St. Cyril’s “One Physis or Hypostasis of God the Logos Incarnate” and Chalcedon

From Dr. John Romanides’ St. Cyril’s “One Physis or Hypostasis of God the Logos Incarnate” and Chalcedon:

StCyrilofAlexandria.jpgBoth Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Orthodox accept St. Cyril as the chief Patristic exponent of Orthodox Christology. Yet both accuse each other of not remaining completely faithful to Cyril.

The non-Chalcedonian Orthodox reject the Council of Chalcedon and accuse it of Nestorianism because it accepted the Tome of Leo, two natures after the union, and allegedly omitted from its definition of faith such Cyrillian expressions as One Nature of God the Logos Incarnate, hypostatic or natural union, and from two natures or from two One Christ. The failure of Chalcedon to make full use of Cyril’s Twelve Chapters, to condemn the Christology of Theodore, and its acceptance of Theodoret and Ibas throws suspicion on it. Then there is the weighty accusation that the very act of composing a new definition of the faith contradicted the decision of Ephesus (431) which decreed that, It is unlawful for anyone to bring forward or to write or to compose another Creed besides that determined by the Holy Fathers assembled with the Holy Spirit in Nicaea. [ 2 ]

The Chalcedonian Orthodox, on the other hand, believe that it was Cyril’s Christology which was not only fully accepted at Ephesus, but served as the basis of all judgments concerning Christology at Ghalcedon in 451 and especially at Constantinople in 553. In spite of its obvious deficiencies the Tome of Leo is adequately Orthodox, definitely not Nestorian, and was accepted only as a document against Eutyches, but again only in the light of and in subordination to the synodical letters (especially the Twelve Chapters) of Cyril to Nestorius and John of Antioch, as we shall see. The terminology and faith of Cyril were fully accepted, although the Eutychian heresy, the chief concern of the Council, called for some adaptation to the new situation. One may point out that the acceptance of the Chalcedonian definition was no different from the acceptance of Cyril’s letters at Ephesus. Neither the one act nor the other can be considered as a composition of a new Creed. They are both interpretations and clarifications of the Nicaean faith m the light of modern circumstances. It is noteworthy that even Cyril had to defend himself against the accusation that he accepted a new Creed in his reconciliatory correspondence with John of Antioch. [ 3 ] Theodoret and Ibas were restored to the episcopacy because they accepted Ephesus I and especially the Twelve Chapters, which acceptance is in itself a condemnation of what they had written about and against Cyril and his anathemas. The Fifth Ecumenical Council of 553 anathematized the writings of Theodoret and Ibas against Cyril and the very person of Theodore, the Father of Nestorianism.

The non-Chalcedonian Orthodox have been for centuries accusing the Chalcedonian Orthodox of being Nestortans. On the other hand, the Chalcedonians have been accusing the non-Chalcedonians of either being monophysites (which for them means believers in one ousia in Christ) or of a one-sided insistence on Cyrillian terminology to the exclusion of Cyril’s own acceptance of two natures in the confession of faith of john of Antioch which brought about the reconciliation of 433. This one-sidedness was adopted by the Ephesine Council of 449 and rejected by the Council of Chalcedon. It should also be noted that the Flavian Endemousa Synod of 448 was one-sided in its use of and insistence on the Cyrillian terminology of the 433 reconciliation to the near exclusion of Cyril’s normal way of speaking about the incarnation. From Chalcedon and especially from Constantinople II it is clear that the Chalcedonians without compromise allow for variations in terms which express the same faith. On the non-Chalcedonian side Severus of Antioch seems to be the only one who comes close to Cyril’s acceptance of two natures tei theoriai monei after the union, a position adopted at Chalcedon and clearly stated in the definition or anathemas of the Fifth Ecumenical Council. . . .

1) Nestorius rejected the fact that He Who was born of the Virgin is consubstantial with the Father according to divinity and thus by nature God. Another way of saying this is that he rejected the fact that He Who before the ages is born from and is consubstantial with the Father was in the last days born according to His Own and proper humanity from the Virgin Mary having become thus by nature man and consubstantial with us. On the basis of this rejection Nestorius distorted the true significance of the title Theotokos which he in reality denied to the Mother of God. The most Nestorius could say is that Christ is the one person of the union of two natures, the one nature being by nature God and the other by nature man. The name Christ is not properly predicated of the Logos, but is the narne of the person of union born of Mary and in whom the Logos dwells and who was assumed by the Logos. Nestorius fanatically insisted that the Logos was not born of the Virgin according to His Humanity and did not, therefore, become by nature man. On the basis of this he divided the natures and predicates of Christ attributing the human to the assumed man and the divine to the Logos.

In the light of his denial of the two births of the Logos and the double consubstantiality of the One and the Same Logos, Son of God and the Self-Same also Son of Mary, and thus of the true meaning of the title Theotokos, Nestorius insistence that he does not divide Christ into two persons, but only the natures and names, was judged a mockery of the faith and on this basis he was condemned by the Third and Fourth Ecumenical Councils and rejected by John of Antioch and Leo of Rome.

I have indicated elsewhere [ 4 ] that the reconciliation of 433 between Cyril and john was brought about by the Antiochene’s confession of the double birth and consubstantiality of “our Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of God, the very doctrine rejected so violently by Nestorius and even by Theodoret, as we shall see shortly. In his confession john clearly declares that the Only begotten Son of God was before the ages begotten from the Father according to His Divinity, and in the last days the Self-same (ton auton) for us and for our salvation, (begotten) of Mary the Virgin according to His Humanity, the Self-same (ton auton-note that he is here speaking clearly about the Only begotten Son and not the Nestorian and Theodoretan Prosopon of the union of two natures) consubstantial with the Father according to Divinity and consubstantial with us according to Humanity.” [ 5 ] For Cyril this confession of faith meant that the title Theotokos and the incarnation were accepted in their full and true significance, in spite of the fact that John spoke of “a union of two natures, whereby we confess One Christ, One Son, One Lord.”

In his letter to Acacius of Melitene [ 6 ] Cyril is quite emphatic about the fact that this Antiochene confession of the double birth and double consubstantiality of the One and the Same Logos cannot be suspected of Nestorianism since this is exactly what Nestorius denies. [ 7 ] To the objection that two natures after the union means a predication of two separate kinds of names, divine and human, to two separate natures, Cyril replies that to divide names does not mean necessarily a division of natures, hypostases, or persons, since all names are predicated of the one Logos. The division of names is considered as a safeguard against Arians and Eunomians who by confusing them sought to demonstrate the creatureliness of the Logos and His inferiority to the Father. The names, and not the natures, are divided in order to distinguish the real difference of the natures or things out of which Christ is composed, and not to divide them, since they can be distinguished after the union in contemplation only. [ 8 ]

Of course Cyril prefers to speak of One Nature or Hypostasis of God the Logos Incarnate and become man, since this better safeguards the union and the attribution of all things pertaining to Christ to the Logos as the subject of all human and divine actions. For Cyril Physis means a concrete individual acting as subject in its own right and according to its own natural properties. Thus the One Nature of God the Logos Incarnate, having by His second birth appropriated to Himself a perfect, complete and real Manhood, has as His Own both the ousia and natural properties common to all men, whereby it is the Logos Himself Who is Christ and lives really and truly the life of man without any change whatsoever in his Divinity, having remained what He always was. To speak about two natures in Christ would be somewhat equivalent to a Chalcedonian speaking about two Hypostases in Christ. In this respect ‘a Chalcedonian would accept and does accept everything Cyril says but would use Cyril’s One Hypostasis of God the Logos Incarnate, since for him Physis means Ousia. The one very essential point which Cyril makes and which some day may be given adequate consideration by the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox is that whatever one s insistence on theological accuracy in expression may be, it is sheer caricature to accuse anyone of being Nestorian who accepts the double birth and double consubstantiality of the Logos as the basis for the title Theotokos, as well as for the predication of all human and divine attributes and energies to the Logos Who is the sole subject incarnate and acting, both according to His Divinity and His Own appropriated Manhood. This is what Theodore, Nestorius, and Theodoret denied and this is the essence of Orthodoxy. St. Cyril saw this clearly and it is our duty to place this at the centre of our discussions.

2) There is no doubt that Leo tended to separate or distinguish the acts of Christ in such a way that the two natures seem to be acting as separate subjects, a tendency explainable by what he imagined Eutyches was teaching and by his Latin formation wherein Greek Trinitarian terms used in Christology were not available to him. He so obviously failed to understand how the term One Nature was being used in the East, and especially during the Endemousa Synod of 448. This is why a non-Chalcedonian reading the Tome should read ousia upon coming across natura, since Leo was dealing with the information he had received that Eutyches denied Christ’s consubstantiality with us. His expression of utter amazement that the judges did not severely censure Eutyches when making such a statement as, I confess that our Lord was from two Natures before the Union, but after the Union I admit but one Nature, confirms the confusing of his own natura and the Greek ousia with physis. Then Eutyches own confusion of the terms ousia and physis did not help the matter any.

Nevertheless, Leo is very clear in his acceptance of the antiNestorian standard of Orthodoxy accepted by Cyril. Leo declares clearly in his Tome that “the Self-same who was the Only-begotten and Everlasting One of the Everlasting Parent, was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. And this birth in time takes away nothing from that divine and eternal birth, nor does it add anything to it….”[ 9 ]

The definition of Chalcedon is also clear in this respect. “Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all unanimously teach that our Lord Jesus Christ is to us One and the same Son, the Self-same of a rational soul and body, consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, the Self-same consubstantial with us according to the Manhood… before the ages begotten of the Father according to the Godhead, but in the last days, the Self-same, for us and for our salvation (born) of Mary the Virgin Theotokos according to the Manhood….”[ 10 ]

Returning to Leo s Tome it is important to point out that at Chalcedon it was accepted only as a document against the heresy of Eutyches, in spite of the fact that both Leo and his legates believed it to be a good statement against Nestorius also. It is even more important to keep in mind that during its reading at Session II the three now famous Nestorian sounding passages were each one challenged as the document was being read. During each interruption it was attacked and defended by the use of parallel passages from Cyril. [ 11 ] After what must have been a somewhat stormy and long debate, bishop Atticos of Nikopolis in Old Epirus, Greece, made the motion that time out be taken to give the assembly the opportunity to carefully compare Leo s Tome with the Twelve Chapters of Cyril in order to make sure of what they were approving.[ 12 ] The imperial representatives chairing the meeting gave the bishops five days in which to do this and suggested the formation of a committee under the presidency of Anatolius, Patriarch of Constantinople. [ 13 ] The committee reported back at the fourth session, at the beginning of which the imperial and senatorial representatives declared the unswerving faith of the emperor in the expositions of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Ephesus with its approval of the two canonical letters of Cyril, i.e., the Second and Third to Nestorius.[ 14 ] This profession of the imperial faith had been made also at the end of Session I, [ 15 ] and now in anticipation of the committee’s report on the question of Leo s agreement with Cyril’s Twelve Chapters it was repeated. The committee report [ 16 ] was included in the minutes in the form of a listing of the individual opinions of its members, all of whom expressed their belief that Leo’s Tome agreed with Nicaea, Ephesus, and the letter of Cyril. Most of the bishops mentioned the (one) letter of Cyril, [ 17 ] which cannot be any other than the Twelve Chapters since this was the one the Illyrians and Palestinians were concerned about as is clear from the motion of the Illyrian Atticos which initiated the careful comparison of Leo’s Tome with the letter of Cyril. Some of the members mentioned their belief that the Tome agreed with the two letters of Cyril, dearly referring to the ones of Ephesus mentioned as part of the imperial faith. It is extremely interesting to note that among the similar individual opinions given by the rest of the Assembly and recorded in the minutes is that of none other than Theodoret of Cyrus, [ 18 ] who claims that he finds the Tome of Leo in agreement with the letters of Cyril and the Council of Ephesus, certainly a tremendous leap from his position just before the Council. In the light of his strong hesitation at Session VIII to anathematize Nestorius, a hesitation which infuriated the assembly, one wonders about his sincerity, especially since he tried to defend his former acts by an exposition of how he never taught two Sons. He was interrupted by shouts of “Nestorian. [ 19 ]”

The acceptance of Leo s Tome in the light of and in subordination to the letters of Cyril is also clearly contained in the Chalcedonian definition itself. [ 20 ] It is declared that the Council accepts the Synodical (the Third letter to Nestorius is titled synodical, or since this is in the plural it could be a reference to the two of Ephesus, which in the minutes are called canonical, plus the one to John) letters of Cyril to Nestorius and to those of the East, “and to which (epistles) it reasonably adapted the letter of Leo … (epistolas… hais kai ten epistolen tou Leontos… eikotos syncrmose…).” This is not a of a balance between Cyril and Leo, as many scholars would have us believe. Leo became very sensitive about the doubts raised about his tome, and especially disturbed did he become over determined opposition in certain quarters like Palestine where Juvenal was deposed for accepting the Tome. In a letter to Julian of Cos (cxvli, 3) in which he shows much concern with accusations of heresy against himself, he writes that,…if they think there is any doubt about our teaching, let them at least not reject the writings of such holy priests as Athanasius, Theophilus and Cyril of Alexandria, with whom our statement of the faith so completely harmonizes that anyone who professes consent to them disagrees in nothing with us. No one can doubt the sincerity with which Leo wanted to be in agreement with those Alexandrine Fathers, but his defense of Theodoret compromised him. In a letter to the now restored Bishop of Cyrus he chides Theodoret for the tardy way in which he anathematized Nestorius (cxx, 5), yet in his opening remarks of this very same letter he speaks of “the victory you [Theodoret] and we together had won by assistance from on high over the blasphemy of Nestorius, as well as over the madness of Eutyches. Dioscoros relationship to Eutyches may have some parallels.

The Chalcedonian definition also speaks of itself as preserving the order and all the decrees concerning the Faith passed by the Holy Synod held formerly at Ephesus…. [ 21 ] From Ibas ad Marim Persam and from the minutes of the Johannine Council of Ephesus, we learn that the Antiochenes rejected the Cyrillian Council of Ephesus and damned Cyril because the heretical Twelve Chapters had been accepted. [ 22 ] In this same letter Ibas (as were many of Cyril’s friends and Theodoret) [ 23 ] was under the impression that Cyril abandoned his Ephesine position in his reconciliation with john in 433. [ 24 ] However, Ibas stated at his trial in Byretus in 449 that Paul of Emessa had accepted the Alexandrine bishops interpretation of the Twelve Chapters as Cyril had accepted the confession of the Easterners. [ 25 ] It is in the light of this that one should read the letter of john to the bishops of Rome, Alexandria, and Constantinople (the order of the letter) in which he announces Antioch’s acceptance of Nestorius excommunication and the Council of Ephesus. [ 26 ] It is impossible to accept the opinion of many that Cyril laid aside his Twelve Chapters for the sake of a reconciliation with john. As an individual he had no authority whatsoever to modify the decisions of an Ecumenical Council and there is no evidence to substantiate this supposition. Although the Endemousa Synod of Constantinople seems to have overemphasized the Cyrillian allowances of 433, it accepted the Twelve Chapters as part of Ephesus which it approved in toto. [ 27 ]

In the light of the evidence it is clear that Cyril’s Third letter to Nestorius, including the Twelve Chapters, was not repudiated by Chalcedon as many claim. On the contrary, the Twelve Chapters, were used as the very basis of the Council’s attitudes toward Nestorianism and Leo’s Tome. It is too bad that the Chalcedonians themselves present at the Council of 531 in Constantinople did not fully realize the crucial role played at Chalcedon by Cyill’s Twelve Chapters. Their answer to Severus accusation that the Twelve Chapters were laid aside in 451 was that it was accepted and approved as part of Ephesus i. This, of course, is incontestable, but not anywhere near the reality of the matter. The significance of the use made of the Twelve Chapters at Chalcedon should be obvious enough to those who claim that they fail to find the terms characteristic of Cyrillian Christology in the definition. Groundless also are the theories (brought forward by many Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars embarrassed by the Cyrillianism of the Fifth Ecumenical Council) concerning an alleged neo Chalcedonian rnovement which was supposed to have put Leo’s Tome aside and returned to the Twelve Chapters of Ephesus I, especially to the twelfth anathema. The truth of the matter is that in pronouncing anathema on those who do not accept the Twelve Chapters of Cyril, the Fifth Ecumenical Council of 553 is simply repeating what was done at Ephesus in 431 and again at Chalcedon in 451. . . .

Cyril does use ousia and physis as synonymous when speaking of the Holy Trinity. [ 59 ] There is no question of course about his use of physis as equivalent to hypostasis. Yet he never speaks of there being one ousia in Christ and clearly speaks of the flesh of Christ as being consubstantial with ours. [ 60 ] In Christology he uses physis, hypostasis, and prosopon as synonymous, yet he never, as far as I know, speaks of Two Prosopa before the union and one after, as he does with the other two terms. Equivalent to his One Nature of God the Logos Incarnate is his One Hypostasis of God the Logos Incarnate of his Third Letter to Nestorius [ 61 ] and his Defense of the Twelve Chapters. [ 62 ] In the light of all this and all which was said at Chalcedon, the anathema pronounced in the definition on those who say two natures before the union and one after the union was intended for anyone with Eutyches who denied that Christ is consubstantial with us. There is no doubt that the definition should have contained the phrase or ousia as one finds after the phrase one physis in the eighth and ninth anathemas of the Fifth Ecumenical Council. This would have avoided much misunderstanding. It perhaps was not done at the Fourth because possibly Cyril’s One Nature of God the Logos was taken as equivalent to One Ousia and the word Incarnate as equivalent to a second ousia or physis. That this was possible is borne out clearly by the Flavian Synod of 448, as well as the explanations given by both Eusebius and Flavian at Ephesus in 449, as we have already indicated.

It should be noted that One Hypostasis of God the Logos Incarnate and not One Physis of God the Logos Incarnate is to be found in Cyril’s Third Letter to Nestorius approved by Ephesus and Chalcedon. These terms are, of course, absolutely synonymous for Cyril. Yet it seems very obvious that at the Flavian Synod of 448 and at Chalcedon, the true Cyrillian meaning or usage of One Nature was overlooked simply because the phrase One Nature after the union was not contained in the synodical letters of Cyril which alone were familiar to all participants of both Councils. . . .


[ 2 ] Mansi, iv, 1361.

[ 3 ] P.G., 77, 188.

[ 4 ] See my article, ‘Highlights in the Debate Over Theodore of Mopsuestia’ s Christology’ in The Creek Orthodox Theological Review, vol. v, no. 2 (1959-60), pp. 140-185

[ 5 ] Mansi, iv, 292.

[ 6 ] P.G., 77, 184-201. See also Ep. ad Eulogium, P.G., 77, 224-228; Ep. ad Successum I and II, P.G., 77, 228-245.

[ 7 ] P.G., 77, l89-l92, l97.

[ 8 ] P.G., 77, 193-l97.

[ 9 ] T. H. Bindley, The Ecumenical Documents of the Faith (London, 1950), p. 224.

[ 10 ] Mansi, vii, 116

[ 11 ] Mansi, vi, 972-973.

[ 12 ] Mansi, vi, 973.

[ 13 ] Mansi, vi, 973.

[ 14 ] Mansi, vii, 8.

[ 15 ] Mansi, vi, 937.

[ 16 ] Mansi, vii, 48.

[ 17 ] Mansi, vii, 36-45.

[ 18 ] Mansi, vii, 20.

[ 19 ] Mansi, vii, 188-192.

[ 20 ] Mansi, vii, 113.

[ 21 ] Mansi, vii l09.

[ 22 ] Mansi, rv 1265 ff.; .vii, 244-245.

[ 23 ] Ep. CLXXI, P.G., 83, 1484.

[ 24 ] Mansi, vii, 248.

[ 25 ] Mansi, vii 240.

[ 26 ] Mansi, v, 285.

[ 27 ] Mansi, vi, 665. . . .

[ 59 ] E.g., Ad Monachos, P.G., 77, 17.

[ 60 ] Mansi, vii, 677.

[ 61 ] P.G., 77p 116.

[ 62 ] Apologia Cap. II, P.G., 76, 401A

2 thoughts on “St. Cyril’s “One Physis or Hypostasis of God the Logos Incarnate” and Chalcedon

  1. Wonderful information about St. Cyril of Alexandria. I was a little disappointed that St. Cyril of Jerusalem wasn’t highlighted, however, since it was his Feast Day. Oh well. LOVE the site. Thank you for all the work you do!

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