Book Review: On The Unity Of Christ

On The Unity Of Christ, by St. Cyril of Alexandria

Being a reader deeply interested in the Monophysite controversy, which is a deeply obscure one even if it had momentous historical consequences for Christendom in the Middle East, sometimes means reading material that is of great importance but not necessarily well known [1].  In the case of this particular book, the context of the book is as important as its contents.  The occasion for the writing of this deeply entertaining rhetorical exercise was the dispute over Nestorian beliefs that posited two separate natures of Jesus Christ.  The author, of course, represented what was then an orthodox perspective of defending the unity of Christ against the heretical division between Christ as human being and as son of God.  Unfortunately, though, for Christendom in Egypt as a whole, the author’s own political issues meant that his triumph against his opponents in the Christological disputes about the nature of Christ was marred by problems at home that led to the foundation of the Coptic Church and the split of Christendom in the Middle East between no less than three separate and hostile traditions whose views on Christ divided them irrevocably to the present-day.

This short book of about 150 pages or so is mostly divided into two parts.  After some abbreviations and a preface, the first third of the book or so is taken up by an introduction that contains a great deal of biographical information about Cyril as well as some discussions about the Christological doctrinal beliefs of the author.  The author argues, reasonably, that a great deal of the problems that Alexandrine (Coptic) Christianity faced after the fall and death of Cyril could have been resolved with a more savvy and less ferocious bishop who was capable of defending his position with nuance, but the local church politics of Egypt and the greater church politics dealing with Asia Minor were ultimately at cross purposes.  Most of the rest of the book is taken up with the work On The Unity of Christ as a whole, which is a humorous dialogue where Cyril (A.) continuously makes short work of his less able Nestorian debate partner B.  If you like debates of this nature where the author makes his own side far more appealing and makes the other side a bit ridiculous but not entirely so, this book will likely be one to enjoy.  After this comes an index and an index of biblical references.

There are a few obvious insights that one can gain in reading this book.  For one, this book shows the clear intellectual nature of Hellenistic Christianity in its love of Greek rhetoric, where scripture is used, but where the main focus is on impressing pagan and pagan-educated readers with the excellence and skill of one’s argumentation.  For another, the author’s forthright and able defense of the unity of Christ led others to argue for the unity of Christ in ways that were (if biblically sound) unacceptable to others at the time which had different concerns relating to the nature of Christ.  The humor of this book, therefore, has a somewhat melancholy edge in that its position about the unity of Christ helped prompt an argument about that unity that destroyed the unity of Christendom in that part of the world, where Cyril’s successors proved themselves less politically able and less able to express themselves with nuance and moderation in order to preserve that ecclesiastical union, which had fateful consequences for the well-being of Christianity in the Eastern Roman Empire that no one could foresee at the time.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Book Reviews, Christianity, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: On The Unity Of Christ

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

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