Reading the Church Fathers on Scripture can be illuminating, surprising, and sometimes weird. This is part of what’s so fun about reading them. They come to the text of Scripture from a different time and place, with slightly different questions, exegetical instincts, and theological approaches, which present a question and a challenge to our own. I was reminded of this when diving into a little of Cyril of Alexandria’s work on the Gospel of John.
The Patriarch Cyril is best-known for his polemic against Nestorius and the central role he played in Christological controversies which leading up to the Council of Chalcedon (at which point Cyril was dead). Many will have read his little work On the Unity of Christ, which is what I have. I was not aware, though, that his commentary on the Gospel of John was translated until recently (Brandon Crowe quotes it in his excellent book The Last Adam). On a whim I looked it up and found online for free because, well, Cyril of Alexandria. Anyways, I started poking around and stumbled on one of the oddest bits of trinitarian reasoning I’ve read in one of the Fathers.
It comes in his comments on John 1:1, “and the Word was with God”, in his chapter arguing that the Son is consubstantial with the Father and therefore God in his own person. The trouble he’s dealing with specifically is the oddity of thinking of the Son as properly God but somehow also being “with God”, alongside him. Cyril proceeds to explain how this is so by commenting on various relevant Scriptures you might expect him to. For example, see this entirely unsurprising bit on John 14:
Consubstantial is the Son with the Father and the Father with the Son, wherefore They arrive at an unchangeable Likeness, so that the Father is seen in the Son, the Son in the Father, and Each flashes forth in the Other, even as the Saviour Himself says, He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father, and again, I in the Father and the Father in Me. But even though He be in the Father, and have again the Father in Him, Himself full well, as has been already said, perfectly exact unto the Form of Him Who begat Him, and depicting again in Himself without any shortcome, the Father whence He is:—-not therefore will He be deprived of His separate existence, nor will the Father lose His own special Being; but neither will the surpassing Likeness and Resemblance work any confusion of Persons, so that the Father Who begat and the Son Who is Begotten of Him should be considered as one in number. But sameness of Nature will be confessed of Both, yet the Individual Existence of Each will surely follow, so that both the Father should be conceived of as indeed Father, and the Son as Son. For thus, the Holy Ghost being numbered with them and counted as God, the Holy and Adorable Trinity will have Its Proper Fullness.
Alright, so far so classic Trinitarian. It doesn’t get more basic than Jesus’ discourses in the Gospel of John.
Now, jump down six or seven texts and we arrive at this fascinating bit of exegesis of Genesis 19:24:
Another. The Divine Scripture says that the cities of the Sodomites were burned by the Anger of God, and explaining how the Divine wrath was brought upon them, and clearly describing the mode of the destruction, The Lord, it says, rained upon Sodom brimstone and fire from, the Lord, since this too is the portion of the cup most befitting those who are wont to commit such sins. What Lord then from what Lord sent the fire on and consumed the cities of the Sodomites? It is clear that it was the Father Who worketh all things through the Son, since He is too His Might and His Arm, Who caused Him to rain the fire upon the Sodomites. Since therefore the Lord sends the fire from the Lord upon them, how is not the Father Other, in respect to His own Being, than the Son,, and the Son again than the Father? For the One is here signified as being from One.
I have to admit, Sodom and Gomorrah is not one of my top 10 go-to texts in proving the distinction-within-unity of the persons of the Godhead.
Still, the text is illuminating for a number of reasons. First, Cyril picks up on a real oddity in the repetition of the LORD twice in the verse. Calvin suggest the repetition emphasizes the God’s agency. Robert Alter says its a repetition of emphasis as well, but he focuses on connecting the phrase, “from the heavens” which links it to the destruction of the Flood. Gordon Wenham doesn’t comment on that repetition, but right before it he notes that the whole passage is riddled with ambiguities “the LORD”, “the men”, and “the angels” in chapter 18, but here in chapter 19 and in the encounter in, it is clear one represents or is the LORD, the Angel of the YHWH.
It seems, then, Cyril is picking up the Angel of YHWH reading and suggesting the repetition indicates something about the complexity of the agency of the One God being depicted. The argument depends on the doctrine of inseparable operations and its corollary: the outward works of the Trinity are undivided, but that doesn’t mean the persons are indistinguishable or confused in them either. In the incarnation, Father, Son, and Spirit are at work, but only the Son is incarnate and so forth. Cyril discerns a distinction of activity here as well.
Connecting this to the broader Patristic habit of seeing an order to the works of the economy as proceeding from the Father, through the Son, and perfected in the Spirit, Cyril focuses on the fact that all of God the Father’s works are “through the Son”, whom he has identified with the Angel of YHWH. And so, when “the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven”, we should understand that it is the Son who rains down fire on Sodom from the Father.
Weirder still is that while in other places the Fathers might describe the Son as the Wisdom of God, or the Power of God, by which he acts, it seems Cyril may be identifying him as the “Anger” of God, or God at work in the execution of his judgment against Sodom. (Though, it could be the capitalization in the translation is misleading me here.)
In any case, the point is that Cyril wants us to see that while the text is clear that while there is an overall unity to the act of judgment as that of the One God, there is a distinction in the agency implying an internal otherness appropriate to the two persons of Father and Son. There is one Judgement, but it comes through the Son from the Father.
Turning a bit from “trinitarian” issues, it’s worth noting that Cyril sees no problem reading the affair at Sodom and Gomorrah as an instance of active divine judgment and retributive punishment, with no mediators involved. We have here a deeply Christological exegesis which places the Son plainly at the center of the Old Testament text, but does so by making him the active agent of judgment in God burning a city to the ground. Suffice it to say this is markedly different from other recent proposals for relating Jesus to Old Testament violence. Though, it does seem consistent with Paul’s reading in 1 Corinthians 10.
At which point, it’s worth reiterating that this isn’t some weirdo outlier. This is Cyril of Alexandria, revered Patriarch, central figure in formulating and consolidating the Christological Orthodoxy for the whole Church, East and West. Now, you may be unconvinced by his reading (and I’m not sure I buy it myself), but it does present a striking instance of the way the Fathers often don’t fit our popular expectations on these matters, which are often shaped by 20th Century prejudices, Eastern polemics, or recent progressivish retrievals.
Now, I don’t really have a big point here except that sometimes you find odd, things reading the Fathers. Though, I suppose the next time you’re teaching on the Trinity, maybe consider the story of Sodom and Gomorrah?
Soli Deo Gloria
The understanding strung throughout the early Fathers, rooted in John 1:18 and 1 John 4:12-15, is that all the manifestations of God’s Presence are the Son, not the Father. This is connected to the rejection of images (icons) of the Father, thought this is obviously abandoned later on in the West. But it is the Son at Sodom (where the term translated brimstone is, in the Septuagint, very close to “God”, theion and theios – with the resulting image of God’s “divinity” or special Presence being what falls on Sodom, that Presence being consistently, throughout the texts, a fiery one, whether in the fiery pillar of cloud, on the altar, in the burning bush, in Isa. 6, etc. ), the Son Who wrestles with Jacob, the Son on Sinai, etc. God’s anger and God’s love burn- they manifest God and bring judgment (Ex. 24:17; Deut. 4:24 and the quote of it in Heb. 12:29, and Deut. 9:3), both positive and negative. There is an interesting intersection, for example, in Song of Songs 8:6. But all of these ideas and images intersect and form a larger picture.
Isn’t this pretty similar to some of the points Heiser makes in The Unseen Realm? Iirc, he doesn’t discuss the way this illuminates triniatarian relations, but the distinction between the visible YHWH and YHWH from heaven is there.
Yes, in many ways he is hearkening back to this sort of exegesis.
This was thoroughly enjoyable and thought provoking to this fellow theology nerd. Bravo!
I must confess that the repetition of “LORD” in Genesis 19:24 never really stood out to me prior to reading your post. Very interesting and informative. I tend to agree with Cyril’s overall point, and I think he is justified in his exegesis…both in its approach and conclusion.