Commentary on the First Council of Constantinople

Daniel J. Castellano (2006)

The Council of Nicaea did not resolve the Arian controversy; on the contrary, the heresy enjoyed its greatest strength after the Council. Constantine tolerated Arianism, despite the Council's condemnation, and he even restored Arius from exile in 331 at the behest of Eusebius of Caesarea, and commanded St. Athanasius to make peace with the heresiarch and accept him into the Church. The venerable saint famously refused, and he was banished from office in 335. Arius presented Constantine a new creed, possibly softening his doctrine, for the emperor judged it to be orthodox. The newly restored bishop of Alexandria was felled by sudden death before he could receive Catholic communion, a sign that was regarded as providential by orthodox Catholics.

The death of Arius did not end the heresy, but instead Arianism continued to gain broad support, owing in part to the dual tactic of taking care to exalt the Son with every praise short of divinity proper, on the one hand, and to caricature the Athanasian position as implying a strong identity of the Father with the Son. Eusebius employed the first tactic skillfully (which is not to say insincerely), giving Jesus every praise under heaven save that of being the same substance as the Father. This approach reduced defenders of traditional doctrine to arguing over an iota (homoousion versus homoiousion, "same substance" or "like substance"), rather than whether Christ was coeternal with the Father. This milder form of Arianism seemed more compatible with orthodoxy and was easier to defend, to the extent Arians were able to deflect attention from the heterodox consequences of their doctrine. The Fathers of the Council of Nicaea had not been persuaded by this rhetoric, and condemned Arius on the ground of plainly contradicting the utterance from St. John's Gospel, "The Father and I are one."

The Arians also benefited from the imperial support of Constantine's successor, Constantius, who was personally influenced by the Arian bishop Valens of Mursa. Though not an Arian himself, Constantius had little sympathy for Athanasius, and persecuted the bishop and those of like mind through fourteen councils of Arian and "semi-Arian" (theological conservatives who nonetheless opposed Athanasius) bishops convoked between 340 and 361. Athanasius sought refuge in the West, and appealed to the Pope's authority on doctrinal matters (recognized even by the followers of the Arian Eusebius of Nicomedia). Pope Julius agreed to invoke his apostolic authority to convene a council in Rome (340 AD). This council was composed of exiled and persecuted bishops who supported the doctrine of Nicaea, and resulted in a papal letter of rebuke to the Eusebian party and its Arian doctrine. The Nicene doctrine enjoyed the support of the Western Roman emperor Constans, but he was succeeded by a semi-Arian after his death in 350.

Ironically, the persecution and exile of bishops supporting the Nicene creed ended when Julian the Apostate became emperor. Julian's contempt for Christianity in general caused him to withdraw state enforcement of the exiles decreed by the Arian councils. His attempt to restore paganism was a failure, as it went against the grain of society at that time, showing the limits of state power. The Church, more or less evenly divided among Arians and non-Arians, as best as we can reconstruct (such reconstruction being difficult due to polemical characterizations made by adversaries), was left to resolve its doctrinal disputes by appeal to the more vigorous tradition. As an intellectual matter, the difference in doctrine was subtle, which is why there was such mixed opinion among bishops, but the implications of Arianism were fundamentally opposed to the established traditions handed down from St. John and St. Paul (the latter repeatedly affirming that the fullness of God was in the Son). The vigor of this constant tradition of Christ's full divinity would outlast the subtle Arian attempts to mitigate this doctrine while retaining due reverence for the Son.

A turning point was reached by reconciliation with semi-Arians, many of whom had no strong objection to the Nicene doctrine, but were personally opposed to Athanasius and his allies. The reconciled schismatic Meletius of Antioch also acted as a mediator between Athanasians and semi-Arians, leaving only die-hard Arians in opposition to the Nicene creed. This process of deliberation essentially restored the scenario c. 325 AD, when the Nicene creed had near unanimous approval.

Still, Arianism prevailed among clergy in Constantinople and much of Asia Minor, until the ascent of Emperor Theodosius, whose edict (380 AD) established the Nicene creed as binding on all his Christian subjects. Theologically, this was largely uncontroversial since Arianism was already in decline, but it represented the first time that an emperor had presumed to settle a doctrinal dispute by his authority.

Theodosius' edict requiring the Nicene creed to be adopted by Roman subjects is notable for its assumption that Roman subjects should be Christian. This act did not criminalize paganism, but stripped the old religion of any vestige of public legitimacy. In 391, the emperor issued an edict against paganism, forbidding any public practice of its rituals and sacrifices. From this time onward, paganism was practiced mostly among the rural peoples, from whence we get our term "pagan", which means "rustic." The earlier failure of Julian's quixotic campaign to restore paganism shows how much the old cults had lost their force in the cities of the empire by the mid-fourth century. Theodosius' establishment of Christianity as the sole religion of the state merely formalized an existing social reality.

The emperor's close interest in ecclesiastical matters would have far-reaching implications for the Church, especially in Constantinople. Theodosius spent lavishly on the imperial capital, which his predecessors had neglected, and built it into a "new Rome," with monuments imported from the rest of the Empire. With this transformation, came the expectation of a higher ecclesiastical dignity for the bishop of Constantinople. Although Christianity did not reach Constantinople (then Byzantium) until the late second century, the bishops of that city now claimed a right to a patriarchate over most of the churches of the East, second in dignity only to Rome.

Theodosius' ambitions notwithstanding, most of the Church regarded itself as theologically independent of the emperor, so an ecumenical council was necessary to legitimately reaffirm Nicaea, and resolve other matters that had developed since the first council, such as the new status of the patriarchate of Constantinople.

In 381, a synod of Eastern bishops convened at Constantinople to reaffirm the Nicene creed and to determine the successor of the deposed Arian bishop of Constantinople, as well as the canonical status of that see. Since the bishops of the West were not included, these being gathered in a parallel synod at Rome, the Council of Constantinople was actually a regional synod, not an ecumenical council, at the time of its meeting. However, many of the decrees of this Council were accepted by the Pope and other bishops of the West, effectively ratifying those acts of the Council as ecumenical, and it became common in the early fifth century to refer to the Council as ecumenical.

Most of the documents of the Council have been lost, and those that survive are sometimes of questionable authenticity. We confine our analysis to the better established documents, though even these are not without controversy.

According to most sources, the creed of the Council of Constantinople closely resembles that of our present "Nicene Creed", which is actually an expansion of the symbol of faith professed at Nicaea. Some scholars maintain that this creed was erroneously attributed to this Council by the Council of Chalcedon and later witnesses, pointing to the absence of this creed in the West during the fifth century. Others maintain the creed preceded the Council, as a local variation of the Nicene formula. The preponderance of evidence favors the view that the Constantinople creed as we have it was in fact presented at that Council, regardless of whether it may have had an earlier origin. The lack of adequate propagation of the Council's documents may have resulted in the Council of Ephesus' apparent confusion regarding the attribution and content of the Nicene Creed.

The creed of Constantinople retains everything that was affirmed at Nicaea, save the phrase "God from God", perhaps regarding it as redundant with the subsequent "true God from true God". Our present "Nicene Creed" (really a Nicene-Constantinople creed) restores the omitted phrase. More significantly, the second creed expounds the role of the Holy Spirit, whereas Nicaea was concerned principally with the relation between the Father and the Son. The role of the Holy Spirit in the Incarnation is uncontroversial Christian doctrine, and it is followed by the mention of crucifixion "under Pontius Pilate," and the Resurrection as "in accordance with the Scriptures." The Church's Trinitarian doctrine is completed with an explication of the Holy Spirit as "the lordly and life-giving one, proceeding forth from the Father, co-worshipped and co-glorified with Father and Son," affirming the equality in dignity of the Three Persons, yet noting a distinction in relation, as the Spirit "proceeds" from the Father. This uncontroversial assertion would become the occasion of a later East-West dispute where the Latin Church added the word filioque ("and the Son") to the creed, with regard to the procession of the Holy Spirit. This controversy would be addressed much later in the Councils of Lyons and Florence. The fathers at Constantinople were concerned only with asserting the procession of the Spirit from the Father, in opposition the Macedonian heresy then current.

Among the Council's documents, there is also preserved a letter of the bishops that recapitulates the persecution of the orthodox during the Arian period. The physical details of these torments give the lie to the modern myth that the Athanasian doctrine was imposed by state force. On the contrary, the traditional doctrine prevailed in the face of the most terrible persecution, often sponsored by the state. Most of the persecution took place in the East, and even after the restoration of the churches to orthodoxy, there persisted numerous local Arian schisms and uprising, delaying the possibility of an ecumenical council.

The letter of the ecumenical synod is addressed to a parallel council being held in Rome among the bishops of the Western Empire. The Pope had invited the bishops of the East to this council, but the difficulties of travel and dissensions at home made this impossible for them, so they convened their own council in Constantinople at the behest of the emperor of the East. During the Arian period, the West was relatively untouched by the turmoil, enabling the Pope to "reign in isolation." The Eastern bishops are grateful to the Pope's generous offer to share rule with them in a general council, but domestic troubles permit them only to send a few of their brethren, as a sign of a shared desire for unity.

One basis of this unity is the creed established at Nicaea, as reflecting the venerable tradition of the Church. Its amplified form, including the doctrine on the Holy Spirit, refutes the recent heresy of Sabellianism, which reduced the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to modes of being, rather than distinct Persons. The Nicene Creed is an explication of the baptismal formula, and is therefore essential to the ancient faith. The Council also affirms that Christ was fully true God and true man, the latter nature being created. This is an early anticipation of the Monophysite controversy, providing evidence that the orthodox doctrine prevailed before the heresy arose. The Council notes that it confessed the faith "in broader terms" to address current heresies, supporting the supposition that our expanded Constantinople creed was an authentic act of that council.

To end the confusion of the Arian schism, the Eastern bishops restore the ancient tradition of allowing provincial or regional synods to ordain bishops. The bishops of the major patriarchal sees are appointed by the synod itself, to end any controversy of succession. Since all the acts of the Council are legal, canonical, and in accordance with the ancient faith, the bishops simply ask the Pope to "rejoice" in their accomplishment, rather than seek his ratification. The relation between the Pope and the bishops of the East was quite cordial, though neither was considered directly subordinate to the other. Nonetheless, the Eastern bishops explicitly repudiated the idea of fully autonomous local churches, but extolled the indispensable virtue of unity in Christ's Church.

The letter also contains some interesting information on the dignities of the patriarchal sees. Antioch is a "most ancient and truly apostolic church," showing that the term "apostolic" was not reserved to the see of Rome alone, and the name "Christians" is said to have first been applied there. The church in Jerusalem is called "the mother of all churches," indicating the antiquity of its foundation.

The first canon reaffirms the creed of Nicaea as not to be abrogated, and condemns any heresies to the contrary. The Council does not regard its expanded creed as a renunciation or alteration of the Nicene formula, since it contains the substance of the Nicene creed in its entirety.

The second canon reiterates the Council of Nicaea's concern that bishops confine themselves to their proper jurisdiction. It proceeds to define the jurisdictions for each of the dioceses in the East, without presuming to define the jurisdictions of the bishops of the Western empire, since there is no problem of succession there. The third canon represents the first serious tension between an ecumenical council and the Pope. The close identification between Church and Empire established by Theodosius has given rise to the idea that the see of Constantinople should be exalted to a dignity second only to Rome, by virtue of its imperial status as the "new Rome". By virtue of its ecclesiastical or apostolic status, of course, it has no claim to greater dignity than the ancient churches of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria, all of which, unlike Constantinople, were founded by apostles. The Pope refused to ratify this canon, though it did not directly challenge his own status, for it nonetheless was an affront to the ancient ranking of the patriarchal sees. This canon would make the politics of the empire shape the constitution of the Church, a dangerous precedent that would prove ruinous as the empire gradually disintegrated. The exaltation of Constantinople might also be used later as a justification for a further elevation above Rome, should political circumstances permit.

The Pope's refusal to approve a canon created a theoretical problem about the authority of ecumenical councils. Without the approval of the great Patriarch of the West, who at that time was of unquestioned orthodoxy, a canonical decree could hardly claim to have universal, or ecumenical approval. At Nicaea and Constantinople, decrees were approved not by majority rule, but by full consensus, with any obstinate dissenters excommunicated. There is no evidence that the Pope was regarded as a heretic for opposing this canon, so it is doubtful in the extreme that the Council would have been willing to anathematize him over this issue of ecclesiastical dignities. As such, the canon had no claim to a consensus among its orthodox bishops, and could not be considered universally binding. In practice, of course, the canons disputed by Rome would be obeyed in the East and ignored in the West, making them a matter of regional jurisdiction. A real crisis of authority would arise only if Council and Pope disagreed on a doctrinal matter, as both were traditionally held to be inerrant in doctrine.

The relationship between the authorities of Council and Pope would be resolved only gradually over many centuries and several schisms. Meanwhile, relations between West and East continued largely as before, with neither side asserting ordinary jurisdiction over the other, and both respecting the other's judgment in doctrinal matters.

The fourth canon condemns Maximus the Cynic, a would-be usurper of the patriarchal throne of Constantinople. It rightfully declares that Maximus was never a bishop, and his ordinations of priests were therefore invalid. A provincial synod in Rome (382 AD) re-examined the evidence, and confirmed the Council's judgment against Maximus. Once more, Rome did not consider itself automatically bound by a canon of the Council, though in this case it ratified the judgment.

The remaining canons, as far as can be determined, were never ratified by a Pope, probably because copies of these canons were not brought to the West. The content of these canons is uncontroversial from an orthodox perspective, as they condemn various heresies that were also condemned either at Nicaea or by later ecumenical councils. One interesting note is that the term "heretic" is formally defined in this broad sense: "those who have been previously banned from the Church and also those later anathematised by ourselves: and in addition those who claim to confess a faith that is sound, but who have seceded and hold assemblies in rivalry with the bishops who are in communion with us." This definition of "heretic" includes schismatics, and those who are anathematized for any reason, not necessarily the profession of false doctrine. This definition may help us understand the condemnation of Pope Honorius as a heretic by the Second Council of Constantinople, which nonetheless upheld the tradition that the Pope is inerrant in doctrinal teaching.

The last canon provides insight into sacramental practices. Restored heretics are anointed with chrism in a rite of confirmation. The more deviant heresies are received into the Church as one would pagans ("Greeks"). On the first day they are Christians (believers in Christ), then catechumens the next day, then they are exorcised in the customary manner before baptism. Only after a period of catechesis and church attendance are they finally baptised. Interestingly, the term Christian is applied as soon as one renounces heresy, before even joining the catechumenate. This understanding may help clarify why the catechumenate could last for many years, as in the case of Emperor Constantine, without scandal to one's status as a Christian.

© 2006 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved.