St. Photios the Great and the Eighth Ecumenical Synod (1 of 6)
By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou
The Synod that took place in 879-880 A.D. in Constantinople, when Photios the Great was Patriarch of Constantinople, that great patristic personage, is of great importance and is of significant interest from all sides, mainly because this Great Synod took place before the occupation of the Throne of Old Rome by the Franks and the official introduction of the Filioque, and certainly before the excommunication imposed by the Patriarch of Constantinople on the Pope of Rome in 1009. For this reason we will analyze certain points of this Great Synod, which is identified as the Eighth Ecumenical Synod; points that are of strong interest, especially nowadays.
For the study of this subject, I primarily read the surviving Minutes of the Synod, as well as various theological studies regarding this Ecumenical Synod.
1. The Events Leading Up to the Convening of the Synod of 879-880
Photios the Great ascended the Throne of Constantinople in the year 858, against his will, as he himself confesses in a letter to Pope Nicholas I, since Patriarch Ignatios was previously deposed. The followers of Ignatios resorted to Pope Nicholas I alleging that Ignatios was unjustly deposed, and Photios was enthroned uncanonically in place of Ignatios, and that he was elevated from that of a layman, and his ordination took place “all at once”.
Pope Nicholas I was quite ambitious and felt himself to be the head of the universal Church, placing himself on an ecclesiastical sphere of Frankish perception, especially in the view of Charlemagne. With these ideas Nicholas sent a letter to Photios and said that he did not recognize his election. In this way he entered into the jurisdiction of another Church, the Church of Constantinople, and this was done in violation of the sacred Canons, since each autocephalous Church has the canonical power to elect their Protos (Primary or First). In this way Pope Nicholas clearly expressed his primacy over the entire Church since, in his view, he had the jurisdiction to either recognize or not the canonicity of the election of the Patriarch of another Church.
In the year 861 Photios convened a Synod in Constantinople, known as the First-Second Synod, and he even sent word to the Pope to send a representative of his, which he did. This Synod confirmed the election of Photios as Patriarch and the dethronement of Ignatios, on the ground that Ignatios was elected uncanonically, with the intervention of the Empress. All those present signed the Minutes of the Synod, even the legates of the Pope.
Pope Nicholas was angry with this decision and in the year 863 convened a Synod in Rome in which only Bishops from Italy attended. This Synod deposed Photios, as well as those Bishops who had been ordained by Photios, and simultaneously recognized as the canonical Patriarch of Constantinople Ignatios. He did this because he considered himself as a universal Patriarch and had canonical jurisdiction to convene in ecclesiastical matters of other ecclesiastical jurisdictions.
Meanwhile at that time, with the blessing of Pope Nicholas I, Frankish missionaries were sent to Bulgaria, who expelled from there missionaries sent by Photios, since the Patriarch of Constantinople had canonical jurisdiction of that region, based on the 28th Canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod. The Frankish missionaries expelled the ecclesiastical customs taught to the Christians of Bulgaria from Constantinople, and imposed Frankish customs and traditions, and especially introduced into the worship of the Bulgarians the heresy of the Filioque, which was established in the Synod of Frankfurt in the year 794. Clearly this was an uncanonical intervention into another ecclesiastical jurisdiction, an infringement of the aforementioned 28th Canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod, and the introduction of the heresy of the Filioque, which states that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son.
Patriarch Photios, after informing all the Churches concerning these matters, convened in the year 867 a Synod in Constantinople. This Synod was held in the presence of the Emperor and many Bishops, and they first of all deposed Pope Nicholas I for his uncanonical involvement in Bulgaria, and on the other hand they condemned the heresy of the Filioque. However, that same year Pope Nicholas died, before his deposition was announced. The next year his successor Hadrian, in 868, convened a Synod in Rome, in which only Bishops from the West participated, and they anathematized Photios and burned the Minutes of the Synod of 867.
At that time there were political changes in the Empire of Constantinople, with Basil the I the Macedonian ascending the throne, resulting in Photios being banished and Ignatios being restored to the patriarchal throne. For the ratification of this ecclesiastical change the Emperor cooperated with Pope Hadrian for a Synod to take place in Constantinople, in order to approve these ecclesiastical changes. Indeed, the Synod met in the Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in the year 869-870, with representatives of the Pope present and a few other Bishops, and they essentially imposed Papal primacy in the Eastern Church, having made decision in accordance with the Papal libel, Libellus Satisfactionis, which preceded it. In this Synod Photios was anathematized, all Bishops ordained by him were deposed, and those who followed him, monastics and laypeople, were excommunicated. Indeed, this Synod destroyed the Minutes of the Synods convened by Photios the Great (861 and 867).
Shortly after Ignatios and Photios reconciled, and after the passing of Ignatios in the year 878 Photios was restored for a second time to the patriarchal throne. Thus, the next year in 879-880 there convened in the Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople a Great Synod, which the new Pope John VIII was invited to attend, which he did through his envoys. This Synod annulled the anathema imposed on Photios by the Synod of 869-870, it condemned the Filioque, it tackled ecclesiastical issues, and essentially denied the Primacy of the Pope over all the Churches. This Synod is very important from the side of the Orthodox and is of great significance. Beyond the dogmatic issue of the Filioque, it established the autocephaly of each Church and the non-intervention of the Pope in other ecclesiastical jurisdictions, thereby essentially denying the Primacy of the Pope. We will see these topics analyzed further on.
Here we must note the difference between Ignatios and Photios. Both had love for God and a good disposition, but Ignatios and his followers did not realize that at the time significant games were being played with dogmatic, canonical and political issues, since the Pope sought to guarantee his absolute dominance across the Church, and the Franks sought to expand eastward as well and usurp areas of the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Conversely Photios, despite his holiness and wisdom, was a manageable, clever and skillful diplomat, and foresaw the political and ecclesiastical dangers, and with this perspective he faced the situation. The problem was not about the throne, but it was theological, ecclesiastical and national issues they were facing at the time.