August 2, 2019

The Sainthood of Emperor Justinian I According to Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite

By St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite

According to Meletios, on p. 86 of his 2nd volume,[1] Justinian died while in the heresy of Aphthartodocetism.[2] The renowned Dositheos of Jerusalem defended Justinian the Great by saying that he fell into the heresy of Aphthartodocetism out of ignorance (as it so happened with some other Saints), for in many and various ways he was recognized as being completely Orthodox. This is supported by Eustathios in his Life of Patriarch Eutychios, where he notes that Justinian, being disposed to inquire into the divine dogmas, night and day with syllogistic proofs and written testimonies defeated the heretics. It was on his behalf that Agapetos the Deacon gathered together the chapters.[3] And the Sixth Ecumenical Synod says regarding the Fifth Ecumenical Synod: "The Holy Synod which was under the revered memory of Justinian in Constantinople gathered together a fourth Act." It also says: "Response of Saint Justinian to Zoilos the Patriarch of Alexandria the tenth Act." And Pope Agatho in his account to Pogonatos,[5] praises Justinian for his great piety. The Patriarchs of the East also in their letter to Tarasios of Constantinople write: "Justinian the wise master, who in his reign was a Saint and blessed." Regarding the problem of Aphthartodocetism, Nikephoros says that Justinian, out of his eros and love towards Christ, said that he had a body without corruption (Dositheos does not engage this).

This Justinian began the celebration of Ypapanti.[5] He is the composer of "O Only-Begotten Son and Word of God." Kedrenos says that this Justinian built in Constantinople a most magnificent Temple which was dedicated to the Wisdom of God. This is why it was ordained for the hymn "O Only-Begotten Son" to be chanted in the Liturgy, for it proclaims the Wisdom of God the Father, namely His Son and Word, who was incarnate of the most-holy and Ever-Virgin Mary (though others say it was composed by Joseph of Arimathea, or by the Third Ecumenical Synod). According to Prokopios, he fasted throughout all of Great Lent with much self-control,[6] and stood as a victor and champion over the Persians and the Goths. Souda writes that he appeared as a horseman holding a sphere with a cross in his left hand, and with his right stretched forth against the Persians to cause them to fear, so they would not enter the Roman province.[7]


1. This is in reference to the Ecclesiastical History of Metropolitan Meletios of Athens.

2. Aphthartodocetism is a heresy formulated by the non-Chalcedonian bishop Julian of Halicarnassus in the 6th century. It is a form of Monophysitism that argues Christ's body was always impassible, that is, the flesh of Christ before His death on the Cross and Resurrection was not capable of suffering, a doctrine which Julian believed was necessary for Christ's suffering and death to have been voluntary. Some have claimed that the emperor Justinian imposed Aphthartodocetism. However, Justinian's supposed decree imposing Aphthartodocetism is not preserved. The only source concerning such a decree is the testimony of the historian Evagrius Scholasticus. Fr. Asterios Gerostergios notes in his book Justinian the Great: The Emperor and Saint that other parties involved at the time the decree was alleged to have been issued make no mention of the act, and rejects the assertion that Justinian succumbed in his last years to the heresy of Aphthartodocetism.

Most historians have accepted the information of Evagrius as true, reasoning that Justinian had either converted to the heresy at the end of his life or had succumbed to senility. These scholars thus relate the decree to the depositions of both Eutychios and Anastasios, Patriarch of Antioch. Father Gerostergios responds:

"That they were deposed because of their refusal to accept the edict we do not believe to be true because of the following reasons:

A. The bishop of Northern Africa, Victor, an enemy of the Emperor, mentions the deposition of Eutychios in his Chronicle, but does not give any reasons for the deposition. If he really knew anything about a new edict, and if, further, he knew of Justinian's acceptance of the aphthartodocetistic heresy, not only would he certainly have mentioned it, but he would also have emphasized the event, in order to defame Justinian's exiling and imprisoning him.

B. If Eutychios had been deposed for this reason, his successor, John the Scholastic, would have had to accept such a decree. We have absolutely no information concerning his acceptance of the edict, nor any testimony that he accepted aphthartodocetism. On the contrary, Pope [Saint] Gregory the Great, who was then the papal representative in Constantinople, praises the new patriarch, John, for his holiness and Orthodoxy.

C. The same Pope Gregory praises Justinian for his Orthodoxy and he makes no mention of the edict. He says that Patriarch Eutychios was an Origenist. For this reason, W. H. Hutton and A. Knecht have stated: this was the cause for Eutychios' deposition.

D. When Patriarch Eutychios returned to the throne of Constantinople in 577, he did not mention the reasons for his dethronement.

E. Bishop John of Ephesus, contrary to Evagrius, makes no mention of what transpired in Antioch concerning the deposition of Anastasius.

For all the above reasons, we can only conclude that Justinian never issued or planned to issue an edict imposing aphthartodocetism. Such an act would have been in antithesis to his whole previous theological work, and it is clear that it would not have helped the overall purpose of unification. Moreover, such a complete change at such an advanced age, we believe to be a totally unnatural thing. With regard to the deposition of the two mentioned Patriarchs, we believe that it was not related to such an edict, because there is no basis for such a conclusion from the contemporary sources. We are of the opinion that their deposition was due to other reasons, probably to their failure to obey the old Emperor."

3. Agapetos was a deacon of the Church of Hagia Sophia at Constantinople (about 500), reputed tutor of Justinian, and author of a series of exhortations in seventy-two short chapters addressed around 527 to Justinian (Patrologia Graecae, LXXXVI, 1153–86). The first letters of each chapter form an acrostic of dedication that reads: "The very humble Deacon Agapetos to the sacred and venerable Emperor Justinian." The repute in which this work was held appears from its common title, viz. the Royal Sections (σχέδη βασιλικὰ). The book deals in general terms with the moral, religious, and political duties of a ruler.

4. Emperor Constantine IV, sometimes incorrectly called Pogonatos (Πωγωνάτος), "the Bearded", out of confusion with his father, was Roman Emperor from 668 to 685.

5. Ypapanti is the feast of the Reception of the Lord celebrated on February 2nd by the Orthodox Church.

6. During Great Lent he would not eat bread nor drink wine, but lived on only water and vegetables.

7. This is in reference to the brass statue of Justinian in Constantinople sitting on a horse, standing in the Forum Augusteum, atop a 100 foot-tall pillar outside the senate house. The statue faced east and was widely thought to have powers to repel invaders from that direction. The emperor held in his left hand the sphere and cross, signifying his universal dominion over the earth by the power of the faith of the cross. "The right hand," says Codinos, "he has stretched out towards the east, signifying that the Persians should halt and not come over to the land of the Romans, crying by means of the repelling gesture of his uplifted hand, ’Stay, ye Persians, and do not advance, for it will not be to your good.'" It was destroyed in 1525.

Translation and Notes by John Sanidopoulos.