When Cyril (c. 376-80 – 444) died, one of his theological opponents, Theodoret of Cyrus, remarked that he pitied the demons in hell as they would henceforth have to live with Cyril of Alexandria, and suggested that an enormous stone should be placed over his tomb in case (having made hell too hot to hold him) he returned from the dead.
Looking at Cyril’s career as Bishop of Alexandria, one can see where Theodoret was coming from. Whether he was ruling the see of Alexandria or directing operation at the Council of Ephesus in 431 (the third ecumenical council), Cyril was a man who believed that lavish bribery and hired goons with the fifth century equivalent of baseball bats were legitimate episcopal tactics.
The biggest controversy surrounding Cyril involved the murder of the pagan philosopher Hypatia by a mob of Cyril-supporters. Novelists and movie-makers with a secularist axe to grind have presented this as a case of irrational bigoted Christianity (represented by Cyril) resorting to murder in order to eliminate decent rational secularism (represented by Hypatia). Of course, it was a lot more complicated than that, and most serious historians exonerate Cyril from direct responsibility; even so, while he may not have been a villain in this particular regard, his conduct of Alexandrian politics certainly doesn’t mark him out him as a hero.
So why is a bribing, bullying bishop venerated today (June 27th) as a saint? The issue at stake at the Council of Ephesus was the teaching of Nestorius, who contended that (in effect) Christ was a human person who enjoyed a unique and intimate moral union with the person of the Word (i.e. the Son). Nestorius also insisted that Mary was christotokos (Christ-bearer; mother of Christ), rather than theotokos (God-bearer; Mother of God), thus further emphasizing that Christ was Son of God by adoption rather than by person and nature.
Cyril was adamant that the divine and human in Christ couldn’t be divided or compartmentalized, and that Christ was none other than the Word of God enfleshed; that he was not a divine person united with a human person, but a divine person (the Word, the Son) who had fully assumed the totality of human fleshliness so as to be able to communicate divine life and grace to human beings – most especially in the Eucharist, where the divine power of the enfleshed Word flows into us in an electric outpouring of awesome grace and energy.
To this end, Cyril fought successfully for the victory of the Marian title theotokos over the Nestorian christotokos – the point being that referring to Mary as theotokos automatically guarantees an orthodox understanding of the fundamental truth that Christ is the enfleshed Son/Word of God, and not just the foremost of the adopted sons of God.
Cyril’s teaching on christology (i.e. on the relation of the divine and human in Christ) is so fundamental to orthodox Catholic theology that the Church has always been prepared to overlook the bribery and the baseball bats (so to speak), so great is our debt of gratitude to one of the pre-eminent architects of the Catholic faith, whose profound reflection on Scripture (about which he wrote voluminously) led him to penetrate the depths of the mystery of the incarnation in a way which has shaped all subsequent orthodox Catholic theology.
He is also an important reminder that God chooses for his servants and instruments some remarkably flawed human beings.