The period of history generally designated as the Patristic Period was crucial to the formation of many aspects of what we have come to know as “orthodox Christianity.” There were many Christian leaders that contributed to the organic development of orthodoxy and orthopraxy during this time. One of the most important was Pope Leo the 1st (known simply as “the Great”), who became Bishop of Rome in 440. His rule as Bishop was marked by strong assertive leadership—not merely in Italy but also in other Christian Sees of the Empire (Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria). His influence, wise counsel and advocacy for Nicene doctrinal orthodoxy helped to push forward the movement to resolve the ongoing controversies about the Person of Christ. Thank God for Pope Leo!
Given that so many of us are not familiar with this period and the historical dynamics that were then being debated, I think it is needful to summarize briefly some background information. To do that we need to go to the Gospel narratives. And then bridge that into the time of the Christological controversies.
In earliest pages of the Gospels the reader is introduced to John the Baptizer. His primary task was to introduce the Messiah to the nation of Israel. His ministry of preaching and baptizing introduced Jesus as the Messiah of Israel. The remainder of the Gospel material is the Apostles’ narration of the Lord Jesus’ deeds and words. Spurred on by the Lord’s teaching, the Apostle’s preaching and writings sought to clarify answers these questions: “Who is Jesus?” and “As Messiah, what is he like?” and “What does it mean to know God through him?”
Through the first two centuries the leaders of the Christian churches utilized the language of the New Testament, alongside the testimony of the Hebrew Bible, which they affirmed gave witness to the Lord Jesus Christ; in this way they presented answers to these questions. As more and more non-Jewish people embraced Christian faith different kinds of questions were asked about God and his Messiah. Some of these are not directly addressed in the New Testament. For example, “How is possible that the man Jesus is equated with God?” and “How can we explain how the Man Jesus is God.”
These questions, and others like them, became the springboard for speculation and led to varying assertions from different Church leaders. This process of debate (one can hardly say it was a dialogue) among Christian leaders, in response to those who were later designated and condemned as heretics, is complex and I will not attempt to explain here in detail; that would require much more space than the structure of a blog can accommodate! The main point I want to emphasize is that this was a time of extraordinary debate and heated controversy, which featured both heretics and orthodox Christian thinkers, and which gripped the attention of Christian and non-Christians alike from all sectors of Roman society.
The leaders of the “Great Church” (“Catholic” in sense of “Universal”) were confronted with an array of erroneous notions about the Person of Jesus Christ: His human nature not being actually and fully human (Gnostics), denial of his full Deity and thus equality with God (Arius), assertions that his Divine nature swallows up the human nature (extreme forms of Alexandrian Christology) and assertions that to preserve the affirmation of full humanity in Christ we must make radical distinctions between the human nature and divine nature (extreme Antiochene Christology and “Nestorianism”).
From the time of Arius to the Council of Chalcedon leaders of the Church wrestled with several slightly different questions regarding the Person of Christ. In each case, they had to sort out together the meaning of the biblical testimony and how to articulate the truth of Scripture specific to the doctrinal assertion that sparked debate. From the perspective of both heretics and orthodox leaders every one of these teachings impinged on the question of the identity of the Lord Jesus Christ and thus on the efficacy of salvation through him. This is why the debate was so heated and taken so seriously.
Leo the Great enters the scene of history not long before the Council of Chalcedon (451). He had a vital role in settling serious contentions that had resulted from decisions made at rival Council’s that were held in Ephesus (449). Leading up to Chalcedon, he wrote what is perhaps one of the most famous letters in the history of the development of Christian theology. Originally, this letter was part of his correspondence with Flavian, then Bishop of Constantinople, but he had copies of it sent to the Council of Chalcedon for all those gathered there to read. In it he identified all the essential points that were then being debated and gave the Church leaders a remarkably clear and concise way to speak about Jesus Christ; and he offered a minimal level of explanation regarding how Jesus could be the utterly unique God-Man.
In one portion of the “the Tome,” he lays out some of this theological groundwork, specifically how the human and Divine natures of Christ could interact for the accomplishment of salvation for us in the Lord Jesus.
“And as the Word does not cease [through the Incarnation] to be on an equality with His Father’s glory, so the flesh [of Christ] does not forego the nature our race. For it must again and again be repeated that one and the same [Person] is truly Son of God and truly Son of Man. . . . [However] it is not part of the same nature to say, “I and the Father are one,” and to say, “the Father is greater than I.” For although in the Lord Jesus Christ God and man is one person, yet the source of the degradation [of suffering] which is shared by both, is [the human] one, and the source of the glory [of resurrection], which is shared by both, is another [the Deity]. For His manhood, which is less than the Father, comes to our side: His Godhead, which is equal to the Father, comes from the Father.” (“The Tome”, Letter to Flavian, Bishop of Constantinople (June 13, 449); cited from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume 12 [Hendrickson Publishers:1994], p.41.
This statement was aimed directly at those who questioned, in different ways, how to reconcile the testimony of Scripture with the Church’s affirmation that the Man Jesus should be worshiped along with and as God. Also, it addresses how in his humanity he can then be the Savior of the world; that is, how he functions are Lord and Savior, as one Person who retains full both human and Divine natures. The influence of this letter is evidenced in the fact that much of the phrasing of the main document that Council produced (“The Definition”) quotes or echoes it.
Historians have quite properly pointed out that many of these controversies, over the exact nature of Christ’s Person and his two natures, were heavily influenced by personal vendettas and political power plays by some of the Church leaders. (I think that this conclusion is especially accurate when applied to the behavior of Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria and Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople.) After the Council of Nicaea, to some degree Constantine made power plays to control the churches but the later Roman Emperors did so openly. Also, Leo the Great also made efforts that we would rightly characterize as “power plays” towards his fellow Bishops. Famously, he vigorously asserted what he claimed was the priority of the See of Rome over all other historic Sees and their Bishops. Also, he originally wanted the Council to meet in his See so that he could have more direct control over it but this wish was vetoed and the location was instead set in Chalcedon.
However, having noted that, Leo’s influence shines in the midst of these embarrassing quarrels and in fighting among leaders during his time. His voice was one of moderation and restraint even as he pioneered the way forward by articulating how to speak of the Person of the Lord Jesus. His perspective was squarely based on Scripture and sound theological reasoning. He had a crucial role in organizing a Council to address these bitterly fought theological controversies.
In noting Leo’s influence and stamp he put on the formation of the churches I do not pretend to agree with everything he believed about the Church nor about his own See, that of Rome. I do not have to agree with all that he did or taught to recognize that he is a giant in the history of the Christian Church. For whatever else we could say about him, Leo the Great stands out because he stepped forward and provided a pattern of level headed thinking and wise counsel which helped to resolve the most difficult issues facing the Church at that time. And everyone since has benefited from those bold and faithful actions.
Thus I do thank God for Pope Leo, and for many other Church leaders from this period, for their leadership and commitment to defending the truth of the Gospel, as it had been passed down to them. They provided leadership to the Church which eventually led to the drafting of documents which later generations could turn to in order to settle doctrinal questions and from which to judge and even base further theological inquiry upon. (Specifically, the Nicene-Constantinopolian Creed, completed 381, and the Definition of Chalcedon written in 451.) Thank God for Pope Leo!