The Soteriology of Leo the Great. By Bernard Green
Article first published online: 8 JUN 2009
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 4, page 713, July 2009
How to Cite
Meconi, D. (2009), The Soteriology of Leo the Great. By Bernard Green. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 713. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00501_16.x
- Issue published online: 8 JUN 2009
- Article first published online: 8 JUN 2009
Pp. xiii, 273 , Oxford Theological Monographs , 2008 , £65.00/$130.00 .
Green's revised Oxford dissertation is one more testimony to the growing interest in the theology of Pope Leo the Great. Both Routledge and Brazos Press, for example, are planning on releasing monographs on Leo in their respective patristic series. This is all the more significant, seeing that about a sixty year gap exists between these current studies and the last full-length works in English, such as Trevor Jalland's 1941 The Life and Times of St. Leo the Great. When scholars have taken up Leo's legacy, they have tended to focus on his socio-political influence or on his ecclesiology and, as a result, the richer and more nuanced aspects of his theology have gone largely unappreciated.
Green's latest work aims to help to remedy this problem. It is divided into 6 chapters, opening with a superb look at the historical background of how Leo came to the See of Peter. Here we learn how Rome came to be Christianized as well as the interplay between a developing clerical class and the entrenched traditions of pagan Rome. That is, Leo's Christianity developed within a world where the secular values of romanitas still held a powerful sway. This interplay leads Green to emphasize Leo's explanation of the Christian life as one available for all, at times stressing the compatibility of the Christian creed and aristocratic values. Chapter 2 treats more the world in which Leo's thought developed, focusing primarily on the Nestorian controversy, since Leo was (or soon to become) Archdeacon of Rome when Nestorius was elected Bishop of Constantinople in 428. By the time Leo was elected in 440, he presented himself as one ready to lead and as one able to unite, his Latinity able to meet the sophisticates of Rome, and his thought able to persuade both the city's working class as well as its intelligentsia.
Chapter 3 brings the reader more explicitly to the social context of Leo's theologizing. In ‘Salvation and Civic Christianity’ Green argues that Leo was the first Christian figure to develop a doctrine of salvation for the challenges and the opportunities of the new ‘Christianized’ Roman Empire. That is, instead of stressing monasticism, Leo speaks to the vocation of the baptized laity; he stresses the catholicity of the Church and the universal accessibility of the sacraments. In short, he stressed the salvation of all who could hear. By emphasizing a salvation for the people without distinction, Leo found himself simultaneously accentuating a public worship and a common liturgical calendar aimed to foster a more uniform voice of praise.
Chapters 4 (‘The First Cycle of Sermons, 440–1), chapter 5 (‘Leo's Theological Development, 441–5), and chapter 6 (‘The Tome of Leo) form a helpful second half, as Green takes us through the more salient aspects of Leo's theologizing as Bishop of Rome. Leo's exegetical and doctrinal concerns coalesce into an ecclesial and sacramental view of the Christian life. Green is astute in showing how former Western thinkers (above all, Hilary and Augustine) shaped Leo's understanding of the Christ who must be at once divine so as to defeat the devil, yet humble so as to be one with fallen humanity. In becoming flesh, it was not God who changed, but humanity; hereafter, human living, the social order, and the way humanity meets divinity could never be the same.
Fr. Bernard Green is a Benedictine monk and a Fellow and Tutor in Theology at St. Benet's Hall in Oxford, and his latest work is a very helpful look into the life and the thought of a very underappreciated theologian and churchman of late antiquity. Green's attention to the historical and theological factors shaping Leo's words is superb. More studies into Leo's thought are needed but what Green has provided the academy is very fine indeed.