Sunday, January 19, 2014

Two of the Most Influential Theologians in Christianity

Saturday January 18th, 30th Sunday After Pentecost - Sts. Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria

Ephesians 5:1-8
Luke 14:1-11
Life of the Saints

Troparion: You shone forth with works of Orthodoxy and quenched all heresy, / and became victorious trophy-bearers, hierarchs Athanasius and Cyril. / You enriched all things with piety and greatly adorned the Church, / and worthily found Christ God, / who grants His great mercy to all.

I know this is posted technically on the 31st Sunday after Pentecost and that the saint today is St. Macarius the Great, but as an academic theologian and an intense studier of the Ecumenical Councils, I just wanted to talk a little about these two theologians and how they have influenced Christianity, and where you might find their writings if you are also interested in learning about them.

St. Athanasius was a Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, one of the traditional 5 patriarchates and (while he was an archdeacon) was a major defender of the full and equal divinity of the Logos/Word to the Father at the first Ecumenical Council in Nicea (325 AD).  His opponent was Arius, a priest in Alexandria who preached a radical unitarian monotheism and interpreted the philosophical theology of St. Justin Martyr in ways that treated the Logos as created because Justin said the Logos was the first thought of God.  For a good discussion of Arius and his views, I would recommend former Archbishop of Canterbury's "Arius: Heresy and Tradition."  As for St. Athanasius, one can find information about him (and all the councils) in Leo Donald Davis SJ's "The First Seven Ecumenical Councils: Their History and Theology," and his writings are available on the Catholic site New Advent.  His chief theological works are three, and comprise a sort of theological trilogy, starting with "Contra Gentes" ("Against the Pagans/Gentiles"), "On the Incarnation," and "The Life of Anthony."  He moves from an apologetic, to a theology and worldview of reality, and finally leading to a biography of his teacher with an emphasis on the lived out theology present in "On the Incarnation."  One of his chief statements (which does not begin with nor end with him) that lies at the heart of the Orthodox understanding of the incarnation of the Logos is "God became man so that man might become god." 

St. Cyril of Alexandria was also a bishop of Alexandria and presided over the Third Ecumenical Council, this time held at Ephesus (431 AD).  He ran up against the bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, who denied the title "Mother of God" or Theotokos to the Virgin Mary.  Alexandrian piety and theology did not allow for the separation of Christ's humanity from His divinity, so that St. Cyril would say that Christ is "one nature of the Word incarnate."  Later after the council, he would make some peaceful headway with the Syrian churches and speak of the human and divine natures as distinct, and one can see in a letter he writes to Nestorius three of the 4 later Chalcedonian phrases that would be chief in the final ordering of Christ as one hypostasis (person) with two natures (physis/ousia).  A good account of his theology (as well as Nestorius' recreated theology) can be found in Father John McGuckin's "St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy."  St. Cyril's later work which followed the Council of Ephesus can be found in St. Vladimir's Seminary Press' Popular Patristics series ("On the Unity of Christ").  Father McGuckin's emphasis on recreating and explaining Nestorius' theology leaves no room for doubt that he uses the same term at all times in two different ways (Prosopon - the outer appearance of an essence) when he says there is "one prosopic union of the two prosopon."  I highly recommend this book.

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