Pope Leo I's letter to the bishop Flavian regarding the heretical theologian Eutyches, alongside the definition of the faith from the Council of Chalcedon, are both documents written in the year 451 CE during a period of recurring theological dissonance between different arms of the Church throughout the fragmented and decaying Roman Empire. Pope Leo, also known as Pope Leo I the Great, was in constant correspondence with many disparate portions of Christendom, intervening in an attempt to mend theological schisms through rebutting heresies and implementing strong sanctions on those who did not strictly follow the tenets of the faith.1 The Bishop Flavian is addressed in the letter also intended as one such Papal intervention in the proceedings of the Council of Chalcedon, elaborating on Christological concerns regarding the proper relationship between God the Father and God the Son in light of a strictly defined institutionalized orthodoxy.2 The primary focus of this paper will be on such Christological concerns as they appear in the primary source documents already named above, placing them and their authors in the historical context of the fourth and fifth centuries, as well as identifying some of the religious themes and theologies surrounding.
Though eastern Byzantine Christian orthodoxy was slowly yet inexorably drifting away from the purview of the western church, during the time of the Council of Chalcedon in the middle of the fifth century, the two sects had not completely removed themselves from the others orbit. As such, it was not highly unusual for the western papacy to occasionally involve itself in the activities and controversies of the east. Pope Leo I, whose pontificate was dedicated to the preservation of orthodoxy and the unification of the western church, felt compelled to contribute to the ecumenical debate in Chalcedon through letter, condemning Eutychianism and reaffirming the equally human and divine natures of Christ.3 The letter itself, written in the evocative, religiously-layered prose typical of the time, was probably first penned in Latin from the Pope's residence in Rome and sent to Chalcedon by way of sea or land. Eutyches, who had first seen himself ejected from the priesthood on the grounds of his alleged heresy, was reinstated a priest until the Council of Chalcedon in 451, when, according to Leo, he spoke of renouncing his heresies, thus deserving mercy under the doctrine of the church.4
The heresies allegedly committed by Eutyches were primarily Christological in nature. Whereas the orthodox position, articulated by Leo, held that Christ was both human and divine since his conception, Eutyches emphasized the divine nature of Christ, seemingly to the neglect of any human nature if we are to accept Pope Leo's interpretation of Eutyches' beliefs.5 The orthodox position was reaffirmed in the definition of faith from the Council of Chalcedon, a statement of collective religious belief and prescribed dogmas agreed upon for the eastern Byzantine church by the close of debate.6 The statement also clarifies the purpose of Leo's letter to Flavian as having been written also for the Council of Chalcedon. As well, nowhere is a single author named for the definition of the faith, but the start of the document specifies that both the Council and the resulting agreement were decreed orthodox by Marcian and Valentinian Augustus, the latter, as emperor of the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire, and the former, as emperor of the Western Roman Empire during its period of final decline.7 The overarching purpose of the definition of the faith is a reaffirmation of the beliefs and dogmas decided upon at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, alongside the Council of Constantinople in 381 CE. Partially affirmed, as well, is the consensus on doctrine agreed upon at the Council of Ephesus in 449 CE. However, in explicitly designating the Nicaean and Constantinopolitan councils as more authoritative in their consensus than Ephesus, this definition of the faith in some sense 'repealed' the heretical doctrines put forth two years earlier without rejecting them entirely.8
Near the end of the definition of the faith, there is a more nuanced rebuttal to a heretic other than Eutyches, as the document turns its attention to those who refuse to apply the title of “God-bearer,”9 or as it was known in its original Greek, “Theotokos,”10 to the Virgin Mary. This heretic, who went by the name of Nestorius, was officially challenged and disgraced in his beliefs through letters written by Cyril, the pastor of Alexandria until his death. In these letters, Cyril asserts that through rejection of the God-bearer title, it is implied that Nestorius thus did not believe that Christ was God.11 What one must wonder is whether or not this was a broad-sweep misinterpretation of Nestorian theology, one which saw all alternative Biblical interpretation as a serious sin, perhaps in part because of the perceived threat it posed to existing orthodox structures and doctrine. Interesting as well is that “Theotokos,” the original Greek terminology for “God-bearer,” has often also been translated as “Mother of God,”12 and is likely the etymological source of the use of said title as a statement expressing sudden shock or disbelief. Certainly, the Christian reverence for the Virgin Mary would also in part be causative of the strong emotional tone usually associated with its cultural use as an expression.
Central to both the definition of the faith and Pope Leo's letter to Flavian and the Council of Chalcedon itself is the Nicene Creed, indirectly referenced earlier with the mention of the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. Pope Leo, in his letter, articulately paraphrases it as “the common and undivided creed by which the whole body of the faithful confess that they believe ... [one:] in God the Father almighty, and [two:] in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord ... who [three:] was born of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary.”13 This creed, authoritative in both the eastern and western churches, was explicated and approved as dogma at the above mentioned Council of Nicaea, establishing the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as a counterweight to theologies such as Arianism and Sabellianism. Whereas, on the one hand, Arianism stressed significant difference in substance between God the Father and God the Son, Sabellianism, on the other hand, pushed an argument which emphasized that both God the Father and God the Son were of a single, unified substance.14 As examples, Arianism and Sabellianism are two among many, a well-spring of competing theologies which posed a threat to the institutionalized centralization of power in the hands of existing church structures, both east and west. Sabellianism, as well, is similar in theological substance to the ideas disseminated by Eutyches. Though the heresies of the fourth century differed slightly from those of the fifth, the tradition of countering opposing theologians by convening an ecumenical council and coming to (or forcing) a consensus was, by this time, over a century old.15 It must be clarified that during this period in history, the divide between the eastern and western churches was not so dichotomous. Pope Leo I's involvement in the Council of Chalcedon, hosted as it was in Byzantine Anatolia, is evidence of this, as both east and west continued to push their doctrines as universal despite their growing so far apart over time as to become as discernible from one another as they are today. Though the Nicene Creed remained a mutual doctrinal bedrock for both sects, nuanced differences piled up and evolved over time to create the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches as we know them. Pope Leo I died ten years after the Council of Chalcedon, in 461 CE,16 earning the posthumous moniker of “the Great” for his many important contributions to early Christianity, as well as for the effort he expended to maintain orthodoxy throughout Christendom. One must wonder if a heretic is something nearly exclusive to monotheism, with its insistence on a single deity and thus a single, irrevocable truth. In conclusion, this truth is a clumsy set of contractual mantras. Stipulating a contract not so much with God as with a religious bureaucracy defending its sacred hierarchies, these final words from the definition of the faith spell it out clearly enough: “no one is permitted to produce, or even to write down or compose, any other creed or to think or teach otherwise.”17 Such singular universalisms bred the religious conflict so typical of the day, as each new and nuanced interpretation was taken as a revelation that now needed to be imposed on the world for its own wicked sake. Structures of oppression were given an unassailable religious legitimacy that elevated kings and popes into men appointed by a metaphysical deity for the good of all. As regards this and all religious conflict, one can perhaps reflect on the words of Pope Leo himself when he said of all heretics, of which he was one in contrast to others, that “[b]y not being pupils of the truth, they turn out to be masters of error.”18
PLEASE NOTE: THIS WAS WRITTEN AS AN ESSAY FOR A HISTORY CLASS ON EARLY TO MID-MEDIEVAL EUROPE, ANALYZING DIRECTLY THE PRIMARY DOCUMENTS LISTED BELOW AND SUPPLEMENTED WITH CONTEXTUAL INFORMATION FROM THE PROVIDED TEXT.
1. William R Cook and Ronald B Herzman, The Medieval World View, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). 44.
2. Leo I. The letter of Pope Leo I the Great (440–61) to Flavian, bishop of Constantinople, about Eutyches. 451.
3. Leo I. The letter of Pope Leo I the Great (440–61) to Flavian, bishop of Constantinople, about Eutyches. 451.
4. Leo I. The letter of Pope Leo I the Great (440–61) to Flavian, bishop of Constantinople, about Eutyches. 451, .
5. Leo I. The letter of Pope Leo I the Great (440–61) to Flavian, bishop of Constantinople, about Eutyches. .
6. Definition of the faith from the Council of Chalcedon. 451.
7. Definition of the faith from the Council of Chalcedon. 451, .
8. Definition of the faith from the Council of Chalcedon. 451, .
9. Definition of the faith from the Council of Chalcedon. 451, .
10. William R Cook and Ronald B Herzman, The Medieval World View, 3rd ed., 60.
11. Definition of the faith from the Council of Chalcedon. 451, .
12. William R Cook and Ronald B Herzman, The Medieval World View, 3rd ed., 60.
13. Leo I. The letter of Pope Leo I the Great (440–61) to Flavian, bishop of Constantinople, about Eutyches. .
14. William R Cook and Ronald B Herzman, The Medieval World View, 3rd ed., 54.
15. Definition of the faith from the Council of Chalcedon. 451, .
16. William R Cook and Ronald B Herzman, The Medieval World View, 3rd ed., 44.
17. Definition of the faith from the Council of Chalcedon. 451, .
18. Leo I. The letter of Pope Leo I the Great (440–61) to Flavian, bishop of Constantinople, about Eutyches. .