Tome of Pope St. Leo – Critically Examined by the Council of Chalcedon?


Portion of Pope St. Leo’s Tome [in Greek]

When the years following the Council of Ephesus 431 drew nigh, a fellow named Eutyches, a 70 year-old  Archimandrite who headed a monastery just outside the walls of Constantinople, had been accused by Eusebius, Bishop of Dorylaeum, of the heresy which posited 1-nature in Christ our God, after the unionization of the Word and humanity. Consequently, a Synod was convened in Constantinople in the year 448, and Eutyches was condemned under the presiding authority of Patriarch St. Flavian, the city’s Bishop. But since Eutyches had some influence on the Emperor Theodosius II, a Council was called in order to vindicate the teaching of Eutyches, as well as blame St. Flavian for condemning him. Pope St. Leo had sent legates carrying his famous epistle to St. Flavian, otherwise referred to as his Tomewhich would soundly refute Eutyches and promote what would become a standard rule in orthodox christology. Leo’s letter to the Council shows what he thought about his Tome. Concerning his invitation to Council from Theodosius II, the Pope writes: “The devout faith of our most clement prince, knowing that it especially concerns his glory to prevent any seed of error from springing up within the Catholic Church, has paid such deference to the Divine institutions as to apply to the


Pope St. Leo the Great

authority of the Apostolic See for a proper settlement: as if he wished it to be declared by the most blessed Peter himself what was praised in his confession” (Letter 33). In a letter to the Emperor himself, Leo writes: “But what the Catholic Church universally believes and teaches on the mystery of the Lord’s Incarnation is contained more fully in the letter which I have sent to my brother and fellow bishop Flavian” (Letter 29). Thus, Leo understood his Tome to be the ecumenical standard by which the Council of Ephesus 449 was to judge the orthodoxy of Eutyches, before the Eastern bishops even read it.  This Council failed, and is known as a Latrocinium (Synod of thieves). Even thereafter Pope Leo continued to think his Tome was the standard of orthodoxy for the next Council held in Chalcedon, which would eventually condemn Eutyches and those who share in Monophysite Christology. But he was not alone in this.

In his letter to the Pope , the new Emperor Marcian mentions that things which “conduce to the Catholic faith shall be laid down as your holiness, in accordance with the canons of the Church, has ruled (Epistle 76 – Leo). This “ruling” was nothing less than the Tome. Another letter to St. Leo from the Empress St. Pulcheria calibrates our perspective on the how the Tome was understood.; she writes that the Council of Chalcedon was summoned “that the bishops may decide by your authority in accordance with what the faith and the Christian religion demands” (Epistle 77 – Leo). And these two statements, from Emperor and Empress, set the plot for what would happen at Chalcedon. In fact, at the Council, St. Leo’s tome is put on par for the criteria of orthodoxy with the Nicene Creed and other former dogmatic canons, as we shall see. But in any case, it was quite clear on Pope Leo’s part that his Tome was non-negotiable, seeing as how this Pope understood his role in the universal Church. Anglican scholar J.N.D. Kelly writes that Leo held the Tiara-and-keysconviction that “supreme and universal authority in the Church, bestowed originally by Christ on Peter, had been transmitted to each subsequent bishop of Rome as the Apostle’s heir. As such he assumed Peter’s functions, full authority, and privileges; and just as the Lord bestowed more power on Peter than on the other apostles, so the pope was the ‘primate of all the bishops’, the Apostle’s mystical embodiment” (Oxford Dictionary of the Popes, p. 43)

How did the Bishops of the Council receive the Tome of Leo? This is a fundamental question in the current dialogue between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics. The idea held by the Eastern Orthodox is that Pope St. Leo’s tome carried no binding authority simply because it was issues by the Magisterium of Rome. On the contrary, they would urge, the Tome of Leo was critically examined, and only when it was judged to be in accordance with the Apostolic faith was it deemed acceptable. This demonstrates, they would argue, that a Pope fiat carried no coercive bind upon the Church until the authority of a Council deemed it so, i.e. Councils are superior in authority than Popes. I even had an Eastern Orthodox Christian tell me at a get together that the Pope’s decision counted as one single vote together with the other bishops equally presiding and contributing. Does this gloss adequately represent the historical facts as seen from the Council of Chalcedon itself? To this we now look.

In Session 1, we have recorded the words of Patriarch Maximus of Antioch which are in defense of St. Flavian but which speak to our point: “Archbishop Flavian, of holy memory, expounded the faith rightly and in agreement with the most blessed and holy Archbishop Leo, and we all eagerly receive it” (Session 1). Was it really “we all”? If the “all” is representative of the Eastern bishops in the Council (numbering 600+), then we have it on the testimony of the occupant of Christendom’s Third See that the contemporary Orthodox gloss is a misrepresentation of the facts. Moreover, at the end of this session, wherein Dioscorus was judged worthy of deposition, the Imperial commissioners expected the Bishops, on the morrow,  to freshly expound their exposition of faith “in writing” (Mansi vi, 936), to ensure agreement. However, the next day came, the Bishops explained that no new exposition of faith is allowed, and that a mere maintenance of Nicaea 325 and Ephesus 431 were sufficient by law.  The words used are pertinent: Cecropius, Bishop of Sebastopol had spoken in the Session, “The Eutychian matter has sprung up; on this a form [ordinance] has been given by the most holy Archbishop Leo, and we go by it, and have all subscribed the letter“, to which the Bishops shouted, “That we also say, the explanation already given by Leo suffices; another declaration of faith must not be put forth” (Mansi vi, 954). Is that so? Not only is this another testimony from the East (Sebastopol), but the record has it in the minutes that the “Bishops” were already satisfied with Leo’s tome from the get-to. This is not what Bishops who were prepared to run the Tome of Leo through the review of a Council would say.

The Commissioners were not going to let up, and suggested that the Patriarchs should come together to the center of the Church of St. Euphemia and to corroborate on the faith so as to ensure absolute unity. To this a Bishop Florentius of Sardes spoke out: “As those who have been taught to follow the Nicene synod, and also the regularly and piously assembled Synod at Ephesus, in accordance with the faith of the holy fathers Cyril and Celestine, and also with the letter of the most holy Leo, cannot possibly draw up at once a formula of the faith, we therefore ask for a longer delay; but I, for my part, 12932717_1174900739195072_5059321974461727922_n-1believe the letter of Leo is sufficient” (ibid). The Bishops then proceeded to read aloud the Nicene Creed and the anathema against Arius, the faith of Constantinople 381, then the letter from St. Cyril to Nestorius & John of Antioch, and then finally St. Leo’s Tome to St. Flavian. After St. Leo’s Tome was read, the Bishops exclaimed:

That is the faith of the fathers! That is the faith of the Apostles! We all believe thus, the orthodox believe thus! Anathema to him who believes otherwise! Peter has spoken through Leo! Thus Cyril taught! That is the true faith! Why was that not read at Ephesus [the Robber synod 449]? Dioscorus kept it hidden” (ibid , 971)

Was there any evidence of question on Leo’s Tome? Yes there was. Let’s see how considerable it is to be given the weight it pretends to have by contemporary scholars. In the 4th Session, we come to learn that bishops from Illyricum and Palestine took issue with 3 passages in the Tome, thinking that they contradicted St. Cyril’s christology.  This group of questioning bishops together formed 48 bishops out of the nearly 600 Bishops in total attendance. Aetius, deacon of Constantinople and one who already subscribed to the Tome, responded by reconciling the first 2 problem passages with St. Cyril’s letter to Nestorius, and the 3rd was left for Theodoret of Cyrus ( Hefele, History of Councils, vol. iii, page 318-318).

After this the Imperial Commissioners ask “Has any one still any doubt“? to which the Bishops responded “No one doubts“. Wow. That means there were some Bishops at the Council, all from the East, who were willing to say no one doubted the Tome of Leo. But then Atticus of Nicopolis, one of the Illyricum bishops, requested a few days’ delay. The Imperial Commissioners resorted to allowing this delay so that the questioning bishops could be “instructed“. But then it was cried out “None of us doubts, we have already subscribed (Mansi vi, 974).  This of course was the voice of the majority. Even so, the commissioners permitted Anatolius, Patriarch of Constantinople, by way of condescension, to choose certain learned from the vast majority who unquestionably subscribed to the Tome to the task of instructing these Bishops, who make for an undeniable minority (approximately 8% of the Council).

To the idea that this request by Atticus and members of the Illyrian & Palestinian party for a few days break to examine the Tome shows that the Council gave a critical examination of the Tome of Leo before agreeing with it, the summary of Dr. Luke Rivington is more than sufficient:

“So far, it will be seen, there was no conciliar investigation or examination of the Tome of Leo, unless anyone were to dignify with such a name the interruptions of these few Illyrian and Palestinian bishops, who were immediately set right by the Archdeacon [Aetius] and Theodoret, or unless we consider the decision of the Commissioners and 300px-st_leo_the_greatSenate to refer these few bishops to Anatolius to be ‘taught’ in his house, a conciliar examination. In truth, the objection that has been so confidently raised, that the Tome of Leo was sanctioned by the Synod after examination as by a superior authority, collapses fr want of evidence, so soon as we take the whole of the facts into consideration. So far, it had been made from the very beginning the test of orthodoxy. The bishops, by signing it, witnesses to their own orthodoxy rather than set a seal to that of Leo. Their witness, however, did give to the Tome that external recommendation which, though not needed for the strong, was calculated to assist the weak by its impressive exhibition of the Church’s unity. And as events proved, every help was needed to preserve the faith in the coming century” (The Roman Primacy: A.D. 431-451, page 269)

Wrapping up the question of faith in the 4th session, the Imperial Commissioners asked the Council bishops to express its mind. Papal legate Paschasinus answered on behalf of all saying: “The rule of faith as contained in the creed of Nicaea, confirmed by the Council of Constantinople, expounded at Ephesus under Cyril, and set forth in the letter of Pope Leo when he condemned the heresy of Nestorius and Eutyches” (Mansi vii, 9A-B ). Answers from others came likewise. Anatolius of Constantinople answered: “The letter of Leo is in harmony with the [Nicene Creed] as well as with what was done at Ephesus under Cyril” and the Papal legates said : “It is plain that the faith of Leo is in harmony with the Creed, and with the Ephesian definitions, and therefore his letter is of the same sense as the Creed (ibid, 12A)

Now, as Dr. Rivington already alluded above, some have thought that since the Bishops were verifying the Tome in accordance with Nicaea, Ephesus, and more particularly St. Cyril, that they did not think the Tome had any superior authority to the verifying power of the Council. This is taken up by the Anglican historian Dr. Beresford Kidd in his book “Roman Primacy” (Page 143-44), and many have followed in the same argument. The logic goes like this – if the Council had to measure it, then it was the Council that judged the Tome, not the other way around. This is not necessary, and for obvious reasons. The Creed of Nicaea and the Christology of Ephesus 431 are both, in themselves, infallible; this is the belief of Eastern/Coptic/Syrian Nicaea_iconOrthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. In other words, these were Ecumenical Councils, and as such, possess the supreme authority in matter of faith and morals. Yet, at Nicaea, the duty of the bishops was to measure its Creed against the deposit of faith which was apprehended in the Holy Scriptures and in the Christology which was passed down by the prior forefathers. But just because the bishops of Nicaea were measuring their Creed by this former rule does not negate the Council of Nicaea’s own infallibility proper. In the same way, when the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus met and measured its deliberation on Christ and the Mother of God against the Creed of Nicaea, it did not thereby diminish its own infallibility proper. But then, why is it that when we come to join the Council of Chalcedon, and we find that Leo’s tome is measured against the former Councils of Nicaea/Ephesus, we immediately think the tome is fallible? It is because some have thought, together with the Anglican theologian George Salmon, who wrote an oft cited book against the doctrine of Papal infallibility (which cuts through Ecclesial/Conciliar Infallibility with the same swipe of the sword), that an infallible Church should only inflexibly demand unquestionable and immediate assent to its teaching. For an infallible Church to admonish her members to examine the grounds of her infallible teaching seem to sound out of place. To this, the great Anglican convert to Benedictine Catholicism Dom Christopher Butler, wonderfully rebuts in his abridged reply to Salmon entitled Infallibility and the Church by saying:

“I would reply, the Church will naturally encourage her children to ‘examine the grounds’. She will do for the obvious reason that any Catholic may be asked by a non-Catholic enquirer to ‘give account’ of his faith; and for the non-Catholic the ‘grounds’ are of great importance. But she will do so also because faith ordinarily requires, for its bene esse, an instructed reason and an understanding which mere assent is not calculated to engender.” (Page 21)

This analogy could also apply to the study of Sacred Scripture. More often than not, the same persons who tout that Leo’s tome was the opinion of one bishop are often times serious Bible readers. It would be a far stretch for any of these persons to say that they have struggled one or twice with a certain passage in Romans 4 being in harmony with James 2. And yet, with all the ink spilled trying to reconcile this together over the last 500 years, not once has the idea come up that by doing such critical exegesis, one effectively doubts the infallibility or the divine inspiration of the Holy Scriptures. But be sure, if the bishops at Chalcedon work to understand how the Tome of Leo is in harmony with prior dogma of the Church, it must be because the Tome is a base document of man’s opinion.



In conclusion, I think there is ample evidence to believe that the Council of Chalcedon submitted obediently to the Tome of Leo. In the very letter which the Council wrote to Pope Leo after their proceedings were done, this very point is proved. On the Tome of Leo, the Council writes: “And we were all delighted, reveling, as at an imperial banquet, in the spiritual food, which Christ supplied to us through your letter: and we seemed to see the Heavenly Bridegroom actually present with us. For if where two or three are gathered together in His name, He has said that there He is in the midst of them ,must He not have been much more particularly present with 520 priests, who preferred the spread of knowledge concerning Him to their country and their ease? Of whom you were chief, as the head to the members, showing your goodwill in the person of those who represented you (Letter 98). Who better than the Council to ask who was Head of the Synod? Whether the Tome was critically examined? Or whether Leo’s letter was merely just an opinion? Indeed, no other testimony is better.

14 thoughts on “Tome of Pope St. Leo – Critically Examined by the Council of Chalcedon?

  1. Reblogged this on Erick Ybarra and commented:

    How did the Bishops of the Council receive the Tome of Leo? This is a fundamental question in the current dialogue between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics. The idea held by the Eastern Orthodox is that Pope St. Leo’s tome carried no binding authority simply because it was issues by the Magisterium of Rome. On the contrary, they would urge, the Tome of Leo was critically examined, and only when it was judged to be in accordance with the Apostolic faith was it deemed acceptable. This demonstrates, they would argue, that a Pope fiat carried no coercive bind upon the Church until the authority of a Council deemed it so, i.e. Councils are superior in authority than Popes. I even had an Eastern Orthodox Christian tell me at a get together that the Pope’s decision counted as one single vote together with the other bishops equally presiding and contributing. Does this gloss adequately represent the historical facts as seen from the Council of Chalcedon itself? To this we now look.

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  3. I have to wonder if you actually read the acts of the council. Or, at least the introduction in the standard work. If you had, you’d find:

    The fathers of Chalcedon were profuse in their professions of loyalty to Cyril. Even when judging the Tome of Pope Leo (the great western Christological statement, formally approved at Chalcedon), their criterion of orthodoxy remained agreement with Cyril; this is clear throughout the lengthy discussion of the Tome in the fourth session.224 Even more revealing was an earlier moment, when in the second session there occurred a reading of the Tome that was interrupted at several points by dissentient voices. Some of the bishops present took offence at the words, ‘[Christ] has from us the humanity that is less than the Father, and he has from the Father the Godhead that is equal with the Father.’ Theodoret of Cyrrhus, the champion of the Antiochene party, defended Leo by pointing out, ‘There is a similar instance in the blessed Cyril which contains the words, “He became man without shedding what was his own, for he remained what he was; he is certainly conceived as one dwelling in another, that is, the divine nature in what is human”.’ (II. 26). Nothing could be more indicative of the mood of the council than the fact that even Theodoret had to defend the Tome by appealing to the authority of Cyril. His own attitude was far more critical: he had strongly attacked Cyril’s Twelve Chapters back in the pamphlet war in early 431 and had been very reluctant to accept Nestorius’ subsequent condemnation. But he clearly recognized that it would be disastrous to argue that there was something valuable in the Tome of Leo that was lacking in Cyril; instead, he played along with the conviction of the majority that Cyril provided the yardstick of orthodoxy. It was as an expression of this convic- tion that the Second Letter to Nestorius and the Letter to John of Antioch were read out and acclaimed at the second session of the Council (II. 18–19), in the place of honour immediately after the recitation of the creed. These are the two letters that we have already cited as the key texts of ‘moderate’ Cyrillianism; and these are the letters of Cyril that are referred to with immense respect as the ‘conciliar letters’ of Cyril in the Chalcedonian Definition itself.

    • I am not sure what I have said that seriously contradicts what Dr. Price has said. I have commented on the critical attitude of *some* of the Bishops. But have you taken care to observe just who those bishops were, and to what significance is their number? If I left you wondering at whether I have read the Acts, I am left with the same.

      Those who may have expressed a critical attitude (for only certain representatives spoke) came from Egypt, Palestine, and Illyricum. The Egyptians number 12 or 13. The Illyrians were 32. The Palestinians were 16. The greater majority of the Council was against them, and these Bishops proved to cause trouble *even after the Council closed*. In other words, if their critical attitude towards the Tome of Leo by the “yardstick” of St Cyril of Alexandria proves that Leo’s Tome carried no intrinsic authority, then we would have to say the exact same thing about the Council of Chalcedon! I am unsure what confession you hail from, but I can only think that it must be the Anglican communion which has disavowed Councils of any intrinsic authority as well as Papal decrees. I will let you reveal that information at your own pleasure.

      In any case, if you read page 4 of Price, you will read the following, and it accords perfectly with what I’ve said here in this article. He writes:

      “The letters of Cyril were greeted, predictably, with acclamations of unanimous approval, but the Illyrian and Palestinian Bishops who had supported Dioscorus in the first session interuppted the reading of the Tome with objections to several passages, a remarkable discourtesy towards a document that MOST OF THE BISHOPS, in all probability, had already signed.” (Acts of Chalcedon, Pg. 4)

      If you are Eastern Orthodox, then I would curious to know what you think of one of your pre-eminent Saints believed about those who questioned the Tome at the Council. This is what Leo says about that whole debacle in his epistle to Theodoret:

      “For lest the assent of other Sees to that which the Lord of all has appointed to take precedence of the rest might seem mere complaisance, or lest any other evil suspicion might creep in, some were found to dispute our decisions before they were finally accepted. And while some, instigated by the author of the disagreement, rush forward into a warfare of contradictions, a greater good results through his fall under the guiding hand of the Author of all goodness” (Epistle 120)

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  5. Pingback: “Tome of Pope St. Leo – Critically Examined by the Council of Chalcedon?” | Rebuttal to Erick Ybarra – Ubi Petrus Ibi Ecclesia

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  8. G’day Erick,

    I hope you’re well. I’m a cradle Catholic (although currently out of communion) who’s discerning either reverting to the Church or converting to Orthodoxy (I’m looking into both Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian at this stage).

    May I ask to what extent you’ve researched the controversy of the Council of Chalcedon, the question of the Lord’s natures, and if there sources you have come across that best represent the “dyophisite” view on Christology?

    God bless,

    • Hey!

      That is a very interesting question. I am not sure if I’ve even scratched the surface even after putting time year after year LOL. On dyophysite Christology, I would recommend Fr. Richard Price and his translation of the Acts of Chalcedon (451). His pre-history and commentary (he had a couple co-authors) are excellent.

      I would strongly recommend you listen to this historical lecture on the issue by a Coptic priest who says the theology of the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Oriental Orthodox (Copt/Syriac) has been resolved and that it was a semantic issue.

      However, that’s not the end of the story. One has to ask which side has a better case for its being right in the matter.

      • G’day Erick,

        Thanks heaps! Managed to get a hold of Fr. Price’s translation of the Acts of Chalcedon. Just finished watching the lecture too, which was very insightful.

        Would it be correct to say that the Catholic Church officially recognises both Christological positions (miaphysite and dyophysite) as orthodox? It’s just that I’ve heard a couple of different responses both from Catholics and Orthodox.

        God bless,

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