THE 15TH CANON OF THE FIRST-AND-SECOND COUNCIL

Reply to a Reader

 

 

     Vertograd-Inform: The editors of our bulletin have been asked a question concerning the 15th canon of the First-and-Second Council – that same canon references to which are scattered over the pages of the whole of the contemporary ecclesiological polemic. In view of the great ecclesiastical-social significance of the subject, the editors have asked one of their members to reply to this question on the pages of the bulletin. Below we cite the letter of a reader (translated from the English) and the reply of Reader Basil Lourie.

 

Dear Editors!

     In the English translation (of the Rudder) the 15th canon of the First-and-Second Council allows each person to separate from, and break communion with, any bishop who openly preaches a heresy “already condemned by the holy Councils or Fathers”.

     Does this refer only to the Seven Ecumenical Councils or also to the Local Councils? If the latter, then what Councils must be considered sufficiently authoritative to be included in the list of those Councils whose decrees can be considered sufficiently authoritative for a break in eucharistic communion with one’s bishop?

     What happens if a Local Church at first decrees in a canon accepted by its Local Council that a certain teaching or custom is under anathema, but then changes its opinion and decrees the precise opposite? In such a case can believers separate from these bishops who took part in the second Council (the one in which the decision of the first Council was changed)?

     Again: must this canon be understood only in connection with the CANONS of the Council, or, by analogy, must it also be extended to those heresies and customs which were anathematised by the Local Council? For example, as you know, although the tradition of the anathematisation of heresy on the Sunday of Orthodoxy was established by the Church as a whole and for the Church as a whole, the concrete formulations of the anathemas (and also the composition of the anathematisations) varied depending on the time and place (in view of what heresies were the most dangerous for the Orthodox Christians at the given time).

     If, for example, a certain Local Church anathematises a certain teaching or custom “X”, and then some bishop openly teaches or carries out “X”, do the pious Orthodox Christians have the right to separate from this bishop in accordance with the 15th canon of the First-and-Second Council?

     Finally, what “Fathers” does the given canon have in mind?

    This canon is often cited in defence of the most various views, and I would be very grateful to you for your clarifications.

A.      Samotkhin, Switzerland.

 

 

1.      The Text of the Canon

 

     The question touches only the part (paragraph) of the 15th canon, which we will discuss at greater length later. First of all, let us turn to the text. This is its Russian (Synodal) translation:

    

     “For those who separate from communion with their president because of some heresy condemned by the holy councils or fathers, when, that is, he preaches heresy to the whole people, and teaches it openly in the church, if such wall themselves off from communion with the above-mentioned bishop before conciliar examination not only are not subject to the penalty laid down by the canons, but are also worthy of the honour befitting the Orthodox. For they have condemned, not bishops, but false-bishops and false-teachers, and they have no sundered the unity of the Church by a schism, but have endeavoured to protect the Church from schisms and divisions.”

 

     The translation is a little free, although it faithfully transmits the general sense. But we shall note its deviations from the original:

 

1.      “Condemned” heresies – in the Greek “recognised” (kategnwsmenhn), that is, already known to earlier holy Councils or fathers. Most accurate of all would be the translation with the juridical term “qualified”. This nuance may have a certain significance since it makes it absolutely clear that no special formulations with regard to the condemnation of heresy can have any significance here: the recognition of a heresy implies its condemnation.

 

2.      “To the whole people” (he preaches the heresy) – can be translated simply by “publicly” (dhmosia), so that the Russian reader should not be tempted to pose the question what number of people needs to be considered sufficient for the “whole” people.

 

3.      “Openly” (teaches the heresy in church) – in the original the Greek expression is gumnh th kefalh, literally: “with bare (uncovered) head”, having the meaning of “openly”, or perhaps more accurately – “without feeling ashamed”, “brazenly”.

 

4.      “Examination” (“before a conciliar examination”) – in the original diagnwsewV (cf. the Russian “diagnosis”). Here again a more accurate translation requires the juridical term: “before qualification (of the preached teaching) as heresy”.

 

5.      “Condemned” (“they condemned”) – again we have the root familiar to us: kategnwsan - that is, not “condemned” in the sense of condemnation, but correctly “qualified” the heretics as heretics.

 

 

2.      Replies to the questions put forward

 

     First of all, one is immediately struck that the canon makes no qualifications concerning the character of the Council – Ecumenical or Local. This means that the given distinction has no significance in the context of this canon. Therefore we must give an immediate reply to the following question: what Local Councils are we talking about? But at this point another question arises: what “fathers” does the text of the canon have in mind?

 

     Both questions have a single answer: Orthodox. Just as a non-Orthodox cannot be called a “father”, so if a Council does not make a non-Orthodox resolution it can be called a Council of the Church. There have been very many historical instances of Local Councils at which non-Orthodox resolutions have been accepted – but the voice of these councils has never become the voice of the Church. Among such councils, from a superficial point of view, we could include not only a Local Church Council, but even an Ecumenical one (there were such in Ephesus in 449, in Constantinople in 869-870 and in Ferrara and Florence in 1438-1439). However, their voice was, in the worst case, the voice of the enemies of the Church, or, in the best case, the voice of people who just happened to be there or confused people (including, sometimes, individual holy fathers! – this was the case at the “Ignatian” council of 8690870 in Constantinople, when the holy Patriarch Ignatius stood at the head of the Council). And so the canon has in mind all Councils in general that affirmed Orthodoxy.

 

     The canon does not qualify which parts of the Orthodox conciliar resolutions are obligatory, and which are not obligatory as regards implementation. This would have been excessive formalism because there simply cannot be “non-obligatory parts” of resolutions of Orthodox Councils. The rules (that is, canons) of the Councils usually formulate only a small part of the conciliar teaching – that part for which the use of the language of jurisprudence is recognised to be useful. But nobody will affirm that the whole of Orthodox doctrine can be expressed in the language of jurisprudence, that is, of the canons. Heresy is every deviation in general from Orthodox doctrine. Hence it is evident that heresy is not qualified only by the canons.

 

     Orthodoxy affirms, not the Councils as such, but the fathers gathered together at these Councils (it is characteristic that we celebrate the ecclesiastical commemoration, not of the Councils as events, but precisely of the fathers of these Councils). But the fathers affirmed Orthodoxy both at the Councils and outside the Councils. Insofar as for the given canon it is the very affirmation of Orthodoxy that is important, and not the means of procedure of this affirmation, the fathers are mentioned in it on an equal footing with the Councils – through the conjunction “or”. By this we are given to understand that it is not the form of the condemnation of heresy that is significant in the given case, whether it was at a Council or in some extra-conciliar statements of the holy fathers that the condemnation (“qualification”) of the given teaching as a heresy took place. The only important thing is the fact that the Church has already expressed itself at some earlier time with regard to the given heresy – and therefore there cannot be a distinction in principle between a conciliar and an extra-conciliar statement.

 

     However, what then are we to think of the possibility of a mistake made by a holy father? A reply is hinted at by the plural form (“fathers”) used by the canon. It excludes the possibility of referring to the particular opinions of some fathers, insofar as such opinions can be incorrect. “The fathers” are accepted only as the consensus patrum (“the agreement of the fathers”, “the council of the fathers”), that is, those patristic judgements which were not contested in council by other fathers.

 

     The individual pronouncement of the fathers, just as any resolutions of the Councils of any rank, are subject to checking by the pan-ecclesiastical consciousness – the living Tradition of the Church. Only in the course of such a checking is the Orthodoxy of this or that conciliar resolution or personal pronouncements of the fathers determined. It goes without saying that the nearer we come to modern times the less “checked out” are the judgements that we possess. But on the other hand the authority of the more ancient witnesses concerning Orthodoxy are more and more confirmed, as their belonging to the corpus of Tradition becomes more and more obvious.  Perhaps it is for that very reason that the visible and invisible enemies of the Church so often try to draw our attention from the ancient fathers and scatter it amidst the numerous but relatively light-weight figures of the recent past.

 

     Now we can solve the “task” presented by our reader: if one Local Council in one Local Church takes decision “X” condemning some teaching as heresy, and then in the same Church there takes place another Local Council which takes the opposite decision, what must the faithful do?

 

     The answer is obvious: the faithful must hold to that one of the two Councils which expressed the Orthodox teaching, and separate from the bishops of the council which decreed something opposed to Orthodoxy. If it was the second council that rescinded the Orthodox decree of the first, then the faithful must separate from the bishops of the second council – and this independently of their quantity, even if the faithful are faced with the necessity of remaining completely without bishops.

 

     However, the most interesting aspect of the “task” presented is not the task itself, but the cast of mind that would admit such questions. It seems to me that there is something in this that is particularly characteristic of our time. Whence comes this concern about the “status in law” and legitimacy of conciliar decrees relating to the sphere of ecclesiastical teaching? Is it not enough “simply” to worry about how we are to correlate current conciliar decisions with the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church? Can the “status in law” of a council have any significance if the given council sins against Orthodoxy?

 

     Alas: to the latter question in our time we have answer as follows: it turns out that it can. References to conciliar and even simply synodal decrees as “the decision (otherwise “the teaching”!) of the Church” are constantly encountered – and precisely on the simple basis that such decisions have been made by a court “specially existing” for the expression of the teaching of the Church and as it were “technically” unable to express anything else. Nobody is denying that Councils (and in general hierarchs) do have such a function, but it is naïve, to say the least, to infer from this that any Council of Orthodox hierarchs will always automatically correspond to its function. In the Word of God we find still more decisive indications: even among those whom the Lord himself called to the highest service there was found “the son of perdition”.

 

     The decrees of Councils are Orthodoxy only when they agree with Orthodoxy, and not when they have been accepted by authorized persons. The search for a “court” whose decisions in the sphere of the faith we can blindly trust has to be transferred from the Orthodox Church to another, much more fitting place – the Roman Catholic church. .If the Catholics have papism, while we have conciliarity, this is by no means in the sense that the Councils represent for us a collective pope with guaranteed infallibility. They are “just” Councils of Orthodox hierarchs – who are obliged to announce the Truth, but who, through human weakness, are not always equal to their calling. We cannot look on bishops as on professionals to whom we must calmly ‘hand over’ our faith ‘for safe-keeping’: besides we ourselves there will be nobody to believe in an Orthodox manner for us.

 

3.      The 15th Canon within the Holy Tradition of the Church

 

     Now let us examine in more detail the explanations of the 15th canon that we are given by the Tradition of the Church. As always when thinking about the canons, the first step is to turn to the Byzantine interpreters, that is, the three canonists of the 13th century who have left interpretations of the most important church canons – Zonaras, Balsamon and Aristene.[i] These people were not holy fathers, but only professional ecclesiastical jurists, but their enormous knowledge of the subject forces us to relate to them as to witnesses of the understanding of the canons as it was known to them in practice, while the very practice of their time was a continuation of Church Tradition. Theodore Balsamon and Zonaras, being court canonists, sometimes neglected the theological side of the subject in the name of the juridical, but this basically concerns their attempts to draw some new rules from the canons – which has not place in the given case. All three fixed the interpretation of the canons as it had formed by their time.

 

     The interpretations of all three were composed in the form of a periphrase. Often this was a word-for-word quotation. However, the interpreters add their own explanations where they find it necessary (in contrast to the others, Aristene in his periphrase very much abbreviates the text of the given canon). We shall linger only on the explanations of the interpreters themselves, and so we shall not cite their interpretations in full.

 

     Zonaras and Balsamon explain the term “president” by substituting a list: a Patriarch or metropolitan or bishop. In this way they explain that it is episcopal power at any level that is envisaged. Such an explanation is not without its usefulness, insofar as the first part of our canon talks about bishops and metropolitans[ii] who separate from a Patriarch; it is important to show that the second part of the canon has a more general sense that also extends to relations between a metropolitan and the bishops subject to him and between the bishop and his flock and clergy.

 

     Balsamon emphasizes one other important aspect: “<..> before a final examination, and still more after the examination <..>”. This quite directly relates to the “task” presented by the reader: after a conciliar examination at a first (Orthodox) Council, one is “still more” more obliged to separate from the bishops of the second (non-Orthodox) council.

 

     Finally, Balsamon and Aristene  explain what is meant by an inadequate reason for separating from the president (a reason for which one should not separate) – as we shall see, it is precisely this question that is the most important in many cases of the practical implementation of this canon. Both canonists, repeating the expression used in the same canon a little earlier, contrast a separation for reason of heresy with a separation for reason “of accusations”: mh di’egklhmatikhn aitiasin (“not for reasons of accusation” – Balsamon); ou dia profasin egklhmatoV (“not because of an accusation” – Aristene). In the Greek language the word egklhma, in its capacity as an ecclesiastical-canonical term, has the polysemantic meaning of “accusation” or “guilt” – personal, as a rule. For example, this word can signify the reasons for banning someone from serving or defrocking him. Thus the canonists, following the text of the canon, underline that one cannot separate without a trial, if the transgressions of the hierarchs have only a personal character.

 

     At first, this opposition between the concepts “heresy” and “guilt”, and not, for example, “heresy” and “schism”, seems strange. But let us turn again to the text of the canon itself. In explaining why those who separate as a result of heresy have acted rightly, it says that they have defended the Church “from heresies” – but why not from “heresy”? From this use of words it is evident that the canon makes no terminological distinction between “heresy” and “schism”. Indeed, according to one of the Byzantine traditions, the absence of a distinction between heresy and schism is quite possible – especially because an exact distinction between the one and the other is completely impossible!

 

     The distinction between heresy and schism is defined by the Canon I of St. Basil the Great: “They [“the ancient” fathers] labelled as heretics those who had completely torn themselves away, and were alienated in the faith itself; and as schismatics – those who separated in opinions on certain ecclesiastical subjects and over questions which admitted of healing <..>.  [In the case of heresy] there is a clear difference in the very belief in God”. “Questions that admit of healing” can also relate to the faith – this is known both from the practise of St. Basil the Great himself, and from general ecclesiastical practice. Thus the difference between heresy and schism can often not be drawn with absolute exactitude. Moreover, in communities that have separated as a consequence of schism, heretical teaching usually also develop; besides, there is a special kind of heresies – ecclesiological heresies that touch directly on the doctrine of the Church, - which are most clearly manifested in actions more similar to schismatic actions. All this precludes making an essential opposition between the concepts of heresy and schism in several spheres of ecclesiastical legislation. This is precisely the picture that we observe in our canon, where at first the term “heresy” is used, but in the end the term “schism” is used as its full equivalent. Indeed, a too narrow understanding of the term “heresy” in the context of the given canon would lead to absurd conclusions: in the case of schismatical activities on the part of a sufficient quantity of bishops (that is, such a quantity as would make it impossible for an ecclesiastical trial to be conducted on the bishop-schismatics), their whole clergy and flock would be obliged to follow after them into schism! But the Church canons are God-inspired teaching, and nobody can be obliged to follow along the path of destruction.

 

     The Byzantine canonists of the 12th century looked at several centuries’ practical application of the 15th canon since it had been accepted (in 861), and it was precisely for that reason that they opposed “heresy”, not to “schism”, but to what could not wittingly be either the one or the other – the disciplinary transgressions of bishops. However, we cannot pretend that their explanation resolved all the questions that arose, and so we must turn to the theological and ecclesiastical-historical pre-requisites of the acceptance of the given canon.

 

     One other interpreter of the canons – this time, a holy father – pointed to this path before us: this was St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain in his Rudder (1800). His paraphrase of the text of the canon introduces no substantial details with the exception of one reference at the end: “See also the 31st Apostolic canon.”[iii] For the reader of the Book of Canons in the Russian Synodal translation the meaning of this reference will remain incomprehensible. The point is that the Russian translation “corrects” the holy Apostles in just the most important point – the point for the sake of which St. Nicodemus gave this reference. In the original the 31st Apostolic canon also speaks of separation from presidents apart from a trial procedure; in the Russian text it is completely the other way round:

 

     “If a priest, despising his own bishop, acts in separation from the assembly, and raises another altar without accusing the bishop in a trial of anything contrary to piety and righteousness: let him be defrocked as being ambitious. For he is a usurper of power. <..>”.

 

     The words “in a trial” are neither in the original text of the canon (mhden kategnwkwV tou episkopou en eusebeia kai dukaiosunh) nor in the Slavonic translation of the Rudder of Patriarch Joseph (where it simply says “(leaves his bishop) without guilt”, nor is it in any of the Byzantine interpreters. Whether consciously or not, the text of this canon has been corrupted in the Russian translation.

 

     The meaning of St. Nicodemus’ reference now becomes clearer. The holy father compared “heresy”/”schism” in the 15th canon with “contrary to piety and righteousness” in the apostolic canon. The first appears to be a stricter formulation, from the juridical point of view, of the second, but between the two canons there is no essential contradiction. The later canon – in the interpretation of it that was accepted by Church Tradition – introduces only limitation to the application of the apostolic canon: the disciplinary transgressions of hierarchs must be examined by an ecclesiastical court.

 

 

3.1.   The History and Pre-History of the 15th Canon

 

    The application in practice of a series of canons of the First-and-Second Council turned out to be very controversial, not in our time, but already at the very moment they were accepted, in 861. The 13th, 14th and 15th canons of the this Council relate to schismatics (the second part of the 15th canon that interests us was devoted to how to defend the Church from schisms “from above”). But the whole of the 9th century, like the 20th century, was filled with constant ecclesiological controversies. Moreover, then as now those who considered each other schismatics had holy fathers in their ranks, and sometimes it was precisely the holy fathers who exchanged ecclesiastical excommunications with each other. During their lifetime some of the fathers succeeded in repenting of excessive sharpness in relation to their opponents, while others did not. But according to the judgement of the Church both the former and the latter were glorified among the saints, while their mutual bans were considered as nothing.

 

     The application of the canons of the First-and-Second Council at the very moment of their acceptance referred to a number of rare instances in which we can say precisely that the judgement of God did not follow the judgement of men. The supporters of the holy Patriarch Photius did the condemning, and the supporters of the holy Patriarch Ignatius were those condemned. Twenty years had not passed when, after the death of St. Ignatius (+877), the holy Patriarch Photius attempted to immortalize the memory of Ignatius among the saints, while of the mutual excommunications of Photius and Ignatius no mention was made. For us now it is important that the very legislators of the First-and-Second Council had to change their own understanding of the canons they had composed, and only in this way did the canons of the Council enter into the general legislation of the Church.

 

 

3.2.   What Happened in 861?

 

     The First-and-Second Council was one of the episodes in the struggle between two tendencies in Byzantine ecclesiology: the “acrivists”, as they are sometimes called, and the “economists”. The struggle continued almost without a break from 795, when the holy Patriarch Tarasius allowed a priest who carried out the adulterous marriage of the Emperor to serve in Hagia Sophia, until at least 920 (the so-called Council of unity). The problems connected with the quarrel were not even then exhausted, to which its recurrences in later Byzantine, as in Russian history testify.

 

     The cause of this exacerbation was a coup d’état. Caesar Bardas, the brother of the holy Empress Theodora, who was reigning with her young son Michael III, was dismissed from power, and he became the de facto ruler with the young Emperor instead of her. The holy Patriarch Ignatius (847-858, 867-877) refused outright to forcibly tonsure St. Theodora, for which he was forcibly deposed. St. Photius (858-867, 878-886, +895) was elected as the new Patriarch. Insofar as St. Ignatius did not recognise his deposition (his only “fault” consisted in his refusal to co-operate in a crime against an Orthodox and even holy monarch), the election of St. Photius was completely unlawful. There could be a justification here only in the principle of the choosing of the lesser of two evils – that is, of economy. It was in order to prevent the bishops and clergy from following St. Ignatius – the supporter of akriveia – that the canons of the First-and-Second Council were accepted.[iv]

 

     The difference between the “akrivists” and the “economists” never became absolute: on the one hand, even the “akrivists” could not deny the necessity of economy (and even in cases when a lesser sin has to be preferred to a greater[v]), and, on the other hand, the “economists” could not in principle deny the necessity of a strict following of the canons. The difference was much subtler than that. Both “parties” agreed even that it was possible, by economy, to allow a certain sin – but precisely as a one-off event. But the greatest complications arose with the definition of “one-offness”: what were they to do if an exception made for one person – supposedly a one-off exception – conduced to the creation of a long-lasting precedent, and in this way sin became strengthened in Church life? An example was the unlawful deposition of Ignatius and the raising of Photius to the throne. This event looked one-off, but it created a precedent for the future, and, still worse, strengthened an unlawful order of things whereby the flock is separated from its president. In deciding, in the order of economy, to commit an obvious sin, St. Photius had sinned personally, but had not each one of those who united with Photius just as definitely sinned – personally. Church law has never given an answer to this question – no answer suitable “for all ages” can be formulated here.

 

     Thus it presents no great difficulty to re-establish that idea that the creators of the canons of the First-and-Second Council wanted to put into them: the “president” – that is, precisely the Patriarch (cf. the first part of the 15th canon) – himself decides all questions touching both the relationships of the Church and the secular power, and the canonical order as such. If he sins, then this is his personal sin, about which not only the flock, but also the bishops of the given Local Church must not argue. He is under the jurisdiction of a Council of bishops (more exactly, as we shall see below, only an Ecumenical Council was envisaged), but, however he may be judged by the Council, all his decisions are obligatory for those subject to him. The only exception concerns the case when the Patriarch confesses heresy. In the historical circumstances of the time this meant: Photius, like Ignatius, confesses Orthodoxy (and not, for example, iconoclasm); and this being so, the accusations with regard to the uncanonicity of elevation to the throne can be examined only by a Council, and until then all the metropolitans, bishops, clerics and laymen who have separated together with Ignatius are schismatics.

 

     It was precisely this interpretation that was rejected by the consciousness of the Church, with which St. Photius himself later had to agree. Before turning to the truly Orthodox interpretation, let us linger a little on the ecclesiology that formed the basis of the thinking of the fathers of the First-and-Second Council.

 

 

4.      The Theological Content of the 15th Canon: Temporary and Ephemeral

 

     In the history of Orthodox theology, including ecclesiology, a whole epoch is bound up with the name of St. Photius – and this is an epoch of great generalisations and synthesis. The name of St. Photius stands on a par with the names of St. Maximus the Confessor and St. Gregory Palamas. But then all the more instructive is it to see with what difficulty St. Photius succeeded in ascending to the rank of “teacher of the Universe”.

 

     We have only indirect witnesses to the ecclesiology of St. Photius during the first years of his patriarchate, and the main one of these is the First-and-Second Council. However, we know from first hand the ecclesiological conceptions of his teacher -–the holy Patriarch Methodius (843-847), who had been, in his turn, the pupil of the holy Patriarch Nicephorus (806-815, +828), who became during his patriarchate the head of the party of the “economists”. Nevertheless, in the ecclesiological ideas of the two holy Patriarchs – Nicephorus and Methodius – there was a substantial difference, which manifested itself most clearly in the relations of the one and the other to the party of the “akrivists”.

 

     St. Nicephorus never defended the rightness of the “michaean” council of 809, which was the basis of the “akrivists’” main accusation against him, and by 812 he was ready to be reconciled with the latter without any conditions relating to evaluations of each other’s activities in the past. Later hagiographers (in fact from the time of St. Photius) would write about the quarrel between St. Theodore and St. Nicephorus as if they were both right in their own way although they did not agree on the tactics to be employed for the attainment of the same ends.[vi]

 

     The position of Patriarch Methodius was completely different. He demanded from the Studites – who as before represented the party of the “akrivists”, but were in full ecclesiastical communion with him – that they anathematize all the works of St. Theodore written against St. Nicephorus. For the Studites, at whose head there then stood the immediate disciples of St. Theodore, the confessor-abbots Naucratius and Athanasius, this was, it goes without saying, too much. They were ready, as had been demanded by the Synodicon for the Sunday of Orthodoxy introduced by the same St. Methodius in 843, to anathematize all that had been written against SS. Tarasius and Nicephorus by the iconoclasts, but by no means all that had been written in criticism of him, and least of all the works of their teacher. The refusal to submit to the demand of the Patriarch elicited a very harsh reaction: not only the Studites, but also those who sympathised with them – some monks from other monasteries and several bishops – were defrocked and expelled from the Church.[vii]

 

     Our astonishment is elicited by the actions, not of St. Ignatius, but of St. Methodius: why was St. Methodius not satisfied by the conditions on which the Studites were reconciled with St. Nicephorus? There can be only one reply: St. Methodius had a special ecclesiology which differed not only from that of the “akrivists”, but also from the former “economists”.

 

     In this ecclesiology a special – and previously unheard-of – place was assigned to patriarchal power. This attitude of St. Methodius was reflected in several memorials of the period, but with particular directness in the epistle in which he speaks of the excommunication of the Studites. Beginning with St. Theodore, but including also the bishops who supported them, the Studites are accused of nothing less than a crime against patriarchal power. St. Theodore was guilty in that he dared to go against his patriarch, St. Nicephorus, and now the Studites who were opposing the demand of St. Methodius were sharing in his guilt – which was equivalent to schism. Patriarchal power was defined – not to beat about the bush – as the fourth degree of the priesthood. In this system it becomes impossible to subject the Patriarch to trial by bishops, insofar as the very basis of such a trial – the equality of all bishops according to the degree of priesthood – is annihilated; a trial by bishops of a Patriarch is turned into something no less absurd than a trial by priests of their bishop.[viii] It was for such a teaching on the power of the first-hierarch that the holy fathers, beginning with St. Nilus Cabasilas (14th century) in his tract On the Pope, condemned the papists. And in the 9th century one can point at only one source from where St. Methodius could have drawn such a teaching: papal Rome. The errors of the holy Patriarch are understandable from a human point of view, if one takes into account the exceptional authority enjoyed by the Roman see among the iconodules, and also the fact that St. Methodius spent several years in Rome. Only the events in the middle of the 860s brought a certain sobering influence in relation to Rome and its theology…

 

     Both of the successors of St. Methodius in his see – not only the “akrivist” St. Ignatius, but also St. Methodius’ immediate disciple St. Photius – made great efforts to cut off this “eastern papism” at the root.[ix] However, St. Photius tarried a little. Before his reconciliation with the Ignatians and his acquisition of a dose of scepticism towards Rome’s theological theories, he condemned the Ignatians at the First-and-Second Council in on a completely “eastern papist” basis. The 15th canon was formulated to fit them exactly: The canon begins: “That which has been determined concerning the priests and bishops and metropolitans applies also, and to a still greater degree, to the Patriarchs. Therefore if any priest, or bishop, or metropolitan dares to depart from communion with his Patriarch <…>, [having done this] before a conciliar proclamation and condemnation of him, [he is thereby] causing a schism <…>”.

 

     And so the 15th canon “did not succeed” in its attempt to establish a kind of limited (only by questions of dogmatics – and only those, moreover, that have already been resolved), arbitrary, Patriarchal power. By the very fact of his reconciliation with the Ignatians St. Photius had to recognise that nobody, not even the Patriarch, can take upon himself, on behalf of other people, the risk of choosing between truth and falsehood. In spite of the hopes of its authors, the canon just did not become a stick with which to beat those not in agreement with all possible ecclesiastical revolutions “from above”. If it was nevertheless not completely rescinded, there could have been only one reason: in it there was another, much more important theological content, a content that was equally close to both ecclesiastical “parties” in the 9th century.

 

 

5.      The Theological Content of the 15th Canon: the Eternal and the Unchanging

 

In distinction from the majority of ecclesiastical canons, the 15th canon of the First-and-Second Council gives an ecclesiological basis for the disciplinary norm put forward in it. One must separate from heretical bishops because from bishops they have become false bishops and false pastors. But such a simple (and, as we shall see, true) explanation immediately comes up against a contradiction. If the heretical bishops have ceased to be bishops, why does the canon forbid separating from them if their heresy is new, and not know before, and also if they do not preach it openly? It is better not to seek an answer by means of logical reasoning: we are talking about the search for God-inspired truth, which is revealed, not to the human mind, but to the pure knowledge of God of the holy fathers. We must ask for explanations from the holy fathers.

 

 

5.1.   The Teaching of St. Nicephorus and the Practice of St. Methodius

 

     And so what happens if a bishop betrays the Orthodox faith? The answer to this is usually simple enough: the bishop-heretic, like every heretic, dies for the Church and for eternal life, while a dead man can have no service among the living. But there are situations when such a reply is not sufficient, and it is precisely in connection with them that a corresponding ecclesiological teaching of the holy fathers was worked out in detail: these are the cases, first of all, when a bishop, after falling into heresy, returns to the Church through repentance. Is his priesthood then preserved?[x] Cases of bishops falling away were never rare, but on the other hand cases of their repentance were so unusual that the Church could permit herself to examine each case separately – in what rank they should be received back. But in the iconoclastic period everything was overturned: almost all the bishops of the Empire fell away and then returned with repentance. Here clear rules were required. The theological foundations for them had been expounded already by St. Nicephorus – but he himself was in exile at the time and could not use his patriarchal power. St. Theodore the Studite expounded the same ideas in his letters, and from this it is evident that there was no difference in their teaching on the Church and the priesthood between the two Orthodox “parties”. It fell to St. Methodius as the first Orthodox Patriarch after the overthrow of the heresy to carry out in practice St. Nicephorus’ blueprint. As for St. Photius and the fathers of the First-and-Second Council, they only formulated as a norm of ecclesiastical legislation one of the particular conclusions drawn from the teaching of the Church that had already been explicated long before that time.

 

     According to St. Nicephorus[xi], on accepting a heresy, a bishop is deprived of the priesthood – but this process is not automatic. Very much depends on such a bishop’s consciousness of his actions: is consciously violating his hierarchical confession of faith given before his consecration? This question can be reduced to a simpler one: is the bishop apostasising into a new heresy or into an old one, whose condemnation was formulated or implied in his confession of faith. If the heresy is new, then the bishop has some excuse for his sin, since he, at least, was not warned about it; consequently, he is not an oath-breaker. But if the heresy is already well-known, then the bishop who has fallen into it becomes an oath-breaker. On renouncing the faith in which he was consecrated, he was deprived of his consecration. Hence the distinction in principle between the penitent iconoclasts who were received into ecclesiastical communion in their existing rank at the 7th Ecumenical Council under the holy Patriarch Tarasius (787), and those iconoclasts who followed the iconoclastic council of 815. For the latter the path to the priesthood was closed even in the case of their repentance. St. Nicephorus could only warn about that. St. Methodius carried it out. He had to defrock almost the whole clergy of the Byzantine Empire, from the rank of deacon and above, but he did not stop at that. Not all the Orthodox resolved on such an extreme measure, but St. Methodius was blessed to undertake it by the most authoritative ascetics, such as St. Joannicius the Great, still earlier Patriarch Nicephorus had prejudged it, and, finally, it had been completely supported by the “akrivists”. It remained for the whole population of the Empire only to submit to the horrifying ruination of the Church that so sharply contrasted with the preceding well-organised –only, alas, not Orthodox – Church life. People remained without clergy, the authorities came up against social instability – but on the other hand within a few years the organisation of the Orthodox, and not some other, Church had been re-established.

 

     If the whole country agreed, under the influence of the holy fathers, to weather this chaos, it meant that even the penitent former iconoclast clergy indeed remained without grace. However, what it interest us more is the difference between these penitent iconoclasts and the iconoclasts of the first period, who were received by the 7th Ecumenical Council in their existing rank. Therefore we shall have to read the corresponding explanations of St. Nicephorus with greater attention:

 

·             “Insofar as they [the bishops who had fallen into iconoclasm] have deprived themselves of that teaching of the faith in which they had been consecrated, they have of necessity been deprived of their ordination and deposed[xii] as teaching other things (wV eterodidaskalountouV). <…>Their guilt increases and their condemnation becomes still greater because, not during an investigation of new questions, but knowing of the resolution of the question in the Church from ancient times, and having signed, they voluntarily gave themselves over to lawlessness, and this after occupying the post of teachers of Church dogmatics and after a long period as teachers.”[xiii]

·             “<…> Having rejected our glorious and immaculate faith, they tore themselves away from the great and undivided body of the Church, as being rotten and corrupted members, and senselessly attached themselves to the heterodox faction”.[xiv]

·             “They must have been deprived of the anointing of the Spirit as soon s they renounced the confession[xv], for it is impossible for them to transgress the faith with which they were anointed[xvi], and (at the same time) to carry out that which (is given) by the anointing (energein de ta thV crisewV). Therefore the sacred ecclesiastical assembly <…> completely lawfully declared them deprived of the priesthood (apokhruktouV thV ierwsunhV pepoihke)[xvii]”[xviii]

·             “Their transgression [of the first iconoclasts, who were accepted into communion in 787] was less, and they could, perhaps, hope for the condescension of God towards the sin of ignorance. There could even be a plausible basis for justifying them: that is, that the dogma and consciousness (dogma ka ijronhma) of the Church had not been investigated for them at that time and was not fully revealed”[xix].

 

     And so we receive the reply to our first perplexity in connection with the 15th canon. The condition of how well know the heresy is is explained in the theology of St. Nicephorus. It is important not so much in order to exclude the mistake of those who would separate from a bishop as a consequence of heresy, but, first of all, in order to give a guarantee of the invalidity of the priesthood of the given bishop: if this heresy belongs to the number of those condemned earlier, then the bishop is an oath-breaker and cannot have the partial excuse of ignorance. If he repents, he cannot be received in any rank of the priesthood, while his flock, independently of his possible repentance, must flee from him as from a wolf.

 

     In part we also receive the reply to the second perplexity: why the requirement of the open preaching of the heretical teaching is necessary. In truth, it is precisely if the bishop “openly” (“with bared head”) teaches this in the church” that he becomes one who “teaches other things”. In the opposite case – for example, if he simply gets confused in dogmas, but does not preach heresy, - he has not yet begun an activity opposed to his hierarchical confession and oath.

 

 

5.2.   From St. Nicephorus to the 15th Canon of the First-and-Second Council

 

     The theology of St. Nicephorus explains much in the 15th canon. Not everything, however. Saints Nicephorus and Methodius had in mind the exceptionally rare and clear case of the oath-breaking of the bishops who had fallen during the second period of iconoclasm. But such clarity is not common.

 

     St. Nicephorus’ defence of the practice of St. Tarasius, as also this practice itself (which we see in the acts of the 7th Ecumenical Council and the historical events of that time) implied the completely real preservation of the sacraments in the iconoclastic hierarchy – more exactly, in that part which later offered repentance. At the head of this hierarchy still stood Patriarch Paul (780-784), which asked for the restoration of icon-veneration and for this recommended in his place Tarasius, while he himself renounced his see; St. Nicephorus even calls Paul “holy”[xx]. Tarasius was consecrated by iconoclasts who had repented (although not yet publicly). All the iconodules were agreed that the iconoclastic church up to the 7th Ecumenical Council was, albeit a heretical community, nevertheless not yet completely divided from the True Church. The consequent repentance of some of the iconoclasts showed which of them managed not to become completely foreign to the Church.[xxi]

 

     At the same time, it would be absurd to suppose that the composers of the 15th canon had in mind the banning of separation from hierarchs in situations similar to the first period of iconoclasm. They took care to introduce into the canon a corresponding clarification, saying that a heresy need not necessarily be judged by a Council, but simply by “fathers”. In the case of iconoclasm such a condemnation was implied insofar as icon-veneration had always been established in the Church; and the iconoclasts did not hid the fact that they were trying to “free” the Church from an antiquated error.

 

     And so the 15th canon comes into force, not when there is complete confidence that a given bishop is absolutely foreign to the Church, but much earlier, when the presumption of innocence cannot be invoked in relation to him.

 

     And so a ‘young’ heretical community can contain members of the Church, and sometimes even in the episcopal rank. Their names are known to God and can become known to people. But this must not influence the relationship of Orthodox Christians to the heretical community as a whole. As a whole it is not the Church, nor a part of the Church, and remaining in it – if it does not lead to an exit from it into the True Church – is soul-destroying.

 

 

6.      Conclusion

 

     Today we can hear in the most varied environments the opinion that the canons are like civil laws. Only a trial can conclusively establish the fact of a transgression of the law. Therefore – this is how the supporters of this opinion reason – even in the case of heresy we cannot consider someone’s episcopate invalid if there is no decree of a corresponding trial court. Such an analogy is partially justified if we are talking about ecclesiastical crimes of a personal character, but by no means in the case of heresy – moreover, of heresy in the broad sense of the word, including schism as well. If for the situation in which a bishop deviates into heresy or schism it is necessary to take an example from secular life, then it is necessary to compare it, not with a crime whose factual status only a trial can conclusively establish, but with suicide.

 

     The 15th canon places in the number of the false-bishops also people who may still not be foreign to the episcopate  and may still belong to the Church. However, there is only one situation in which such people can appear: if they bring forth repentance. The explanations of Saints Nicephorus and Tarasius can be significant for the reception of some bishops in their existing rank, as well as for the lifelong deposition of those who fell into the ecumenist heresy after their reception of an anti-ecumenist Orthodox confession. It goes without saying that the so-called consecrations of heretics carried out by heretics count for nothing and do not serve as an impediment to an Orthodox ordination.[xxii]

 

     The interpretation of the 7th Ecumenical Council and other events of the iconoclastic period is now a fundamental historical problem dividing the supporters and opponents of the ecclesiology of Metropolitan Cyprian of Fili and Orope. We consider it necessary to give the historical argumentation of the supporters of Metropolitan Cyprian its due. It does not arise on an empty place. Any attempt to make sense of the ecclesiology of Saints Tarasius, Nicephorus, Theodore the Studite and other fathers of this time will be more convincing that a total denial of the patristic witnesses. In historical examples it is more useful to study and then explain the concrete mistake of one’s opponent (see above, note 21). The ecclesiology of Metropolitan Cyprian as such contains a still more substantial error that his historical excursus into the iconoclast period. The point is that the heresy of ecumenism must not be compared with iconoclasm before the 7th Ecumenical Council. Even if you consider that this heresy is new and still not judged by the Church (although I myself do not think that), it is impossible not to recognise that it contains a multitude of old heresies, from which every one of the hierarch-ecumenists gave an undertaking to defend Orthodoxy. Therefore those of the ecumenists whose consecration was canonical fell away from the Church completely – like the iconoclasts after 815. Those ordained by them have been ordained by heretics, and our relationship to them must correspond to the canons formulated by St. Nicephorus and St. Theodore the Studite. Thus ecumenist communities are not part of the Church.

 

     Concerning who is the Church, let us quote St. Nicephorus:

 

·            “You know, even if very few remain in Orthodox and piety, then it is precisely these that are the Church, and the authority and leadership (concerning) the ecclesiastical institutions (kuroV kai prostasia twn ekklhsiastikwn qesmwn) remains with them.”[xxiii]

 

 

 



[i] There is no complete Russian translation of their interpretations, although all three interpreters are cited in the interpretation of the Slavonic Rudder and in the interpretations of Bishop Nicodemus (Milash) of Dalmatia. We shall cite from the edition of: G.A. RallhV, M.PotlhV. Suntagma twn qeiwn kai ierwn kanonwn. T.B¢. Aqhnai, 1852. 694.

[ii] A metropolitan in Byzantium was the name of a bishop who stood at the head of a metropolitan region containing several dioceses; the bishop-presidents of these dioceses were in administrative submission to their metropolitan. The metropolitan himself was the president of the main diocese of the region.

[iii] Ierom. Agapiou, mon. Nikodhmou. Phdalion… Aqhnai, 1886 [reprint: 1976]. 292.

[iv] The lawlessness committed at the election of St. Photius gave the excuse for a worse evil, when, at the Constantinople Council of 869-70, under the pretext of restoring justice, not only did they restore St. Ignatius to the throne (the throne had returned to him with the next change of power in 867), but they all to a man took the side of Rome in the quarrel with the Latins that had begun under St. Photius. Several centuries later this “Ignatian” council entered the history of the Roman Catholic church under the name of the 8th Ecumenical Council.

[v] Cf. the article “Two Churches” (Vertograd-Inform, N 2 / 47 /, 1999), where quotations are made from St. Theodore the Studite (+826) – the founder and first head of the party of the “akrivists”.

[vi] We can add that in the thick of events holy fathers belonging to various “parties” could not trust each other sufficiently. Thus the “michaean” council inspired St. Theodore with the thought that St. Nicephorus was not intending to defend Orthodoxy at all, while the reaction of the “akrivists” gave St. Nicephorus the excuse for thinking that they were rebels and schismatics. Only after several years did the course of events dispel these suspicions, at which point a reconciliation took place. More details about this in the investigations that have remained unsurpassed by: A.P. Dobroklonsky. St. Theodore the Confessor and Abbot of Studium. Odessa, 1913-1914 (only part I “His Epoch, Life and Activity” and issue 1 of part II “His Works” came out). Almost all the known works of St. Theodore, including some newly published and all three books of letters (the most important as regards ecclesiology) were published in a good Russian translation: The Works of St. Theodore the Studite in Russian Translation (St. Petersburg Theological Academy. Vols. I, II. St. Petersburg, 1907, 1908 (Appendix to the journal “Theological Herald” and “Christian Reading” (here many of the inadequacies of previous published translations were corrected). A contemporary critical edition of the letters with a detailed commentary: Theodori Studitae Episulae / Recensuit G. Faturos. Pars I, II. Berolini-Novi Eboraici, 1992 (Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae. Ser. Berolinensis. Vol. XXXI/1-2).

[vii] The corresponding decrees of St. Methodius were preserved in extracts and have only recently been published and placed at the disposal of scientists; if St. Methodius’ judgement had been recognised by the Church, then all these events would have been illumined much better in our sources. Cf. J. Darrouzes. “Le patriarche Mèthode contre les iconoclastes et les Stoudites” // Revue des ètudes byzantines. 1987. 45. 15-57 (the publication of two epistles of St. Methodius). The ecclesiastical politics and ecclesiology of St. Methodius has been examined as a whole and with great attentiveness in the works of D.E. Athinogenov. The Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Iconoclastic Crisis in Byzantium (784-847). Moscow, 1997 (and the literature indicated there).

[viii] Thus it turns out that a Patriarch can be tried only by other Patriarchs – that is, only by a Council of the Ecumenical type. It is necessary to quote at any rate several vivid passages from the second epistle of Patriarch Methodius (in the translation of D.E. Athinogenov): “What bishops are for priests, that is hierarchs, apostles and the successors of the apostles, that is, the patriarchs, are for the hierarchs; what is fitting in accordance with their rank is shown with all clarity by the works of the God-heralded Dionysius [where in fact no difference between the ranks of the priesthood is indicated! – V.L.] and by the directions of the canons. For that which is fitting in accordance with their rank is defined by the higher levels for those below them, right up to the apostles - and their successors, that is, the patriarchs, are also apostles <…>”. “<….> You know, bishops are a penny a dozen, but there are very few apostles and their successors; their power to rule is autocratic. For just as we are ruled by one origin and power and force, so is it with the Divinity, and from it has proceeded, and to it is subject, much. So also after the apostles and their successors there are sacred posts and ranks which are many in number and various in their functions, but leading up to a few, that is, to the apostles and their successors.” It is curious to note here that St. Methodius refused to consider the bishops successors of the apostles.

[ix] “Eastern papism” has remained foreign to the Orthodox Church, but relapses have occurred. Both Metropolitan Sergius (Stragorodsky) after 1927 and some of his opponents agreed in quarrelling over the fate of some special “charisma” of first-hierarchical power, which supposedly is to be distinguished from the ordinary grace of the episcopate. It was precisely his confidence that he possessed this power, a power higher than the episcopal. That forced Sergius sincerely and even fanatically to believe that all those who were separating from him were falling away from the Church. However, such an interpretation of the first-hierarchical power was put into circulation by the supporters of the patriarchate already in the course of discussions at the Local Council of 1917-18.

[x] On falling away from the Church, bishop-heretics are deprived of the priesthood. If they return to the Church, it is wrong to re-ordain them (second ordinations are forbidden by the 68th Canon of the Holy Apostles; according to this canon, if the first ordination is heretical, then and then only is it not taken into account as being invalid).

[xi] On the ecclesiology of St. Nicephorus there exists a valuable, although too Catholic, study: P. O’Connell. The Ecclesiology of St. Nicephorus (758-828), Patriarch of Constantinople. Pentarchy and the Primacy. Rome, 1972 (Orientalia Christiana Analecta, 194). Far from all the works of St. Nicephorus have been published in Russian translation (The Works of Saint Nicephorus, Archbishop of Constantinople. Parts I, II. Holy-Trinity Sergius Lavra, 1904, 1907 /The Works of the Holy Fathers in Russian Translation, published by the Moscow Theological Academy, volumes 65, 67); the most important works from an ecclesiological point of view have nevertheless come out, although the translation is not completely reliable.

[xii] The published Russian translation (part I, p. 131: “Since they reject that teaching of the faith in which they were consecrated, they are obliged also renounce their consecration and be deposed…”) here differs substantially in meaning from the original, where there is a completely normal infinitive turn of phrase: Epei de kai to d ogma thV pistewV en w eceirotonhqhsan hrnhsanto, anagkh autouV kai thn ceirotonian arnhsasqai, kai einai kaqhrhmenouV; besides, we have tried to preserve the unity of terminology chosen for renunciation of the faith and for loss of the priesthood. It is said in St. Nicephorus that the act of renouncing the faith necessarily entails the loss of the priesthood; in the translation of the Moscow Theological Academy the category of necessity is substituted by the category of obligation: they are still only “obliged to be deposed” (Cf. above, the Synodal translation of the 31st canon of the Holy Apostles). Later we quote from the published translation.

[xiii] St. Nicephorus. Defensive Word to the Universal Church concerning the New Quarrel over the Honourable Icons [Apologeticus Minor], 6 // PG 100, 841 BC.

[xiv] St. Nicephorus. Word on  Our Immaculate, Pure and Clear Christian Faith and Against those who Suppose that We Worship Idols [Apologeticus Major], 6 // PG 100, 548 B; Russian translation, part I, p. 148 (with small changes).

[xv] edei loipon autouV, wsper thn omologian apeseisanto, outwV amoirhsai kai thV tou PneumatoV crisewV […]

[xvi] It is the text of the hierarchical confession of faith that he especially has in mind; this is emphasised by the choice of word paragrafesqai for “transgress”.

[xvii] And not “deprived of the priesthood”. The “sacred assembly” only established the fact that someone deprived himself of the priesthood and cut himself off from the Church.

[xviii] Apologeticus Maior, 6 // PG 100, 548 BC; Russian translation, p. 149 (with changes).

[xix] Apologeticus Maior, 25 // PG 100, 596 C; Russian translation, p. 187 (with changes).

[xx] He refers to his authority as that of a saint (in the question of the authenticity of the witnesses from St. Epiphanius of Cyprus produced by the iconoclasts): “Finally, both the natives of Cyprus, from whom came the saintly Paul, the former hierarch here, and Constantine, the former archbishop of the same island [under the iconoclasts!], wise and learned men, who were well acquainted with the teaching of St. Epiphanius, did not accept that those words which were attributed to him by those assembled at the false council [in 754] belonged to him”. (Apologeticus Minor, 4 // PG 100, 837 BC; Russian translation, p. 128 (with changes)).

[xxi] To avoid misunderstandings, let us emphasise what the incorrectness of the interpretation of these events in the Ecclesiological Theses of Metropolitan Cyprian consists. According to Metropolitan Cyprian, the iconoclasts of this time were “members of the Church not yet brought to trial” (CYPRIAn, Metropolitan of Fili and Orope. Ecclesiological Theses, or an Exposition of the Teaching on the Church for Orthodox Resisting the Heresy of Ecumenism. Fili, 1993, 7). According to the interpretation of the holy fathers – the defenders of icon-veneration, - amidst these heretics were members of the Church who had not been brought to trial and who, though guilty of serious sins, had nevertheless not completely fallen away. But the other heretics had fallen away completely. There was no clear boundary between the Church and the non-Church. However, the non-Church was not the Church. St. Theodore the Studite, for example, in 809 consider the guilt of the iconoclasts of that time less than the guilt of the “michaeans”: in letter 38, to Arsenius, he says about the iconoclast bishops before 787 that they “did not commit a crime in relation to (anything) fundamental (literally: necessary)” - ou gar twn anagkaiwn to parabainomenon (ed. FATUROS, 1.41). It was precisely the Council of 787 that for a time made the line between the Church and the non-Church clear, after which all the bishops offered a confession of faith, including a clause on icon-veneration.

[xxii] Let us remember that the situation is possible in which a heretical bishop ordains an Orthodox cleric who did not know of the heresy of the bishop; such an ordination is valid (cf. the letter of St. Theodore the Studite to Reader Stefan, PG 99, 1105 A-C; the full quotation is in the article “Two Churches” // Vertograd-Inform, N 2 / 47 /, 1999, pp. 16-17).

[xxiii] Apologeticus Minor, 8 // PG 100, 844 D; Russian translation, p. 133 (with changes).



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