Matthew Crawford: Clarifying Nicene Trinitarianism with Cyril of Alexandria

Matthew Crawford is a graduate of SBTS, he did a doctorate and post-doctoral fellowship at Durham University, and is currently research fellow at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. He is the author of Cyril of Alexandria’s Trinitarian Theology of Scripture (Oxford: OUP, 2014). In the miniature essay below, he shows what Cyril contributes to the debate about relations and authority in the Trinity. If anything, just read the conclusion!

Clarifying Nicene Trinitarianism:
The Difference between Relations of Origin and Relations of Authority and Submission

Matthew Crawford

There are many aspects to the current debate over the Trinity that is roiling the evangelical blogosphere. Here I wish to comment on only one, namely the understanding of divine or Trinitarian agency that had emerged by the late fourth century and became the standard model for both East and West thereafter. Some proponents of an “eternal relation of authority and submission” (ERAS) have consistently misread the ancient tradition on this point, and I hope the following post clarifies that what advocates of ERAS have in mind is decidedly not what pro-Nicenes were talking about.

For at least the past decade, scholarship on the Nicene legacy has recognized that one of the defining features of the pro-Nicene consensus of the late fourth century was the notion of ‘inseparable operations.’ Although most often associated with Augustine in the West, this was just as much a characteristic of eastern theologians such as Gregory of Nyssa and Cyril of Alexandria. Indeed, Cyril is a useful point of comparison with Augustine on this point because the two were contemporaries and were each in their own way further working out the implications of the pro-Nicene legacy they inherited from the prior generation (e.g., the Cappadocians, Didymus, Ambrose, etc.). The following extracts from Cyril are dealt with more fully in chapter two of my book Cyril of Alexandria’s Trinitarian Theology of Scripture.

The basic point of divergence between Cyril and ERAS is that Cyril (and by extension other pro-Nicenes) did not conceive of Trinitarian action in terms of three separate wills or centers of consciousness, whose relative roles in an authority structure serve as distinguishing properties for Father, Son, and Spirit. Rather, assuming divine simplicity, he holds that there is a single divine will, and a corresponding single divine action, which is carried out from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, but this unity of will/action does not merely mean that as three distinct subjects they “cooperate,” a word he explicitly rejects. Rather, each of the three are necessarily implicated in the action of any of the other three as a result of their single, simple, divine nature.

Consider the following passage:

“Is it not now clear that by the difference according to individual hypostasis we can distinguish very well what is the Father, and also what is the Son, and also what is the Spirit? By their coming together in a unity of nature, everything belongs to all three, whether presence, words, participation, operation, glory, and whatever gives to the divine nature its beauty.” (Dialogues on the Trinity 642d)

What distinguishes the individual hypostases is only the fact that they are Father, Son, and Spirit (a shorthand for their respective relations of origin). Everything else that pertains to divinity they hold in common. Although Cyril does not mention “authority,” in his list, if he assumed divine authority as something that “gives the divine nature its beauty,” then authority for him would fall on the side of the single divine nature and cannot be made a point of distinction between the three.

To take the alternate view, that there are three divine wills, and that divine action is apportioned out to the three, is a direct violation of monotheism:

“The holy Trinity performs an identical operation and whatever the Father should do or wish to perform, these things the Son also does in an equal manner, and similarly also the Spirit. But to give the operations in succession to each of the hypostases individually is nothing other than to set forth successively three gods completely distinct from one another.” (Five Tomes against Nestorius 4.2)

Cyril thought that Nestorius’ errant Christology was a violation of pro-Nicene Trinitarianism and even implied tritheism. He likely would have thought the same today of ERAS.

How then should we understand scriptural passages that refer an action to a distinct hypostasis? Cyril replies:

“because there are three hypostases, at the same time distinct and immediate to one another by virtue of the one nature of the deity, the operation of a single person can be said to belong to the operation of the entire substance and to the operation of each hypostasis distinctly. For the entire substance is inclined to move through its entirety and through each hypostasis distinctly.” (Dialogues on the Trinity 620e-621a)

Cyril has arrived at this conclusion via means of a careful examination of the way in which scripture at times attributes precisely the same action to all three of the hypostases. He assumes that this manner of speaking is allowed because the action attributed to a distinct hypostasis is in fact an action of the “entire substance.” Conversely, every action of the divine nature must “move through” each of the hypostases.

Proponents of ERAS rightly recognize that pro-Nicene theology requires an order, or taxis, of the three hypostases, and that this taxis is reflected in the manner of divine action. However, pro-Nicene theology provides a very different explanation of the reason why a certain pattern of action is implied by the taxis:

“Therefore, since each one is in the other naturally and necessarily, when the Father works the Son will work, as his natural and substantial and hypostatic power. And similarly when the Son works the Father also works, as source of the Word who creates, which naturally exists in his own offspring, as fire also exists in the heat that proceeds from it.” (Commentary on John 1:3)

The mention of “offspring” in this quotation highlights that Cyril is assuming that the Son is eternally begotten by the Father, as stated in the Nicene Creed of 325 and repeated in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381. This relation of origin implies the manner of acting. The Son always acts “from” the Father because he has been begotten by the Father eternally. And when the Son acts, the Father is also acting as “source” because he is the one who has begotten the Son. The “from-ness” and “source-ness” implied by eternal generation become the model for divine action ad extra. Also mentioned here is the idea of “mutual indwelling” which we will look at more closely in a moment.

The same logic may be applied to the Son-Spirit relation and agency:

“For the [Son] has been called the hand and arm of God the Father, since he [i.e. the Father] does all things through him [i.e. the Son], and the Son similarly works by the Spirit. Therefore just as the finger is dependent on the hand, as something that is not foreign to it, but in it by nature, so also the Holy Spirit is joined into unity with the Son by reason of his consubstantiality, even though he proceeds from God the Father. For, as I said, the Son does everything through the consubstantial Spirit.” (Fragments on Luke 141)

Cyril, not entirely unlike Augustine, assumes that the Spirit proceeds not only from the Father, but also “through” the Son, and that this relation of procession grounds the Spirit’s agency as the one by whom the Son always works. Once again, a relation of origin implies the pattern for divine action.

A persistent emphasis in Cyril’s writings on this topic is the idea of mutual indwelling of the three hypostases. This, in his opinion, necessitates the particular understanding of Trinitarian agency that he articulates. The following passage is especially clear on this point:

“If the Father had spoken anything to you, he would have used these very same words that I am speaking to you now and no others. For I have such a great substantial likeness with him that my sayings are his, and whatever things I should do are believed to be his accomplishments. For by “dwelling in me” on account of the exact identity of substance, “he performs the deeds” (John 14:10). And since the Godhead is one and is understood to be in Father and Son and Spirit, absolutely every word that comes from the Father is through the Son in the Spirit, and every deed or miracle is through the Son in the Spirit, and yet is accomplished as though from the Father. For the Son is not external to the substance of the one who begot him, nor is the Holy Spirit. Rather, the Only-Begotten exists in him, and again has his begetter in himself, and thus he says that the Father works. For the nature of the Father is effective and shines forth beautifully in the Son.” (Commentary on John 14:10)

Cyril’s comments here are an exegesis of John 14:10, which seems to be a passage that at least complicates, if not critically undermines, the ERAS model of divine action. When Jesus was asked by Philip to show him the Father, he did not say, “You don’t need to see the Father because I’ve done everything the Father told me to do.” Instead he said, “The Father who dwells in me does his works.” Cyril assumes that this mutual indwelling is what accounts for the consistent pattern of acting in the Gospel of John, in which the incarnate Logos repeatedly states that he acts from the Father. This mutual indwelling suggests that however we construe divine agency, it cannot merely be modeled on human relations of authority and submission. If I command someone to do something, you could reasonably say I am acting “through” them, but you would never say that I am “dwelling in them and doing the work.” In other words, Jesus’ statement highlights that something much more complex and mysterious is at work in divine action.

What then of other passages that refer to a greater degree of transitivity between Father and Son, such as John 8:28 (“I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things just as the Father taught me”)? Cyril regards this passage as being yet a further reference to the Son’s eternal generation:

“Who, tell me, teaches a newborn baby to use the human voice? Why does a baby never roar like a lion …? Nature, the teacher, fashions the offspring after the property of the sower, and it must and surely will proceed to that common sound to which all are accustomed. It is therefore possible to learn from nature without being taught, since the entire (so to speak) property of the sower is loaded into the offspring. That, therefore, is the sense in which the Only-begotten himself affirmed in this passage that he learned from the Father. What nature is for us, this God the Father surely and for good reason should be understood to be for him.” (Commentary on the John 8:28)

The statement of the Son “being taught” by the Father is, in Cyril’s view, not the sort of action that normally occurs between a student and a teacher in authority over him/her (this would violate divine simplicity after all), but is instead a function of the Son’s generation from the Father. Once again, relations of origin account for the pattern of action.

It is not difficult to find pro-Nicene authors of the late fourth and early fifth centuries speaking of the Father being the “beginning of activity” or the Son acting “from the Father,” but these theologians do not have in view the kind of discreet subjects with distinct wills communicating commands one to another that is required for ERAS to work. Hence, simply amassing quotations from the fathers making such statements, or quoting Schaff as evidence for a supposed “subordinationism” among Nicene theologians, does nothing to further the debate because this is not what fourth-century authors were talking about. In other words, you cannot legitimately claim them as witnesses to a supposed long tradition of ERAS. We can go further than that and say that to jettison relations of origin as distinguishing properties in favor of ERAS is not just to amend pro-Nicene theology. It is rather to eviscerate its internal logic and replace it with something that would have been regarded as beyond the bounds of orthodoxy in the fourth century. Of course, one could argue that pro-Nicene theology misconstrues scripture or is otherwise inadequate, but this is problematic if you also want to claim to be upholding the Nicene faith.

Post-script: What about 1 Corinthians 11:3?

At the risk of making an excessively long blog post even longer, let me simply give a nod to Cyril’s understanding of 1 Corinthians 11:3, the locus classicus for ERAS. In fact, an entire section of his Dialogues on the Trinity (499d-501c) is devoted to interpreting this passage and refuting certain opponents who think it means the Son is less than the Father. Cyril’s response, which by now should not be surprising, is that the usage of the word “head” in this text denotes a relation of origin. Man is “head” (kephalē) of the woman because she “appeared from him.” Similarly, Christ is the “head” of man because he is the “Second Adam,” the “second root of the race.” Finally, the Father is the “head” of Christ because Christ is homoousios with him, by virtue of having the Father as his “source” (pēgē) and “root.” In this scheme Christ occupies the middle place, as the mediator who is at the same time both God and human. It would take a longer treatment to tease out the implications of this exegesis, but it should be obvious that it is incompatible with the ERAS reading, and should alert us to the fact that there are other ways of interpreting this passage than assuming it has to do with eternal authority and submission within the Godhead.