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October 17, 2022

The Seventh Ecumenical Synod as a Landmark for the Unity of the Church

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

The Sunday of Orthodoxy celebrates the restoration of the sacred icons that took place in the year 843 AD, and in fact it is the implementation of the decision of the Seventh Ecumenical Synod, which took place in the year 787 AD in Nicaea of Bithynia. An iconoclastic period preceded it, during which an intense debate about icons took place, people were divided into iconoclasts and iconophiles and many arguments were heard from each side.

The important thing about this case is that the politicians of that time were heavily involved in this debate. This was not unprecedented since, unfortunately, theology is always connected with politics, to be more precise I would say that politics used and still uses theology to implement its plans. This will also be made evident in today's speech.

Because my topic is "The Seventh Ecumenical Synod as a Landmark for the Unity of the Church", I will try to show in the short time of a speech that this Synod is indeed the landmark for the unity of the Church, because right after it there began the conscious differentiation of the Western Section of the Roman Empire from its Eastern Section, and of course a differentiation from the Orthodox tradition and theology.

1. Roman Empire and Frankish Empire

Anyone who studies the history of dogmas, will establish a truth, that theology is connected with history. The incarnation of Christ took place in history and the Church lives and works in history. However, unfortunately, theology became entangled with politics, in fact politics used theology and in this case intense problematic situations were created. We will take a look at part of this problematic fact.

From Constantine the Great, a single Roman Empire was created with its two parts, the Eastern and the Western. The transfer of the capital of the Roman Empire from Old Rome to New Rome-Constantinople, had as a consequence the disengagement of the Western Section of the Roman Empire.

Various German tribes descended from the north to the south and the west, such as the Vandals, the Goths, the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, the Lombards and finally the Franks. The biggest conflicts and rivalries took place between Lombards and Franks, centered on Italy and of course Rome. All of them tried to influence each Pope of Rome. From time to time the Orthodox Popes reacted, but this was not always easy. Mainly the Franks aimed to break away from the Roman Empire of Constantinople and to make their own empire. To achieve their goal they used the Seventh Ecumenical Synod.

The Seventh Ecumenical Synod was convened in 787 AD in Nicaea of Bithynia, and theologized on the value of the sacred icons. This Synod was presided over by Patriarch Tarasios of Constantinople, together with the representative of the Pope of Rome Adrian I, as well as the representatives of the other Patriarchates and Churches. At this Synod, various passages from Holy Scripture and the Fathers were read about the sacred icons, iconoclasm was condemned and the orthodox teaching about the sacred icons was synodically acknowledged.

In the Synodical decision, among other things, it is written that we grant "veneration with an embrace and honor" to the sacred icons, and it is clearly written "not true worship, according to our faith, which belongs only to the divine nature." This distinction between honorary veneration and not worshipful veneration towards icons, since worshipful veneration is given to God, is important and we will see the reason below. Also, in the decision of this Ecumenical Synod, the phrase of Basil the Great is accepted, which is coordinated with the veneration of sacred icons, since "the honor towards the icon passes on to the prototype" and therefore "he who venerates the icon, venerates the hypostasis of the one depicted."

However, immediately after the Seventh Ecumenical Synod, Charlemagne, the king of the Franks, who was in waiting in order to detach himself from the authority of the Emperor of Constantinople and establish the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, found the opportunity to achieve his goal.

Thus, western historiography characterizes from the 6th to the 11th centuries as "Dark Ages". It is an era during which ignorance prevails in Europe, the works of the great philosophers and poets are lost, the Greek cultural tradition disappears. During the period of Charlemagne's rule, the last remaining administrative institution collapsed, since Charlemagne in the provinces he had conquered expelled the Orthodox Bishops and either left the Bishoprics vacant or appointed laymen whom he called bishops. Thus, in the period between 670 and 790 AD, as it has been written, "a huge vacuum is observed in the Bishoprics. For about 150 years there has been no Bishop in former flourishing cities, such as Marseilles, Nîmes, Limoges, Bordeaux, Antibes, Geneva, Arles, and many more." In Europe during this period, a barbarism prevails, and the barbarians decided to build a "Western Europe" in conflict with "Romania".

Within this perspective, Charlemagne, immediately after the Seventh Ecumenical Synod, commissioned the theologians of his environment to study the Proceedings of the Seventh Ecumenical Synod and its decisions, and to condemn them. Then Charlemagne's theologians, mainly Theodolphus, compiled four books, the so-called "Books of Charles" (Libri Carolini), with which they condemned the Seventh Ecumenical Synod, falsifying its decisions. While the Seventh Ecumenical Synod, as we saw before, spoke of "honorary veneration" of the sacred icons and not of "worshipful veneration", the Libri Carolini condemned this Ecumenical Synod, because it allegedly decided on the worship of the sacred icons. Subsequently, a Synod was convened in Frankfurt in 794 AD, in which the Libri Carolini were read and the decisions of the Seventh Ecumenical Synod were condemned. The consequence of this condemnation is that the Eastern Romans are called Greeks, in the sense of idolaters, since they allegedly worship the icons, together with the wood and the metals on which the icons are painted.

Then Pope Adrian defended the Seventh Ecumenical Synod, which his representatives attended, and signed the Minutes. However, Charlemagne, who had political power and the power of arms, imposed on his territory the decisions of the Synod of Frankfurt in 794. Therefore, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was differentiated from the Orthodox theology and the political power of the Emperor of Constantinople. Charlemagne gave an order that the Emperor of Constantinople should not be commemorated during worship because he became a heretic. The Eastern Romans were called Greeks, i.e. idolaters, because they allegedly worshiped icons. Charlemagne then at Christmas in 800 AD was crowned by the Pope as Emperor of the West, and at the Synod of Aachen (809) he introduced the filioque into the Creed, at which time things in the West took another turn.

An important and final attempt to achieve unity between East and West was the convening of the Eighth Ecumenical Synod by Photios the Great, in 879-80, in which representatives of the Pope also attended. This Synod condemned the Franks, without naming them, because they introduced the filioque into the Creed, but in the end Western Europe was detached both politically and theologically from the Roman Empire and the Orthodoxy of the Church Fathers.

2. Franco-Latin Theology, or Scholasticism

With the actions of the Franks, especially Charlemagne, and subsequently his successors, a special theology was created, which Fr. John Romanides called "Franco-Latin", and this term is literal, because it was created by the Franks, to differentiate it from the patristic tradition, and an expression of this differentiation was that it adopted the Latin language, and used Latin-speaking Fathers, such as Saint Augustine. Modern theologians call this theology scholastic theology, from the Schools that were created in the Universities.

The basic methodology of Franco-Latin or scholastic theology was rationalism, which was the method of knowledge of the other sciences. While the Fathers used a double methodology, i.e. reason for the sciences and the nous for the knowledge of God, scholastic theology also adopted the rational method for the knowledge of God, i.e. philosophy. Therefore, from the 9th century to the 11th century AD pre-scholastic theology developed, and in the 11th to the 13th century AD scholastic theology par excellence developed. The father of scholasticism is considered to be Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) and the culmination of scholastic theology is considered to be Thomas Aquinas (1224/1225-1274).

The main source of the scholastic theologians was Saint Augustine, whom the Franks interpreted according to their own views. Augustine's opinion Gredo ut intelligan - "I believe in order to understand" - became the interpretive key of scholasticism. According to this view, one first believes in the existence of God and then tries to understand it through logical processing.

Scholastic theologians can be divided into three categories. The Platonist theologians belong to the first category (Anselm of Canterbury, Abelard, Hugh of Saint Victor, Richard of Saint Victor, Bonaventure). To the second category belong the Aristotelian philosophers, the main representative of whom was Albert the Great. And in the third category belongs par excellence Thomas Aquinas, who combined the Neoplatonist Augustine with Aristotle.

Much debate during the scholastic theological period took place about the distinction between "the universal" (καθ’ ὅλου) and "the particular" (καθ’ ἕκαστον). This was the focus of debate among scholastics. Plato gave ontological priority to "the universal", since according to him there are ideas on the basis of which beings were created, while Aristotle gave priority to "the particular", since he believed that there are no ideas independent of a conceivable world, but every being of the sensible world is a composition of species (form) and matter. This difference between "the universal", i.e. realism, and "the particular", i.e. nominalism, affected not only the philosophy and theology of the West, but also sociology.

This can be seen from the fact that the concept of realism cultivated the submission of every free will to the service of the universal and thus totalitarian regimes were created, while the concept of nominalism, of "the particular", created the individual freedoms that ended up in liberalism and democratic regimes.

3. Post-Scholastic Period

It was previously emphasized that Thomas Aquinas is considered the pinnacle of scholastic theology. Immediately after this, another period called the post-scholastic period begins, which is important, because it determined the ongoing evolution of Europe. At this point we will examine three theologians who influenced later things. They are Barlaam the Calabrian, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. Each one of them represents a philosophical and theological movement, which reaches in various ways to our days. A short analysis will be made.

Barlaam (1290-1348) came from Lower Italy and was a follower of the Augustinian tradition, i.e. he expressed a pre-scholastic tradition and therefore he was an Augustinian monk, i.e. a Platonist-Neoplatonist Christian. He could not agree with Thomas Aquinas, who connected the views of Saint Augustine with Aristotle, that is why he wrote a treatise against Thomas Aquinas.

One of Barlaam's main views was that he exalted the philosophers above the Prophets and the Apostles, he considered that the philosophers had acquired more perfect knowledge than the Prophets and the Apostles precisely because, according to Platonic philosophy, the rational energy of the soul is the basic source of knowledge, since the soul resided in the world of ideas. Thus, he considered that the light that the Prophets and Apostles saw was outside of them, so it was demonic, while the philosophers reasoned with the noblest element of their soul, which is logic.

Saint Gregory Palamas refuted this and other views of Barlaam and then the Synod that convened in 1341 AD in Constantinople condemned him, with the result that he moved away from the East and returned to the West.

After his condemnation by the Orthodox Church, Barlaam returned to the West and became the Roman Catholic "bishop" of the city of Gerace. In summary, Barlaam was an Augustinian monk, a humanist, following the tradition of Stoic philosophy, and especially Seneca. The important thing that interests us here is that Barlaam was a teacher of Petrarch, since "he taught the Greek language and philology to Petrarch and other scholars of the early Western Renaissance."

This fact is worthy of special attention. Barlaam was condemned by the Orthodox Church and then, returning to the West, he was a man who contributed to the Western Renaissance and Humanism. His student Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) is considered the father of the Renaissance, who criticized scholastic theology-philosophy and introduced Stoic philosophy as a means of healing the passions.

It is clearly seen that the Platonist-Augustinian monk Barlaam contributed to the Renaissance and Humanism, together with his students, the main one of whom was Francesco Petrarch.

Previously we saw that Thomas Aquinas was the pinnacle of scholastic theology, who tried to connect the neoplatonic Augustine with Aristotle. He was an advocate of "analogia entis", that is, there is an analogy between beings and the supreme Being, because the world is a copy of ideas, so he connected theology with philosophy. He believed that through philosophy one can acquire knowledge of God.

John Duns Scotus (1265/66-1308), who was born in Maxton in the Roxburghshire region of Brittany, reacted against this opinion. He was a Franciscan monk and cleric.

Scotus differs from the Dominican Thomas Aquinas in the matter of the analogia entis, although he remains in metaphysical theology. Also, he is an advocate of voluntarism, that is, of God's absolute freedom, which does not accept any coercion. According to him, the divine essence has priority over the divine ideas, so in this too he differs from Thomas Aquinas.

This view of Scotus will lead to the later philosophical thought that prevailed in Europe, to the development of the free will of the person, which will lead to the Enlightenment with the theory of absolute freedom, and German idealism and from there to Russian theology until our day.

Another exponent of post-scholasticism was William of Ockham (1288-1348), an English philosopher who studied at Oxford and is considered the most important representative of philosophy in the 14th century. Ockham rejected the ideas of Plato and came closer to Aristotle. He differentiated himself from Thomas Aquinas and underlined the exclusive role of faith in the acceptance of divine supernatural truths.

Ockham contradicted the theory of Thomas Aquinas about the analogia entis, that is, that there is an analogy between beings and the supreme Being, because he considered that this limits the freedom of God. Thus, he accepted "analogia fidei", that is, the analogy of faith. According to him there is an analogy between God and creation, but not through philosophical study, rather through God's revelation to man. God revealed himself and this revelation is in Holy Scripture.

In reality, analogia fidei equates the concept of God with the existence of God, that is, it asserted that God exists precisely because the human soul has the concept of God within it.

What should be noted is that Luther was significantly influenced by this theory and developed the theory that the only source of faith is the Holy Bible, in which the revelation of God to the prophets and apostles was recorded, even with the words, and for this reason the Holy Bible is inspired literally.

Luther (1483-1546) was a German theological preacher of the Reformation. In his youth, from 1501 to 1505, he studied at the University of Erfurt, where he came into contact with Ockham's theory of the "analogia fidei" and was greatly influenced by it. After his ordination as a Catholic priest in April 1507, Luther studied theology at the University of Wittenberg, where the views of Thomas Aquinas dominated.

After this brief summary, let's put together the puzzle, to see what happened in the western region, which was detached from the Orthodox East.

Petrarch, the father of the Renaissance and of Humanism, was influenced by, among others, the teachings of Barlaam, whom Saint Gregory Palamas defeated, and was condemned by the Synod of 1341 in Constantinople. By this one understands the spirit of Barlaam. Thus, a whole movement of Humanism began in Europe.

John Duns Scotus differentiated himself from the scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas and developed voluntarism, the absolute freedom of God, which ran through the Enlightenment and reached German idealism, the views of Kant and ended up in the Russian theology of the will of the person, which subverts the decisions of the Sixth Ecumenical Synod. William of Ockham introduced the theory of the "analogia fidei" which influenced Luther and the Protestants.

Beyond this, if one sees that the Reformers-Protestants lived in the circles of Humanism, with the emphasis on the freedom of the person; if one considers at the same time that in the circles of the Anglicans the enlightener Voltaire socialized, and that ultimately the enlighteners were influenced to varying degrees by the humanists and the liberal Reformers, then one understands the great problem that exists in the West, and where the whole movement of detachment from the Orthodox tradition took place.

In order to complete this whole cultural and theological puzzle, one must also identify the reaction of Thomism and the Thomists, i.e. the followers of Thomas Aquinas, to all those who criticized this great scholastic theologian, Thomas Aquinas.

Neo-Thomism begins from the middle of the 19th century and extends into the 20th century. This movement began with an Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, drawn up in 1879, with which he recommended the restoration of the scholastic theology of the Middle Ages and the dissemination of it findings. Various centers were created with the aim of bridging the gap between modern science and philosophy regarding the problem of knowledge. The debate that took place within Roman Catholicism about the modern interpretation of Thomism was based on many fields, as emphasis was given to existence, transcendental Thomism, and Christian philosophy.

Many Neo-Thomists were influenced by many other philosophies, such as Heidegger, who is a philosopher of the meaning of being. Also, the term "existential Thomism" has been presented, which is "used by those who equally emphasize the real distinction between essence, existence and the role of the senses in the first conception of being by the mind."

Finally, "Neo-Thomism revives and adapts to the new needs the theological system of Thomas Aquinas, medieval scholasticism, without essential differences."

In contrast to the views of the scholastics about the analogia entis and the post-scholastics about the analogia fidei and all the movements that followed and Neo-Thomism, all of which are based on philosophy, the Fathers of the Church speak of the Pre-Incarnate and Incarnate Word, that is, of the experience of the Prophets, the Apostles and the Fathers. Fr. John Romanides relied on this empirical theology.

The decision of the Antiochian Synod of 268 AD is very characteristic, in which it can be seen how even the orthodox theologians of the Church before the First Ecumenical Synod were theologically speaking. There is constant talk about the Angel of the Lord, the Word, the Wisdom of God, who appeared in the Old Testament to the Patriarchs, to Moses and the Prophets, and the Incarnate Word, who the Apostles of the New Testament saw, heard and understood.

This teaching is expressed by Athanasius the Great in his famous work On the Incarnation of the Word, but also in his other texts with which he contradicted Arius, who theologized philosophically.

Therefore, the theology of the ancient heretics and the later scholastic theologians, who philosophized about God, is one thing, and the theology of the Prophets, Apostles and Fathers of the Church, who theologized empirically, is another.

From what was briefly developed, it is clear that the 8th century is decisive for the differentiation of the West from the Orthodox East, because another different theology and cultural tradition developed, with the intervention of the Franks. They condemned the Seventh Ecumenical Synod, referred the Roman Orthodox as Greeks/Pagans, and developed another theology, the so-called scholastic theology, which created many reactions and other diverse movements.

Thus, the Seventh Ecumenical Synod was and is the landmark for the unity of the Church, and the theology of sacred icons is the center of this unity.

Consequently, the celebration of Orthodoxy, with its connection to the theology of sacred icons, shows how the unity of Christendom will be achieved. This will happen with the rejection of scholastic theology, which introduced the heresy of the filioque, the actus purus and many other heretical teachings, and above all with the acceptance of hesychasm as a method of knowing God.

Source: Lecture delivered in 2018. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.