Through the Tunnel with Leontius of Jerusalem

PLEASE NOTE: The article presented here has been stripped of its footnotes. In most cases the footnotes which accompany the article are extensive and offer important guidance to substantiating evidence and further reading. This article should not be cited from the reduced version offered on this web site, but from the full version published in ByzAus vol. 10.

Through the Tunnel with Leontius of Jerusalem: The Sixth-Century Transformation of Theology

Patrick Gray

When one thinks of the sixth century in relation to the ages before and after it, an image springs to mind: the eastern Mediterranean world approaches the sixth century as a train approaching a tunnel. Even allowing for the usual qualifications, it is recognizably a late-antique train – the Christian late-antique, by this time, but late-antique nonetheless. At the other end of the tunnel the train emerges and, though it is patently the same train, it has become, again with all the usual qualifications, a recognizably Byzantine train. The interesting question is “What happens in the tunnel”? What, to put it differently, is it that ends in that tunnel, what is it that begins there, so that a new age can emerge?

The project undertaken here is to try to answer this question for one aspect of the sixth century only, its engagement in the peculiar discourse known as theology. Let us be careful here: we are not talking about theology as doctrine, but as a kind of discourse, a way of thinking and talking about the world. Let us be careful, too, to admit the inevitable overemphasis on the one moment, the mid-sixth century, implied by the choice of Leontius of Jerusalem as the single example to illustrate the argument. Leontius is a good choice: as can be concluded from the close resemblance between his position and the one espoused by the eastern Church, shortly after his withdrawal from theological controversy, at the Fifth Council of 553, he is representative of the main characteristics of dogmatic theology in the period. Nonetheless, many of the changes he is here taken to represent have their origins in the fifth century. He represents not so much a single moment of decisive change as the single moment at which the decisive quality of changes already under way becomes most clearly apparent.

What we want to do is locate the set of interrelated pivotal points on which changes in the discourse – transformations in the ways in which theology functions – turn during this period. The argument made here is the following: (1) that the central point on which all of these transformations ultimately turn has to do with a radically new attitude towards the authorities theology uses; (2) that this new privileging of certain authorities leads to transformation in the literary constructs theology employs, in the historical constructs it creates, in the kinds of argumentation to which it resorts, and in the understanding it comes to have of its own abilities; and (3) that the end results of these changes are, on the one hand, a radically altered and scholastic kind of discourse within the realm of dogmatic theology and, on the other hand, a situation ripe for theology’s turning to the other realms, specifically the spiritual and liturgical, characteristic of the new age of Byzantium.

To see the sixth-century transformations clearly, it is helpful to consider what things looked like in dogmatic theology before the tunnel. For the age of the church fathers, theological discourse was about the meaning of the biblical revelation, and its authorities were biblical texts. It took place in the context, and out of the ongoing liturgical and community experience of life in the Church. The language, the conceptual framework, was often provided, admittedly or unadmittedly, by the ancient discourse of philosophy, widely construed. These three poles – the Bible, ecclesiastical experience, and “philosophy” – can be used fairly to locate theological discourse in the first centuries. Nothing ever remains static, of course. Councils like Nicaea and the First Council of Constantinople excluded some approaches that had formerly been open, and never again after the third century would there be quite the daring and range of an Origen. (Not that Origen admitted or claimed that he was using philosophy, any more than did Gregory of Nyssa. The point is that such theologians, nurtured by the ancient paideia, could adapt the categories and patterns of thought of pagan philosophy virtually without being aware of what they were doing, so natural did it seem to do so, and so clearly did that conceptual set seem to be, not a construction, but simply the objective way of seeing the world.) Then too, the fourth-century condemnation of Origen spelled a sharp turn away from admitted and confident use of “philosophy” in the theological enterprise, at least at Alexandria (a major shift not yet, one might think, adequately remarked). (This shift, though a turning away from philosophy, did not imply an escape from its categories or way of thinking, but rather a turning away from the tradition within which theologians were educated in the tradition that had created them, and so from a fully learned and easy use of them. Theologians who used philosophical categories in the fifth century and thereafter would not be as capable of using them clearly and consistently as were the theologians of the third and fourth centuries.) Nonetheless, the battle between a Cyril and a Nestorius in the fifth century was prosecuted more or less within the familiar terms of patristic theology: each still claimed that his position most adequately represented the truth of biblical revelation and of Christian experience in the Church; each used, though not necessarily admittedly, the categories of the philosophical tradition to present the dogmas of theology. This is not Byzantine theology.

To begin our task, we turn now to a detailed study of Leontius of Jerusalem, and particularly of his Contra Monophysitas. Not a frequently-utilized source, Contra Monophysitas provides a rich insight into theology as it was engaged in in the period, since it represents an argument in process between Leontius (a Melkite) and an anonymous monophysite opponent. It cites extensively from the opponent, so that we have bits of his argument and his citations from authorities, as well as Leontius’ own argument and authorities.

Note what comprises the heart of the argument, for here lies the key to theology’s transformation:

We know [says the monophysite] what the patristic tradition is in so many words, i.e., the “one incarnate nature of God the Word”, in accordance with holy Athanasius and Cyril, but you speak of a foreign saying, which we find expressly set down by the fathers nowhere, namely “two natures” …

The monophysite rejection of Chalcedon, in short, is a rejection of what they see as a betrayal of the tradition in the introduction of a non-traditional formula, Nestorius’ “two natures”. They see themselves as the loyal defenders of the traditional christology enunciated by the great champions of orthodoxy in the Arian and Nestorian controversies, Athanasius and Cyril, and will never agree to accept such a novelty.

From this monophysite’s point of view, the Melkite side is wrong because it ignores the really important patristic texts and their genuine context:

Why [he demands] do you fly all over the patristic texts like bees, anthologizing only the parts of the texts that please you, and continually buzz around us with them, but fly right past the parts that are hostile to your ideas, secretly shying away from them?

Leontius has no choice, in the face of such an attack, but to argue that his position is really the traditional one, and it is precisely the attempt to demonstrate that his side represents the tradition rightly interpreted that takes up the rest of his time in Contra Monophysitas. He states quite clearly the position he is arguing:

Really, the patristic sayings which, in your view, agree with your dogmas, rather recommend ours, when they are properly examined according to their intended sense …

By the time of this exchange between Leontius and his anonymous opponent, the argument has been going on for generations.

Generations of arguing that one is loyal to the traditions, though, leave their mark: the tradition that thus functions as the reference point for orthodoxy comes to be valorized as the reference point for orthodoxy. That is, if you prove your orthodoxy for generations by showing that you are true to the teaching of the fathers, then you cannot help but assume more and more that the fathers are the standard of orthodoxy to whom one must prove one’s faithfulness to be orthodox. Or, to use the metaphorical terms employed by Leontius and his opponents, if you have for generations claimed to suck the nectar of true doctrine from the glorious spiritual meadow of the fathers, then you can hardly help thinking that the fathers are the “one fount of divinity”. Leontius of Jerusalem and his monophysite opponent inhabit the same theological space: for them, the “patristic tradition” is the privileged authority for theological discourse. This is something quite new for theology.

It is thus the monophysite-Melkite debate which transforms theological discourse by privileging patristic texts as the sole functional authorities in doctrine and so making them the centre of the discourse. This is the single most important transformation to take place in theology in this period, and it is the pivotal point on which all other transformations turn. Its implications for what theology becomes are enormous, and at its door can be laid the fact that dogmatic theology becomes such a reduced discourse within Byzantium, seeing itself as a mere exegete and expositor of the truth formulated by the great ones of the past. No wonder, then, that theologians turned to the more fruitful fields of spiritual and liturgical theology. Moreover, insofar as they continued to do dogmatic theology, this transformation led them to do so in an extraordinarily convoluted way.

For instance, this new and unprecedented privileging of the patristic tradition as functionally the authority for theology requires an address to the patristic past so that it can actually function in this way. That address has to be radical, for a past that is the single authority will have to speak with one unmistakeable voice on each matter of doctrine. For the past required by the sixth century it will have to be the case, as Leontius of Jerusalem puts it, that “None of the ‘select’ fathers is at variance with himself or with his peers in respect of what is intended as the meaning of the faith …”. The sixth-century requires, that is, a reliable way of presenting a monolithic patristic tradition of doctrinal teaching, one so monolithic that every “father” speaks with exactly the same voice, so monolithic that no “father” ever changes his mind.

Notice that the very humility of sixth-century theological discourse before the revered tradition disguises its very powerful and active role in constructing the past for its purposes. This requires several kinds of activity: the development of a characteristic literary form within which the tradition can be “captured”; the creative task of selecting the texts to capture in that form so as to “represent” the tradition; and in general the reconstruction of the tradition by the various means required to make it presentable within the terms the sixth century conceives as necessary for it. It should be noted that there is a convoluted quality, a proceeding by indirection, implied in such activities, since the creative role is disguised by the claimed humility and objectivity of “merely” representing the fathers.

The new literary form the sixth century takes up to meet these needs is the florilegium, and the sixth century is the century of the florilegium. A florilegium is, by its very definition, a selection, a bouquet of texts. To select certain texts is also to privilege those texts, since the texts selected have to represent the whole tradition of the fathers. The decision about who represents the tradition, then, and about which texts of the selected authors represent them, is a highly sensitive one, though of course the very claim that the selection is intended to represent the tradition implies the denial of any creative reshaping of the tradition that might be involved.

About seventy per cent of Leontius of Jerusalem’s Contra Monophysitas is florilegium material of one kind or another. In fact, it contains several florilegia, one, as has been mentioned, from his monophysite opponent, but also two of Leontius’ own which can be taken as representative of how sixth-century Melkite theology uses the genre. A florilegium is organized to cover a topic. For his first florilegium, Leontius chooses texts that address the topic “What is Christ, who is adored by us”? Part of what may be seen as the scholasticism that is emerging as the characteristic new theology of the period involves this tendency to see the task of theology, denied at least publicly the opportunity actually to formulate doctrine, as organizational: the diffuse writings of the fathers can be distilled into their “key” texts on each of several theological topics, divorced from their place in a very different kind of theological discourse. Another kind of organization involves the choice of theologians to stand for the tradition. In Leontius’ first florilegium the central names stand out with stark clarity, since only they are represented: Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzen, Cyril of Alexandria. These same names form the obvious core of the second florilegium, entitled “What kind of a union the fathers call the union in Christ”. The core is expanded by extensive quotations from other fathers, in particular “John Chrysostom” – the name is put in quotation-marks because it is not the authentic Chrysostom, but Ps. Chrysostom , who is the most often represented here. This last fact is important, since no real representative of the School of Antioch is represented directly, and the only quasi-Antiochene Chrysostom is misrepresented. Some very interesting and important flowers get left out of the bouquet – the negative implications of selection are as important as the positive – and the garden is not, then, fully represented by the bouquet that results. The tradition of which Leontius sees himself as the humble exegete is thus already, by selection alone, a radically reconstrued tradition. It will be but a short step to the Three Chapters controversy and the Fifth Council’s radical excision of the School of Antioch not only from the citations of the florilegia, but from the ranks of orthodoxy and (if conciliar anathemas mean anything) of heaven itself.

The first florilegium is particularly interesting as an example of how the new kind of theological discourse achieves a reconstruction of the tradition within the florilegium form. It sets out very brief texts from its select fathers, in which there is no context provided, not even a complete sentence, but just what Leontius chooses to describe as “descriptive definitions of Christ”. There is, for instance, Basil’s “divinity making use of animated flesh”. Such pieces of passing insight on a father’s part have become, by the process of selection, technical definitions. Moreover, certain things follow from these definitions, and not just individually but also collectively. “If”, says Leontius, ” those who defined these things agree in their ideas both with themselves and with each other” – an assumption, as we have seen, that he holds to be axiomatic – then conclusions follow that are binding in theology. “What other conclusions can you reach about what to think from these sayings”, asks Leontius rhetorically, “than that two natures of Christ have been united in his one hypostasis?” The texts of the fathers have for him an authority that requires consent to what a judicious process of selection can lead one to believe is their single, agreed teaching. It is, though, a concealed activity of theological construction that has turned the texts of the fathers into that single teaching.

Clearly the literary construction that is the florilegium is also a historical reconstruction, and the humble theology of the sixth century is not quite so humble as it understands itself to be. We have already seen that texts that once existed as parts of a father’s extended thinking on various issues have been lifted out of their contexts, elevated to the status of theological definitions, and weighted with an authority their authors never dreamed of. Within the conservative form a considerable creative activity thus takes place. Leontius can, of course, claim all this is simply the humble process of exegeting the tradition, merely the representation in an abbreviated and convenient way of its inner and harmonious theological position.

That this is not quite the case becomes clear when we address more directly the most convoluted aspect of the new discourse, namely forgery. When Marcel Richard undertook the first serious modern study of the florilegia of the period, he was appalled at the historical “errors” he found in them, particularly in the florilegia of Leontius of Jerusalem. Among the errors Richard noted were the following: texts that are so brief as to mislead the reader as to their meaning; texts that are misleadingly taken out of context; texts that present themselves as direct quotations, but which are (sometimes misleading) paraphrases; many texts falsely attributed (for instance, a text of Cyril attributed to Gregory; astonishingly, texts of Severus attributed to Cyril and Athanasius; even more astonishingly, a text of Theodoret of Cyrus attributed to Justin Martyr); many pseudonymous texts presented as authentic (I have noted the use of Ps. Chrysostom, but there are also citations from Ps. Gregory of Nyssa, Ps. Ephrem of Syria, and Ps. Cyril of Jerusalem); and several otherwise unknown texts of dubious authenticity.

To Richard, Leontius of Jerusalem was simply guilty of poor research. He misses the point. Leontius, like his contemporaries, was actually quite capable of determining an historically authentic text, as his very incisive critique of some Apollinarian forgeries used by his opponent in the latter’s florilegium demonstrates. The simultaneous ability to dismiss evident forgeries in an opponent, while maintaining equally evident forgeries as authentic in one’s own florilegia, is a phenomenon of the sixth century, widely evident even in that great monophysite theologian, Severus of Antioch. Leontius is clearly able, by means of these “forgeries”, to create a more consistent and satisfying image of the patristic tradition in his florilegium than would otherwise have been possible. His “Chrysostom” is more of a neo-Chalcedonian than the historical Chrysostom; his Cyril is consistently in favour of admitting two natures, unlike the historical Cyril. Precisely because he holds that the fathers were entirely consistent and never changed their minds, Leontius must present them as consistent. Significantly, when Leontius and others allow themselves to observe what they do with the fathers, the image that occurs to them is that of the good sons of Noah, who cover their father’s nakedness by walking backwards with their eyes averted. That is, the reconstruction of the past is denied by the very people who are reconstructing it in a more seemly image of consistency and orthodoxy!

There is another new literary feature of theological discourse in the sixth century, the emergence of aporetic argument as a major part of theological discourse. There is probably no modern reader who can approach with delight this particular feature of the sixth century, and no doubt it was this aspect of Leontius of Jerusalem’s writing – almost one third of whose Contra Monophysitas, and all of whose voluminous Adversus Nestorianos are made up of aporetic argument – that led Richard to describe him as “almost unreadable”. This unpleasantness perhaps explains, too, why so little note is taken of what the emergence of aporetic argument implies.

There are two important things to be said about the aporetic argument of Contra Monophysitas as revealing of the changes in the discourse taking place. In the first place, aporetic argument can be seen as in some ways ancillary to the argument implied in the florilegia. In the second place, aporetic argument must be understood in terms of a negative function, which is to expose inconsistency. In some cases, to take up the first point, it can be seen that Leontius’ aporiae at the beginning of Contra Monophysitas turn on the very terms used in texts of the monophysite florilegium that he attacks, providing a different forum from direct attack on the interpretation of texts for showing that they must have been misunderstood, since so understood they lead to inconsistencies. On the second point, all of the aporiae are intended to demonstrate internal inconsistencies in the opponent’s presentation of the tradition. For Leontius, the fundamental inconsistency of all inconsistencies is the monophysites’ maintenance of the notion of Christ as “one incarnate nature” while at the same time admitting that this oneness is “from” or “out of” two natures, since the oneness and the duality are being posited, in a verbally contradictory way, of the same entity, Christ’s nature. The implication is always that Leontius’ own vocabulary, using hypostatis for union, and nature for difference, is the proper vocabulary for maintaining the consistent christology of the fathers.

Here Leontius is the voice of rationality, insisting on a coherent vocabulary for christology, though his is, of course, the humble rationality of the scholastic. Aporetic argumentation as it takes place in Contra Monophysitas is really just another facet of the scholastic task, parallel to the activity of organizing texts into florilegia: the goal is really the same, the elimination of inconsistencies and the arrival at a fully consistent and uniform expression of what was established by the fathers.

Quite a different view might seem to be implied by Leontius of Jerusalem’s second known work, Adversus Nestorianos. The extensive clever arguments here might be taken as revealing a confident kind of theological discourse proud of its ability to apply philosophical and scientific definitions to theology. The scribe who leaves us the manuscript of Leontius’ corpus, perhaps for this reason, calls Leontius “the all-wise monk”. This would not be a perceptive way to read the evidence. In Adversus Nestorianos, Leontius is faced with the aporiae posed by an anonymous Nestorian opponent who thinks there are both two natures and two hypostases in Christ, and who seeks to show the inconsistency and irrationality in Leontius’ maintenance of a simultaneous difference and union in Christ. It is the Nestorian who raises the endless arguments about what all differences and all unions known to human experience rationally must entail. What in his view they must entail is, of course, that things cannot be both the same and different. Theologians like Leontius, as he sees it, must confuse the two natures if they will insist on a single hypostasis.

Here we are dealing with quite a new situation, the situation of a typical sixth-century Melkite theologian up against a highly articulate adversary who lives outside the world we have been discussing., with its assumptions – shared by Melkite and monophysite alike – about the tradition and its finality for doctrine, and about the humble role that theology must assume. This Nestorian opponent is willing to formulate doctrine boldly and in radically new ways – even to assert the new doctrine of two hypostases. Whoever this theologian is, he is extraordinary.

In confrontation with this kind of brash and confidently rationalistic understanding of theological discourse, our very ordinary Leontius reveals a good deal about theological discourse as he understands it. His defence in Adversus Nestorianos does indeed struggle to meet the adversary on his own ground, to establish the consistency and rationality of his, Leontius’ view. Usually, though, he employs a form of the argument “There are exceptions in nature to your universal statements about unions, so that what you assert need not necessarily apply to the christological union”. This is not a confident use of reason, but rather a rearguard action. What is most striking is the fact that, when he finally gets around to expounding his own view, Leontius is frequently driven to insisting on the uniqueness of the christological union, on the way it transcends normal rational categories. “All of your shoots spring from one and the same impious root”, he says. “The similarity in your aberrations lies in this: the unexpected mixing up with all things of the God who is above all things.” That is, the rules of rational discourse which enable generalizations about unions of one kind or another in the created realm cannot be applied to the unique case of a union that God the Word chooses to engage in with a human nature. The Melkite understanding of a union by hypostasis in Christ, asserted in Contra Monophysitas as the uniform and consistent teaching of the tradition of the fathers, and defended in the aporiae as free of logical inconsistencies, acquires here a more fundamentalist cast: it is simply what the fathers assert, and therefore it is true; it is, the fathers tell us, what God chose to do, and since he is God it is possible for Him, no matter how impossible it might seem to be under the general rules by which unions within the created realm take place, and which reason can infer from observation of such unions.

The Incarnation of the Word, Leontius characteristically asserts at such junctures, is incomprehensible. What is new and significant here is not the use of this concept per se, but rather the fact that the incomprehensibility of God is used as a principle to defend a theological position presumed to be inherited from the past. In a certain sense, this concept’s use marks the nadir of sixth-century theology’s self-understanding: in that self-understanding, the dogmatic heritage of the fathers is true, and must be accepted humbly, even though it can really be neither understood nor defended in rational terms, simply because the authorities teach it. The implications of the argument in Adversus Nestorianos is thus the very opposite of what it might seem to be at first glance. This is not a celebration of the power of rational discourse to apply philosophical insights in theology at all; it is, rather, the abdication of the very task – that exercise of reasonable understanding to comprehend and formulate doctrine about God’s claimed saving activity as revealed in the scriptures and appropriated in experience by the Church – which defines the theological discourse of the age of the fathers.

The argument presented here has attempted to show that, in some important ways, the monophysite-Melkite debate transforms the nature of theology by the sixth century. The relatively open and creative discourse that theology was in the age of the fathers is abandoned in favour of a discourse for which dogma has been established by the fathers, and which sees its task as organizing and exegeting a monolithic doctrinal heritage in the image of monolithic consistency it has come to assume for that heritage. With the florilegium as its genre of choice for theological argument, it sees itself as conservative, as merely scholastic in scope. We have also seen, however, that it contrives to do some dogmatic theology unadmittedly. This it does by engaging in a reconstruction of the patristic doctrinal heritage; to do so, it employs devices that range from simple selection to out-and-out forgery. The ambivalences involved in such an unadmitted reconstruction give to the new discourse its peculiarly convoluted quality, a quality that marks it as clearly as its scholasticism and its characteristic use of the florilegium form. The other genre favoured in the period, aporetic argument, has been seen in Contra Monophysitas to perform only a supporting role in attacking an opponent’s florilegium, and his inconsistent vocabulary. In Adversus Nestorianos, despite the extensive use of aporetic argument in response to a confident Nestorian opponent, the low self-understanding of this new discourse is fully apparent in its willingness to accept the incomprehensibility of christological doctrine, and to abase itself before the authority of the past.

All of this then, can be said to happen in the sixth-century tunnel. To speak first of what ends in that transition through the tunnel, one may adapt Hegel’s description of philosophy, and say that “when [sixth-century theology] paints its grey in grey, then is an age grown cold”. Leontius of Jerusalem, intent on organizing, harmonizing, representing, and distilling the theology of the fathers, is clearly no longer of their age, but looking back on it. He is no longer engaged in the great theological enterprise of making and formulating doctrine that was its glory. The age of the fathers, the Christian late-antique, is over, and we can now point to specific ways in which that closure was achieved. For theology the world to which the sixth century leads is a very different world from the world it leaves behind. In that new Byzantine world there is a new kind of scholastic dogmatic discourse, understanding itself as playing the modest role of organizer and representer of the great tradition, though also, unadmittedly, reconstructing that tradition in its own image of what that tradition ought to have been. The Byzantine future, though, does not lie with dogmatic theology, but with spiritual and liturgical theology.

In part that radical shift in direction can be explained by a negative reflection about the sixth century: the aridity of the kind of dogmatic theology it introduced meant that the energies of those who wished to articulate their religious situation, no longer being permitted to do dogmatic theology in the mode of the fathers, were bound to find a venue within which they could be expressed; they found that venue in spiritual and liturgical theology such as that offered by the Dionysian forgery.

A final suggestion can be made about another and more positive point of connection in the dogmatic theology of Leontius with the spiritual/liturgical theology that emerged. That point is the notion of the incomprehensibility of God. If an incomprehensible God cannot be apprehended rationally, through dogmatic theology, then is not the ground prepared for an approach which asserts the possibility of apprehending such a God experientially, through liturgy and spirituality?*

[*A highly speculative way to put it would be to suggest that Christianity absorbed only partly the deep pessimism of the second-century philosophers about human reason's ability to grasp the divine. They took the point about the necessity of theurgy, but claimed that they possessed a complete theurgy in the form of the self-revelation of God through Jesus Christ recorded in scripture. On its basis they proceeded to construct a theology just as confident of its claims to comprehend ultimate reality rationally as was Plato at his most optimistic. Is it any accident, though, that the deepening pessimism of the sixth-century theologians about rationality in theology should have coincided with a new and more complete appropriation of Proclus' philosophical pessimism about rationality in the form of the Ps. Dionysian forgeries? In them lies a renewed sense of the urgent need for theurgy, not in the quasi-rationalistic form of revelation, but in the direct experience of the divine through the liturgy and the hierarchy of the Church. One of the tantalizing aspects of the whole question is the part played by John of Scythopolis, a theologian closely identified with Leontius of Jerusalem, in establishing the "authenticity" of the Ps. Dionysian corpus through his scholia. Does the notion of ineffability appealed to by Leontius of Jerusalem provide some insight into how John of Scythopolis held his "neo-Chalcedonian" = Melkite christology together with his Dionysian sympathies?]