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.

Pope Question: Why study Leo the Great?

pope clipartThis question, phrased in various ways, is a totally legitimate Pope Question that people ask, one that also falls definitively into the category of ‘Thesis Questions’. Why study Leo the Great? What makes Pope Leo I interesting?

First, I wanted to deal with the manuscripts and textual criticism of a fifth-century Latin text. So, apart from any intrinsic interest Leo holds, this was an overriding consideration when I decided to choose a topic — choose something that needs doing. And Leo I’s letters need doing, as one of my undergraduate proferssors pointed out to me.

Second, I’m also interested in the Council of Chalcedon of 451. I’ve translated its Definitio Fidei, after all. This event is a highly significant moment in the history of Christianity. To investigate Chalcedon is to end up looking not only into the history of Christology but also into the relationship between the imperial  and ecclesiastical powers, the formation of the Oriental Orthodox churches, the relationship between Eastern and Western Christianity, the development of papal power/authority, the development of canon law. Since Leo helped orchestrate the whole thing, he once again fits the bill.

From the pragmatic angle of choosing something interesting that needs doing, these are really the reasons I chose Pope Leo I’s letters as the area of my dissertation’s investigation. From today’s vantage point, after three and a half years of research into Leo and the tradition of his manuscripts, I can give a much bigger, fuller, and broader answer as to why someone should study Leo the Great.

First of all, there is still inevitably his Christology, tied up the with Chalcedon issue above. There have been some recent monographs on Leo’s Christology, and they are good; they show the integrated nature of his thinking and some of his relationship with the prior Latin tradition as well as with the Greek tradition represented by St Cyril of Alexandria. There is, however, always more to be done, new angles to be approached, new techniques to be employed. His Christology is of far-reaching importance in Latin Christianity — Leonine hardliners actually went into schism with Rome over what they perceived as an abrogation of Chalcedon in the sixth-century Three Chapters Controversy, for example.

What makes Pope Leo ‘the Great’? Precisely his Christological teaching, primarily in The Tome, but also in the ‘Second’ Tome and a variety of sermons, not to mention scattered throughout his letters, both pastoral and dogmatic. Whatever the faults in his thinking that many modern scholars have plucked at, he is a massively influential figure in western theology, probably not only because he was a pope whose teaching was enshrined at what was perceived as an ecumenical council but also because he wrote so much less than guys like Augustine and Ambrose.

Remember, Christology ties itself into the centre of all Christian theology — how you formulate the nature(s), person, and work of Christ touches upon the Trinity and salvation, and, as Leo’s sermons show, Christian ethics. Leo is worth studying for this aspect alone.

Second, Pope Reasons. Leo is worth studying not just for his Christology but how he went about promoting it as well as his views on a variety of canonical matters. Leo is one of the first bishops of Rome to articulate a theory of the papacy, the heart of which is the Petrine primacy. And not only does he articulate it, he acts on it. Not always in a heavy-handed way, and probably because he thought he was right (that is, not out of personal gain) — thus his engineering of Chalcedon, but also his wide variety of letters to western bishops on matters of canon law.

Third, he is an important source for early western canon law. Leo the Great provides us with more letters than any other Bishop of Rome before Gregory the Great (590-604), and of these, more decretals. A decretal is, in later mediaeval and modern canonistic discourse, a papal letter with a universal binding force in canon law. I doubt Leo saw his quite that way, although he would certainly not have minded. They are letters about canon law and ordering of the church. Leo’s decretals touch on issues ranging from when to baptise people and whether to rebaptise people baptised by heretics (no) to the reconciliation of heretics with the church and whether monks can join the army (no). He addresses a lot of issues in canon law, and our earliest surviving collections of canon law documents include Leo.

His letters are compiled into great collections for canon law ranging up to 102 letters in one case, and throughout the Middle Ages, people use excerpts from Leo in their canonistic compendia — over 60 such compendia, in fact.

Finally, Leo’s letters are a valuable source for the human side of some events. Many stories are left untold by the historians, but hints and traces exist in these letters. For example, the Bishop of Narbonensis wrote to Leo asking what to do about people who lost Christian parents when very young and are now, as adults, uncertain as to whether they were baptised. Narbonensis had been invaded by Goths in 436 and the city of Narbonne besieged. Leo’s response to Rusticus of Narbonne reminds us of the human face of war and the war orphans of the fifth century. That is one example — I could give many.

Leo the Great was pope for the central two decades of the fifth century. He died 25 years before the deposition of the alst western Roman Emperor. His letters are important for our understanding of the Later Roman Empire, for our understanding of the church and its theology in that age, as well as for the culture and history of the time more broadly.

Why not study Leo the Great?