Cyril of Alexandria's Trinitarian Theology of Scripture, Book Review

Title:  Cyril of Alexandria's Trinitarian Theology of Scripture
Author: Matthew R. Crawford
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2014
Price: $125.00 (amz)
Binding: Hardback
Pages: 304

Cyril of Alexandria is an important but sometimes neglected theologian from the fifth century. 

There are at least two possible reasons why Cyril is sometimes left out of discussion of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. Cyril is perhaps best known for his wrangling with Nestorius about the two natures of Christ and the debate about whether Mary should be called the “mother of God” (theotokos). He is most closely associated, then, with Christological discussions about the nature of the incarnation. Consequently, when theologians or historians trace the doctrine of the Trinity, they sometimes move from Athanasius, to the Cappadocians, and then directly to Augustine’s formulations. This line of development sometimes overlooks the important developments of pro-Nicene Trinitarian theology that continued to advance in the East.

In this volume, Matthew Crawford seeks to address an overlooked aspect of Cyril’s Trinitarian theology. While Crawford acknowledges Cyril’s important contributions to Christology of the fifth century (seen at the council of Ephesus and then later at Chalcedon), he focuses specifically on Cyril’s pro-Nicene theological commitments about God as a holy Trinity. Crawford argues also that Cyril of Alexandria played an important role not only in the development of Christology (in relation to Nestorius) but also in the development of pro-Nicene Trinitarianism (5). Specifically, Crawford asks how this thoroughgoing pro-Nicene theology intersects with Cyril’s understanding of revelation and Scripture.

Crawford notes that a feature of recent scholarship on the development of Nicene orthodoxy is “the greater emphasis upon and appreciation of the role that scriptural exegesis played in those debates” (1). In his development of Cyril’s theology, Crawford seeks to continue this trend. Noting the “growing realization” among scholars that “biblical interpretation is intrinsic to Nicene theology,” Crawford observes that many contemporary readers still perceive patristic exegesis “as at best a curiosity and at worst a misreading of Scripture” (3). Crawford’s goal in this regard is to uncover “the assumptions present within pro-Nicene theology that made such reading practices seem plausible to those who inhabited this theological culture” (3). More generally, Crawford seeks to “bring out the pre-understandings that pro-Nicene theologians brought to the text of Scripture, which then guided their reading of whatever individual passages they encountered” (3).

Crawford’s major thesis is that “intrinsic to pro-Nicene theology is a certain understanding of Scripture that consists of two components corresponding to the divine movement towards humanity in revelation, and humanity’s encounter with that revelation in the written word of Scripture” (3, emphasis added). For Crawford, these two components form the shape of Cyril’s broad understanding of Trinity and Scripture. First, “revelation proceeds from the Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit” (4). Second, “exegesis is a Spirit-enabled contemplation of the Son in Scripture, by which believers are led onwards to a vision of the Father” (4). 

In the reading of Scripture, then, the incarnate Son is central because “he is simultaneously the primary locus of divine revelation” and also the “focal point of scriptural contemplation” (4). Part of the payoff of discerning this “basic schematic outline” in Cyril’s writings is the way it demonstrates that pro-Nicene theology was “not only Trinitarian in its doctrine of God,” but also “included a correspondingly Trinitarian theology of Scripture” (4).

Crawford unpacks this central thesis in a series of carefully connected chapters. In chapter two, he argues that for Cyril the concept of revelation is inescapably Trinitarian. Divine revelation is from the Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit (42-54). Chapter three and four, then, expand on this position. In chapter three, Crawford explores the prominent operations of the Spirit foregrounded in the production and reception of written revelation. 

For Cyril, the “spiritually breathed book” is produced by “Spirit-bearing authors” (72ff). Cyril’s understanding of inspiration, in other words, is a “specific instantiation of Cyril’s theology of revelation” (8). Chapter four reemphasizes the central role that the incarnate Son plays in the economy of revelation by showing that the Son speaks in the prophets and apostles. During the incarnation, too, the Son speaks through himself (116-20, 125-33). 

Chapters five and six focus on the reception of revelation by readers. Here Crawford shifts from considering Cyril’s understanding of Scripture from the perspective of its “relationship to the divine in the event of divine unveiling” to the considering Scripture from the perspective of “humanity’s encounter with the written word in the act of exegesis” (7). The Scriptures bear a critical role in the divine economy: They allow readers to participate in the divine Word by means of the written Word (see 176-81).

For Cyril, “the church possesses the Jewish Scriptures because they have been given to it by Christ, its Shepherd, who was himself the original divine source of those words” (180). Crawford summarizes this emphasis by arguing that “Cyril’s practice of exegesis is a function of his understanding of the place Scripture occupies in the plan of salvation” (8).

The final chapter addresses the theological task and the end of exegesis. Crawford highlights Cyril’s position that engaging the theological task is the means by which one encounters the life of the incarnate Son. “In Cyril’s estimation,” Crawford concludes, “searching after understanding has an appropriate and necessary place in the renewed existence of believers” because it is in fact “a mediation of the Son’s own life to believers” (228).

In other words, “the theologian-exegete never grows beyond the church’s most basic confession of Christological and Trinitarian faith” (228). Meditating on Scripture, then, is a means by which believers encounter the Father. As Crawford summarizes, “in the order of divine operations,” the Spirit “effects the will of the Father and Son among humanity, but in terms of humanity’s experience of the divine, he leads believers back to the source from which all divine acts ultimately flow” (223).

In sum, “When the Christian engages in the task of theological reflection upon Scripture, the Son is guiding the believer by the Spirit to a greater knowledge of the Trinitarian mystery revealed in the Son himself” (223). Further, Scripture is a “source of divine life, but hardly one disconnected from the person of Jesus” (239). Rather, “Scripture is a source of divine life precisely because it provides the contemporary believer with access to the singular and unrepeatable event of divine unveiling in the incarnate Son” (239). This formulation dovetails with Crawford’s overarching argument that Cyril keeps his Christological focus grounded upon a robust Trinitarian foundation.

As Crawford develops his argument, he shows how the major theological areas of Trinity, revelation, and bibliology organically connect in Cyril’s thinking. This historical theology has potential implications for contemporary theology, as these loci are not always as integrally connected in works of systematic theology. By focusing on the pro-Nicene theological commitments that Cyril and his contemporaries work with as they read and interpret biblical texts, this study allows Cyril to add his own voice to contemporary discussions about Trinitarian exegesis and theological interpretation.

Reading Crawford’s volume will likely make you want to read more of Cyril’s own writings. This book will help you do so with a deeper framework that allows you to see both the Christological focus and Trinitarian depth of this important patristic theologian’s body of work.

Also in SWJT 60.1 (Fall 2017): 107-08.

Book Review
December 15, 2023


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