ON JANUARY 18 the Byzantine Churches remember two monumental archbishops of Alexandria, Athanasius the Great and Cyril I. These hierarchs lived in the fourth and fifth centuries respectively, at a time when the administrative structures as well as the fundamental theology of the Church were being fixed. Both were instrumental in combatting major heresies on the nature of Christ. Athanasius championed the fight against Arianism while Cyril stood against the teachings of Nestorios, defeating him at the Third Ecumenical Council (Ephesus, 431).
Today the second largest city in Egypt, Alexandria was founded in the fourth century BC by Alexander the Great as a link between Greece and the fertile Nile valley. Within a century it had become the largest city in the Mediterranean world and the leading center of Hellenistic culture. It was the capital of Egypt for almost 1000 years, as well and the home of the world’s largest library until the Islamic conquest in the seventh century AD.
Alexandria was also the home of the largest Jewish community in the ancient world. It was this community which produced the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures in the late second century BC. The Septuagint was used by Christians from the beginning of the Church and is quoted regularly in the New Testament. It became the basis for the Latin and other translations that were developed with the spread of the Gospel in the first millennium.
By the time of St Constantine the Great, when the persecution of Christians ceased, Alexandria was the intellectual center of the Church, home to such theologians as Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Egypt was also the spiritual center of monasticism which first arose there with Saints Anthony and Pachomios. When local Churches were ranked at the First Ecumenical Council, Alexandria was declared the first see after Rome.
With the establishment of Constantinople a few years later as the “New Rome” a rivalry grew up between these two Churches, which was only resolved at the Fourth Ecumenical Council (Chalcedon, 451) when the imperial capital displaced Alexandria as the second see in Christendom.
St Athanasius the Great (c. 297–373)
Born and educated in the Christian community of Alexandria, Athanasius was ordained a deacon in 319 and attended the First Ecumenical Council in 325 as aide to his archbishop, Alexander. The Council confronted Arianism, the belief that Christ’s essence was similar to that of God (in Greek, homoiousios) rather than one with Him (homoousios). The Council affirmed the latter belief and incorporated it into the Nicene Creed which confesses Christ as “one in essence with the Father.” Despite the Council, Arianism remained a problem for the Church for the rest of the century.
On the archbishop’s death in 328 the young Athanasius was elected to succeed him. In his 45 years as Archbishop of Alexandria Athanasios spent 17 years in exile, deposed by the emperors Constantius II and Valens, who were sympathetic to the Arians, as well as by Julian the Apostate. Because of these conflicts – and because he prevailed against them all – he came to be known as “Athanasius Against the World.”
Exiled to Gaul, Germany and Rome Athanasius found himself in the position of being the champion of Nicene Orthodoxy throughout the Christian world. He distinguished himself as the Church’s principal theologian against Arianism, teaching that the purpose of Christ’s incarnation is our deification: “God became man so that we might become divine.” He concluded that, since our union with the Father is based on our union with Christ, our deification depends on Christ being divine. The same, he reasoned, was true of the Holy Spirit; his teaching would be confirmed at the Second Ecumenical Council (381), a few years after his death on May 2, 373. Athanasius is revered in all the historic Churches of East and West.
St Cyril I of Alexandria (c. 376–444)
Like Athanasius, St Cyril was involved in theological controversies over the nature of Christ and was endorsed at an Ecumenical Council (Ephesus, 431). While Athanasius contested with pro-Arian emperors, Cyril was in conflict with his rival for the second place in the hierarchy, Nestorios, the Archbishop of Constantinople.
Cyril was the nephew of Archbishop Theophilus of Alexandria, the implacable enemy of St John Chrysostom. Cyril accompanied Theophilus to Constantinople where that bishop held the “Synod of the Oak” in 402 and deposed Chrysostom. Theophilus died on Oct 15, 412; on the 18th and Cyril was consecrated to succeed his uncle.
For some years Cyril refused to commemorate St John Chrysostom in the diptychs of his Church, in spite of the requests of Chrysostom’s successor. He excluded from the Church the Novatians whom his uncle had tolerated. He also engaged in a long-standing rivalry with Orestes, the Prefect of Egypt who was jealous of the archbishop’s influence over the people. Cyril’s deepest resentment, however, was for Nestorios, the Archbishop of Constantinople.
On becoming archbishop, Nestorios found himself embroiled in a local controversy involving those who believed that God had been incarnate in Christ and that therefore the Holy Virgin was Theotokos. Others felt that it was only Christ’s humanity which had been born and that therefore Theotokos was not an appropriate title. Nestorios’ own teaching seemed to favor the anti-Theotokos faction and the battle was enjoined. A series of councils attempting to deal with the issue culminated in the Third Ecumenical Council, over which St Cyril presided.
Cyril had legitimate theological reasons for opposing Nestorios – it was not an abstract nature which was born in Bethlehem but a Person. The Holy Virgin gave birth to that Person who was God the Word Incarnate. However Cyril so manipulated events by excluding pro-Nestorios bishops and inciting the crowds including the monks to riot against the “ungodly” that the emperor, Theodosios II, labeled him a “proud pharaoh.” Nevertheless, when the Council deposed Nestorios and condemned his teaching, the Emperor exiled him to a monastery in Egypt where Cyril could keep an eye on him.
The Church saw Cyril’s teaching as decisive in the development of theology and praises him as a Pillar of Faith and “the Seal of all the Fathers.” Besides his important essays On the Incarnation and That Christ Is One, Cyril wrote extensive commentaries on the Gospels which still survive. His concept of Christ as “One nature of the Word of God incarnate” would be refined in the Fourth Ecumenical Council (Chalcedon, 451) by the teachings of St Leo the Great, Pope of Rome.
The Church of Alexandria was divided in the wake of the Council of Chalcedon. The Greeks accepted St Leo’s clarification but the native speakers (Copts) did not, feeling that it went against St Cyril’s teaching. In time two Churches were formed: the majority Coptic (Oriental) Orthodox and the Greek Orthodox (centered in Alexandria).