St. Cyril of Alexandria's Metaphysics of the Incarnation

by Sergey Trostyanskiy (Author)
©2016 Monographs XVI, 330 Pages
Series: Studies in Church History, Volume 14


Cyril of Alexandria is one of the major intellectuals of the early Byzantine Christian world. His approach to Christ is at the core of the classical Christian tradition, however, because his works were not translated into English in the post-Reformation environment, the precise implications of his "science of Christ" have been extensively misunderstood. This work seeks to reposition Cyril in the precise philosophical context to which he belonged, seeking, as he did, for a deliberate bridge-building between ecclesiastical biblical presuppositions and the semantic terms central to the Late Antique philosophical Academy, with which he understands the Church must communicate. This book seeks to lay bare the fundamental philosophical axioms of Cyril’s metaphysics of the Incarnation. To illuminate this, it investigates the fifth-century curriculum of metaphysical studies as followed in the academies of both Alexandria and Athens. Common to both Cyril and his Hellene contemporaries are the terms of theological speculation prevalent in the Commentaries on the Parmenides. This monograph applies the schema of theological analysis offered by the Commentators to Cyril’s metaphysics of the Incarnation to see how well it accounts for the precise terms of the Incarnational doctrine posited by Cyril. This study also endeavors to expound and evaluate the many previous (and heavily conflicting) scholarly accounts of Cyril’s intellectual agenda. It outlines various cognitive gaps associated with the macro arguments of the different positions, which by and large have underestimated Cyril’s philosophical acumen and ignored his own immediate academic context.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: Incarnation, Incomplete Substantial Change, and Unification through Mixture
  • 1.A. Harry Wolfson and the Philosophical Underpinning of Patristic Thought
  • 1.A.1. The Church Fathers’ Account of the Incarnation
  • 1.A.2. Three Types of Physical Union in Aristotle according to Wolfson
  • 1.A.3. Other Types of Physical Union
  • 1.A.4. The Union of “Predominance” and Its Place in Cyril’s Metaphysics of the Incarnation
  • 1.B. Aristotle’s Account of Mixture in the De Generatione et Corruptione 1.10 and 2.7
  • 1.B.1. An Orthodox Conception of Mixture
  • 1.B.2. An Alternative Conception of Mixture
  • 1.B.3. Questions and ’Aπορίαι of Mixture: Some Clarification
  • 1.B.4. Atypical Mixtures and Their Status
  • 1.C. A Critical Re-Assessment of Wolfson’s Interpretation of Aristotle and Cyril
  • 1.C.1. Wolfson’s Assessment of Aristotle’s Mixture
  • 1.C.2. Wolfson’s Assessment of Aristotle’s Mixture in Cyril’s Conception of the Incarnation
  • 1.D. A Further Development of the Conception of Mixture in the Peripatetic, Stoic, Platonist Traditions and Their Relevance to the Subject
  • 1.D.1. Alexander of Aphrodisias on Mixture
  • 1.D.2. The Stoic Account of Mixture
  • 1.D.3. Cyril’s Use of the Analogy of Fire and Iron
  • 1.D.4. Mixing Natures and Mixing Qualities: The Notion of Communicatio Idiomatum: McGuckin and Wolfson
  • 1.D.5. Mixing Matter with Qualities: Plotinus’ Account of Mixture
  • 1.D.6. Unification without Disintegration and Separation
  • Chapter Two: Incarnation and the Conception of Inherence
  • 2.A. Ruth Siddals and the Conceptual Grounds of Cyril’s Metaphysics of the Incarnation
  • 2.B. The Status of Christ’s Humanity
  • 2.B.1. Cyril’s Primary Christological Model: One “in” Another
  • 2.B.2. A Corollary of the Primary Model: Communicatio Idiomatum
  • 2.B.3. Cyril’s Secondary Christological Model; One “in” Another: The Order Reversed
  • 2.B.4. An Alternative Version of the Secondary Model: Two “in” One
  • 2.C. The Nature of Unity
  • 2.C.1. The Being of the One and Accidental Unity
  • 2.C.2. Aristotle’s Conception of Unity/Oneness
  • 2.D. Accidental Change and Its Significance
  • 2.D.1. Nestorius and the Category of Relation: Accidental Change
  • 2.D.2. Cyril and the Notion of Change
  • 2.E. Conclusion: The Problematic Aspects of Siddals’ “Model”
  • Chapter Three: Coming-to-Be without Change: Soul Uniting with Body
  • 3.A. Preliminary Notes
  • 3.B. Plotinus on the Integral Unity of the Soul
  • 3.B.1. Preamble
  • 3.B.2. The Mode of Presence
  • 3.B.3. Identity
  • 3.B.4. The Attribution of Names and the Mode of Soul-Body Connection
  • 3.C. Cyril on the Integral Unity of the Word
  • 3.C.1. Preamble
  • 3.C.2. Identity: “One out of Both”
  • 3.C.3. Two in Contemplation and One in Reality
  • 3.C.4. The Notion of Indivisibility
  • 3.C.5. The Assignment of Names: Cyril’s Syllogism
  • 3.C.6. The Categories of Acting and Being Acted Upon and Their Application to the Intelligible Natures
  • 3.C.7. Suffering and the Mode of Connection between the Soul and Body
  • 3.C.8. The Soul-Body Analogy and the I-Conditions
  • 3.D. Cyril’s Philosophical and Rhetorical Arsenal
  • 3.D.1. Analogies, Rhetoric, and Philosophy
  • 3.D.2. Cyril’s Christological Terms and Formulas
  • 3.D.3. I-Conditions and Their Significance
  • Chapter Four: The Parmenides and the Structure of Cyril’s Metaphysics of the Incarnation
  • 4.A. The Parmenides: General Notes
  • 4.A.1. The Fifth Century Educational Curriculum and Patterns of Thought
  • 4.A.2. The Parmenides: Its Subject, Content, and Relevance to Cyril’s Thought
  • 4.A.3. The Second Hypothesis of the Parmenides: Its Scope and Content
  • 4.A.4. The “in-Relation-to” Qualification
  • 4.A.5. General Notes on the Second Hypothesis
  • 4.B. Late Antique Exegesis of the Second Hypothesis
  • 4.B.1. Iamblichus
  • 4.B.2. Syrianus and Proclus
  • 4.C. Cyril’s Metaphysics of the Incarnation
  • 4.C.1. Names and Essences: What Is Christ?
  • 4.C.2. The Πρòς Qualifications
  • 4.C.3. The Word as a Whole Made of Parts: The Imposition of Structure
  • 4.C.4. Deductions and the Allocation of Characteristics to the Word
  • 4.D. The Second Hypothesis of the Parmenides and Cyril’s I-Conditions
  • 4.D.1. Radical Difference of Natures
  • 4.D.2. Separation
  • 4.D.3. One and the Same out of Both
  • 4.D.4. Divisibility of the Unified
  • 4.D.5. Other Conditions
  • 4.E. The Chalcedonian Definition and Its Correspondence with Cyril’s Metaphysics
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Name Index
  • Subject Index
  • Series index

← x | xi →



This book is based on my doctoral dissertation which was defended at Union Theological Seminary, New York in 2014. It grew out of John McGuckin’s groundbreaking thought as found in his monograph Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy. Professor McGuckin and his work inspired me to undertake a substantive research of early fifth century Christological development. Indeed, this volume would not have been possible but for the extraordinary supervision of Professor McGuckin. His creative input, flexible approach, and gracious care have led me through the long and weary process of preparing the manuscript. He will always have my deep and sincere thanks. To him I dedicate this book.

Throughout the preparation of this book, I have been tremendously supported by an array of individuals and institutions for whose help I am most grateful. The Sophia Institute has provided me with an educational and scholarly platform to develop my professional skills. It also most generously contributed to the financial needs of the project. Marian “Mim” Warden, a Union Seminary Board Member and an old friend, had sufficient faith in the significance of this project to provide encouragement and essential financial support. Thank you, Mim!

I would also like to thank my former colleague from UTS, the retired Head of Reference at the Burke Library, Seth Kasten. He helped me early on to unravel the great mysteries of scholarly research and navigate the immense resources available through Columbia University’s library system and the wider historical ← xi | xii → and theological reference network. I thank him also for helping me to keep up my spirits during the challenging times associated with the preparation of this monograph.

On the faculty of Union and General Theological Seminaries, Professors Euan Cameron and Clair McPherson should be mentioned for their tremendous input into my research project. Their keen insights and valuable comments significantly contributed to the structure and content of this book.

I also owe special thanks to Michelle Salyga and Jackie Pavlovic, editors at Peter Lang. Their punctuality and precision helped to keep the project moving so that it could reach its completion.

My thanks go out to Theodore Dedon for his friendship, kindness, and willingness to read and critique this manuscript in draft. Last but not least, I wish to thank Nadia Foskolou whose expertise in ancient texts has immensely enriched my scholarly horizons.

← xii | xiii →



ACOActa Conciliorum Oecumenicorum
CCCambridge Companion
CAGCommentaria in Aristotelem Graeca
DOPDumbarton Oaks Papers
EDEuntes Docete
EchOr.Échos d’Orient
JEHJournal of Ecclesiastical History
J. Hist. Philos. Journal of the History of Philosophy
JP Journal of Philology
J. Phil.Journal of Philosophy
JTS Journal of Theological Studies
MansiSacrorum Conciliorum Nova et Amplissima Collectio, ed. Giovanni Domenico Mansi
OLAOrientalia Lovaniensia Analecta
PG Patrologia Graeca
PhronesisPhronesis: a Journal for Ancient Philosophy
PLPatrologia Latina
POPatrologia Orientalis
PuseySancti Patris Nostri Cyrilli Opera, ed. P.E. Pusey ← xiii | xiv →
Phil. Review The Philosophical Review
PatrPatrology, ed. Quasten
RSRRecherches de Science Religieuse
SA Supplementum Aristotelicum
SARStudia Artistarum
SCSources Chrétiennes
Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci.Studies in History and Philosophy of Science
SPStudia Patristica
Alexander of AphrodisiasDe MixtDe Mixtione
An. PostPosterior Analytics
De AnDe Anima
De Gen De Generatione et Corruptione
De InterpDe Interpretatione
Athanasius of AlexandriaDe IncarnDe Incarnatione
Basil of CaesareaContra Eunom Contra Eunomium
Cyril of Alexandria
Contra NestContra Nestorium
Ep. 2 NestSecond Letter to Nestorius
Ep. 3 NestThird Letter to Nestorius
Ep. ad JoanLetter to John of Antioch
Ep. ad Monachos Letter to the Monks of Egypt
Ep. ad EulogiumLetter to Eulogius
Ep.1 ad SuccensumFirst Letter to Succensus
Ep.2 ad SuccensumSecond Letter to Succensus
Explan XII Capit Explanatio XII Capitulorum
Quod Unus Quod Unus Sit Christus
Scholia Scholia on the Incarnation of the Only Begotten ← xiv | xv →
Thesaurus Thesaurus De Sancta Consubstantiali Trinitate
Gregory Nazianzus
In TheophIn Theophania (orat. 38)
In Sanct Pascha In Sanctum Pascha (orat. 45)
In ParmIn Platonis Parmenidem
De AnDe Anima
In CatIn Aristotelis Categories
In De GenIn Aristotelis De Generatione et Corruptione
Proclus In ParmIn Platonis Parmenidem
In CaelIn Aristotelis De Caelo
In CatIn Aristotelis Categories
In Phys In Aristotelis Physicorum
SyrianusIn ParmIn Platonis Parmenidem ← xv | xvi →

← xvi | 1 →




In the year 431 the emperor Theodosius convoked a great synod in Ephesus, which by the middle of the fifth century had assumed the title of “the third oikoumenical council.” There, two major factions of Christianity of the era clashed over the issues of Christology. The council re-affirmed the Nicene Creed as the only viable statement of faith. It also received the Second Letter of Cyril to Nestorius as a definitive statement of the oikoumenical faith of the Church. Cyril’s theology in thus receiving an oikoumenical endorsement achieved an almost simultaneous and near-unanimous recognition. Later on, in the fifth century, various factions of Christendom clashing over the interpretation of Christology claimed Cyril’s heritage as the foundation of their own Christological thought. Even his lifelong theological rivals (Theodoret of Cyrrhus is a prime example) to a certain degree reconciled their Christology with the master terms of that of Cyril.1 Ultimately, Cyril’s Christology in the late patristic period was thought of as a cogent and perfect expression of “orthodox” faith in the Incarnation. Thus, the fathers of the time generally took his theology as being self-explanatory and perfectly coherent. Subsequent generations of patristic era theologians gave Cyril the title of the “Seal of the Fathers.”2 ← 1 | 2 →

Even so, the newly emerging early church scholarship of the mid-nineteenth century could hardly make sense of Cyril’s heritage and generally thought of it (as appears from numerous text books and histories of the era) as quite confusing and not worthy of serious scholarly attention.3 This kind of reception of Cyril’s theology lasted almost for a century with some few exceptions.4 Perhaps this is the reason why up until the present day Cyril remains an enigmatic theologian for both scholars and the general public (which is apparent in specialist texts and generic handbooks of the early church). The general evaluation of Cyril’s theology, as well as the assessment of some particular aspects of his “ologies,” represents one of the enduring major points of contention in early church scholarship. Such questions as whether he was a dogmatic or biblical theologian, consistent or inconsistent, terminologically clear or not, and whether his Christology was subject to development, and so forth, have not yet been answered in a satisfactory way. There is still no broad agreement in the scholarship concerning the subject matter. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the very nature of Cyril’s theological thought remains unclear even in its most basic foundations, since the current best scholars of the early church differ considerably in their assessment of Cyril’s heritage. The most puzzling part of Cyril’s thought is unquestionably the metaphysics of the Incarnation.5 This shall be the focus of our present work.

Definition of Terms

Cyril’s metaphysics of the Incarnation is thus the subject of this monograph. This subject technically falls under the domain of Christology. Even so, Christology and the metaphysics of the Incarnation are not co-extensive. Firstly, let us look at the term “Christology” so that we can explicate the main features of its conceptual content. The term “Christology” designates our intellectual efforts to construct the “science of Christ.” It is a demonstrative account of the being of Christ; of his relation to the Father and the Spirit, i.e. his place within the schema of being characteristic for the Godhead; of his role in the formation of things, and his loving care for the things; of his relation to us, etc. In other words, the domain of Christology embraces various intertwining λόγοι revolving around Christ. It is also assumed that the proposed λόγοι represent rather knowledge (i.e. ἐπιστήμη or science proper) than opinion. Thus, the proposed λόγοι, ordered within a coherent theory manifest to our intellect the “science of Christ.”

Indeed, the word Christ is not self-explanatory. It is a homonym. What is Christ? We may immediately sense some irresolvable ἀπορίαι implicit in the question asked. The word refers to someone anointed, to God the Word, to a human ← 2 | 3 → being who lived during the reign of Tiberius, etc. Let us say that the name “Christ” in the scope of this book designates a theological conception which attempts to lay hold of what had appeared to us as God incarnated, whatever that may mean. Let us also say that Christ is a paradox towards which our intellectual efforts are directed.

Since the mid-fourth century, the “science of Christ” was thought of as having at least two modes, i.e. the mode of theology and the mode of oikonomy. Basil of Caesarea gives us a clear distinction of two modes in his Contra Eunomium. In this treatise he distinguishes the mode of “seeing” God in relation to God-self, and another mode of contemplating God as present to us, i.e. in God’s providential care, in various theophanies, and ultimately, in the incarnate state.6 What is important in this context is that the scriptural affirmations have diverging points of reference, at times referring to God as God, and at times to God as God relates to the world. Consequently, in one occasion (in the Scriptures) an affirmation may refer to Christ in the mode of θεολογία, i.e. as God (θεός), in another occasion, it may refer to Christ as a thing among other things of this world, delineating God’s maintenance of his household, i.e. a providential care for his οἶκος. This second mode is thus oikonomic. If not properly discriminated, these affirmations may create a conflict of characteristics within the subject and, consequently, confuse our λόγοι. This was, according to the fathers, the fallacy of the Arian discourse as it incorrectly allocated certain oikonomic affirmations to theological domain and constructed the λόγοι in a confused way, thus arriving at impossible conclusions.

Christology, i.e. the “science of Christ,” thus embraces two modes, i.e. θεολογία and οἰκονομία. A proper subject of this work is Christology in its oikonomic aspect. It is about Christ contemplated in the mode of his loving care for the household, i.e. created universe. The notion of οἰκονομία is intuitively clear. Even so, it is not simple; its genus embraces various species. Thus, if we divide the genus of οἰκονομία we will arrive at its species, namely, incarnational οἰκονομία and non-incarnational οἰκονομία. Incarnational οἰκονομία assumes that there is such thing as God, and that this God relates to his οἶκος in such ways that allow him to “assume our conditions,” i.e. to “acquire” extension, magnitude, and various sensible properties so that he can be “seeing” by the physical eye. It is a type of οἰκονομία wherein Christ is “one and the many,” i.e. one thing which is internally differentiated. Hence, there is one referent which has two intellectually discernible aspects. The unity of the subject, according to this type of oikonomic thought, allows all parts of Christ to cohere within the whole (i.e. within the divine hypostasis or subsistence of God the Word), whereas the diversity of aspects of Christ’s being secures the intelligibility of God as being made manifest in flesh. ← 3 | 4 →

Non-incarnational οἰκονομία, on the other hand, contemplates Christ as “the many and one” by distinguishing two heterogeneous subjects, i.e. the Word of God and a human being Jesus from Nazareth. It apprehends the name “Christ,” along with other names, as indicating a loose bound that unites the two subjects and gives them a common πρόσωπον or appearance (i.e. external manifestation). A human being here is someone “other” that the Word of God. This “other” is, nevertheless, bound to the Word of God by a certain relation. The language of self-emptying, descent, and so on, here turns into an allegory of human obedience to divine will. Consequently, God, according to the protagonists of this non-incarnational οἰκονομία (starting with Diodore of Tarsus and continuing across later centuries even to our own time), does not really “come-to-be” in human conditions due to certain restrictions associated with divine immutability. It is rather a human being Jesus of Nazareth (or the soul of Jesus), who, on account of his closeness to God,7 is said to “come-to-be” man and condescend. Indeed, such sayings are merely allegorical, since that which is a man in the first place cannot “come-to-be” man; that which nature is lowly in the first place cannot empty itself so as to become lowly. It follows, then, that the name Christ is a homonymous appellation for two subjects, God and a man and for their common external manifestation. The principle of coherence in Christ is thus external and this type of unity is not a whole but rather a sum, so to say. Thus, Christ here is first “the many” and then “one” since the word Christ designates two subjects for existence and of predication, namely, God the Word and a human being. In other words, “Christ” is not a proper name of the subject; it is a common name shared among the subjects. It is equally distributed between God and a man, on account of some external relation. Moreover, this word also denotes their shared manifestation (πρόσωπον). Hence, we have two proper subjects in Christ and one quasi-subject, since certain things are predicated of the shared πρόσωπον.

What is then the “metaphysics of the Incarnation”? It is a part of the whole “science of Christ” in the mode of οἰκονομία wherein a contemplator of divine mysteries assumes unity, being, and the structure of wholes and parts in Christ so as to proceed with the deduction of concepts in order to explain all sensible and non-sensible properties of Christ as God Incarnate (i.e. related to the world through the Incarnation). It is thus a kind of demonstrative science which explains the being of God the Word in his incarnate state. Clearly, therefore, non-incarnational οἰκονομία and the metaphysics of the Incarnation simply do not overlap. Even so, incarnational οἰκονομία embraces the metaphysics of the Incarnation as its most significant “part” and as the key discipline of the “science of Christ.” Thus, incarnational οἰκονομία relates to the metaphysics of the Incarnation as the “whole” relates to its “part,” whereas non-incarnational ← 4 | 5 → οἰκονομία is marked off by an allegory of the Incarnation. Therefore, the divisive differentiae (i.e. incarnational and non-incarnational) delineate two distinctive species of οἰκονομία.

Cyril’s Christology represents a high, or, possibly, the highest point in the development of incarnational οἰκονομία. In such an οἰκονομία it is the very Word of God that “comes-to-be” in human conditions. Thus, Cyril’s metaphysics of the Incarnation is a “part” of his Christology. It is for this reason that in many places of this book such terms as “Christology” and “the metaphysics of the Incarnation” (or “incarnational Christology) are used interchangeably (using the name of a part in order to designate the whole). Indeed, at times I tend to resort to the more conventional term, Christology, as designating the subject matter sufficiently well, i.e. following conventional jargon of our day and age. Thus, the term “Christology” in the scope of my work is often used as a designator of the metaphysics of the Incarnation.

One further remark is necessary to outline the scope of this book. As we know, metaphysics is a philosophical discipline which deals with the most foundational principles of reality; principles that go beyond the data provided by the faculties of sense perception and imagination. Thus, in this book I consider Cyril as a philosopher who has given us many subtle thoughts on the subject of the Word of God and his relation to the other hypostases of the Trinity, on his generic and peculiar properties, and so forth. Even so, the focal point of this work turns around the concept of the “self-emptying” of God the Word and his “coming-to-be” in human conditions. The notion of the Incarnation directs our mind towards some sort of intelligible reality which “comes-to-be” in flesh. Thus, it apparently also relates to physics since the subject of physics is motion and change and “becoming” is a species of change. Hence, the metaphysics of the Incarnation might be thought of as including physics as its intrinsic part.

It appears that “physics,” not being a “part” of the sentence that designates the subject matter (i.e. the metaphysics of the Incarnation), may, nevertheless, be included in the definition of the science of Christ under this scenario (namely, incarnation as “coming-to-be” in flesh). The necessity of such an inclusion becomes even more apparent as soon as we realize that some scholars (both past and present) thought of Cyril as fundamentally teaching a real physical presence of the Word of God in the realm of becoming, thus predicating change and mutation of the immutable God. One such account, introduced and exemplified by Henry Wolfson, is analyzed in this book. I shall argue that such an opinion misrepresents Cyril’s account of the Incarnation. In order to unravel other possible misconceptions I shall take a long detour and arrive at the understanding of Cyril’s doctrine that strips any “physical twists” from the Word of God. ← 5 | 6 →

We learn from Cyril that the Word of God “came-to-be” man. Motion and “coming-to-be” belong to the subject-area of physics. Even so, Cyril tells us that God the Word “comes-to-be” without change and empties himself without losing the fullness of his being. In this book I shall analyze various kinds of change (such as proposed by different scholars in regard to the Incarnation), and argue that none of them satisfy Cyril’s conditions for the “truth of the Incarnation.” Thus, κίνησις and μεταβολή are not “said-of” the Word, at least as far as his divine being (i.e. immutable or immovable, so to say) is concerned. Even so, the deductions of sensible properties of the Word certainly represent the main part of Cyril’s discourse. How can this be possible in a coherent theory? My argument as to the possibility of such a discourse shall be built upon the deductions of the second part of Plato’s Parmenides. In particular, I shall argue that the deduction of the concepts belongs to the discipline of metaphysics. Thus, the proper subject of this monograph is Cyril’s metaphysics of the Incarnation. The notion of “incarnation” in this context does not have “physical” connotations. Hence, physics is neither included in the name of the science, nor is it a part of the account of its essence.



XVI, 330
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (September)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. XV, 328 pp.

Biographical notes

Sergey Trostyanskiy (Author)

Sergey Trostyanskiy is currently Research Fellow of the Sophia Institute (International Research Center for Orthodox Thought and Culture) based in New York and Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, where he received his Ph.D. in Church history. His research interests include Byzantine history and philosophy. He has published articles and book chapters on Late Antique and early Christian history.


Title: St. Cyril of Alexandria's Metaphysics of the Incarnation