Church after Constantine, 2a: The Late Antique Targets

I realised that even a brief mention of all the different persons/groups targeted by the Church (whether imperial or mediaeval) from the late fourth century to the end of the Middle Ages would be too large a task, and even truncated, too long for a single post. So here I give you the groups targeted by the official Church hierarchies of Late Antiquity.

Hopefully I will show that, while the use of force in any of these cases is not to be approved, these groups are not the True Church gone Underground after Constantine. Indeed, many of these groups sought the approval of the Late Antique Church structures.

  • Priscillianists. Priscillian of Avila has the dubious distinction of being the first person executed on grounds of heresy in 385 under the usurper Magnus Maximus in Gaul. As with many ‘heretics’, the theory currently making its rounds is that Priscillian wasn’t actually a heretic but was upsetting the current order in Gallaecia (northwest Spain), so his opponents wanted him removed, and that all later ‘Priscillianists’ are guilty of the same thing. Nonetheless, if Priscillian were a Priscillianist, he would have been worthy of the Church’s censure, if not execution, since he is alleged to have taught, following the succinct description of the Catholic Encyclopedia:

The foundation of the doctrines of the Priscillianists was Gnostic-Manichaean Dualism, a belief in the existence of two kingdoms, one of Light and one of Darkness. Angels and the souls of men were said to be severed from the substance of the Deity. Human souls were intended to conquer the Kingdom of Darkness, but fell and were imprisoned in material bodies. Thus both kingdoms were represented in man, and hence a conflict symbolized on the side of Light by the Twelve Patriarchs, heavenly spirits, who corresponded to certain of man’s powers, and, on the side of Darkness, by the Signs of the Zodiac, the symbols of matter and the lower kingdom. The salvation of man consists in liberation from the domination of matter. The twelve heavenly spirits having failed to accomplish their release, the Saviour came in a heavenly body which appeared to be like that of other men, and through His doctrine and His apparent death released the souls of the men from the influence of the material.

  • Pelagians (on whom I’ve previously blogged here). Once again, we have here a group whose leader may not have been a heretic at all. Nevertheless, if you read Julian of Eclanum, some of his followers seem to have been. Unlike Priscillian, Pelagius was not killed, nor were his followers. They were, rather, stripped of holy orders and excommunicated. This is not violence or force but, rather, church discipline. What Pelagius and his followers were condemned for (regardless of what any individual actually believed) is succinctly put by Pope Leo I (r. 440-461; my trans.):

And since they pretend to reject and put aside all their definitions to help them sneak in, they seize on this with all their art of deceit, unless they are understood, that the grace of God is felt to be given according to the merits of the recipients. Which, of course—unless it were given gratis—is not grace, but payment and recompense for merits: as the blessed Apostle says, ‘You were saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves but it is the gift of God, not from works, lest perhaps some be exalted. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has prepared that we may walk in them.’ (Eph. 2:8-10) And so every bestowal of good works is a divine preparation: because no one is justified by virtue before grace, which is the beginning of justice, the fount of good things, and the origin of merits for one and all. But by these men, therefore, it is said to be anticipated by that innate industry so that which was clear by its own zeal before grace, seems not harmed by any wound of original sin; and it is false which Truth said, ‘For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save that which had perished.’ (Luke 19:10) (Leo, Ep. 1.3)

  • Manichees. Manichaeism is the third big heretical group attacked in the western Church. Interestingly enough, it should not class as a heresy at all, but, rather, a distinct religion some of whose members also self-identified as Christians. This is the religion of which Augustine of Hippo was a member before converting to Platonism and, ultimately, catholic Christianity. It traces its roots to a prophet named Mani (Manichaeus in Latin) who believed himself Christianity’s promised Paraclete, and combined various elements of Persian, Graeco-Roman, and Christian religion into his religious philosophy. It was a sect with various degrees and levels of knowledge, and only those in the highest orders were bound to be saved. Like Priscillianism, it is a dualistic philosophy in which the good god created spirit but his rival created matter, and the two are interlocked in a great contest. They were generally only expelled from church communion for most of their history, although Pope Leo I (r. 440-461) tried to drive them out of the city of Rome itself.
  • Nestorians. Nestorius was Archbishop of Constantinople in the late 420s. He may not have been Nestorian, but he said things that sounded Nestorian. The teaching named after him was the idea that two distinct persons inhabit the single body of Jesus Christ. This causes a lot of problems, because the humanity is, then, not fully taken up by the divinity. In the nitty-gritty of daily theological life, I personally wonder how many so-called ‘Nestorians’ were really that Nestorian. They were expelled from the Roman Empire under Zeno I (r. 474-491) and founded the Church of the East, which stretches from the ancient Persian Empire into India, and was even active for a while in China, where a former monastery of theirs displays texts written in both Syriac and Chinese script. The successors to the ‘Nestorians’ of the fifth century tend to be called ‘Dyophysites’ these days, although I think that confuses them with Chalcedonian catholic Christianity (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, most Protestant groups).
  • Mono/miaphysites. This group believes in one nature of God the Word incarnate. The slogan is taken from Cyril of Alexandria in reaction to the Council of Chalcedon that proclaimed Christ as existing in two natures. For a long time they fought with the Chalcedonians over which theology would win out as the theology of the Church within the Empire (although only in the East; the West was always Chalcedonian, one of the deciding factors). The final, irreparable rupture, despite many later attempts at reconciliation, occured in the long reign of Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565) during which they established a separate hierarchy parallel to that of the imperial, catholic church. Both sides in this debate engaged one another with both official and mob violence, although very rarely were persons actually killed; usually they suffered confiscation of property or expulsion from monasteries. They are so close to catholic teaching that I wonder if they can be properly called heretics; their successors form the Coptic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, and the Armenian Apostolic Church.
  • Origenists. Two Origenist Controversies erupted in the ancient church, both of them focussing upon monastic theology and practice. The first was in the late 300s/early 400s, the second in the mid-500s. Amongst the victims of the various politicking persons of the First Origenist Controversy was John Chrysostom. The teachings condemned in the Second Origenist Controversy can be found here. They focus upon the pre-existence of souls and a subordinationist Christology that makes Jesus less than fully, truly God. This system, drawn largely from the teachings of Evagrius, not Origen, believes that all souls used to be united together in the Monad, but Movement made them fall to different degrees, and someday they shall all return. The soul of Jesus is the only soul that did not fall. You can see why, even if few monks really believed this in full, an accusation of being Origenist was a potent thing. Most so-called ‘Origenists’ were either expelled from their monasteries or removed from the position of Abbot.
  • The Iconoclastic Controversy, East and West (700s-800s). Most people who believe that the True Church went Underground and all we need to do to find it is follow the trail of blood would point to the iconoclasts as being the poor, persecuted True Believers. However, for much of the controversy as it raged for more than a century, the iconodules were the ones under censure by the official church or the secular authorities of the Christian government. No official violence was used here, mostly the usual strings of anathemas, confiscations of ecclesiastical property, and removal from church offices. In the end, the position adopted was in favour of images. One thing to note is that our earliest Christian church, from before 250 at Dura Europas in Syria, is covered in images as are the Roman catacombs (fourth century?) and a fourth-century sanctuary in Britain. So images in Christian places of worship pre-date the eighth- and ninth-century controversy by a long shot, long  before people were getting kicked out of their churches for it. Oh, and in the West, the iconodule popes painted frescoes and put up mosaics in defiance of iconoclastic kings.

I have no doubt there are ancient, post-Constantinian heresies I’ve neglected. But the main point, I hope, is clear. The Church, even when she got the power of the government to help her out, was not persecuting people because they believed in some long-lost apostolic truth but because they believed things that modern evangelicals would also have felt to be worthy of censure.

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Is Augustine neurotic or really just Roman?

Augustine in His Study by Sandro Botticelli (in the Uffizi, Florence where I, of course, saw it)

St Augustine of Hippo very frequently comes under attack for his views on the body and sex. In the class on said Church Father that I’m auditing, the lecturer said on Monday that in the 70s, when everyone got liberated, they needed someone to blame for having formerly been un-liberated, so they chose Augustine for being a. a long time ago and b. very influential on the western tradition.

Not to argue that everything the Blessed Augustine said was true, I still have to ask:

Is that really fair?

I believe that the answer is, ‘Nope.’

Whenever we look at an ancient author, we cannot simply look at specific views of his outwith their context in the writer’s work as a whole, nor within the wider cultural milieu wherein they were formed. To do otherwise is symptomatic of my bugbear, the Hermeneutic of Suspicion. Which I detest.

Augustine believes that the human body is a lesser good than the mind. He believes that humanity’s rational, intellective/intelligible faculty is how we are made in the image of God. The body is not as good as the mind, and is often described as the source of the fleshly appetites and passions. This, as far as it goes, sounds fairly Platonic, doesn’t it?

He also believes that this fleshly, earthly life is mortality and misery. This is also, if you ask me, simply being a Roman. Imagine a world before anaesthetics and modern medicine. A world where a toothache can cause you endless, agonising pain. A world where your wife/sister/daughter is likely to die in childbirth. A world where you could very quickly and easily die from drinking dirty water. A world where you could lose your entire fortune in a shipwreck. A world where barbarians could raid either in a big way (see North Africa, Vandals in) or a small raid (see North Africa, Berbers in).

I am fairly certain that much of life in the ancient and mediaeval worlds was toil, pain, misery. Is Augustine a neurotic semi-Manichaean when he says that human life is misery — or is he just a fifth-century realist?

According to Augustine, lust is a result of the passions, and desiring sex is lust. This is a result of the Fall — in the prelapsarian state, Adam could have an erection whenever he pleased and thus fulfil God’s edict ‘be fruitful and multiply’ without falling into sin. Alas, since sex tends to involve lust today, it is hard to have sex without sinning; thus the preferred state of celibacy.

Augustine takes a lot of flack for this in particular. It has been said that he is just a recovering Manichee who had a past as a sexual deviant and was making up for it by being a neurotic Puritan.

Once, again, I think not. Bits of this train of thought can be seen in his North African predecessor who was anything but Manichaean and who was probably married, Tertullian. Other bits, about control of the appetites, are found in the Desert Fathers and your standard Roman ethics. For example, the story is told of Cato the Younger that he shamefully admitted to having taken refuge in his wife’s arms during a lightning storm. This sort of lack of control of one’s body, etc, was regarded as not up to snuff by ancient Romans.

As well, the appetites include not just sex but also food. Augustine believes, as seen in The Confessions, that eating is only to be done to relieve hunger. If you eat out of pleasure, that is gluttony. This is a common ancient, Roman belief, and one which he held in common with the Desert Fathers (again) and his contemporary, (St) John Cassian — a fellow who, himself, did not agree with Augustinian views of Predestination (as I discuss here).

Furthermore, Augustine cannot, at least in City of God, be accused of being a Manichaean, because he does not believe the dualist principles at the heart of the Manichaean religion, that all matter — not just bodies — is evil, and we need to be liberated from it. In fact, although I believe his overemphasis and exaltation of the mind and reason finds its origins in (Neo)Platonism, Augustine also goes against the Platonic grain.

Augustine believes that we were created to have bodies. And he believes that at the Resurrection of the Dead and in Paradise we will have bodies for eternity. This is not Manichaeism or Platonism, but Christianity.

So, critique Augustine. But please don’t say that he is either a Manichee or neurotic. This simply reveals your inadequate knowledge of the man’s historical context.

More on Pelagians and Myself

There have been some comments (finally!) on my post about Pelagians, so I should set the record straight on a few things. If you are here for Pelagians and sex, you can skip the stuff about me and scroll down to the bold words “Pelagians, Augustine, and Sex”.

First, I have rightly got into trouble for this:

“Clearly misinformation and caricature are the best things to fill our devotional books. Thank you, Northumbria Community.”

That was gall, not righteousness. Mea culpa.

Second, I have been accused of two things: never having read Augustine and being “one of the Calvinist illiterates who believes whatever [my] deranged pastor tells” me. So, these require full treatment, I feel.

  1. I have not, it is true, read much of Augustine. I have read The Confessions, various homilies, On Grace and Freewill and things he says about demonology. Oh, and portions of De Doctrina Christiana and of On Marriage.
  2. I am not Calvinist. This is an amusing thought, given this post and this post amongst others. I wish I were more easily labelled (does Franciscan Orthodox — Eastern — Wesleyan Prayer-book Anglican even cover enough bases?), but if we wish to concern ourselves with grace & freewill, I prefer the imperfect ideas of John Cassian’s 13th Conference, sometimes called “Massilianism” (NOT the Eastern heresy “Messalianism”, an unrelated thing) or “Semi-Pelagianism”. Catholic scholar Boniface Ramsey prefers to see Cassian as Semi-Augustinian; Eastern Orthodox Scholar AMC Casiday wishes to eliminate all “semi’s” from the discussion and read the authors on their own terms.
  3. Also, I don’t believe whatever my pastor tells me, deranged or not. I’m unfortunately critical of most sermons, although those at my local church do better than many elsewhere.

Pelagians, Augustine, and Sex

I will agree with my opponent, rey, that Augustine and the tradition that follows from him, as well as many of the Fathers, had a confused view of sex. While I disagree categorically with diagnosing any historical person as “a classic case of insane transference whereby a nutcase asserts that everyone else is as messed up as he is” or even as necessarily sexually deviant — except in cases such as Nero, and even then the record is incredibly biased against him — because we don’t know enough about him. The only non-modern people we really know that much about are Cicero and the merchant of Prato, and I don’t think we should diagnose them, either.

Augustine’s animosity towards intercourse no doubt comes from his own previous years with a concubine with whom he had at least one child. At the point of his conversion, although St. Monica wished to arrange a marriage with a lovely young lady, Augustine devoted himself to the monastic life (contra rey: “He remarried a wealthy Catholic woman, and this helped him achieve the status of bishop. [To be bishop, you needed wealth.]”) We know of this from the most popular text of Late Antique Latin Christianity, The Confessions. That the only sex Augustine ever had was in a more or less sinful state (concubines are a foggy area even to ancient Christians sometimes) no doubt helps contribute to his views on sexual intercourse.

Concerning Augustine on sex in marriage, see “On the Good of Marriage.” Here we see some rather convoluted things, and it is clear that Augustine would prefer a world without sexual intercourse, but he has to admit that it is not actually sinful in marriage. Given the enormous quantity of Augustine’s corpus, he may have said elsewhere that sexual intercourse in marriage is evil; I know that Aquinas at least implied it in the 13th century. Indeed, it is rather absurd to imagine that living like a celibate with your own wife is the best pathway; yet he still concedes that having intercourse is allowable. That which is allowed is not sin, is not evil.

This odd sort of teaching is the sort of thing that comes from monastic discourse throughout the Mediterranean and Near East and is not peculiar to Augustine. People seem to imagine that, while it’s okay to have sex and raise children, it’s best to be celibate. I have discussed this issue in relation to St. Gregory of Nazianzus here. I do not agree with these people (much to my wife’s relief). If Julian called St. Augustine out on this silliness, this is a good thing.

Regarding rey’s statement that one needed wealth to be a bishop in Late Antiquity, I would like evidence. I do not think that this is true. One certainly tended to need class, but class and wealth are not the same thing. If we consider how many poor ascetics were made bishop, I cannot see how wealth is a prerequisite to the office of bishop.

Moving on to grace. Rey says, “Grace is not magic power to enable you to do things you couldn’t do before.” No one ever said that it is. Gratia, lexically, as my opponent has said, is favour. It is:

Favour which one finds with others, esteem, regard, liking, love, friendship

as well as:

Favour which one shows to another, mark of favour, kindness, courtesy, service, obligation (Lewis & Short’s Latin Dictionary; I don’t yet have the OLD — apologies).

In Souter’s A Glossary of Later Latin to 600 A.D. we also find this amongst the usual suspects:

any benefit or blessing from God.

Gratia in the second sense involves action. If an Emperor shows favour to me, he is likely to use his power to help me. For example, we could say that when St. Savvas entreated the Emperor Justinian for help in his monasteries against dissenters and raiders, Justinian showed his favour, his gratia, to St. Savvas by helping reorder the monasteries and build a fortress against the raiders. This is favour, is it not?

So, when we say that we are saved by God’s grace, that means that God has done something to help us. We are saved by God’s favour, which inevitably involves action. When we say that God’s grace helps us to do good, that means that he, through his favour towards us, chooses to help us do a good action. Grace is not power, no, but it implies the use thereof.

Grace is not, however, as the lengthy comment contends, mercy. There is no hint of mercy within the lexical range. Latin words for mercy are clementia and misericordia. These all have to do with having pity upon someone. Indeed, mercy and favour are related; they are not synonymous.

All of this is to say that, for a Latin-speaker, God’s grace would most certainly have helped us do good as a real possibility.

And Greek only bolsters our case, as we note the third meaning of charis in the LSJ:

in concrete sense, a favour done or returned, boon, charin pherein tini confer a favour on one, do a thing to oblige him

When Paul speaks of being saved by God’s grace, he does not mean that God saves us by his mercy. He means that God saves us for no merit of our own. He looks upon us with favour, “not weighing our merits but pardoning our offences” (BCP). Or, to bring out my evangelical youth, “When you get what you don’t deserve, it’s a real good thing” (the Newsboys).

Given that grace has both the sense, in Late Latin as well as in Greek, to be both favour and action done out of favour, then verses such as Noah having found grace in God’s eyes are clearly not about God giving him power to do a good action. This is a different question altogether, for it is another use of the same word within its lexical range. Words have nuance, and we always need context. To imagine that grace always means mercy is illiterate, in my opinion.

Re Col. 4:6: “Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man,” I would argue that LSJ’s first definition of charis — outward grace or favour, beauty — works best. Let your speech be always beautiful and favourable to others.

The problem with Pelagianism is the assertion that God will not help us do good. Pelagians teach that our will is untarnished and capable of doing good all the time and doing enough good to save us. God’s grace, whether favour or mercy, does not help us in this endeavour. Woe to me, if I am the only responsible for my salvation! I know the weight of my sins. How can I be free of them save by the favour of God that pardons my offences?

Most of the second comment our friend rey made is about my alleged Calvinism. It does, however, include this:

The Celtic church was Pelagian.

This may be true. I, personally, only have the evidence from the Venerable Bede concerning Germanus’ visit to Britain in the 5th century that was meant to stamp out Pelagianism. I do know, however, that the big seventh- and eighth-century issues as we see in the Life of St. Cuthbert seem largely to be about the date of Easter and monastic foundations, not Pelagianism.

We must remember that the Late Antique/Early Mediaeval/Byzantine world was still very connected, even with a few barbarian kingdoms around. The Celtic monastic foundations (ie. Iona) included in their libraries Latin editions of the Mediterranean Fathers such as Basil & Co (Basil’s is the only name I can remember). Furthermore, according to an article I read a couple of years ago, they had much in common with St. Maximus the Confessor (Eastern theologian of the 600’s).

If the Mediterranean Church chose to do away with Pelagianism, despite any politicking that inevitably went on, it did so for good reason. These reasons were ultimately not those given by Celtic Daily Prayer in the original post. They were the issues of grace and freewill. The Celtic Church was connected to the Mediterranean Church, and if she leaned more towards John Cassian than towards Augustine, she was in good company (see the ENTIRE EASTERN CHURCH).

The Eastern Church, however, also turns away from Pelagianism even as it anathematises Augustinian doctrines of predestination as heresy. From what I’ve seen, in some poems from Iona, the life of St. Columba, the Voyage of Brenden, Patrick’s autobiography, St. Patrick’s Breastplate, and so forth, the insular Celtic Church was not at odds with the Mediterranean Church and out-and-out Pelagian but, rather, had many things in common with the Eastern Church, which also explains the clashes in the seventh-century, since Latin West and Greek East were starting their own clashes at about the same time.

Note also that if the Mediterranean Church was not monolithic by any means, neither were the Celts on these Isles. Thus, even if many were Pelagians, it is likely that many weren’t, just as many in the Mediterranean world were not Augustinian.

Finally, rey took exception to my statement:

Whether you believe in the talking snake or not, the whole point of Gen 3 is to explain the very real condition of humanity as being basically cursed and sinful, fallen, lost.

Apparently, this is “illiteracy mixed with lies,” because Gen 3 “shows how apes became human.” If we are to read Gen 3 literally, this reading cannot work. And if we are to read Gen 3 allegorically, we are in sparse company when we read it that way. I do not even know where to begin figuring out the hermeneutics that led to rey’s position.

So, I shall state the following instead. Rey says that the Fall is “a Manichean myth handed down by word of mouth among the illiterates since Augustine’s time.”

According to St. Irenaeus (I am likely to blend in Athanasius — apologies), the second-century apologist (a full two centuries before Augustine), humanity was created in innocency. This is what we see in the chapters before Genesis 3. Our forebears naturally did what was right, but were like children. They did not know really know right from wrong. They could not fully perceive. However, God had a plan that He would strengthen them and enable them to grow into understanding. Then they would be like Him, knowing right from wrong.

But the humans, in their greediness, ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil before their time. This led to them gaining knowledge they were not prepared for, and as a result led to death which is the separation of our soul from our body, an unnatural event.

As a result, we have lived out our lives in a world of pain and toil, growing into the maturity that God gives us through his grace but without the ease of the Garden. God will recapitulate all things at the end of time, as effected through the Incarnation and Second Coming, restoring things to a better state than before we fell. Because we fell, God’s Incarnation as a man also involves his suffering and dying, so that he may taste of all we have tasted and may be a sacrifice for our sins and the conqueror of death.

This narrative, this world of recapitulation, makes more sense to me than a world where God told us not to eat the tree through reverse psychology so that we would gain “moral capacity, the ability to know right and wrong and to CARE.” That eating from the tree then and there was God’s plan. And if eating from the tree was God’s plan all along, why did he proceed to curse the man, woman, and snake? Furthermore, if Gen 3 teaches neither Fall nor Curse, why is there a curse in it? Interpreting the curse may be difficult, but denying it is avoiding what is there before us on the page.

This view of Gen 3 leaves us in a world that is as it was meant to be. A world with a God who wants cancer and war and hatred and violence. Why? Because there is no fall. We are living our lives exactly according to God’s plan. With the fall, we have a frame of reference, that this beautiful, tragic world is great but could be greater, and was meant to be so. With the fall, we have redemption. Without the fall, the Cross is meaningless, redemption impossible.

With the fall, we also see why it is that we do not do what we want to do.

Playing Nice

I would like to call out rey for not playing nice. Endlessly referring to one’s opponents in a debate as “illiterate” is not nice or fair. Calling their ideas “lies” is not fair.

Assuming that your opponent is one thing and then writing from that frame of reference based upon a single thing he wrote one evening in less than half an hour — that’s just bad argument. Especially when said opponent has an entire website right in front of you that could show you several things, such as not being a Calvinist, such as having read a certain amount of Patristic literature, such as knowing Latin and Greek. Just for starters.

Also, saying, “Well duh,” does not count as playing nice.

And talking down to people throughout the entire comment is not playing nice.

Why play nice? Because playing nice helps people listen to you. Not playing nice makes them decide to take you to town and have many knee-jerk reactions to everything you say. People get angry all the time at Augustine for not playing nice. I would argue that, while clearly being as heretical a Pelagian as ever there was, you have played the game as an Augustinian this round, rey. Too bad.

If you wish to argue with me about Predestination & Freewill, my thoughts on John Cassian’s doctrine are here and here.

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.