Cyril of Alexandria’s “Canon within the Canon” – What is yours?

Cyril of Alexandria was the church father who argued tirelessly for an orthodox Christology which could genuinely call Mary the Theotokos. He struggled against Nestorius, who allegedly attempted to inappropriately distinguish between the actions and experiences of the divine Son of God and the human Jesus. Against this teaching, Cyril fought to the death to preserve the unity of the divine and human in the Incarnation. For Cyril, the perfect union of God and Man in the Incarnation was the heart of soteriology – the truth of how God has saved humanity.

When one reads Cyril they find that he has a collection of “pet texts” that he references often in order to explain key passages of Scripture or to defend certain doctrines. For Cyril, his “go-to” texts consisted of John 1:14, Philippians 2:5-11, Hebrews 2:14-17, and (as I argued in my thesis) Romans 5:14. It’s not hard to see why – all of these verses emphasize the Incarnation of the eternal Word of God and its salvific implications. Thus, no matter what text or doctrine Cyril is dealing with, a quick and steady reference to these texts helps put the issue in his overall theological context. As an example, see my post on Cyril’s theological reading of Luke 10:23-24.  

I wonder if this practice, of developing a “canon within the canon” of sorts, is a helpful example for Christians wishing to faithfully interpret Scripture and understand key doctrines. In fact, I would suggest that most Christians already (perhaps subconsciously) interpret Scripture and various theologies in this fashion.

I know that I have a few “go-to texts” that I immediately think of when pondering exegetical or theological issues: John 1:14-18, Hebrews 1:1-4, Galatians 1:3-4, and Philippians 3:20-21. Those who know me can easily see why/how these texts work in my thinking: I consistently emphasize Jesus as the clearest and fullest picture of God (John 1:14-18 and Hebrews 1:1-4), I also have a fairly apocalyptic eschatology (Galatians 1:3-4), and I think Christians should focus more on the future resurrection of the dead (Philippians 3:20-21). Thus, one of my first questions when thinking through an exegetical or theological issue is often: “How does this fit with an understanding of the life and teachings of Jesus as the perfect revelation of God’s character and will?”

I’m interested in whether you have some “pet texts,” what they say about your theology, and whether you think that this practice is ultimately helpful or harmful. So:

 Do you have “key texts” which function for you as a “canon-within-a-canon”? 
What do you they say about your theology?
What dangers are there to employing such an approach to exegesis/theology?

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)

Human Nature, As Victorious In Him, Wins The Crown

From Cyril of Alexandria’s commentary on Luke 4:1-2,

Come therefore and let us praise the Lord, and sing psalms unto God our Saviour: let us trample Satan under foot; let us raise the shout of victory over him now he is thrown and fallen: let us exult over the crafty reptile, caught in an inextricable snare: let us too say of him in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “How is the hammer of all the earth broken and beaten small! Thou art found and hast been taken, because thou stoodest against the Lord.” For of old, that is before the time of the advent of Christ the Saviour of all, the universal enemy had somewhat grand and terrible notions about himself: for he boastfully exulted over the infirmity of the inhabitants of the earth, saying, “I will hold the world in my hand as a nest, and as eggs that are left I will take it up: and no one shall escape from me or speak against me.” And in very truth there was no one of those upon earth who could rise up against his power; but the Son rose up against him, and contended with him, having been made like unto us. And therefore, as I said, human nature, as victorious in Him, wins the crown. And this in old time the Son Himself proclaimed, where by one of the holy prophets He thus addresses Satan; “Behold, I am against thee, O corrupting mountain, that corruptest the whole earth.”

A Sermon on John 20:11-18 (Cyril’s Theological Interpretation in Action)

Update [10/6/13]: Click HERE to listen to my sermon “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall” – a (longer version of the below) sermon that I preached at Fc3 on October 6, 2013.

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“Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” – John 20:15a

The Gospel according to John is a story about creation.  This much is clear.  John invites the reader to follow the bread crumbs when he begins his story with the haunting and enigmatic phrase, “In the beginning.”

However, John’s gospel is not a narrative about the formation of the cosmos.  Instead, it is an account of the life of Jesus.  Indeed, his gospel masterfully details the surprising entrance of the Life of Jesus into our dark world.  This Life, the Light, burst into our presence and dazzled our unprepared eyes, which were only accustomed to seeing the darkness found in the cave of sin’s slavery.  John’s gospel is about a life, a Life that has conquered Death.

The Gospel of John, then, is a story about new creation.

It is at the dawn of this new creation when we read of the reunion of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.  The resurrected Jesus, the one who was crucified, finds Mary weeping in the garden.  She has not yet realized that Life has overcome Death.  She has not yet realized that a new day has arrived.  The scene is pregnant with emotion.  Mary is one of Jesus’ most devoted followers and is making a visit to his tomb in order to grieve privately.  As we read, we find our emotions rising and falling.  We are excited as she discovers the empty tomb, yet sympathetic when she assumes that Jesus’ body has been stolen.  We can feel her confusion and pain even as we yearn for her to discover the remarkable truth of his new life.  We are elated when she directly encounters the risen Jesus, yet frustrated when she mistakes him for the gardener.  Finally, Jesus speaks to her.  Mary’s tears of mourning are changed into tears of joy.

Cyril of Alexandria, an early church father, wishes to remind us that John’s Gospel is about new creation.  Indeed, Cyril is quick to remind us that all of Scripture is always about new creation.  It is for this reason that he consistently speaks of Christ as the Second Adam.  With this title, he draws on Saint Paul’s parallel between these two representative men.  Just as Adam’s disobedience brought death, so now Christ’s obedience brings life.  Behold, the Second Adam.

Cyril invites us to remember the scene in the First garden where Adam and Eve fell into death.  Listen as Cyril explains:

“For by Adam’s transgression, as in the firstfruits of the race, the sentence went forth to the whole world: Dust thou art, and to dust though shall return; and to the women in special: In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.  To be rich in sorrow, then, as by way of a penalty, was the fate of woman.”

Keep listening, however, because Jesus’ resurrection brings good news.

“It was, therefore, necessary that by the mouth of Him that had passed the sentence of condemnation, the burden of that ancient curse should be removed, our Savior Christ now wiping away the tears from the eyes of the woman, or rather of all womankind, as in Mary the firstfruits.”  

Christ, the Second Adam, is now undoing the curses of our ancient ancestors.  He is now wiping tears away.  He is now freeing men, women, and children from their bondage to corruption.

It is this same Christ, gently drying the tear-soaked face of Mary, who now invites you to participate in his new creation.