Essay / Theology

Leontius of Byzantium (Works)

Brian Daley has published (2017) his edition of Leontius of Byzantium’s Complete Works. in a handsome 600-page volume from Oxford Press (at a handsomely huge price, of course). It’s got Leontius’ Greek on the left pages and Daley’s English translation on right, plus a masterful 100-page introduction. We have waited a long time for this text: Daley’s 1978 DPhil was a critical edition of Leontius, and (bootleg?) fragments of his translation have circulated for a long time. But here it all is at last.

It’s an important book not just for historical theologians but also for systematic theologians, so I wrote a review of it for the current International Journal of Systematic Theology. Here’s part of what I say in the review:

Systematic theologians ought to take up and read Leontius of Byzantium, for a number of reasons. The main reason is that, as can now readily be seen in the Complete Works, Leontius was the theologian par excellence of Chalcedonian Christology. All of his detailed argumentation happens within the intellectual framework of the Council of Chalcedon, and he takes its terms to be axiomatic for reasoning about Christology and trinitarian theology. His longest and most programmatic work has a title that shows his approach: Contra Nestorianos et Eutychianos. He constantly pairs these archetypal heresies as the extremes ruled out by the orthodoxy of Chalcedon. He calls their champions ‘opposite kinds of docetist’ (p. 129) in the sense that the Nestorian error leads to the conclusion that Jesus only seems divine, while the Eutychian error results in Jesus only seeming human. For Leontius, this Nestorian–Eutychian polarity is a perennial index of error. It is simply the fifth-century, christological version of an earlier, trinitarian heretical polarity: Nestorius is to Arius as Sabellius is to Eutyches. What Nestorius and Arius have in common is that, focusing on the distinctness of persons, they divide the essence; what Eutyches and Sabellius have in common is that, focusing on the unity of nature, they confuse the persons (p. 129). ‘The same arguments that one finds used by earlier writers to divide the Trinity are used later, we discover, to confuse the Incarnation; and the arguments by which our contemporaries divide the Incarnation they used to confuse the Trinity’ (p. 131). Daley paraphrases this as a recognition of ‘a common danger in both an exaggeratedly unitive Christology and an exaggeratedly divisive one’ (p. 27).

Leontius is confident that Chalcedon provides the solution to both errors, not just by having already drawn the anathematizing boundaries against both, but by furnishing the necessary conceptual distinction that both lack. In order to speak rightly of God and Christ, Christian doctrine needs to distinguish between the individual on the one hand, and that which is individualized on the other. Failure to do this will leave theology under the constant threat of collapsing the categories of person and nature. ‘Hypostastis, gentlemen, and the hypostatic are not the same thing, just as essence and the essential are different’, says Daley’s smooth translation (p. 133), and a glance across the page at the Greek shows that the key terms are hypostasis and enhypostaton.

It seems to me that Leontius is the right thinker in the right time period to give the categories of Chalcedon a real workout. He also connects the refined christological vocabulary with the trinitarian vocabulary, to powerful effect:

Leontius (485–543) worked several decades after the fourth council (451), but died before the fifth (Constantinople II, 553). The theology of that fifth council achieved a synthesis that is sometimes called neo-Chalcedonian. The ‘neo’ in neo-Chalcedonian is supposed to indicate a theology that rehabilitated some Cyrillian insights about the unity of the incarnate person, ensuring that Chalcedon’s two-natures schema could not be interpreted in a Nestorian direction. These developments also made explicit the shared terminology of Christology and trinitarian theology: the hypostasis of the incarnate Son is after all the second hypostasis of the Trinity, and one of the Trinity therefore suffered in the flesh. Without over-drawing the distinction, it seems that the work of Leontius represents a different strategy. Daley has previously called him, in contrast to neo-Chalcedonianism, a paleo-Chalcedonian. In this volume Daley recognizes in Leontius a ‘strict Chalcedonian’, one who is ‘above all a consistent defender and interpreter of the concepts and terminology of Chalcedon’ (p. 75). One of the chief merits of this volume is that the texts themselves are now before a much broader audience that can judge for themselves.

This volume fills a definite gap for theologians who want to go pretty deep into historical sources but who (like me) read most or all of their patristics in English; we can now engage the strict Chalcedonianism of Leontius of Byzantium; it is well worth engaging.

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