Pope Leo I and the Council of Chalcedon

The Council of ChalcedonThe eternal city of Rome had once been the heart and soul of a great empire which straddled the known world. By the middle of the 5th century, though still the center of the Western Roman Empire, it had become a decrepit and weakened territory which would soon fall to the barbarians tribes it had once tried to dominate. The power of the empire now lies in Constantinople. The Eastern Roman Empire was the political, military and religious center and Rome had become secondary in all things.

Christianity was the dominate faith and although the Bishop of Rome was regarded as the head of the faith, power had shifted to the east in Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria. Though deference was given the Roman Bishop, the eastern patriarch began to dictate doctrine independent of Rome. “While the papacy was universally afforded the primacy of honor, the other patriarchal sees did not recognize the right of the pope to determine policy, which was often decided at church councils…,”[i]

In the 5th century several Christological issues arose among the Eastern archbishops. “Foremost among these was the question of how divinity and humanity are joined in Jesus Christ. This is the fundamental Christological question.”[ii] There were two interpretations of the nature of Christ. Though born of a sincere desire to comprehend God’s presence in the world, the ideas soon became a source of conflict among the Eastern Churches “On this question, there were in the East two different currents of thought, which historians have conveniently labeled the “Antiochene” and the “Alexandrine”.”[iii] The controversy centered on whether Christ was human or divine. “The Alexandrines, like Clement[1] and Origen centuries earlier, stressed the significance of Jesus as the teacher of divine truth. In order to be this, the Savior had to be a full and clear revelation of the divine. His divinity must be asserted, even if this had to be done at the expense of his humanity. The Antiochenes, on the other hand, felt that for Jesus to be the Savior of human beings he had to be fully human. The Godhead dwelt in him, without any doubt; but this must not be understood in such a way that his humanity was diminished or eclipsed.”[iv]

The West, and Pope Leo, took an entirely different view and felt the need to assert its authority over its subservient Bishops, “In the West, such questions did not create the same stir. For one thing, after the barbarian invasions, there were other urgent matters that required attention. For another, the West simply revived Tertullian’s old formula— that in Christ there were two natures united in one person— and was content to affirm this. Thus, the West played a balancing role between the two factions in the East, and for that reason would come out of the controversies with enhanced prestige.”[v]

To settle the issue a council was convened and Pope Leo sent a written letter entitled “The Tome” to present his conviction. There are two things which are important: This was not just the view of the Western church to be debated along with the other philosophies. It was intended to dictate to the other patriarchs the defining opinion of the entire Christian church. And second, it would send a strong message that Pope Leo, the Bishop of Rome, was the rightful power of God’s Church. “He was convinced that Jesus had made Peter and his successors the rock on which the church was to be built, and that therefore the bishop of Rome, Peter’s direct successor, is the head of the church. Thus, in Leo’s writings one finds all the traditional arguments that would repeatedly be mustered in favor of papal authority.”[vi]

Sent to the Council of Ephesus in 449, “The Tome” was not even read to the assembly, a blatant attempt by the Eastern churches to dominate and minimize the Pope’s influence and power.   Leo called the council the “Robber Synod “and appealed to Emperor Theodosius II, ruler of the Eastern Empire, “But his protests were to no avail. Theodosius II and his court, who apparently had received large amounts of gold from Alexandria, considered the matter ended.”[vii]

In 450 Theodosius II died in a horse accident and was succeeded by his sister Pulcheria and her husband Marcian. Pulcheria “…felt that the proceedings at Ephesus in 449 had left much to be desired. For this reason, at the behest of Leo, she called a new council, which met at Chalcedon in 451 and which eventually became known as the Fourth Ecumenical Council.”[viii]

“Leo’s letter was finally read, and many declared that this expressed their own faith. It was a restatement of what Tertullian had declared centuries earlier, that in Christ there are “two natures in one person.”[ix] The “Definition of Faith” issued by the council and largely influenced by Leo’s “Tome” reflected Leo’s belief in doctrine dictated by the scriptures and the apostles. “All this, as the prophets of old said of him, and as he himself has taught us, and as the Creed of the Fathers has passed on to us.”[x] The crucial purpose of Christ was to bring salvation to the world by dying for all. Had Jesus come into the world to bring wisdom, then his mind would have been of a divine nature and if any part of his being were divine, he could not have “humanly died”.

The term “hypostasis” was used to refer to the Holy Trinity. It also means “underpinning” in Greek. Thus the belief of a dual nature and oneness with the triune god was ‘underpinned by the scriptures. “Leo implicitly reminds his readers that theologians need to stick to that which is revealed in Scripture and can be demonstrated from clear biblical teachings.”[xi] He made no attempt to answer the question of how that union existed. He simple accepted that it did and that is it was matter of faith. “He is content to reflect on the biblical teachings about Christ and accept the unity of Christ’s divinity and humanity in faith.”[xii]

The Council of Ephesus defined the dual nature of Christ, but it also enhanced the process of gaining the Papacy greater control of the church. “Leo set a precedent of papal authority over councils. Leo successfully argued that, as the See of Peter, he had special authority and insight that transcended the wisdom of the council. Leo, in effect, issued a papal decree and left the council with the task of filling in the details.”[xiii]

A years later Leo would convince Attila the Hun not to attack Rome and in 455 he negotiated a peace with the Vandals who sacked Rome for 14 days. It is difficult to imagine the intellectual power and strength of someone who stood before barbarians, emperor and contentious patriarchs. Such a person commitment to the scriptures would be rock solid and he would confidently defend and act upon the word of God. Leo had now begun the process by which the Christian church would be ruled by a central power.

[1] Titus Flavius Clemens, a Christian theologian who taught at the Catechetical School of Alexandria.

[i] New World Encyclopedia, Editor 2020, Papacy. 17 October 2010, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Papacy

 

[ii] Gonzalez, Justo L. (2010-07-25). Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Reformation (Kindle Locations 5075-5076). Harper Collins, Inc. Kindle Edition.

 

[iii] Gonzalez, Justo L. (2010-07-25). Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Reformation (Kindle Locations 5076-5077). Harper Collins, Inc. Kindle Edition.

 

[iv] Gonzalez, Justo L. (2010-07-25). Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Reformation (Kindle Locations 5080-5082). Harper Collins, Inc. Kindle Edition.

 

[v] Gonzalez, Justo L. (2010-07-25). Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Reformation (Kindle Locations 5084-5088). Harper Collins, Inc. Kindle Edition.

 

[vi] Gonzalez, Justo L. (2010-07-25). Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Reformation (Kindle Locations 4904-4906). Harper Collins, Inc. Kindle Edition.

 

[vii] Gonzalez, Justo L. (2010-07-25). Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Reformation (Kindle Locations 5156-5157). Harper Collins, Inc. Kindle Edition.

 

[viii] Gonzalez, Justo L. (2010-07-25). Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Reformation (Kindle Locations 5162-5164). Harper Collins, Inc. Kindle Edition.

 

[ix] Gonzalez, Justo L. (2010-07-25). Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Reformation (Kindle Locations 5165-5167). Harper Collins, Inc. Kindle Edition.

 

[x] Placher, William C. Readings in the History of Christian Theology, Vol 1, The Westminster Press, pg 73, Translated by Albert C. Outler from Creeds of the Churches, Aldine Publishing CO, 1963 3rd Edition

 

[xi] Jonathan Shelley, Critique of Pope Leo I The Tome: Early Church History Leo I. http://cornerstone.academia.edu/JShelley/Papers/531231/Critique_of_Pope_Leo_I_The_Tome

 

[xii] Jonathan Shelley, Critique of Pope Leo I The Tome: Early Church History Leo I. http://cornerstone.academia.edu/JShelley/Papers/531231/Critique_of_Pope_Leo_I_The_Tome

[xiii] Jonathan Shelley, Critique of Pope Leo I The Tome: Early Church History Leo I.

http://cornerstone.academia.edu/JShelley/Papers/531231/Critique_of_Pope_Leo_I_The_Tome