Church History

Saint Cyril of Alexandria – Defender of the Incarnation and the Theotokos

In 431, the Council of Ephesus was called just 50 years after the Council of Constantinople. The great Church Fathers who were alive and explaining truth to the Church had passed on to the heavenly kingdom. By this time, St. Jerome had completed his translation of the Sacred Scriptures from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. St. Augustine was invited, but word had not reached the east that he had died the previous August. The Cappodocian Gregory’s were both deceased and St. John Chrysostom died a saint in exile.

St. Cyril of Alexandria was the ‘man of the hour’ at Ephesus. Little is known about St. Cyril’s early life before the council. He was educated in Alexandria (modern day Egypt) and lived as a monk for some time in the desert. St. Cyril was a Bishop for 32 years in Alexandria and was considered a holy terror while his holiness remained hidden. He was very forceful, dominating, and impatient. He had some enemies because of his personality, mostly among the Novatians and the Jews, whom he drove out of Alexandria. As he gained in age, St. Cyril became less violent and could control his temper. He also showed that he could make concessions for the good of the Church when required. He became a saint by exercising strong virtues. He had a great intellect and strong ability for academic work. He is the great defender of the Incarnation and the Mary as Theotokos – Mother of God.

Nestorius, the reason behind the calling of the council did not choose to attend the council. By 431, he was 50 years old. He was educated in Antioch and was a monk well known for his great preaching ability. Because of his great skills as an orator, he was chosen to be bishop of Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius II in 428.

The Nestorian heresy essentially claimed that Jesus Christ is two-separate-persons and therefore, we can’t call Mary the Theotokos (God-Bearer), but calls her Christotokos (Christ Bearer – bearer of the human person). There are two points we need to point out here. First, when you say something wrong about Mary, you usually say something wrong about Christ. Second, Nestorius denies the Incarnation and claims that Christ’s human flesh was an indwelling. He denied the true humanity of Jesus Christ.

As the news of Nestorius’ teachings began to travel throughout the Christian world, St. Cyril of Alexandria began to hear about them and chose to engage Nestorius by suggesting that they begin corresponding by letters. Nestorius chose to do so, but for his own case should have refused. Luigi Gambero in Mary and the Fathers of the Church states clearly how nasty this doctrinal debate was when he says, “the patriarch of Constantinople gave no sign of retreat, and the patriarch of Alexandria did not intend to mitigate his accusations. Indeed, Cyril’s attacks grew more and more violent, fueled not only by his desire to safeguard right doctrine but also by motives of rivalry between the two authoritative patriarchal sees.”

In his letter to Nestorius he spoke how shocking his thoughts were going to be on the faithful and why bring up such controversial issues. St. Cyril “began with a contemptuous reference to three of the malcontents (fraudster, matricide, thief – the fourth he was turning to favour him) but devoted the rest to a long dogmatic statement and a demand for assent.” St. Cyril of Alexandria, and several others at the Council, take on Nestorius and he gives us a syllogism –

  1. Jesus Christ is God
  2. Mary is the Mother of Jesus Christ
  3. Mary is the Mother of God

At the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D., the Council Fathers declared that Mary is Theotokos – God Bearer. Mary bore in her immaculate womb the Son of God making her the Mother of God. Nestorius was excommunicated and he was unseated from his position as Patriarch of Constantinople. Nestorius was branded as “the new Judas.” As the bishops returned to their lodging after the formal declaration, the lay faithful of Ephesus gathered and passionately supported the bishop’s decision to excommunicate Nestorius and to show their love for the Blessed Mother by shouting, “Hagia Maria Theotokos” and “Praised be the Theotokos.”

As we look back at the outcomes of the council, some might think that it failed, however, the council succeeded to define the Dogma of the Theotokos. The two natures of Christ cannot be separated but united in one Divine Person. The council not only clearly defined Christology, but also defined an important step in Mariology.

Note: This post is a collection of excerpts from a paper I wrote on the Council of Ephesus in the Historical Foundations Course and notes from the Mariology Course I took in graduate school at Franciscan University of Steubenville. I have a talk prepared on the Five Marian Doctrines if you are interested in having me come talk to your parish or organization. 

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