Theological Interpretation: Cyril of Alexandria on Luke 10:23-24

There are many reasons why Christians should study the church fathers. Among the top of them: the growing popularity of theological interpretation.[1] The more familiar one is with the work of the fathers, the better equipped they will be to appreciate and practice theological interpretation. So what does it look like when a church father interprets scripture “theologically”? Cyril of Alexandria, delivering a homily on Luke 10:23-24, provides a good example.

Luke 10:23-24 reads:
“Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, ‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’” [NRSV]

This statement from Jesus comes directly after he has sent out the seventy-two disciples and they have successfully joined him on his Kingdom-mission, casting out demons and healing the sick. Cyril frames his interpretation with this question: what exactly did the disciples see so as to merit being called blessed?

His answer:
“They saw that God the Word, who was in the form of God the Father, had become flesh for our sakes. They saw Him who shares the Father’s throne, dwelling with us, in our form, that by justification and sanctification He might fashion us after His own likeness, imprinting upon us the beauty of His Godhead in an intellectual and spiritual manner. And of this Paul is a witness, who writes: “For as we have bee clothed with the image of the earthly, we shall also be clothed with the image of the heavenly” meaning by the earthly man, Adam, the first created, but by the heavenly, the Word Who is from above, and Who shone forth from the substance of God the Father, but was made, as I said, in our likeness… For through Him and with Him we have received the name of sons, being ennobled, so to speak, by His bounty and grace. He who was rich shared our poverty, that He might rase man’s nature to His riches. He tasted death upon the tree and the cross, that He might take away from the midst the offense incurred by reason of the tree (of knowledge), and abolish the guilt that was thereby, and strip death of his tyranny over us. We have seen Satan fall, that cruel one broken, that haughty one laid low, him who had made the world submit to the yoke of his empire stripped of his dominion over us, him in contempt and scorn, who once was worshipped, him who seemed a god, put under the feet of the saints, him who rebelled against Christ’s glory, trampled upon by those who love Him.
”

Cyril’s interpretation of the passage is informed by placing Jesus’ statement in the theological context of the Incarnation and its salvific effects. He does so by quoting 1 Corinthians 15:29 and invoking the Adam-Christ typology. In this context, the disciples’ victory over the forces of Satan are indications of the redemptive nature of the Incarnation.

Christ, as the Second Adam, is undoing the curse of Genesis 3. The disciples are finding themselves being transferred out of Satan’s domain, in which they were once held captive in Adam, and now being given the ability to overcome the enemy. Thus, when the disciples “see” both Jesus and their Kingdom-work, they are seeing the Incarnation and its salvific effects. Cyril also interprets 1 Corinthians 15:29 as a reference to deification, the belief that salvation consists of humans sharing in the divine life and beauty of the Triune God (the “Godhead”). Thus, the disciples’ victories over Satan are also indicative of the work of deification that results from the Incarnation – the disciples are blessed with the privilege of seeing (and experiencing) the firstfruits of this work.

Cyril’s interpretation is not likely to be arrived at through the classic historical-grammatical hermeneutical model. There is little in the text which would naturally direct a reader to reference 1 Corinthians 15:29 or the Adam-Christ typology (perhaps a canonical interpretation might be led in that direction because of the reference to Satan and his defeat). Yet, it is an explicitly Christian interpretation of the text, both orthodox and edifying. If Christians do believe that Christ is the Second Adam (Romans 5:12-21, 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, 45-49), then surely it is appropriate to understand the disciples’ victory over Satan as an indication of Christ’s successful undoing of Adam’s curse.

What do you think of Cyril’s interpretation of Luke 10:23-24?
What do you think are the benefits, and possible weaknesses, of theological interpretation
?


[1] Defined by Stephen Fowl as “the practice whereby theological concerns and interests inform and are informed by a reading of Scripture.” (The Theological Interpretation of Scripture, xiii)

8 thoughts on “Theological Interpretation: Cyril of Alexandria on Luke 10:23-24

  1. Well, I would say Cyril certainly got a lot more out of the passage than I might have! I think maybe he’s trying to build a bridge between the Luke passage and 1 Cor. 15:29. Really, there’s nothing in the Luke verses that say anything directly about Adam-Christ typology or incarnation or redemption or anything along those lines. But I suppose you could infer all those things might be what Christ was referring to when he called them blessed. But that, I think, is only one possible interpretation, and a very broad one.

    It’s also interesting to note how Cyril links these blessings to the Church itself. I think he goes beyond referring to just the disciples through his constant use of the pronoun “we”. We (the Church) have received the name sons, we have seen the cruel one broken, and so forth. (I also like how Cyril makes sure to work in “shone forth from the substance of the Father” in case there was anyone who still doubting or denying Christ’s deity.)

    I think this really points to a significant difference between how Cyril interpreted the Bible and how we might now, as you say, use the classic historical-grammatical hermeneutical model. Cyril is painting in broad strokes here…not analyzing the actual wording of Luke to parse a specific meaning in context. Or at least it appears that way to me.

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    1. Matt,

      Thanks for the comment. My masters thesis was on Cyril’s use of the Adam-Christ typology (1 Cor. 15/Rm. 5) and he uses it exegetically a LOT in the way that you noticed and mentioned.

      Blessings,
      Mike

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      1. Mike,
        I read from quite a few of the church father’s writings in college, but that was many years ago! Can’t specifically remember if we read Cyril or not, but we probably did. Anyway, thanks for making these early church father posts- I enjoy them and please do more. They serve as a reminder that the current fashions of Biblical interpretation aren’t always the way ways it’s been done.

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  2. I found myself unable to understand how the Apostles were able to arrive at several New Testament conclusions they made regarding the Old Testament Scriptures they quoted. So I began to try to interpret from the New Testament to the Old Testament passages quoted and applied until a sense of the logic of the Apostles began to form around the passage. Cyril has had to think long and hard on the church’s power to forgive sin and to battle the domains of darkness. In the process a sort of Christology arose that informed his entire reading of the Scriptures. We see this sort of idea permeating the Gospel account when Jesus forgave the paralytic and instead of men being surprised that one man was given this sort of authority, they were surprised that this sort of authority had been given to men (plural). The awareness that the church was the body of Christ led the fathers to see the church in its connection to Christ to be Christ in action, so the Gospels were read with a sense that the church now embodies the work of Christ’s redemption on the earth. I haven’t figured out this sense of Biblical interpretation but I am pretty sure it is not as haphazard as those of us steeped in the historical-grammatical sense of interpretation might first think it to be.

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    1. Dan,

      Have you read Hays’ Echoes of Scripture in Paul? That was the first book that got me really thinking honestly about the way the NT used the OT.

      Thanks for the comment!
      Mike

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    2. Excellent point! One might wonder how much Cyril’s perspective was informed by Paul’s reading of the OT vs. his own reading of the same.

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