Pope Question: What makes Leo Great?

pope clipartA not uncommon question that arises when people hear that I did my PhD on Pope Leo ‘the Great’ is: What makes Leo great? Sometimes there is the usual anti-Catholic/anti-papal subtext of, ‘Let me guess: Power politics ’cause that’s all popes do,’ but usually, it’s simple curiosity. I like curiosity. It’s less polemical.

The basic reasons for why Leo is Magnus, ‘the Great’, came up in Why Study Leo the Great? Nonetheless, it’s worth reiterating some of this here, if only to dispell the power politics part — but also to continue to encourage people to read Leo!

So, why Leo Magnus? What’s so Great about Leo I?

Answer: The Council of Chalcedon and two-nature Christology.

Some people want to make Leo’s greatness about his foundational role in western canon law, or his ability to exercise authority throughout the western church, or his articulation of papal primacy, or his energy in promoting western interests in the eastern Mediterranean. There is a desire to see why we might think him great. Or there is a desire to see how he was great in his own geo-ecclesiological context.

True as much of the above might be, these are not the reasons we call him ‘Leo the Great.’

C. H. Turner put together a compendium of the early sources for people expressing their esteem for this pope and calling Leo Magnus in his excellent 1911 article about the dogmatic collection of Leo’s letters. (If I could be a C. H. Turner for the 21st century, I’d do it.) And when I look at the testimonies in the manuscripts I work with, the answer is the same as what Turner found:

Leo is called Magnus, ‘the Great’, because of his role in the consolidation, development, and spread of western Christology, as enshrined in his ‘Tome’ (Ep. 28), ‘Second Tome’ (Ep. 165), and the convening of the Council of Chalcedon.

From a modern perspective, Leo the Great may not be what everyone is looking for in a theologian. We prefer pioneers and ‘original’ and ‘innovative’ thinkers, or ‘subversive’ ideals. So western Trinitarianism as expressed by St Hilary of Poitiers or St Augustine of Hippo is more likely to get people really excited today. But Pope Leo the Great plays a very important role in the history of western dogma.

I’m about half-way through St Augustine’s De Trinitate. It’s not an easy ride. It’s interesting, for sure. In many ways, it’s an education in itself — Augustine faces questions of epistemology, the use of categories in thought, love, words, memory, human psychology, and more, alongside the proper interpretation of Holy Scripture, as he seeks to articulate why we should express a belief in the Trinity. Along the way, he expounds what we would recognise today as two-nature Christology, just as St Hilary had done before him.

But De Trinitate is not the sort of document you can sent around to fifth-century bishops, expect them to read and comprehend, and then get a consensus of the church’s thought on any issue. Not really. That’s what Creeds are for — in the Creeds, you can get everyone to assent to their belief in the unity in Trinity and Trinity in unity.

But Nestorius and the Eutyches were expressing ideas about the person of Christ that they believed perfectly acceptable within the boundaries of credal Christianity. As far as Nestorius is concerned, St Cyril of Alexandria, St John Cassian, Pope Celestine I, et al., were pretty sure that his expressions of faith were, in fact, beyond the pale of credal truths, especially in some of the quite damning evidence in the creeds he was trying to get people to sign that his opponents produced at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Regardless of what Nestorius actually meant/thought, he was perceived as dividing Christ into two persons who simply coinhabited the single body of Jesus of Nazareth.

Eutyches was perceived as so fully subsuming the humanity in the godhead that Christ had simply become nothing but a God in a human body.

Now, by Leo’s day, Nestorius had been officially condemned by the Imperial Church in the Council of Ephesus in 431. Nonetheless, in 448 there arose the case of Eutyches. In his dogmatic writings, Leo sought to sail between the two perceived extremes of Nestorius and Eutyches. In Nestorius, the division between divine and human in Christ was so starkly contrasted that the divinity was at risk; in Eutyches, it was the unity that was too strongly expressed, placing the humanity at risk.

Whatever faults Leo may have had in expressing himself at different moments in the ensuing controversy, what his response to Eutyches provided the western church was an articulation of traditional, Latin Christology in a simple, apprehensible document. Leo largely reiterates Sts Augustine and Hilary with recourse to a certain amount of St Cyril of Alexandria as well. Bishops throughout the western church were able to read, understand, and subscribe to Leo’s dogmatic statements.

These statements were also circulated in the East, and at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the ‘Tome’ was approved as the teaching of the imperial church alongside St Cyril’s First and Second Letters to Nestorius and, later in the council proceedings, a further clarification of the faith that included the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 in its full text, but which we usually just quote for its contribution to Christology.

Leo was hoping to achieve unity and consensus throughout the church with the ‘Tome’ and the Council of Chalcedon. He didn’t, as history has borne out. His theology was disputed at the council and immediately following it in the East, especially in Syria-Palestine and Egypt.

In the West, Leo’s dogmatic theology was never controversial. As a result, western bishops were never interested in compromises that would seem to undermine either Leo’s teachings or the Council of Chalcedon. The result of this Leonine intransigence meant schism with Constantinople later in the century (the Acacian Schism) — making Leo that much more important to western Christian self-identity. It would also mean schism between northern Italy and Rome for a few centuries (the Istrian Schism).

It would also mean that the interpretation of Chalcedon put forward in the 600s by St Maximus the Confessor would find a welcome audience in the West, where he went into exile, one-handed and tongueless, as well as a lot of other Greek-speaking eastern clerics, who would leave their mark on the liturgy and organisation of the church of Rome in the seventh century.

Leo Magnus is central to western Christianity’s theological self-identity in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Thus is he depicted on the walls of Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum (as I learned over dinner tonight!).

Whatever else Leo did, it was his Christology that made people regard him as Magnus.

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2 thoughts on “Pope Question: What makes Leo Great?

  1. Matthew,
    In all seriousness, thank you for this post! Next week I’m lecturing on this topic, and this was SUPER helpful.
    Zach Cole

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