Byzantium and the Roman primacy

Francis Dvornik





Today it is quite proper to say that the only serious obstacle remaining to a rapprochement between the Orthodox Churches and Catholic Church is the question of the Roman Primacy. All other obstacles can now be considered to have been surmounted, especially those differences in rite and liturgy which played so great a role in polemic literature, both Greek and Latin, from the eleventh to the fifteenth century.


Beginning with the thirteenth century the Roman Church began to lose its attitude of mistrust with regard to the existence of different rites and the use of national languages in the liturgy. Even though the remembrance of the capture of Constantinople by the Latins in 1204 interfered with the numerous attempts at union with the Greeks, still, it had one salutary effect. It forced the Latin World to show itself more and more conciliatory, at least in regard to the existence of different rites and the use of national languages in the liturgy. The partial unions concluded with some branches of Orthodoxy after the Council of Lyons (1274) and of Florence (1439) helped this attitude to become more general.


The present-day liturgical movement which has had such salutary effects in the Catholic Church will undoubtedly contribute, not only to removing these last doubts—since it shows so well the necessity for the people to participate actively in the liturgical action—but it will surely make more understandable in the West the mentality of the Eastern Christians who have never ceased to stress the importance of the Eucharistic sacrifice in the life of every Christian above and beyond any other devotion, either public or private.





In the area of dogma, the question of the procession of the Holy Spirit from both the Father and the Son—the Filioque— has likewise lost much of its force. The highly emotional preoccupation of both Latins and Greeks to find heresy in the teaching of the other—a tendency that was very strong during the centuries of controvery—lost much of its intensity especially after the fall of the Byzantine Empire.


Besides, history shows us that reasons other than theological have contributed to inflating this controversy beyond proper bounds. In this connection it is interesting to note that at the beginning of this controversy it seems that people, at least in the West, viewed the question of the Filioque with some detachment.


In fact a curious document of the ninth century seems to indicate this. It is the work of Anastasius Bibliothecarius, the bitter adversary of the Patriarch Photius who had himself stirred the controversy about the Filioque. Among the works of Anastasius we find a translation of various documents relative to the history of the Church, which is dedicated to the Deacon, John Hymmonides. Anastasius includes among them a letter of St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662) on the procession of the Holy Spirit. In his introduction [1] to the translation of these documents Anastasius writes:


We have translated also a passage from the letter of St. Maximus to the priest Marinus concerning the procession of the Holy Spirit. In it he said that the Greeks have in this matter become needlessly opposed to us since we do not at all say, as they pretend we do, that the Son is the cause and the principle of the Holy Spirit. On the contrary, in our preoccupation to assert the unity of substance of the Father and the Son, we say that the Holy Spirit, while he proceeds from the Father, also proceeds from the Son, understanding this procession as a mission. Maximus pleads with those who know the two languages to maintain peace. He says that both we and the Greeks understand that the Holy Spirit proceeds, in one sense from the Son, but that in another sense he does not proceed from the Son. He draws attention to the fact that it is very difficult to express this precise distinction in both Latin and in Greek.





It is altogether possible that linguistic reasons have had their effect in exaggerating the importance of this dispute. The word cK does, as a matter of fact, seem to mean much more to a Greek than the word ex does to a Latin. [2] What is significant here is that Anastasius is anxious to explain in friendly fashion this difference of opinion between Greek and Latin theologians. He wrote this commentary in 874, some years after Photius had given this latent controversy a new meaning in his appeal to the Eastern patriarchs and to the Synod of 867. [3]


Further, we also get the impression that Pope John VIII rather looked upon this question as merely a discussion among theologians on a subject which had not yet been defined as an article of faith. It is in this sense that we can explain the attitude of his legates to the Council of 879-880 confirming the union between Byzantium and Rome. Since the Credo was recited in Rome without the Filioque, it seemed quite natural for them to declare themselves as opposed to this addition to the Nicene Creed.


It is also somewhat surprising to us to see that this controversy, in spite of the efforts of Photius in his Mystagoge which strove to give the Greek thesis a solid theological foundation, played a relatively unimportant role in the polemics which took place between the two Churches in 1054 and immediately after the break with the Patriarch Michael Cerularius.


In the famous letter which was addressed by Leo, the Archbishop of Ochrida, at the request of Michael Cerularius, to the Latin Archbishop of Trani, [4] he does not even mention this difference between the doctrines of the two Churches. In this letter, which contains a long catalogue of bitter reproaches, Leo attacks certain innocent customs of the Latins, with especial emphasis on the use of unleavened bread in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.


Cardinal Humbert, when invited by Pope Leo IX to refute the accusations made by the Greeks,





introduced this subject into the controversy when reproaching the Greeks for having suppressed the Filioque in the Nicene Creed. [5] This accusation which, incidentally, revealed a vast ignorance of the origin of the controversy—in fact it was not the Greeks who suppressed the Filioque but the Latins who introduced it—shows that this theological difference did not any longer constitute a serious cause of discord between the two Churches. It was only in the beginning of the twelfth century that the Filioque became the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of the Greek and Latin polemists.


Besides, it was a Latin prelate who reopened the controversy on the Filioque. It was Peter Grossolanus, Archbishop of Milan, an unofficial member [6] of an embassy sent by Pope Paschal II in 1122 to Constantinople for the conclusion of an agreement with the Emperor Alexius I Comnenus, who entered into discussion with the Greek clergy, notably on the Filioque. Seven Byzantine theologians were invited by the Emperor to reply to his arguments. [7] In his Dogmatic Panoply, [8] Euthymius Zigabenus took pains to furnish his compatriots with numerous arguments against the Filioque, drawn for the most part, from the writings of Photius.


In 1135 it was another Latin prelate, Anselm, Bishop of Havelberg, who debated the question of the Filioque with Nicetas of Nicomedia, the first among the twelve professors of the Patriarchal Academy. Anselm has described this debate in a work which he dedicated to Pope Eugenius III. [9]


These two debates were really rather academic, with each of the parties simply stating their positions. The two prelates spoke in rather courteous terms, avoiding anything which could be of offense to the Greeks. On his part, Nicetas of Nicomedia maintained great reserve in the polite responses which he made to Anselm.


The second phase of these discussions and controversies was opened, after 1204, by the Latins who had been victorious at Constantinople and,





on the side of the Greeks, especially by Nicholas Mesarites. [10] From this point on, it can be seen that the tone of the writings on this question, which up to then had been a rather academic matter between the theologians of the two sides, had now become a political and national matter. This is easily understandable if we remember the violent antipathy of the Greeks against the Latins who had destroyed their Empire. In this stormy atmosphere one could hardly expect the question to be discussed as a mere theological difference, when it had become a political issue.


Today, however, after so many centuries, the time has come when both Orthodox and Catholic theologians can discuss the matter without emotion. [11] We should never forget that we are here touching upon the mystery of the Blessed Trinity before which human intelligence can do no better than to bend its head and confess its incompetence.


* * *


The view has often been stated that the separation between the two Churches was really due to the different conception held of the Church and its role, in Byzantium and in the West. Ecclesiology is really a rather new branch of the tree of Christian theology and it has developed particularly since the Reformation. At the present time, all theologians—Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant—are keenly interested in ecclesiological problems. [12] Different definitions of the Church are proposed and discussed, its relation with the mystical Body of Christ is studied, and its organic evolution is explained in the light of the definitions proposed. [13]


It is not at all surprising that the specialists of this new theological discipline take some pains to find confirmation for their theories in the writings of the Fathers and in the organization of the primitive Church. [14] But these efforts could lead to dangerous deviations if we attempt to transpose ideas that





were formulated recently into epochs when, in reality, such ideas did not exist at all, or if, on the other hand, we should try to interpret patristic texts in the light of these modern ideas.


This danger would exist if we should try to reconstitute an ecclesiological system which we suppose to have existed in the Byzantine Church. We must understand that Byzantine theologians never did develop an ecclesiological system in the modem sense. They were preoccupied with other problems that were much more urgent and much more essential, such as those concerning the divine nature of the three Persons in the Trinity, the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, the double nature of the Incarnate Word, the double Will in Christ, God and man, the Procession of the Holy Spirit and the participation of the Holy Spirit in the sanctification of man. These problems dominate all theological speculation in Byzantium up to the ninth century; in fact, even the very question of the representation of Christ and the veneration of his image, and those of the saints, are closely linked to Christological mysteries.


As to the conception of the nature of the Church, the Byzantines were quite content with what they found in Holy Scripture [15] and that which the Eastern Fathers had passed on to them. The Church “is the Holy City which has been sanctified ... in becoming conformed to Christ and participating in the divine nature by the communication of the Holy Spirit.” This definition by Cyril of Alexandria [16] satisfied them completely. In the conception of the Byzantines, the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, the image of the Trinity, the work of the Holy Spirit, and its purpose is the sanctification of man. Man, in union with the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, should sanctify himself with the aid of the grace of the Holy Spirit, which the merits of the Incarnate Word have assured to humanity. He should, in a sense, “divinize” his nature and realize a union with God. To be sure, this union will not be perfect except in the world to come but man, meantime, has





at his disposal all the means necessary to attain, here in this life, a high degree of sanctification.


The necessary means to arrive at this end are to be found in the Church which distributes them by the intermediary of the priesthood: there are the sacraments, especially that of the Body and Blood of Our Lord. It is this sacrament which realizes best the union of our nature with Christ. Holy Communion brings about the union not only of the Christian with Christ but it also unites him to all members of the Church, thus representing the catholicity and the universality of the Church.


As we see, this conception of the Church finds its foundation in Christology and in the theology of the Holy Spirit. That this is so is clear from the evolution which Christian doctrine followed in the course of the first nine centuries, the time when the Eastern Church enjoyed the primary role. We realize that this conception was affected, from time to time, by the different Christological heresies: Nestorianism, Monophysitism and Monothelitism. The primitive conception of the nature of the Church, however, continued to be held as Orthodox theologians eliminated these deviations. [17] This Oriental conception of the Church, although more deeply imbued with a mystical spirit, is identical with that of the West.


Alongside of this mystical and celestial aspect, however, the Church, even for the Byzantines, had an earthly existence. It possessed a hierarchical structure, was a concrete organism, was ruled by laws that were voted by assemblies of bishops, and it found it necessary to accommodate itself to a political situation which varied and to the social structure of the communities in which the faithful lived and its priests worked. These conditions of life were, in the East, often quite different from those that existed in the West and these differences seemed to have raised problems which had their influence on the conception of the role which the Church ought to play in society and the attitude which it ought to take in the face of political authority. All of this had its repercussions on the





relations which existed between the two Churches and, unfortunately, provoked a separation which developed until it ended in a formal schism.


At the same time it would be exaggerated and even erroneous to try to find an explanation of these differences in an ecclesiology which developed in different fashion in Byzantine and in the West from the fourth to the eleventh century. Along their own line, the Byzantines continued to stress the mystical character of the Church and its role in the sanctification of the faithful. The Greek Fathers, St. Athanasius, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Cyril of Alexandria continued to lead in theological speculation. Their ideas were taken up and developed, especially by St. Maximus the Confessor (662) [18] and St. Germanus, [19] and they were taught in Byzantium until the end of the Empire. [20] The differences that become clear both in Byzantium and the West in the conception of the Church and its earthly aspect, the differences which stand out also in the evolution of the organization of the two Churches, are due to the fact that the two portions of Christendom have developed under different political and social conditions. The only political philosophy which the Byzantines knew was founded on the Hellenistic political system which the first Christian ideologists, Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius, had adapted to Christian doctrine. This system, which one could call Christian Hellenism, saw in the Emperor a representative of God upon earth, almost the vicegerent of Christ. According to this political conception, the Christian Emperor not only had the right but also the duty to watch over the Church, to defend the Orthodox faith, and to lead his subjects to God. It is from this point of view that we must judge the development of Eastern Christianity and its ideas on the relation of the Church on earth to the civil power. [21]


This ideology was accepted throughout all of Christendom but the Roman Church had been able to escape its untoward consequences and the abuse of the imperial power, owing to the fact that the emperors did not reside at Rome; also important





were the profound transformations which the establishment of the new nations in the western part of the Empire brought into being.


If we study the evolution of Christianity in the East and in the West from this point of view, a great number of problems become quite clear. The position of the Christian Emperor in the entire Church after the conversion of Constantine, a position which cannot be identified with caesaropapism, becomes understandable. We also see the differences which existed between the two Christian worlds, differences which inevitably developed when the Church of Rome finally divested itself of the last traces of Christian Hellenism and developed its own political system.


This system restored to the Pope his special position in the Church and stressed the idea of universality, and gave rise to the idea of the superiority of spiritual power over the temporal—a thesis which the East was never able to comprehend.


The consequences of this evolution likewise had their effect in the legislative domain. While in the Byzantine Church the Emperor continued to be the lawmaker, using the right which Christian Hellenism had granted to him, in the West it was the Sovereign Pontiff who, increasingly, became the sole lawgiver in the Church. To explain these differences, the theologian might be tempted to seek for reasons in the order of ecclesiology, but in that path, the historian will be reluctant to follow him. [22] The Byzantines did not possess the ecclesiological mentality of modern theologians.


It would be a mistake to believe that the Byzantine theologians were content to consider solely the mystical and heavenly aspect of the Church. For them, the Church was also an earthly institution comprised not only of the faithful but also having a well-organized hierarchy which should rule the faithful and preserve the true faith. With regard to the earthly aspect of the Church and its organization, there were two problems which preoccupied Byzantine thinkers. The first was the position of the Emperor in the Church.





The intrusion of the emperors into the dogmatic area revealed the danger which a false application of Christian Hellenism could present for the hierarchy and the faithful. This danger provoked violent reactions and stirred up a desire to find an element strong enough to be a counterweight to these abuses and to guarantee the privileges of the hierarchy in the definition of doctrine. This element existed: it was the Primacy of the Bishop of Rome, the uncontested chief of all Christian churches in the West. In times of crisis this was remembered in Byzantium. They looked for and sought the help of the Bishop of Rome although suspicious of his growing prestige, and disinclined to allow him the right to intervene directly in internal affairs of the Byzantine Church. In Byzantium, the problem of the Roman Primacy was intimately connected with that of the imperial power. It is to this problem of the Primacy that we address ourselves in this book.





1. See the edition of the prefaces of Anastasius in MGH, Epistolae, VII, 425, and PL 129, 560. For the translation of the letter of Maximus, ibid. 577. Cf. St. Maximus, Opuscula theologica et polemica ad Marinum, PG 91, 136.


2. In Orientalia Christiana periodica, 15 (1949) 221-22, E. Hermann makes the point that theologians today recognize the fact that the Latin doctrine could very easily sound false to Greek ears, since the Greek preposition ἐκ does not altogether correspond in meaning to the Latin ex.


3. It appears that Photius himself suspected that there was a semantic problem, as can be seen in a passage in his Mystagogia, PG, 102, 3 76AB.


4. PG, 120, 8365.


5. PL, 143, 1003, in the Bull which excommunicated the patriarch.


6. On the basis of indications furnished by one of the seven Greek theologians, Nicetas Seides, V. Grumel has shown that Peter was not an official member of the embassy, but that he had been requested by the Pope to assist the legates. At this time, Grossolanus





was on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; “Autour du voyage de Pierre Grossolanus, archevêque de Milan, à Constantinople en 1112,” Échos d'Orient, 32 (1933) 28-30.


7. Grumel has identified them, as follows: Eustratius of Nicaea, Joannes Phournes, Nicetas Seides, Nicholas Muzalon, Theodore of Smyrna, Theodore Prodromus and Euthymius Zygabenus. Cf. B. Leib, Rome, Kiev et Byzance à la fin du XIe siècle (Paris, 1924), 312. See the discourse of Grossolanus in PG, 127, 911-20.


8. PG, 130, 20-1360.


9. Anselmi dialogi, PL, 188, 1130ff. Cf. F. Dvornik, The Photian Schism (Cambridge, 1948) 345, 396.


10. See infra, Ch. 8, note 12.


11. In this connection, see the studies by Catholic and Orthodox theologians in Russie et Chrétienté (1950) 123-244, and the article by J. Meyendorff on the origin of this controversy in Pravoslavnaja Mysl (Paris, 1953), 114-137 and the study of V. Lossky, La procession du Saint-Esprit dans la doctrine trinitaire orthodoxe (Paris, 1948).


12. See the article of O. Semmelroth, “Ecclesiologie,” in Lexicon für Theologie und Kirche, 3 (Freiburg, 1959) where we find a short history of Ecclesiology and some useful bibliographical information. For further detail see the reviews of the conferences given at “Colloque d’ecclésiologie,” organized by the Faculty of Catholic Theology of the University of Strassburg, Nov. 26-28, 1959, which were published in the Revue des sciences religieuses, 34 (1960) and in the collection “Unam Sanctam” (No. 34, Éditions du Cerf), under the title: L'Ecclésiologie au XIXe siècle.


13. Cf. especially the work of S. Jaki, Les tendances nouvelles de l'ecclésiologie (Rome, 1957; Bibliotheca Academiae Catholicae Hungaricae, Sectio phil.-theol. vol. 3). On pp. 99ff. there is an examination of recent Orthodox ecclesiology. The author shows at what point these new tendencies have been influenced by Protestant theology and by some elements from non-Christian philosophy.


The same subject is treated by Paul Evdokimov in L'Ecclésiologie au XIXe siècle (Cf. n. 12), 57-76, under the title: “Les principaux courants de l’ecclésiologie Orthodoxe au xixe siècle.”





See also the conference of Père B.-D. Dupuy, “Schisme et Primauté chez J. A. Möhler,” ibid., 197-2 31., and the remarks of Evdokimov in the course of the discussion, ibid., 375-92.


14. For example:

·       L. Cerfaux, La théologie de l'Église suivant saint Paul, 2nd. edit. (Paris, 1948);

·       K. Adam, Der Kirchenbegriff Tertullians (Paderborn, 1907);

·       L. Bouyer, L'Incarnation et l'Église Corps du Christ dans la théologie de saint Athanase (Paris, 1943);

·       G. Bardy, La théologie de l'Église, de saint Clément de Rome à saint Irenée (Paris, 1945) ;

·       the same, La théologie de l'Église de saint Irenée (Paris, 1947);

·       Hamel, Kirche bei Hippolyt von Rom (Güttersloh, 1951).


On the Orthodox side, see

·       N. Anastassieff, “La doctrine de la primauté à la lumière de l’ecclésiologie,” in Istina (1957) 401-20.


15. Especially, Ephesians, 1, 17-23.


16. In Isaiam, V, 1, ch. 52, §1; PG 70, 1144C.


17. This has been outlined by V. Lossky in his Essai sur la théologie mystique de l'Église d'Orient (Aubier, 1944), 171-92. For the Catholic point of view, see, Yves M.-J. Congar, “Conscience ecclésiologique en Orient et en Occident,” in Istina (1959) 189-201. See also the brief discussion in his study, After Nine Hundred Years (New York, 1959) 57-69. V. Lossky, op. cit., reproaches Congar for over-emphasizing (in his Chrétiens désunis [Paris, 1937] 14), the mysterious aspect of Oriental ecclesiology and for not paying enough attention to its terrestrial aspect. It would seem that Congar has treated this point adequately in the book cited above.


18. Notably, in his Mystagogia, chaps. 1-5; PG 91, 663-73, 705. St. Maximus saw in the Church the image of God, but also the image of the world and of man. He here has in mind two aspects of the Church: the mystical and the terrestrial. The Church is like a temple in which the faithful occupy a place within, different from that of the priests. The Church represents the unity of the world and the universe which it is to sanctify by the communication of the Holy Spirit. On the doctrine of Maximus, see the article of V. Grumel in DTC, vol. 10, 453ff. Naturally, St. Maximus was primarily interested in Christological and soteriological problems. He only touched on ecclesiology in passing.


19. Especially in his work, Historia ecclesiastica et mystica contemplatio, PG 98, 383ff.





20. See, for example, Photius’ ideas on the Church. For him, as well, the Church is the Bride of Christ, His Mystical Body; it is Christ, the Head, who directs the Church. On the other hand, he does not neglect the terrestrial aspect of the Church, her hierarchical structure, her right of jurisdiction over the faithful. See the documentation in Th. Spáčil, “Conceptus et doctrina de Ecclesia juxta theologiam Orientalis separati,” in Orientalia Christiana, 2 (1923) 36-7.


21. The Hellenistic political system and its adaptation to Christian doctrine will be studied in my book: Early Christian and Byzantine Political Philosophy, Origins and Background (Dumbarton Oaks Studies, IX).


22. Congar, in the study cited, “Conscience ecclésiologique” (supra, n. 17), made the first attempt to cast a bit more light on the ecclesiological problems of the two Churches. In the first part of this interesting study, he has described very well the more mysterious aspect which the Church assumes in the Oriental and Byzantine mind. Besides, in showing the process of separation, he was constrained to adduce some facts resulting from events and ideas that belong rather more to the political than to the religious sphere.


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