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Five Tomes Against Nestorius by Saint Cyril

ON the death of Theophilus, Archbishop of Alexandria, in A. D. 412, his nephew and successor, S. Cyril, comes suddenly before us. For of S. Cyril’s previous life we have only a few scattered notices. We do not know in what year he was born, nor any thing of his parents, nor where he was brought up. That S. Cyril had received a thoroughly good education, is abundantly clear; not only from his very extensive reading, which a mind of such large grasp as S. Cyril’s would ever provide for itself, but that his reading being so well digested implies good early training. The great accuracy of his Theology implies a most accurate Theological education. That education included a large range of secular study as well as of Divinity, and probably comprised a good deal of learning by heart, not only of the holy Scriptures but also of profane authors, as witness a line of Antipater Sidonius quoted in his Commentary on Zechariah. He quotes too Josephus on the Jewish war. On Hab. 3:2, he mentions interpretations of that verse of two different kinds: on Hosea he gives a long extract from a writer whom we do not apparently possess. Tillemont remarks, that “his books against Julian shew that he had a large acquaintance with secular writers.”

We may infer that S. Cyril was brought up at some monastery, as a place of Christian education, and from the great reverence which he ever paid to S. Isidore, Abbot of Pelusium, it seems not unlikely that S. Isidore was his instructor during some part of his early life. S. Isidore alludes to some especial tie, in one of his brief letters to S. Cyril, when Archbishop. Near the beginning, S. Isidore says, “If I be your father as you say I be, … or if I be your son as I know I am, seeing that you hold the chair of S. Mark &c.” The large number of Platonic words in S. Isidore’s letters seem to indicate that he too had extensive reading of Plato, and S. Cyril may have acquired from him some of his knowledge of Aristotle.

But a mind of S. Cyril’s grasp would feel itself lost in the desert, yearning for its own calling, and another Letter of the same S. Isidore to S. Cyril, reproaching him with his heart being in the world, may belong to this period. His uncle Archbishop Theophilus had him to live with him and, we may infer, ordained him priest and made him one of his Clergy. In a very long letter which S. Cyril wrote about A. D. 432 to the aged Acacius, Bishop of Berœa, he incidentally mentions the fact that he was at the synod of the Oak, in A. D. 403, where S. Chrysostom’s troubles began. S. Cyril would of course be there, as a portion of Archbishop Theophilus’ official attendance. S. Cyril says, “When your holy Synod was gathered at great Constantinople.… and I was one of those standing by, I know that I heard your holiness saying thus.—”

S. Cyril’s accession to the Archiepiscopal Throne of Alexandria brought him at once into a position of great power in Alexandria; and brought too, in the early part of it, trials in regard of the disunion between him and Orestes the Governor resulting from the Jewish insurrection against the Christians. To this succeeded some years of great quiet, during which S. Cyril seems to have been very little heard of, outside his Great Diocese. The Archbishops of Alexandria, even in the very stillest times, were brought into yearly contact with the Churches every where by the annual Letter which they wrote to announce the day on which Easter would fall. S. Cyril’s letters were evidently intended primarily for his own Egypt. Thus in his seventh Paschal homily A. D. 419, he speaks very strongly about deeds of violence in Egypt and mentions the famine there. S. Cyril introduces the subject with, “And these things we now say to you most especially, who inhabit Egyptian territory,” shewing that the Letters themselves had a larger scope. I do not know at what time the Letter was sent out, so as to reach the distant churches of Rome and Constantinople and Antioch in good time to announce when Lent would begin. But although S. Cyril became Archbishop in October A. D. 412, his first Letter was for 414, in the early part of which (as Tillemont points out) S. Cyril speaks of having succeeded his Uncle. He introduces the subject by mentioning the natural dread of those of old, of “the greatness of the Divine Ministry,” and speaking of Moses and Jeremiah as instances of this, adds, that “since the garb of the priesthood calls to preach, in fear of the words, Speak and hold not thy peace, I come of necessity to write thus.”

Much of these quiet years S. Cyril probably employed on his earlier writings: of these, two were on select passages of the Pentateuch; one volume being allotted to those which S. Cyril thought could in any way be adapted as types of our Lord, the other to the rest, as being types of the church. The commentaries on Isaiah and the Minor Prophets and the Books against the Emperor Julian probably belong to this period. Besides these S. Cyril, following the example of his great predecessor S. Athanasius, wrote two Books against the Arians: first, the Thesaurus, in which S. Cyril brought to bear his knowledge of Aristotle; then the de Trinitate, which was written, though not published till later, before A. D. 424. In his Paschal homily for that year A. D. 424, S. Cyril also speaks of the Eternal Generation of the SON, and towards the close of the homily he opposes the Arian terms “Generate,” “Ingenerate.”

A. D. 429, the circulation of tracts of Nestorius in Egypt occasioned him first to write on the heresy of Nestorius. There can be little doubt that the powerful mind of S. Leo, who was the soul of the Council of Chalcedon, was, in his young days when S. Celestine’s Archdeacon in 429, taught through those writings; as S. Cyril himself had been taught by the writings of S. Athanasius.

The 12 Chapters, appended to his last letter to Nestorius, were made a trouble to S. Cyril at a later period of his Episcopate, so that it may be well to give them in full. They were framed to preclude any evasion of that letter.

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