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7. Pope Leo I |
The Chalcedon council answers the question but splits the church

Pope Leo I is drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 187, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

A patriarch perishes in an ecclesiastical brawl, so pope and empress join to force the issue–permanently alienating the church in Egypt

Pope Leo I - The Chalcedon council answers the question but splits the church

Pope Leo I - The Chalcedon council answers the question but splits the church
Leo the Great on ‘Love your neighbor’ ● Christian grace despairs of no one, and teaches that no one should be passed over. And rightly does it also tell us that enemies are to be loved and persecutors prayed for. For, as it daily grafts branches of wild olive from every nation into its holy olive tree, it makes friends of enemies, adopted children of strangers, and justified people out of sinners.

Constantinople, in the year 439, was beset by shocking development. The fairytale romance and marriage of the emperor Theodosius II and the girl from Athens, Aelia Eudocia, was breaking up. By now, the empress Eudocia had given birth to two daughters. One, Flacilla, had died in 431; the other, Licinia, was married in 437 at age fifteen to Valentinian III, the western emperor. That same year, Eudocia undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She was much moved by her experiences there–so moved that when she returned to the capital it was announced that she would leave the imperial household and live as a holy woman in the Holy Land.

The official explanation attributed this entirely to religious commitment, a much admired motive. One unofficial explanation was that her husband, himself always infatuated with the ascetic life, had ceased all conjugal relations. An even less official explanation attributes her departure to a charge against her of adultery with a certain Paulinus, a boyhood friend of the emperor. Paulinus was subsequently executed, though Eudocia was not the given reason. In any event, Eudocia returned from the pilgrimage a changed woman, devoted to works of charity.1 In 440, she went back to Palestine and established herself in regal splendor as a Christian philanthropist. (See sidebar page 194.)

The departure of Eudocia, however, did not entirely restore the emperor’s sister Pulcheria to her former ascendancy. Instead, another rising figure in the imperial circle, a eunuch named Chrysaphius, with the title of grand chamberlain, had gained the ear of the emperor in all spheres of public policy. As a recent convert to Christianity, he took a particular interest in ecclesiastical affairs. It was he, according to some historians, whose diligent machinations to enhance his own influence with Theodosius probably broke up the emperor’s marriage.

Chrysaphius’s mentor in the faith was the aged Eutyches, the senior archimandrite of a Constantinople monastery and a passionate supporter of Cyril of Alexandria, and therefore frankly appalled at the reports still emerging from Antioch. It was by now 441, ten years after the Council of Ephesus, and eight after the Formula of Reunion. Nestorianism, or something very like it, was being promoted more vigorously than ever at Antioch. And the culprit (or so Eutyches saw it) was Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus (forty miles northeast of Antioch), widely recognized as the most persuasive and therefore dangerous of those who embraced the two-person Christology.

Moreover, there was evidence that some at Constantinople and even at Alexandria had also gone soft on the Christology question. When Proclus, who had preached so boldly for the Theotokos a decade earlier and was now bishop of Constantinople, launched a campaign to depose Theodoret for heresy, none other than the mighty Cyril himself urged Proclus to back off. The fight must have gone out of Cyril, some said, when he reached his late sixties. Seeking peace in the church, he was also appealing to his former allies in Antioch to work toward unity, not strife.

John of Antioch died in 441. His successor, Bishop Domnus, became a mere sycophant of Theodoret, at whose suggestion he appointed as bishop of Tyre the same Irenaeus who had commanded Nestorius’s bodyguard at Ephesus. Not only had Irenaeus supposedly been banished, he had also been married twice. Bishops, by tradition, were not to be married at all. This appointment was, in effect, a taunt aimed squarely at the credibility of the Council of Ephesus, which it was Theodoret’s aim to repudiate. Historian R. V. Sellers (The Council of Chalcedon, London, 1953) calls the Irenaeus appointment Theodoret’s “masterstroke.”

On June 27, 444, just short of his seventieth birthday, Cyril died. He was succeeded by his archdeacon, Dioscorus–and now the major player in the last act of the christological drama has appeared. Dioscorus had none of Cyril’s theological capability and all of Cyril’s bullying inclinations. He cared fervently for his city and shared its contempt for upstart Constantinople. Just as passionately, he subscribed to Cyril’s theology–not (as he saw him) the fallen Cyril of recent years who had so supinely compromised with the wily theological manipulators at Antioch, but the real Cyril, the Cyril who had hammered the entire church into accepting the declarations at Ephesus. Historians depict Dioscorus as a violent man whose self-assigned mission was the extermination, root and branch, of two-person Christology, wherever it appeared, at whatever cost to himself, to his enemies, or to the church.

Dioscorus swiftly cleaned up what he viewed as the mess the declining Cyril had left behind. He purged the Alexandrian establishment of all Cyril’s supporters. He leagued with his old friend at the capital, the archimandrite Eutyches, through Eutyches to the grand chamberlain Chrysaphius, and through Chrysaphius, he hoped, to the emperor. It took four years, but by February 448 Dioscorus’s connections paid off. Shown some of Theodoret’s latest writings, Theodosius saw the whole unity of the empire imperiled. Certain of those writings must be burned, the emperor decreed. Theodoret himself–described as a “vexatious and turbulent busybody”–was to be confined to his own diocese. The consecration of Irenaeus as bishop of Tyre was to be revoked. This edict, read in the cathedral at Antioch, caused a riot.

Furthermore, one effect of the furor was to focus attention, not only on what Theodoret was teaching, but also upon the line being taken by his opponents. It became clear that the theology espoused by Eutyches and Dioscorus was as heretical in one direction as Nestorius’s had been in the other. Nestorius had distinguished the human nature of Christ so thoroughly from the divine nature as to require two Christs. But according to the pronouncements of these current critics, after the union of the divine and human natures in Jesus there was but one nature, and that divine. Hence, God died on the cross; a man did not. Human-kind could only be redeemed through the cross, however, if both natures were present: the human nature suffering death, the divine nature prevailing over it. Cyril had avoided this pitfall in the days of his “decline” by conceding that both natures must have continued. Eutyches, and to a degree Dioscorus, seemed to have fallen straight into it.

Eutyches’s extreme theology became evident to anyone who talked to him, and especially to his friend, Eusebius–the same Eusebius who had shouted out in the Great Church twenty years earlier that the preacher, Nestorius, was a heretic. Reluctantly, declared Eusebius, he had discovered another heretic: his friend Eutyches. His complaint to the patriarch put Eutyches on trial for heresy. But the patriarch was no longer Proclus; in 446, a gentle, timorous cleric named Flavian had succeeded to the office. Three years later, it would prove the death of him.

After an exhaustive trial by Constantinople’s home synod, Eutyches was found guilty and Flavian deposed him as archimandrite–which gave the scheming Dioscorus precisely the opportunity he was looking for. Using his connection through the eunuch Chrysaphius, he persuaded Theodosius to call a second Council of Ephesus to appeal the conviction of Eutyches. But far more was involved; his real aim was to stamp out every trace of sympathy for Nestorianism, beginning with the patriarch Flavian himself. This council, set for August 449, was destined for infamy. It would explode into an exhibition of human willfulness and raw brutality for which Christians would spend the next millennium and a half apologizing.

Guided by Eutyches and Chrysaphius, the emperor Theodosius laid out the council’s procedure. Dioscorus would preside. Theodoret, by far the most skillful of the Antiochenes, would not be invited to attend. As an innovation, the senior Syrian archimandrite Barsauma, currently in the capital, would be invited to speak for the monasteries, hitherto unrepresented at church councils. He could bring other monks to assist him.

Two factors, however, Dioscorus did not take into account. One was the emperor’s sister, who, though he didn’t realize it, had more influence over the monasteries at Constantinople than did Barsauma, and more theological capability than Dioscorus himself. Pulcheria very quickly discerned that Eutyches, having virtually denied that the humanity of Christ persisted after the fusion of the divine and human natures, was indeed a heretic.

The other factor was the bishop of Rome, Pope Leo I, soon to be known as Leo the Great. Dioscorus may have assumed that Leo would be too preoccupied to think much about theology. Rome had been sacked once and was about to be sacked again; Gaul and Spain were already desolate and further endangered by the Huns; Britain had been abandoned to the Saxon horde; North Africa had been lost to the Vandals. But Leo did find time to think about this council, and the concordat he made with Pulcheria would bring Dioscorus’s plans crashing down.

In response to a plea for help from Patriarch Flavian, Leo set forth a declaration known as the Tome of Leo. It was not intended as a complete christological theology, but as a refutation of the specific errors of Nestorius on the one hand and Eutyches on the other. Christ’s manhood, said Leo, was permanent in him and did not change him. The human nature was not “absorbed” by the divine, but rather “each nature [works] in interaction with the other and does what appertains to it.” Leo concluded by describing Eutyches’s Christology as “absurd.”

On August 8, nearly 130 bishops assembled in the Double Church. It was the same one used by the council of 431, but the seating had been altered somewhat. Dioscorus, styled, a supreme guardian of the faith, was seated on a throne high above the other bishops. The Roman legate Julius, sat closest to him, clutching Leo’s Tome. Hilary, a deacon and the second Roman legate, sat several places away from Julius so that the two could not confer. The next in position and precedence was Flavian, patriarch of Constantinople. Behind the bishops were crowds of Barsauma’s monks, talking, restive, and generally ill-behaved.

Preliminaries completed, Dioscorus called for discussion of the heresy charge against Eutyches. Julius, the Roman legate, rose and announced that he had a communication from Pope Leo that should be read. Dioscorus received the letter, but refused to read it. After Eutyches had stated his defense of himself at considerable length, Julius again asked that Leo’s letter be read. Again he was refused. A letter from the emperor, excoriating Nestorianism, was read instead. Then Dioscorus called for a vote. Some 111 bishops voted to restore Eutyches as head of his monastery. Again Julius asked to be heard; again he was ignored. So Leo’s Tome was never read.

Then Dioscorus revealed the full scope of his plan. The emperor, he said, had required that the council assess a charge of heresy against the patriarch Flavian and against Eusebius, the accuser of Eutyches. This trial would now proceed. There was a roar of protest. To acquit Eutyches was one thing. To bring charges against Flavian and Eusebius was going entirely too far. Bishops stood in their places and shouted their objection.

Pandemonium broke out. Dioscorus summoned the soldiers, who swarmed into the church, swords unsheathed, and forced recalcitrant bishops to sign the condemnation. From the various accounts, a probable course of events can be pieced together. Flavian loudly objected to this summary procedure. He was then set upon by the soldiers and by Barsauma’s monks, beaten, knocked down and kicked. Some reports say that Dioscorus himself took part in the beating, and actually put the boots to the old man.

Somehow, Flavian stumbled free of the melee and took refuge in the sanctuary of the church, where he was kept prisoner until the council ended, and then was to be escorted into exile. He died from his injuries a few days later. Several accounts say simply that he was “murdered.”2 The Roman deacon Hilary, who also vehemently objected to the charges, was assaulted and fled the building, leaving his baggage behind. Finding the port blocked to prevent his return to Italy, he fled along back roads to an outport and there took passage back to Rome, where in twelve years, he would become Leo’s successor. The legate Julius also escaped, but there is no record of how.

In successive sessions, Dioscorus completed his agenda. Theodoret and other bishops who supported him were all deposed. One was Ibas of Edessa, who was strongly supported in Persian territory. His removal provided further grounds for the huge Nestorian movement that lay ahead. Another was Domnus of Antioch, who shrank from attending the meetings due to “a great bodily debility.” He was tracked down at his Ephesus lodgings, and like the rest, was forced to concur. The council wound up by declaring Cyril’s twelve anathemas (which Cyril himself had withdrawn) to be orthodox Christianity.

When the accounts of these proceedings reached Leo, he branded the Second Council of Ephesus as the Latrocinium or “Robber Council,” the epithet by which it would be known to Christian history. Dioscorus himself he called “the Egyptian plunderer” and “the preacher of the devil’s errors.” But to his supporters, Dioscorus was “the apostolic preacher and Christ’s true martyr.”

Deacon Hilary had carried back to Rome a letter from Flavian, presumably written in captivity at Ephesus, appealing to Leo to rescue the eastern church from the heretical religion being preached by Dioscorus. In response, Leo mounted a concerted campaign to discredit and annul the Robber Council. He wrote to Theodosius, pleading for another such meeting, but in Italy, where it could include bishops from both east and west. He besought Pulcheria to influence her brother and the monasteries in the east. He urged the western emperor Valentinian III, his empress Licinia, and his mother Galla Placidia to prevail upon their kinsman, Theodosius, to repair the damage done “by the frenzy of one man.” But Theodosius resisted all efforts. As far as he was concerned, the doctrinal questions had been settled by the Second Council of Ephesus. The case was closed.

Then occurred one of those coincidental events that shape history. Theodosius wrote his rejection to Leo on July 16, 450. Twelve days later, the emperor fell from his horse and shortly died of the injuries. But in that brief interim, he and his sister had reached an agreement. Since he had no male heir, she was to marry a Roman military commander named Marcian, aged sixty, well-supported by the army, though to honor her vow of virginity, the marriage would not be consummated. This simple plan had extraordinary consequences. “The history of Christian doctrine,” writes historian R. V. Sellers, “followed a course which at that time none could have anticipated.”

Pulcheria and Marcian were married within a few days, Pulcheria placing the crown on her husband’s head. Their first act was to fire the troublesome eunuch Chrysaphius. Their second was to serve notice on the Huns that the huge bribes Theodosius had been paying them were over and they were now at war. Their third act was to order the body of Flavian brought back to the capital for state burial beside the great ecclesiastics of the past. This served notice on Dioscorus that his influence in the palace was at an end.

Next, Marcian called a council of the church to meet in October 451 at Nicea, a venue later changed to Chalcedon, across the Bosporus from the capital. Another eastern synod was not what Leo had wanted, but he knew this was the best he would get. So he endorsed the plan. Meanwhile, a home synod in Constantinople anathematized both Eutyches and Nestorius, and all bishops in the jurisdiction of Constantinople were required to accept the Tome of Leo.

Dioscorus and his Egyptian bishops disembarked on the Asian mainland, probably at Ephesus, declared themselves a synod, and excommunicated Leo of Rome. They then proceeded to Chalcedon, where more than five hundred bishops assembled in the Church of St. Euphemia, those supporting Dioscorus on one side, those supporting Leo on the other. A phalanx of imperial officials, constituting a commission, was seated before them all, to act as a legal authority and preserve order.

On October 8, when the Gospels were enthroned for the first session, the papal legates declared that if Dioscorus were seated, they would withdraw. The commissioners ruled that Dioscorus could be excluded only by act of the council, and until such a motion was passed he had the right to a seat. He sat down amidst his supporters. The papal legates remained. Then Theodoret was seated, amid a fusillade of abuse from Dioscorus’s faction, excoriating him as “a Jew . . . a fighter against God . . . an insulter of Christ . . . he who anathematized the holy Cyril. . . .” From the other side came cries of “murderers . . . agitators.”

The Formula of Reunion, which had been reached by Cyril and John of Antioch back in 433, was then read and loudly cheered. Then the commissioners drew attention to a puzzling inconsistency. This same Formula of Reunion had been widely denounced at the Robber Council. Now it was being acclaimed. What had changed? One bishop after another arose and declared that he had erred. “We have failed. We ask for pardon.”

Not Dioscorus, however. The council’s third session took up the matter of his conduct, and the effect was to put the whole Robber Council on trial. Four Alexandrians, protégés of Cyril, who subsequently would be persecuted by Dioscorus, began the case against him. As one supporter after another deserted his cause, Dioscorus stood firm. He would withdraw nothing he had written, he declared. He had not erred. He did not seek pardon. He had nothing to repent. With little further discussion, he was deposed. It was a banishment, notes British historian Trevor Jalland (The Life and Times of St. Leo the Great, London, 1941), that “seemed to purge the offenses of others whose guilt was probably not less than the actual victim.”

There were other holdouts. The Illyrian bishops balked at certain proposals advanced as the council’s final definition of the faith, and fourteen Egyptian bishops refused to wholly concur in anything whatsoever because they said it would mean certain death when they returned to Alexandria. This was an omen of things to come. They were instructed to remain in Constantinople. Several archimandrites similarly demurred. But a hefty majority swore to the statement, representing as it did the outcome of more than a century of constant debate and occasional bloodshed. It declared:

We all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasoning soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence,3not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of our fathers has handed down to us.

This declaration, with few amendments, would remain the standard of Latin and Greek Christology from that time forward, surviving intact even through the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Martin Luther, though he never used the title, Theotokos, “willingly received” the Councils of Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon, and did use the term “Mother of God.” John Calvin, theological ancestor of the Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed and Christian Reformed Churches and of the English Puritan movement that founded the first American colonies, was consistent. He accepted the first four councils, and also wrote: “We cannot acknowledge the blessings brought us by Jesus without acknowledging at the same time how highly God honored and enriched Mary in choosing her for the Mother of God.”

Writing on behalf of modern Evangelical Christians in Touchstone magazine (July/August 2003), the Protestant scholar Timothy George4 used unequivocal language: “Evangelicals, no less than Roman Catholics and Orthodox believers,” he declared, “stand in fundamental continuity with the 318 fathers of Nicea, the 150 fathers of the First Council of Constantinople, and the canons of Ephesus, including the affirmation of the Theotokos and the condemnation of Pelagianism, as well as the definition of Chalcedon.”

Since the Anglican Church accepts the first four Ecumenical Councils, it further accepts the title, Theotokos, although rarely uses it. Nevertheless, in the early nineteenth century, when one clergyman who did use it was threatened with expulsion, the archbishop of Canterbury declared that the state would protect him from censure.

Such Christian unanimity, however, by no means prevailed in the fifth century. When Bishop Juvenal returned to Jerusalem, he was declared a traitor to Cyril. Armed monks prevented his reentry into the city until a contingent of soldiers was called out to escort him to his church. Subsequently, the monks went on a rampage of looting, murder and the rape of “noblewomen.” Marcian was for cracking down on them with Roman severity, but Pulcheria dissuaded him; in the end he left their punishment to God.

At Alexandria, a presbyter named Proterius, consecrated as successor to the deposed Dioscorus, was hideously murdered. Armenia refused to recognize Chalcedon, setting the Armenian Christians at odds with both Constantinople and Rome. Even at Rome, Chalcedon came in for severe criticism because of one of its nontheological decisions. Known as Canon 28, this affirmed the decision made at Second Ephesus that Constantinople would rank second to Rome and gain jurisdiction over the provinces of Thrace, Pontus and Asia. Constantinople approved Canon 28, Leo refused, and that question remained unresolved.5

Soon, therefore, Christendom would be split four ways. The traditionalists, increasingly referring to themselves as “universalists” or “catholics,” held sway in Rome, Constantinople, the future Balkans, the future Turkey, and a half-century later in the growing Frankish kingdom in the west. The other barbarian peoples still hewed to the religion of Arius, the Vandals very aggressively. Nestorian Christianity, a product of the backlash following the First Council of Ephesus (431), became increasingly alienated from Rome and Constantinople.

But the greatest rupture, borne of Chalcedon, ripped the church apart in Syria and Egypt. Over the next two centuries, the monks and many churches there would go into permanent schism with Rome and Constantinople, which labeled them “Monophysites,” believers in a one-nature Jesus (mono physis), a term they have consistently rejected. In the seventh century this split, exacerbated by Constantinople’s efforts to coerce conformity, would contribute to the worst disaster suffered by Christianity in its first two thousand years, the catastrophe of the Islamic conquests.6

Pulcheria survived Chalcedon by about twenty-two months. They were not happy ones. Surveying the wounds in the church, both eastern and western, she realized that her efforts to doctrinally purify Christianity were, if anything, farther than ever from fulfillment. A final collision with her sister-in-law no doubt also darkened her last days. (See sidebar, page 194.) Her death in July 453, at the age of fifty-four, struck the capital like a bombshell, for she had seemed so indestructible. That she had been a master of political manipulation was self-evident. That her manipulations were those of a devout servant of Christ was equally self-evident. She was buried in the mausoleum of Constantine, near the tomb of her grandfather, Theodosius the Great, and many regard her as his true successor. One objective she assuredly did achieve, however. Devotion to the Virgin Mary as the Theotokos, the God-bearer, would survive in the Eastern Churches until this day, and Catholics in the West would similarly sing Ave Maria right into the twenty-first century.

Marcian, her husband, though nine years her senior, outlived Pulcheria by four years. He never did have to stand test for his defiance of Attila, because that rugged and aging Hun died in the same year as Pulcheria. But Marcian acquitted himself well. His internal financial reforms, his holding the line on the Persian front, and his steady hand at Chalcedon won him recognition as one of the greatest of the early eastern emperors. Both he and his wife were canonized in the east.

This is the end of the Pope Leo I category article drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 187, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends. To continue reading more about Pope Leo I from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at