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Is Doctrine Worth Sacrificing Your Life?

September 18, 2010

Cyril of Alexandria is remembered by many as the consumate ecclesiastical thug, a ruthless politician who used bribes and other shams to accomplish his goal of increasing his own importance, whatever the cost. This caricature goes back at least as far as Edward Gibbon’s eighteenth-century Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and is still frequently heard today. In fact, while I was in seminary, a professor warned me about studying Cyril due to this supposed fault of his.

There is no doubt that Cyril was an effective polemicist and rhetorician, and as all admit, ancient doctrinal debates (or modern ones for that matter) were inextricably bound up with political motivations. However, a close reading of the sources reveals that it was not merely politics that motivated Cyril, but a love for the truth, and a desire that it be upheld against those opinions which would destroy it. To give but one instance of this side of the great archbishop, consider the passage below, occurring in a letter from his hand.

I love peace; there is nothing that I detest more than quarrels and disputes. I love everybody, and if I could heal one of the brethren by losing my possessions and goods, I am willing to do so joyfully; because it is concord that I value most . . . But there is a question of the faith and of a scandal which concerns all the churches of the Roman Empire . . . The sacred doctrine is entrusted to us . . . How can we remedy these evils? . . . I am ready to endure with tranquility all blame, all humiliations, all injuries provided that the faith is not endangered. I am filled with love for Nestorius, nobody loves him more than I do . . . If, in accordance with Christ’s commandment, we must love our very enemies themselves, is it not natural that we should be united in a special affection to those who are our friends and brethren in the priesthood? But when the faith is attacked, we must not hesitate to sacrifice our life itself. And if we fear to preach the truth because that causes us some inconvenience, how, in our gatherings, can we chant the combats and triumphs of our holy martyrs?

Quote in Frances M. Young and Andrew Teal, From Nicaea to Chalcedon, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 298-299.

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