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Lecture for: ChH 602 Saint Photius and the Councils of 869 and 879AD

Lecture for: ChH 602 Saint Photius and the Councils of 869 and 879AD

Topic: A focus on Saint Photius and the Filioque Contraversy
by Brother Macfonse Osmond, OSM


St. Photios the Great, as known by the Eastern Orthodox Church was Patriarch of Constantinople from 858 to 867 and from 877 to 886. Photius was a great beacon of the Church. He was the emperor’s relative and a grandson of the glorious Patriarch Tarasius. He was a vigorous protector of the Church from the authority-loving pope and other Roman distortions of the Faith. In six days he went through all the ranks from a layman to patriarch. He was consecrated patriarch on Christmas day, 857 A.D. and died in the Lord in the year 891 A.D. He was a central figure in both the conversion of the Slavs to Christianity and the estrangement of the Eastern and Western Churches. Photius is recognized as a saint by the Eastern Orthodox Church and some of the Eastern Catholic Churches of Byzantine tradition. The Orthodox Church marks his feast on 6, February.

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The Life of St. Photius

Saint Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, the orthodox church in America refer to him as “the Church’s far-gleaming beacon,” he lived during the ninth century, and came from a family of zealous Christians. His father Sergius died as a martyr in defense of holy icons. St Photius received an excellent education and, since his family was related to the imperial house, he occupied the position of first state secretary in the Senate. His contemporaries said of him: “He so distinguished himself with knowledge in almost all the secular sciences, that it justly might be possible to take into account the glory of his age and compare it with the ancients.”

Michael, the young successor to the throne, and St Cyril, the future Enlightener of the Slavs, were taught by him. His deep Christian yearned for monasticism.

In 857 Bardas, who ruled with Emperor Michael, deposed Patriarch Ignatius (October 23) from the See of Constantinople. The bishops, knowing the piety and extensive knowledge of Photius, informed the emperor that he was a man worthy to occupy the archpastoral throne. St Photius accepted the proposal with humility. He passed through all the clerical ranks in six days. On the day of the Nativity of Christ, he was consecrated bishop and elevated to the patriarchal throne.

Soon, however, discord arose within the Church, stirred up by the removal of Patriarch Ignatius from office. The Synod of 861 was called to end the unrest, at which the deposition of Ignatius and the installation of Photius as patriarch were confirmed.

Pope Nicholas I, whose envoys were present at this council, hoped that by recognizing Photius as patriarch he could subordinate him to his power. When the new patriarch proved not submissive, Nicholas anathematized Photius at a Roman council. The anathema on Photius was influenced by the Franks; this was discovered in a research by Fr John S. Romanides

Until the end of his life St Photius was a firm opponent of papal intrigues and designs upon the Orthodox Church of the East.

In 864, Bulgaria voluntarily converted to Christianity. The Bulgarian prince Boris was baptized by Patriarch Photius himself. Later, St Photius sent an archbishop and priests to baptize the Bulgarian people. In 865, Sts Cyril and Methodius were sent to preach Christ in the Slavonic language. However, the partisans of the Pope incited the Bulgarians against the Orthodox missionaries.

The calamitous situation in Bulgaria developed because an invasion by the Germans forced them to seek help in the West, and the Bulgarian prince requested the Pope to send his bishops. When they arrived in Bulgaria, the papal legates began to substitute Latin teachings and customs in place of Orthodox belief and practice. St Photius, as a firm defender of truth and denouncer of falsehood, wrote an encyclical informing the Eastern bishops of the Pope’s actions, indicating that the departure of the Roman Church from Orthodoxy was not only in ritual, but also in its confession of faith. A council was convened, censuring the arrogance of the West.

In 867, Basil the Macedonian seized the imperial throne, after murdering the emperor Michael. St Photius denounced the murderer and would not permit him to partake of the Holy Mysteries of Christ. Therefore, he was removed from the patriarchal throne and locked in a monastery under guard, and Patriarch Ignatius was restored to his position.

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Council of 869

The Synod of 869 met to investigate the conduct of St Photius. This council took place with the participation of papal legates, who demanded that the participants sign a document (Libellus) condemning Photius and recognizing the primacy of the Pope. The Eastern bishops would not agree to this, and argued with the legates. Summoned to the council, St Photius met all the accusations of the legates with a dignified silence. Only when the judges asked him whether he wished to repent did he reply, “Why do you consider yourselves judges?” After long disputes, the opponents of Photius were victorious. Although their judgment was baseless, they anathematized Patriarch Photius and the bishops defending him. The saint was sent to prison for seven years, and by his own testimony, he thanked the Lord for patiently enduring His judges.

During this time the Latin clergy were expelled from Bulgaria, and Patriarch Ignatius sent his bishops there. In 879, two years after the death of Patriarch Ignatius, another council was summoned (many consider it the Eighth Ecumenical Council), and again St Photius was acknowledged as the lawful archpastor of the Church of Constantinople. Pope John VIII, who knew Photius personally, declared through his envoys that the former papal decisions about Photius were annulled. The council acknowledged the unalterable character of the Nicean-Constantinople Creed, rejecting the Latin distortion (”filioque”), and acknowledging the independence and equality of both thrones and both churches (Western and Eastern). The council decided to abolish Latin usages and rituals in the Bulgarian church introduced by the Roman clergy, who ended their activities there.

Under Emperor Basil’s successor, Leo, St Photius again endured false denunciations, and was accused of speaking against the emperor. Again deposed from his See in 886, the saint completed the course of his life in 891. He was buried at the monastery of Eremia.

The Orthodox Church venerates St Photius as a “pillar and foundation of the Church,” an “inspired guide of the Orthodox,” and a wise theologian. He left behind several works, exposing the errors of the Latins, refuting soul-destroying heresies, explicating Holy Scripture, and exploring many aspects of the Faith.

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The Council of 879-880

This council is not regarded as ecumenical by all Orthodox Christians, but some major voices in the Orthodox world do so, including 20th century theologians Fr. John S. Romanides and Fr. George Metallinos (both of whom refer repeatedly to the "Eighth and Ninth Ecumenical Councils"), as well as Fr. George Dragas and Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos.

Further, the Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs refers explicitly to the "Eighth Ecumenical Council" regarding the synod of 879-880 and was signed by the patriarchs of Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria as well as the Holy Synods of the first three.

Those who regard these councils as ecumenical often characterize the limitation of Ecumenical Councils to only seven to be the result of Jesuit influence in Russia, part of the so-called "Western Captivity of Orthodoxy."

An interesting external attestation to the consideration of this synod to be the Eighth Ecumenical Council is the Roman Catholic Church's Catholic Encyclopedia (1907), which describes the council of 879-880 as the "Pseudosynodus Photiana," noting that the "Orthodox count it as the Eighth General Council."

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Filioque Controversy

Filioque is a Latin word meaning "and the Son" which was added to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed by the Church of Rome in the 11th century, one of the major factors leading to the Great Schism between East and West. This inclusion in the Creedal article regarding the Holy Spirit thus states that the Spirit "proceeds from the Father and the Son." Its inclusion in the Creed is a violation of the canons of the Third Ecumenical Council in 431, which forbade and anathematized any additions to the Creed, a prohibition which was reiterated at the Eighth Ecumenical Council in 879-880. This word was not included by the Council of Nicea nor of Constantinople.

There is strong evidence that the cause of the Filioque controversy is to be found in the Frankish decision to provoke the condemnation of the East Romans as heretics so that the latter might become exclusively "Greeks" and, therefore, a different nation from the West Romans under Frankish rule.

The Franks deliberately provoked doctrinal differences in order to break the national and ecclesiastical unity of the Roman nation, and thus separate, once and for all, the revolutionary West Romans under their rule from the East Romans.

On of these doctrinal differences was the filioque controversy which presented Saint Photius the opportunity to defend the orthodox faith to the core, he accused Rome of heresy.

St. Photius the Great, in his On the Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit. He describes it as a heresy of Triadology, striking at the very heart of what the Church believes about God.
To rally the Eastern Churches to his course he issued an Encyclical to the Eastern Patriarchs denouncing the Latin Church for differences in customs and, most importantly for the Filioque, which he deemed heretical.

This latter element, appearing for the first time, is of special importance, as it moved the issue from jurisdiction and custom to one of dogma. In 867, he assembled a synod excommunicating Pope Nicholas and condemning Latin "aberrations".

Photius's importance endured in regard to relations between East and West, as he was the first theologian to make the Filioque a contentious issue and to accuse Rome of heresy in the matter. He is recognized as a Saint by the Eastern Orthodox Church and his line of criticism has often been echoed later, making reconciliation between East and West difficult.

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The Roman Church eventually recognised The Fourth Council of Constantinople (AD 869-870, Photian) as the eighth Ecumenical Council, but the Eastern Church for the most part denied its ecumenicity and continues to recognize only the first seven ecumenical councils.

This Council confirmed a Roman sentence of excommunication against Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, bringing to a head the so-called Photian Schism. The Council's canon (no. 22) that prohibited lay interference in episcopal elections assumed great importance in the Western Church's Investiture Controversy between church and state in the 11th and early 12th centuries

Photius was later reinstated and called his own Council in 879 – 880. This Council reversed the edicts of 869 – 870. The Eastern Church recognizes the later Council, which sometimes causes confusion as to which is ‘ecumenical*’. The Eighth Ecumenical Council was a reunion council held at Constantinople in 879-880. This council was originally accepted and fully endorsed by the papacy in Rome (whose legates were present at the behest of Pope John VIII), but later repudiated by Rome in the 11th century, retroactively regarding the robber council of 869-870 to be ecumenical. The council of 879-880 affirmed the restoration of St. Photius the Great to his see and anathematized any who altered the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, thus condemning the Filioque.

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