Sometimes theological controversy is … theological

Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil
Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil

I often find myself in situations where I feel a bit awkward, or naive, or as though I had missed something in my own readings as a historian of ancient Christianity. Wisdom tells me to keep quiet; or, hey, write an anonymous blog post so no one will know it was me, right?

For example, I recently heard a scholar state the fact that the problem in the Pelagian Controversy was that wealthy laypeople were doing their own ascetic thing in their homes separate from the authority of the bishops.

I admit to not having reviewed all of the evidence of the Pelagian Controversy, and not having thought much about it for a few years. Nonetheless, it strikes me that a controversy that starts in Rome but has its fiercest opponents in North Africa can’t simply be about power. And if Pelagius and his supporters are seen as threats to the local bishop, why does Pope Innocent I at one point actually exonerate them from heresy?

Regardless of which side you support in this debate, it is also clear that there are substantive theological differences between St Augustine of Hippo and the Pelagians, especially Julian of Eclanum. To reduce it to power politics requires a certain kind of extreme cynicism that I cannot accept.

Now, I don’t imagine that the bishops of Late Antiquity were always grand heroes seeking the true good and spiritual health of the world. Nor do I imagine that, when they were seeking the spiritual good of others, their methods were those of which I would approve.

The coercion of Donatists as approved by St Augustine, for example, is a bad idea. Similarly the legal restrictions against heretics, pagans, and Jews, largely supported by the bishops, are not the way a free and just society lives. By the grace of God, Christianity has largely rejected such coercive methods, and need never have used them. But ideology and power make for a dangerous combination.

Nevertheless, to imagine that Augustine vs Donatism (or vs Pelagianism or vs Manichaeism) is simply about him trying to get more power in the hands of North African ‘catholic’ clergy is reductionist to the extreme. It goes hand in hand with the sort of unintellectual anti-clericalism that must be espoused by people who have never actually spent quality time with clergy. I have met both on the same day, sometimes in the same person.

If we want to create a properly nuanced view of the history of Christianity in the Late Roman and Early Medieval worlds, we need to be open to sincerity as well as politicking. St Cyril of Alexandria, for example, is notorious as one of those ‘bad people’ who went to war against his fellow bishops to try and keep his own episcopal see in a position of power and prominence. He did. It’s true.

Yet on what grounds did Cyril attack Nestorius? On Christological grounds that, if you read Cyril’s pre-Nestorius writings, you will realise he already believed. And if you read his theology, you’ll realise that his is a brilliant mind to be neglected at our loss. We need not agree with how he went about things, and we may acknowledge that part of the animus against Nestorius was due to shifting balances in geo-ecclesiology — but, based upon his theological writings and biblical commentaries, Cyril was honestly opposed to the theology of Nestorius.

Or take St Caesarius of Arles and his attempts to root out practices in the countryside that he consider ‘pagan’ or ‘superstition’. It is perfectly likely that the local people did not think these practices were incompatible with their Christian faith. They may have seen some things as non-religious and others even as part of Christianity as they understood it. However, we need not move immediately to, ‘Caesarius opposed these practices and religious expressions because he wanted a monopoly on religious power.’ Is not as easy to say, ‘Caesarius opposed these practices because he believed they were spiritually dangerous to his flock‘? I can assure you, when I witnessed a young M.A. student suggest this to senior scholars, he got patronising shakes of the head and blank stares before they moved the discussion elsewhere.

When I mention such ideas, people query my ability to judge sincerity.

What about their ability to judge insincerity?

Why straight to cynicism? Why the reductionism of all theological and pastoral activities in Late Antiquity to ecclesiastical power politics, of bishops trying to consolidate all power in themselves?

Consider the fact that many Christians in Late Antiquity — bishops, monks, educated laypeople — believed that heresy spelled eternal damnation, right alongside paganism and Judaism, and maybe we’ll have a different view of their activities. Again, we can disagree with their measures without having to disagree with their goals and without assuming them to be ‘bad people’ or ‘bastards’ or simply out to gain power.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes theological controversy is actually theological.

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Gregory the Great on good bishops and bad schisms

Everyone who reads Gregory the Great’s letters — showcased by me here — will be drawn to different things. Social history, life in Sicily, Lombards, political history, and so forth. Because of my research interests (papal letters in Late Antiquity & Leo the Great in particular), I was drawn largely to things he had to say pertaining to canon law as well as to the Istrian Schism (on which, see below).

In Leo, we read about the preparation for consecrating a bishop as well as the necessity of the combined choice being made by people and clergy. Gregory talks about these things, but he also has beautiful things to say about what a good bishop is in Ep. 1.24, which is kind of refreshing:

I consider indeed that one must be vigilant and take all care that a bishop (rector) is pure in thought, outstanding in action, discrete in silence, useful with his speech, very close to individuals with compassion, more uplifted in contemplation than all others, allied with those doing good through humility, but upright with the zeal of justice against the vices of wrong-doers.

… Again, when I bring myself to considering what sort of bishop he should be with regard to compassion and what sort with regard to contemplation, I consider that he should be both very close to individuals in compassion and elevated before all thers in contemplation.

… For of course good preachers not only seek through contemplation the holy head of the Church up above, that is the Lord God, but by showing pity they also descend down below to its limits.

… the highest position is well-governed when the person in charge controls vices rather than his brethren. A person controls the power he has received well who knows both how to hold and condemn it. He controls it well, who knows how to rise above sins with it, and how to be made equal to others with it. (Trans. John R. C. Martyn)

This is Letter XXV in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers translation if you wish to read the whole thing. Later in the same letter, Gregory brings up the ecumenical councils — which brings me to schism. Gregory says that he adheres to and follows the four councils — Nicaea, Constantinople, the First of Ephesus, and Chalcedon. The Second of Constantinople is not mentioned. He writes:

These four I embrace with total devotion and I guard with purest approbation, because in them the structure of the holy faith rises up as if built on a square stone, and whoever does not uphold their solidity, whatever his life and works may be, even if he appears to be of stone, yet he lies outside the building. I also venerate equally the fifth council, in which are refuted …

Gregory then describes the ‘Three Chapters’. I’ve discussed these here before — they are a letter by Ibas of Edessa, passages of Theodore of Mopsuestia, and passages from Theodoret of Cyrrhus that Justinian proclaimed heretical first by edict then by council at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553. Because Pope Vigilius ended up subscribing to the condemnation of the Three Chapters, a schism resulted between Rome and many of the churches of northern Italy. It is often called the Istrian Schism.

So it’s important that Gregory gives a long, big build up about the importance of the four councils and how he venerates them, etc, before saying, ‘Also, the Fifth.’ In later letters, in fact, he would studiously avoid mentioning the fifth council depending on his recipient when writing to people in northern Italy. In Ep. 4.37, Gregory tells his recipient to keep his focus on Chalcedon and the support for it, and then argues:

as for that synod which was held afterwards in Constantinople, which many call the fifth, I want you to know that it established and decided nothing contrary to the fourmost sacred synods. Indeed, nothing was done in it about the Christian faith, but only about persons, and about those person who are not mentioned in the council of Chalcedon.

This I am unsure what to do with, since two out of three persons mentioned in the Three Chapters were explicitly at Chalcedon, discussed, and reinstated into their bishoprics. Indeed, this is the nub of the issue in the Istrian Schism. If we reject the teachings of Theodoret and Ibas, are we rejecting Chalcedon?

The best is 4.33, though:

We also delcare that whosoever thinks other than these four synods did, is an enemy of the true faith. And we condemn whomsoever they condemn, and whomsoever they absolve, we too absolve. We strike down under the imposition of anathema anyone who presumes to add or substract from the faith of these same four synods, but especially the Chalcedonian, over which doubt has arisen in the minds of ignorant people.

In other letters North, Gregory pleads for the bishops to return to communion with Rome.

Schism and heresy are diseases to Gregory. As a good shepherd, he needs to root them out for the healing of his flock, as he says in Ep. 4.35 about Donatists in North Africa.

From these passages and many others, I believe that Gregory tried to be a good bishop, a shepherd overseeing his flock — a man of compassion and contemplation. I thank the Lord for men like him in whose spiritual tradition I stand, even if I am wounded by the pain of schism.

As always, Canon Law gives unique insights into the ancient church

Council of Nicaea

This afternoon, I read through the Canons of the Council of Nicaea (325), the Canons of the Council of Serdica (344), and the Apostolic Canons (before 347), looking for precedents for the statements in Leo’s decretals. I found a few, and I found some other interesting things along the way.

By and large, these fourth-century canonical documents show us a concern in the Church for the behaviour of ambitious bishops. Bishops are restricted from being translated to different cities. Restrictions are placed on the elevation of small towns to bishoprics. Bishops are not allowed to treat church wealth as their own; neither are their heirs allowed to inherit church property. People aren’t allowed to enlist secular authority to get their hands on a bishopric.

Alongside the bishops, the other clergy are a concern. They can’t just up and run off into another diocese whenever they feel like it, for example. And they will be deposed for a variety of issues.

What we see in the fourth century then, as councils are gathering and people are forging documents in the apostles’ names, is a church that has a bit of disorder but which, now that it is emerging from hiding, hopes now to gain more order and curtail abuses, since things can now more easily come to the light of day.

Amidst interesting observations like that, I found the Apostolic Canons good fun at times. For example:

Canon XXVII. (XXVIII.)

If a bishop, presbyter, or deacon shall strike any of the faithful who have sinned, or of the unbelievers who have done wrong, with the intention of frightening them, we command that he be deposed. For our Lord has by no means taught us to do so, but, on the contrary, when he was smitten he smote not again, when he was reviled he reviled not again, when he suffered he threatened not.

My brother, when I posted this on Facebook a while ago, asked what would happen if a clergyman struck someone intending to do violence. Nothing, unless the person died, it seems:

Canon LXV.

If any clergyman shall strike anyone in a contest, and kill him with one blow, let him be deposed for his violence. If a layman do so, let him be excommunicated.

I am particularly struck by the emphasis on ‘kill him with one blow.’

Of course, violence is not the only concern. So is dining out:

Canon LIV.

If any of the clergy be found eating in a tavern, let him be excommunicated, unless he has been constrained by necessity, on a journey, to lodge in an inn.

We also get a sense of the general failings of ordinary clergy as less-than-shining beacons of good sense, sensitivity, and goodness:

Canon LVII.

If any of the clergy mock the lame, or the deaf, or the blind, or him who is infirm in his legs, let him be excommunicated.In like manner any of the laity.

Finally, the issue of passing on church property as inheritance. While celibacy for deacons, presbyters, and bishops was the norm in the Roman Church since an early date, the universal application and legislation of the rule during the Gregorian Reforms of the latter half of the 11th century was due in part to the issue of inheritance. Bishops and presbyters were acting like ‘feudal’ lords and passing on church property to their sons.

Canon LXXVI.

A bishop must not, out of favour to a brother or a son, or any other relation, ordain whom he will to the episcopal dignity; for it is not right to make heirs of the bishopric, giving the things of God to human affections. Neither is it fitting to subject the Church of God to heirs. But if anyone shall do so let the ordination be void, and the ordainer himself be punished with excommunication.

Saint of the Week: Leo the Great

In the year AD 440, the Archdeacon of Rome was away in Gaul on a diplomatic mission.  While he was there, the Bishop of Rome, St. Sixtus III, passed away.  Despite the fact that he wasn’t there, the powers that be in Rome elected the absent Archdeacon as Bishop.  They waited patiently for his return.  He thanked them for this patience in his accession speech.  This archdeacon was Leo I, the Great.

I have chosen Pope St. Leo the Great (c. 400-461; see my review of Leo the Great as well) because he is a big part of my life right now, and hopefully this state of affairs will continue for the next three and a half years.  I have also chosen him because tomorrow is Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, the day we remember the coming of God as a man approximately 2000 years ago, and St. Leo was a theologian of the Incarnation.

We have scant knowledge about Leo before his election to the papacy.  We know that he was Archdeacon in the 430’s when he commissioned my friend John Cassian (this post gives a list of my major posts about Cassian) to write On the Incarnation of the Lord Against Nestorius (my thochts on that here).  He may also have been involved in the Roman See’s actions concerning the Pelagian Controversy.  The fact that he commissioned Cassian’s anti-Nestorian work lets us know that in the decade before his rise to the throne of Peter, St. Leo was involved in the Christological controversies sparked in the East by Nestorius in 428.

Thus, he was already a student of theology by the time he became pope.  As Bishop of Rome, he changed the previously un-preachy* nature of the Roman episcopacy (taking his cue from our friend St. Ambrose) and began a cycle of preaching that followed the church year, with at least fifteen occasions throughout the year, including the Advent fast, the Nativity, Lent, the Pasch, ultimately Pentecost, the Feast of St. Laurence, the anniversary of his elevation to the Roman See, and other liturgical moments (see the CCEL for translations of a number of these).

These sermons are explications of the feasts/fasts and the theological underpinnings of the remembrance at hand.  In his Advent and Christmas sermons, St. Leo explicates in wondrous beauty the necessity and nature of the Incarnation — a birth “wondrously singular and singularly wondrous” — for our salvation from sin, death, and the devil.  The peroration, or conclusion, of each sermon exhorts the people of Rome to virtuous action; he wants to help them see that being a Christian is the same as being a good Roman.  He also takes aim at heretics in his sermons, at times Manichees, who had a presence in Rome, at times Eutyches, at times Nestorius.

If you read these sermons, and I encourage you to, you see that St. Leo was a theologian with a pastor’s heart.  No, actually, he was a pastor with a theologian’s insight.  He demonstrated for the edification of his congregation the theology and action necessary for a healthy Christian life.  He also emphasized strongly, contra the now-deceased Bishop of Hippo Regius, the will of God to save all mankind.  The question of how it therefore comes about that God happens not to save all mankind is not fully treated in Leo’s corpus.

In the letters, we see Leo as a pastor’s pastor, as a pontifical statesman, and as a controversial theologian.  He answered letters, for example, from bishops who had congregants from North Africa who weren’t sure if they had been baptised Catholic or schismatic.  His answer was that it was being baptised into the threefold Name of the Most Holy Trinity that counted, not the baptiser.  He answered questions about Priscillianism for a bishop in Spain.

He also tried to impose his will, to a degree, on the bishops of Illyricum.  Most strikingly, he tried to impose his will on the Bishops of Gaul.  He largely succeeded, diminishing to a degree the see of Arles under Hilary, demonstrating the power of the Bishop of Rome in disputes.  He saw the Pope as the universal court of appeal for the Church, a man who could intervene in the affairs of other dioceses beyond his own metropolitan zone in order to maintain and restore order.

In the year 444, St. Cyril of Alexandria passed away.  St. Cyril had been the theologian of the Incarnation par excellence throughout Leo’s career.  He had spearheaded the offensive against Nestorius and had largely engineered the outcome of the First Council of Ephesus.  With St. Cyril dead, the mantle of Christologian passed to St. Leo.  But was he up to the task?

St. Leo’s time came in 449 when he received a letter from an Archimandrite (a senior abbot) named Eutyches, whom a local synod in Constantinople had deemed a heretic.  Eutyches was appealing to Leo.  Soon Leo also received a letter from Flavian, Bishop of Constantinople, explaining to Leo the circumstances of Eutyches’ trial.  Leo responded to Flavian on June 13 with his famous Tome, letter 28.

This document is the piece of writing for which St. Leo is most famous for.  In this letter, Leo has in his sights both Nestorius as Leo understood him and Eutyches.  The former, as far as Leo was concerned, denied Christ’s divinity; the latter, Christ’s humanity.  The Tome is a text of balance and duality.  Leo sets forth for his reader the balance and duality within Christ of the human and divine natures.  He strikes a balance that seeks to avoid the perceived pitfalls of Eutychianism and Nestorianism.  God the Word took on flesh, he became fully human without the stain of sin, the lowliness not diminishing the glory.  This was necessary for our salvation.  Christ was and is a living paradox.

That same year, 449, saw the calling of a second general council in Ephesus.  This council was engineered by Dioscorus, episcopal successor to St. Cyril in Alexandria, to rehabilitate Eutyches and hold aloft a one-nature Christology, an incipient Monophysite understanding of Christ’s nature.  Leo, as was the wont of Rome’s bishop, sent delegates.  They were to read aloud the Tome, Leo being convinced that all the Church needed was to read his account of the Incarnation and then all this controversy would end.  These delegates were steamrolled by Dioscorus and not allowed to speak.  Bishop Flavian received blows that may have led to his death shortly thereafter.  He was replaced by a supporter of Dioscorus.

Leo called Second Ephesus a Latrocinium, a den of pirates.  He wrote letters to Emperor Theodosius II trying to convince him to change his mind and overturn the decisions of the council.  He wrote letters to Pulcheria Augusta, the Emperor’s sister, enlisting her help to convince her brother.  Theodosius would not be convinced.

And then, in 450, he fell off his horse and died.  His sister married a nonentity named Marcian and became Empress.

In 451, the Council of Chalcedon occurred.  This time, Leo’s Tome, along with three letters of St. Cyril, was read out and approved by the Council — albeit, not unanimously, with protests coming from some of the Illyrian, Palestinian, and Egyptian delegates.

It seems, as Bernard Green has argued,** that Leo didn’t really know what Nestorianism was until after Chalcedon.  Seeing what the objections to the Tome were, he quickly adjusted certain passages and clarified his thinking.  Thus, his letter 124 to the monks of Palestine is more representative of the mature thought of St. Leo and would be a better testimony to his thought for the generations to come.

Leo spent the years from 451 to 465 maintaining his preaching practice in Rome, keeping order in his Metropolitan, clarifying what the Tome was supposed to say, and keeping Attila the Hun from sacking Rome (this last may not be true, but it colourful nonetheless).

He was one of the good popes.  He was also one of the first strong steps down the road to the papacy’s claims to universal jurisdiction.  We cannot have Innocent III (1160-1216) without Leo I.  He produced, ultimately, a clear, lucid theology that dealt with the problems of Eutyches and Nestorius while synthesising the teaching of the great western theologians Augustine, Ambrose, and Hilary of Poitiers with a dash of Cyril of Alexandria.  He truly deserves the appellation “the Great”, being one of only two such popes along with Gregory I.

*I was going to make up the word un-kerygmatic, but then I figured that if I’m going to neologise, why not at least make a word people will understand?

**See The Soteriology of Leo the Great, pp. 227-247.