Recently I commented briefly on the new edition of Fr. John McGuckin’s study, Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy, on the occasion of its being reviewed by First Things. My remarks on the book itself were preliminary, and I could not really take issue with any of the claims of the reviewer, Edward Oakes, S.J., as I had not read the relevant sections he was criticising. Now that I have finished McGuckin’s text (the second half of the volume being the translated texts of St. Cyril), I can elaborate on my earlier impressions and answer the criticisms in the review. Aside from its clear and focused narrative of the events surrounding the Council of Ephesos and the negotiations with the Oriental bishops, resulting in the so-called Formula of Union of 433, an excellent explanation of the respective Christologies of Nestorios and Cyril and a thoughtful consideration of the role of Cyril’s theology at Chalcedon, the book is to be heartily commended on three points.
First, it introduces in readily accessible, clear prose one of the great minds in all of Christian civilisation and strives mightily to vindicate St. Cyril from the various attacks and unfair criticisms that have been made against him and his theology. Second, it pulls no punches in its critique of Nestorios’ intellectual weaknesses and theological mistakes, and does not engage in the rather pitiful (and irrelevant) game of vainly trying to perceive orthodoxy in an erroneous doctrine, but nonetheless fairly engages with Nestorios as much as is possible on his own terms and still finds him (quite rightly) lacking in clarity, consistency and truth. Third, and perhaps most exciting of all for specialists working on this period, Fr. McGuckin has joined with one of the leading authorities on Chalcedon and its aftermath, Patrick Gray, in challenging a pervasive ‘orthodoxy’, if you will, in the scholarship on Cyril and Chalcedon, arguing not only that Chalcedon is compatible with Cyril but that in its language and conceptions its doctrine is fundamentally Cyrilline to its core and that Cyril was the standard of orthodoxy against which the Fathers of Chalcedon measured all other doctrinal claims.
An important consequence of Fr. McGuckin’s understanding of the fundamentally Cyrlline nature of Chalcedon is that neo-Chalcedonianism (a term applied to certain developments in sixth century Byzantine Chalcedonian theology) cannot be a compromise with the monophysite heresies. Chalcedon was already profoundly Cyrilline and its adherents would not have imagined that they needed to ‘appropriate’ him to win back dissidents, as the conventional story would have it.
For those not familiar with these issues, it may not be immediately apparent how significant this interpretive shift is for the study of this period, but you may be sure that this close connection between Cyril and Chalcedon has tremendous importance for the study of both Christology and Byzantine history. This shift will require Byzantine historians, at the very least, to rethink completely their conception of the theological developments of the fifth through seventh centuries and consequently it will force a revision of standing interpretations of Byzantine religious policy. This is because any conception of post-Chalcedonian Byzantine theology as trending in a monophysite, that is post-451 extreme Cyrilline, direction works from fundamentally incorrect assumptions about what the doctrine of Chalcedon was.
If Chalcedon was already Cyrilline to the core, any later Cyrilline expressions are not concessions but simply elaborations on a Cyrilline doctrine. That assumption has fueled an incorrect theory of Byzantine religious policy, namely what I like to call the ‘compromise’ doctrine theory or the idea that the Byzantine state proposed what is called in some of the literature a “mediating” theology (Vermittlungstheologie) to appease dissident monophysites (based on still further erroneous, anachronistic, post-Reformation assumptions, which are increasingly discounted by Byzantine historians, about religious dissidence causing political dissidence and thus posing a threat to the eastern frontier).
McGuckin makes an extremely powerful, somewhat technical argument that the language of the Chalcedonian definition itself, particularly two of the all-important, famous adverbial qualifiers of the union of the natures in Christ (i.e., asynchytos, atreptos, etc.), derive directly from Cyril’s texts. In one of the ironies of the story, and one of Fr. McGuckin’s most important contributions, the book stresses that everything in the Chalcedonian definition was an expression, not primarily of the Tome of Leo, as the conventional reading has it, but of Cyril, and that if anything Chalcedon was correcting the potentially divisive language of the Tome.
The ‘concession’ to Roman and Syrian Christological conceptions, the use of the phrase “in two natures,” is qualified in an extremely important way by the verb gnorizomenon (i.e., is made known). As the definition reads in this part: “Christ the Only-Begotten Son and Lord is made known in two natures, unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly and inseparably; the difference of the natures being by no means removed because of the union, but the property of each nature being preserved and concurring in one prosopon and one hypostasis…”
Oakes takes issue with McGuckin’s conclusion that Chalcedon corrected the Tome by turning back to Cyril. But McGuckin has already substantially answered his critic ahead of time with his discussion of the crucial term gnorizomenon (agnoscendum in Latin), “is made known” or “is recognised” with these words: “But this, nothing else, is what the Chalcedonian text teaches, at least when it is read apart from the Leonine Tome, which has too often been taken as its exegetical commentary, but rather should be taken out of the interpretative picture since the Chalcedonian symbol was more in the manner of a corrective of Leo than a substantiation of him. This can be seen nowhere more clearly than in the verbal form which drives that whole central clause containing the four adverbs qualifying ‘in two natures’. It is none other than ‘Gnorizomenon’: ‘made known to the intellect.’ Chalcedon, therefore, teaches that Christ is ‘made known (to the intellect) in two natures’. It does not simply teach that ‘Christ is in two natures’ as the Antiochene system had suggested.”
This is a hugely important observation, and it is so devastating to the old, pro-Tome interpretation that we can see that the reviewer did not attempt to answer it, either because he could not refute it or because he was nowhere near as conversant with the sources as Fr. McGuckin clearly is. But surely Fr. Oakes knows the Chalcedonian definition–how, if at all, does this specific phrasing vindicate the Tome? He does not say, but simply airily dismisses Fr. McGuckin’s claim. Does it matter that the reviewer is a Jesuit, and Fr. McGuckin is an Orthodox priest? I should think the overwhelming weight of the evidence in faour of Fr. McGuckin’s reading should outweigh any considerations of the reputation of respective Fathers and their sees, with Fr. Oakes taking up for Rome. For all of what Fr. McGuckin has argued for the revision of Chalcedon, he in no way implies that St. Leo is anything other than Orthodox. He cannot help but conclude, however, that St. Cyril is the far more subtle, profound and important theologian.
I have only two quibbles with this otherwise masterful and really quite brilliant book. One is that Fr. McGuckin has the odd style of not capitalising the words Christianity, Christian and Christology. The reason for this eludes me, but even if it is a harmless quirk it is ungrammatical and distracting from what is otherwise an engaging and fascinating text. The other is very much a specialist’s disagreement on a point of interpretation. Near the very end of his text, Fr. McGuckin writes, “It will suffice to single out the real ‘settlement’ of the [sic] ‘christological settlement of Chalcedon’, which was the Fifth Oecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553, under the Emperor Justinian.” This is a reasonable claim, but it does not do proper justice to the conclusion of basic arguments among Chalcedonians that took place at the Sixth Ecumenical Council. It may seem to be nit-picking or a futile disagreement over which Council is more important (they are both equally important for different reasons), but I believe it is more accurate to see in the conclusion of the monothelete controversy a conclusion to the Christological debate itself before that essentially finished Christological system is applied to the matter of icons.
That monotheletism could prosper as a doctrine at all indicates a basic ambiguity or need for greater clarity remained among Chalcedonians about how to understand the relationship of Christ’s action and volition to the “single subjectivity” of Christ, to use McGuckin’s phrase, that Chalcedon had affirmed from the beginning. With the triumph of the theology best defended by Sts. Maximos and Anastasios of Sinai in 681, we may truly say that there was a ‘settlement’ to the Christological debates. My objection to locating this settlement earlier is based in no small part on my concern to stress the significance of the seventh century debate and the contributions of Sts. Maximos and Anastasios to the greater elaboration of the Faith. In fairness, my main interest lies in the seventh century and the problems of the monothelete controversy, so my insistence on its importance stems from my own project. But to mark this so-called settlement at 553 is to accept, however unconsciously or unintentionally, the judgement that the seventh century controversy is only an echo of previous debates rather than the logical next step in resolving potential ambiguities about the unity of Christ. Though I do understand McGuckin’s reasons for choosing this date–it marks the triumph, first in the Byzantine world and then throughout Christendom, of Cyril’s theology–the next century after 553 is no less important for working out the implications of Cyril’s doctrine in the context of two rival camps of Cyrilline Chalcedonians.
The most significant consequence of Fr. McGuckin’s book, from the perspective of the Orthodox Church and all Chalcedonian Christians, is that it should demonstrate once and for all in a convincing and largely non-polemical way that the post-451 extreme Cyrilline (i.e., monophysite) reading of Cyril and reaction against Chalcedon were theologically misguided and wrong on their own Cyrilline terms. As much as some modern Orthodox and other scholars attempt to sidestep or massage this truth, either with recourse to excusing error on the grounds of confused terminology or by catering to anti-Chalcedonian sentiments with the use of euphemistic names such as Oriental Orthodox or ‘miaphysite’ rather than monophysite, it seems inescapable that to reject Chalcedon is to turn against the true meaning of Cyril’s Christology and no amount of monophysites’ invoking Cyril or repeating his sayings formulaically is going to change that.
This need not be taken principally as ridicule or as an attack, but as a call to all those who honour the memory and theology of St. Cyril to recognise his true meaning and grant that Chalcedon is not only compatible with Cyrilline confession but, in a sense, necessary for the defense of St. Cyril’s doctrine. Accepting Chalcedon and the Councils that affirm its decrees does honour to St. Cyril, and persisting in schism out of a misunderstanding of his teachings is senseless. Perhaps by elucidating the matter clearly and plainly, Fr. McGuckin’s study will help facilitate an understanding of the imperative for the non-Chalcedonian churches to return to Orthodoxy, if perhaps for no other reason than their commitment to the tradition of St. Cyril.
This book lays the foundation for a refreshing departure, following the lead of the late Fr. Meyendorff, from the tiresome narrative of the perpetual Byzantine compromising of Chalcedon and Rome coming to its rescue. If the Tome were the statement by which Chalcedon was primarily to be understood, this reading might make some sense; if Chalcedon is based firmly on Cyril’s theology and Cyril is the standard, it will be increasingly difficult to sustain that Rome was always consistently more faithful to the legacy of Chalcedon, especially insofar as the Fifth Council, spurned in the west for decades, is a faithful affirmation of Chalcedon. The narrative of the fifth through seventh centuries will need some significant revising on this score. The entire model of Byzantine compromise with heresy and Roman doctrinal integrity is to some extent a product of the imagination of Catholic historiography and an obliging anti-Byzantine European secular historical tradition. It might be noted that Rome could preserve its doctrines intact often enough because it was not involved deeply in the debates. As soon as it did get deeply involved, Rome sometimes stumbled as badly as any other see.
What Fr. McGuckin’s book does show in part is that, when Rome did get involved at this moment of ostensibly greatest Roman influence in Byzantine doctrinal development, Rome’s theological statement was found awkward and in need of adjustment; Rome’s next notable entry into the fray was in 634 with Pope Honorius’ much-discussed letter in which he authored the heresy of monotheletism. Surely this model for post-Chalcedonian church history, which rests so heavily on the importance of the Tome for shaping Chalcedon, can be scrapped without losing very much at all.
Of course, as it concerns Orthodox Christians, both Sts. Leo and Cyril have made authoritative doctrinal statements, and at no point should this historical and intellectual inquiry ever devolve into a contest over which Father is ‘better’ or ‘more Orthodox’ or anything of the sort. I should add that there is certainly no trace in McGuckin’s text that even hints at this, nor would I have expected anything like that, but it is conceivable that the critique of the Tome’s significance in influencing the Chalcedonian definition could be misconstrued or misunderstood as a criticism of the Tome’s authority, which is certainly not being questioned here or in McGuckin. The Council affirms the Tome’s Orthodoxy and authority, and that is more than enough for the Orthodox. Both saints adhered to the mind of the Church, both confessed the same doctrine, as the Council proclaimed, and both are glorified for their defense of the Faith. May the memory of both be eternal.