Cyril of Alexandria on posthumous anathemas

Letter 72 of Cyril of Alexandria, To Proclus, Bishop of Constantinople, is an interesting item.  The Greek is in PG77, column 344, and there is an English translation by John McEnerny in FOC77, p.72 f.  Nestorius has been deposed and exiled, and the hapless Proclus installed in his stead as bishop of Constantinople.  Cyril has won his civil war, and is now concerned to solidify his victory.

But throughout the East some were exceedingly vexed at this, not only of the laity but also of those assigned to the sacred ministry. … Yet by the grace of God either in pretense or in truth they speak and preach one Christ and anathematize the impious verbiage of Nestorius. In the meanwhile things there are in much tranquillity and they run toward what is steadfast in the faith day by day, even those who once were tottering.

But victory in civil war is always arrogant.  Some of Cyril’s supporters have arrived in Constantinople and asked the emperor to use his power to condemn the long-deceased scholar Theodore of Mopsuestia as well.

But his name in the East is great and his writings are admired exceedingly. As they say, all are bearing it hard that a distinguished man, one who died in communion with the churches, now is being anathematized.

Of course Nestorius was indeed following the ideas of Theodore, but Cyril is nothing if not a politician.  An exposition written by Theodore had been condemned at an Eastern synod; but the name of Theodore was not mentioned:

But while condemning those who think in this way, in prudence the synod did not mention the man, nor did it subject him to an anathema by name, through prudence, in order that some by paying heed to the opinion of the man might not cast themselves out of the churches.

The translation is somewhat awkward, or, more likely, Cyril’s prose is itself convoluted.  But what Cyril means here is that, if the synod had understood that Theodore was being condemned, they might have refused to go along with Cyril’s plans.  Cyril calls disagreement with himself “casting yourself out of the church.”  He adds:

Prudence in these matters is the best thing and a wise one.

Then to the matter:

(4) If he were still among the living and was a fellow-warrior with the blasphemies of Nestorius, or desired to agree with what he wrote, he would have suffered the anathema also in his own person. But since he has gone to God, it is enough, as I think, that what he wrote absurdly be rejected by those who hold the true doctrines, since by his books being around the chance to go further sometimes begets pretexts for disturbances.

The second sentence is hard to understand, so I took a look at the PG.

I couldn’t make anything of that either, unfortunately.  The parallel Latin is somewhat obscure also:

Quoniam vero ad Deum abiit, sufficit, ut ego puto, ea quae absurde ab ipso scripta sunt rejici ab iis qui recte sentiunt, cum iis, qui in ipsius libros incidunt, etiam ulterius progredi tumultuum occasiones nonnunquam pariat.

But since he has gone to God, it is sufficient, as I think, for the things which are absurdly written by him to be rejected by those who think rightly; to go still further with these things, which they meet with in his books, may sometimes create the occasions for disturbances.

Not sure about the Latin of the last bit – shout if you can see it better!

And in another way since the blasphemies of Nestorius have been anathematized and rejected, there have been rejected along with them those teachings of Theodore which have the closest connection to those of Nestorius. Therefore, if some of those in the East would do this unhesitatingly, and there was no disturbance expected from it, I would have said that grief at this makes no demands on them now and I would have told them in writing.

I have read this several times.  I think Cyril is saying that, if the Easterners were happy about rejecting Theodore, then nothing need be done about him; and that Cyril would be happy to say so in writing to them; a writing that could be held in evidence against him, in the putrid politics of the time.

(5) But if, as my lord, the most holy Bishop of Antioch, John, writes, they would choose rather to be burned in a fire than do any such thing, for what purpose do we rekindle the flame that has quieted down and stir up inopportunely the disturbances which have ceased lest perhaps somehow the last may be found to be worse than the first?

This seems to mean that he has heard from “the most holy John”, his political foe, that the Easterners are NOT happy about rejecting Theodore, and if they have to do so, may reject Cyril’s settlement entirely, and go back to supporting Nestorius.

And I say these things although violently objecting to the things which Theodore, already mentioned, has written and although suspecting the disturbances which will be on the part of some because of the action, lest somehow some may begin to grieve for the teachings of Nestorius as a contrivance in the fashion of that spoken of by the poet among the Greeks, “They mourned in semblance for Patroclus but each one mourned her own sorrows.”

He thinks the Easterners will rally around the name of Theodore, while meaning Nestorius.

(6) If, therefore, these words please your holiness, deign to indicate it, in order that it may be settled by a letter from both of us. It is possible even for those who ask these things to explain the prudence of the matter and persuade them to choose to be quiet rather and not to become an occasion of scandal to the churches.

So, he continues, please tell my partisans from me to shut up, stop rocking the boat, and let the Easterners get used to the idea of rejecting Nestorius.

It is obviously unfair to condemn a man who died in the peace of the church for saying things that were later turned into a big argument.  Cyril says something of the sort, but I’m not sure that this is the thrust of his argument  His appeal is instead to politics and prudence.  Principles are for free men, and the world that he lived in was not such a society.

On the other hand it’s easy to be unfair to Cyril.  He was effectively the political leader of Egypt, as his predecessor had been, and as his successors were to be.  His life was entirely a matter of politics.  Politics is the art of the possible.  Cyril did not think that condemning Theodore at this time was possible, even though he would have liked to.


3 thoughts on “Cyril of Alexandria on posthumous anathemas

  1. About the tricky bit: I think McEnerny with “by his books being around” took περιτυγχάνουσι (“happen to be about”) as a participle agreeing with βίβλοις, but this is impossible since βίβλοις is feminine (the part. would have to be περιτυγχανούσαις), and it leaves ὅτε without a verb. περιτυγχάνουσι has to be a 3rd pl. verb (“encounter, stumble upon”) governing dat. βίβλοις. This is how I read it: “it is enough, in my opinion, that those who hold the right opinions reject the absurdities he wrote [lit. things written absurdly by him] when they come across his books; and to go any further is what creates motives for disturbances”.

    There are two translations that seem to agree with this: Revue d’histoire ecclésiastique 38 p. 320 (via Google Preview), and a commentary by Leo Allatius in Angelo Mai’s Patrum Nova Bibliotheca 6 p. 124:

    “Évidemment, si Théodore vivait, ce serait un autre affaire; mais comme il est mort il suffit que les orthodoxes rejettent ces choses inadmissibles qu’il a écrites, lorsqu’ils tombent sur ses livres. Aller plus loin engendrerait probablement des troubles.”

    “Si enim viveret nunc, et defensor esset blasphemiarum Nestorii, seu tueri suo patrocinio vellet ea, quae ipse scripserat, utique etiam in propria persona anathemate feriretur: at cum ad Deum migraverit, sat est, prout ego censeo, quae absurda et inepta ab eo conscripta sunt, expungi ab iis, qui recte sentiunt, quando eius libri occurrant; ulterius autem progredi, esset plane turbarum causas excitare.”

  2. Thank you for looking at this. That looks very much better, doesn’t it. It does indeed make much more sense to connect the books with the first part of the sentence, and have a sentence break after. Possibly the PG punctuation has confused everyone here. (I didn’t come across the other two translations!)

  3. The first Sunday of the Great Lent is the Sunday of Orthodoxy, when we commemorate the restoration of the icons by the 7th Ecumenical Council. The restoration ceremony includes a large number of anathemas to long dead political and religious figures. In the parish churches they just go through with a generic anathema to the anathematized. In places though where they actually have a lot of time, such as monasteries they read the whole long list of who is getting anathematized.

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