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.

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John Cassian vs. Nestorius

I recently finished reading John Cassian’s work On the Incarnation of the Word of God, Against Nestorius (De Inc.).  This work was written in reaction to certain documents of Nestorius’ circulating in the West.  Cassian wrote it at the request of Archdeacon Leo of Rome (later Pope Leo).  George Bevan sees evidence of Cassian working here with four sermons of Nestorius’ and the Contestatio of Eusebius — “Slender evidence” (116).*

The result of Cassian’s slender evidence is a document that won’t do you much good if you want to learn about Nestorius and the arguments against his teaching.  As well, Cassian is not always as precise with his language as fifth-century theologians ought to be, and some of his sentences and phrases could have been misconstrued.  However, overall, the orthodoxy of the document is that Christ is one person who has two natures, and Cassian argues against certain terminology that could be used to deny this reality.

Cassian takes the reader through a discussion of one heretic’s recantation, and then a refutation of the Nestorian documents at his disposal using Scripture, then using the baptismal creed of Antioch, and then, in Book 7, the Fathers — Sts. Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, Rufinus of Aquileia, Augustine of Hippo, Gregory of Nazianzus, Athanasius, and John Chrysostom.

This document illustrates, especially in 6.5, the inherent conservatism and traditionalism of ancient Christianity.  We also see why any truly orthodox Christian can comfortably call Mary Theotokos, or “God-bearer” (usually rendered “Mother of God”).

I, personally, like this book for some of Cassian’s statements that seem (to me, at least) pretty clear statements of orthodoxy:

Therefore the Lord Jesus Christ is God. But if He be, as He certainly is, God: then she who bore God is Theotocos, i.e., the mother of God. Unless perhaps you want to take refuge in so utterly absurd and blasphemous a contradiction as to deny that she from whom God was born is the mother of God, while you cannot deny that He who was born is God. (2.5)

God could not possibly be known of men, unless He Himself gave us the knowledge of Himself. (4.2)

And so following the guidance of the sacred word we may now say fearlessly and unhesitatingly that the Son of man came down from heaven, and that the Lord of Glory was crucified: because in virtue of the mystery of the Incarnation, the Son of God became Son of man, and the Lord of Glory was crucified in (the nature of) the Son of man. What more is there need of? It would take too long to go into details: for time would fail me, were I to try to examine and explain everything which could be brought to bear on this subject. For one who wished to do this would have to study and read the whole Bible. For what is there which does not bear on this, when all Scripture was written with reference to this? (4.7)

He then alone it is who spake to the patriarchs, dwelt in the prophets, was conceived by the Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, appeared in the world, lived among men, fastened to the wood of the cross the handwriting of our offences, triumphed in Himself, slew by His death the powers that were at enmity and hostile to us; and gave to all men belief in the resurrection, and by the glory of His body put an end to the corruption of man’s flesh. You see then that all these belong to the Lord Jesus Christ alone: and therefore no other shall be accounted of in comparison with Him, for He alone is God begotten of God in this glory and unique blessedness. (4.9)

For all who believe in God are sons of God by adoption: but the only begotten alone is Son by nature: who was begotten of His Father, not of any material substance, for all things, and the substance of all things exist through the only begotten Son of God—and not out of nothing, because He is from the Father: not like a birth, for there is nothing in God that is void or mutable, but in an ineffable and incomprehensible manner God the Father, wherein He Himself was regenerate, begat his only begotten Son; and so from the Most High, Ingenerate, and Eternal Father proceeds the Most High, Only Begotten, and Eternal Son. (5.4)

There is nothing wanting then in the Creed; because as it was formed from the Scriptures of god by the apostles of God, it has in it all the authority it can possibly have, whether of men or of God. (6.4)

This is our faith; this is our salvation: to believe that our God and Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same before all things and after all things.  (6.19)

You can read it for yourself at the CCEL.

*The Case of Nestorius: Ecclesiastical Politics in the East 428-451 CE.