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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Why the Holy Trinity Matters

Considering the two facts that a: God is the source of all that was, is, and evermore shall be, He is very important, and b: He is Trinity, then the Holy Trinity is of utmost importance.

Believing in the Holy Trinity is, therefore, a big deal.  And I mean actually believing — belief not merely as the assent of the mind or the conceptualisation in the brain, but the actual trust and reliance upon something, trusting on something so much that it changes your worldview and lifestyle.  While it’s true that some people who claim to be Trinitarian believers are boors, jerks, and swear-word worthy, their boorishness is not related to the doctrine of the Trinity one whit.  Indeed, it runs entirely counter to it.

As Trinity, as three persons “with” one substance, God is an ultimately (ontologically, even?) relational being.  His being is one of communion, and I think there is an importance difference between communion and community, for we are all part of various types of community from clubs to professional organisations to neighbourhoods, but communion is a much deeper connection, a stronger union and interaction of persons than community.  And God, being Trinity, is communion.*

If the root of the universe is a being who is communion, and if we start taking this fact seriously (as well we should, since we were made in the very image of this Holy Trinity), then how we live changes.  We will discover our own ultimate personhood through communion with God and with one another.

Fellow human beings will not be entities for exploitation, but fellow-sojourners to be embraced.  Relationships will be taken seriously.  Mere community, while acceptable at some times and places, will not be enough for some relationships and communities — some form of communion will become necessary for the community to be remade in the image of God.

And if the root of the universe is a being who is a monad or a simple One or not even actually a personal being, the communion is deprived of potency.  Who cares?  I mean, we’re all for community.  But deeper connections are not necessarily where our personhood will play itself out fully.  The concept of surrendering myself to another so that I may be free is not present at the root of a universe wherein the Ultimate Cause is not Trinity, is not a Being of self-giving love.  I think the ramifications are many.

A second matter, besides the whole issue of communion and personhood, is the matter of worship.  The Holy Trinity is ineffably sublime.  When I read the Fathers about the Trinity, I am taken to greater heights of awe, wonder, and worship.  This is a God to whom I would give glory.  If God is a modalist God, or a monad, or a unitarian God, or the spirit of a dead man from another planet, he is less than the revelation of God found in Scripture.  Far less worshippable, this much is certain.

And it is from worship of the most Holy Trinity, He Who Is three, the three-in-one, the Unity in Trinity, three co-equal and co-eternal Persons, that my desire to live according to this God’s Way stems.  Why follow a lesser God?  Commitment to other views of God may be deep and even total, but the question of priority is thrown into stark contrast.  I can’t express it properly, but I cannot see an abandonment of the Trinity without grave implications for the life of holiness in all its matters of morality, ethics, and discipline.

This is a plea.  Take the doctrine of the Trinity seriously.  Read up on how truly amazing He is.  Stand in awe of Him.  Worship Him.  And model your life upon the life He has shown unto us in His revelation.

*For a better and unmangled (and very long) explication of this, see the Eastern Orthodox theologian John D. Zizioulas, Being As Communion.

Why “Theotokos (Mother of God)” Is Important

Pictured to the left is a giant icon of St. Mary “the Virgin” placed at the entrance to the Old City in Nicosia, Cyprus.  Framing this image of the Mother of Our Lord are the words, “Iperayia Theotoke, soson imas“, which I like to translate as, “Supersaint Mother of God, save us.”  This sort of behaviour on the part of the Church of Cyprus is the sort of thing that led one young Chinese man with whom I led Bible studies to say that the major religions of the world were Buddhism, people who believe the Bible, Islamists (his word, not mine), and people who worship Mary.  It is also the sort of thing that makes me more, not less, comfortable with my Protestantism.

What bothers me with that icon is not that it exists at all — I see no reason why one ought not to put up a giant icon of St. Mary if one so wishes.  I would rather it be one of the glorious icons of the crucifixion or resurrection, but, hey, that’s why I’m a Prot.  Nor am I bothered by the word Theotokos, literally “God-bearer”, usually translated as “Mother of God.”  I think that word is very important in our understanding of Who Jesus Is.  I am bothered by the words “soson imas” — save us.  Now, the devout, informed Orthodox will tell that it doesn’t mean the same thing as when they say “Kyrie Khriste, soson imas“, but the words are still the same.

Most Protestants, however, would have been stopped short at the word Theotokos, if not by Iperayia.  It is impious, they will fervently tell you, to call Mary the “Mother of God.”  Did the creator of the starry height have a mother?  Was the originator of all that is, all that was, all that ever shall be begotten of a woman?  Dare we to say that God, whom we all know to be the uncaused cause thanks to St. Thomas Aquinas, was begotten of a human being within time?  Would it not be better to say that Mary was “Christotokos”?

Thank you for showing up, Nestorius.  Of course, in real life, if you were named Nestorius and were saying those same things in the late 420’s in Constantinople, your sermon would have been shouted down somewhere around the word “impious”, and an angry mob would cry out for your deposition (in a mere twenty years, such angry mobs are calling out for blood, so Nestorius got it easy).

Question:  Is Jesus Christ fully God?

Answer:  Yes.

Question:  Seeing as how He is fully God, is He therefore creator of the starry height, the originator of all that is, all that was, all that ever shall be, the uncaused cause?

Answer:  Yes.

Question:  Does Jesus Christ have a mother?

Answer:  Yes.

And you will say, “I know all this.  But Christ Our Lord was born of Mary only of His human nature, not of His divine nature.  As God, He was/is/is being/will be eternally begotten of the Father before all worlds.”

Indeed, God the Son only partook of the Blessed Virgin for His human nature.  To say that she in any way imparted divinity unto Him is blasphemy.  However, was the child born to her God?  Yes, yes He was.  And this is the scandal of the Incarnation.

You see, by limiting the role of Mary as Jesus’ mother to Christotokos, we limit His Incarnation.  We confuse the question.  There are and have been many heretics running about, some of whom imagine that divinity only came upon Jesus at His baptism in the Jordan or in the Transfiguration.  There were and are others who believe that He grew into being God’s son and that he was just a dude upon whom the Logos of God descended.  Others seem to think that He was/is St. Michael the Archangel.  Others think He was just another one of God’s spirit babies up in heaven and that He lived a pure, spotless life but is not identical in substance with God.

Yet St. John of Damascus teaches us that Jesus is of the same essence as God the Father as well as of God the Holy Spirit.  When Jesus was born, God was a man.

The fullness of the Godhead dwelt in Jesus.  He was, by nature, God.  He is, by nature, God.  The child whom St. Mary carried in her womb was God.  He took from her His humanity and became consubstantial with us thereby.  He already had His divinity, already was consubstantial with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Since God the Creator of the Universe was born as a child, she who bore Him in her womb is rightly called Theotokos, God-bearer, the Mother of God.  It is a safeguard for the full divinity of Christ, a safeguard for the Incarnation.  It is not a point of Mariology but a point of Christology.

Tomorrow: John Calvin on the Holy Trinity

Somehow, poor John Calvin has his name associated with a certain breed of hardheaded, argumentative, internet-addicted, theological-nitpicking jerk.  This is really too bad because John Calvin (though I personally would not go so far as to say that he completed the Reformation that Martin Luther started) was a brilliant man who wrote insightful Bible commentaries and sound, orthodox theology.  Besides that, lots of people of the Reformed/Calvinist position aren’t jerks and are open to thoughtful discussion of their beliefs, including things besides predestination again.

I’m not saying I agree with everything John Calvin ever wrote, especially regarding icons, and I’m not overly committed to the mechanics of predestination, but he is worth reading.  And worth reading for more than predestination.

So if all you think of when you hear, “John Calvin,” are those hardheaded jerks and endless arguments about predestination, please read his words on the Holy Trinity here (for those with their own print copies of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, it’s Book I, Chapter 13).

There you will find defense of the word “person” as well as a very brief history of it and its use (nothing as mind-crushing as Zizioulas’ in Being As Communion), a defense of the divinity of both the Son and the Holy Spirit, and a discussion of how the Unity in Trinity runs down the middle course between Arianism on the one hand (only the Father is God) and Sabellianism on the other (all three are different “modes” of God’s being).

For those who are thinking, “You say The Shack isn’t really theology, but where do I turn?”  Turn here!  It is briefer than Augustine’s On the Trinity, more modern than Boethius.  Here you will find the true, orthodox doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity expounded.  It is honey and sweetness to your ears, balm to your soul!  Read it and praise the Father, praise the Son, praise the Spirit — Three in One!

Saint of the Week: St. Athanasius

A few weeks ago, I had the “opportunity” to stand in a doorway and discuss the Bible and Christology with a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses as the floodgates of Heaven opened outside.  What stood out to me as we talked was how truly Arian their Christology is.  They encouraged me to read Proverbs 8:22-31 (“The LORD possessed me [Wisdom] at the beginning of his way …”) and tried convincing me that when the Word of John 1 is called “god” this doesn’t mean the same thing as the God with whom the Word is.

I did my best to pull out some St. Athanasius — Jesus is the only-begotten Son of the Father.  If like begets like (“Do you have a son? Is he of the same nature as you?”), and the Father is God, then God begets God, so the Son must be God.  I also used the analogy of the sun and its rays being different but the same and one being incomplete without the other.  That analogy breaks down — as well it should, for God is the Creator and entirely different from His creation.  St. Athanasius was an appropriate choice to use in debate with the Jehovah’s Witnesses because he spent most of his ecclesiastical career arguing against the heresy of Arianism.

St. Athanasius (c.296-373) is one of the Four Doctors of the Eastern Church.  He was born of Christian parents of Egyptian, not Greek, descent, and educated in the Greek Christian catechetical school in Alexandria.  He was present at the Council of Nicaea in 325 as a deacon and witnessed firsthand the debates about the divinity and eternity of Christ (Arius’ famous one-liner: “There was when he was not.”).  This is the Council that gave us that famous Creed that forms the basis of what we recite in churches around the world today (my translation here).  St. Athanasius was to spend the rest of his life combatting the teachings of the Arians and the Semi-Arians (or “homoiousians“), especially following his consecration as Bishop of Alexandria in 328.

He did his best to be a pastoral bishop, but constantly found himself running into heretical Arians or schismatic Meletians who were out to get him.  These run-ins, such as the Council of Tyre, had a tendency to end up with him in exile.  He was in exile in Trier (335-7), Rome (339-46), and the countryside around Alexandria (356-61, 362-3, 365-6).  While in exile within Egypt itself, he had occasion to take refuge with the nascent monastic movement that was flourishing at this time (ie. The Desert Fathers), encountering St. Antony about whom he would write one of the most influential works of hagiography (available in Carolinne D. White, Early Christian Lives).

His time spent in the West meant that the links between East and West were strengthened.  The Bishops of Rome during his episcopate (St. Sylvester I, St. Marcus, St. Julius I, Liberius, and St. Damasus I) were supportive of his teachings and polemic against Arianism.  Much of St. Athanasius’ work was translated into Latin, and he is one of the better-known Eastern Fathers in the West as a result of his time there and papal connections.

His theological works are focussed largely on the Person of God the Son, as seen in De Incarnatione Verbi Domini (On the Incarnation) and in his famous Contra Arianos.  One result of St. Athanasius’ reasoning about the Person of God was the statement that the Bible names God as Father.  This means that ontologically (ie. at the very root of Who God Is) God is Father.  Since God is eternal and unchanging, He will always have been Father.  One cannot be a father without offspring; God, therefore, begets the Son in eternity; God the Son is therefore eternal.  The implications for understanding Who God Is and what personhood is are far-reaching (see J.D. Zizioulas, Being As Communion, chh. 1-2).

St. Athanasius, like most of the Fathers, was not just a theologian, not just a pastor, not just a preacher.  He was also a believer in the life of holiness.  This was the root of his support of the monastic movement, for it is with the monks that we see the enduring persistence of costly grace (see D. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, ch. 1).  We are reminded that orthodoxy and orthopraxy are not to be divorced.  We are to think holy thoughts and live holy lives, worthy of the calling to which we are called.

St. Athanasius fell asleep on May 2, 373.  May we be half as vigorous in our defence of Truth as he.

Further Reading: Christopher A. Hall’s two books Reading Scripture With The Church Fathers and Learning Theology With The Church Fathers both deal with St. Athanasius.  I also recommend reading On the Incarnation as an entrance both to Athanasius and Patristic theology.

The “Cult” of the Cross?

Fresco of Crucifixion at Kolossi Castle, Cyprus

I have previously posted here about the Cult of the Cross (here, here, and here).  What do we mean by cult?

We do not mean a fringe religious group or behaviour or brainwashing or heterodox community of persons.  That is an entirely different definition of cult although both come from the Latin word cultus.

For our purposes, we will consider the cult to be the devotional aspects of something, including feasts, liturgies, meditations, art, poetry, relics, legends, and other spiritual practices.  When we discuss the “Cult of the Saints”, for example, we do not mean simply the lives of the Saints or the doctrine of the Communion of Saints that there is a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us and worshipping at the foot of the Sapphire Throne in the Heavens.  The Cult of the Saints includes hagiography, prayers about and to saints, relics, art, liturgies, feasts, and so on and so forth.

The Cult of the Cross, especially, does not include what we call “theology.”  This is not because theology has nothing to say about the Cross; indeed, a large portion of the reasoned discussion of God’s Revelation to us and action in History is devoted to the Cross.  Furthermore, there is a lot interplay between the Theology of the Cross and the Cult of the Cross.  When each is operating as it should, they have blessed and beneficial interactions.  And the devotional masters, many of whom have contributed to the Cult of the Cross, are not divorced from the theologians’ task.  Many of them have been theologians.  The great liturgists, pray-ers, preachers, and ascetics of the Patristic world were also its great theologians.*

However, the Theology of the Cross is the application of the human mind with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to the salvific action of God the Son on the Cross at Golgotha.  Normally, it expressly does not take the actual, True Cross and make it the focus of the discourse.  The Cult of the Cross does, the focus always being a symbolic focus, always pointing to the God-Man upon the Cross.

Often the Cult of the Cross actually manifests itself as the Cult of the Crucifixion or the Cult of the Crucified.  Here Theology and Cult will more frequently intersect.

If you think I’m way off base in terms of what cult is, let me know.

*This fact should give us pause when we consider modern academic theology.

Saint of the Week: George MacDonald

This past Tuesday at the Classic Christian Small Group, we read George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermon, “The Higher Faith.”  George MacDonald (1824-1905) was a Scottish Congregationalist pastor who had an influence upon CS Lewis — this was how he came to my attention.  He was the son of a farmer, probably one of the first in his family to go to university.  Lewis, in the brief biography he wrote for George MacDonald: An Anthology that is also at the beginning of most editions of Phantastes, says that George MacDonald, Sr., was a good father who made a strong impression on the younger George.  This would come to influence MacDonald’s view of the Fatherhood of God, for someone with a strong father figure has difficulty fathoming why anyone would not be able to envision God as loving Father.

He studied at Aberdeen University and then at Highbury College, London.  He was ordained as a Congregationalist pastor, taking on his first parish in 1850 in Arundel, West Sussex, England.

After three years at Arundel, MacDonald resigned.  He and the governing body of the congregation had some theological difficulties.  They had cut his salary in a move to make him resign; for a while, the average parishioners were still supporting MacDonald with goods, but it was not enough, so he resigned.

The theological difficulties sprang mainly from MacDonald’s rejection of the Calvinism of his youth, including predestination.  George MacDonald believed that everyone could be redeemed.  Everyone has a shot at Heaven, even those who in this life profess no belief in Christ.  MacDonald believed that everyone is given an opportunity to ultimatel accept or reject Christ in the next life.  This belief differs from Christian universalism (or apocatastasis) because that doctrine teaches that Christ’s death on the Cross teaches that Jesus saves all, not that Jesus can save all.  It is an important distinction.  A brilliant telling of this view is in CS Lewis’ The Last Battle‘s final chapter with the Calormene in Heaven.

After leaving active ministry, MacDonald and his wife (whom he wed in 1851) went to Algiers for health reasons.  When they returned to England, MacDonald tutored, wrote, and occasionally preached for a living.  This means that he was perennially poor and often relied on the charity of his friends to survive.  He published some poetry in the 1850’s, but he did not meet with real success until the 1860’s when he published stories of Scottish country life — often including real Scots dialect!

In the 1870’s he took the opportunity to tour the USA where his teaching was well received.  Although offered incentives to stay on the western side of the Atlantic, he returned to England where, as of 1877, Queen Victoria pensioned him, thus ending his money woes.

In 1881, he and his wife returned to the Mediterranean for health reasons, this time moving to Italy.  They stayed there until 1902 when his wife died — yet she lived to see the Golden Wedding Anniversary.  MacDonald returned to England where he died on September 18, 1905.  His remains were transported to Italy and buried with his wife’s.

MacDonald’s most popular writings are Phantastes (1858), At the Back of the North Wind (1871), The Princess And The Goblin (early 1880’s), The Princess And Curdie (1883), and Lilith (1895).