The Ecumenical Councils

Francis Dvornik




1. Origin of the Councils  9

2. The Council of Nicaea (325): the Role of the Emperor and the Rights of Bishops  13

3. The Aftermath of Nicaea and the Second Ecumenical Council  17

4. Rivalry between Alexandria, Constantinople and Antioch: the Third Ecumenical Council (431)  21

5. The Triumphs of Monophysitism at the “Robber Synod” (449)  25

6. The Council of Chalcedon (451)  26

7. Attempts at Compromise with the Monophysites  29

8. Emperor Justinian and the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553)  31

9. The Sixth Ecumenical Council (680)  33

10. Image Worship and the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787)  36

11. The Photian Controversy and the Synods of 869 and 879  40




Discussion of the origin of the Councils recalls the assembly of the apostles in Jerusalem in 52 and the letter starting with the words (Acts 15. 28): “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . This document announced to the faithful the decision of the assembly not to impose on the pagan converts all the prescriptions of the Old Testament. These words were often recalled in the gatherings of bishops during the first centuries when urgent matters brought them together to make decisions in accordance with the principles outlined by our Lord and by the apostles.


Such meetings took place in the capitals or major cities of Roman provinces where the apostles had found important Jewish communities which had become centres from which Christianity spread through the rest of the provinces. This explains why the letters of Peter and Paul were addressed to the Christians of Eastern and Western provinces of the Roman Empire or of their capitals—Rome (Italy), Ephesus (Asia), Corinth (Achaea), Thessalonica (Macedonia)—and why the decision of the apostolic assembly was made known to the Christians of Antioch, capital of Syria, and of the province of Cilicia. This practice influenced the organization of the primitive Church along the lines of the political divisions of the Roman Empire. It was thus natural that to the bishops residing in the capitals of the provinces





were left the initiative of convoking the councils and the privilege of presiding over their debates. This gave them a kind of superiority over other bishops of the districts. They were called metropolitans because they resided in the capitals (metropolis) and this status of superiority over other bishops of the provinces was sanctioned by the first Ecumenical Council, that of Nicaea (325).


We have little information on such assemblies in the eastern part of the Empire. It is St Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, the main city of Roman Africa, who gives us, however, the most complete information on how such assemblies were organized. He was convinced, as were the apostles, that the deliberations of the bishops were guided by the Holy Spirit. He announced the decision of the African Council of 252 with the words: “It has seemed good to us on the suggestion of the Holy Ghost.” On the other hand, however, from his letters we can be certain that such gatherings of bishops gradually modelled themselves on the rules under which the sessions of the Roman Senate were held. The presiding bishop assumed the role of the Emperor or of his representative in the Senate. He used the same words for the convocation of the Council as were used in the imperial summons for the meeting of the Senate; and the conduct of debate, the interrogations of the bishops, and their responses also imitated the procedure of the Senate. The same rules were observed at the Roman council held in 313, in the house of Fausta. There was nothing unusual in this development. The meetings of the local senates or municipal councils in the provincial capitals were also modelled on the procedure followed by the Roman Senate, and this procedure was thus familiar to the bishops, who were Roman citizens.


It is important to state that the conciliar or synodal practice was already fully developed in the Church before the conversion of Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor. Contrary to what has been often thought, Constantine was neither an agnostic nor a sceptical despot, exploiting religion for reasons of State. His conversion was sincere, and he was a firm believer in the spiritual and divine. Of course, he knew only one political





system, that of the autocratic monarchy into which the Roman Republic had been transformed under the influence of the Hellenistic political philosophy. This philosophy had deified the ruler and had given him absolute power over the material and spiritual interests of his subjects. The first Christian political philosophers, especially the Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, adapted this political system to Christian teaching. The Emperor was thus deprived of his divine character, but made to be the representative of God on earth, who had been given by God supreme power in things material and spiritual. He was told that, as a representative of the Eternal King—Jesus Christ— his foremost duty was to lead men to God.


Constantine accepted this transformation of Hellenistic and Roman political thought and took his duties in religious matters very seriously. We find in his official decrees many declarations which reveal his sincerity and zealous interest in the purity of the Christian faith and the unity of the Church. This he showed, for example, when, on the invitation of bishops, he intervened in the quarrels provoked by the African Donatists. These rigorists refused to accept bishops and priests who, during the persecutions, had been guilty of some weakness, but had performed penance for their lapses.


In the letter he sent in 314 to Aelafus, his representative in Africa, who was also a Christian, Constantine declared why he regarded it as his duty to stop this agitation:


[These quarrels] might well rouse God not only against the human race, but also against me, to whose rule and care his holy will has committed all earthly things, and provoke other measures. I shall never rest content or expect prosperity and happiness from the Almighty’s merciful power until I feel that all men offer to the All Holy the right worship of the Catholic religion in a common brotherhood.


These words express very clearly not only Constantine’s political creed, but also his sincerity in promoting the true worship of God and peace within the Church. In order to end the African schism, Constantine appointed five bishops from Gaul (modern France) as judges, including the Bishop of Rome.





He was apparently not yet acquainted with ecclesiastical practice, and when this first case was submitted to him by the contending bishops, he applied the Roman judicial procedure to its solution by setting up a court of investigation and judgement. The pope, Sylvester I, accepted the Emperor’s invitation, but followed Church practice by transforming the court into a council to which he invited fourteen Italian bishops.


Once Constantine had learned of the Church method— decision of religious affairs by bishops meeting in synods—he adopted it, and when the Donatists repudiated the decision of the Roman synod presided over by the pope, he decided to summon another council at Arles in Gaul.


The letter which Constantine sent to the assembly of Arles reveals the true sentiments of the Emperor and refutes the often expressed opinion that Constantine treated the bishops only as his counsellors in ecclesiastical affairs, reserving the final decision to himself. He expresses his indignation over the refusal of the Donatists to accept the decision of the Roman synod and their new appeal to his judgement. “They claim judgement from me, who am awaiting the judgement of Christ; for I declare, as is the truth, that the judgement of bishops ought to be looked upon as if the Lord himself were sitting in judgement. . . . What is to be said of these defamers of the law who, after rejecting the judgement of Heaven, have thought that they should demand judgement from me?”


It seems evident from these words that Constantine accepted the current ecclesiastical practice regarding the decision of the bishops in a council as final. On the other hand, he also thought that it was his imperial duty to support the decision, as he said in another letter in which he deplored the stubbornness of the Donatists: “I believe that I can in no way escape the heaviest guilt, save by bringing wickedness to light. Is there anything more consonant with my fixed resolve and my imperial duty that I can do than to destroy errors, extirpate all vain opinions and to cause men to offer to the Almighty a genuine religion, a sincere concord and a worship that is his due?” He finally confirmed the decision of the Council of Arles against the Donatists.








This investigation of the origin of the councils helps us to understand better the role of the Emperors in the first Ecumenical Councils. Here too the initiative must be ascribed to Constantine who convoked the first Ecumenical Council, that of Nicaea, in 325.


The Donatist movement was limited locally to the African Christian community which had suffered greatly for a considerable time from the troubles caused by this first major schism. Far more dangerous for the Church was another movement which had originated also in Africa, and was of a much more serious character because it attacked the traditional teaching on the Holy Trinity.


The first task of theological speculation among the Christians was a clearer definition of the relation of Father, Son and the Holy Ghost to each other with regard to their common divine nature. This was not an easy task for the first Christian thinkers and apologists living in a pagan atmosphere, permeated with belief in the plurality of divine beings. When trying to stress the oneness (singleness) of God, some of the Christian thinkers of the second and third century fell into error by subordinating the Second Person in the Holy Trinity to the First, explaining this subordination in different ways, minimizing the divine character of the Son, or admitting only three non-simultaneous manifestations of the one God. Rome was most active in the rejection of such errors, but only local synods or councils were assembled in order to condemn them.


These methods, however, proved ineffective when Arius, a learned priest of Alexandria, had developed this teaching into a dialectical system, subordinating the Son to the Father in the most outspoken way, calling him the Father’s creature, who at one time had not existed and who can be called God only in an indirect way because through his will he was united with God the Father. Arius’ teaching was condemned first by Bishop





Alexander of Alexandria and then by an Egyptian council of one hundred bishops in 318. Arius defended his doctrine very stubbornly, composing a popular apology in verses called Thalia or “Spiritual Bouquet”, which appealed to the simple people, and he won some influential bishops to his teaching.


In the meantime, Constantine had defeated his opponent Licinius, the ruler of the eastern part of the Roman Empire, and had become master of East and West. Alexandria was the most important city in the Empire after Rome, and Egypt was the granary of Italy. Therefore the troubles provoked by Arms’ agitation attracted the attention of the Emperor who sent to Alexandria his counsellor Hosius, Bishop of Cordoba in Spain, with the task of establishing harmony. His mission did not succeed and he therefore took steps to convoke a synod in Antioch, which condemned Arius’ teachings (325). However, because the agitation had spread and some other religious problems claimed attention, Constantine decided to convoke a council of bishops from the whole Empire, and so the first Ecumenical Council gathered in 325 in Nicaea in Asia Minor.


The acts of this first Ecumenical Council are not preserved, but Eusebius of Caesarea has left us a minute description of the conciliar proceedings in his “Life of Constantine”. We gather from his report that the procedure of the Council was the senatorial procedure which the Church in Africa and in Rome had also adopted. The Emperor convoked the bishops to the Council as he used to summon the senators to their meetings. The bishops obtained the senatorial privilege of travelling at public expense and using the official stage post, which was well organized in the Roman Empire. As in the Senate, the problems to be decided were first debated by the most prominent bishops and the Emperor, in private meetings, and it was concluded that the Council should define the identity of the divine nature of the Son with the Father. The Greek word homoousios (of the same nature) was proposed as explaining best the Catholic doctrine on the relation of the Son to the Father.


The Emperor himself presided over sessions of the Council. In the place of the statue of Victory, which stood in the front of





the presidential tribune in the Roman Senate, the Bible was placed between the bishops and the Emperor. As in the Senate, the Emperor explained why he had convoked the Council and the subject the bishops had to discuss before making their definition. Then followed the individual interrogation of the bishops, who made known their views.


The 318 prelates declared that the formula, proposed by the Emperor, expressed the true belief of the Church. Then the Creed, including the accepted formula, was read and signed by the bishops. It is one of the most treasured symbols of the whole of Christianity and forms part of the eucharistic liturgy.


After this dogmatic decision, the Fathers deliberated on certain disciplinary problems. It was decided that Easter, the date of the celebration of which was in dispute, would always be on Sunday, but not at the same time as the feast of the Jews. In twenty canons, clerical discipline was regulated, the consecration of bishops was ordered to be performed by three bishops, and it was approved that Church organization should follow the civil divisions of the Empire. Thus, the privileged position of the metropolitans—in the West they were also called archbishops— over the bishops of the civil provinces was confirmed and the foundation laid for what were later called patriarchates. The bishops of the capitals of civil dioceses, which included several provinces, were to be called exarchs with special privileges over the bishops in each exarchate. Specially singled out were Rome (diocese of Italy), which was given first place, Alexandria (diocese of Egypt), which came second and Antioch (diocese of the Orient), which was third. Jerusalem was given only an honorary precedence over its metropolis Caesarea.


It is evident from the accounts of the first Ecumenical Council that the Emperor had played a prominent role in its convocation and procedure. This appears dangerous and contrary to the autonomy of the Church in religious affairs. It was the result of the adaptation of the primitive Church to the only political philosophy accepted at that time and to the political organization of the Empire, for practical reasons. Providence, however, watched over the Church and her sacred rights. There was one





item which providentially saved the autonomy of the bishops in doctrinal matters: the Emperor never had the right to vote in the Senate. This was the privilege of the senators, a survival of their independence and supreme legislative function in the Roman Republic. The position of the senators suffered a setback after the transformation of the Republic into a principality, a disguised monarchy, but not even the most autocratic emperors dared to discard the Senate or to deprive the senators of their privilege of voting. There is no indication in the accounts of the Council of Nicaea that Constantine voted with the bishops. So a compromise was achieved between the imperial and episcopal rights. The compromise saved the privileged position of the bishops, and proved unobjectionable to the Emperor, since he was respecting a historical precedent—the privilege of the senators, whom the bishops in the councils in many ways resembled.


But what about the supreme position of the Roman See? Even here, Providence had provided a precedent which guaranteed to the representatives of the Roman See the first place in conciliar proceedings. The most influential position in the Roman Senate was occupied by the first senator, called in Latin princeps senatus. He enjoyed in high degree the respect and trust of the Emperor and of the other senators. He was the first whose opinion on the subjects discussed was asked, he voted first and, through his declarations and votes, exercised a profound influence on the other senators, most of whom simply followed his lead in their judgement and voting.


This principle appears to have been observed also in the Council of Nicaea, although not as clearly as in the following Ecumenical Councils. This is due, probably, to the fact that Pope Sylvester I was too old to undertake the long journey to Asia Minor and delegated as his representatives not bishops but two priests. The western part of the Empire was represented by only four bishops, the most prominent among them being Hosius of Cordoba in Spain. He was the Emperor’s trusted counsellor and confidant and probably the principal agent in the formulation of the Creed. Because of that, he was asked to sign the Creed first, before the two priests who represented the Bishop of Rome.





Later, from the fifth century onwards, he was classed together in the lists of signatories with the Roman legates as being one of them. We can thus see that the principle of the preeminence of the Roman See in an Ecumenical Council was laid down and safeguarded as early as 325.


The letter in which Constantine informed the bishops who could not attend the Council of the decisions made by the assembled bishops, shows that he was well aware of the function of the bishops in ecclesiastical matters and that he respected it, although watching jealously his own imperial prerogatives. He made there the following declaration: “Be willing to accept this heavenly favour and an order so manifestly from God. For whatever is decided in the holy councils of the bishops must be attributed to the divine will.”





We can understand why the early Church had accepted the Emperor’s leadership even in spiritual things. The notion of the Hellenistic kingship was widely held among the first Christians and its adaptation to the teaching of the Church seemed a good barrier against imperial abuses.


In spite of that, the Hellenistic political philosophy, even in its Christian adaptation, soon proved most dangerous to the Christian faith. It is known that Constantine, although he had contributed so much to the definition of the true faith and had signed the condemnation of Arius, later abandoned his unequivocal attitude and tried to compromise between the Catholics and the Arians. In pursuit of this policy, he exiled to Trier the intrepid defender of the Nicaemim, St Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, who had been condemned by the synod of Tyre, and supported the “Semi-Arians”, who claimed that the Son was only similar (homoiousios) to the Father. The reason for this change seemed more political than religious. The followers of Arius did not give up after Nicaea, and Egypt continued to be the field of fierce antagonism between the two factions. The Emperor was naturally anxious to pacify Egypt, then the most





important province of the Empire, and was inclined to favour a watering down of the unequivocal definition made at Nicaea.


There may be also another reason for his hesitant attitude, which was rooted in the political philosophy then generally accepted. The Arians very cleverly exploited its main notions for themselves. Declaring that the Empire was a mirror of the heavenly Empire governed by the Eternal King, God the Father himself, they claimed that in accepting the divine nature of the Son, the Christians were endangering the existence of the terrestrial monarchy, image of the Heavenly One, which should be ruled only by one emperor, representing God on earth.


It is possible that already Constantine was influenced by this reasoning. His son Constantins was almost completely under its spell. Owing to his sympathy with the Arians, the heresy spread more and more over the East. When Constantius II became the sole ruler over the whole Empire (350-61) after the tragic death of his brothers, the agitation of the heretics spread to the West also. In spite of his desire to make Arianism the official religion of the Empire, Constantius did not dare to impose his creed on his subjects. The principle that the definition of faith was the prerogative of the bishops gathered in synod was already too deeply imbedded in the mind of the Christians, and Constantius had to respect it.


On his initiative many synods were convoked, often dominated by heretical bishops; Constantius, respecting the principle of the role of synods, which he used for the promotion of a heretical doctrine, pretended to be enforcing the will and decision of ecclesiastical synods rather than his own. The principle was right; unfortunately the synods were wrong. The synods convoked by the Emperor were so numerous—Antioch in 341, Sardica (modern Sofia in Bulgaria) in 343, Sirmium in 351, Arles in 353, Milan in 355, the second and third synods of Sirmium in 357 and 358, Rimini and Seleucia in 359—that the pagan writer Ammianus Marcellinus complained that the bishops, by moving from one synod to another and by using the public transport service too freely, disorganized it and made themselves a burden to the exchequer.





During this troublesome period, Pope Julius I made an important declaration which marks another stage in the history of the Councils. When the Arians objected to the Roman synod which had rescinded the decision of the Synod of Tyre (335), condemning Athanasius, although this synod had been convoked by the Emperor Constantine and thus should be regarded as a General Council, Julius argued that it was not the Emperor’s convocation, but the recognition of the synodal decisions by the whole Church, that gave the Council its general and binding character. Such was the case only with the synod of Nicaea.


The most important of these local synods was that of Sardica of 343. It was convoked by the Western Emperor Constans with the consent of his brother Constantius. It did not succeed in winning over the heretical opposition, which held a meeting in the town. But the orthodox prelates, mostly from the West, voted some important canons, which became laws in the Western Church. Among them were the third and fifth canons, recognizing the See of Rome as the highest tribunal in disciplinary matters for the whole Church, to which any bishop deposed by a council could appeal.


In their efforts to find a formula compromising with the clear-cut definition of Nicaea, the Arians split into several sects which, naturally, weakened their position. Deprived of imperial support after the death of Constantius (361) and of the Eastern Emperor Valens (378), they shrank to a minor community. The great Greek Fathers—Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa—with St Athanasius played a most important role in defeating the heresy in their theological writings, and forged the formula “one divine substance in three Persons”. [1]


These Fathers contributed also to the defeat of another heresy which originated during the struggle with Arianism and which degraded the Holy Ghost to a creature of the Second Person in the Trinity. The main propagator of this heresy was Macedonius, bishop of Constantinople.



1. Arianism survived among Germanic tribes, especially the Goths, Vandals and Langobards, thanks to their missionary Bishop Ulphilas, translator of the Bible and liturgy into Gothic (f 383). During their migration Arianism became their national religion. The remnants of these tribes became Catholic in the sixth and seventh centuries.





After several local synods of Alexandria and Rome had condemned this false doctrine, the Emperor Theodosius the Great (379-95) decided to convoke a Council of all the bishops from the Eastern part of the Empire in order to manifest the triumph of the Church over Arius and his followers, and to condemn the new heresy that denied the divine nature of the Holy Ghost. Because this doctrine was spreading mainly in the East, the Western bishops were not invited to the Council, which gathered in Constantinople in 381. One hundred and fifty bishops, present at the Council, solemnly condemned the new heresy and added to the Creed of Nicaea the words defining the divine nature of the Holy Ghost which are today recited in the Creed (often called the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed).


The Council of 381 was thus originally not an ecumenical synod. It obtained its ecumenical character only because of its dogmatic decision concerning the Holy Ghost, and because of its addition to the Nicene Creed. The ecumenical character of this Council was recognized by the Council of Chalcedon (451) and, at the beginning of the sixth century, Rome and the whole West accepted it as the Second General Council.


The canons voted by this Council were also meant only for the Eastern Church. The most important of these was canon three which confirmed to Rome the first place in the Church, but stipulated that the second place should be occupied, not by Alexandria, but by Constantinople, the city in which the Emperor resided. Because the principle of accommodation to the political status was generally accepted in the East, the bishops of Alexandria and of Antioch accepted this canon, although they had to occupy lower places in Church organization.


It should be stressed that this measure was not directed against Rome. On the contrary, the first place in the Church was once more assigned to Rome and there was no hostile intention in the promotion of Constantinople. The measure was rather directed against Alexandria, because the bishops of this city during the Arian struggles had tried to impose their heretical teaching on the rest of the Church and gave the impression that





they desired to obtain primacy over the whole East. It seems, moreover, that, at the beginning, Constantinople had only honorary precedence, without an increase of jurisdiction over other Churches. Rome was not even informed of these measures because they only concerned the situation in the Eastern Church. Pope Damasus apparently was aware of the results of this Council, but there is no evidence of a protest by Rome against this elevation of Constantinople in the Catholic hierarchical order because the principle of accommodation to the political status was recognized also in Rome, although not as in the East, and because this elevation was regarded as involving only a precedence of honour.





Alexandria’s pretensions to the leading position in the Eastern Church became especially manifest under the Patriarch Theophilus (385-412), who came into conflict with St John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople. Chrysostom had offered refuge to some Egyptian monks, persecuted by Theophilus because they disagreed with Theophilus’ hasty condemnation of Origen, who was one of the greatest theologians of the third century. When Chrysostom, the most eloquent preacher of his time, offended the Empress Eudoxia by his criticism of her worldly manner of life, Theophilus made an alliance with Chrysostom’s enemies, convoked a synod and deposed him. The Emperor confirmed the deposition and exiled the intrepid reformer (403). A popular upheaval induced the Emperor to rescind his judgement, but a further conflict with the Empress brought about a new condemnation and Chrysostom died op the way to his second exile (407).


Although Chrysostom was an innocent victim the unjust condemnation of a bishop of the residential city was a degrading humiliation for the See of Constantinople. This tragic incident made it clear that there was open rivalry between the two most prominent sees in the Eastern Church. The rivalry continued,





however, under Theophilus’ successor, his nephew Cyril (41244), and became even more embittered, because it was aggravated by troubles of an important doctrinal nature.


The doctrine that all three Persons were of the same one divine nature had triumphed by 381. But there was another doctrinal question which engaged the attention of theologians. How should the union of the second divine Person with human nature be understood ? The problem had already been raised by the Arians, who denied not only the divine character of the Son, but also taught that the created Logos or Son assumed a soulless body. The soul in Christ was the Logos. This doctrine was condemned by the Council of 381 and by Pope Damasus in the following year at a Roman synod. It was, however, partly revived by the Syrian Bishop Apollinaris. Following the Greek philosopher Plato, Apollinaris distinguished between the animal and rational soul in man, and taught that the Logos or the Son of God was to be identified with the rational soul (or mind) in Christ.


This doctrine did not have much success, but it spurred the theologians to a clearer definition of the union of the divine and human natures in Christ. At that time, the Eastern Church could boast two theological schools of prominent thinkers and teachers. The school of Alexandria was anxious to stress the divine nature in Christ and its theologians spoke on the intimate union of both natures after the incarnation of the Son. The school of Antioch saw a danger in the wording used by the Alexandrines in their definition, for in the Alexandrian formula the human nature in Christ seemed to be absorbed by the divine nature. Some of the theologians of Antioch, namely Diodorus of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia were accused of having gone too far in stressing Christ’s human nature, and of postulating the existence of two persons in the incarnate Word or Logos. The logical consequence of this teaching was that Christ’s virginal Mother could not be called Mother of God, but only Mother of Christ.


The ordinary faithful were perhaps unable to follow the learned arguments of the Antiochene theologians, who claimed to be influenced by Aristotle’s philosophy, but they instinctively reacted sharply against those preachers who denied to Mary the





title of Mother of God. A tumultuous protest arose in Constantinople against one preacher from Antioch who had dared to make such a declaration publicly. The indignation increased when Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, a monk educated at the school of Antioch, began to defend the preacher and, in doing so, used expressions which to some indicated that he was a follower of this new heresy.


Cyril of Alexandria reacted very sharply, for he saw in Nestorius’ teaching not only an attack on the true Catholic faith, but also an opportunity to humiliate the See of Constantinople once more, and to increase the prestige of Alexandria in the Church. This explains why he manifested so much zeal in seeking the condemnation of the bishop of the capital. When Pope Celestine I, to whose judgement both bishops appealed, rejected Nestorius’ teaching, Cyril, pretending to act in the name of the pope, presented to his rival a list of errors which Nestorius had to abjure under threat of excommunication. Nestorius’ supporters protested, and, in order to clarify the situation, the Emperor Theodosius II convoked a General Council to Ephesus in 431.


The sessions of the Council were turbulent because of the rivalry between Alexandria and Constantinople. John, Bishop of Antioch, sympathized rather with Constantinople, although not sharing Nestorius’ interpretation. With a desire to hasten the condemnation of Nestorius, Cyril refused to wait for the arrival of the Antiochenes and of the papal legates, and opened the Council of 153 bishops, acting as representative of the pope. The Fathers defined the Catholic faith of two natures and one person in Christ, and condemned and deposed Nestorius. When the papal legates reached Ephesus, they sided with Cyril and confirmed the condemnation.


Offended by the hasty opening of the Council, convened in his absence, John, Bishop of Antioch, refused to join the bishops assembled by Cyril and, in a conclave of his own, condemned Cyril. Both parties having censured each other, the Emperor was in an unpleasant dilemma and, after confirming the decision of both assemblies, tried to mediate between Cyril, John and Nestorius.





Cyril used all his diplomatic skill in order to convince the Emperor and his court that his followers were defending the true doctrine of the Church. He was aided to a large extent by the wealth of his see, and did not hesitate to send expensive presents to courtiers close to the Emperor, but mainly by the Emperor’s older sister, the pious Pulcheria. Nestorius was deposed and sent to his monastery in Antioch. He died in exile in 451. Cyril and John of Antioch came to an agreement in 433. These events, however, left bitterness on both sides, because the Antiochenes saw in the condemnation of Nestorius a defeat by the school of Alexandria. This rivalry between the two schools of Antioch and of Alexandria, and between the two most important sees of the Eastern Church, explains not only the heated debates at and after Ephesus, but also, as we shall see, the further evolution of the theological definitions concerning the nature of Christ.


The case of Nestorius, who expounded his doctrine in a learned treatise which is preserved in a Syriac translation, is still debated by theologians. There are many who think that Nestorius’ teaching was basically orthodox but that, in explaining his views, he used words which could easily be explained in a heretical way.


The doctrine called that of Nestorius soon disappeared in the territory of the Roman Empire. Many Nestorians, however, migrated into Persia, where they founded a new theological school at Nisibis and their own Nestorian Church Patriarchate with its see at Seleucia-Ktesiphon. There they were favoured by the Persian kings, rivals of the Roman emperors, and developed a zealous missionary activity and penetrated as far as India and China. [2]



2. The Christians of St Thomas in India, now mostly united with Rome, are an interesting survival of Nestorian missions. The invasion of Persia by the Mongols in the thirteenth century caused, however, a rapid decline of the Nestorian Church. Owing to other persecutions, only a small number of the Nestorians still exists in Syria and in Cyprus. More numerous are the so-called Chaldaean Christians, former Nestorians united now with Rome, with their own patriarch residing in Baghdad.








The Council of Ephesus was the triumph of Alexandria over Constantinople and Antioch, and the prestige of the Egyptian Patriarch in the East rose considerably. In fighting the false doctrine of the school of Antioch, however, the theologians of the Alexandrine school went too far in stressing the divine nature of the incarnate Son. They taught that the divine nature absorbed the human nature in Christ so that, after his incarnation, the Son of God possessed only one nature, the divine. Christ’s body was deified. This doctrine of one nature in Christ, called Monophysitism, became very popular in Egypt.


It appealed to Alexandrine theologians, who were far more influenced by Greek philosophy than were the scholars of Antioch. Plato’s concept of the deification of man through his own effort of strict moral discipline, taught also by the last great Alexandrian philosopher, Plotinus, the founder of Neo-platonism, impressed many Christian thinkers also. They pointed out to their pagan confrères, however, that this deification was possible because of the love and condescension of God himself, who had assumed human form and thus had deified it. The incarnate Word is therefore the source of true life, and the man who is in Christ will be re-elevated into and commingled with the Divine. This explains why the doctrine of absorption of human nature by the divine in the incarnate Word appealed to Alexandrine and other theologians.


The simple Egyptian people might still have been under the spell of the old pagan belief in the divine character of their kings. Even this crude concept expressed the human desire to come as close to the divine as it is possible for man. This might help to explain why the Alexandrine approach to the problem of man’s deification, based on Greek notions, appealed also to the native non-Greek population, the Copts, and why the Coptic monks became such fanatic defenders of Monophysitism.


The first clash of Monophysitism with orthodoxy took place in Constantinople when the Patriarch Flavian condemned the





archimandrite (abbot) Eutyches, an exponent of Monophysitism, as a heretic. Flavian communicated his condemnation to other bishops, especially to Pope Leo I. Unfortunately, the Monophysite doctrine had a great following in Constantinople also, and Eutyches with his friends succeeded in finding sympathy at court. The Patriarch of Alexandria, Dioscorus, an ambitious and unscrupulous man, did not hesitate to use the great resources of his patriarchate, and, after winning the support of the Emperor’s principal advisers, he obtained from Theodosius II the convocation of a new Ecumenical Council. It gathered in 449, again in Ephesus. Pope Leo I sent a long dogmatic letter to the Patriarch of Constantinople in which he attacked Monophysitism, and strongly defended the doctrine that Christ had two natures. Dioscorus, however, accompanied by a great number of fanatical Egyptian monks, took control of the Council. Supported by his monks and the imperial police, he terrorized the assembled bishops. The papal legates were denied the position of prominence they claimed, the dogmatic letter of the pope was not even read; and Flavian, with other prominent supporters of the Orthodox doctrine, was deposed. They all turned to Pope Leo I with touching appeals. Flavian, who suffered injuries from Dioscorus’ men, died on his way to exile.





But this triumph of Monophysitism was of short duration. Leo I protested against the sentences of deposition, pronounced the synod of Ephesus a “Robber Synod”, and asked the Emperor for the convocation of a new Council to confirm the true doctrine. Theodosius refused to accede to this request, and the new Council was not convoked until after Theodosius’ death when the latter’s sister Pulcheria married Marcian (450-7), and thus had him elevated to the throne. Nevertheless the new Emperor rejected Leo’s plea for a Council in Italy or in Gaul, and summoned the bishops to Nicaea and then to Chalcedon, near Constantinople.


How profoundly the whole Christian East was perturbed by the Monophysite struggles is illustrated by the large number of





bishops—about 600—who took part in this Council. The Western part of the Empire was represented by only five bishops, two of whom—with two priests—represented the pope, one was from Spain, and two were from the African provinces. The Fathers examined the Acts of the Robber Synod, which they condemned, and then deposed Dioscorus. The dogmatic letter sent by Leo I to Flavian was read and unanimously approved as expressing the true Catholic doctrine. Although the papal legates opposed the composition of a new dogmatic formula, a committee of bishops was appointed to prepare one, and this was solemnly accepted during the sixth session: “We all confess unanimously one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Onlybegotten, made known in two natures [which are] without confusion, change, separation or division and which both meet in one person.”


The acts of the Council of Chalcedon are very important, since they show how the General Councils functioned and how they were organized. The actual direction of debates and the presidency belonged to the eighteen imperial officials delegated by the Emperor. The sixth, most solemn session was even presided over by Marcian and Pulcheria. It is evident from the acts that the sort of presidency at the councils which popes and legates claimed was the function once exercised by the princeps senatus of the Roman Senate, who may be compared to the Speaker of the House. The Gospel was set in the centre of the council as the altar of Victory used to be set in the Senate, and the members who attended were placed in the same order as the senators, the metropolitans corresponding to the praetors, the bishops to senators of aedile rank, the abbots—who stood and had no right to vote— to the knights.


The bishops adopted also the senatorial practice of acclaiming the Emperors. The acclamations which greeted the imperial pair at the end of the sixth session are particularly significant because they manifest the main ideas of the christianized hellenistic political philosophy, as then understood by the Church: “To Martian, the new Constantine, the new Paul, the new David . . . You have the faith of the apostles ... You are the light of the





orthodox faith . . . Lord, protect the light of peace . . . Many years to the priest-emperor. You . . . have set the Churches right, .. . doctor of the faith ... Be your empire eternal.”


In spite of the priestly character which the Fathers and also Leo I seemed to attribute to the Emperor, Marcian respected the exclusive right of the bishops in proclaiming the true faith. This is clear from his announcement of the conciliar decisions to the people of the capital: “Saintly priests came from various provinces to Chalcedon by our command and accurately defined what should be preserved. So let there be an end to all vain controversy. ...”


After the doctrinal definition, the Fathers dealt with disciplinary questions, rehabilitated the two leaders of the Antiochene school, Theodoret of Cyrus and Ibas of Edessa, and promoted Jerusalem to patriarchal rank. In the sixteenth session, in the absence of the papal legates, they voted the so-called twenty-eighth canon, which confirmed to Constantinople the second place in the Church and conferred on its bishops direct jurisdiction over the dioceses of Thrace, Pontus and Asia. The papal legates protested against this vote at the last session, and Leo I rejected this canon with sharp criticism, stressing the principle of apostolic and Petrine origin of the position in ecclesiastical organization enjoyed by Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, but not by Constantinople.


The fears of the pope are quite understandable. Rome could accord Constantinople an honorary precedence over the other Eastern patriarchs, but the submission of all Asia Minor and of European Thrace to the direct jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople was another matter. Rome had lost her great prerogative as the centre of the Empire and the residential city of the emperors, and had retained, as justification for her claim to the primacy in the Church, only her apostolic character and her successorship to St Peter. Leo the Great feared that the new status of the See of Constantinople might endanger in the future the rightful claims of Rome.


In reality, however, the Fathers of Chalcedon had no intention of denying the primacy of the Roman bishop. When the apostolic





legates quoted the Latin version of canon six of Nicaea—“The Roman Church always possessed the primacy”—the Fathers did not protest, although the Roman version did not correspond to the Greek version voted at Nicaea. Moreover, the Fathers, the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Emperor, asked the pope to sign the canon, indicating that they saw in its wording no offence against Rome. They had still in mind the principle of the adaptation of the Church to the political division of the Empire and were determined to deprive Alexandria of its leading position in the Eastern Church, because this see had become again the hotbed of heresy.


Since the Easterners did not understand the principle of apostolicity, they overlooked the apostolic and Petrine character of the Roman See, although they respected it as the first see with primatial rights in the Church, and even called Rome an imperial city. Had they respected the apostolic and Petrine character of Rome in the drawing up of the contested canon, the pope might have been induced to accept it.


To give the pope satisfaction, the contested canon was not included in the collection of Eastern canon law. It appeared there only in the ninth century. Constantinople continued, however, de facto to use the rights of jurisdiction accorded her bishops by the Council.





In spite of the imperial support of the Chalcedonian decision and the deposition of Dioscorus with his followers, the agitation of the Monophysites continued unabated in Egypt. National and political antagonism added more fuel to the fire. The native Copts, always jealous of the Greeks and resenting the leadership of Constantinople in the Empire and in the Eastern Church, began to regard Monophysitism as their national religion and called the adherents of Chalcedon “the imperials” (Melchites). For a short time even the patriarchal sees of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem were occupied by Monophysite prelates.





Marcian’s successor, Leo I (457-74) put an end to this. But, although he was a supporter of the faith as defined at Chalcedon, the Emperor Leo considered summoning a new council to make some concessions to the Monophysites. Pope Leo dissuaded him from making such a move, and the Emperor adopted instead the new practice of the referendum. He asked the bishops to send him their opinion on Chalcedon in writing. The answers of the pope and of the bishops represent an imposing manifestation of the Christian hierarchy in the East and in the West, in favour of the true faith as defined by Chalcedon. Although their declarations show clearly that the bishops were well aware of their right and duty in doctrinal definitions, they disclose also that all the hierarchy, not excepting the pope, recognized the Emperor’s right to assist them in defining the faith, legalizing their definitions, removing reluctant bishops from their sees, and checking heresy.


In spite of Emperor Leo’s intervention, Monophysitism persisted, and when the usurper Basiliscus (475-6), anxious to get the support of the Monophysites, condemned Chalcedon and Pope Leo’s doctrinal letter, 500 Eastern bishops signed his circular letter. The Emperor Zeno (474-91) defeated the usurper and restored the Creed of Chalcedon. However, because the defection of Egypt from Chalcedon threatened to have political repercussions also, Zeno favoured the compromise concluded by the Patriarch of Constantinople Acacius and the Monophysite Patriarch of Alexandria Peter Mongo, expressed in a Creed, which declared only the Niceno-Constantinopolitan profession of faith and the decisions of the Council of Ephesus as binding. Hoping to unite the Orthodox and the Monophysites through this compromise, Zeno issued it as an imperial law, which he called the Henoticon—band of union.


The imperial decree was accepted in Egypt only by the moderate Monophysites called Severians, followers of Severus of Antioch. But it was rejected by the diehards who seceded from Peter Mongo. Pope Felix III declared the formula to be a violation of the decision of Chalcedon, and very outspokenly defended the exclusive right of the bishops to define the true doctrine.





He excommunicated Acacius and Peter. The result was the so-called Acacian schism, which lasted from 484 to 519. Because Zeno’s successor Anastasius I sympathized with the Monophysites, the reconciliation was not effected until the reign of Justin I (518-27) on the initiative of his nephew Justinian and Pope Hormisdas (519-23). The letter of reconciliation which the pope sent to the Eastern prelates and which they all had to sign, not only proclaimed the definitions of Chalcedon as binding on all Christians, but also stressed very clearly the prominent position of the Roman See in matters of faith, based on the promise given by our Lord to St Peter (Matt. 16. 18).


Justinian’s efforts to win over the Monophysites for orthodoxy were hampered by the sympathies of the Empress Theodora in their regard. Her attempt to place in the see of Constantinople a prelate who favoured Monophysitism was frustrated by the intervention of Pope Agapitus, who himself appeared in the capital. The Empress, undiscouraged by this setback, obtained from the Emperor the promotion of Vigilius, papal nuncio in the capital, to the See of Rome, in the hope that the ambitious young prelate would show favour to the Monophysites. Agapitus’ successor, Silverius, was deposed. But after his death, the next pope, Vigilius, refused to yield to the Empress’ wishes and sent to Mennas, patriarch of Constantinople, a letter approving the dogmatic decisions of Chalcedon.





Justinian (527-65) took his role as defender and propagator of the true faith very seriously. He was himself well versed in theology, and liked to discuss theological problems with bishops. He initiated a discussion with the Severians, the moderate Monophysites, and, hoping to induce them to a union with the orthodox, he approved the formula, introduced by some monks, “One of the Blessed Trinity has been crucified” (533). Pope John II found that his action was “true to apostolic teaching” and confirmed it with his authority.





As his hope for winning over the Monophysites had remained fruitless, Justinian accepted the suggestion that the Monophysites could be won over if he condemned the writings of certain theologians of the Antiochene school to which the Alexandrines principally objected. The Emperor published an edict condemning the Three Chapters, namely: the person and the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Nestorius’ teacher, the writings of Theodoret of Cyrus against St Cyril and the Council of Ephesus and thirdly, a letter of Ibas of Edessa, in which Theodore was defended, and St Cyril’s objections refuted. Although these writings, in their partly falsified versions, deserved to be condemned, this most glaring intrusion into theology on the part of Justinian provoked a storm of opposition. Moreover, Theodoret of Cyrus and Ibas had been rehabilitated at Chalcedon. The real reason for this was that the Emperor issued the condemnation without convoking a synod and without a referendum to the bishops. It was a break with the traditional practice, and the African theologians were most outspoken in condemning the edict. Even Pope Vigilius, who was brought to the capital, was induced to side with the opposition.


In the end, Justinian had to yield and convoked a council in Constantinople. The pope was in a very difficult position. The Africans were going too far in their opposition and were writing treatises in defence of the Three Chapters, and the Emperor insisted on absolute submission. Vigilius saw himself forced to seek asylum in the Church of Chalcedon and refused to appear at the synod. The Council was opened in May 553 without the pope. In the fifth and sixth sessions, the 165 Fathers condemned the Three Chapters and threatened their defenders with deposition and anathema.


Impressed by the opposition to the condemnation, manifested by many Western prelates, the pope first forbade the condemnation, but later on, under heavy pressure from the side of the Emperor, accepted (December 8th, 553) the decisions of the Council. The next year (February 23rd), after a more thorough study, convinced that the condemnation did no prejudice to the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon, Vigilius confirmed the





condemnation of the Three Chapters, thus recognizing the Council of 553 as the Fifth Ecumenical. Broken in health, he died on his way back to Rome.


Although his former secretary and successor Pelagius I (556-61) also confirmed the ecumenical and binding character of the Council of 553, the African bishops did so only after some years. The bishops of the metropolis of Milan abandoned their opposition only after 570. The ecclesiastical province of Aquileia-Grado remained in open schism until 607. The metropolitan of Old Aquileia, however, refused to join his colleague of Grado and, in order to show his independence, assumed the title of patriarch. In recognition of his submission, the pope granted the same title to the Bishop of Grado also. [3]





The Persian invasion of Syria and Palestine revealed to the Emperor Heraclius (610-41) the danger that the Syrian and Egyptian Monophysites might on future occasions side with the enemies of the Empire. This spurred him and Sergius, Patriarch of Constantinople, to new attempts to reconcile the heretics with orthodoxy. This could be achieved only by a compromise, involving a concession to Monophysitism. Sergius came forward in 619 with a doctrine that, after the Incarnation, Christ had not two wills and energies—the divine and the human—but only one will and energy. This doctrine, an evident concession to Monophysitism, appealed to the Severians, the moderate Monophysites, who concluded a union with the Church of Constantinople.


In order to stifle the opposition of some orthodox prelates, Sergius sent Pope Honorius a letter explaining his theological ideas with great subtlety. Although he himself believed in two wills in Christ, Honorius failed to see the astuteness of the Patriarch’s exposition and, in two letters, expressed his general consent, declaring that one should abstain from speaking of one or two energies in Christ.



3. The patriarchal title of Grado was transferred in 1451 to the see of Venice, that of Old Aquileia was transferred, after the destruction of the city by an earthquake in 1348, to Udine. It was cancelled in 1751.





This sounded like a rejection of Monoenergism, but seemed to open the way to the belief in one will—Monothelitism. In 638, anxious to give more satisfaction to the Monophysites, Heraclius published his Ekthesis, a creed composed by Sergius, which expressed the view that the Incarnate Word had only one will. It found general acceptance in the East.


The expected political benefit from this innovation in the orthodox Creed did not, however, materialize. The Islamic Arabs invaded the Eastern provinces and the split among the Eastern Christians, on account of the christological controversies, facilitated the Arab advance. The Patriarchate of Antioch came under Arab domination in 637, Jerusalem in the following year, and in 642 the Egyptian Monophysites greeted the Arabs in Alexandria as liberators from the imperial yoke. [4]


The bitterness which recent imperial interference with religious teaching had created in the West—all successors of Honorius rejected the Ekthesis—provoked the threat of even Italy being alienated from the Empire. Constans II therefore revoked the Ekthesis and, in a new declaration, called the Typos, forbade any discussion of the question as to whether there were one or two wills in Christ (648). Pope Martin I protested against this, clearly defined the orthodox doctrine on the two wills and two energies in a Lateran synod and excommunicated all authors of the heretical teaching. He was arrested by the Emperor’s police, brought to Constantinople, maltreated and condemned to exile in the Crimea, where he died (655). A similar fate befell other defenders of orthodoxy like the abbot Maximus, who died a martyr’s death.



4. In spite of many attempts at winning the heretics over to the Creed of Chalcedon, Monophysitism, organized in National Churches, continues to exist in our days in Egypt, Syria, Armenia, Mesopotamia and Abyssinia. A group of Egyptian Copts (60,000) united with Rome, but the great majority (over a million) still professes Monophysitism. The Orthodox Melchites, mostly Greeks in Egypt, Syria and Palestine, are still in majority schismatics (about 320,000); only about 150,000 of them accepted the union with Rome. The Syrian and Mesopotamian Monophysites are called Jacobites after Jacob, Bishop of Edessa, who did much for the organization of their Church, in the second half of the sixth century.





This naturally increased the discontent in Italy, and the Emperor, Constantine IV, saw the danger. The Eastern provinces were definitely lost, and it seemed necessary to pacify the West and the Church. This could be achieved only by the convocation of a new Ecumenical Council, which Pope Agatho greeted with joy.


The Sixth Ecumenical Council, the Third of Constantinople, with its 170 bishops, met from November 680 to September 681 in the Cupola hall (in Greek, Trullos) of the imperial palace. It is therefore called also the Trullan Council, Concilium Trullanum. All the defenders of Monothelitism, including Pope Honorius, were condemned and the creed accepted at Chalcedon was completed by the words: “We profess, according to the teaching of the holy Fathers, two natural wills and two natural energies (in Christ), undivided, unseparated and unmixed, two wills . . . in such a way that the human follows the divine (will) and is subordinate to it.”


Honorius’ letters to the Patriarch of Constantinople cannot be regarded as an authoritative decision on matters of faith. Agatho’s successor, Leo II, when confirming the decision of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, was well aware of this and, in his letter to the Emperor, blamed Honorius only for neglect of his duty to prevent the spread of heretical teaching. Honorius was blamed for this neglect of duty also in the profession of faith which, until the eleventh century, the Roman pontiffs had to recite and sign before their enthronement.


Because the Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils had not voted any disciplinary regulations, Justinian II decided to convoke another council, which met in 692 in the same hall as the Sixth Council. This synod is called the Second Trullan Council or, because it was meant to supplement the Fifth and Sixth General Councils, the Quinisext Synod (Synodus Quinisexta). Although convoked as a General Council, the synod was preoccupied exclusively with disciplinary affairs of the Eastern Church. Many of the 102 canons voted by the Fathers were directed against some practices in use in the Western Church, and canon twenty-eight of Chalcedon was again approved.





Therefore, Pope Sergius refused to accept the decrees and the Emperor’s attempt at forcing him to obedience was frustrated by the militia of Rome and Ravenna, which rescued the pope from the hands of the Emperor’s envoys. The Easterners still consider this synod as a complement of the Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils and so does the Western canonist Gratian, who quotes it.





The estrangement between the two Churches was even more accentuated during the so-called iconoclastic struggle, provoked by the direct intervention of the Emperor, Leo III (717-41), into the doctrinal field. His edict of 726, in which he warned the faithful against the veneration of images of saints, is believed by many to reflect the situation of the Empire after the appearance of the Arabs in world history and after the spread of Islam over the former Eastern provinces of the Empire. Leo III succeeded in stopping the advance of the Arabs at the gates of Constantinople, but the Empire faced a mighty political and religious enemy in Asia Minor, which now, after the loss of Egypt and Syria, became the granary of the reduced Empire. This region had always been under the influence of Semitic ideas coming from Palestine and Syria. Many shared the abhorrence of the Jews for pictorial representation and this attitude may have been strengthened by the adherence of the Mohammedans to the same principles. Leo III grew up in Isauria, a province permeated by this spirit, and his opposition to images as idols was undoubtedly influenced by the environment of his youth.


In spite of the excitement provoked by his first edict, Leo III published in 730 another forbidding all pictorial representation of the Lord and saints, and the veneration of images.


In order to vindicate this intrusion into the doctrinal field, the Emperor, when announcing his decision to the pope (Gregory II), stressed the priestly character of the imperial dignity. Also in the introduction to his new law book, the Ecloga (in 740), Leo III made a similar claim, declaring that the Lord bade him





“as he bade Peter, the supreme Head of the apostles, to feed his most faithful flock”.


In his answer, the pope did not deny this imperial claim, but pointed out that such a title could rightly be given only to the emperors who, in perfect accord with the priests, had convoked councils in order that the true faith be defined. “Dogmas,” the pope wrote, “do not concern the Emperors but the priests . . . The priest has no right to supervise the affairs of the palace and to propose the distribution of imperial dignities, so also the emperor has no right to supervise the Church and to judge the clergy, or to consecrate and to handle the symbols of the holy sacraments . . . We admonish you to become a true emperor and priest.”


The Emperor, however, appointed an iconoclastic patriarch, replacing Germanus, the orthodox defender of image worship, and in answer to the excommunication of the iconoclasts by Gregory III (731-41), confiscated the revenues of papal patrimonies in Calabria and Sicily, then under Byzantine sovereignty, and detached from Rome not only these provinces, but also the province of Illyricum, comprising the whole of Greece together with the papal vicariate of Thessalonica, submitting them to the jurisdiction of the patriarch of Constantinople.


This latter measure had most serious consequences because it enforced the isolation of the West from the East, strengthened the position of Constantinople in the Church, and destroyed the last arches of the bridge between East and West in Illyricum. Illyricum became, for two centuries to come, a territory where Constantinople and Rome were to meet in passionate conflict.


Leo III’s successor, Constantine V Copronymus (741-75), went even further. He convoked a council (in 754) in Constantinople and allowed the 338 assembled bishops, mostly from the eastern parts of the Empire, to excommunicate anti-iconoclasts, especially John of Damascus, the most outspoken of them, and to sanction the decrees against pictorial representation of saints and against image worship. Although no patriarch was present at the synod—the see of Constantinople was vacant and other patriarchs declared themselves for image worship—the synod





was called the Seventh Ecumenical. Prelates opposing these decrees were deposed, monks were persecuted, and some of them became martyrs.


Only when the Empress Irene, the widow of Constantine V’s successor Leo IV, became regent in the name of her minor son (780-90), could the orthodox faith triumph. Supported by the patriarch Tarasius and with the consent of Pope Hadrian I, the Empress convoked a council to meet in Constantinople. The assembly was disbanded by the iconoclastic guard, but the Empress transferred it in the next year (787) to Nicaea. After eight sessions the 350 Fathers, mostly from the western part of the Empire, condemned the decisions of the iconoclastic assembly and ruled that through the veneration of holy images the persons represented by them were honoured. Adoration was due only to God.


The decrees of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the Second of Nicaea, were confirmed by the pope and accepted in the East. The acceptance of the Council in the West was, however, postponed. Charlemagne, the founder of a mighty Empire that included modern Germany and France with a part of Spain, was not willing to accept the decisions of a Council at which he himself and his prelates had not participated. Unfortunately, the inaccurate translation of the conciliar Acts suggested a false interpretation as if the Fathers were speaking of the adoration of images. Charlemagne’s theologians subjected the Acts to very sharp criticism in the official publication called Libri Carolini, rejecting both councils, and stressing only the educational importance of pictorial representations. The pope defended the Council of 787, but abstained from any measures against the Frankish hierarchy, which rejected its Acts at the synod of Frankfurt (794). It was not until the ninth century, when a better translation of the Acts was made, that the Western distrust of this Council disappeared.


In spite of the orthodox victory, the iconoclasts did not surrender. The Emperor Leo V, of Armenian origin, renewed the decrees against the veneration of images, and his initiative was welcomed by the superstitious iconoclasts, who attributed the





military defeats suffered by Leo’s two orthodox predecessors in the wars with the Bulgars, to God’s punishment for image worship. Many monks were again persecuted. The traditional teaching of image worship was vigorously defended by the deposed patriarch, Nicephorus, and Theodore, Abbot of Studios, who directed eloquent appeals to the pope.


The iconoclasts ruled in the Eastern Church for over thirty years. Only when the pious Theodora, the widow of the Emperor Theophilus, had taken over the regency in the name of her minor son Michael III (842), could the orthodox teaching on image worship triumph once more. Theodora did not dare, however, to convoke a new council after replacing the iconoclastic patriarch with the orthodox Methodius. Image worship was restored only by a local synod confirmed by an imperial decree (843). This victory is still commemorated by the Eastern Church every year by the feast of Orthodoxy, on the first Sunday of Lent.


The iconoclastic controversy has left profound vestiges in the evolution of Byzantine art. No Byzantine artist dared to represent God the Father, because, as the iconoclasts had taught, Divinity cannot be circumscribed. Also, from the eighth century onwards, there was no sculpture in the round (statues) in Byzantium, and sculptors produced only reliefs. The defeat of iconoclasm promoted the production of icons, representations of Christ and his Saints, and these became a characteristic feature of Byzantine art. The victory over this last important heresy is expressed today in every Orthodox church by the iconostasis, a panel decorated with pictures of saints, which separates the altar from the rest of the church.


The final liquidation of iconoclasm did not take place at once. Because the mistrust of image worship was still felt in influential circles of Byzantine society, the Empress’ advisers recommended moderation in the restoration of images and in dealing with former iconoclasts. This restrained attitude was sharply criticized by intransigent monks who had suffered most during the persecutions, and who advocated severer treatment of the remaining iconoclasts and of the more or less sincere converts.





The Patriarch Methodius, a partisan of moderation, was obliged to excommunicate the monks of the Studios monastery, the most outspoken critics of his ecclesiastical policy.


This accentuated the tension between the moderates and the intransigents in ecclesiastical circles, so that, when Methodius died, Theodora thought it necessary to discard the traditional procedure, and instead of giving the synod the opportunity of presenting to her the chosen candidate, she appointed the pious monk Ignatius as Patriarch of Constantinople.





The hopes that the new patriarch, who had not been involved in the rivalry of the contesting parties, would act as a peacemaker were not realized. He sided with the intransigents and suspended the bishops who criticized him for abandoning Methodius’ policy of moderation. The bishops he disciplined appealed to Rome. This is the first appeal to the pope in disciplinary matters made by Eastern prelates.


Each party was invited to present its case, but before Rome could come to a definite decision, the situation in Byzantium underwent a radical change. Theodora’s brother, the ambitious, but able, Bardas, with the connivance of his nephew Michael III, first got rid of the Empress’ prime minister Theoctistus and, supported by the moderates, deprived Theodora of the regency. The attempts of the intransigents to change this political situation were in vain. However, Ignatius, believing the ill-founded accusations of Bardas’ immoral private life, spread by his enemies, publicly refused to give Holy Communion to the regent. Soon afterwards when the patriarch intervened in favour of a leader of the rebels, he was banished to an island on suspicion of treason.


In order to save his Church from further complications, Ignatius accepted the advice of his bishops and resigned the patriarchal dignity. On the insistence of the bishops, a synod was assembled to elect a new patriarch. After rehabilitating the





bishops censured by Ignatius, who had appealed to Rome, the Fathers elected Photius, a layman, the learned professor of philosophy at the imperial university and head of the chancellery. Even the most intransigent bishops recognized him as a legitimate patriarch, after Photius had given them assurances regarding the person of Ignatius. Photius was consecrated by the rehabilitated Bishop Asbestas, leader of the moderates, and two Ignatian bishops chosen by the synod.


Peace lasted only two months. The reasons for the revolt of the intransigents against the new patriarch are unknown. It was engineered by extremists. Political complications must have been involved, because the synod convoked by Photius in order to settle the dispute ended in an uproar, and was followed with a demonstration that had to be disbanded by the imperial police. Photius protested against the persecution of his opponents but, in order to prevent them from using Ignatius’ patriarchal status to widen the schism, another synod pronounced Ignatius’ patriarchate and his ordinations illegitimate because he had not been canonically elected.


There are indications that the policy of intransigence, which Ignatius followed, hardened the opposition of the remaining iconoclasts and led many to fear a revival of iconoclasm. Because the re-introduction of image worship had not been so far confirmed by a synod, the Emperor Michael decided to convoke a new synod in Constantinople for a renewed condemnation of iconoclasm, and asked Pope Nicholas I (858-67) to send legates to participate therein. The envoys also presented to the pope a letter of Photius announcing his election to the patriarchal see after Ignatius’ resignation.


The pope sent to Constantinople two bishops, Radoald and Zacharias, ordering them to investigate the circumstances of Ignatius’ resignation and reserving to himself the decision as to the legitimacy of Photius’ promotion. Fearing new agitation from the intransigents before the pope’s definite decision should reach Constantinople, the Byzantine authorities were willing to reopen the case of Ignatius, if the legates would pronounce judgement at the synod, although they regarded it as an internal affair





which had already been settled. Thinking that such an action would strengthen the position of the Roman See in the East, the legates consented, and after examining the case in the synod, confirmed the decision made previously concerning Ignatius’ status. Ignatius declared that he did not appeal to Rome and had no intention of doing so. Then the synod condemned iconoclasm and voted canons on monastic and Church reform.


The Acts of the synod of 861 are preserved only partially in a canonical collection of the eleventh century, and have remained unnoticed by specialists. They are, however, very important because the declarations of the legates and of the Byzantine bishops should be interpreted as a recognition of the right of appeal to the pope, voted by the Council of Sardica (343) but not accepted in the East.


Nicholas I was misled by a refugee monk who gave him a biased report of the events, falsely pretending to have been charged by Ignatius to appeal to the pope. Offended by a refusal of the patriarch to present more evidence for his legitimacy, and annoyed because Byzantium ignored his demand for the return of jurisdiction over Illyricum, which he had requested in his letter to the Emperor, Nicholas I declared Photius’ promotion uncanonical, excommunicated him, condemned his legates, and proclaimed Ignatius as legitimate patriarch (in 863). Michael III protested violently in 865.


Photius made no reply until 867, when he had learned of the activity of papal missionaries in Bulgaria, which had been converted by Byzantium in 864, but had turned to Rome. He invited the Eastern patriarchs to a synod, complained about Rome’s intrusion into Bulgaria, and accused the Latin missionaries of condemning Greek practices and preaching the procession of the Holy Ghost from the Father and the Son (Filioque). The synod, presided over by the Emperor Michael and the co-Emperor Basil, condemned these practices and Nicholas I. An embassy was dispatched to the Western Emperor Louis II promising him the recognition of his imperial title if he deposed Nicholas I.


The offer of the imperial title to Louis II, the third successor





to Charlemagne, is very important because it reveals that the Byzantines still believed in the possibility of saving the unity of the Christian world in one commonwealth, ruled by the Roman Emperor residing in Constantinople and a co-Emperor in the West.


In addition this fact disproves the general belief that this synod of 867 made decisions against the Western Church and against the papal primacy as such. As long as the Byzantines regarded themselves as Romans, they could not deny the primacy to the Bishop of Rome. Such negotiations with Louis II would have been senseless if the Acts of the synod which were sent to him had contained attacks against the Western Church and the primacy of Rome.


The envoys, however, were intercepted on their way, when Basil I, soon after the synod, murdered the Emperor Michael III and, needing support from the intransigents and from Rome, reinstalled Ignatius on the patriarchal throne, and asked Pope Hadrian II for legates to a new Council. The pope confirmed in a Roman synod all the decisions of his predecessor against Photius and sent three legates to the new Council with the instruction that the Fathers of the synod, the Fourth of Constantinople (869-70), had only to sign the decision of the Roman synod which, among other things, contained a very outspoken affirmation of papal primacy.


This alienated the Emperor and also the bishops. The first session of the Council, which called itself the Eighth Ecumenical, was attended by only twelve prelates (October 5th, 869) and at the last session, the tenth (February 28th, 870), no more than 102 prelates were present. On the Emperor’s insistence Photius was given the opportunity of defending himself. Although he very courageously proclaimed his innocence, and denied the legates the right to judge him, he was excommunicated with many of his adherents.


Because the great majority of the clergy had remained faithful to Photius, Ignatius encountered great difficulties in the administration of his patriarchate. Moreover, he came into further conflict with Pope John VIII because he defended his rights in Bulgaria, whose ruler Boris had defected from Rome, rights





which were also confirmed by the Eastern patriarchs at the Council of 870, in spite of the protest of the papal legates.


When Photius was recalled from exile by the Emperor, Ignatius was reconciled with him, and asked Rome to send legates for a new council, which would confirm the pacification of the Byzantine Church. The legates arrived in Constantinople only after Ignatius’ death (October 23rd, 877), and found Photius on the patriarchal throne. The pope sent them new instructions, which contained the recognition of Photius’ elevation, under the condition that he should ask pardon for his former behaviour.


But Photius convinced the legates that he had been canonically elected and that he deserved an unconditional rehabilitation. Therefore, the papal letters were read at the council in a new version, which omitted the pope’s condition. It should, however, be stressed that in the Greek version Photius left the quotation of the famous passage of Matt. 16. 19, on which Pope John VIII in the Latin original had based the papal “power to bind and loose, and in the words of Jeremias, to uproot and to plant”. This is the more significant when we consider that, at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, when papal letters were also changed, the argument for the papal primacy was left out in the Greek version of the papal latter to the Empress Irene, though it was retained in the papal letter to the Patriarch Tarasius. In the latter, however, the primacy was not expressed as categorically as in the passage suppressed in the letter to Irene.


The Council of 869-70 was cancelled, and is not counted by the Eastern Churches in their list of Ecumenical Councils. However, not even the Photian Council of 879-80, called Council of Union, is regarded as ecumenical, because it did not make any dogmatic decision. The Eastern Churches count only seven Ecumenical Councils.


John VIII expressed his astonishment at the changes made in the text of his letters, but he confirmed the rehabilitation of Photius. Contrary to what has been believed, the peace between the two Churches was not disturbed after this reconciliation. The Emperor Basil I gave the pope important concessions, and Photius surrendered jurisdiction over Bulgaria to Rome.





Boris of Bulgaria, however, profited by this jurisdictional quarrel between East and West, and established the first national Church in the Balkans. Photius had to resign on the request of the Emperor Leo VI, but he died in communion with Rome (February 6th, 891).


By an interesting coincidence, it happened that the Acts of the councils of the ninth century, so far overlooked in the West, were discovered during the reign of Gregory VII, and their interpretation began to exert a profound influence over Western canonists and theologians. In order to find more cogent documentary evidence for his definition of papal primacy, Gregory opened the pontifical archives to the canonists charged with the compilation of new collections of canon law. What the canonists needed most was a conciliar decision which could be used against the interference of laymen with the appointment of bishops. They discovered such a canon (the twenty-second) in the Ignatian council of 869-70, which called itself ecumenical. Overlooking the fact that this council had been cancelled by another—the Acts of which were also kept in the pontifical archives—they set up the council of 869-70 as one of the most important General Councils. This council was designated by canonists in their collections as the Eighth Ecumenical. But previously, as is clear from declarations by the Popes Marinus II and Leo IX, of St Peter Damian and Cardinal Humbertus, the Romans, like the Greeks, counted only seven Ecumenical Councils.


Together with the Acts, the canonists discovered the letters of Nicholas I relating to the Photian affair. Impressed by the pope’s courageous attitude against the Emperor Michael III and by his excommunication of a patriarch, from these documents they constructed a firm basis for the defence of all claims set forth in the Dictatus Papae. Some went even so far as to conclude from them that Nicholas I had excommunicated an Emperor, Michael III—which was untrue—and saw in this, a justification for Gregory’s excommunication and deposition of the Emperor Henry IV. Only one of the Gregorian canonists, Cardinal Deusdedit, preserved some extracts from the councils of 861





and 879-80, because lie deemed them useful for the justification of certain papal claims. His collection, however, was not disseminated so widely as the other collections, and so it happened that the Photian legend was born and became a new obstacle to the rapprochement of the two Churches.


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