Cyril of Alexandria's Commentary on John, volume 1

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RamistThomist

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Cyril of Alexandria. Commentary on John volume 1. Ancient Christian Texts. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsityPress, 2013.

The best way to approach this commentary is not as a strict analysis of what the text says. No doubt Cyril intended it that way, and that can certainly be true on one level. I think it is more valuable, however, to see it as sort of a theological grammar, a theological geometry, even. How did Cyril see the mystery of redemption?

While the apostle spoke eloquently of the eternal Logos, he was not battling Eunomians and Arians. Cyril is. That is not to say Cyril’s comments are misleading. Far from it. Cyril gives us careful comments on the Logos’s pre-existence and hypostatic union with the flesh. It is not without reason that Cyril was called “sphragidis ton pateron,” the seal of the Fathers.

Theological Grammar

The Son is from the substance of the Father.

If the Son is originate like all other beings, then how can he be the one who gives life to everything? If the Son is originate AND gives life to everything, then creation gives life to itself, and it does not need God the creator for this (1.6.77).

Syllogism: “Nothing participates in itself. But the creation participates in the Son as life; therefore, he is not the creation, and neither is the creation life, but the Son is life” (1.6.79-80).

The Economy: In patristic writings, this “refers to God’s plan of salvation in general and, as here, the incarnation in particular (editor, 97 n122; see Comm. 3:2-3).

Cyril must respond to the criticism that the Son cannot be of the same substance with the Father since the Son had to be anointed by the Spirit.

Reply: Cyril’s initial reply, like that of Athanasius, is to point to the Father as Father. The Father must have a Son. Now onto the specific objection: “All reason demands that something that participates is different by nature from that in which it participates.” This participation and anointing, then, belongs to the Economy. “He received the Spirit in order to sanctify our nature.”

The begetting and proceeding of the persons in the divine nature is not be “cutting off or emanation of division or separation, for the divine nature is altogether impassible…It is like heat in fire. The heat proceeds from the fire, and there is a conceptual distinction between the two so that they are not the same as each other…Let us think about the divine begetting in the same way, understanding the meaning of it in a way that is most fitting to God” (2.1.191).

At Cana, “Honorable marriage was sanctified, and the curse against women is taken away” (Comm. 2:10). It is a nice sentiment by Cyril, but women still have pain in childbirth.

Basic Anthropology

“A human being is an animal that is both rational and composite,” of body and soul (1.9.38). Christ’s flesh participated in immortality. “The Word did not come into flesh but the Word became flesh.” This is a huge point. Cyril rejects the “container notion of space” ala Aristotle and Newton. Nonetheless, holy Cyril is quick to point out in the following paragraph that the divine nature is not transmuted into flesh. Rather, he dwelt in flesh and all of our properties of human nature were taken up into his person.

“It would not be wrong in the least to think that the Son exists in the Father as in a source. For the name ‘source’ in this case indicates only what something is from. The Son exists in the Father and from the Father” (1:1)

Hypostasis and Existence

A basic understanding of Christology says a divine person assumed unto himself a human nature in the incarnation. Simple enough, at least on one level. Unfortunately, Cyril is not using terms like hypostasis and nature in the same way we do, so care must be taken.

As he is the “Imprint of his hypostasis” = “he is both in and from that hypostasis by nature.” He exists in his own person but is not alien to the substance of the Father (Comm. 6:27).

So intimate in the union between the divine nature and the flesh that Cyril can say “Because his whole flesh is utterly united to him and clothed with life-giving power, it now ought to be called ‘spirit’ as well…After all, if ‘the one who is united to the Lord is one spirit with him,’ how could his own body not even more be called one with him” (Comm. 6:63).

On the Eucharist

Cyril does not hold to transubstantiation as later medievals understood it. Neither, though, is he a memorialist. Rather, for Cyril, Christ is promising a “participation” in his “holy body and blood, which raise a person completely to incorruptibility so that they need none of the provisions that drive away the death of the flesh” (Comm. 6:35).

Cyril’s argument hinges more on our union with Christ than the metaphysical components of the bread. Yes, we taste the very flesh because we are already united to it. On the other hand, Cyril is very clear that we eat the holy flesh of Christ “because the flesh has in itself the Word, who is life by nature.”

Conclusion

Although Cyril goes line-by-line through the gospel, this should be approached more as a theological grammar than an actual commentary. As a pre-modern commentary, however, it is up there with the likes of Chrysostom. Not included in the above review are some helpful meditations from Cyril's commentary. See below:

Rhetoric

“Therefore we can truthfully respond to the unholy abomination of the heretics by truthfully saying, “Our enemies are without understanding.’”

“The insane heretic is slow to learn” (1.4.48).

“The children of the Greeks were in love with the wisdom of the world and their minds were saturated with the spirit of the prince of this world” (1.5.65).

“I do not think it is fitting for those who are devoted to learning to have a dainty attitude. They should love to work hard, and they should excel beyond mediocrity in their good efforts with the intention of standing out in displaying single-minded zeal their whole life long” (Comm. 1:39).

“The number three gives us a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is how all time is measured…Therefore, by saying that the marriage was being held on the third day, he signifies the final age” (Comm. 2:11).

Born of water and spirit: “As we enjoy the one who proceeds from the divine nature substantially, we are transformed through him and in him to the archetypal beauty, and in this way, we are reborn into newness of life and refashioned into divine sonship” (Comm. 3:5).

“After all, the fullness of the holy and consubstantial Trinity ascends, as we have already often said, to the one nature and glory of the divinity” (Comm. 5:44).

“The mediation of Moses, however, is ministerial, while the mediation of Christ is free and more mystical, since he touches the parties that are being mediated and reaches both, I mean the mediated human nature and God the Father” (Comm. 5:46).

Those who focus too much on food are given over to “unmanly desires of the belly” (Comm. 6:34).

Notable Comments

With Athansius, Cyril says “I think it is perfectly clear to everyone that the Son is the Word, counsel, will and power of the Father” (Comm. 4:34). Athanasius had also said the Son was the Will of the Father. Cyril clarifies: “Since he is of the same substance, he will also will the same things, or rather since he himself is the living will and power of the Father, he works all in all with the Father” (Comm. 5:17).

“Bread of angels”: “I don’t think it is that difficult to understand, however, that since they are spirits, they would also require that sort of food, namely, spiritual and intellectual food” (Comm. 6:50).

“All things are from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit” (Comm. 6:57).

“He has been sent, rather, in the same way as a word from the mind, as the sun’s rays from the sun itself…When a word has come forth from the mind and a ray from the sun, let’s say, we should not at all suppose that for this reason what begat them is deserted by what has gone out. Instead, we will see the former existing in the latter and the latter existing in the former. A mind, after all, will never be without words, and a word will never fail to be shaped by the mind in it” (Comm. 7:16).

Comm. 7:39. “The Spirit is the Son’s own. He is not supplied from the outside; rather, the Spirit is naturally in the Son, just as he is in the Father, and he proceeds through the Son to the saints, apportioned by the Father to each one as is fitting.” In other words, “Christ did not receive the Spirit for himself but rather for us in himself.”

It is interesting that Cyril’s text of John does not have the pericope of the woman caught in adultery.

The human spirit is a non-natural offspring of the divine Spirit and “is transformed through him toward God in which he stamps his own impression on us and transforms our mind to his own quality, so to speak” (Comm. 3:6).
 
Proofs that the Son is consubstantial with the Father:

[1] The Son is the fullness (From his fullness we have received); therefore, how could he be inferior? Opposing attributes cannot be in the same subject at the same time.
[2] If the Son is lesser, yet fills all the things, where would the greatness of the Father be?
[3] A Being that participates in life is not strictly life; but the Son is life.
[4] That which participates in light isn’t light, yet the Son is the light that lightens creation. Therefore, the Son is other than created reality. There is a distinction of what something is by nature and what things are by participating through grace.

“When [the Father] knows something, he does not know it before the Son does since his mind shows itself, without distance or time, in the imprinted Word who is in him” (1.5.71).
 
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