Luther’s Explanation of the Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed
Wednesday, February 28, 2007
St. Cyril is an anti-hero.
His picture there on the front cover of the bulletin. Cyril lived from 376-444, and he is known as “Defender of the Faith.” The Lutheran Service Book encourages us to mark his commemoration on June 27, celebrating this man who helped maintain the orthodox faith, the true Christian teachings.
But St. Cyril is no saint; he is an anti-hero. Defined by The Cambridge Encyclopedia (Second Edition), an anti-hero is “a central character in a novel or play who [goes against] or contradicts conventional values and behaviour,” and yet, the anti-hero still accomplishes some heroic act that produces a good outcome.
Huckleberry Finn is an anti-hero. Mark Twain made Huck Finn to be quite mischievous, causing trouble, breaking laws, but in the process, Huck Finn also helped Jim the slave get to freedom. Jack Sparrow, the character played by Johnny Depp in The Pirates of the Caribbean movies is another anti-hero, a pirate, often led by his own ambitions, and yet, one who sets aside his goals to help his friends Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner. Huck Finn and Jack Sparrow don’t have all of the virtues we think of in our heroes, but they end up doing heroic, good acts.
St. Cyril is another anti-hero—of course, Cyril isn’t a fictional character; he really lived 1300 years ago, but he has the qualities of an anti-hero: he isn’t always virtuous, often was motivated by his own self-interest, and yet, he accomplished a heroic, good outcome for the Church.
You can read the whole story if you want to—a version written by Martin Chemnitz, one of the Lutheran reformers—but the story is complicated. No one in the story is perfect. Cyril doesn’t always seem like the good guy.
However, theologically Cyril is our hero. In the end we call him St. Cyril, but what made him saintly is the same thing that makes you saintly: Jesus Christ, both God and man, the Savior who came to make us saints, holy ones, righteous in the sight of God. Cyril is our hero for the way he defended that very theology from attack. No matter his flaws, his motivations, his hot-headed responses, what emerges from Cyril’s work is the same theology about Jesus Christ that appears in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism in the meaning of the Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord.”
Without Cyril, our anti-hero, without God working through Cyril’s life, the Church may have wandered far away from this theology, and in the process, we may have lost the very important teaching that Jesus is both divine and human.
The cover picture tells Cyril’s story. Cyril is holding a scroll that presumably has the Creed or some similar statement of the Christian faith written on it, and Cyril is holding a picture of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus. The picture tells the story. Cyril held onto the faith—which meant holding onto the Virgin Mary who once held the baby Jesus in her arms.
But why? Why is St. Cyril holding a picture of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus? To answer that question we need to tell the story of St. Cyril—for which I’m borrowing heavily from Martin Chemnitz’s version of the story, because as he tells the story, it’s clear that knowing all of the details of the story isn’t the important part. The important part is the theology. Why is St. Cyril holding a picture of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus? There’s theology in the story that answers that question.
Chemnitz begins the story: “Now, it is said that this happened: [in the 5th century, there was a bishop named Nestorius.] Nestorius had as a presbyter [a local leader of the church, a man named] Anastasius, a man like [Nestorius] and one whom [Nestorius] therefore loved. [Anastasius] had said in a sermon on several occasions (perhaps not having sufficiently considered the matter) that Mary is not to be called the mother of God, as all antiquity called her, but the bearer of man.”
Let me explain here that Mary had always been called theotokos in Greek, which means “mother of God.” The Church had taught—and we still teach—that when Mary gave birth to the baby Jesus, she was truly giving birth to God. Jesus was divine and human from the time He was conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit. We are right to call Mary theotokos, mother of God, because that isn’t saying anything about Mary. That is a term that says everything about who Jesus is—He is both God and man.
Anastasius and Nestorius were wanting to call Mary by a new term, Christokos, “mother of Christ,” meaning that Mary gave birth to Christ—leaving room for reinterpretation. Was Jesus really divine when He was born? Was Jesus merely human, the chosen Christ, who would later receive the divine Spirit? Christokos was a term that opened a huge door for changing the teaching of the Church, and many in the Church realized this.
Our story continues:
“[Because other church leaders realized that this departed from what the Church had always taught, they appealed to] Bishop Nestorius…about this matter, to compel [Anastasius] to retract the statement which he had spoken either in carelessness or dangerously. But Nestorius did not want to desert Anastasius, whom he favored. He therefore shamelessly began to argue, out of a love of controversy, in defense of this proposition, and as it happens in such disputes, when strange notions are defended, the matter proceeded to the point that Nestorius denied that God was born, suffered, was crucified, but said that only the man born of Mary suffered and was crucified and that God was present with the man just as He is present with one of the saints. For so he repeatedly said as a proverb, as it were: ‘Do not glory, Judas, because you have not crucified God but a man.’” [In other words, Judas shouldn’t act as if he had sent God to the cross, but that only the human Jesus died on the cross].
Do you see what is happening by what Nestorius is teaching? He is separating the divine and human parts of Jesus. He is limiting what happened to the divine Christ—saying that only the human Jesus died on the cross. He is denying what is taught in the Apostles’ Creed, that Jesus is both God and man. Nestorius is setting us up to forever argue whether the divine Christ was born, grew up, ate, drank, slept, got cold, suffered, or died. We could forever, then, wonder whether Jesus really had anything in common with us, and we might doubt that Jesus could do anything about saving us. We might always wonder just who died on the cross. That’s the problem Cyril saw, and so our story continues:
“When Cyril of Alexandria saw this fire springing up in [Rome] from where the flame…could spread widely and the whole truth of the church be destroyed, he wrote to Nestorius, admonishing him to [put] better thought to the matter, and he pointed out that [these] fountains of trouble [could bring] great ruin to major articles of the faith…. But when [Nestorius responded with harsh words and even more false doctrine], Cyril saw that there was no hope of improvement.” [He, then, took action which eventually led to the Church Council of Ephesus in 431].
Now here’s where the story gets murky. Nestorius was certainly teaching something dangerous, because if Mary isn’t theotokos, if Jesus wasn’t divine when He was born, it’s not clear from Scripture when He became divine. Nestorius and his followers needed to be stopped from teaching something so dangerous. Yet, Cyril didn’t really follow good order. He gets a council to meet before the official council, and this pre-council condemns Nestorius. That angers the Emperor, and many people side with Nestorius, just because he was wronged by how Cyril was handling the situation. Cyril’s actions don’t put him in a good light, so as I said, he is an anti-hero. The flaws of Cyril might distract us from seeing that in the end, he is still defending the true faith—as we see in the next stage of the story:
“But Cyril, burning with the zeal of the house of God, was not disturbed by those clamors, but wrote…books on the true faith…in which he showed [how] great [the] blasphemies and errors…of Nestorius [are]…. Cyril…set forth his conviction that there is not one Son who was born of the Father before all worlds and another Son who was born of the Virgin Mary, [but] Nestorius rose and said, “I will never confess faith in a God who is two or three months old.”
Do you see the struggle Nestorius was having? Maybe it is a struggle you’ve had in your faith. It is hard to believe that the Creator of the Universe, God Himself was actually born—just like any other baby. It’s hard to imagine the divine Christ having to go through things like dirty diapers, learning how to walk, the terrible two’s, puberty. It’s hard to imagine, but that is what Scripture teaches—Jesus shared in our humanity, and Jesus was divine from all eternity. It’s hard to imagine, but that is what is necessary in order for Jesus to truly be our Savior.
As the Explanation of the Small Catechism teaches, and as you have at the back of tonight’s bulletin, “Christ had to be true man in order to act in our place under the Law and fulfill it for us; [and] be able to suffer and die for our guilt because we failed to keep the Law” (125-126). “Christ had to be true God in order that His fulfilling of the Law, His life, suffering, and death might be a sufficient [payment] for all people, [and] He might be able to overcome death and the devil for us” (126-127).
Cyril is holding a picture of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus, because Cyril was defending the true doctrine that Mary is theotokos, the mother of God, and if the Church lost this doctrine, it would lose the truth that Christ as man acted in our place under the Law and that Christ as God was able to overcome the punishment He took for our sins.
As I said, Chemnitz wrote out the story of Cyril defending the faith against Nestorius for the theology at the heart of the controversy. So Chemnitz concludes:
“[A]lthough a knowledge of the account is useful, yet it is more necessary to know what [Nestorius taught and how that went against teaching that Jesus is both divine and human]…. [I]t was not a controversy about the veneration of the Virgin Mary…. [Declaring that Mary is the Mother of God is] about the doctrine of the incarnation of the Son of God….”
That’s why St. Cyril is holding a picture of Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus. That’s why St. Cyril is so strong in making sure that the Church continued to teach that Mary is the theotokos, the mother of God. This wasn’t an argument to venerate Mary, to pray to her, to treat her as if she was somehow divine and holy by herself. That’s not what is going on, and that’s not why I put St. Cyril on the cover of tonight’s bulletin.
Rather, knowing the story of Cyril, our anti-hero, is knowing the story of our theology. By his actions, Cyril preserved, held up the teaching that when Mary gave birth to Jesus, she was giving birth to the divine-man, the Son of God and Son of Man, the Savior from eternity who had come to take flesh. That doctrine, theotokos, is so vitally important to our faith.
We cannot look at the cross without wondering—who died there? And St. Cyril reminds us of the answer that comes from Scripture and also appears in Luther’s Small Catechism: “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord.”
Your Savior—true God—died on the cross. Your Savior—true man—died on the cross. Your Savior—God and man—died on the cross to save you from your sins and give you the victory over death. Mary gave birth to your Savior; she is the Mother of God, and yet, that doesn’t say anything about Mary. It says everything about who our Savior is. Our Savior is the eternal Son of God who humbled Himself, became human like us, kept His divine nature, let Himself suffer and die in our place, and used His divine power to overcome death on our behalf.
Who died on the cross? Son of God, Son of Mary. Your Savior. Jesus Christ the Lord.
St. Cyril of Alexandria's story comes from Martin Chemnitz's Loci Theologici written from 1554-1584. This translation is by J.A.O. Preus, published by Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, © 1989, pp. 114-115.
Luther’s Small Catechism quotes from the Concordia Publishing House 2007 version.