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.

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.