‘We ought to understand Jesus within context first’ – some thoughts on doing theology

A friend of mine likes to occasionally post religious questions on Facebook to inspire conversation. Today, I saw:

Before his Resurrection, did Jesus know that the Earth orbits the Sun?

My short answer, ‘Yes.’ I don’t actually know if it’s right, mind you.

One other answer troubles me not by its conclusion (‘No.’) but by the premisses the commenter alluded to:

I would say that he didn’t know. To provide an adequate rationale to my postulation will take me far too long. I think a start is to unpack how much western thought about God and systematics we have unappropriately projected onto Jesus while he was on earth. (Not that I am against western thought or systematics but we ought to understand Jesus within context first)

I am not entirely sure where this author is going, frankly. But it hints at things that concern me. Somehow, this person believes that understanding Jesus within context will cause us to reject an understanding of Jesus that would allow him to maintain divine knowledge whilst incarnate on earth.

First, I imagine (perhaps falsely) this person holds a dichotomous position between ‘Hebraic’ and ‘Greek’ thought. This is the sort of position that sometimes leads people to reject theological concepts about God such as His eternity (as classically understood), His Trinitarian ousia, his omniscience (as classically understood), impassibility as well as the creatio ex nihilo.

These ideas and others are often thought to be ‘Hellenistic’ importations, falsely grafted onto the pure ‘Hebraic’ gospel. This is not true. They are, in fact, Christian doctrines developed through prayerful reading of Scripture and resistance to ‘Hellenistic’ philosophy. For example, it is in resisting Plato in their reading of Scripture that Christians posit creatio ex nihilo and divine eternity as classically understood.

Let’s talk, then, about the hypostatic union, since that’s really what’s in question.

The hypostatic union is the theologically incomprehensible complete union of the divine and human in the single person (hypostasis) of Jesus Christ such that he is 100% God and 100% human. He has the properties of divinity and of humanity. But he is not two persons. He is one person. Some of us articulate this as Jesus existing in two natures, some think that divides him too far and makes him into a pantomime horse.

This immediately grabs you as a fine piece of Hellenistic philosophy, doesn’t it?

Except, of course, that no one knows how it works, and most people who try to explain it realise they can’t and choose, instead, to stand in awe before the mystery of God.

And, really, what resemblence does this owe to Jesus ‘within context’?

First, what is Jesus’ context? Hellenistic Judaism in the Greco-Roman world? The apostles composed their works in Greek and cited a Hellenistic Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. St Paul even quoted a Greek poet. John’s Gospel begins with its beautiful prologue on the divine Word.

Furthermore, throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus performs many miracles with no divine aid, no magic spells, and no invocation of any god. This sets him apart his contemporary miracle men, the Hebrew prophets, and the Apostles. He also rises from the dead in an unprecedented manner — no prophet or holy man is used as God’s instrument in the Resurrection, unlike when the prophets and Apostles do it. Jesus also seems to think he can forgive people’s sins. And when his earthly ministry is over, he ascends into heaven.

And that’s just from the Gospels, without turning to the earlier Christian writings of St Paul, who says some pretty heavy stuff about Jesus that points to him being God.

Jesus is God. He is also fully man.

How it works, of course, we cannot fully say. Hypostatic union.

But if we realise that Jesus is, in fact, fully man and fully God, how we determine divine knowledge during the incarnation is not merely some sort of question of Greek vs Hebrew, which is a false dichotomy.

But, frankly, no one reads or even tries to comprehend the Fathers anymore. If we understood them in their context, besides Jesus in his, we might find out that they are speaking the same theological language.

One Parthian shot. If ‘western’ is the problem, I present you with Ephrem the Syrian, one of the last exponents of Semitic, Syriac Christianity before it was ‘hellenised’. From his Hymns on the Incarnation:

From Hymn 8

Blessed is the Messenger who came bearing
a great peace.  By the mercy of His Father,
He lowered Himself to us.  Our own debts
He did not take up to Him.  He reconciled
[His] Lordship with His chattels.

Refrain: Glory to Your Dawn, divine and human.

Glorious is the Wise One Who allied and joined
Divinity with humanity,
one from the height and the other from the depth.
He mingled the natures like pigments
and an image came into being: the God-man.
O Zealous One who saw Adam
who became dust and the accursed serpent
eating him.  Reality dwelt
in what had lost its flavor.  He made him salt
by which the cursed serpent would be blinded.
Blessed is the Compassionate One Who saw, next to paradise,
the lance that barred the way
to the Tree of Life.  He came to take up
the body that would be struck so that by the opening in His side
He might break through the way into paradise.

From Hymn 12

Who indeed has seen the Babe Who is more ancient
than His bearer?  The Ancient One entered
and became young in her.  He emerged an infant
and grew by her milk.  He entered and became small in her;
He emerged and grew through her—a great wonder!

Favourite passages of Leo’s Tome

Christ_Pantocrator_mosaic_from_Hagia_Sophia_2744_x_2900_pixels_3.1_MBA few weeks ago, I misplaced my photocopy of Eduard Schwartz’s critical edition of Leo’s Tome. I assumed that I had tossed it out by accident since I had been clearing out a lot of old papers and things from my flat. Then, a week later, I found it — in my wardrobe, next to my Yellow Submarine T-shirt. My world makes little sense, it would seem. When I proclaimed this victorious discovery on Facebook, a friend asked what my favourite passages of the Tome were.

I’m not sure, actually. Nonetheless, based on my scribbled marginalia and interlinear notes, here are some passages that have caught my eye over the years.

One that stood out the very first time I read the Tome is a quick turn of phrase:

singulariter mirabilis et mirabiliter singularis

In context (in English) this is:

But that birth, singularly wondrous and wondrously singular, is not to be understood in such a way that through the newness of the creation the property of its type was removed.

This is a nice, little chiasmus, rhetorically balanced and pleasant to the ear. A few pages later, Leo writes:

infantia paruuli ostenditur humilitate cunarum, magnitudo altissimi declaratur uocibus angelorum.

the infancy of the boy is revealed by the lowliness of the cradle, the greatness of the most high is declared by the voices of angels

My marginale says, ‘Very good isocolon.’ Isocolon is a rhetorical device where parallel phrases (or cola) have equal length. Here we have two cola of five words in the order subject + genitive singular + passive verb + ablative of agent + genitive plural. They do not have equal numbers of syllables, though. Nonetheless, this is a nice example of isocolon and Leo’s use of balanced and parallelled passages throughout the Tome.

In fact, this is what makes the Tome such a pleasant read — Leo’s use of rhetorical balance in this way. The theology Leo is presenting in the Tome is two-nature Christology, so balance in argument and retoric makes a lot of sense. Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum, ‘The medium is the message,’ comes to mind.

Looking at my notes, I see many other instances of isocolon.

Leo is making the point about the duality of what is going on in the Incarnate Christ throughout the Tome, and one of the passages I like is:

esurire sitire lassescere atque dormire euidenter humanum est, sed quinque panibus quinque milia hominum satiare et largiri Samaritanae aquam uiuam, cuius haustus bibenti praestet ne ultra iam sitiat, supra dorsum maris plantis non desidentibus ambulare et elationes fluctuum increpata tempestate consternere sine ambiguitate diuinum est.

To hunger, to thirst, to tire, and to sleep are evidently human, but to satisfy five thousand people with five loaves and to bestow living water to the Samaritan woman, the drinking of which would maintain the one drinking so as not to thirst anymore, to walk upon the back of the sea with unsinking steps and to subdue the rising of the waves with the increased storm without doubt is divine.

Here Leo is emphasising that Christ maintains all the properties of humanity as well as of divinity. He gives four examples. For humanity, he gives us a nice example of brevitas, giving only one conjunction (atque), but for the divinity, he extends the examples into a periodic structure with subordinate clauses. The punchiness of the human examples is pleasant to my ear, and the way he makes the divine bigger and grander is pleasant theology.

I don’t think Leo makes the unity of Christ’s person as clear as he could in the Tome — this is because the error he has in mind is the over-unification of the natures, the reduction of the humanity of Christ to a nothingness liable to absorption in the divinity. He does say, however:

For although in the Lord Jesus Christ there is one person of God and man, nevertheless it is from one whence the insult is common in each, from the other whence the glory is common. For from ours it happens that the humanity is less than the Father, from the Father it happens that the divinity is equal to the Father. Therefore, because of this unity of person that is to be understood in each nature both the son of man is observed to have descended from heaven, when the son of God assumed flesh from the virgin from whom he was born, and again the son of God is said to have been crucified and died …

Severus of Antioch took issue in the 500s with Leo claiming Christ to have one person and maintained that Leo actually believed that Christ had two persons and was thus a heretic. Severus’s argument is that Leo spends too much time discussing how different actions and words of Christ pertain to divinity or humanity, not enough time stressing what is communis.

Most especially at issue is another passage that is rhetorically pungent but perhaps not Leo’s theological best:

agit enim utraque forma cum alterius communione quod proprium est, uerbo scilicet operante quod uerbi est, et carne exequente quod carnis est.

For each form operates in communion with the other what is its own, with the Word, that is, performing that which is of the Word, and the flesh acting that which is of the flesh.

Leo goes on, saying, ‘One of these glistens with miracles, the other succumbs to injuries. And just as the Word does not recede from the equality of the Father’s glory, so the flesh does not set aside the nature of our species…’

For the Syrian Orthodox, the Coptic, Ethiopian, and Eritrean Orthodox, and the Armenian Apostolic believers, this is grave heresy. For we western Christians, it is non-controversial dogma. Either way, I do think it’s pretty good rhetoric.

Philology and theology — just the way I like it.

If you find yourself suddenly thirsty for more Leo, the Tome is in English here.

The implications of Christ as fully Man (Met Anthony)

Spas_vsederzhitel_sinayAs a student of Pope St Leo the Great and the Council of Chalcedon — and, thus, its aftermath — the significance of that Councils’ Symbolon of the Christian Faith, its definition (which I translated here), is often just below the surface of my mind. Thus, I greatly appreciate this from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, God and Man:

There is in the Church a vision of man which is not a theory of man. It is not the ideal man, it is not the invented man, nor man as we wish he were, and towards which we aim as a sort of created transcendence. No, we have put on the altar a concrete real man — Jesus of Nazareth — and we must have a look at what is implied. We see in the Creed that Christ was true man and true God. When we say that He was true man we imply two thing: the fact that He was God has not made Him into a man alien to us, a man so different from us that He has only the same shape and the same name while in reality He has nothing in common with us; on the other hand, we proclaim that being the true man means to be a revelation of man in his fulfilment, man as he is called to be, and that in Christ we have a vision — concrete, real, historical — of what we are called to become in our realilty, in our historicity and in our becoming. So when we say that Christ is true man, we affirm that to be united with the Godhead does not annihilate or change the nature of man, and it is only in Him, because man is united in Him with the Godhead, that man is revealed in his full potentiality. Because man as a specimen of natural history i snot man in the sense in which we believe man is truly human. Man becomes truly human only when he is united with God intimately, deeply, inseparably, so that the fullness of Godhead abides in the flesh. I am using terms which are applied to Christ in the Scriptures, but which I believe are applicable to man if we take, for instance, the words of St Peter in his Epistle that our vocation is to become partakers of the divine nature — God’s participators and not just human beings related to a God who remains an outsider to us. But that implies a quite different vision of man, and it also implies something which I believe to be important, a quite different vision of the Church. (pp. 60-61)

True humanity is only fully realised in union with God. This is, at one level, the Adamic state (did not God walk in the Garden in the cool of the evening?). At another level, it is something higher. Many of the Church Fathers believe that the human race was meant to progress in knowledge of God and perfection even without the Fall, but that sin now hampers us (Sts Irenaeus and Athanasius, at least). Christ, by uniting humanity to the Divine, has reignited our ability to be who we are meant to be — and to go beyond even Adam.

Here we also have a good description of the Orthodox doctrine of theosis. Met. Anthony here references 2 Peter 1:3-4:

According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue: Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.

This reminds me of St Leo, in fact; Leo argues that because of the Incarnation and the full humanity of Christ who is also fully God, we enter into the divine relationship — and we have a duty to our human neighbours who are sharers in the same nature as Christ. And Christ is God.

A friend recently expressed doubt about the possibility of theosis reconciling itself with Scripture. Theosis is about union with God where we retain all of our humanity but share in the divine nature by God’s grace. It is based on passages like 2 Peter 1, or Ephesians 4:13, or Romans 8:29, or 2 Corinthians 3:18. It is also, when properly understood (I recommend Met. Kallistos on theosis), an implication or outgrowing of the Church’s dogmatic statements in the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the Rule of  Faith, and the historic liturgies.

Theosis rests, in western terminology, on both Scripture and Tradition. (So we Anglicans can accept it when it is properly understood.)

This is, of course, the goal of mysticism and asceticism:

Release me, and free my heart from all dependence on the passing consolation of wicked things, since none of these things can yield true satisfaction or appease my longings. Unite me to Yourself by the unbreakable bonds of love. You alone can satisfy the soul that loves You, and without You the world is worthless. -St Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 3.23, trans. Leo Sherley-Price, p. 124

Let us, therefore, seek the Face of Christ, enter into God’s throneroom, and, resting in the stillness, become partakers of the Divine Life. This is the greatest implication of Chalcedon for the Christian life today. Own it. Live it.

Temptations of Christ, Lent, and ourselves

… by Thine agony and bloody sweet, good Lord, deliver us.

I would like to briefly draw your attention to an article in the Anglican Planet written by a friend of my brother’s, the Rev. Dustin Resch, entitled, ‘The Vulnerable Jesus: What a Monk and a Movie Can Teach us About Lent‘. In this article, Resch, an Anglican priest and patristics scholar, begins his discussion of the temptation of Christ and Lent with Kazantzakis/Scorsese, The Last Temptation of Christ, before moving on to a discussion of St Maximus the Confessor and the importance of Dyothelite Christology — two wills — for the Church.

It is a great article, reminding us that all dogmatic theology has important pastoral dimensions — in this case, if Christ is truly, fully human, he was truly tempted. So are we. He resisted. So can we (by the grace of God).

Christmas: The Leonine Sacramentary (and Leo the Great!)

Fourth-century nativity, Palazzo Massimo, Rome
Fourth-century nativity, Palazzo Massimo, Rome

Merry Christmas! (Don’t worry about my celebrations, I’m writing this post in advance!! Skip ahead to the prayers I’m talking about if you like.)

This Advent I explored the collects for the season from the Sarum Missal,1 taking us on a journey of expectation, calling upon the Lord to come down into our lives and stir up our own souls to do good deeds as well as to succour us in the midst of our own sinfulness. My original plan had been to approach Advent from the angle of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, as I’d been posting about Late Antique and Early Medieval liturgy in November,2 but I discovered that those liturgical books I have easiest access to give us nothing for Advent. But Christmas is a different story.

I turn our attention now to the Leonine Sacramentary. This liturgical book is not, technically speaking, a sacramentary. Sacramentaries are precursors to missals and have in them all the things you need for the feasts of the liturgical year and the saying of the Mass. The Leonine Sacramentary, ms Verona lxxxv, of the seventh century, is a collection of prayers to be said at Mass, arranged by the secular year, and does not include the actual liturgy of the Mass. The manuscript is damaged and begins in April.

It was initially imagined to be by Leo the Great because of how old it seems to be, and because Leo is said to have made some modifications to the Roman liturgy. The collection is texts is now thought to be later than Leo but likely draws upon much fifth- and sixth-century manterial. From what I understand, it is a ‘pure’ ‘Roman’ form of the liturgy, from a time before the West was engaged in a lot of cross-pollination between Frankish Gaul/Germany and Italy, or the Eastern Mediterranean and Italy.

Let’s look at the text.

Using the Ballerini edition of the 1750s (because it’s right beside me, repr. Migne, Patrologia Latina 55), we can see a nice variety of prayers for ‘VIII KALENDAS JANUARII’ — that is, 25 December. The first immediately catches my eye:

God, who wondrously established and more wondrously reformed the dignity of the human substance, grant, we beseech Thee, to us that we may be sharers in the divinity of Jesus Christ your Son, who was judged worthy to participate in our humanity. Through …

Frankly, this prayer is more than enough for a blog post!

Could anything me more Leonine? The balancing of ‘wondrously’ (mirabiliter) with ‘more wondrously’ (mirabilius) is a strikingly Leonine parallel, as when this great pope speaks in his Tome (Ep. 28) of Christ’s birth that was singularly wondrous and wondrously singular. At a deeper level, the issue of ‘human substance’ is itself a deeply ‘Leonine’ theological concern (I refer the reader to J Mark Armitage, A Twofold Solidarity: Leo the Great’s Theology of Redemption) — Jesus Christ is consubstantial with us through his birth through St Mary the Virgin and with God the Father through being God, the Word, Incarnate.

This double consubstantiality is essential for salvation, and it is what is at stake in Leonine Christology when Leo begins arguing about ‘two natures’. If you read the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon, this is what the Council Fathers were very concerned about as well — that Christ took on full human flesh from His Mother and was thereby fully human. It is a concern that, in these terms, reaches back to the First Council of Ephesus in 431, but goes even farther to the fourth-century argument against Apollinaris of Laodicea who maintained that Jesus did not have a human soul. As St Gregory of Nazianzus famously put it (Ep. 101):

What has not been assumed has not been healed.

Through Jesus Christ’s participation in our humanity (to return to the text of the prayer), God has ‘more wondrously reformed the dignity of the human substance’. As I say, the thoughtworld is deeply, inescapably Leonine here. I am revelling in it as I type.

And what is the actual petition in this collect? ‘That we may be sharers in the divinity of Jesus Christ your Son’.

This, my friends, is Theosis. We, as the adopted children of God, enjoy by grace what Christ enjoys by nature. He was a participant in humanity. We can participate in divinity. He became man that man might become God (St Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 54.3).

Quick closing musings. We should not be surprised that a Veronese liturgical codex of the 600s has such strong Leonine influences, especially on its Christmas prayers. Christmas is when Leo is most quoted. Furthermore, I think that Verona is in that part of Italy that entered in to schism with Rome over the ‘Three Chapters’ following the Council of Constantinople in 553 (the Istrian Schism) — the final reconciliation did not occur until during the pontificate of Pope Sergius in 700. The ‘Tricapitoline’ Christians in northern Italy were hardline, conservative followers of Leo and Chalcedon who felt that the council of 553 had abrogated Chalcedon, and therefore Leo the Great. Leo, as a result, was very close and very dear to their hearts. That his theology would penetrate a Veronese codex, then, is no issue.

As you reflect on these rich theological truths, rooted in Scripture and tradition, I hope that the joy of Christ’s Nativity will fill hearts with joy!

Merry Christmas! Christus natus est!


1. These posts are: Advent 1, Sarum: Stir up, we beseech Thee, O Lord; Advent 2, Sarum: More Stirring up!; Advent 3, Sarum: Give Ear to Our Prayers; Advent 4, Sarum: Raise up Thy Power and Come
2. Ancient and Early Medieval Prayer 1: An Invitation; 2: Why; 3: Sources

St Cyril of Alexandria, ‘On the Unity of Christ’

On the Unity of ChristOn the Unity of Christ by Cyril of Alexandria

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Anthony McGuckin’s translation of St Cyril of Alexandria’s dialogue Quod Unus Sit Christus is a highly readable presentation of a text by the fifth-century Greek church’s greatest theologian. It begins with a helpful introduction that is refreshingly confessional — McGuckin, although he tries to set out ‘the facts’, also tries not to be anything other than what he is — an Eastern Orthodox Priest.

I, of course, read Cyril with Pope St Leo the Great always in mind. As I began this piece of anti-Nestorian polemic, I was thinking, ‘If I were a fifth-century western Christian, I would not see why this would conflict with traditional western conceptions of the nature of Christ at all.’ Indeed, at sompe places Cyril seemed to affirm that Christ was God by nature, others that he had a human nature. Later on, however, I was disabused of this notion when Cyril plainly stated that you could never say that Christ had two natures. I have a theory on that that will have to be fleshed out somewhere else, but in short it is: natura ≠ φύσις (at least not always).

Not that western Christological was ever something Cyril was concerned with. Rather, his sights were set on Nestorius, erstwhile (this text is from ca. 438) Bishop of Constantinople, now in exile in the desert. Whether Cyril is fair to Nestorius/-ianism, I cannot say. Certainly, some things Nestorius is recorded as having said would justify much of Cyril’s argumentation.

The two main concerns of Cyril herein are the theology of the ‘assumed man’ (assumptus homo) and two-person Christology. Both are associated with that group of theologians we designate with the short-hand ‘Antiochene’, the latter especially with Nestorius.

Throughout, the main position of Cyril comes home again and again: Jesus Christ, fully man and fully God, is a single person (πρόσωπον). He is a fully united, complete personal entity. The man Jesus is the same person as God the Word Incarnate. God the Word did not take up to himself the man of the line of David, Jesus of Nazareth. God the Word actually took flesh and literally became the man Jesus. The implication of assumptus homo theology is that, even if God the Word is homoousios with the Father, somehow Jesus has still been adopted into the Godhead — and so the Incarnation is a sham and our salvation was wrought by a liar.

To take us back to mid-fifth-century (and beyond) concerns, Cyril is so convinced of the unity of persons that he actually says that you cannot say of any action, ‘This is human,’ or, ‘This is divine.’ All actions are of Christ. This, of course, goes against what Leo does in the Tome (Ep. 28), which is why so many easterners were opposed to it (so-called Monophysites).

However, although Cyril continually asserts that Christ has all the attributes of humanity, including a human soul, he denies substantial reality to the moments when He is at His most human, at his weakest — the Garden of Gethsemane and the cry of dereliction on the Cross (‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’). These were, essentially, play-acting on Jesus’ part so we could learn how to face suffering and not fall. Sadly, this sort of theology paves the way for some of the un-orthodox manifestations of the conservative Cyrillian camp (those ‘Monophysites’ again) in the decades and centuries to come.

Finally, although styled as a dialogue, as an example of that literary genre, this text is … well … it’s not Plato. Let’s leave it at that.

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Pope Question: Why study Leo the Great?

pope clipartThis question, phrased in various ways, is a totally legitimate Pope Question that people ask, one that also falls definitively into the category of ‘Thesis Questions’. Why study Leo the Great? What makes Pope Leo I interesting?

First, I wanted to deal with the manuscripts and textual criticism of a fifth-century Latin text. So, apart from any intrinsic interest Leo holds, this was an overriding consideration when I decided to choose a topic — choose something that needs doing. And Leo I’s letters need doing, as one of my undergraduate proferssors pointed out to me.

Second, I’m also interested in the Council of Chalcedon of 451. I’ve translated its Definitio Fidei, after all. This event is a highly significant moment in the history of Christianity. To investigate Chalcedon is to end up looking not only into the history of Christology but also into the relationship between the imperial  and ecclesiastical powers, the formation of the Oriental Orthodox churches, the relationship between Eastern and Western Christianity, the development of papal power/authority, the development of canon law. Since Leo helped orchestrate the whole thing, he once again fits the bill.

From the pragmatic angle of choosing something interesting that needs doing, these are really the reasons I chose Pope Leo I’s letters as the area of my dissertation’s investigation. From today’s vantage point, after three and a half years of research into Leo and the tradition of his manuscripts, I can give a much bigger, fuller, and broader answer as to why someone should study Leo the Great.

First of all, there is still inevitably his Christology, tied up the with Chalcedon issue above. There have been some recent monographs on Leo’s Christology, and they are good; they show the integrated nature of his thinking and some of his relationship with the prior Latin tradition as well as with the Greek tradition represented by St Cyril of Alexandria. There is, however, always more to be done, new angles to be approached, new techniques to be employed. His Christology is of far-reaching importance in Latin Christianity — Leonine hardliners actually went into schism with Rome over what they perceived as an abrogation of Chalcedon in the sixth-century Three Chapters Controversy, for example.

What makes Pope Leo ‘the Great’? Precisely his Christological teaching, primarily in The Tome, but also in the ‘Second’ Tome and a variety of sermons, not to mention scattered throughout his letters, both pastoral and dogmatic. Whatever the faults in his thinking that many modern scholars have plucked at, he is a massively influential figure in western theology, probably not only because he was a pope whose teaching was enshrined at what was perceived as an ecumenical council but also because he wrote so much less than guys like Augustine and Ambrose.

Remember, Christology ties itself into the centre of all Christian theology — how you formulate the nature(s), person, and work of Christ touches upon the Trinity and salvation, and, as Leo’s sermons show, Christian ethics. Leo is worth studying for this aspect alone.

Second, Pope Reasons. Leo is worth studying not just for his Christology but how he went about promoting it as well as his views on a variety of canonical matters. Leo is one of the first bishops of Rome to articulate a theory of the papacy, the heart of which is the Petrine primacy. And not only does he articulate it, he acts on it. Not always in a heavy-handed way, and probably because he thought he was right (that is, not out of personal gain) — thus his engineering of Chalcedon, but also his wide variety of letters to western bishops on matters of canon law.

Third, he is an important source for early western canon law. Leo the Great provides us with more letters than any other Bishop of Rome before Gregory the Great (590-604), and of these, more decretals. A decretal is, in later mediaeval and modern canonistic discourse, a papal letter with a universal binding force in canon law. I doubt Leo saw his quite that way, although he would certainly not have minded. They are letters about canon law and ordering of the church. Leo’s decretals touch on issues ranging from when to baptise people and whether to rebaptise people baptised by heretics (no) to the reconciliation of heretics with the church and whether monks can join the army (no). He addresses a lot of issues in canon law, and our earliest surviving collections of canon law documents include Leo.

His letters are compiled into great collections for canon law ranging up to 102 letters in one case, and throughout the Middle Ages, people use excerpts from Leo in their canonistic compendia — over 60 such compendia, in fact.

Finally, Leo’s letters are a valuable source for the human side of some events. Many stories are left untold by the historians, but hints and traces exist in these letters. For example, the Bishop of Narbonensis wrote to Leo asking what to do about people who lost Christian parents when very young and are now, as adults, uncertain as to whether they were baptised. Narbonensis had been invaded by Goths in 436 and the city of Narbonne besieged. Leo’s response to Rusticus of Narbonne reminds us of the human face of war and the war orphans of the fifth century. That is one example — I could give many.

Leo the Great was pope for the central two decades of the fifth century. He died 25 years before the deposition of the alst western Roman Emperor. His letters are important for our understanding of the Later Roman Empire, for our understanding of the church and its theology in that age, as well as for the culture and history of the time more broadly.

Why not study Leo the Great?