The Interface of Spirituality and Theology in Leontius of Jerusalem and Theodore the Studite

Lex orandi, lex credendi: the law of prayer is the law of belief. This maxim, attributed to the fifth century writer, Prosper of Aquitaine, pithily expresses the inherent link between theology and spirituality. The way in which one connects with God through prayer and practice will be determined by the way in which one understands God; likewise, prayer and practice can reinforce and perpetuate a particular understanding of God. This paper will examine two patristic writers whose careers exemplified this maxim. Both Leontius of Jerusalem (d. c. 543), and Theodore the Studite (d. 826), had to retrieve certain spiritual practices from being distorted by erroneous theological positions.

One could say that the second through seventh ecumenical councils were a continuing exercise in clarifying the first ecumenical council’s attempt to define the identity of Christ, and his relationship to the Father. Leontius of Jerusalem’s disputes with the non-Chalcedonian “Monophysites,”1 which took place in the decades before the fifth council, were a part of this conversation. It is an important piece of historical context that by this time, the creed promulgated by Nicaea in 325, and amended at Constantinople in 381, was being recited liturgically in both Antioch (beginning around 471), and Constantinople (beginning around 511), and that this practice was begun by Monophysites as a method of preserving the “pure doctrine” against the “innovations” of Chalcedon.2 Though he does not mention it explicitly, it is not hard to imagine that Leontius would not want Monophysite preaching to accompany the Creed in the liturgy, and thus distort its meaning in the minds of the laity; in his writing, Leontius is attempting to further develop a reading of the Creed that is in-line with Chalcedon.

In his polemical work against the Monophysites, Leontius defends the full humanity of Christ by taking a direct stand: “Do you confess that the Word’s nature has been made incarnate by a nature of the flesh, or not?”3 He considers this question to be absolutely central: he asks rhetorically that if the multiplicity of natures in Christ is a mere mental construct, and not an ontological reality, “who decreed that we should teach fictions about Christ, the true God, and that the faith should hang on mere illusions?”4 See how strongly he speaks: the faith “hangs on” the issues under discussion. The nature of Christ’s humanity, and its relationship to his divinity, the very heart of the Creed, is foundational to the faith, and is at stake in these controversies.

Leontius’ chief contribution to the controversy is a further distinction between hypostasis and nature, and an explication of the relationship between the two, and much of his writing in this work is focused on drawing this out. Meyendorff summarizes well Leontius’ notion of enhypostasis: “The hypostasis is not the product of nature: it is that in which nature exists, the very principle of its existence.”5 Leontius does not seem interested in conciliation or compromise with the Monophysites, instead subjecting his opponents’ positions to reductio ad absurdum arguments. His goal is to show that the Monophysite position regarding the relationship between hypostasis and natures is not only incompatible with the Creed, but is even illogical. He asks why we should limit the natures of Christ to two if they are mere mental categories; in one place, he even shows that his opponents actually posit six different natures in Christ!6 Elsewhere, he considers the conclusions that follow from denying two natures and, instead, confessing two hypostases: then either 1) the Logos pre-incarnation, and the Christ post-incarnation, are two different subjects, and thus there are two different gods; or 2) the Logos did not really take flesh, did not really incarnate; this leaves us either with a plurality of gods, or a non-human Christ—either way, we abandon the creedal faith of Nicaea.

In some places, Leontius deploys a strategy of associating his opponents with previous heresies, ones that were combated by the councils that promulgated the Creed. At one point, he accuses them of professing a Eutychian tertium quid: “Either, then, this one nature you talk about is some nature entirely other than the Word and the flesh, and is neither God nor man, or else it’s not one nature that exists, but two.”7 Elsewhere, he asserts that their position results in either Arianism, or in tritheism.8 Similarly, he takes the Monophysite slogan of “no nature without hypostasis” and applies it to the Trinity, asking his opponents to then defend either one person in the Trinity (since there is but one divine nature), or three divine natures (since there are three hypostases). Leontius demonstrates that the Monophysite position cannot be reconciled to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan teaching on the Trinity.

Keen not to fall into a Nestorian “two-subject” Christology while he defends the two natures, Leontius insists that what was assumed was not a “mere man” (that is, a human subject) but all the characteristics of humanity (that is, a human nature). This focus on “characteristics” (idiomata) was imprecise, and while it could later be taken up by the iconoclasts (though it would be clarified on the side of the orthodox position by John Damascene), it nevertheless was an important step in helping to clarify the distinction between hypostasis and nature. Even if he does not present a flawless solution, Leontius recognizes the contours of the problem. For example, he says that if you say Christ’s human nature was particular, you profess two subjects and are thus a Nestorian; if you say Christ’s human nature was universal, this must refer to the substance of the whole form (eidos) “human,” i.e., everybody, leading to such absurd conclusions as saying that Judas and Pilate died and rose with Christ, and that Mary gave birth to herself!9 Such a conclusion would be incompatible with a Creed which proclaimed Christ was “born of the Virgin Mary” or “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

When Leontius says the faith “hangs on” this matter, he refers not only to having a correct Christology, but to the end or goal of the Christian spiritual life: deification. The way we understand the nature of Christ’s humanity, and its relationship to his divinity, will determine our notion of deification, the way in which we participate in the life of God. In the orthodox view, the union of the fullness of humanity and the fullness of divinity in Christ allows for human beings to partake in the divine nature by being united to Christ through baptism, and that supernatural life is maintained and strengthened through reception of the Eucharist; here is another facet of the liturgical dimension. The consequences of a Monophysite Christology for deification are plain from what has been said above: if Christ did not take on a true and full human nature, he cannot serve as the mediator between God and humanity, for there is then, at least, some part of us which is not in him. At the other extreme, the consequences of a Nestorian Christology are equally unacceptable: if the relation of Christ’s humanity to his divinity is that of one subject to another, then our relation to the divinity would be no different than his—there would be no distinction between Christ and Christians, and we fall into isochristism. In Leontius’ view, though, the flesh of Christ “is deified not simply by grace, but because it is the Word’s own flesh. Here is the difference between Christ and the Christians, between hypostatic possession of divine life, and deification by grace and participation.”10 Christ’s humanity is deified because it is the flesh of God; this enables our deification. If we lose this understanding of Christ, prayed in the Creed every Sunday, we lose the proper sense of our final destiny as Christians.

A few centuries after Leontius, St. Theodore the Studite became engaged in a controversy which even more directly and explicitly involved the theological implications of a spiritual practice. The iconoclasts were smashing the icons which decorated churches, claiming they were blasphemous. Though it is often portrayed as a dispute over idol worship, the iconoclast controversy was, at its core, a dispute about Christ’s human nature; the attack on icons was an attack on orthodox Christology, or as Theodore put it: “It is for this reason that the image has to be made the object of disrespect: so as to deny the prototype himself.”11

The dispute between the two sides could be summarized in a series of syllogisms. The iconoclasts’ argument was simple: God is infinite and, thus, cannot be depicted, described, or circumscribed; Christ is God; therefore, Christ cannot be depicted. The orthodox responded with a counter-argument: That which has a human nature can be depicted; Christ has a human nature; therefore, Christ can be depicted. The iconoclasts countered by attacking the minor premise of the orthodox argument, saying that the sort of human nature Christ had did not possess certain characteristics that were incompatible with the divine nature, such as circumscribability.

We can see here how the iconoclasts could take the thought of Leontius of Jerusalem and twist it for their purposes: if the human nature of Christ were merely a grouping of “characteristics,” one could excise certain of those characteristics, or claim that those characteristics were only generic (e.g., that Christ had the quality of height, but not of a particular height) and still be left with some sort of human nature. Christ did not have a human nature that could be described—this is agraptodocetism. Theodore found the notion incomprehensible: “The Apostle claims that he himself took the shape (morphē) of a servant: perhaps you would suggest that he lacked shape? Or that as he was found in the form of a man, he nonetheless lacked form? Or that he assumed the likeness of men, and yet, he was dissimilar?”12 Theodore asks bluntly which is it: is Christ like, or unlike, other human beings in his human nature? Theodore insists that one cannot excise certain characteristics from a human nature, and leave others. Such a thing is unthinkable. Threatening one characteristic threatens them all, some of which are more central to the Christian faith than others: “But if he does not have a nature that can be represented, much less does he have a nature that can suffer.”13

Theodore argues that Christ’s human nature gave him every characteristic inherent to being human, which includes the ability to be described. His reasoning is uncomplicated: if something is a human being, that thing can be depicted, or put in the opposite way, “If someone cannot be represented in an image, that is not a human being, but an abortion (ektrōma).”14 The iconoclasts are not full docetists who would claim that Christ had only an appearance of humanity. They would say he had a body of some sort, but that it was a body that could not be described, because it was a body of a being with only a generic human nature. Theodore replies that it is meaningless to say that something possessed of a body cannot be depicted: “If indeed something is bodiless, it cannot be painted; and if it is embodied, the claim that it could not possibly be painted cannot be understood by anyone who is endowed with the faculty of reason.”15 To do away with these sorts of particular characteristics is to deny a key component of Christ’s human nature, which puts the fullness of the Incarnation at risk. In other words, “the absence of representation (hē agraphia) could be construed as a negation of the incarnation.”16

What sort of Incarnation is implied in this iconoclastic Christology? What is the relationship between humanity and divinity in Christ in this framework? From the orthodox point of view, the Christ of the iconoclasts is one that looks quite similar to that of Eutyches. As Meyendorff puts it, “for Theodore, the fact of being indescribable is a characteristic of the divine nature; to admit that the humanity of Christ acquires this divine quality, to introducing in Christ a ‘mingling’ of the natures (condemned at Chalcedon), and to reducing the mystery of the incarnation to a product of imagination.”17 Here, the iconoclasts make an old mistake by placing the locus of the communication of the idioms at the level of the natures. Theodore instead adopts Leontius’ solution of enhypostasis, the notion that the natures have their existence in the hypostasis, so that the hypostasis is that which receives the characteristics of the two natures without any confusion of the natures themselves. “This is, indeed, the new mystery of the economy: an encounter (synodos) has taken place between the divine and the human nature in the one hypostasis of the eternal Word, which preserves, in an intact manner, the properties of each in the undivided (adiairetō) union.”18 Thus, a human characteristic like circumscribability can be predicated of the hypostasis, the subject, so that “for Theodore, the very hypostasis of Christ is describable … and it is represented on the image.”19

What is the relationship between the image representing Christ, and Christ himself? Here, the relationship between theology and spirituality comes to the fore. Even given that Christ could be depicted, the iconoclasts would say, surely we ought not to accord honor to a mere image of Christ? Theodore responds by clarifying just what is honored when the icon is venerated: “The honor of the icon, indeed, ascends (anabainei) to the prototype; and the same also with the dishonor. Behold, then, who is the one whom they despise.”20 Theodore says that to venerate an icon of Christ is to venerate Christ himself; what then is the result of smashing an icon of Christ? He goes so far as to say that the divinity is present in the icon, “yet not by means of a natural union (physikē enōsei)—indeed, they are not the flesh that is deified—but by virtue of a relational participation (schetikē metalēpsei), where the participation happens in terms of grace and honor.”21

Theodore also points to the practice of venerating crosses, which the iconoclasts accepted, and asks: If the image of the cross should be venerated because of its connection to Christ, how much more the image of Christ? “And for whatever he suffered, there are corresponding instruments of the passion; the passion is holy and divine, thus the instruments are sanctified and deified. This is really what matters.”22 Christ’s body, and the image of it, is to be venerated not only because it belongs to the venerable Christ, but because, through his passion, it is, like the cross, the instrument of our redemption. He also points to the story from Exodus of the bronze serpent that healed by being looked at, and asked: “if the monstrous type merely by the act of being seen could cure, how could not the sacred image of Christ, by being looked at, not hallow those who look at it?”23

Theodore speaks powerfully of the hallowing effect of venerating icons: “And as every human being can be represented by an image, the same goes for Christ; and for the sake of our salvation, we can contemplate these painted images, these sacred lights, these memorials of salvation, where we see Christ born, baptized, performing miracles, crucified, buried, risen again, ascended into heaven.”24 The events depicted in these icons truly happened in the real, physical world, with Christ’s real, physical body performing them. This requires that Christ took on a full human nature, not one of mere mental categories of human characteristics: “If indeed the noetic contemplation were to suffice, it would have been enough for him to come to us in this manner; and, thereby, we would have been deprived of the appearance of his deeds, if he had not come in a bodily manner, and of his sufferings, which were undeniably like ours.”25 A Christ that cannot be depicted is a Christ that did not become human, and thus could not suffer, and thus could not save. Theodore challenges his opponents to say both that they reject images, and accept the Creed (here again we see the concern from Leontius’ time): “But once we have established and proved this fact, how is it possible for you to say that you reject the making and the veneration of images, but you do not reject the teaching of the first Council? We saw how that Council announced implicitly that one could make images of Christ’s human form.”26 Indeed, Theodore reaches even further back into history for support for his position:

Here is again the doctrine of the apostles, and of our fathers, the sublimity (hē akrotēs) of the apostles, the foundation of the tradition, the keys of the dogma, the norm of the correct faith; and if anyone were to contradict any of these statements, even if he is an angel, he is condemned and declared to be anathema; he does not come from the Apostles, nor from the Fathers, but he is deceitful, and carries a false name.27

For Theodore, to defend the veneration of icons is to defend the Incarnation of Christ as understood from the Apostles, to the ecumenical councils, to his own day. There is thus a vital connection between theology and spirituality.

Christology is inextricably linked to soteriology, and precedes it, so that your doctrine of Christ will determine your doctrine of salvation. The liturgy, which among other things is the great teaching tool of the faith, passes on these truths, whether in the recitation of the Creed, or the presence in the church of icons to be venerated. Both Leontius and Theodore recognized this truth and wrote in defense of it.

  1. An indelicate term these days, but since Leontius uses it, and for the sake of simplicity, I will use it here.
  2. Henry Jenner, “Liturgical Use of Creeds,” The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908), (accessed May 11, 2013)
  3. Leontius of Jerusalem, Against the Monophysites, ed. and trans. Patrick T.R. Gray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 207.
  4. Ibid., 173.
  5. John Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1975), 77.
  6. Leontius, 197.
  7. Ibid., 183.
  8. Ibid., 199.
  9. Ibid., 217.
  10. Meyendorff, 78.
  11. Theodore the Studite, On the Holy Icons, Refutation of the Impious Poems of the Iconoclasts, trans. Thomas Cattoi (to be published), 152.
  12. Ibid., 167.
  13. Theodore, 164.
  14. Ibid., 153.
  15. Ibid., 157.
  16. Ibid., 170.
  17. Meyendorff, 186-87.
  18. Theodore, 7.
  19. Meyendorff, 188.
  20. Theodore, 154.
  21. Ibid., 19.
  22. Ibid., 156.
  23. Ibid., 9.
  24. Ibid., 163.
  25. Ibid., 10-11.
  26. Ibid., 182.
  27. Ibid. 178.
Nicholas Senz About Nicholas Senz

Nicholas Senz is a husband and father, and is the Director of Religious Education at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Mill Valley, CA. He is a managing editor at Catholic Stand and a Master Catechist. Nicholas holds Master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA, and blogs at Two Old Books. (