On the Incarnation: Four Chalcedonian Sonnets

‘Haec et mea fides est quando haec est catholica fides’ (Aug. De Trin., I.iv.7)

1. Cyril’s Second Letter to Nestorius 

‘Mother of God’ the Fathers said, and we,

If we in faith with them are still to stand,

Must say the same. The One born of Mary

Is God in truth, united with a man.

God – of the Father before all time born;

Man of his mother, late in time he comes.

God unchanging, not by suff’ring torn;

Man in flesh and soul united with the Son.

This union wondrous comes not late in life

But in the womb occurs at once. And so

The Holy Mother does not just bear Christ,

But God the Word himself in her does grow.


In pain she pushes God, to this world come;

Honour the mother, then, to confess the Son.



2. Cyril’s Synodical letter to John of Antioch

‘Mother of God she is’ – this was my cry,

And all that I stepped forward to defend.

Some claim – laugh at them – that I say that He

Brought flesh from heaven; let this lie now end.

Mother of God she is, so then how can

The nature she births be not hers? So know

That in the one true faith with you I stand

Confession shared, the Church at peace, and so

Agree do we about the made-man Son –

Two natures, come together in Him – but

Not mix’d, not mingled – yet the Son is one;

One Christ; one Lord, united and uncut.


Christ’s church on earth knows peace. We are at one

Just as two natures are in God’s own Son.



3. The Tome of Pope Leo

The creed will teach – the gospels too – the faith

On which alone all our salvation rests:

Two natures met together, come to birth,

The one person of our Saviour most blest.

Each nature acts by its own property –

But each co-op’rates in the other’s works –

So strength meets weakness; death, eternity;

Miracles shine in one; one feels its hurts.

All this for us – our need, our guilt. From her

Most blest he took form, but he took not fault;

So taking our nature from his mother

He could suffer – salvation the result.


Our hope of life is found nowhere but He

Who alone could suffer impassibly.



4. The Definition of Chalcedon

In Godhead perfect; in humanity

Perfect too. One Son, our Lord Christ Jesus;

A rational soul and body has he;

And so he is consubstantial with us,

Like us in ev’ry way – except our sin

Alone. Consubstantial with the Father

Too, born before all ages had begun;

Born now of Mary, Virgin, God’s mother.

Two natures, then, united in person;

No change, no mixture of the natures two;

No split, and nor is there separation;

One hypostasis only does ensue.


Prophets and Fathers alike have taught us this:

In him meet heav’n and earth with holy kiss.


Where are these from? Well, for several years, when I have taught on the Christological debates of the early fifth century, I have challenged the students to summarise some of the key documents in a tweet – the point being to test their ability to cut through to the heart of what the text was about. Each year, there would be a student or two who affected to be above tweeting, and my standard rejoinder was, ‘You can do it in a Petrarchan sonnet instead if you like!’

Somewhere along the line, I started thinking about that, originally flippant, comment… The above are Shakespearian, not Petrarchan, sonnets; I needed the extra rhymes (‘one’ ‘Son’ ‘union’ ‘homoousion’ works, but gets repetitive…). I’ve tried to focus on the doctrine, not the history. The documents chosen are those declared canonical by the Council of Chalcedon ; I’ve not treated Cyril’s third letter, declared canonical at Ephesus.

A merry Christmas to all readers of this blog!


  1. Catriona
    Dec 23, 2013

    Thank you – those are amazing!

  2. Bill Miller
    Dec 23, 2013

    Thank you!

  3. Forrest
    Dec 23, 2013


  4. Mike
    Dec 24, 2013


    So, after the twystematics is completed, can we expect a complete historical theology in sonnet form?

    • steve
      Dec 26, 2013

      Thanks, Mike. My immediate reflection is more poetic forms might be needed for the full history of doctrine: the Church Dogmatics surely demands an Homeric epic form, for instance, and somehow I can’t help but to hear the 95 theses as limericks:

      A young Cath’lic preacher called Tetzel
      Said ‘I know all your sins and your debts’ll
      Disappear in a trice
      If you just pay the price.’
      Said Luther (Springbok accent) ‘That’s bull!’

      A grace-peddlar happened to flit
      Through a German city called Witt-
      enburg, where young Martin
      The Reformation was startin’
      By saying ‘Your theology’s sh…ockingly poor.’

      Perhaps I’ll just stick to the day-job…

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