This Episode is simply titled “Leo

While there’d been several bishops of the church at Rome who’d been capable leaders and under their guidance had established Rome as the premier church, if not the whole Christian world, at least in the western portion of the now declining Roman Empire, it can be fairly said that for most of the earlier bishops the person was eclipsed by the office. Bishops Callistus, Stephen, Damasus, & Innocent I all added significant authority to the Roman See. But it was Leo the Great who saw the Bishop of Rome become what we might call the first real Pope. It was with Leo I that the idea of the Papacy became real.

While previous bishops at Rome had certainly been theologically astute, as befitted their office, Leo can be classed as a first-rate theologian, arguably the greatest theologian of any who came before in that office and for a century & a half after. He battled the Manichæan, Priscillianist, & Pelagian heresies, and won enduring fame for helping to finish codifying the orthodox doctrine of the person of Christ.

Leo’s early life is shrouded in mystery. The chief source of information about him comes from his letters & they don’t commence till AD 442 when he was already an adult. Leo was mostly likely a Roman who became a deacon, then a legate under Bishops Celestine I & Sixtus III. A legate is a special messenger, sent by a bishop, to carry messages to civil rulers. Think à Church ambassador to the king. Leo was so astute in his task as a representative for the Church, Emperor Valentinian III sent him on a special mission to settle a dispute in Gaul between a couple feuding generals. This was at a time of great turmoil in the north due to the barbarian threat. While Leo was on this peace-making mission, Bishop Sixtus died and Leo was chosen to take his seat. He served for the next 21 years.

Leo describes his feelings at the assumption of his office in a sermon;

“Lord, I have heard your voice calling me, and I was afraid: I considered the work which was enjoined on me, and I trembled. For what proportion is there between the burden assigned to me and my weakness, this elevation and my nothingness? What is more to be feared than exaltation without merit, the exercise of the most holy functions being entrusted to one who is buried in sin? Oh, you have laid upon me this heavy burden, bear it with me, I beseech you be you my guide and my support.”

Leo’s papacy faced 2 immense problems.

First:  The emergence of heresies threatened the integrity of the Church; and à

Second: The political disintegration of the Western Roman Empire.

Leo offered 3 tactics in dealing with these difficulties à

1)    Actions to provide essential church doctrine with a clear, orthodox position;

2)    Efforts to unify church government under a sovereign papacy; and

3)   Attempts at peace by negotiating with the Empire’s enemies.

On the doctrinal front, Leo theologically refuted the era’s main heresies & utilized imperial criminal prosecution & banishment to get rid of unrepentant heretics. Leo’s finest achievement was probably the formation and acceptance of an orthodox Christological dogma.

Though Arianism was in retreat, the 5th C battled with what’s called Eutychianism. We’re going to get into this in more depth in a soon coming episode so for now let me just say that Eutychianism was one of the 4th & 5th Cs’ attempts to understand the nature of Jesus. Was He God, Man or both? And if both, how do the 2 nature relate to each other? Eutychianism said Jesus had 2 natures, human & divine, but that the divine had completely dominated the human, like a drop of vinegar is overwhelmed by the sea. Later it will come to be known by a label you may have heard = Monophysitism.

Leo’s manner of dealing with this aberrant teaching was brilliant. Rather than rely on suppression, he brought it’s main advocate, Eutychus, to Rome for lengthy discussions and, after painstaking research & deliberation, issued a carefully written letter, the famous Tome of Leo. It set forth a clear exposition of Christ’s 2 natures in 1 person & became the basis in 451 for the Council of Chalcedon’s enduring formulation of Christological doctrine.

This alone would mark Leo as worthy of the honorific “Great” but he did more, much more. He rescued the city of Rome from destruction, not once, but twice! When Attila & his Huns, known as the “Scourge of God,” destroyed the Italian city of Aquileia in 452 & everyone knew Rome was next on the barbarian’s hit list, Leo, with a couple companions, travelled north, entered the hostile camp, and persuaded Attila to leave off sacking the City. Think of it; a bishop’s simple word accomplished what the waning might of the once mighty Rome could not, convince the barbarian hordes to go home.

Then, 3 yrs later when the Vandal king Genseric was poised to do what Attila had been deflected from, Leo was able to obtained a promise the Vandals would relieve the city of its wealth but not burn it or slay its people. The sacking lasted for 2 wks – but when the looters finally left, the city still stood and its citizenry, though badly shaken were still alive; and eternally grateful for Leo’s intervention.

He died in 461, and was buried in the Church of St. Peter.

The literary works of Leo consist of nearly a hundred sermons and over 170 letters. His collection of sermons is the first we have from a Roman bishop. He declared preaching to be his sacred duty. His sermons were short and simple.

Leo was a man of extraordinary activity. He took a leading part in all the affairs of the Church. While his private life is unknown, there’s not a hint of anything that would give us cause to think he was anything other than pure in both motive & morals. His zeal, time & strength were all devoted to the interests of the Faith. If Leo saw the Faith primarily through the lens of the life & outreach of the Church at Rome, we ought to attribute that to his conviction Rome was meant by God to be THE Home Base for the Church; its headquarters.

As Church historian Philip Schaff said, Leo was animated by an unwavering conviction God had committed to him, as the successor of Peter, the care of the whole Church. He anticipated all the dogmatic arguments by which the power of the papacy was later established. Leo made the case that the rock on which the Church is built, mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 16, meant Peter and his confession of faith, that set the cornerstone for THE Faith. Leo claimed that while Christ himself is in the highest sense the Rock and Foundation of the Church, His authority was transferred primarily to Peter. To Peter specifically, Christ entrusted the apostolic keys of the Kingdom. Also, Jesus’ prayer that Peter be strengthened so he might strengthen others established Peter’s role as leader among the Apostles. Jesus’ post-resurrection affirmation of Peter’s call, “Feed my sheep,” makes Peter the pastor and prince of the Church Entire, through whom Christ exercises His universal dominion on Earth.

But Leo went further, He said Peter’s primacy wasn’t limited to the apostolic age; it endured in those subsequent bishops of Rome to whom Peter passed the authority Jesus endowed him with. Leo asserted only Rome could serve as the center of the Church because it was both a political & religious center. Sure, Constantinople was political headquarters but it lacked Rome’s spiritual ancestry. Alexandria & Antioch were religious, but not political centers. Only Rome provided a sufficient political and spiritual weight to be the center of the Earthly manifestation of the Kingdom of God.

While Leo made much of Rome’s place as premier among the churches, he himself remained humble. This personal humility was offset by his determination others would honor his office as though he were indeed a modern Peter. Each year a special celebration was called to commemorate his ascension to Peter’s seat. He took such confusing titles as, “Servant of the servants of God,” “vicar of Christ,” and even “God upon earth.”

As an aside, if you’ve read my bio on the site, you know I’m a non-denominational, Evangelical, follower of Jesus. As I’ve shared in a previous podcast, it’s been interesting reading reviews by listeners that I’m obviously è Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Reformed, Pentecostal, & a few other flavors of the faith. I guess people mistake what my personal view is because I’m trying, albeit haltingly, to treat the material in as fair & unbiased a fashion as possible. So, I suspect here’s what’s happening in a lot of listeners minds right now after sharing Leo the Great’s apologetic for the primacy of Peter; they’re wondering if I’ve gone RC!

Let me respond to that by sharing this . . .

While Leo did make a good case for the Bishop at Rome being the spiritual successor to Peter, what about the fact that Peter himself passes over his primacy in silence. In his NT letters he expressly warned against hierarchical assumptions while Leo used every opportunity to affirm his authority. In Antioch, when Peter played the role of hypocrite, he meekly submitted to the junior apostle Paul’s rebuke. Leo, on the other hand, declared any resistance to his authority as an impious pride and sure way to hell. Under Leo, obedience to the pope was a condition to salvation. He claimed anyone not in harmony with Rome’s See as the head of the body, from which all gifts of grace descended, was in fact not IN The Church, and so had no part in grace or the Body of Chrsit.

Schaff wrote,

This is the fearful but legitimate logic of the papal principle, which confines the kingdom of God to the narrow lines of a particular organization, and makes the universal spiritual reign of Christ dependent on a temporal form and a human organ.

Another important point: Crucial to the idea that the Bishop of Rome was & is the spiritual heir to Peter’s apostolic authority is the assumption Peter founded & led the Church at Rome. There’s simply not a shred of evidence for that. Sure, Peter went to Rome, but besides being buried there, there’s no evidence he ever functioned as the leader of fellowship there. The assumption that he must have been because he was an Apostle would be like assuming if Billy Graham visited your city and attended your church for a few weeks, he was THE pastor – and later pastors could then claim they operated in the authority & ministry of Billy Graham.

In carrying his idea of the Papacy into effect, Leo displayed a cunning diplomacy & consistency that characterized some of the popes of the Middle Ages. Certainly, the circumstances of the times were in his favor. This was the era of the fall of the Western Empire. The East was being torn apart by doctrinal controversies we’ll look at in a later episode. Africa was over-run by barbarians. The West was without political leadership, and there were no strong church leaders of the flavor of an Athanasius or Jerome to lead.

Leo took advantage of the Arian Vandals rampaging across North African, giving rise to the word that memorializes their career – Vandal, to write the bishops there in the tone of an over-shepherd. They eagerly submitted to his authority in AD 443. He banished the last of the heretical Manichæans & Pelagians from Italy. Then in 444 Leo looked Eastward & began affirming Bishops to key posts, increasingly encroaching on territory that had been under the purview of Constantinople, Alexandria & Antioch. But Leo reserved to himself a right of appeal by lower bishops in important cases; things which ought to be decided by the pope according to divine revelation.

We’ll learn a little more about Pope Leo I, called Leo the Great in future episodes as he played a key role in the Church life of the 5th C.

As we end this episode, I want to again invite you to stop by the website for more info about the podcast, and to visit the Facebook page to give us a like. Do a search for Communio Sanctorum – History of the Christian Church. Leave a comment and tell us where you live. It’s been fun seeing all the places our subscribers hail from.

Till next time . . .

Into His Image