Catechetical Lectures: Points of Doctrine

St. Cyril’s Catechetical Lectures (Part IV)

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, etc.
—Colossians 2:8

With this passage, St. Cyril begins his instruction on proper doctrine for the catechumen. It seems this lecture is being framed as the opposite of what Paul referred to as “vain deceit”. The following is a brief overview of St. Cyril’s main points of doctrine for the Christian believer.

For the method of godliness consists of these two things, pious doctrines, and virtuous practice: and neither are the doctrines acceptable to God apart from good works, nor does God accept the works which are not perfected with pious doctrines.
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:2

An important point as he begins, St. Cyril is careful to articulate that Orthodoxy comes with orthopraxy.

God

In a format that seems to follow the Nicene Creed—which was just formulated at the time he was teaching—St. Cyril first addresses the Godhead:

First then let there be laid as a foundation in your soul the doctrine concerning God; that God is One, alone unbegotten, without beginning, change, or variation ; neither begotten of another, nor having another to succeed Him in His life; who neither began to live in time, nor ends ever: and that He is both good and just; that if ever thou hear a heretic say, that there is one God who is just, and another who is good, you may immediately remember, and discern the poisoned arrow of heresy.
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:4

We see immediately that St. Cyril is describing the attributes of God; He is uncreated, unchanging, eternal, timeless, good, and just. All of these are, then, well-established teachings of the early Church, and expressed by those teaching the faith.

There is then One Only God, the Maker both of souls and bodies: One the Creator of heaven and earth, the Maker of Angels and Archangels: of many the Creator, but of One only the Father before all ages—of One only, His Only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, by Whom He made all things visible and invisible.
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:4

This is almost verbatim the words of the Creed regarding the Father and the Son. “…before all ages” and “…all things visible and invisible” could quite possibly be direct references, if not quotes, of the Creed itself.

Christ

St. Cyril next speaks directly of the Son:

Believe also in the Son of God, One and Only, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who was begotten God of God, begotten Life of Life, begotten Light of Light , Who is in all things like to Him that begot, Who received not His being in time, but was before all ages eternally and incomprehensibly begotten of the Father: The Wisdom and the Power of God, and His Righteousness personally subsisting : Who sits on the right hand of the Father before all ages.
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:7

Here again, we see language which seems to directly reflect the Nicene Creed. I promise, this won’t be a broken record the entire article, but as for the base foundations of trinitarian theology, St. Cyril is expressing staunchly Nicene teachings.

For the throne at God’s right hand He received not, as some have thought, because of His patient endurance, being crowned as it were by God after His Passion; but throughout His being—a being by eternal generation
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:7

Here St. Cyril makes a correction to an errant teaching he identifies as being present among some: that Jesus was given His seat at the right hand of the Father as a reward for passion. I do find it interesting that this teaching—which seems like a form of adoptionism—was being addressed and explicitly refuted even in the fourth century (and probably earlier). Sadly, modern scholars still put forth this theory as the belief of the ancient Church in clear contradiction to what we see here.

Rather than this error, St. Cyril teaches that Christ has been seated at the right hand of the Father for all eternity.

Further, do thou neither separate the Son from the Father, nor by making a confusion believe in a Son-Fatherhood; but believe that of One God there is One Only-begotten Son, who is before all ages God the Word
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:8

Further emphasizing the unity of the Son and the Father here, St. Cyril makes a clear distinction of the persons without dividing the essence within the Godhead.

The Virgin Birth

Having discussed the nature of Christ, we now turn to His birth:

Believe then that this Only-begotten Son of God for our sins came down from heaven upon earth, and took upon Him this human nature of like passions with us, and was begotten of the Holy Virgin and of the Holy Ghost, and was made Man, not in seeming and mere show , but in truth; nor yet by passing through the Virgin as through a channel ; but was of her made truly flesh
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:9

To St. Cyril, the Virgin Birth is tied to the incarnation. It was the Virgin who bore the Son, but more than merely being a vessel, through her womb, the Son of God put on flesh and took upon Himself a human nature. The language here, one could argue, addresses the forthcoming concerns Nestorius would be promoting shortly after these lectures were circulated. While he doesn’t address the hypostatic union directly, the way St. Cyril speaks of the two natures of Christ here being united in the womb of the Virgin seems to imply that even before the controversy the standard teaching was not what would come to be called Nestorianism.

For if the Incarnation was a phantom, salvation is a phantom also.
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:9

A similar sentiment here to the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:17, however, here St. Cyril applies such language to the incarnation, not the resurrection. This is one thing that has impressed me with the Eastern Church. The emphasis on the incarnation is profound. It is the theological foundation for certain practices that made little sense to me before like relics, holy water, priestly blessings, and such. The Orthodox emphasize that the incarnation was also part of Christ’s redeeming work, and it proved that holiness—divinity, even—could be found within the material world. As such, it’s not so far-fetched to think of the holiness of Saints remaining in their bones, for icons to be venerated, or for a priest who has received the blessing of a bishop to bless a house.

The Cross

Of Christ’s death, St. Cyril teaches:

He was truly crucified for our sins. For if you would deny it, the place refutes you visibly, this blessed Golgotha, in which we are now assembled for the sake of Him who was here crucified; and the whole world has since been filled with pieces of the wood of the Cross.
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:10

I’m still trying to figure out the Orthodox position on the crucifixion. I know for the Orthodox, penal substitutionary atonement is considered errant theology, yet I’m not sure what the idea of Christ dying “for our sins” means apart from a model of penal substitution. This isn’t a critique so much as a confession of ignorance. I was raised a Lutheran, spent some time in Charismatic circles, then settled into Reformed theology for a time. All of these understood Christ’s crucifixion as a penal substitutionary sacrifice, so I genuinely don’t know how another paradigm understandings these things.

The wording here is interesting, “in which we are now assembled…” One wonders where St. Cyril held his catechetical lectures. Obviously, he ministered in Jerusalem, so the place where Christ was crucified was readily available for a visit. I suppose it would be an interesting historical exercise to see if there is a record of St. Cyril delivering these lectures near Golgotha, as he seems to imply. Perhaps I’m reading his words too literally, but either way, it seemed interesting to me.

His Burial

He was truly laid as Man in a tomb of rock; but rocks were rent asunder by terror because of Him.
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:11

Modern liberal theologians would have us believe that Christ was not really buried (or raised). Muslim apologists isist that it was not Christ who was crucified. Yet the teaching of the Church since the very beginning—as reflected here—is that Jesus Christ “was crucified, died, and was buried.”

I wonder if rocks being rent asunder is a reference to the resurrection—that death could not hold the Son of God.

He went down into the regions beneath the earth, that thence also He might redeem the righteous. For, tell me, could thou wish the living only to enjoy His grace, and that, though most of them are unholy; and not wish those who from Adam had for a long while been imprisoned to have now gained their liberty?
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:11

“He descended into the dead”. This is an early teaching, as reflected by the Apostle Paul in Ephesian 4:8-9, quoting and expounding upon King David in Psalm 68:18. This point is immediately used to transition into talking about Christ’s resurrection:

The Resurrection

But He who descended into the regions beneath the earth came up again; and Jesus, who was buried, truly rose again the third day.
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:12

So after Christ’s descent “into the regions beneath the earth,” he was rose from the dead.

Is a dead man raised to life on touching the bones of Elisha, and is it not much easier for the Maker of mankind to be raised by the power of the Father?
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:12

St. Cyril declares that Jesus was raised to life by the Father Himself, emphasizing the power of God over death, and proclaiming Christ’s victory over it.

The Ascension

Just as attention was drawn to the incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, so too does St. Cyril emphasize the importance of Christ’s ascension:

But when Jesus had finished His course of patient endurance, and had redeemed mankind from their sins, He ascended again into the heavens, a cloud receiving Him up: and as He went up Angels were beside Him, and Apostles were beholding.
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:13

This is another event that some theologians like to spiritualize, yet St. Cyril clearly teaches that this was a sight to behold: the apostles witnessed it and the angels welcomed their Lord. Further, St. Cyril tells of the Father beholding the triumphant Son:

He who was crucified on Golgotha here, has ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives on the East. For after having gone down hence into Hades, and come up again to us, He ascended again from us into heaven, His Father addressing Him, and saying, Sit on My right hand, until I make Your enemies Your footstool.
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:14

The biblical allusion here is to Psalm 110:1—the most frequently quoted Old Testament verse in the New Testament—where God the Father tells the Lord Jesus Christ to sit at His right hand until all enemies are made a footstool. Much ink has been spilled over answering the question of when that will be. The Early Church didn’t seem too interested in the whens, but rather the whats of the judgment.

The Judgment to Come

This Jesus Christ who is gone up shall come again, not from earth but from heaven.
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:15

As the Creed says, “He will come again to judge the living and the dead…” Beyond that, all St. Cyril mentions is that His coming will be from heaven. He first came through the Virgin as to become man, but in His second coming, He will come from heaven.

The Holy Spirit

St. Cyril’s section on the Holy Spirit is illuminating. At the time he made his lectures, the part of the Nicene Creed which we now recite containing proclamations of the Holy Spirit was not complete. The Creed—at least at this time—simply stated “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” So rather than continuing with the statement that the Holy Spirit is the Lord of Life, St. Cyril says the following:

this Holy Spirit is One, indivisible, of manifold power; having many operations, yet not Himself divided; Who knows the mysteries, Who searches all things, even the deep things of God: Who descended upon the Lord Jesus Christ in form of a dove; Who wrought in the Law and in the Prophets; Who now also at the season of Baptism seals your soul; of Whose holiness also every intellectual nature has need.
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:16

Referencing 1 Corinthians 2:10, St. Cyril teaches that the Holy Spirit searches and knows all things. St. Cyril places an emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s role in Christ’s baptism as well as our baptism. Speaking of baptism as a “seal” of the soul reflects what I’m seeing as a very common theme in the Early Church Fathers regarding baptism.

Interestingly enough, while the wording of the Creed was not yet updated to include the full discourse on the Holy Spirit, St. Cyril still remains consistent with it, saying the Holy Spirit “wrought in the Law and in the Prophets” reflecting the coming addition of the phrase “who spoke by the prophets” to be added at Constantinople. He repeats the phrase again, with some final thoughts:

For there is One God, the Father of Christ; and One Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of the Only God; and One Holy Ghost, the sanctifier and deifier of all , Who spoke in the Law and in the Prophets, in the Old and in the New Testament.
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:16

Interestingly enough, St. Cyril refers to the Holy Spirit as the “sanctifier and deifier of all.” This is probably one of the more precise teachings of theosis that I’ve seen in the Early Church Fathers. It was a point that was clearly important enough to include in his catechetical lectures, so it should be taken with sincerity.

The Scriptures

For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures.
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:17

Since the Holy Spirit “spoke by the prophets”, it seems right that St. Cyril would then speak of the Scriptures. Here he says that their importance stretches even to casual statements.

For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning , but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:17

And again, he shares the importance of the Scriptures for our salvation.

read none of the apocryphal writings : for why do you, who know not those which are acknowledged among all, trouble yourself in vain about those which are disputed? Read the Divine Scriptures, the twenty-two books of the Old Testament, these that have been translated by the Seventy-two Interpreters.
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:33

I imagine that this quote could create some controversy. On the one hand, St. Cyril says not to read “the apocryphal writings.” One could easily fall into anachronism and say that he was condemning the so-called Apocrypha, then. Further, he numbers the books of the Old Testament, which some may claim precludes inclusion of the Apocrypha, yet the numbering of the books is somewhat fluid. The “minor prophets” are sometimes numbered as one book, the historical books are numbered anywhere from one to six in some bibles throughout the ages, and other considerations make it difficult to narrow down the Old Testament canon by numbering alone.

St. Cyril, however, says which version he prefers: the Septuigint. “Read the Divine Scriptures…translated by the Seventy-two Interpreters,” he says. This was the septuigint, and the septuigint included the deutero-canon.

in every way make your own soul safe, by fastings, prayers, almsgivings, and reading the oracles of God; that having lived the rest of your life in the flesh in soberness and godly doctrine, you may enjoy the one salvation which flows from Baptism; and thus enrolled in the armies of heaven by God and the Father, may also be deemed worthy of the heavenly crowns, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to Whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:37

Echoing Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, St. Cyril encourages prayer, fasting, and (alms)giving. He adds an encouragement to read the Scriptures as well.

A curious phrase appears here, though: “you may enjoy the one salvation which flows from Baptism.” Where his words above alluded to the common Early Church belief in baptismal regeneration, here St. Cyril is quite explicit that salvation “flows from Baptism.”

The Soul

Of particular interest to me—given some of the theological circles in which I run—is the theology of the soul. I was a bit surprised, but delighted, that St. Cyril addressed the soul in his catechetical lectures.

Next to the knowledge of this venerable and glorious and all-holy Faith, learn further what you yourself art: that as man you are of a two-fold nature, consisting of soul and body; and that, as was said a short time ago, the same God is the Creator both of soul and body.
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:18

He clearly teaches dualism here: Man is both soul and body. But more than merely teaching dualism, St. Cyril draws certain conclusions from that dualism:

Know also that you have a soul self-governed, the noblest work of God, made after the image of its Creator : immortal because of God that gives it immortality; a living being, rational, imperishable, because of Him that bestowed these gifts: having free power to do what it wills.
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:18

So St. Cyril teaches that the soul is “self-governed”, immortal as a gift of God, rational and free. Interestingly enough, it seems that he implies that the soul’s self-governance is worked out in “having free power to do what it wills.” He later expounds:

There is not a class of souls sinning by nature, and a class of souls practising righteousness by nature : but both act from choice, the substance of their souls being of one kind only, and alike in all.
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:20

It is the soul, then, that has the power of the will. That freedom to do good or evil is found within the soul it seems, according to St. Cyril. Further, this kind of will is found “alike in all” mankind. Every person has the same kind of soul and that soul is the basis for our will to do both good and evil. He drives this point home with the following questions:

For if you were a fornicator by necessity, then for what cause did God prepare hell? If you were a doer of righteousness by nature and not by will, wherefore did God prepare crowns of ineffable glory? The sheep is gentle, but never was it crowned for its gentleness: since its gentle quality belongs to it not from choice but by nature.
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:21

St. Cyril draws a distinction between properties given to us by choice and by nature. Those things attributed to us by nature, it is argued, are not deserving of reward or punishment. He illustrates this point by asking of the fornicator: if it is by necessity (not choice) that he sins, how does such action lead to condemnation? Further, a sheep is gentle by necessity (not choice), so it is not praised for its gentleness.

While parts of this teaching would make sense to most Western Christians, others do not. I know a few years ago, I would have whole-heartedly disagreed with this entire section. As a Calvinist, I would have boldly stated that it is not our choice to do evil that condemns us, but our very sin nature. St. Cyril seems to push against this notion. It also seems that St. Cyril would argue against St. Augustine’s soon-to-come arguments regarding the will and its relationship to sin (a la Original Sin). Yet even non-Calvinist Western Christians who recognize free will generally accept a notion of Original Sin that taints human nature to such a point that our very nature itself is truly sinful. Where the Calvinist posits total depravity and the necessity of grace for good works, the Arminian posits prevenient grace as a means for the will do good works. Either way, the grace of God must overcome the evil of man’s nature. Drawing from the above, I think most Western Christians would take issue with St. Cyril’s characterization of sin coming from the same freedom of the will that allows for good works. Sin as necessity seems to be central to Western anthropology, yet what is often taken as granted—and one of the few pieces of technical theology that Western laity understand well—by many today is completely absent in St. Cyril’s theology. Come to think of it, it’s rather absent in all the other Fathers I’ve read as well.

This is actually the one thing that has surprised me most about reading the Early Church Fathers: their emphasis on the freedom of the will. As a former Calvinist—who started reading the Fathers as a firm Calvinist—I knew the Early Church was largely libertarian with regards to free will, but I didn’t realize how much other theology was wrapped up in their commitment to free will. Here, St. Cyril ties even more anthropology into the will as he connects the soul’s existence to the freedom of the will. It’s a remarkable thing to witness in the Early Church, given how saturated most of my education has previously been (almost exclusively) in the Reformation.

The Body

Wrapping up his discussion of anthropology, St. Cyril turns to the body:

Tell me not that the body is a cause of sin. For if the body is a cause of sin, why does not a dead body sin?
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:23

Once more St. Cyril addresses a conundrum with a probing question. Gnosticism was one of the earliest heresies within the Church, and even in the fourth century it was not stamped out (come to think of it, it still rears its ugly head today). If the body is evil—as the Gnostics would say—then why is it not the case that a dead body sins? Good question. And St. Cyril gives the answer:

the body sins not of itself, but the soul through the body.
— St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 4:23

Man’s sin does not come from his physical body, but rather from the free will of his soul. This will is enacted through the body, yet when the body is dead, there is no soul to quicken its actions, and thus, no sin to behold.

Conclusion

This lecture was certainly a lot to take in. It has taken me a long time to write all of this down. However, this—of all his lectures so far—has been one of the more densely-packed doctrinal lessons. It is interesting to see St. Cyril’s teachings on the very basics of the Christian faith laid out. He covered even more topics which I didn’t review here: clothing, consuming meats, etc, all of which are important, but seemed beyond the scope of what I was looking at here. Needless to say, if I had to recommend one of St. Cyril’s catechetical lectures for someone looking to read his material, I’d suggest this one.

This has also given me a lot to chew on. I will need to pray through some of this material, keep it in the back of my mind, and revisit it again. There’s so much here to unpack, and I do hope I gave it the review it deserves.

Thanks for reading, friends, and as always, please pray for me.

 

 

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