Sometimes theological controversy is … theological

Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil
Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil

I often find myself in situations where I feel a bit awkward, or naive, or as though I had missed something in my own readings as a historian of ancient Christianity. Wisdom tells me to keep quiet; or, hey, write an anonymous blog post so no one will know it was me, right?

For example, I recently heard a scholar state the fact that the problem in the Pelagian Controversy was that wealthy laypeople were doing their own ascetic thing in their homes separate from the authority of the bishops.

I admit to not having reviewed all of the evidence of the Pelagian Controversy, and not having thought much about it for a few years. Nonetheless, it strikes me that a controversy that starts in Rome but has its fiercest opponents in North Africa can’t simply be about power. And if Pelagius and his supporters are seen as threats to the local bishop, why does Pope Innocent I at one point actually exonerate them from heresy?

Regardless of which side you support in this debate, it is also clear that there are substantive theological differences between St Augustine of Hippo and the Pelagians, especially Julian of Eclanum. To reduce it to power politics requires a certain kind of extreme cynicism that I cannot accept.

Now, I don’t imagine that the bishops of Late Antiquity were always grand heroes seeking the true good and spiritual health of the world. Nor do I imagine that, when they were seeking the spiritual good of others, their methods were those of which I would approve.

The coercion of Donatists as approved by St Augustine, for example, is a bad idea. Similarly the legal restrictions against heretics, pagans, and Jews, largely supported by the bishops, are not the way a free and just society lives. By the grace of God, Christianity has largely rejected such coercive methods, and need never have used them. But ideology and power make for a dangerous combination.

Nevertheless, to imagine that Augustine vs Donatism (or vs Pelagianism or vs Manichaeism) is simply about him trying to get more power in the hands of North African ‘catholic’ clergy is reductionist to the extreme. It goes hand in hand with the sort of unintellectual anti-clericalism that must be espoused by people who have never actually spent quality time with clergy. I have met both on the same day, sometimes in the same person.

If we want to create a properly nuanced view of the history of Christianity in the Late Roman and Early Medieval worlds, we need to be open to sincerity as well as politicking. St Cyril of Alexandria, for example, is notorious as one of those ‘bad people’ who went to war against his fellow bishops to try and keep his own episcopal see in a position of power and prominence. He did. It’s true.

Yet on what grounds did Cyril attack Nestorius? On Christological grounds that, if you read Cyril’s pre-Nestorius writings, you will realise he already believed. And if you read his theology, you’ll realise that his is a brilliant mind to be neglected at our loss. We need not agree with how he went about things, and we may acknowledge that part of the animus against Nestorius was due to shifting balances in geo-ecclesiology — but, based upon his theological writings and biblical commentaries, Cyril was honestly opposed to the theology of Nestorius.

Or take St Caesarius of Arles and his attempts to root out practices in the countryside that he consider ‘pagan’ or ‘superstition’. It is perfectly likely that the local people did not think these practices were incompatible with their Christian faith. They may have seen some things as non-religious and others even as part of Christianity as they understood it. However, we need not move immediately to, ‘Caesarius opposed these practices and religious expressions because he wanted a monopoly on religious power.’ Is not as easy to say, ‘Caesarius opposed these practices because he believed they were spiritually dangerous to his flock‘? I can assure you, when I witnessed a young M.A. student suggest this to senior scholars, he got patronising shakes of the head and blank stares before they moved the discussion elsewhere.

When I mention such ideas, people query my ability to judge sincerity.

What about their ability to judge insincerity?

Why straight to cynicism? Why the reductionism of all theological and pastoral activities in Late Antiquity to ecclesiastical power politics, of bishops trying to consolidate all power in themselves?

Consider the fact that many Christians in Late Antiquity — bishops, monks, educated laypeople — believed that heresy spelled eternal damnation, right alongside paganism and Judaism, and maybe we’ll have a different view of their activities. Again, we can disagree with their measures without having to disagree with their goals and without assuming them to be ‘bad people’ or ‘bastards’ or simply out to gain power.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes theological controversy is actually theological.

Advertisements

Pope Question: What makes Leo Great?

pope clipartA not uncommon question that arises when people hear that I did my PhD on Pope Leo ‘the Great’ is: What makes Leo great? Sometimes there is the usual anti-Catholic/anti-papal subtext of, ‘Let me guess: Power politics ’cause that’s all popes do,’ but usually, it’s simple curiosity. I like curiosity. It’s less polemical.

The basic reasons for why Leo is Magnus, ‘the Great’, came up in Why Study Leo the Great? Nonetheless, it’s worth reiterating some of this here, if only to dispell the power politics part — but also to continue to encourage people to read Leo!

So, why Leo Magnus? What’s so Great about Leo I?

Answer: The Council of Chalcedon and two-nature Christology.

Some people want to make Leo’s greatness about his foundational role in western canon law, or his ability to exercise authority throughout the western church, or his articulation of papal primacy, or his energy in promoting western interests in the eastern Mediterranean. There is a desire to see why we might think him great. Or there is a desire to see how he was great in his own geo-ecclesiological context.

True as much of the above might be, these are not the reasons we call him ‘Leo the Great.’

C. H. Turner put together a compendium of the early sources for people expressing their esteem for this pope and calling Leo Magnus in his excellent 1911 article about the dogmatic collection of Leo’s letters. (If I could be a C. H. Turner for the 21st century, I’d do it.) And when I look at the testimonies in the manuscripts I work with, the answer is the same as what Turner found:

Leo is called Magnus, ‘the Great’, because of his role in the consolidation, development, and spread of western Christology, as enshrined in his ‘Tome’ (Ep. 28), ‘Second Tome’ (Ep. 165), and the convening of the Council of Chalcedon.

From a modern perspective, Leo the Great may not be what everyone is looking for in a theologian. We prefer pioneers and ‘original’ and ‘innovative’ thinkers, or ‘subversive’ ideals. So western Trinitarianism as expressed by St Hilary of Poitiers or St Augustine of Hippo is more likely to get people really excited today. But Pope Leo the Great plays a very important role in the history of western dogma.

I’m about half-way through St Augustine’s De Trinitate. It’s not an easy ride. It’s interesting, for sure. In many ways, it’s an education in itself — Augustine faces questions of epistemology, the use of categories in thought, love, words, memory, human psychology, and more, alongside the proper interpretation of Holy Scripture, as he seeks to articulate why we should express a belief in the Trinity. Along the way, he expounds what we would recognise today as two-nature Christology, just as St Hilary had done before him.

But De Trinitate is not the sort of document you can sent around to fifth-century bishops, expect them to read and comprehend, and then get a consensus of the church’s thought on any issue. Not really. That’s what Creeds are for — in the Creeds, you can get everyone to assent to their belief in the unity in Trinity and Trinity in unity.

But Nestorius and the Eutyches were expressing ideas about the person of Christ that they believed perfectly acceptable within the boundaries of credal Christianity. As far as Nestorius is concerned, St Cyril of Alexandria, St John Cassian, Pope Celestine I, et al., were pretty sure that his expressions of faith were, in fact, beyond the pale of credal truths, especially in some of the quite damning evidence in the creeds he was trying to get people to sign that his opponents produced at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Regardless of what Nestorius actually meant/thought, he was perceived as dividing Christ into two persons who simply coinhabited the single body of Jesus of Nazareth.

Eutyches was perceived as so fully subsuming the humanity in the godhead that Christ had simply become nothing but a God in a human body.

Now, by Leo’s day, Nestorius had been officially condemned by the Imperial Church in the Council of Ephesus in 431. Nonetheless, in 448 there arose the case of Eutyches. In his dogmatic writings, Leo sought to sail between the two perceived extremes of Nestorius and Eutyches. In Nestorius, the division between divine and human in Christ was so starkly contrasted that the divinity was at risk; in Eutyches, it was the unity that was too strongly expressed, placing the humanity at risk.

Whatever faults Leo may have had in expressing himself at different moments in the ensuing controversy, what his response to Eutyches provided the western church was an articulation of traditional, Latin Christology in a simple, apprehensible document. Leo largely reiterates Sts Augustine and Hilary with recourse to a certain amount of St Cyril of Alexandria as well. Bishops throughout the western church were able to read, understand, and subscribe to Leo’s dogmatic statements.

These statements were also circulated in the East, and at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the ‘Tome’ was approved as the teaching of the imperial church alongside St Cyril’s First and Second Letters to Nestorius and, later in the council proceedings, a further clarification of the faith that included the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 in its full text, but which we usually just quote for its contribution to Christology.

Leo was hoping to achieve unity and consensus throughout the church with the ‘Tome’ and the Council of Chalcedon. He didn’t, as history has borne out. His theology was disputed at the council and immediately following it in the East, especially in Syria-Palestine and Egypt.

In the West, Leo’s dogmatic theology was never controversial. As a result, western bishops were never interested in compromises that would seem to undermine either Leo’s teachings or the Council of Chalcedon. The result of this Leonine intransigence meant schism with Constantinople later in the century (the Acacian Schism) — making Leo that much more important to western Christian self-identity. It would also mean schism between northern Italy and Rome for a few centuries (the Istrian Schism).

It would also mean that the interpretation of Chalcedon put forward in the 600s by St Maximus the Confessor would find a welcome audience in the West, where he went into exile, one-handed and tongueless, as well as a lot of other Greek-speaking eastern clerics, who would leave their mark on the liturgy and organisation of the church of Rome in the seventh century.

Leo Magnus is central to western Christianity’s theological self-identity in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Thus is he depicted on the walls of Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum (as I learned over dinner tonight!).

Whatever else Leo did, it was his Christology that made people regard him as Magnus.

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

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Development of ‘Fathers’ of the Church 2: The Role of Christological Controversy

If, as posited in the last post on this theme, the fifth and sixth centuries are the era of the development of the concept of ‘Fathers’ of the Church, it is worth noting that this also the era of the unsolved Christological crises, beginning with the accession of Nestorius to the See of Constantinople in 428.

Normally, we imagine that the ‘Nestorian problem’ was dealt with in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon, but the history of Byzantine Christianity demonstrates how far wrong we are in such an assessment. Not only was there an uprising in Palestine against Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem, there was also a general uprising throughout Egypt in favour of Dioscorus, the ‘Miaphysite’ (Monophysite — highly conservative Cyrillian) Patriarch who opposed Chalcedon’s Latin, Leonine settlement.

Theologians throughout the eastern Mediterranean were opposed to Chalcedon, and their opposition did not die down with time. As one generation of Mia/Monophysites died, a new generation rose up to take its place. Thus we move from the generation of Dioscorus to that of the brilliant representatives of that movement, Philoxenus of Mabbûg and Severus of Antioch. They would in turn be succeeded by the likes of John of Ephesus and Jacob Baradaeus (two of the founders of the Syrian or ‘Jacobite’ Orthodox Church). Dioscorus’ most recent successor, who was part of a line from him through the likes of Timothy Aelurus (‘the Weasel’), Pope Shenouda III, recently died.

On the other hand, despite the accusations of ‘Nestorianism’ hurled at Leo and Chalcedon by Severus of Antioch and his fellow Miaphysites, those Christians who saw themselves as in line with Nestorius found themselves forcibly excluded from the Roman Empire under Justinian in the early sixth century; they accordingly went to Persia and beyond, forming the ‘Church of the East’, and have had the misnomer ‘Assyrian Orthodox’ applied to them in the past. In Diarmaid McCulloch’s A History of Christianity, you can see a photo of a Chinese monastery founded by the Church of the East in the Middle Ages as well as a stele with both Chinese and Syriac on it, showing a Christian thoughtworld sensitive to local Taoism. Modern scholarship seems to have taken to calling the Church of the East and its historical forebears ‘Dyophysite’, a term that I feel muddies the waters, because it could be applied to Latin and Chalcedonian theology just as easily.

The years following 451, in other words, were not a time of Christological ease and theological straightforwardness. Everyone was vying for position as the accepted orthodoxy of the imperial church, especially the Chalcedonians and the conservative Cyrillian Monophysites.

As they fought and argued and sought to prove that they were the true successors of the Apostles and the Holy Fathers of Nicaea, both sides were busily pushing forth the same theologians as evidence for their orthodoxy. In a world already relatively traditionalist, the traditionalism of the succeeding generations of Christologians was sealed. To prove they were truly orthodox and in line with tradition, out would come Sts. Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus and Cyril of Alexandria. Both sides would distance themselves from Nestorius and Eutyches.

A major result of this traditional, patristic approach to doing theology is that both sides pretty much have the same Church Fathers for the period before 451. The possible exceptions are Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Ibas of Edessa, who had particular teachings condemned at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 during the Three Chapters Controversy, much to the chagrin of many western bishops — the eastern bishops, who felt these men and their positions too ‘Nestorian’, were willing to grant this concession to their Miaphysite opponents.

After 451, the traditions mostly diverge, although Abba Isaiah of Scetis, from an anti-Chalcedonian monastery in Gaza, is among those ascetics revered by both sides of the conflict surrounding Chalcedon. Thus, Leo the Great and Maximus the Confessor are Church Fathers to the Chalcedonians, while Severus of Antioch and Philoxenus of Mabbûg are Fathers to the anti-Chalcedonians, and Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius are Church Fathers of the ‘Nestorians’.

What this also shows us is that a Church Father is not simply any ancient Christian writer. Not for the people who were alive in the fifth and sixth centuries — let alone the rest of the Byzantine and Mediaeval worlds — at any rate. It may be healthy for us to have Severus of Antioch in the Routledge Early Church Fathers Series alongside Leo the Great. It is probably not so bad to read the exegesis of Julian Eclanum beside Augustine of Hippo, or Theodore of Mopsuestia with Cyril of Alexandria. But for many Christians of much of the history of Christianity, these pairs of authors are not pairs of Fathers, but of a Father and an opponent, a heretic even.

A brief note on Pelagians

I was  surprised tonight to read this in Celtic Daily Prayer:

But soon [Pelagius] was criticized for teaching women to read Scripture, and for believing that the image of God is present in every new-born child, and that sex is a God-given aspect of our essential creation. He did not deny the reality of evil or its assault on the human soul, or the habitual nature of sin. Augustine’s own peculiar ideas were in stark contrast, seeing humanity as essentially evil, and polluted by the sexual activity which causes conception to occur. (141)

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

Now, I know that almost every heresiarch had a group in the 20th century seeking to rehabilitate his memory and prove his true orthodoxy, including Arius, Nestorius, and Pelagius. I have not read books on Pelagius himself, but Pelagianism, those things for which he got in trouble, is something of a different story than the caricature produced by people who imagine that “Celtic” Christianity is something special and unique, different from imperial, “Catholic” Christianity in the Mediterranean, represented by free spirits like Pelagius rather than horrible men like Augustine.

First, lots of women read Scripture. This is not part of the substance of any argument that could have brought Pelagius down, given St. Jerome’s tendency to be surrounded by virgins, some of whom could read the Old Testament in Hebrew.

Second, I understand that the question is not whether the image of God is present in new-born children but whether those children, like adults, are fallen and in need of redemption. The orthodox answer is that, yes, children are fallen; thus do we baptise them. Yes, they are in the image of God. We all are.

Third, even Augustine would agree that sex is a God-given aspect of our essential creation. What makes sex dirty is the fact that it is through sex that the man transmits the original sin of Adam. No doubt in his more Neo-Platonist moments, Augustine would also argue (along with St. Thomas Aquinas) that sexual intercourse is not always a good thing because it involves passion, not reason, and reason is the best part of a human. Part of the solution to this “problem” of sexual passion (as I believe explicated by Tertullian) was to say that Adam could engorge his membrum virile at will, rather than having it beyond the power of his reason.

We are not polluted by sexual activity, but our sin has irrevocably polluted it, since it is the means whereby sin is transmitted. This, as I understand it, is the Augustinian position.

To return to the second point, the Northumbria Community maintains that Augustine sees us as “essentially” evil. If we are to consider terminology, this is inaccurate. The Augustinian human being is not “essentially” evil; that would mean evil by essence, by nature. God does not create evil things. Human beings are necessarily evil, due to the fall of original sin.

Our essence is marred by evil, but not innately evil. This is how God is able to redeem us. Remember that for someone with so strong a Platonic background as Augustine, evil is essentially non-being. It is the absence of the good. Therefore, we cannot be evil by our own essence, or essentially evil. We can have a lack of good where it ought to have been. We can have ourselves marred so badly by evil that only a strike force from the heavenly realms can save us in a rescue mission (cf. Irenaeus and Athanasius). But this is not being “essentially evil” as the Northumbria Community contends.

Now, to say we are all evil in our very selves seems like a very pessimistic view of humanity to our “enlightened” ears. It is my contention that Augustine formulated it so very sharply because he was dealing with the very real, dangerous ideas of Pelagius’ followers (if not of Pelagius himself).

God’s grace, according to the Pelagian Julian of Eclanum, does not help us do good. We can not only choose God for ourselves (what most Calvinists think when they hear “Pelagian”), we can live a perfect, sinless life and attain salvation just as Christ lived of our own free will. God does not give us his grace in this endeavour. If He were to do so, He would contravene our free will and our good actions would be null and void.

Pelagianism (even if not Pelagius) teaches not simply that we can do good without God, but that we can be good without God. It teaches that we do not need God’s grace at any stage of our salvation because we have the capability within ourselves to live a holy life free of divine intervention.

This is not biblical orthodoxy. 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. We need God’s grace to be saved. Now, some of us may fall in line with the Massilians (not Messalians who are heretics) like St. John Cassian and believe that there is some sort of synergy between our will and God’s (that’s a terrible way of putting it; read it for yourself); others may fall in with Predestinarians like St. Augustine of Hippo.

We all believe that we cannot be perfect without God’s help. We all believe that Christ is unique and “Adam” is more than a bad example, that our genes are hardwired for sin. Some of us believe in total depravity. Some of us don’t, believing that we can do good deeds without God. But we do not believe that we can save ourselves.

Believing that you, yourself, all alone, can save yourself free from God’s divine intervention is heresy.

We call it Pelagianism.

Whether or not Pelagius himself believed it, it’s the real reason he was condemned, not the mocking caricature provided for us by the Northumbria Community in Celtic Daily Prayer.

On the “Creed” of “St. Athanasius” (pt. 1)

I’ve been fiddling with the pages on the sidebar recently; one change I’ve made is posting my own translation of the so-called “Creed of St. Athanasius”, the “Quicumque Vult.”  Whilst certainly a statement of faith, this document is not, strictly speaking, a creed, for a creed is a formulaic statement that a person makes, beginning in Latin, “Credo,” — I believe.  This document begins, “Quicumque vult,” — whosoever wishes.

Second, it is not by St. Athanasius.  No matter how much you may like the Quicumque Vult, it is a Latin document and strikes me as clearly post-Chalcedon (ie. after 451).  St. Athanasius (of whom I’ve written here) was a Greek father, the patriarch of Alexandria.  He died close to 80 years before Chalcedon.  He spent the majority of his career in the defense and explication of the Nicene Creed (325, my translation here).  He was one of the great Christologians, and certainly St. Cyril of Alexandria, whose Christological views were espoused by the Church both at Ephesus in 431 and Chalcedon in 451, was a close follower of St. Athanasius.

But the Athanasian Creed isn’t Athanasian.

Certainly its Trinitarian formulae are, for the most part, Athanasian: “we are to worship one God in Trinity, and the Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance,” and, “The Father is made from nothing, neither created nor begotten.  The Son is from the Father alone: not made, nor created, but begotten,” but this is followed by, “The Holy Spirit is from the Father and the Son: not made, neither created nor begotten but proceeding.”

Most eastern Fathers do not believe in the dual procession of the Holy Spirit, a doctrine first (I believe) explicated by St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430).  The closest we get is the Cappadocian statement that the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son (Anthony Meredith wonders what exactly the great difference between the two formulations is).  Thus, although in everything else the Trinitarian formulations of the Quicumque Vult are universal, this clause makes it expressly western.

Second, its Christological formulations make me shy away from asserting that this is a production of St. Athanasius.  Certainly St. Athanasius would believe what is said here, for it does not explicitly use the tricky two-nature terminology of much Western Christology.  Nonetheless, I believe it is expounding a Western understanding of Christ’s Person.

Furthermore, the strong emphasis on the real manhood of Christ in the Quicumque Vult makes me think that this document is after Athanasius and at least from the time of Apollinarius (d. 390) who asserted the godhead of Christ so much that Jesus was not fully human, lacking a rational soul, a point on which the Athanasian Creed is quite explicit.

I would, however, place this text in the fifth century at the earliest.  The fifth century, especially in the heat following the episcopacy of Nestorius (428), was the age wherein the battle over Christ’s person and nature(s) really raged.  We’ll skip those heated decades and suffice it to say that the Church made an attempt at cooling everyone’s jets and at getting unanimity in the Council of Chalcedon in 451; the Athanasian Creed is very much Chalcedonian, stressing the fullness of Christ’s humanity and divinity while maintaining the unity of the person.

The (post)modern reader will not be excited by these ins and outs of dating the piece and of Trinitarian and Christological history.  Most today look at this document and, even if they don’t disregard the entire body of the text as Hellenistic philosophy that is irrelevant today, they see the introduction and the conclusion and see yet another example of religion gone bad.

But do they really?  (More on this tomorrow.)

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.