St Cyril of AlexandriaWhen one considers the abuses of the Christian church, one invariably thinks of things like the Inquisitions or the Crusades. While these are still valid examples of what can go wrong with Christianity when people get carried away with it, they have unfortunately become too cliché to get people’s attention any more. When you say the words “Inquisition” or “Crusades,” Christians stop listening. They’re not interested in hearing anything about these, and will not accept that they’re an object lesson on their religion.

This means other examples of Christianity’s moral failures are needed. While Christians won’t necessarily like to hear these, either, they’re different enough from the clichés to at least get them to listen for a little while before they turn their ears off. I intend to bring up some of these in a series of posts I’ll facetiously call “Great Christians” or “Great Moments in Christianity.”

Early Christians — especially during the period of the great Christological controversies of the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries — were a truly contentious bunch. Among the most vicious of the contenders was Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria. He was responsible for many events in Christian history; he proved the most influential Christian prince of his time, in spite of his vicious and unethical tactics. He is, to this day, revered as a saint by all Christian churches — even though he was no “saint” at all.

His Machiavellian nature was, perhaps, no more evident than during the ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431. It took place at the height of the Nestorian controversy. The disagreement involved the princes of the eastern Church: Nestorius, archbishop of Constantinople, whose teachings were the focus of concern, and Cyril, who led opposition to him. Nestorius had requested the council, and Emperor Theodosius II had selected Ephesus (along the western coast of modern-day Turkey) to host it, because of that city’s accessibility. Fortuitously for Cyril, two factors played in his favor: First, the host city’s bishop, Memnon, happened to support him; and Ephesus happened to be the city in which Mary, Jesus’ mother, was supposed to have died, making her dear to Christians there. They used this against Nestorius, who had taught that Mary should not be called by the traditional epithet θεοτοκος (theotokos) meaning “Mother of God,” but rather as χριστοκος (christokos) meaning “Mother of Christ.” Cyril and Memnon appealed to the Marian sentiments of the Council’s host city, claiming that Nestorius was somehow “dissing” Mary, and the population appears to have latched onto that.

Now, Cyril and his company of Egyptian bishops arrived by ship, since he had the money to pay to travel by ship, whereas the supporters of Nestorius — the most important of which was John, patriarch of Antioch — traveled over land. Naturally, then, this meant that Ephesus was full of Cyrilline partisans long before the Nestorian prelates could arrive. Cyril and Memnon convened the council before their opponents could arrive in any numbers, and the few Nestorians who were already there, were driven out of the Council chambers. This one-sided council, quite naturally, passed judgement on Nestorius and condemned him. Shortly after, John arrived, and immediately convoked his own council, denouncing Cyril and Memnon.

The result was several weeks of alternating and opposing councils being convened, with rival denunciations, and even some brawling among ecclesiasts, and pitched battles taking place in the streets. The Emperor, hearing about events in Ephesus remotely (he remained in Constantinople) and only days after the fact, was forced to send deputies there to keep order, but the deputies ended up becoming embroiled in the conflict rather than trying to ameliorate it. While he had initially supported Nestorius — the man he had chosen as archbishop of the Imperial seat — Theodosius was eventually overcome by local influences, especially the monks of the Constantinople region who tended toward Cyril’s position. Cyril also had bribed various courtiers, who murmured against Nestorius in the Emperor’s ear. Eventually Theodosius rethought his support for Nestorius.

Between the locals in Ephesus who hated him, and the waning support of the Emperor, after three months of conflicting councils and intractable arguing, Nestorius agreed to leave Ephesus and also retire as archbishop of Constantinople, so long as his own protege replaced him in that see. The emperor and prelates agreed to this arrangement, and he departed, residing in his home region near Antioch.

The Council met hastily, now with no contention. Cyril’s theology was approved and Nestorius’s condemned. But this hadn’t happened because the two theologies had been explored and debated, and Cyril’s had proven itself correct; it was only because Nestorius had, essentially, surrendered the Council.

Nestorius had walked away from the Council in good faith, but within a couple of years, the machinations of Cyril overcame him. His chief ally John of Antioch had given up on him, due to the threats and bullying of Cyril and his own allies; Nestorius’ chosen successor in Constantinople had given up his theology for the same reason; and his erstwhile patron Theodosius had banished him to an outlying monastery in Egypt. Christendom utterly abandoned Nestorius, in spite of all promises that had been made to him. Cyril acquired the absolute victory he’d worked so hard for (and presumably had spent a lot of money to achieve).

The destruction of Nestorius was not Cyril’s only victory, however. Using the monks of the Alexandria environs as his personal army of stormtroopers, during his career, Cyril ordered the destruction of synagogues and the expuslion of Jews from the city; he destroyed various heretics within his see; and he ordered a number of murders, the most famous of which was that of Hypatia, then the most prominent pagan academician of Alexandria — monks attacked her in a mob and literally rent her to pieces. The funds he had used to get himself quickly to Ephesus, and to bribe Imperial courtiers, likely had come to him via the routing of his foes and his monks’ plundering.

The escapades of Cyril of Alexandria are retold famously by Edward Gibbon in his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Volume 2, chapter 47). That Cyril of Alexandria is viewed as a saint is a shame, however, it’s not likely any church will condemn him, since his victory over Nestorius eventually contributed to the Trinity doctrine, which is so precious to most (but not all) Christians. To admit any flaw in Cyril could, conceivably, be construed as “anti-Trinitarian,” and most Christians simply will never permit that.

The lesson here is that right and wrong in Christianity are determined by one’s theology. Having the “right” theology, means everything one does is morally “right”; even if — in actual terms — one’s behavior was anything but “morally ‘right’.”

Of course, it’s quite illogical to refuse to admit wrongdoing on someone’s part merely because of which belief-package s/he espoused; but this illogic appears not to matter much to anyone.

Photo credit: AKMA.

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