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Photios the Great and the Eighth Ecumenical Synod


By His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

First published at:

Source in Greek: Ναυπάκτου κ. Ἱεροθέου: Ὁ Μέγας Φώτιος καί ἡ Η΄ Οἰκουμενική Σύνοδος (Α) and Ναυπάκτου κ. Ἱεροθέου: Ὁ Μ. Φώτιος καί ἡ Η΄ Οἰκουμενική Σύνοδος (Β)

The Synod that took place in 879-880 A.D. in Constantinople, when Photios the Great was Patriarch of Constantinople, that great patristic personage, is of great importance and is of significant interest from all sides, mainly because this Great Synod took place before the occupation of the Throne of Old Rome by the Franks and the official introduction of the Filioque, and certainly before the excommunication imposed by the Patriarch of Constantinople on the Pope of Rome in 1009. For this reason we will analyze certain points of this Great Synod, which is identified as the Eighth Ecumenical Synod; points that are of strong interest, especially nowadays.

For the study of this subject, I primarily read the surviving Minutes of the Synod, as well as various theological studies regarding this Ecumenical Synod.

1. The Events Leading Up to the Convening of the Synod of 879-880

Photios the Great and the Eighth Ecumenical Synod Photios the Great ascended the Throne of Constantinople in the year 858, against his will, as he himself confesses in a letter to Pope Nicholas I, since Patriarch Ignatios was previously deposed. The followers of Ignatios resorted to Pope Nicholas I alleging that Ignatios was unjustly deposed, and Photios was enthroned uncanonically in place of Ignatios, and that he was elevated from that of a layman, and his ordination took place "all at once".

Pope Nicholas I was quite ambitious and felt himself to be the head of the universal Church, placing himself on an ecclesiastical sphere of Frankish perception, especially in the view of Charlemagne. With these ideas Nicholas sent a letter to Photios and said that he did not recognize his election. In this way he entered into the jurisdiction of another Church, the Church of Constantinople, and this was done in violation of the sacred Canons, since each autocephalous Church has the canonical authority to elect their Protos (Primate). In this way Pope Nicholas clearly expressed his primacy over the entire Church since, in his view, he had the jurisdiction to either recognize or not the canonicity of the election of the Patriarch of another Church.

In the year 861 Photios convened a Synod in Constantinople, known as the First-Second Synod, and he even sent word to the Pope to send a representative of his, which he did. This Synod confirmed the election of Photios as Patriarch and the dethronement of Ignatios, on the ground that Ignatios was elected uncanonically, with the intervention of the Empress. All those present signed the Minutes of the Synod, even the legates of the Pope.

Pope Nicholas was angry with this decision and in the year 863 convened a Synod in Rome in which only Bishops from Italy attended. This Synod deposed Photios, as well as those Bishops who had been ordained by Photios, and simultaneously recognized as the canonical Patriarch of Constantinople Ignatios. He did this because he considered himself as a universal Patriarch and had canonical jurisdiction to convene in ecclesiastical matters of other ecclesiastical jurisdictions.

Meanwhile at that time, with the blessing of Pope Nicholas I, Frankish missionaries were sent to Bulgaria, who expelled from there missionaries sent by Photios, since the Patriarch of Constantinople had canonical jurisdiction of that region, based on the 28th Canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod. The Frankish missionaries expelled the ecclesiastical customs taught to the Christians of Bulgaria from Constantinople, and imposed Frankish customs and traditions, and especially introduced into the worship of the Bulgarians the heresy of the Filioque, which was established in the Synod of Frankfurt in the year 794. Clearly this was an uncanonical intervention into another ecclesiastical jurisdiction, an infringement of the aforementioned 28th Canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod, and the introduction of the heresy of the Filioque, which states that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son.

Patriarch Photios, after informing all the Churches concerning these matters, convened in the year 867 a Synod in Constantinople. This Synod was held in the presence of the Emperor and many Bishops, and they first of all deposed Pope Nicholas I for his uncanonical involvement in Bulgaria, and on the other hand they condemned the heresy of the Filioque. However, that same year Pope Nicholas died, before his deposition was announced. The next year his successor Hadrian, in 868, convened a Synod in Rome, in which only Bishops from the West participated, and they anathematized Photios and burned the Minutes of the Synod of 867.

At that time there were political changes in the Empire of Constantinople, with Basil the I the Macedonian ascending the throne, resulting in Photios being banished and Ignatios being restored to the Patriarchal Throne. For the ratification of this ecclesiastical change the Emperor cooperated with Pope Hadrian for a Synod to take place in Constantinople, in order to approve these ecclesiastical changes. Indeed, the Synod met in the Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in the year 869-870, with representatives of the Pope present and a few other Bishops, and they essentially imposed Papal Primacy on the Eastern Church, having made decision in accordance with the papal libel, Libellus Satisfactionis, which preceded it. In this Synod Photios was anathematized, all Bishops ordained by him were deposed, and those who followed him, monastics and laypeople, were excommunicated. Indeed, this Synod destroyed the Minutes of the Synods convened by Photios the Great (861 and 867).

Shortly after Ignatios and Photios reconciled, and after the passing of Ignatios in the year 878 Photios was restored for a second time to the Patriarchal Throne. Thus, the next year in 879-880 there convened in the Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople a Great Synod, which the new Pope John VIII was invited to attend, which he did through his envoys. This Synod annulled the anathema imposed on Photios by the Synod of 869-870, it condemned the Filioque, it tackled ecclesiastical issues, and essentially denied the Primacy of the Pope over all the Churches. This Synod is very important from the side of the Orthodox and is of great significance. Beyond the dogmatic issue of the Filioque, it established the autocephaly of each Church and the non-intervention of the Pope in other ecclesiastical jurisdictions, thereby essentially denying the Primacy of the Pope. We will see these topics analyzed further on.

Here we must note the difference between Ignatios and Photios. Both had love for God and a good disposition, but Ignatios and his followers did not realize that at the time significant games were being played with doctrinal, canonical and political issues, since the Pope sought to guarantee his absolute dominance across the Church, and the Franks sought to expand eastward as well and usurp areas of the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Conversely Photios, despite his holiness and wisdom, was a manageable, clever and skillful diplomat, and foresaw the political and ecclesiastical dangers, and with this perspective he faced the situation. The problem was not about the Throne, but it was theological, ecclesiastical and national issues they were facing at the time.

2. The Minutes of the Synod

Photios the Great and the Eighth Ecumenical Synod When one reads the published Minutes of the Synod of the year 879-880, then they will understand the great value of the Synod that took place in Seven Sessions.

The First Session relates to the opening of the Synod that took place on the 14th of November in the year 879, on a Saturday, in the Grand Sekreton of the Patriarchate. There was a meeting of all the Bishops and the representatives of the Pope. This was followed by a prayer, introductions, and addresses were exchanged of initial thoughts on the issues that concerned the Church.

The Second Session of the Synod took place on the 17th of November, a Tuesday, on the right side of the Holy Church of Hagia Sophia which was for the catechumens. In this Session several letters were read, namely that of Pope John to Emperor Basil the Macedonia and to Patriarch Photios; of Patriarch Michael of Alexandria to Emperor Basil and his sons and to Patriarch Photios; of Patriarch Theodosios of Jerusalem to Patriarch Photios of Constantinople; of Patriarch Theodosios of Antioch to Patriarch Photios; and of Metropolitan Abramios of Samosata to Photios.

The Third Session of the Synod took place on the 19th of November, a Thursday, in the same place as before. During this Meeting was read the letters of Pope John to the Synod and of Patriarch Theodosios of Jerusalem to Emperor Basil. Also the Commonitory of Pope John was read to his deputies in Constantinople, which contained the orders of the Pope to his representatives on their course of action during the Synod, which we will analyze further on.

The Fourth Session took place on Christmas Eve, a Thursday, in the Grand Sekreton of the Patriarchate. During this Meeting was read the letters of Patriarch Theodosios of Antioch to Patriarch Photios, and of Elias, the new Patriarch of Jerusalem, to Patriarch Photios. In this meeting some of the positions of the Commonitory were discussed as well as the subject of the annulment of the Synod that took place in the year 869-870 which anathematized Photios, as well as the issue of the anathematization of the anti-photian Bishops. Then a Divine Liturgy took place for Christmas, in which all the Bishops participated.

The Fifth Session of the Synod took place on the 26th of January in the year 880, a Tuesday, on the right side of the Holy Church of Hagia Sophia which was for the catechumens. During this the Synod of 869-870 was annulled, and the Seventh Ecumenical Synod was confirmed, which had been annulled by the now annulled Synod of 869-870. Also, three important sacred Canons were issued concerning basic ecclesiastical issues, and these are described in the Canon Law of the Church as sacred Canons "of the Synod in Constantinople in the Church of Hagia Sophia".

The Sixth Session of the Synod took place on March 3rd, a Thursday, in the luxurious and solemn Hall of the Palace, with Emperors Basil, Leo and Alexander seated among them. The Meeting of the Synod took place in the Palace, due to Basil being in mourning and he could not publicly attend, yet he had to sign the decisions of the Synod, in order for them to become the law of the Empire. Emperor Basil spoke during this Meeting, and he said that this Ecumenical Synod had to take place in order for there to be unity in the Church, and he proposed as a seal of unity of the Church the Symbol of Faith of Nicaea/Constantinople, to be applied to all the Churches, without any addition or subtraction. This implied the addition into the Symbol of Faith of the Filioque by the Franks, but it was not specifically named in order to keep the peace of the Church. After this the decisions of the Synod were signed by the Emperor and his sons, and they became the law of the Empire.

The Seventh Session, the last of the Synod, took place on the 13th of March, a Sunday, on the right side of the Holy Church of Hagia Sophia which was for the catechumens. During this Meeting was read a summary of the Minutes of the Synod, in order for all the previous decisions to be accepted by all. What is important is that everyone submitted due respect to Patriarch Photios. Indeed, the deputies of the Pope of Rome praised Photios for his "reputation of benevolence" throughout the world, not only in Gaul and Italy, but throughout the world, and they testify this "not only in the Greek language, but also in the barbarian and similar races." These words are important, because this characterization by the legates of the Pope had the Franks in mind and their barbaric actions. All of them confessed on behalf of Photios, according to the words of the legates of the Pope: "For no one is equal to him in wisdom and knowledge, nor in mercy and compassion, nor in goodness and humility; and that his works always exceed his words."

And the Synod ended with a hymn to Photios the Great. The deputies of the Pope and Cardinal Peter said: "Whosoever does not hold him to be a holy Patriarch and embrace him in communion, should have a place with Judas, and should not gather together with the Christians." And the entire Holy Synod "cried out": "In all these things we are of like mind and we glorify, and those who do not hold him to be a high priest of God, may they not see the glory of God." And having said these things, they lauded the Emperor with "Many Years".

3. The Issues Faced by the Eighth Ecumenical Synod

The Ecumenical Synod of 879-880, which is designated as the Eighth Ecumenical Synod, dealt with the issues which arose in the previous period, namely the ratification of the elevation of Photios to the Patriarchal Throne, the removal of the anathemas of the Synod of 869-870, the recognition of ecclesiastical traditions and customs of each Local Church (among which was the "all at once" ordination of Bishops), the validity of decisions of each Local Church, the place of the Bishop in the Church, the relationship between Bishops and monastics (as is shown in the sacred Canons drafted by this Ecumenical Synod), the canonical jurisdiction of the province of Bulgaria, and the condemnation of the heresy of the Filioque.

Below, however, we will highlight four important points which, in my opinion, are the quintessence of this important Synod.

a) The Two Forms of Ecclesiology, East and West

At the beginning of the Synod, during the initial discussions, it became clear that the ecclesiology of the Western Church conflicted with the ecclesiology of the Eastern Church. The Pope thought he was the head of the entire Church, that he had primacy of authority throughout the Church, while the Orthodox recognized the primacy of his ministry, without giving him authority into other ecclesiastical jurisdictions.

Western society had been affected by feudal conceptions which the Franks brought into Europe, according to which there is a pyramid organization to the State. This pyramid organization was adopted by the Church of Rome and the Pope regarded himself as the ecumenical Father and Governor over all the Local Churches, and he would either approve or not the decisions of Synods. We can trace this mindset and difference to the non-acceptance of the Pope of two basic Canons, namely the 34th Canon of the Holy Apostles and the 28th Canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod.

The 34th Apostolic Canon establishes a synodal constitution of the Church, according to which in the basic doctrinal and ecclesiastical issues, the so-called "non-essentials", the Protos does not act independently from the other Bishops of the Province, and Bishops do not make decisions without the opinion of the Protos. What applies to the administration system of Metropolitans applies to the synodical Inter-Orthodox administration system of the Church. Also, the 28th Canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod determined, among other things, that the Bishops of barbarian administrations should be ordained by the Throne of the most-holy Church of Constantinople.

In practice the Pope of Rome did not accept these two basic Canons, because he considered himself above Synods, and also considered that he was able as a leader of the universal Church to enter into the internal affairs of other ecclesiastical authorities, such as the issue of the election and restoration of Patriarch Photios, and in the ordinations of the Bishops of Bulgaria. The differences of these two ecclesiologies became clear in the discussions of the first Meeting, when the papal legates insisted on passing their own ecclesiology to the Synod, and this also appeared in the Meetings subsequent to the first. But as the discussions progressed and they were reaching their final decisions, the ecclesiology of the Eastern Church entirely prevailed.

We will list some characteristic excerpts from the dialogue of the initial days of the Meeting, where these differences are most intensely apparent.

After the first addresses of Peter, the Cardinal and Vicar of Pope John, he said to Photios: "Saint Peter is visiting us," which means that in the person of the Pope the Apostle Peter himself is visiting the Synod, the Pope being his successor and the deputy of Christ to the entire Church. Patriarch Photios responded: "May Christ our God, through the chief of the disciples Peter, whose memory you give reverence to, have mercy on all of us and show us worthy of His kingdom." Clearly Patriarch Photios here is speaking of the pontificate of Christ which is held by the Apostle Peter, just as it is with all of the Apostles, since the pontificate of each Apostle goes back to Christ.

Cardinal Peter continued by calling the Pope ecumenical: "The most-holy and ecumenical Pope John venerates your holiness." Patriarch Photios responded in a theological and spiritual way: "His veneration towards me is returned with heartfelt longing, and I entreat that he grant unto me his holy prayers and honorable love, and may this be a genuine love between us and sincere arrangement before our common Master."

The Cardinal continued the dialogue, referencing the decision of the Pope: "He wants to have your honorableness as a brother, co-liturgist and mutual priest." Patriarch Photios responded by referencing Christ Who fulfills all things and calls the Pope only a Spiritual Father by extension and not as a supervisor: "May He who fulfills all good things, Christ our God, complete His will by heavenly counsel, and we record him as being our brother, co-liturgist and our spiritual father."

Then the Cardinal tried to enforce the Primacy of the Pope over the entire Church, referring to the letter the Pope sent to Photios, so that all may recognize that the Pope has diligent care for the Church of Constantinople. It is a very clear allusion to the canonical rights the Pope thought he had over another ecclesiastical jurisdiction: "He sent your holiness a letter, that all may know through it the care and attention he procures for your holy Church of God, and for the love and faith he has for your holiness." Patriarch Photios appropriately responded that he knew of this care of the Pope before the letter, but now the letters "are not lessons, but an addition and verification of what had already been known." The pontifical interest of the Pope for the Church of Constantinople is found in his position as "father and carer", though he does not have a canonical right. The Pope imitated Christ, "the first and great high priest", Who emptied Himself and took on the form of a servant. Therefore the Pope took interest "as being absent from this predetermined schismatic error, all having as our common head Christ our true God glued by His one bread resulting in His body."

Then Photios asked about the health of the Pope. The Cardinal said: "He is well through your holy prayers." And then Photios asked about the Church of Rome that belonged to the Pope, apparently to confront the notion regarding the ecumenicity of the Pope and his intervention in other ecclesiastical jurisdictions: "How is his holy Church of God and all the pontiffs and priests he has?" The Cardinal understood the point of this question and turned the conversation over to the situation of Photios: "All is healthy through your holy prayers, but what do you have to say about the love and faith the most holy Pope has towards your holiness?" Then Photios referred to how love is expressed through works: "Words have authority when visible actions make them apparent, and with the most holy Pope, our spiritual father, his actions overthrow his words...." Here the Pope is described by the sacred Photios as a "spiritual father", and not as the Shepherd of the entire Church.

The Cardinal then turned towards the Bishops present at the Synod, and conveyed the greetings of the Pope, and that by his presence at the Synod, through his representative, "the most holy Pope visits us," conveying also the desire of the Pope for there to be peace and unity in the Church, recognizing Photios as Patriarch: "Brethren and co-liturgists, in a caring manner as a father towards his children he seeks this, as well as being a good shepherd of his sheep, through his letter and representatives admonishing and guiding and visiting us, wishing that the entire holy Church of God be united and become one flock and one shepherd." He is expressing clearly once again the Primacy of the Pope over the entire Church, considering himself the Shepherd of all Christians, who are his flock. With this authority he urges the Bishops to recognize Photios as Patriarch.

Metropolitan John of Heraclea then responded in the name of all the Bishops that the issue of recognizing Photios as Patriarch was solved by the very Church of Constantinople, which had the canonical competence to deal with this issue, and Photios was already restored to the Throne, wherefore he was their true Shepherd and Ecumenical Patriarch: "His holy prayers come forward to one flock, and we have one true Shepherd, who is venerable and blameless, Photios our most holy Master and Ecumenical Patriarch." Thus, in this manner, they denied the canonical authority of the Pope over the Church of Constantinople.

This happened during the First Session of the Synod. In the next one the Minutes record how the papal legates tried to pass the ecclesiastical views of the Pope, but eventually the position of the Eastern Church fully prevailed, since these papal views were not adopted by the Synod, as they were included in the "Commonitory", and thus was rejected the primacy of the authority of the Pope over all the Church.

b) The "Commonitory"

The "Commonitory", which means orders and instructions, is the decisions of the Synod convened in Rome for this purpose and which were sent to Constantinople with Cardinal Peter, to be coordinated with the new decisions of the Pope by the papal legates and Eugenios who were already in Constantinople, to address the issues that were discussed at the Synod convened for this purpose. These mandates refer to ten specific issues:

- The papal envoys sent were to communicate first with the emperor then with the others.

- They were not to discuss anything with the emperor until he read the Commonitory and the letter sent to him by the Pope.

- They were not to refer to the content of the letters sent to the Synod and Photios, before the emperor himself read them.

- After the emperor reads the letters, then the next day the envoys are to communicate with Photios and deliver to him the letter from the Pope addressed to him and to tell him that the Pope is in communion with him.

- They were to inform Photios that the Pope wants restored all the expelled Ignatian Bishops.

- The papal legates were sent by the Pope to the Synod in order to pacify the Church of Constantinople and bring concord to it.

- Those Bishops who did not comply were to be deposed.

- There were to be no more "all at once" ordinations of Bishops, in the manner Patriarch Photios was elected and certain other Bishops.

- Photios was hereinafter to no longer send his people to Bulgaria.

- The Synod of 869-870 which deposed Photios is now cancelled.

From these mandates it becomes obvious the way the Pope was acting, on the one hand because the envoys were to refer first to the emperor and then to Photios and the Synod, on the other hand it shows that he is overriding the Synod and wants to impose his decisions, which the Synod had to accept. Hence, synodical polity could not be applied, since the decisions were predetermined and thus the Pope is showing his Primacy of authority over the entire Church.

Characteristic also is the way the Pope transmits these mandates and directives to the Synod which convened for this purpose. There are some very expressive sentences which indicate the authority the Pope wants to have over the Synod. "I command, that before us (Photios) comes to the Synod, and may the entire Church receive him." "According to the decree of our letters we also receive him (Photios)." "Rise up and say to him (Photios): Our lord, the most-holy Pope bids you." "Receive him (Photios) as a father does his children." "Our lord, the most-holy Pope of the entire Church, is a caring shepherd of our salvation." "Excommunicate them and depose them from every ecclesiastical office, until they unite with the domestic patriarch."

It should be noted that during the reading of the Commonitory discussions took place twice. First, after the reading of the sixth term, where it says that the papal legates were sent by the Pope to the Synod in order to pacify the Church of Constantinople and bring concord to it, and the papal legates asked, "Is this good or not?" Then the Synod said, "As for the peace and concord of the Church, it is both a good and welcome prescription." Then, during the reading of the Commonitory, specifically the tenth term where it says the Synod of 869-870 which deposed Photios is now cancelled, the Bishops present at the Synod said that they had preached against, expelled and anathematized the Synod when they united with Photios, their Patriarch, and anathematized those who had participated in that Synod of the year 869-870.

From these it appears that the Pope considered himself above the Church, which is why he issued mandates, even in the first person.

As stated above, the Commonitory was read during the Third Session of the Synod. However, at the Fourth Session of the Synod they raised, among other things, the claims of the Pope for the Throne of Constantinople to not interfere in the ecclesiastical provinces of Bulgaria and regarding the ordinations of Bishops from the status of the laity, as it was done with Photios and certain others. Regarding the first claim, the Synod did not accept this claim of the Pope and decided that it was not to be decided upon in the present moment, rather it was referred to the emperor to solve it, especially when the Empire was to be restored to its "ancient boundaries". In this way they rejected the claim of the Pope to having canonical jurisdiction over the Church of Bulgaria. As for the second claim, which had to do with elevating a layman to the status of a patriarch, this was related to what was happening in the West at the time. At that time the Pope was facing a problem in his Church from the fact that the Franks were imposing Bishops from the status of laymen. The Synod decided that since each Throne is ancient and has its own customs, it is not for others to impose their own decrees upon another.

Thus the fundamental claims/mandates of the Pope were not accepted by the Eighth Ecumenical Synod, as can be read in the Minutes of the Synod. Wherefore, the synodal system prevailed in the Church and not the absolutism of the Pope of Rome, who wanted to impose his own views.

c) The Primacy of the Pope

Previously we showed how the West expressed the Primacy of the Pope. He was not viewed as having primacy of honor, but as the Primate of the Pentarchy system, a primacy of jurisdiction, with the attempt of the Pope to impose his views throughout the Church, considering himself to have canonical management and responsibility over it.

The legates of the Pope at the Synod tried to pass on the view that only the Apostle Peter and his successors have received the authority from Christ to "bind and loose", and they have the primary responsibility over the entire Church. Within this perspective the Pope is the only source of the priesthood, and this is why Patriarch Photios had no authority as a pontif, unless it came from the Pope. In the Minutes of the Synod it shows that the Pope viewed himself above the Synod, and he was the one to specify the decisions and ratify them. Even in the letter which the Pope wrote in Latin addressed to the Synod to put forward the issue of Photios, he gave a mandate for Photios to ask forgiveness for the problems he created in the Church, and in this way the Pope truly put himself above the other Patriarchs.

This concept of Papal Primacy, which was developed in the first millennium by the Pope, did not pass in the Eighth Ecumenical Synod. Photios the Great had crystallized his views based on the canonical teachings of the Church and this was the decision that was passed in the Synod.

Patriarch Photios had acknowledged the primacy of honor that belonged to the Pope, which is why he called him brother, co-liturgist and spiritual father. But this primacy of honor is not over the Church, nor over the synodical system of the Church. The primacy of the Pope is one of ministry to bring unity to the Church and this is expressed through self-emptying sacrifice, just as we see in the work of the incarnation of Christ.

Indeed in the 1st Canon that was drafted at the Eighth Ecumenical Synod, during its Fifth Session, there is mention of the privileges of the Church of Old Rome: "Nothing, however, shall affect the seniority due to the most holy throne of the Church of the Romans, nor shall anything redound to the detriment of her president, as touching the sum-total of innovations, either now or at any time hereafter."

Thus, while acknowledging the primacy of the Bishop of Old Rome, this must function within the Church as a primacy of ministry and honor, and not as a primacy of jurisdiction and which is above the Synod. Even in this case we must apply the 34th Apostolic Canon. And this of course means that the western "Church" will return to the Orthodox Church after having eliminated all its heretical teachings and other innovations.

d) The Filioque

In the Sixth Session of the Synod the doctrinal issue of the Filioque was discussed.

It is known from other analyses that the Filioque, the view that that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son, was introduced by the Franks and even the Popes of Old Rome initially resisted it. It is also known that the Frankish missionaries in Bulgaria, along with liturgical customs, introduced the addition of the Filioque into the Symbol of Faith. During this Ecumenical Synod we are studying (879-880), this doctrinal issue was also discussed.

This issue was suggested by Emperor Basil on the ground that they had to come together "in harmony and deep peace", and they had to read the horos with an ecclesiastical mindset "not with something new and private, but as it was established by the Holy and Great Synod of Nicaea." Here he speaks of the new and private horos of the Filioque by the Franks in the Symbol of Faith. The Fathers of the Synod agreed with this proposal, the representatives of Old Rome and Patriarch Photios.

Then the Symbol of Faith was read, as established by the First and Second Ecumenical Synods. And after the reading the entire "holy gathering cried out":

"Thus we think, in this confession of faith we were we baptized, through this the one word of truth proved that every heresy is broken to pieces and canceled out. We enroll as brothers and fathers and coheirs of the heavenly city those who think thus. If anyone, however, dares to rewrite and call Rule of Faith some other exposition besides that of the sacred Symbol which has been spread abroad from above by our blessed and holy Fathers even as far as ourselves, and to snatch the authority of the confession of those divine men and impose on it his own invented phrases and put this forth as a common lesson to the faithful or to those who return from some kind of heresy, and display the audacity to falsify completely the antiquity of this sacred and venerable Horos (Rule) with illegitimate words, or additions, or subtractions, such a person should, according to the vote of the Holy and Ecumenical Synods, which has been already acclaimed before us, be subjected to complete defrocking if he happens to be one of the clergymen, or be sent away with an anathema if he happens to be one of the lay people."

Then Patriarch Photios proposed - if it so pleased the Fathers of the Synod - that the Emperor sign, seal and ratify "all the synodical acts and ordinances". The Fathers then all cried out that not only were they pleased by this, but they also beseeched and entreated the Emperor that through his signature he would accept and seal all that was done at this Holy and Ecumenical Synod.

From this we can clearly see that this Synod of Photios the Great in 879-880 had all the characteristic features of an Ecumenical Synod. This is indicated mostly by the fact that the themes and decisions were doctrinal and ecclesiastical, the dominant figure was Photios the Great, who was a man moved by the Spirit, as is shown in his other writings, and present were all the representatives of the Patriarchates and of Old Rome, who also signed the decisions, while also it was convened by the Emperor, who ratified the Minutes of the Synod.

When one studies the Minutes of the Eighth Ecumenical Synod, they will find that the issues it addressed were doctrinal, such as the Filioque, and it ratified the decisions of the Seventh Ecumenical Synod; they were ecclesiastical, such as the primacy of and appeal to the Pope, the non-election of Bishops from the class of laymen, and the canonical jurisdiction of the province of Bulgaria. In other words, they were issues that dealt with the unity of the Eastern and Western Churches and the peace between the Churches. It also addressed various canonical issues.

At the same time, from the discussions that took place during the Eighth Ecumenical Synod, there appeared the difference between Eastern and Western Churches, which was the primary issue. That is, the Eastern Church sought to resolve serious theological issues, namely the unity between the Church and the condemnation of the Filioque, while the Western Church, which had become secularized, sought to resolve external issues, namely the recognition of the primacy of and appeal to the Pope, the removal of the "all at once" whereby a Bishop is ordained from the class of a layman, and the acquisition of canonical jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical province of Bulgaria. And it is obvious that the representatives of the Pope could not pass any of their positions, because this Synod was completely dominated by the ecclesiology of the Eastern Church, as we stated above.

4. The Self-Consciousness of the Synod as Ecumenical

The Synod was convened by Emperor Basil the Macedonian, was chaired by Patriarch Photios of Constantinople, was attended by representatives of the Pope and representatives of all the Patriarchates. The issues the Synod faced were doctrinal and ecclesiological, and therefore it can be safely assumed that it deemed itself to be the Eighth Ecumenical Synod. Indeed this is how it is recorded in the consciousness of the Church.

The important thing is that the Synod itself had the self-consciousness that it was ecumenical. This is evident in its Minutes.

In the sacred Canons adopted by this Synod, many times it calls itself "ecumenical". In the 1st Canon it says: "...this holy and ecumenical Synod has decreed...." In the 2nd Canon again it says: "...this holy and ecumenical Synod...."

With such a consciousness Patriarch Photios chaired this Synod. This is why at one point he said: "Because of all that has been accomplished in this holy and ecumenical Synod, according to God's good pleasure, in cooperation with our great and high emperor, and with the inspiration and praise of the most-holy Pope of Rome, our spiritual brother and father, through the presence of his most-holy representatives, and the remaining three eastern thrones, and after the successful completion of this prayerful work has come to pass, we are bound to thank our all-good God Who loves mankind."

The representatives of the Pope also called it an Ecumenical Synod. They said: "Blessed is God, for by His judgment and will all the most-holy patriarchs came together as one, and through common harmony and peace all things came to a good end from what was ruled and passed at this holy and ecumenical Synod."

The entire Synod considered it to be ecumenical: "...whoever does not support what this holy and ecumenical Synod has passed, may they be separated from the holy and consubstantial Trinity."

The Bishops who were present and spoke described at as an Ecumenical Synod. The phrase they used was: "According to this holy and ecumenical Synod...."

Emperor Basil was of the same opinion, which is why he ratified the Synod as follows: "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Basil, emperor in Christ, faithful king of the Romans, is in complete agreement with this holy and ecumenical Synod, and therefore ratifies and seals the holy and ecumenical seventh Synod, and ratifies and confirms Photios as the most-holy Patriarch of Constantinople and my spiritual father, casting away all those who write or speak against it. I sign this with my own hand."

I insisted on the juxtaposition of particular passages because I wanted to clearly show what the self-consciousness of the Synod was, in that all those who were present believed that this was an Ecumenical Synod, and indeed this is what ratified the Seventh Ecumenical Synod. Beyond this I also insisted on pointing this out for another basic reason.

Many Orthodox, just about the majority, speak of Seven Ecumenical Synods, without counting the Synod of 879-880 as Ecumenical, as it defines itself and as it has all the canonical and ecclesiastical conditions for it to be Ecumenical. The same happens with the Synod in the time of Saint Gregory Palamas, which is described as the Ninth Ecumenical Synod.

And the West ignores the Synod under Photios of the year 879-880. While Pope John VIII voided the Synod of 869-870, which deposed Photios the Great, and ratified the Synod of 879-880, the Papal Church today recognizes the Synod of 869-870 as among their 21 "Ecumenical Synods", which is why there is no trace of a commemoration of Photios the Great among them.

It is thought that this happened because the Eighth Ecumenical Synod condemned the heresy of the Filioque and did not accept the primacy of the Pope. Under such a circumstance, when some or many tolerate such an undermining of the work of Photios the Great, then one wonders: How can one honor Photios the Great, since essentially Photios is considered "anathematized" by the Papal Church, while Pope John VIII recognized him as the canonical Patriarch of Constantinople?

5. After the Eighth Ecumenical Synod

When Pope John VIII heard that his requests were not accepted by the Synod, he sent letters to Emperor Basil and Patriarch Photios and expressed his displeasure that his representatives signed the decisions of this Synod, and he said that he did not accept the points that deviated from his mandate.

Here is the theory of the Latin Church, that the Pope is above the Synods and he ratifies them or not, and in fact the Ecumenical Synod should submit to the Pope and not the Pope to the decisions of the Church, which are expressed synodically.

However, things had already taken off and could not be changed. The contribution of Photios the Great with the cooperation of Emperor Basil, preserved the Orthodox faith with the condemnation of the Filioque, they distanced themselves from the danger of the penetration of the Pope into the eastern lands with the occupation of Bulgaria, and they cut off the plans of the Pope for his primacy to prevail over the Church, thus preserving the synodical constitution of the Church.

Despite this, the political change of the Empire with the elevation of Leo to the throne of the Empire after the death of Basil, also had effects on the Patriarchal Throne of Constantinople. Although Leo was a student of Photios the Great, he dethroned him and elevated his brother Stephen who was 16 or 17 years old. Photios the Great spent his second exile at the Monastery of Armeniakon until the end of his life, which took place on the 6th of February in the year 891.

However, whatever took place during his Patriarchate could not be changed, so that Photios the Great is considered a great wall against the storm of the western effort to change and alter the Orthodox Church. When we consider the issue from a human point of view, we can consider that, if Photios was not Patriarch at that time, with his many spiritual gifts, the Popes of Rome would have increased their ecclesiastical and political authority throughout the East, the Franks would have acquired greater authority also in the Eastern Church, with all the known consequences, since the Orthodox Church would have lost its theology and ecclesiology. However, as already mentioned, the Filioque was introduced into the Church of Old Rome in 1009, resulting in the Latins being removed from the diptychs and excommunication had begun.

Photios the Great thoroughly diagnosed the mentality of the Papacy and he wanted to preserve the Orthodox Church from this alteration. The fragmentation of entire ecclesiastical regions of the western "Church" in the 16th century with the Reformation, as a reaction to the excesses of the Pope, vindicated the stance and action of Photios the Great.

6. The Personality of Photios the Great

Photios the Great and the Eighth Ecumenical Synod When one studies the historical events that preceded the convening of the Eighth Ecumenical Synod, as well as those during and after the Synod, they will recognize the great personality of the sacred Photios. He was the dominant figure of that time and the most pensive, discerning and a great leader, who was able to see the urgency of the state of his time, and to have a sober and sensible mind. We can see this from three vantage points.

a) The political situation of the Empire was constantly in a state of conflict and disruption.

First, at that time the Franks were dominant in the West and occupied a large part of the western part of the Roman Empire, they coveted ecclesiastical positions in the West, and certainly had ambitions for the East as well.

Second, at this time we observe continuous conflicts in the Royal Palace regarding who will gain the throne of the Empire. After the death of Emperor Theophilos there was elected to the throne Emperor Michael III ((842-867), who due to his young age (he was six years old) was represented by his mother Theodora and included a de facto regent, his uncle and the brother of Theodora, Bardas, who played an important role in electing Photios as Patriarch of Constantinople, as well as Basil the Macedonian. After a while Bardas gained great power, having become Caesar. But in a campaign in Crete, Bardas was murdered, so Basil the Macedonian had free access to the imperial throne. In the year 866 Basil was crowned co-emperor by Michael III, and after a year took over the governance of the State after the murder of Michael, and thus began the Macedonian Dynasty. Later Leo, his apparent son, though in reality the natural son of Michael III, came to the throne of the Empire after the death of Basil and was known as Leo III (886-912). One observes therefore in this brief account a disruption of the political situation of the Empire, with conflicts, murders, etc.

b) At this time the Popes of Rome were inspired by secular ideas and were in constant wars with the rulers of the Franks.

We should remember Pope Nicholas I. He was the most ambitious Pope in history, who sought to acquire authority above the rulers of the Franks and Romans, and even invoked the Pseudo-Constantinian Decretals and Pseudo-Isidorean Decretals, according to which Constantine the Great, when he moved the capital to New Rome, gave political power to the Bishop of Old Rome. As scholars have shown, these were forged documents which appeared a few years before Nicholas ascended the throne, and he was probably their creator, and they were used by Pope Nicholas to reclaim secular power. Upon his election he was the first to wear the Papal tiara before King Louis III, grandson of Charlemagne. The three-story tiara symbolized the three powers of the Pope: on earth, in heaven and in hades.

Pope Nicholas I wanted to impose his primacy over the entire Church, which is why he got involved with the election of Photios, was in favor of Ignatios, and sought to obtain canonical jurisdiction in Bulgaria.

His successor to the papal throne was Hadrian II (867-872), who, although to a smaller capacity than Nicholas I, was still inspired with the same perception, which is why, as we have seen, he convened a Synod in Rome during which Photios was anathematized and the Minutes of the Synod that deposed his predecessor Nicholas I were burned.

After the death of Hadrian II, John VIII was elected Pope, and he had the same views, and hoped that the Roman Emperor Basil would give him Bulgaria, which did not happen. But he sought reconciliation with Photios, probably because he expected ecclesiastical benefits from the Empire, which eventually he did not receive.

Hence, all three Popes of the era of Photios the Great (Nicholas I, Hadrian II and John VIII) had ecclesiastical aspirations in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, both by enforcing primacy, as well as assuming canonical jurisdiction over the Church of Bulgaria.

c) Patriarch Ignatios and his followers could not understand the gravity of their era and saw things myopically.

Specifically, Ignatios and his supporters sought to be restored to the Patriarchal Throne of Constantinople and they did not hesitate to seek the Pope's intervention, without realizing that by this means they gave him the right to meet all his aspirations, nor did they understand that the Pope sought domination, he would have changed Canon Law and the decisions of the Ecumenical Synods, and the heresy of the Filioque would not have been opposed.

d) At this difficult time, from a political and ecclesiastical side, the presence of Photios the Great was shown to be beneficial, by the economy of God.

Photios the Great operated between these three factors (Emperors, Popes and Ignatios) with caution and was the most dispassionate voice in his time, a leader with an enlightened mind, insight and indomitable courage. He saw through the political situation and the penetration of the West into the areas of the East, the absolutism of the Pope, the doctrinal deviation in the Trinitarian dogma, and the superficiality of the supporters of Patriarch Ignatios. He did not seek to ascend the Patriarchal Throne, but after his ordination and enthronement he was not discouraged by the situation he saw unfold around him.

The "Apologetic Letter of Patriarch Photios to Nicholas I" is important, showing his strong personality, gifts and ecclesiastical mindset. There he speaks of weeping when he was consecrated, not wanting to leave his beloved peace and quietude for the patriarchal office, and that when he assumed the office he was overwhelmed with controversy. The sacred Photios was wise in his education, a hesychast in his way of life, humble and peaceful, and when necessary he was a confessor and a fighter in doctrinal and canonical issues, even reaching the point of deposing Pope Nicholas I in 867, and showing through theological arguments that the Filioque was a heresy. He envisioned the cultural elevation of the Slavs by giving them education, civilization and the Orthodox way of life. He advocated the unity of the Churches in truth and love, being smart and agile in handling issues. And in general he was the wisest, holiest and most sharp-sighted leader of that tumultuous time.

This is why Photios the Great has been described as "the greatest teacher and scholar of that age", and the "strongest spirit, most exquisite politician and most agile diplomat that ever ascended the patriarchal throne of Constantinople" (Ostrogorsky).

The Orthodox Church owes him a lot.


From what we have mentioned, which is very little in relation to the work of the Eighth Ecumenical Synod (879-880), it seems clear that all those who honor the sacred Photios must accept his struggles, his wisdom, his discernment, his holiness, and of course they must accept this Synod (879-880) as Ecumenical, where he played a key role in all of its decisions. The same should be done with the 34th Apostolic Canon, which should be considered the basis of the constitution of the Church on a local and global scale, as well as the 28th Canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod, and especially accepting the condemnation of the Filioque. Apart from this, it should be required of Papal theologians in dialogue to recognize this Ecumenical Synod (879-880) and number it among their Ecumenical Synods instead of the Synod of 869-870 which deposed Photios.

There are some that invoke the view of Saint Nektarios that we should show love towards heretics, namely that the heretical teachings of some groups should not circumvent love between Christians, which is the pinnacle of the virtues. However, we must not overlook the view of Saint Nektarios regarding the Popes, which he recorded at the end of his first volume of his study on the cause of the Schism, referring to the case of Photios:

"What can one say regarding these things? Ought we to lament and turn up the nose at the claims of the Popes of the West? I agree that it is right to weep, because the Greek nation has shed many tears because of these Popes, for they became the wicked demons of the Eastern Church and the Greek nation."

Personally I feel particularly emotional, because at this Eighth Ecumenical Synod of 879-880, Bishop Anthony of Nafpaktos participated and signed the Minutes.

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