Book Reviews

Day Thirty-seven: St. Leo the Great: Letter XXVIII (called the "Tome")

Who: Leo the Great, also known as Pope St. Leo I (the Great), was Pope from 440-61 AD. Place and date of birth unknown; died 10 November, 461. Leo's pontificate, next to that of St. Gregory I, is the most significant and important in Christian antiquity, as he tried to  combat the heresies which seriously threatened church unity even in the West, such as Pelagianism.

What: A defence of the twofold nativity and nature of Christ against the false teaching of a priest called Eutyches. It is a doctrinal letter sent by Pope Leo I in the year 449 to Flavian, Patriarch of Constantinople, on the Church's teaching about the person of Christ.

Why: An apologetic defending the faith to ensure sound teaching is passed on and understood by all to affirm that Christ has two natures, human and divine, united in the one divine Person of the Son of God.

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When 3 June, 449 AD

You can find today’s reading on page 182 here: lentfatherscomplete.pdf

 

Today's reading is a defence of the faith against certain things that a priest called Eutyches was teaching, written by Pope Leo I.

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Eutyches was speaking against the teaching of the Archbishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, who said that the human experiences of Christ were only part of the ‘the man’ which was distinct from the ‘God the Word’ part of Jesus. To combat this, Eutyches went too far in the other direction and declared that Christ was "a fusion of human and divine elements" which created a new, single nature in Jesus, rather than a twofold nature which the Creeds declare. This actually led to himself being declared a heretic also for this belief!

Now Leo is writing against the teaching of Eutyches because it seems that he was unwilling to accept any correction to his doctrine. “But what more iniquitous”, Leo says,  “than to hold blasphemous opinions, and not to give way to those who are wiser and more learned than ourself?”

Leo is quite scathing actually, and doesn’t hold back on denouncing the man or his teaching:

Now into this unwisdom fall they who, finding themselves hindered from knowing the truth by some obscurity … thus they stand out as masters of error because they were never disciples of truth...

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He goes on to wonder how Eutyches could not have been corrected by others or more in depth study, or even want to change his view when even the the Creeds say otherwise, which is the measure by which all heresies are defeated.

[Has he] not even grasped the rudiments of the Creed? And that which, throughout the world, is professed by the mouth of everyone who is to be born again … By which ... the devices of almost all heretics are overthrown.

The Creed

He goes on to quote the statements of the Creed, which is confessed by all the Churches, to make his point and contrast with what Eutyches said and taught, which was commonly accepted as the fundamentals of the faith:

He is God from God , Almighty from Almighty, and being born from the Eternal one is co-eternal with Him; not later in point of time, not lower in power, not unlike in glory, not divided in essence: but at the same time the only begotten of the eternal Father was born eternal of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.

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Leo goes through many instances in the New Testament, from the Gospels to Paul's letters, to Old Testament prophecies, to really point out that Jesus was the Word made flesh – and truly flesh, not some deception.

If Eutyches had read all these things closely, “then he would not speak so erroneously as to say that the Word became flesh in such a way that Christ, born of the Virgin's womb, had the form of man, but had not the reality of His mother's body”, which sounds a lot like Docetism, the heresy which was around much more a couple of centuries earlier.

Instead, and in contrast to this, the commonly accepted doctrine on the nature of Jesus is explained by Leo as being, “without detriment therefore to the properties of either nature and substance which then came together in one person, majesty took on humility, strength weakness, eternity mortality...”. In theological terms, this concept of Jesus having two natures in one body has come to be known as the hypostatic union. Leo maintains that Jesus Christ is one person of the Trinity who has two distinct natures which are permanently united together. This letter (or “Tome”) was later recognized by the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) as a statement of orthodox Christology, which gave rise to the Chalcedonian Creed specifically for this purpose and reason.

Chalcedonian Creed

I’m going to quote the whole of the Creed here just so people can read it who haven’t before:

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with us according to the manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the virgin Mary, the mother of God, according to the manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets from the beginning have declared concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

But Eutyches kept on which his teaching saying, “I confess that our Lord had two natures before the union but after the union I confess but one”, to which Leo responds by saying that he is “surprised that so absurd and mistaken a statement” was not picked up on by others, and that now this teaching was reaching, "the height of stupidity and blasphemy"!

Leo does end this letter on a positive note though by saying that if Eutyches, “grieves over [his heresy] faithfully and to good purpose, and, late though it be, acknowledges how rightly the bishop's authority” is on these matters, then he can come back into the Church.

All in all, this letter is a very thorough and detailed apologetic and defence of the faith on the nature of Christ in the incarnation, so much that I think it can still stand on it’s own today. I’d recommend anyone interested in this topic to read Leo’s letter in full to really grasp his arguments.

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