On this day in Christian history, Pope Leo the Great became the Bishop of Rome: What made him “great”?

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On this day in Christian history, Pope Leo the Great became the Bishop of Rome: What made him “great”?

September 29, 2022 - Ryan Denison, PhD

In a vintage line drawing, Attila the Hun is depicted cowering before Pope Leo the Great. © Morphart/stock.adobe.com

In a vintage line drawing, Attila the Hun is depicted cowering before Pope Leo the Great. © Morphart/stock.adobe.com

In a vintage line drawing, Attila the Hun is depicted cowering before Pope Leo the Great. © Morphart/stock.adobe.com

History accords popes the moniker of “Great” for two primary reasons.

For some, it’s because they advanced the faith in remarkable and impactful ways. Pope Gregory the Great, for example, is known as such because, among other achievements, he sent missionaries across Europe who helped to convert the barbarian tribes throughout the continent.

Others, however, are known as “Great” because they preserved the faith during a time when its future was far from secure. Such was the case with Pope Leo I, who was consecrated as the Bishop of Rome on September 29, 440.

The legacy of Pope Leo I

Leo’s most enduring legacy in the church relates to how he guarded its theology.

Today, we may still struggle to fully understand subjects like how Christ can be fully human and fully God. So it’s strange to think that there was a time when the church’s official stance on the subject was that Jesus’ divine nature was so all-consuming that, after his baptism, he essentially ceased to function as a human. However, in the years preceding the Council of Chalcedon in 451, that was the case.

Given that Christ’s human nature is an essential element of why he was able to die for our sins and is one of the main reasons that his example is so powerful, it is difficult to grasp how different our faith could be today if the heretical view on this subject had endured.

However, the Roman Empire split into East and West in 395, and a change in leadership at the Eastern Empire’s capital resulted in a new Ecumenical Council where the issue was brought up for debate.

While Leo and most of the church’s leaders in the west could not attend on account of an impending invasion from Attila and the Huns, he sent his representatives to speak on his behalf. His writings on the subject, since referred to as Leo’s Tome, were read aloud before the Council. By its conclusion, the matter was largely settled in a way that best accords with what we read in the Bible.

Yet, helping to save orthodox thinking was not the only way Leo preserved the church.

Pope Leo I vs. Attila the Hun

As mentioned above, Leo could not attend the Council of Chalcedon in person because he was too busy dealing with the threat of the Huns. That threat became a reality shortly thereafter and, within a year, the Western portion of the Roman Empire was largely at Attila’s mercy. By this point, the emperors had shown such weakness that most people were already looking to the Pope and the church for leadership in every facet of their lives.

As a result, it was decided that Leo would lead a delegation to meet with Attila in order to convince him to stop his invasion. The details of their encounter have been exaggerated quite a bit over the centuries. For instance, artwork depicting the Hunnic leader cowering before the Pope became commonplace during the Middle Ages. The end result was that Attila decided to return home and died before he could invade again.

Geiseric and the Vandals would return soon thereafter to threaten the Western Empire. But no matter which barbarian horde invaded, Leo helped ensure that at least the people of Rome endured. As such, they became increasingly committed to the church and the faith of its leaders.

Our call to preserve the faith

I bring up Leo’s example today because, as our culture moves further away from the Lord, helping the church to endure is a mission to which each of us is called. To be sure, advancing the kingdom is needed as well, but doing our part to preserve the faith is equally crucial.

However, Leo’s legacy reminds us that such preservation does not mean attempting to ride out the storm in seclusion. Rather, we must engage with the threats we face and stand firm on the truth of God’s word. And though we may not do that in some grand Ecumenical Council or in the presence of some existential threat to our very existence, it is often in the more seemingly mundane instances that we can make the greatest impact.

So whether it’s with your children, your coworkers, or anyone else the Lord brings into your circle of influence, ask the Holy Spirit to guide you as you stand for the faith, doing so in a way that honors Christ’s message and his example.

A. A. Hodge once wrote that “it is easier to find a score of men wise enough to discover the truth than to find one intrepid enough, in the face of opposition, to stand up for it.”

Will you stand up for God’s truth today?

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the ESV®️ Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®️), copyright ©️ 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The ESV text may not be quoted in any publication made available to the public by a Creative Commons license. The ESV may not be translated in whole or in part into any other language.

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