who esteem the stern and uncompromising assertion of certain tenets the one paramount Christian virtue; but, while ambition, intrigue, arrogance, rapacity, and violence are proscribed as unchristian means — barbarity, persecution, bloodshed, as unholy ;and unevangclic wickednesses, posterity will condemn the orthodox Cyril as one of the worst of heretics against the spirit of the Gospel." Baur, however, says that Cyril .must be placed high as a theologian, and that he sought upon the whole to preserve faithfully the spirit of the Alexandrian school. He has left, besides commentaries, and homilies and letters chiefly relating to the Nestorian controversy, a treatise on the Trinity and the Incarnation, and an apologetic work in defence of Christianity against the -attack of the Emperor Julian, also a definite treatise against Nestorius —______________.

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