A Lesson for Preachers

Leo the Great’s (A.D. 390-461) sermons and writings on the Incarnation are a quarry in which the Christian preacher will find, as Lancelot Andrewes did, some carefully crafted nuggets of doctrine. His purpose was to correct the errors of a certain Eutyches in his reaction to the mistaken notions of Nestorius, which were condemned by the Council of Ephesus in 431. Nestorius denied the perfect union of the Godhead and the Manhood in the one Person Jesus Christ and so refused to call Mary the Theotokos because “The child of two or three months old I cannot call God, what was born of Mary was a man to whom the Eternal Lord united himself.” Eutyches, in his zeal to champion the unity of the Person of Christ, went to the opposite extreme to produce the next great heresy. In his passion for orthodoxy he lost that proportion of faith and asserted that in Christ Incarnate there was no real human nature.

By invitation of the Emperor Flavian, Leo, a Latin bishop ignorant of Greek, finds himself invited to define the faith for Greek-speaking bishops in “the Tome”, or doctrinal epistle, which, while it is a letter to Flavian is addressed to the ecclesiastical world. It sets the tone of Leo’s preaching and teaching on the Incarnation in his concern to vindicate the reality and permanence of the human nature in Christ, as being entirely consistent with the reality of his Divine personality. Leo is a timely reminder today where Nestorianism still stalks the preacher or when the tendency is a reduction to anthropocentrism or humanitarianism. In Leo, we find a teacher, who, in the face of the doctrinal distortions of his time maintained the essential balance by insisting on the truth of our Lord’s Manhood that is in perfect union with His original divinity. In these times when the modern word spirituality, would subsume Christianity into a “spiritual theology”, Leo’s teaching affirms that the spirit and power of the faith are bound up with a human life, the death and resurrection of the Incarnate Son of God. This influence of Leo is seen in the holding together of Incarnation, Resurrection and Pentecost, an organic theology that dominates the great sermons of Lancelot Andrewes.

Is the fuss over Eutyches’s refusal to acknowledge the human reality of Christ just theological hair-splitting ? “Not so ! ” Leo would say. In Letter 30, c.2., he tells us that it is not “some little bit of our faith, some comparatively obscure point, which is being assailed”, it is “the peerless mystery of man’s salvation” which is at risk when the reality of Christ’s human nature is denied. This is the burning issue that gives intensity and vitality to the “Tome of St. Leo” and dominates his letters and sermons as he defends the doctrine of the two natures in the unity of the One Person. In Letter 59, c. 4., he writes ” … whosoever questions the real assumption of our humanity by the Son of God, in the womb of a Virgin of David’s lineage, neither acknowledges the Bridegroom nor understands the bride”, which is, of course, the Church, the nature of which is determined by the Bridegroom. Then he points out in Letter 109, c. 3, that in assigning to each of Christ’s natures the attributes belonging to it is not to “double the Person” in whom both are combined.

What is crucial to our salvation is not only the Son’s consubstantality with the Father but also his consubstantiality with our humanity. In reminding us of this, Leo, is only following the teaching of the Fathers before him. Here is a lesson for Christmas preachers.

Arthur Middleton is Rector of Boldon in the Diocese of Durham