Cyril of Alexandria: Lull Your Passions to Sleep

This is part three in a series of posts by Dr. David Maxwell. The first was “What Should You Do With Anger and Desire?”
The second was “Gregory of Nyssa: Direct the Passions.”

Cyril of Alexandria is a good example of a Christian appropriation of the Stoic view of the passions. The goal is not to direct them correctly, but to eliminate them as far as possible. Cyril does not think it is possible to eliminate them completely, which is why he uses the image of lulling them to sleep. Some passions, like the desire for food, simply can’t be avoided. But that doesn’t stop Cyril from voicing the wish that we wish we didn’t have to eat!

Like Gregory, Cyril believes that Adam and Eve were created without passions. At the fall, the passions rushed in and that is how the “many were made sinners” (Rom 5:19). The flesh is now saddled with natural impulses that drag it down into the muck and mire of sin. That is not to say that all natural impulses are sinful. Christ experienced hunger and thirst and weariness, for example, which are blameless. But generally speaking, Cyril conceives of the Christian life primarily as a battle against the passions. Mostly he sees the passions as arising from the body, which is different than Gregory, who classifies anger and desire as arising from the soul.

The goal, or you might say the ideal Christian mindset, is an even and unassuming temperament according to Cyril. Once you have been crucified with Christ, then your passions are lulled to sleep. The Greek fathers often call this state ἀπάθεια, meaning a state in which you are no longer subject to passions. Since they saw passions as attacking you from the outside (and in their view the body counts as in some sense outside), it means that you are invincible. Nothing that happens to you can hurt you.

Cyril’s interpretation of the New Testament often describes the work of Christ as moving us to this state. For example, “Jesus wept” in John 11:35. For Cyril, the point of the passage is that Jesus merely wept a little bit and then immediately stopped. To modern ears, for whom deep feelings are a virtue, this interpretation seems inexplicable. It is exactly the opposite of what we take the passage to mean! But for Cyril, grief is a tyrant. You can be captured and imprisoned by your grief. But Christ came to overthrow that tyrant. So, he experienced our grief, but immediately conquered it for us by stopping the tears. This is very similar to how he experienced our death, but in three days overcame it for us.

Therefore, Christ’s work enables Christians to make progress towards the goal of being impervious to passions. This differs from Gregory in that Cyril does not seem to think that passions are neutral impulses that can be turned to good or evil, like forging a plowshare and a sword out of the same steel. Nor does Cyril seem to be worried that if you eliminate the evil impulses, you will eliminate the good impulses along with them, like rooting out the tares in a field of wheat. The view that Cyril expresses here is quite common in the early church, especially in the monastic tradition where the goal of eliminating the passions is paramount.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John, Volume 1, trans. David R. Maxwell, ed. Joel C. Elowsky (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013).

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John, Volume 2, trans. David R. Maxwell, ed. Joel C. Elowsky (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015).

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Hebrews, trans. David R. Maxwell, ed. Joel C. Elowsky (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022).

For a brief overview of Cyril’s theology, see pp. xxv–xxvii in the Commentary on Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, and Hebrews. Or see my lecture.

Dr. David R. Maxwell is the Louis A. Fincke and Anna B. Shine Professor of Systematic Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.

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