February 19, 2016

Photios the Great and the Eighth Ecumenical Synod (7 of 7)

6. The Personality of Photios the Great

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.

Source 1 and Source 2: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.