The Sacramentality of Scripture in St Cyril of Alexandria

Ninth Day of Christmas and Feast of St Sylvester, Pope of Rome and St Seraphim the Wonderworker of Sarov

Cyril_Alexandria_Square_2.jpgREJOICE exceedingly, daughter Zion, proclaim, daughter Jerusalem: lo, your king comes to you righteous and saving; he is gentle, riding on a beast of burden and young foal. ~Zechariah 9.9

“Obviously,” St. Cyril says, “in this he now proclaims the revelation of our Savior.” Is that so? Is it obvious that Zechariah preaches Christ? Is it obvious that the problems and suffering of this world have given way to the triumph of Christ? Is it obvious that sin is defeated, death is undone, and that joy has arisen with the morning? For St. Cyril, yes it is. He goes on to say:

"the result being that there is no sign of any problem, the consequent order given to the spiritual Zion necessarily being to rejoice for the reason that all our sadness has also been removed. After all, what continuing basis of sadness could exist, and on what grounds could sorrow be our lot, now that sin has been driven off, death trampled underfoot, human nature called to the dignity of freedom, the gift of sonship conferred as a decoration and given added luster with the heavenly graces from on high?

Now, observe that in giving the good news of our Savior’s coming he immediately summons daughter Zion. So it was quite right for him to bid her rejoice exceedingly and to urge Jerusalem to announce that her king will be coming and be revealed in the flesh, righteous and saving. In other words, Christ has justified us and directed in the path of salvation those who approach him. Furthermore, he is gentle, not proposing the severity of the Law nor punishing with death those who transgress its commandment, but rather saving by his mildness and raising up the lapsed, even be they sinners, since he has come in person as an advocate with the God and Father" (Commentary on the Twelve Prophets, Vol. III, The Fathers of the Church, 189).

You’d think St. Cyril was preaching on the narrative of Christ’s nativity, or possibly His resurrection; but no, all this comes from the Prophet Zechariah. Isn’t this a gross case of eis-egesis? Isn’t Cyril reading into the text something later, something foreign to the authorial intent? And notice how he doesn’t even say that such joy is going to be what marks Zion or Jerusalem, but, in fact, Zion is to rejoice now, Jerusalem is to proclaim now. How can Cyril do this apart from sloppy and extravagant allegory?

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There’s long been a debate as to whether allegory has a proper role in Biblical exegesis, and to what extent. Though all Christian preachers made use of allegory in some form or another (including St. Paul, see Galatians 4.24), this has been particularly taboo since the 19th century. For the last two hundred years or so there has been an ethical divide over how one handles the text of Scripture. Roughly put: allegory = bad, literal/historical (authorial intent) = good.

Certainly, definitions are vital here. As the (somewhat) recent debate sets the terms, allegory is any interpretive approach to Scripture that departs from the historical context and intended meaning of the words by the human author. So, the above passage from Zechariah is typically interpreted in light of the hope for return from exile. Some will debate which text is being alluded to (Zeph 3.14-20; Zech 2.11; Gen 49.11); others will debate which king fulfills the description. But the closest a modern (critical) commentary will come to seeing this text in light of Christ is to say: “Yet the prophet’s words are not directed toward specific or expected events of his immediate present but, rather, are all projected into the eschatological future” (Carol L. Meyers and Eric M. Meyers, Zechariah 9-14, Anchor Bible, 162).

Cyril, however, preaches the person and work of Christ; but he doesn’t do it in such a way that the prophecy becomes negligible, or the historical context gets ignored. In fact, it’s these very words of Zechariah that give the hope and joy of which they speak to those who hear. These words proclaim the king who comes; and to all who hear, the result is to rejoice! Cyril doesn’t discard the word for some referent beyond them or behind them; rather, through these very words, and in the historical preaching of them by the prophet, Cyril recognizes the participation in, and the delivery of Christ Himself—even for the people of old. That’s why he sees Zechariah calling Israel to rejoice and Jerusalem to preach: for the good news of the coming King is, by this very joy and proclamation, given to them as the source and substance of their joy and preaching. For in the prophetic Word, Christ is with them.

This sort of exegesis—though allegorical in a way—doesn’t disregard the literal sense of the text (its historical context or lexical/grammatical meaning). Instead, it recognizes the Christological referent in, with, and under this literal sense. Common among some early Fathers, this process was called theōria. Alberto Vaccari defines it as “the intellectual apprehension of superior objects through the medium of objects that are frequently less important, namely, either literary forms or things” (Biblica I, 1920: 15). That is, theōria described the sacramental character of Scripture, and particularly the Old Testament; for it recognized the unity of the literal/historical sense and its Christological substance. Rather than discarding the literal sense, and rather than mere historicism, theōria holds the two together: history and theology, text and Christological referent.

Though traditionally understood as an Antiochene distinctive, theōria was Cyril of Alexandria’s preferred means of contemplating Christ in the Old Testament, and he did so from a uniquely Christological perspective. He says in his commentary on John, “all spiritual theōria beholds the mystery of Christ.” So, by means of the literal sense, through theōria, Cyril beheld Christ Himself. Such an approach recognizes a sort of hypostatic union of the text and the “one divine substance enfleshed” (Cyril’s favorite Christological formula). That’s how St. Cyril read the Scriptures (that is, the Old Testament): as the means by which Christ Jesus comes to His people.

Fr. Geoffrey R. Boyle is Pastor of Grace and Trinity Lutheran Churches in Wichita, KS. He's the father of five and currently a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto, studying Old Testament Biblical Theology.

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