Key early text defends the Christian faith
Ancient Christian Texts: Commentary on John (Volume 2) – Cyril of Alexander
Translator and author of introduction: David R. Maxwell
Editor: Joel C. Elowsky
Publisher: IVP Academic
Cyril of Alexandria’s commentary on John challenges me in a way never intended. As the translator notes in his introduction, “Cyril’s literary style is complex and wordy. His sentences are lengthy, full of interlocking clauses, and his vocabulary can be unusual, even idiosyncratic” (xx). I confess to struggling with the drawn-out ideas.
I recognize that at times I was too tired when I sat down to read. In addition, Cyril wrote this to be a reference. Commentaries like this one are not designed for casual reading.
The translator in his introduction provides helpful advice in how readers can enter Cyril’s world of thought, which covers John 8-21. Volume 1 covers the first seven chapters of the gospel. In short, passive reading is not recommended.
One thought that helps me is that Cyril is engaging in “doctrinal explanation” and “he clearly employs the Gospel of John to refute the arguments of the Arians, Jews and pagans” (xvii). He equips his readers to answer their arguments.
He strongly defends the divinity of Christ and is careful to use precise language, “When we say that the Son and the Father are ‘one,’ we do not confuse the individuals who are numerically distinct, like some who say that the Father and the Son are the same person. Rather, we believe that the Father subsists on his own, and the two come together into one identity of substance” (77). He glorifies God by continually defining the members of the Trinity.
A point of view that differs from more recent reference works is just one aspect that makes this and the related volumes valuable. Cyril frequently looks at a passage from more than one angle, which helps to clarify the possible meanings.
One example is the beginning of John 9, where the disciples asked Jesus who sinned, the man born blind or his parents. The answer, of course, is that neither of them sinned. In explaining the passage, Cyril makes reference to an Old Testament passage that refers to God visiting “the sins of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation.” He then describes the distorted view of some, who thought of God as bearing grudges and being severely wrathful. He suggests what it might mean for God to visit sins upon the third and fourth generations. In the end he justifies his view that the meaning of this passage does not contradict the idea of God being long-suffering and abundant in mercy.
The way Cyril uses Scripture to interpret Scripture and his tendency like others at that time to “interpret a given text in light of the overall sweep of God’s salvation” (xxii) is something to watch and enjoy. The latter differs from the emphasis today of discovering the original intent by looking at surrounding verses and historical context. Cyril does not ignore this; for him it’s step toward the goal of defining how a passage fits into the oikonomia, the technical term used for God’s plan of redemption. He repeatedly uses this word, which shows the centrality of it to his exposition.