Trinitarian Theology on the Road to Chalcedon: Rival Exegetical Practices in Cyril of Alexandria and Theodoret of Cyrus. North American Patristics Society. May 2022


Fourth-century patristic writers established two traditions of interpretation of texts like John 14:28 (“The Father is greater than I”) and John 5:19 (“I can do nothing without the father”). The first, which was defended by Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory Nazianzen, and others, read these texts monarchically, taking them as descriptions of the Son’s dependence upon the Father as his divine begetter and source. Far from implying lowliness and weakness, they are in fact demonstrations of his equality with the Father, and thus are appropriately attributed to him qua divine. The Son is said to be less than the Father, for example, only because the Father is causally prior to him, not because of any natural inferiority. The second, represented by Marcellus of Ancyra, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Gregory of Nyssa, and others, interpreted these passages incarnationally, arguing that such language is unworthy of God and so must refer to the incarnation/the human nature/the assumed man. The reception of these traditions in the fifth century was diverse. Theodoret of Cyrus is wholly on the side of Theodore and Nyssen, arguing without exception that monarchical texts can only be descriptions of the Son’s human weakness. Cyril of Alexandria, by contrast, offers a powerful synthesis of the monarchical and incarnational traditions. He accepts the claim of Theodore and Nyssen that texts like John 14:28 speak of Christ in a way that is unworthy of the divine nature, but he does not for that reason refer them to the incarnation. Rather, despite the lowly character of the biblical language of sending and being sent, of commanding and being commanded, and of greatness and inferiority, Cyril maintains that it should be understood as a human expression of divine realities (a view he seems to have derived directly from John Chrysostom). Such language is, as it were, the tune of divine filiality played in a human key. The contrast with Theodoret points to an underlying theological conflict that would come to a head at the Council of Chalcedon. Is the divine nature the irremediable opposite of creatureliness, as Theodoret consistently maintains, or can the lowliness of human realities be appropriated by the divine Son as a means of expressing divine humility in a creaturely way? It is no accident that the triumph of Antiochene theology at the council spelled the end of monarchical exegesis among most Chalcedonian theologians until the time of John Damascene.

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  • May 2022

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  • North American Patristics Society