Review: “Leo the Great” by Bronwen Neil

I’m kind of new to book reviews, and it’s late, but I can’t sleep, so I’m writing this anyway.

Leo the Great by Bronwen Neil is the latest in Routledge’s series The Early Church Fathers.  This series is the sort of thing I like to see scholars producing.  Each volume deals with a different Church Father, giving an introduction to his life, works, and context, along with important selections from his works.  The goal of the series as a whole is to make the Church Fathers more accessible to a wider readership.

Apart from a few occasions when Neil slips and writes things that may be hard to understand for those uninitiated in the worlds of Classics/Late Antiquity and theology/Patristics (usually jargon or allusions; something no doubt inevitable in a book of this sort), this tome fulfills the goal of the series admirably.

Leo the Great was Bishop of Rome from 440-461.  This turbulent time included the Council of Chalcedon, as well as the Second Council of Ephesus, which gained its more common name from this man — latrocinium, or “den of robbers”, because of the heavy-handed tactics used by the Eutychian/Monophysite party at the Council, including the refusal to read his carefully-crafted letter, the so-called “Tome of Leo” or “Tome to Flavian.”

Neil provides us with an introduction to Leo’s life and times, followed by introductions to Leo as pastoral caregiver, theologian and opponent of heresy, heir of St. Peter, and administrator of the wider church.  She then provides a selection of his letters and homilies on those same four themes, each with an individual introduction, some in English for the first time.  The translations are readable and clear, the style appropriate to the genre of each writing, enabling the reader to enter into the thought of Leo the Great, which is what I look for in a translation.

Leo the Great was appropriately called “great” within a hundred years of his death in both East and West.  This stems primarily from his “Tome,” a letter he wrote to Flavian, Archbishop of Constantinople, condemning Eutyches’ teachings and setting forth his doctrine of the twofold nature of Christ, stating that Christ has two natures in one person, one nature being wholly divine, the other being wholly human.  In section 3 of the Tome, Leo writes:

Therefore, with the characteristic of each nature maintained and joined in one person, majesty took up humility, power took up weakness, eternity assumed mortality, and in order to pay off the debt of our condition the inviolable nature was joined to a passible nature, so that, as was fitting for our healing, one and the same mediator of God and humankind, the man Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2: 5), was both mortal in respect to one and immortal in respect to the other. (p. 98)

Although spurned by the Second Council of Ephesus, this letter was acknowledged at Chalcedon as being the official teaching of the Church and as standard orthodoxy, along with certain of Cyril of Alexandria’s letters.  This letter was the entire reason I read this book.

However, I found other reasons for Leo to have gained the appellation “Great” as I read this volume.  He was, first and foremost, a pastor, the shepherd of the church in Rome.  Writes Neil, “Leo was not writing for his own amusement (or ours!) but for the spiritual edification of his readers.” (16)  His homilies reveal this strongly pastoral character, when exhorting his congregation not to worship the Sun (Homily 27) or encouraging them to fast:

Let us spend on virtue what we take away from luxury; let the abstinence of the faster be the refreshment of the poor. (Homily 13)

In his letters, we see Leo the Administrator.  He sometimes pushes his agenda as “Heir of St. Peter,” being one of the first popes to begin an articulation of the primacy of the Roman see, but tends to be pastoral in these as well.  Priests and bishops would write to him with questions, or he would see the occurrences of abuses in the churches, and he would write to those involved, explaining to them and reinforcing the existing canons of the Church, and, where no canon existed, using the spirit of the canons to give guidance.

Much could be said about Leo, Petrine succession, and Roman primacy in light of this book, both in terms of Leo’s writings and in terms of the attitudes of his contemporaries as laid out in the introduction.  It shall go unsaid, however, in the interests of time and clear thinking.  Suffice it to say that though Leo had a clear notion of the primacy of his see, he also had a strong feeling of the collegiality of all the bishops of the Church, and these two facets played off one another in his administration of the Church and dealings with other clergy.

He also increased the role of the Bishop of Rome in civic and cultural life, a role that would only increase in the coming centuries.  This was the result of the unrest of the times following Alaric’s sack in 410 and the political vacuum caused by the residence of the Western Roman Emperor in Milan or Ravenna.  He missed the Council of Chalcedon because he was too busy going to a meeting with Attila the Hun to convince the barbarian not to sack Rome!

I came to this book seeking great theology.  This I found, especially in Letter 15 about Priscillianism, Letter 28 which is the “Tome to Flavian,” and Letter 124 to the Cyrillian/Eutychian monks of Palestine who’d been causing some violent ruckus following Chalcedon.  I also found much about the order of the church and the life of the average Christian alongside Neil’s information about this great Father of the Church.

Leo the Great is a great book about a great theologian.

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3 thoughts on “Review: “Leo the Great” by Bronwen Neil

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