February 10, 2009

The Christology of Cyril of Alexandria and Its Contemporary Implications

Filed under: — William Witt @ 12:57 am

William G. Witt

Introduction: The Contemporary Divide


I f one were to express the heart of the Christian faith as concisely and precisely as possible, one could hardly find a better summary than the two-word aphorism “Jesus saves.” Arguably, the purpose of theology is nothing more than to reflect critically on the meaning of those two words. At the same time, fundamental disagreements about how one understands what it means to say that “Jesus saves” have accounted for countless theological controversies in the history of Christianity, and certainly will contiue to do so. In the contemporary Church, fundamental disagreements about such issues as sexuality and the Church’s role in contemporary culture are often expressed in the political categories of conservative and liberal, “left wing” and “right wing.” But such characterization proves inadequate because it reduces fundamental disagreement to matter of degrees on a continuum (with an ever shifting middle) rather than addressing what is really a fundamental disagreement about what it means to affirm this two-word summary “Jesus saves.”

In the contemporary divide, the fundamental question about the content of Christian faith and its corresponding practices divides contemporary theologians on the question: Are the person and work of Jesus Christ constitutive of a salvation we can find nowhere else, or, are they rather illustrative of a salvation we can find elsewhere or even perhaps everywhere as well? How we answer this question will work itself out consistently to form our understanding of Christian faith and identity.

Specifically, at the level of symbol and narrative, if we take the person and work of Jesus Christ as constitutive of our salvation, we will understand the stories and symbols of the gospels to form our own understandings and to challenge our preconceptions of God, Christ, and the world. So, for example, not only will we find the “Father” language that Jesus used to describe God to be informative, challenging, and even subversive of our own understanding of what it means to be a “father,” but we will find that it illuminates and challenges our preconceptions of what it means to be God, and to point in the direction of an ontological relationship between Jesus and his Father grounded in the eternally constitutive trinitarian relations between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Conversely, if we understand the person and work of Jesus to be primarily illustrative of other generally known truths, we will tend to view the symbols and narratives of the gospel as projections of a prior universally available religious experience, and thus correctable in ways that speak more adequately to contemporary religious expression.

In terms of history, if we endorse a constitutive understanding of who Jesus was and what he did, we will tend to perceive the high Christologies of the New Testament writings to be a consistent development of who Jesus understood himself to be all along. We will tend to identify the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, not in the sense that we presume that the historian can necessarily confirm for us every detail of the gospel records, but in the sense that a constitutive understanding of Jesus’ mission is consistent with the plain reading of the texts themselves.

Conversely, if we regard the function of the New Testament documents to be that of authenticating an otherwise available experience, or of producing new and keen insights into contemporary experience, but not necessarily as pointing to a Savior who delivers us from our inherent moral incapacity and its consequences, that is, not a Jesus who “saves” us from our sins, we will likely find a great deal of discontinuity between the Jesus who lived in Palestine in the first century and the developed Christology of the early Church—simply because notions such as atonement, forgiveness, and redemption are so central to New Testament Christology.

Finally, in the area of ontology, the constitutive position comfortably acknowledges Jesus of Nazareth as the incarnate Son of God, who, for us and for our salvation, came down from heaven, who died for our sins, and was raised for our justification. If our primary existential question is “What must I do to be saved?,” then our primary ontological concern will be who must this Jesus be in himself if he is to be capable of delivering us from our sins. On the other hand, if we believe that Jesus provides a handy illustration of a generally available moral illumination or political reformation or social renewal, we will look to Jesus as a moral example, and our Christologies will be adoptionist, our doctrine of creation monist or deist, and our understanding of God unitarian.

Cyril, Eutyches and Nestorius

While the dichotomy of choices is stark in the contemporary Church, the decision demanded is not without its historical parallels. An earlier conflict anticipated our current situation in the choice demanded in the patristic church between the theologies of the patriarchs Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius of Constantinople. In what follows, I intend to examine the question of how who Jesus is played itself out in this earlier controversy in the area of ontology, and will set aside for now the problems of narrative and history. I will examine Cyril’s Christology as the definitive example of the ontological implications of a constitutive understanding of the person and work of Christ.

In Cyril’s own day, the horns of the dilemma were represented by Eutyches and Nestorius. Both realized correctly that the problem of Christology is a unique version of the general problem of the relation between God and creation, and more specifically of the coming together of God and humanity in Jesus Christ. If the Church affirmed over against the Arian heretics that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human, then the ontological problem becomes one of explaining the relationship between the two natures in the man Jesus Christ, one divine and one human, one infinite and one finite.

As long as the problem remains at the level of a union of natures, its solution is irresolvable. If one truly wishes to maintain that Jesus’ identity is that of God, and that Jesus is one, then incarnation must truly be a case of a becoming, of a divine nature somehow transforming itself into a human one, so that in itself the human identity becomes lost in the divine. This was the solution of Eutyches to the Christological problem, the solution of monophysitism. Or, as Apollinaris expressed it, in the incarnate Christ, the mind of the Logos takes the place of the human soul.

Conversely, Nestorius intended to preserve the deity of the incarnate Son in such a manner as not to exclude the humanity. The “become” of the incarnation could not be understood in turns of transformation, for that would imply either that deity had ceased to be deity and had become a created reality, which is impossible, or that the human nature would be suppressed by the divine reality, or that a tertium quid that was neither truly human nor truly divine would be formed by the intermingling of the two. Accordingly, the incarnation had to be understood not as a transformation, nor as a mixture, but in terms of the conjunction of the two natures, divine and human. The incarnation takes place through the interpenetration of the prosopa of the divine and human natures.

It was Cyril’s realization that neither one of these solutions provided for a true incarnation. For Eutyches and Apollinaris, there was no true incarnation because there was no longer any true humanity. For Nestorius, there was no incarnation because there was no real union of deity and humanity, but rather a juxtaposition of two persons, one divine, one human. As had been the case earlier with the doctrine of the Trinity, Cyril realized that it was necessary to posit the union of incarnation at the level of person, not that of nature. As in the Trinity there were not three natures and three persons (which would be tritheism) or one nature and one person in three appearances (which would be modalism), so in the incarnation there was one person, but two natures. Only so could one avoid the mutually exclusive dilemma of the divine nature overwhelming the human, or of human and divine natures juxtaposed without an intelligible way to explain how Jesus Christ is truly one.

The Mediator

In all of his thinking about Christology, Cyril of Alexandria was concerned to safeguard the truth that Jesus Christ is the One mediator between God and humanity. For Jesus to mediate between the divine and the human, it was necessary that he be fully God and fully human, not an intermediary being, nor a hybrid, nor a God-filled man, but the very Word of God made flesh. As Cyril said:

[The Word] has been both sent and has been made consubstantial with us, i.e., man, yet abiding consubstantial with God the Father himself . . . [A]s Mediator, too, has he been set forth, combining through himself into a union of relation things completely dissevered one from another as to the plan of their nature.(1)

Cyril returned again and again to John 1:14—“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . .” — a central biblical text in his Christology. Against his Nestorian opponents, Cyril insisted that the text did not mean merely that the Word had taken a human body, nor that he had indwelt a man, but that he truly had become human. As Cyril paraphrased the passage: “[I]t is as though [John] said more nakedly the Word was made Man . . .”(2) Cyril’s interpretation of the text is helpful as a guideline in considering three aspects of his Christology: his doctrine of the hypostatic union; his treatment of the rational mind and soul of Christ; his understanding of the relationship between Christology and soteriology.

The Hypostatic Union

Against Nestorius, Cyril insisted that the Word became flesh—that the Word himself actually became human, this against the Nestorian view that led, at least as Cyril was convinced, to the conclusion that Jesus Christ was not God become human, but merely a God-filled or inspired human being.

The cornerstone of Cyril’s polemic against Nestorius was the doctrine of the hypostatic union—the notion that the two natures of the incarnate Son of God, divine and human, found their unity in the single person (hypostasis) of the divine Logos. Cyril said:

The Word out of God the Father was made flesh, i.e., was without confusion and personally (kath hypostasin) united to flesh, for not alien to him is the body that was united to him and born of a woman.(3)

The two natures find their union in the one divine hypostasis and yet maintain their distinction. In the words of Cyril:

The natures, however, which combined into this real union were different, but from the two together is one God the Son, without the diversity of the natures being destroyed by the union. For a union of two natures was made, and therefore we confess One Christ, One Son, One Lord . . . two natures, by an inseparable union, met together in him without confusion, and indivisibly.(4)

The flesh is flesh and not Deity. The Word is God and not flesh, although for the sake of the economy, the Word assumed the human nature and made it his own.

Because of the unity of the two natures in one person, it is possible to predicate two sets of names to Jesus Christ. Before the incarnation he is called God, Only-begotten, Word, Image, Brightness, and Life. After the incarnation he is called man, Jesus Christ, propitiation, mediator. The unity of person makes it possible to attribute properties that belong properly to either of the natures to the single person of the Son. Mary could therefore be called theotokos—God-bearer or Mother of God—not because she is mother of the bare Godhead that sustains the entire creation (an insane idea!), but because the only-begotten Son was truly made human, and was born of her in a truly human manner. There were therefore two births, but one Son: the eternal generation of the Son of God from his Father before all creation, and the incarnation of the same Son when he assumed a human nature and was born of a woman.(5)

Because of his concern to account for the unity of the Son of God in the incarnation, Cyril reacted strongly against the Nestorian attempt to account for the incarnation in terms of the juxtaposition of two prosopa (one human and one divine) in the incarnate Jesus. Cyril rejected this notion on the grounds that it demanded and yet could not account for some sort of external connection between the two prosopa, and was accordingly really the belief in two sons. Cyril said that Nestorius, by “parting him (Christ) into two persons, wholly severed one from the other.”(6)

Cyril attacked the Nestorian position with several weapons. First, he insisted on retaining the title given to the virgin Mary in the worship of the church—theotokos. Second, he argued that the Nestorian Christology of two persons was not a doctrine of incarnation at all, but merely the adoption by God of a God-filled or inspired human being. According to Cyril, the Word of God, in becoming human, neither came down into the flesh of any man, nor did he descend upon someone as he did upon the prophets, but he actually made his own the body that was borne by a woman.(7) It is true that the man Jesus was glorified and the Spirit worked divine signs through him. This was necessary so that he could fully be identified with our humanity. But Jesus was not glorified as a God-clad man, receiving a Spirit that was alien to him, but rather received his own Spirit, since he was God by nature. And because the Spirit is both within him and from him, he is able to give it to others without measure.(8)

Cyril pointed out that if Nestorius’ views were correct, there would be only a quantitative difference between Jesus Christ and the rest of humanity. It might well be said that God had been made incarnate in anyone who had been made a partaker of the divine nature. Conceivably, we might well argue, the Word has been made flesh many times, since there have been (and are now) many in whom God has dwelt, and is dwelling, for example, prophets and saints.(9)

Third, Cyril argued that, on the basis of Nestorius’ Christology, salvation would be impossible. As a result of the sin of Adam, human nature has been brought down to darkness, death, and corruption. Only the incorruptible can restore it to incorruption, and how could a man, who did not know the divine nature (and was himself defiled by sin like all human beings as a result of Adam’s sin) hope to accomplish such a thing? It is only fitting “that the incorruptible should lay hold on the nature subject to corruption, that he might free it from corruption . . .”(10) Only God himself, by taking the initiative, and becoming human, could do this. In other words, Cyril implied that the Nestorian doctrine of God leads to a sort of Pelagian doctrine of grace, that the human being could somehow impinge on God’s freedom. On Nestorian views, salvation becomes an act performed by a human being in order to influence God, not an act performed by God incarnate to redeem human beings who can do nothing for themselves.

In his final critique of the Nestorian position, Cyril pointed to the worship of the Church. Just as the incarnate Son of God worships through the Spirit, so is he also worshiped in the Church. If Jesus Christ is one and God by nature, it is well to worship him. If, however, the unity is severed, then Jesus is merely a human being honored by God with grace, and to worship him is to be guilty of idolatry. The Christian worships Jesus Christ not as a God-filled man, but as God incarnate, who not only worships with the Church in his human nature, but is worshiped by the Church.(11)

The Human Mind of Christ

That the incarnate Son of God worships with the Church in his human nature leads to the second dimension of Cyril’s Christology. The Word became flesh—that is, God truly became a human being.

Against Arian attempts to make the incarnate Jesus Christ an intermediary being and Apollinarian attempts to portray Jesus Christ as the Logos using a human body, Cyril affirmed repeatedly that Jesus Christ was fully human. Only so could he redeem humanity. Cyril embraced the patristic notion that what is not assumed is not redeemed. According to Cyril: “[I]f [Jesus Christ] had not been born as we according to the flesh, if he had not taken part like us of the same, he would not have freed the nature of man from the blame (contracted) in Adam.”(12) Human beings are rational creatures, composed of souls and bodies, and if the Word became human, it was necessary that he have a human soul and rational mind. Apollinarian theology is inadequate because it provides no ground for the salvation of the entire human creature, both body and soul. Cyril said: “The Word being God was made perfect man taking a body endowed with soul and mind . . . [T]he human mind defines that the Word was united to the Body having a rational soul . . .”(13)

Cyril repeatedly appealed to Phillipians 2:5 ff. in developing his theme of the divine kenosis, the self-emptying of God the Word in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Cyril was faithful to the patristic tradition in maintaining that the nature of God is immutable, that is, unchangeable. God the Word is fully actualized by nature, and his being can neither be enhanced nor debased. The divine nature is thus immune from the limitations of passion or ontological change. In becoming flesh, the Word did not violate his proper nature; nor was he in any way made inferior. The incarnation did not alter the divine nature in any way, nor was it transformed into or mingled with the human nature. Rather, the divine Word was emptied by taking the human nature into himself. The Son of God assumed the poverty of human nature and made it his own, taking upon himself the form of a slave, and yet remained what he was, equal with the Father, and his likeness and visible expression.(14)

The assumption of human nature by the Word was no illusion. The Word truly became flesh and made himself subject to all the limitations of human nature. While the changes and passions of his humanity belong not to the divine, but to the human nature of Jesus, and are to be understood in light or the economy of salvation, the incarnate Word truly experienced them and took them as his own. In becoming human, God fully identified himself with our lot. Cyril said:

[I]t was necessary that he who refused not our poverty should withdraw from nothing whatsoever that belongs to man’s condition . . . Most suitably therefore to the economy of grace does he endure with us the things of man’s estate; for where otherwise shall we see him emptied, whose in his divine nature is the fulness? How became he poor as we are if he were not conformed to our poverty? How did he empty himself if he refused to endure the measure of human littleness?(15)

We thus see Jesus, as represented in the gospels, eating, drinking, becoming weary, sleeping. As a human being, he truly endured for us the things that belong to the human condition.

The kenosis of the divine Word is displayed in various events and activities in the life of Jesus. The boy Jesus advanced in knowledge and wisdom according to the habits and laws characteristic of human nature. Cyril emphasized that, just as Jesus’ physical body grew in stature, so his human soul grew in wisdom. It would have been possible for the Word of God (being Deity) to have sprang forth from his mother’s womb possessing the knowledge of a perfect man, but this would have been contrary to the laws and habits of human nature. It would have been strange and irregular (to say the least) if Jesus had made a demonstration of God-like knowledge and wisdom as a babe in his mother’s arms.(16)

Jesus also demonstrated the kenosis in his baptism and anointing with the Holy Spirit. Although sinless and without need of baptism, Jesus humbled himself to be baptized because, as our example, it was necessary that he set a pattern for every good work. The Son of God divinely anoints those who believe in him with the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, as human, he himself was anointed with the same Spirit. For Cyril, the title “Christ” refers to this human anointing of Jesus with the Spirit.(17)

Worship plays a central role in the agenda of Cyril’s Christology. The Son is worshiped as God, but he also worships as man, and the church worships in the power of the Holy Spirit given by the risen Christ. “For he worships as having assumed the nature that pays worship, he again the same is worshiped as surpassing the nature that worships in that he is conceived of as God.”(18) Cyril developed this notion most fully in his commentary on John 4:22 ff. Cyril appealed in this passage to Paul’s request to the Phillipians that they “Let this mind be in each of you, which was also in Christ Jesus . . .” The incarnate Word has been emptied to the level of human beings, and it is a most fitting thing for human beings to pay worship to God. By worshiping the Father, Jesus has numbered himself with those who also worship.(19) The incarnate Son of God prays and worships but also exercises his mediatorship before God the Father as high priest in his human nature and with his human mind. In his discussion of Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17, Cyril said:

But Christ who manifested himself in the last times above the types and figures of the Law, at once our high priest and Mediator, prays for us as man, and at the same time is ever ready to cooperate with God the Father, who distributes good gifts to those who are worthy.(20)

If Jesus had not had a human mind he could not have offered prayer for us. He could not have been our mediator and we could not offer prayer through him. As it is, he is priest and sacrifice, mediator and victim, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Finally, Jesus’ humanity was demonstrated most completely in his suffering and death. It was only by dying that the Word, who is Life and life-giving, could “transelement” into incorruption the body that had become tyrannized by death. Although his divine nature is impassible and cannot suffer, the Word has truly assumed human nature, and he can truly suffer and die—in his human, not his divine, nature. Because he genuinely became human, the incarnate Word experienced all of the pains and frustrations of human existence, including experiences that were contrary to his will. Because he was human, Jesus truly dreaded the death on the cross: “[T]o die in the flesh was ignoble, and unwonted . . . and repugnant to him, yet has he endured this too for our sakes.”(21) Thus, he “suffered without suffering,” not in the sense that his sufferings were unreal, but that they belonged to the economy of the human, not the divine, nature. Cyril said, “He suffers when the body suffers, in that it is said to be his own body. He remains impassible in that it is truly his property to be unable to suffer.”(22)

“The Word became flesh”— a human being of rational soul and mind. On this Cyril insisted against Apollinarian views that seemed to deny that the incarnate Word was a true man. God the Word was subject to the limitations of human nature. He hungered, prayed, suffered, and died. In addressing the question of the extent to which Cyril affirmed that the incarnate Word was truly subject to the limitations of human nature, it is necessary to explore two aspects of Cyril’s kenotic Christology. First, his understanding of the “economy.” Second, his insistence on the permanent nature of the humanity of Christ and the simultaneous co-existence of both the human and divine natures united by One person in the incarnation.

Cyril characteristically uses the word “economy” (oikonomia) to describe the way in which God, although considered in the divine nature (outside space and time) could not change, nonetheless, this did not mean that God was incapable of acting freely and in different ways in relation to the creation, since creation itself does exist in space and time. The incarnation is simply a special instance of God’s unchanging eternal relation to a changing creation. The incarnation itself was an act of omnipotent power in which the eternal God, immutable in himself, chose to personally undergo the changes of time and the experience of a truly human life. Cyril wrote:

God the Word is “full” in regard to his own nature, and perfect in every respect. . . . For he himself, just like his Beggetter, is unalterable and immutable, and was never capable of any passibility. But when he became flesh, that is became man, he appropriated the poverty of humanity to himself: firstly, because even though he became man he still remained God; and, secondly, because he accepted the form of a servant even though he is free in his own nature. . .. Even though he is equal to God the Father, he obediently endured his sufferings and the cross. Because all these things were part and parcel of the human condition he adopted them as being implied along with the flesh, and so he fulfilled the economy, although always remaining what he was.(23)

In speaking of the economy, Cyril used language that caused both his contemporary and modern critics to shudder. Critics have accused Cyril of a crypto-docetism or Apollinarianism because he sometimes used the word “seems” (dokein) to describe the economy. The incarnate Christ “seems” to pray, he “appears”to grow in knowledge; he “seems” to be troubled.(24) Cyril sometimes speaks of the limitations of Jesus’ human knowledge as if they were concessions to our own situation rather than something inherent to a true incarnation. Thus Jesus only “appeared” to be ignorant.(25)

When Jesus asked “Who touched me?” (Luke 8:1-5), he really already knew the answer. So the Anglican theologian Charles Gore complained that Cyril’s notion of “economy” starts by meaning the process by which God reveals himself in such a way as to be intelligible to humanity, but “passes imperceptibly into meaning a process of divine reserve which is in fact deception.”(26)

Against this criticism, John A. McGuckin, one of Cyril’s more recent translators and interpreters, insists that such a reading is a misinterpretation of Cyril’s theology of “appropriation.” Cyril uses this language of “seeming” to refer to the entire economy of salvation, and not simply to limitations of Jesus’ knowledge or to his suffering. So Cyril also says that Jesus “seems” to die, and “seems” to be raised to glory. But Cyril does not believe that these events are deceptions. He truly believed that Jesus died, and that his body lay dead in the tomb. Jesus really, truly, rose from the dead. So McGuckin claims that when Cyril says Jesus “seems” to die and rise from the dead, he meant he really did these things. When Cyril says Jesus “seems” to be ignorant, and “seems” to suffer, he really does not know, and he really does suffer. McGuckin argues that the point of the “seems” language is to emphasize that the economy is not the whole story, that although the Word assumed the limitations of humanity in the incarnation, he really and truly continued to be God. His deity was veiled by his flesh not in the sense that either was unreal, but that the deity, while not readily apparent nonetheless transcended the limitations of the humanity.(27) Thus in Cyril’s own words:

[S]ince on this account [the salvation of the world] he wished to suffer, even though he was beyond the power of suffering in his nature as God, then he wrapped himself in flesh that was capable of suffering, and revealed it as his very own, so that even the suffering might be said to be his because it was his own body which suffered and no one else’s. Since the manner of the economy allows him blamelessly to choose both to suffer in the flesh, and not to suffer in the Godhead . . . .(28)

This leads to the second point—of the enduring humanity and the simultaneous co-existence of both human and divine natures in the one person of the incarnate Word. Cyril did not understand the kenosis of the Word to mean that the incarnate Word had laid aside his deity or ceased to be God during the thirty-some odd years of his earthly life in first-century Palestine. Rather, Cyril insisted repeatedly on both the single identity and the dual reality of the incarnate Word. During his earthly life, the incarnate Word truly underwent a genuine human existence, accompanied by growth in knowledge, ignorance, suffering, and death. Nonetheless, as the second person of the Trinity, he continues to exercise his cosmic functions as Creator and sustainer of the universe. After his resurrection, he does not cease to be human, but preserves his human nature, and continues to pray for us as our mediator between God and humanity with his human mind.(29)


“The Word became flesh.” God truly became a man. He did not merely come upon or inspire a man. “The Word became flesh.” He became truly human with a rational soul and body. But the Word became flesh for a reason. The Word became human that he might redeem humankind. Like Athanasius his predecessor, Cyril’s interest in Christology was finally soteriological. Despite his heated polemics, Cyril’s concern for orthodoxy was undergirded by a deep understanding of the need for human redemption. Only a true mediator between God and humanity—one who was himself truly God and truly man—could redeem fallen humanity. Cyril agreed with the Athanasian dictum, “God was made man that man might be made God.”(30) Cyril put the same thought in his own words: “He that is God by nature became, and is in truth, a man from heaven . . in order that . . . he might enable man to share and partake of the nature of God.”(31)

In line with Athanasius, Cyril saw the effects of sin as being primarily corruption and death. Because of Adam’s sin, human nature has become subject to evil and death; sin reigns in fallen human nature and the Holy Spirit has fled from humanity. Since only the incorruptible can restore the corrupted to incorruption, the only-begotten Word of God became human to raise humanity to life. In him alone was human nature free from sin and filled with the Holy Spirit, and reformed by God, in order that grace might pass from him to us, as he, the Son, sent by the Father, gives the Spirit to the saints.(32)

The relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit is further developed in Cyril’s doctrine of the coinherence of the Trinity. The Son has an independent existence but still inheres in the Father who begets him. The Spirit of the Father is also the Spirit of the Son, and the Spirit is sent by both the Father and the Son who share an identity of substance with each other. Although there are three distinct persons (hypostases) in the Trinity, there is one nature (ousia) and one operation. Whatever things the Father does and wills, the Son and Spirit do in an equal manner.(33)

Grace comes to the saints, from the Son, through the Spirit. Just as the Word became truly human, with a rational soul and body, so we are made partakers of his grace, “both intellectually, and by our senses,” or physically.(34) The risen Christ dwells in us first by the Holy Spirit (given in baptism).(35) Even as Jesus Christ was anointed and sanctified with the Spirit as man, although he is by nature God, so now, Christ is formed in us, through the Holy Spirit, making us partakers of his divine nature.(36) By becoming as we are, the incarnate Word has made us brothers to himself, enriched “with the birth of God through the Spirit.”(37) Cyril uses the word “transelementing” (metastoicheisis) to describe the transformation of human nature through the Spirit, as we participate in the sanctified human nature of Christ.

For the Word out of God the Father has been with us born after the flesh that we too might be enriched with the birth out of God through the Spirit, no longer termed children of the flesh but transelemented rather into what was above nature and termed sons of God by grace.(38)

The understanding is that grace does not override our humanity, but just as the incarnate Word preserved the integrity and freedom of his own human nature, although fully divine, so grace perfects our humanity, making us truly free and human, elevating us to a new relationship with the divine.

It is not only fitting that the Word be in us intellectually through the Holy Spirit. Our bodies have also become subject to corruption and death and the Son of God “was made in our likeness and clothed himself in our flesh that by raising it from the dead he might prepare a way henceforth by which the flesh which had been humbled unto death might return anew unto incorruption.”(39)

The very body of Christ was sanctified by the power of the incarnate Word who was made one with it. Cyril uses the imagery of bread dipped into wine or oil, or iron brought into contact with fire to illustrate the transformation brought by the incarnate Word to his body. As iron when heated becomes filled with the energy of fire, so the life-giving Word by uniting himself to his flesh, endowed it with life-giving power.(40) Since the body of the Word is life-giving, having been united hypostatically to his divine nature, those who “partake of his holy flesh and blood are quickened in all respects, and wholly, the Word dwelling in us divinely through the Holy Spirit, humanly again through his holy flesh and precious blood.”(41) Through partaking of the one body of Christ in the eucharist, those who believe in Christ are united with his risen body and with each other. The Church is, therefore, Christ’s body, and believers are individually his members. Jesus Christ is the one bond of union, at once both God and man. Through him we all receive the same Spirit who binds our individuality to each other and to God, and through the power of his flesh in the eucharist, he makes us one body.

The primary concern behind Cyril’s Christology, is therefore, the union of God with humanity, reconciliation between estranged and sinful human beings, who by themselves are incapable of rising from death and corruption, and the living God, who can alone restore us to life, and has done so by becoming human himself in Jesus Christ. It is because such a salvation can come only from God, who is incorruptible life, and who always seeks out sinful human beings, that only God can save. On the other hand, it is humanity that needs salvation, and yet cannot save itself. Cyril’s concern to safeguard these two truths, and their coming together in the God-man Jesus Christ led him to reiterate the faith of the orthodox, catholic, and evangelical Church, that Jesus Christ is the mediator between God and humanity. Against Christologies that seemed to deny that Jesus Christ was truly God, but perhaps a man in whom God had been pleased to dwell, Cyril had affirmed that the Word truly became human (for humanity cannot save itself) and thus, there is only one Jesus Christ, God and man. Against all attempts to deny that Jesus Christ was not fully human (and therefore could not truly redeem human beings), Cyril affirmed that the Word had truly emptied himself, that he had assumed a human nature with rational soul and mind. This same Jesus Christ meets us through the Holy Spirit in the worship of the church and the sacraments and “transelements” our human natures to share in his divine nature. This is the doctrine of salvation that Cyril was concerned to uphold.

Modern and Contemporary Perspectives

One cannot help asking questions of concern to modern theologians when examining the Christology of Cyril of Alexandria. Many contemporary theologians tend to question Cyril’s statement of the hypostatic union on the grounds that he was monophysite. Cyril sometimes spoke as if this were the case. He does not always distinguish clearly between hypostasis and ousia. Thus he said, “[H]e is conceived of as one and only, and every thing said befits him and all will be said of one person. For the incarnate nature of the Word himself is after the union, now conceived of as one.”(42) Cyril sometimes spoke of the incarnate Christ with the term mia physis (one nature). His theology should not, however be evaluated in the light of later distinctions that had not yet been clearly drawn. Usually, Cyril is careful to distinguish between the natures, and to insist that they are not confused, i.e., one is not dissolved into the other.

A more serious criticism is that which rejects Cyril’s doctrine of the one hypostasis on the ground that Jesus Christ could not be fully human if he were not a human person. Actually the doctrine of enhypostasis (the doctrine that the human nature of the incarnate Word found its identity in the one divine hypostasis of the incarnate Word, as developed more fully by Maximus the Confessor) did not deny the humanity of Jesus Christ at all. What it did accomplish was to insist on the completeness of the human nature of Christ and on the fact that the metaphysical subject of the incarnation was the person of the divine Word, thus providing the incarnate Word with a human nature in which he could undergo human acts and experiences. The Roman Catholic theoogian Louis Bouyer observed:

Thus, as Cyril held, we can maintain that, in Christ, it is God himself who feels, suffers, and indeed is ignorant and makes human progress. Nothing, indeed, shows better the extent to which the true thought of Cyril is remote from any kind of monophysitism than his view on Christ’s sharing in all our weaknesses except sin. It is an essential point of his doctrine that it was, in all truth, God himself, in Jesus, who underwent suffering and death to save us, in contrast to Nestorius and even the most moderate Antiochenes.(43)

It is difficult to comprehend how those modern theologians who want to attribute a human person to Christ can avoid the sort of adoptionism that Cyril believed was the logical outcome of Nestorianism, and many of them wittingly or unwittingly embrace it. In a classic standard of modern Christology, Donald Baillie was quite critical of Cyril. In his book, God was in Christ, Bailie himself adopted an obviously Nestorian Christology that attempted to understand the incarnation in terms of the “paradox of grace.”(44) In Baillie’s model, what Jesus did as a human person, was equally done by the grace of God in him, so that the incarnation depended on Jesus continually making the right choices. Baillie’s Christology found successors among liberal Protestant theologians like John Knox, and John A. T. Robertson, and, more recently, retired Episcopal bishop John Spong, as well as contemporary feminists and members of the Jesus Seminar, and even some contemporary Roman Catholics, for example, Hans Küng, Elizabeth Johnson, and Roger Haight.

But not only is this precisely the kind of Christology that Cyril wanted to avoid (the Son of God is not a grace-filled or God inspired man), it is not the Christology of the New Testament. St. Paul applies the “paradox of grace” not to Christ, but to us. (Gal. 2:20). Paul describes Jesus Christ in terms of a high and transcendent Christology.(45)

The modern alternative to Nestorian/adoptionist Christologies can be found in the kenotic Christologies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Cyril’s emphasis on the divine self-emptying (kenosis) of the incarnate Word, as well as his insistence that the incarnate Word has a rational human soul and mind, centered in the divine person of the Word, but not to be identified with the divine mind of the Logos, tempts one to want to read Cyril in the perspective of modern kenotic Christologies. Cyril speaks repeatedly of the self-emptying and human limitations of the incarnate Word of God, but whether he has a kenotic Christology in the modern sense is (as we have seen above) debatable. Cyril is widely interpreted to have believed that the earthly Jesus only feigned human ignorance. However, if McGuckin’s reading is correct, and Cyril’s critics are mistaken, then it should be possible to address the central question raised by modern kenotic Christologies—that of the relation between the ontology of the incarnation and the human psychology of the divine Word as incarnate.

The starting point of modern kenotic Christology was a soteriological concern—to preserve the humanity of the incarnate Christ by insisting that Jesus’ human consciousness underwent a genuine process of development, and that he shared in the limitations of knowledge we associate with all human consciousness. Only so could Jesus be claimed to be truly human, and thus to enter fully into the human condition to bring about a human salvation. In contrast to the kenotic view, in the Medieval and early modern period, it was often assumed that the earthly Jesus walked around with an almost omniscient awareness of everything that was possible to know. Echoing this Medieval theology, as late as 1946 the Anglican theologian E. L.Mascall argued that the divine nature must not be excluded from the sphere of the incarnation. Accordingly, Mascall insisted that, whatever the limitations of the incarnate Lord, “in [Jesus] there is also to be recognized the divine nature in which omniscience is perfect and complete.” Mascall argued that it is not unreasonable to suppose that the content of Jesus’ human mind contained not only experimental knowledge acquired in the normal course of development from infancy to adulthood, but also an “infused knowledge which is directly communicated to his human nature from the divine Person who is its subject, and which is a participation in the divine omniscience and is limited only by the receptive capacity of human nature as such. . . . [T]here is a permanent infusion into the human soul of all knowledge that it is intrinsically capable of receiving.” In other words, the earthly Jesus’ mind contains “everything that it is possible for a human mind to know . . .”(46) As recently as 1995, Guy Mansini, O.S.B, endorsed the position, following Aquinas, that the incarnate Christ had a “beatific immediate knowledge of God” and so Jesus could not learn anything, “if learning means discovering an intelligibility that is not already possessed in the mind.”(47)

It is the rejection of this quasi-omniscience of the human Jesus as incompatible with a genuine humanity that characterized the kenotic Christologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, the shift to a limited human psychology in the incarnate Christ demanded ontological explanation. Three theories were forthcoming. The first was the more-or-less Hegelian notion that the Word put aside certain incommunicable divine attributes. Thus, the German Lutheran theologian Gottfried Thomasius introduced the notion that in the incarnation, the incarnate Word relinquished the “relational” divine attributes (omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence) while retaining the immanent divine attributes (power, truth, holiness, love). A modification of this view appeared in English circles with the Congregationalist P. T. Forsyth, who was unhappy with the notion of relinquishing divine attributes, so instead suggested that in the incarnate Christ the divine attributes were “concentrated” or “retracted.” So the eternal God possesses a knowledge that is an omniscient, intuitive, simultaneous knowledge of all things. When the eternal God enters time, however, this same knowledge becomes discursive, successive, and only potential. This position met with severe criticism on the grounds of philosophical incoherence, and rightly so (more on this later).

In the second stage (represented by the younger Anglo-Catholic Charles Gore), it was simply asserted that in the incarnation, the Word limited the exercise of certain divine prerogatives—without further explanation of what this meant in terms of ontology. Finally, what I will call a two-natures kenoticism appeared in Gore’s later writings, and in the Anglican Frank Weston’s The One Christ. This position was developed more fully at mid-twentieth century by Anglicans like Austin Farrer, and later by numerous Roman Catholics. I would argue that this final position is both coherent and orthodox, and fully in line with Cyril’s Christology. The original kenotic position of thinkers like Thomasius and Forsyth is metaphysically incoherent and christologically monophysite.

The kenotic language of self-limitation itself is an expression of an ontological concern. The concern that the humanity of Christ be lived out within the limits of ordinary human development is thought to conflict with Jesus’ possession or utilization of certain divine attributes, specifically, omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. Therefore, these must be excluded from the sphere of the incarnation, either through ontological transformation or self-imposed limitation.

However, the assumption that limitation is necessary in order to exclude these attributes from the sphere of the incarnation itself rests on a misunderstanding of the metaphysics of incarnation—that without such a limitation, the incarnate Christ would experience the divine attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence within the sphere of his human consciousness. Of course, there have been theologians who considered themselves orthodox who did assert something like this, as was shown in the above quote from Mascall. However, the Council of Chalcedon says expressly that the natures are not to be confused, and that the property of each nature must be preserved. Omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence, are divine characteristics. They are not human ones. Therefore, they do not belong to the sphere of the incarnation because they do not belong to the humanity. What does not belong to the sphere of the humanity does not need to be limited within the sphere of the incarnation. As a metaphysical solution, the early original kenotic theory is an unnecessary hypothesis.

Kenotic Christology also has to be examined in terms of development of doctrine. At various times in church history, theological controversy has flailed around the issues until someone asked the important question that led to the necessary insight that made a solution possible. Once that insight appears, it cannot be retracted without re-introducing all the prior confusion that was caused by inadequate attempts at solution.

The trinitarian and christological controversies introduced two insights without which progress would not have been possible: (1) the clear and unbridgeable distinction between Creator and creature; (2) the distinction between person and nature. Prior to the Council of Nicea, it was still possible to advocate subordinationist Christologies because an implicit Neoplatonic framework did not distinguish adequately between the divine and the created. Once Arius asked whether Christ was a Creator or a creature, subordinationism and semi-Arianism were no longer possible. It simply would not do any more to say that Christ was “similar” in essence to the Father. Christ is either Creator (in which case he is consubstantial with the Father), or Christ is creature (of a different substance from the Father).

Similarly, as long as no clear distinction was made between person and nature, conflicts between monophysites and Nestorians were irresolvable. It was Cyril who asked the fundamental question—Is the incarnate Christ God become human, or is the incarnate Christ a God-filled human being?—but until the distinction between person and nature was clearly made (at Chalcedon), the problem could not be resolved. The fundamental insight at Chalcedon (developing Cyril’s own position to its consistent and logical conclusion) was that the incarnation is a union at the level of person, not of nature.

This brings us to a third development, (3) the distinction between person and intentionality (intellect and will). It is necessary to insist that this distinction is not a psychological one, but a metaphysical one. It is necessary to distinguish clearly between person and intentionality (intellect and will), and to ascribe intentionality to nature (not person) in order to preserve the insight first attained at Nicea—the clear distinction between Creator and creature. The orthodox notion is that Jesus Christ’s humanity is enhypostatic, that is, in Christ, there is only one person. At the same time, in order to be fully human, this one person must experience genuine human intellectual growth and development. The question that has to be addressed is whether this one person is a divine person or a human person. That is, do we accept not only enhypostasia (one person) but anhypostasia (that the incarnate Word has no human person, but a single divine person)?

Here is where the ambiguity lies in the original kenotic Christology. In order to preserve a doctrine of genuine incarnation, the single person of the incarnation must be a divine person. The nineteenth century Kenoticists wanted to insist that this divine person underwent genuine human intellectual and moral development. The traditional distinction between person and intentionality allows for this. The single divine person undergoes genuine human growth and development because his divine person is conscious of itself through a genuinely human intellect and will. Because the early kenotic Christologists failed to distinguish between person and intentionality, they were forced to maintain to the contrary (at least by implication) that the intellect and will of the incarnate Christ are not a human intellect and will, but are divine. So, for example, Forsyth’s Christology is clearly monophysite. He does not distinguish between person and nature, assumes that will and intellect are identical with person, and seems to think that incarnation means an ontological transformation of a divine nature into a human one. He states:

We cannot form any scientific conception of the precise process by which a complete and eternal being could enter on a process of becoming, how Godhead could accept growth, how a divine consciousness could reduce its own consciousness by volition. If we knew and could follow that secret we should be God and not man.(48)

Conisistently Forsyth embraces what can only be called a monothelite notion of incarnation, and rejects the orthodox doctrine that the incarnate Christ has both a divine and a human intellect and will as incoherent: “Nor were the two streams parallel while unmingled. There could not be two wills or two consciousness, in the same personality, by any psychological possibility now credible. We could not have in the same person both knowledge and ignorance of the same thing. If he did not know it he was altogether ignorant of it.”(49)

But a divine intellect and will (no matter how limited—whether through ontological transformation or by voluntary restriction) cannot experience genuine human development and growth because a divine intellect and will are not human. In order for the incarnate Christ to undergo genuinely human growth and development, his mind and intellect have to be human. So, in essence, the early kenoticists undid their own primary concern. They wanted to allow for genuine human development and growth, but because on their own terms, Jesus’ intellect and will are divine, there is no human intellect and will for such growth to take place. The early kenotic Christologies were able to preserve some semblance of incarnation only by blurring the distinction between Creator and creature To imply that the (limited) divine intellect and will experience genuine human development and growth is precisely to confuse the distinction between Creator and creature, something forbidden after Nicea.

The early kenotic position also raises questions about the divine immutability. In order for the divine intentionality not to be omniscient, omnipotent, or omnipresent, a substantial not merely intentional transformation of the divine nature would have to take place. If God is necessary being, then God is self-identical, and God’s “attributes” are simply who God is. For God to say, “I’m not going to be omniscient now,” or “I’m going to compress my omniscience to potential knowledge now” is a rather different kind of intentional change than the decision to create the world. It would involve a fundamental change not only in what God does, but in what or who God is.

Forsyth was not of course concerned about such niceties of traditional metaphysics. He insisted that personality was “alogical,” especially on an infinite scale, and suggested putting aside such “crude notions” as “infinite” and “finite,” “weakness” and “omnipotence.” If an infinite God could not also live as a finite man, then he was not really infinite. But, of course, for theology to eliminate distinctions between infinite and finite, between omnipotence and weakness would be to revert to the pre-Nicene failure to clearly draw the distinction between Creator and creature. It was precisely because theology learned to carefully insist on these distinctions that it was able to say against Arius that the incarnate Word is the Creator, and not a creature, or some kind of intermediate being somewhere between Creator and creature.

A more adequate alternative approach can be found in the latter stage of kenotic Christology. Beginning with Charles Gore’s Dissertations on Subjects Connected with the Incarnation and Frank Weston’s The One Christ, and developed more fully by mid-twentieth century Roman Catholic christologists, this position affirms what I would call a single person, two-minds Christology. The most sophisticated current discussions on this issue seem to build on two different dimensions of person: Aquinas’s definition, following Boethius, that person is an individually subsisting rational nature, as well as the insight developed by the Cappadocians, Augustine, and Aquinas, that the primary reality of the Trinitarian persons is that of origins of relation. Accordingly, the person is primarily the center of identity—that which answers to the question “Who?” rather than “What?”—and is also inherently related to other persons. The French Jesuit Jean Galot expresses this by referring to the person as “relational being.”

In addition, these more contemporary theologians were willing to embrace the modern focus on person as a subject of consciousness and freedom, but made a distinction between the subject who thinks and his intellect, and the subject who wills and his will. Hypostasis designates the one who acts, while nature designates what it is that acts.

Distinguishing person from intellect and will (and assigning the latter two to rational nature, not to person) should not be understood to imply that persons can exist without intellects or wills. The person is expressed (always) through intentionality—intellect and will. In the case of human beings, since there is only one person for each individual human nature, there is always a one-to-one correspondence. And, of course, human beings are the only rational beings with which we have immediate acquaintance, so it is natural for us to equate person with intellect and will.

The divine reality is different however. In the Trinity, there are three persons and one nature. In the Word incarnate, there is one person, and two natures. The three persons of the Trinity know and love each other with the one divine intellect and will. The person of the Word expresses his identity through the divine intellect and will (in the sphere of the Trinity) and through a human intellect and will (in the sphere of the incarnation).

If we are going to take seriously the unity of the incarnation we have to take seriously that the incarnate Word experienced himself as a divine person with a human consciousness. Frank Weston pointed to the distinction between the human subject, or Ego, which is unique to each person, and the human nature, which all human beings have in common:

Christology assumes in man a certain underlying reality called “I” inseparable from soul and body in existence, yet in fact distinct from and the ground of both. This “I”is the subject of all thought, perception, change, and consciousness; . . . . The essential functions of this “I” require the soul, through which “I” wills, thinks, and chooses; and for its true and complete life it requires the body, the material expression of which the soul is the essential form. But the “I” is not the soul, nor the body, nor the composition of the two, but the ground in which both subsist. In fact, the “I” is responsible to another “I” outside of himself for the activities of his soul and body; and the “I” cannot love unless there be another “I,” without whom no lover were possible.(50)

According to Catholic faith, said Weston, in Jesus of Nazareth, this “I” is no other than that of the eternal Word of God. As the Jesuit Jean Galot says, Jesus’ ego, his “I,” “asserts itself as divine and refers to the divine person in a human psychology: the ‘I’ or ‘self’ is the ‘I’ or ‘self’ of a man, for Jesus thinks and speaks truly as a man. The ego therefore truly designates a divine person in a human nature.” Galot goes on to say that the “I” of Christ cannot be referred to the divine nature. It does not include the other two divine persons, nor does it include the divine knowledge or omniscience. In terms of psychology, this means that the incarnate Christ is a divine person with a human consciousness. “His divine person does not substitute his divine consciousness for this strictly human process. Nor does his divine consciousness interfere in any way with the normal human mode of his conscious activity. Jesus does not have a single divine-human consciousness, since the two activities, like his two natures, are distinct, ‘without any commingling,’ as Chalcedon says.”(51)

This necessarily implies that Jesus of Nazareth, that is the incarnate Word of God in his human nature, insofar as he was human, did not share in the omniscience of his divine nature. This would be to confuse the natures. When Jesus says that the Son does not know the day or the hour, as the incarnate Son he is indeed ignorant of the day or the hour. He really does not know. As the second person of the Trinity, he knows the hour because he shares in the single divine mind, but as the incarnate Son, he does not have access to this divine knowledge.

I think it necessary to emphasize that to say that the incarnate Word has two minds does not mean that the incarnate Word has two consciousnesses within the sphere of the incarnation. Gore, Weston and Galot both made this point nicely. It is not that Jesus of Nazareth has two minds in his human nature, but that, as the incarnate Word of God, he has two minds because he has both a human and a divine nature, and both natures are complete yet distinct. To speak of Jesus Christ is to speak of the Word incarnate specifically in his human nature. We can apply divine attributes to Jesus using the communicatio idiomatum, but again, it is important to recognize that this is a linguistic device (a matter of predication) based on the unity of person, not some kind of blending of the two natures. When Ignatius of Antioch says, “My God died,” or when Cyril and his followers insist against Nestorius that Mary is the theotokos, this does not mean that the divine nature as such died on the cross, or that the divine nature began to exist 4 BC in a manger in Bethlehem, but that because the personal identity of Jesus is that of the Word of God, the man who died on the cross is also the eternal God who can never die or be born (in his divine nature). God is only able to die or be born because he does so by assuming a human nature that possesses those qualities of mortality that are incompatible with divinity.

Similarly when we say that the knowledge of the incarnate Christ is limited—that Jesus does not know the day or the hour, this does not imply that the omniscient God who can never be ignorant does not know the day or the hour. Rather, the Son of God can be ignorant only because he has assumed a human nature that possesses a human intellect and will whose limitations are incompatible with the nature of divinity itself. So we have to say that the Son of God is omniscient as God (in his divine nature) and ignorant (of certain things) as man (in his human nature).

The uniqueness of the second person of the Trinity’s access to the consciousness of the incarnate Jesus lies in personal identity. Or rather, the second person of the Trinity does not simply have access to the mind of Jesus. He is Jesus. The person of the Word takes the place of what would be a human person in the incarnate Word, and that person is the center of the human consciousness and will of the incarnate Word. It is not the human mind that knows or the human will that wills, but the divine person who knows using the human mind, and the divine person who wills using the human will. Because it is the person who acts, knows, and wills, the person of the Word knows himself (and not someone else) to be acting, knowing, and willing in the actions of Jesus.

But because there are two natures (with two minds and wills), the same person acting as the one center of consciousness experiences himself in two different ways (as human and as divine) in two consciousnesses. As divine (in his divine mind), the knowledge of the Word must encompass both the contents of his divine and human minds (because the divine mind is omniscient). As human (in his human mind), the same person of the Word knows only the contents of his human mind—because the two natures do not lose their personal integrity, and because it is not the nature of human minds to be omniscient.

At the same time, we must insist that the limitations of the person of the Word incarnate are not limitations on the Word in his divine nature as such. The divine nature neither changes, grows, or diminishes in the incarnation. Rather, through entering into a new relation to the humanity he has assumed, the Word begins a new mode of existence, in which he experiences the limitations of a genuine human life. The limitations are those inherent to human nature as such. They are not limitations of deity.

Finally, it is important to recognize with Weston and Gore that the humanity of the incarnate Christ is permanent. The incarnation is not a temporary measure in which the Eternal Word starts out being God, ceases to be God for awhile and becomes human, and then (after his resurrection) becomes God again. Rather, in the incarnation the Word undergoes a permanent kenosis, in which he makes our humanity personally his own, and retains it for eternity, both lowering himself to experience personally the smallness of our humanity, but also elevating that humanity which becomes his forever. It is through the mediation of that permanently assumed humanity that we come to share in the communion of the Triune life, that is always the grounds of our own access to God the Father, through the Son in the unity of the Spirit.


At the beginning of this discussion, it was pointed out that whether we understand the person and work of Christ to be constitutive of a salvation we can find nowhere else, or rather whether we find the person and work of Christ to be illustrative of a salvation which is really universally available marks a fundamental divide in theology. In Cyril’s Christology, we find the definitive formulation of that constitutive Christology. As Cyril built on Athanasius, so all subsequent attempts to say that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection actually effect salvation must follow Cyril’s logic. The weaknesses of the two alternatives to Cyril’s Christology in his own time could not coherently affirm that “Jesus saves.” Nestorianism ultimately implied (as Cyril relentlessly demonstrated) that we save ourselves, and that Jesus (at most) provides a good example to emulate. Apollinarianism does not provide a Jesus who saves humanity because an incarnate Word without a truly human mind cannot redeem humanity.

The three Christologies characteristic of our own contemporary period precisely echo the same dead ends, and the single solution offered by Cyril. The contemporary Christologies of “inclusion” and “liberation” are predictably Nestorian in their working assumptions. They preach a Jesus in whom God is especially present, but not a Jesus who is God’s personal presence in our midst. Such a Jesus cannot really save, but can at most encourage us to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. This perhaps explains the earnestness and humorlessness of so many of these people. For a Jesus who does not save, cannot forgive.

The early kenotic Christologies were attempts to meet nineteenth-century versions of Nestorianism on their own grounds by developing an incarnational Christology that more appreciated the modern focus on human consciousness. The weakness of early kenoticism was that it lacked metaphysical sophistication. Ultimately, the this theology echoed the errors of Eutyches, Apollinaris, and monophysitism.

The later kenoticism of Gore, Weston, and, finally, the Roman Catholic theologians of the mid-twentieth century represents a genuine development of doctrine. True to Cyril’s concerns, it developed a Christology that was in many ways more faithful to the narrative description of Jesus found in the New Testament than had been the Medieval and early modern portraits. Granted, the New Testament portrays Jesus as the Son of God, but it also portrays him as one who asked questions, who grew in knowledge, who was weary, and who truly suffered. This Jesus is a Jesus who truly saves because this Jesus is God come among us, personally present in his Deity, and yet truly partaking of our humanity. In the words of Frank Weston:

[N]o doctrine of the Incarnation is adequate to the task of comforting the broken heart of humanity that does not offer us a human heart which is exactly the Heart of God Himself. For the Heart of God is all His love that can be revealed to and received by the heart of man. The heart of the Incarnate is God’s love in the measure of man’s need and man’s capacity, as it is also man’s love in the measure that God can, by assuming it, make it worthy of His own acceptance.(52)

Cyril of Alexandria understood correctly what is at stake in the assertion that “Jesus saves.” Jesus saves because he is truly God become human. He saves because his personal identity is that of God the Second person of the Triiune God become a human being. Only God can save.

Jesus saves because in assuming human nature, the Word truly became a human being. Only because he is one of us, truly taking on himself humanity with all its weaknesses and limitations, can he truly recreate and transform sinful humanity.

A Jesus who is not truly God become fully human cannot save because he at most can provide an example or illustration to encourage us in our own feeble attempts to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. A Jesus who is merely a God-filled man cannot pronounce a divine Word of forgiveness because he is not God. He cannot recreate our sinful humanity, but rather leaves us to save ourselves.

The Jesus who is truly the divine Word became flesh pronounces the divine Word of
forgiveness. He alone provides hope of changing human nature from within to enable us to do what we cannot do ourselves.

1. Cyril of Alexandria, “Five Tomes Against Nestorius,” S.Cyril Archbishop of Alexandria: A Library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church, Anterior to the Division of the East and West, trans. by members of the English Church, pref. by E. B. Pusey, (London: Walter Smith, 1885) Tome III, 104-105.

2. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel According to S. John: A Library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church, etc., (Oxford: James Parker & Co., 1874)

Bk 1, ch 9, vol 1, 108.

3. “Against Nestorius,” Tome I, 8.

4. St. Luke, vol. 1, serm. 1, i; cf. “Scholia,” 200.

5. “Against Nestorius,” Tome I, 13, 27, “Scholia,” 218-219.

6. “Against Nestorius,” Tome II, 45.

7. “Against Nestorius,” Tome I, p10, 16.

8. “Against Nestorius,” Tome IV, 129.

9. “ Scholia,” 198.

10. “Scholia,” 198.

11. “Against Nestorius,” Tome II, 79, 80; “Scholia,” 197.

12. Against Nestorius, Tome I, 9.

13. Cyril, “Scholia on the Incarnation,” S. Cyril Archbishop of Alexandria, 214.

14. Cyril, “Scholia,” 190. “Against Nestorius,” Tome I, 5, Cyril of Alexandria, A Commentary Upon the Gospel According to S. Luke, trans. From an ancient Syriac version, by R. Payne Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1859), vol. 1, serm. 11, 44.

Good discussions of the question of immutability in Cyril’s Christology can be found in Thomas G. Weinandy, O.F.M, Does God Change? The Word’s Becoming in the Incarnation (Still River, MA: St. Bede’s Publications, 1985), 46-57; Does God Suffer? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000), 177-213; “Cyril and the Mystery of the Incarnation,” The Theology of St. Cyril of Alexandria, Thomas G. Weinandy & Daniel A. Keating, eds. (London, NY, T & T Clark, 2003), 23-55.

15. St. Luke, vol. 1, serm. 11, 47, 53.

16. St. Luke, vol 1, serm 5, 29-30, “Against Nestorius,” Tome III, 113-114, “Scholia,” 202.

17. St. Luke, vol 1, serm. 11, 46-47, “Scholia,” 186.

18. “Scholia,” 229.

19. St. John, vol. 1, Bk. 2, ch. 5, 212-218.

20. St. John, vol. 2, Bk 11, ch. 8, 506-507.

21. “Against Nestorius,” Tome V, 171, cf. 159-160, 169, 171, 178.

22. “Scholia,” 232-233.

23. “Scholia on the Incarnation,” 5. McGuckin, Texts, 298.

24. See the discussion in John A. McGuckin, St. Cyril of Alexdndria: The Christological Controversy, Its History, Theology, and Texts (E. J. Brill, 1994):217ff.; McGuckin, “Introduction,” St. Cyril of Alexandria On the Unity of Christ, trans. (St.Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 43 ff.

25. St, Luke, vol. 1, serm. 5, 30; serm. 45, 191. See the discussion in A. B. Bruce, The Humiliation of Christ in its Physical, Ethical, and Official Aspects (T. & T. Clark: Edinburgh, 3rd edition, 1889) 55ff.

26. Charles Gore, Dissertations On Subjects Connected With the Incarnation, “The Consciousness of Our Lord in His Mortal Life,” (London: John Murray, 1895,1907), 151.

27. See the discussion in McGuckin, “Introduction,” 220.

28. “On the Unity of Christ,” 118; [I]f Jesus is said to suffer, this passion applies to the economy too. Nonetheless it is attributed to him quite properly in so far as that which suffered was his very own. He who knew not suffering because he was impassible as God, was in the suffering body, but in so far as concerns the arrogance of his persecutors he did suffer [in his humanity], even though he could not suffer [in his deity]“Scholia,” 14, 308.

29. See especially Thomas F. Torrance, “The Mind of Christ in Worship: The Problem of Apollinarianism in the Liturgy,” Theology in Reconciliation: Essays Towards Evangelical and Catholic Unity in East and West (Grand Rapids: Wm. B.Eerdmans,1976), 139-214.

30. Literally, “He was humanized that we might be deified.” Athanasius, “On the Incarnation,” trans. A. Robertson, Christology of the Later Fathers, ed. E. H. Hardy, (Philadelphia; The Westminster Press, 1954), 107.

31. St. John, vol. 2, Bk. 11, ch. 11, 549.

32. “Scholia,” 186.

33. St. John, vol. 2, Bk. 5, ch. 1, 534; “Against Nestorius,” Tome IV, 134.

34. St. Luke, vol. 2, serm. 142, 664.

35. St. Luke, vol. 1, serm. 11, 46; serm. 37, 142.

36. “Against Nestorius,”, Tome III, 95; St. John, vol 2, Bk 11, ch. 11, 549.

37. “Against Nestorius,” Tome III, 93.

38. “Against Nestorius,” Tome II, 95.

39. St. Luke, vol. 2, serm. 142, 664.

40. St. John, vol. 2, Bk. 11, ch. 9, 523; St. Luke, vol. 2, serm. 142, 667.

41. “Against Nestorius,” Tome IV, 145, 148.

42. “Against Nestorius,” Tome II, 41. Interestingly, the opposite criticism is also made, if not of Cyril, then of Chalcedon, which is claimed to be dualist in its Christology. H.R. MacKintosh complained that “the doctrine of the two natures, in its traditional form, imports into the life of Christ an incredible and thoroughgoing dualism.” The Person of Jesus Christ (T & T Clark, 1912), 294.

43. Louis Bouyer, Le Fils éternel: Théologie de la Parole de Dieu et Christologie (Paris: Cerf, 1974), 406. Cited by Eric L. Mascall, Theology and the Gospel of Christ: An Essay in Reorientation (London: SPCK, 1977), 146.

44. Donald M. Baillie, God was in Christ: An Essay on Incarnation and Atonement (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1948) 125ff.

45. C. F. D. Moule, “Three Points of Conflict in the Christological Debate,” Incarnation and Myth: The Debate Continued, ed. by Michael Goulder, (Win. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979), 134.

46. E. L. Mascall, Christ, The Christian and the Church: A Study of the Incarnation and Its Consequences ( London: Longmans, Green & Co.), 1946, 56, 57, 58. Mascall later dropped this understanding of the semi-omniscient consciousness of the incarnate Christ, endorsing instead the position (discussed below) of the Jesuit Jean Galot. See his Theology and the Gospel of Christ, 151-188.

47. “Understanding St. Thomas on Christ’s Immediate Knowledge of God,” The Thomist (Jan 1995) 59(1): 91- 124.

48. Forsyth, 295.

49. Forsyth, 319.

50. Weston, 16.

51. Jean Galot, Who is Christ? A Theology of Incarnation (Franciscan Herald Press, 1981), 333-334.

52. Weston, 330-331. Thomas Weinandy is critical of both Gore and Weston for upholding what he reads as monophysite “compositional” Christologies that understand the union as a “composition” of two natures and thus the transformation of a divine nature into a human nature, rather than a union of two natures in one person (Does God Change?, 110-222). This is certainly a valid criticism of the kenotic Christology of the early Gore, but is, I think, a misreading of his final position. Nor, in my opinion does it apply to Weston, whose position seems to be an early anticipation of what we later find in someone like Galot.


  1. Hi Bill,

    Just rediscovered your website as a result of your posting that the Orthodox posted your article on one of their websites. Your excellent article kept me entertained on my trip back from Kansas to see our daughter who is having a baby.

    I had discovered Cyril via an Orthodox friend – really want to take a patristics course one of these days.

    Comment by Ann Tefft — June 26, 2012 @ 12:34 am

  2. William,
    Thank you for this resource. You’ve provided me with a good number of sources that I plan on utilizing in my senior capstone paper to be submitted this week.
    Best wishes,

    Comment by Ian J — May 23, 2017 @ 9:41 am

  3. Wonderful survey and treatment! Thanks so much.

    I agree with your push-back to Mascall (who needlessly feels the need to fit omniscience into Jesus’ human consciousness), but I’m not sure even the late Gore and Weston qualify as orthodox.

    Have a blessed 2019!

    Comment by Tom Belt — January 3, 2019 @ 12:09 am

  4. Tom,

    No one has commented on this essay in quite awhile. I’d love to hear your concerns about Weston and Gore.

    Comment by William Witt — January 16, 2019 @ 4:20 am

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