Peter Toon on a Council whose problems are still with us

An Eastern Synod of 150 bishops met in Constantinople, the ‘new Rome’, from May until July 9, 381. Originally, there were 186, but thirty-six, who leaned towards heresy, left after the opening sessions. The 150 ‘holy fathers’ came from the civil dioceses of the eastern half of the Roman Empire – those of the East, Pontus, Asia and Thrace – as well as from Egypt and Constantinople itself. Later this Synod was to be recognized in East and West as an Ecumenical Council, the Second such, following that of Nicea of 325.

It was called by the Eastern Emperor, Theodosius I (379–395), and its stated purpose was to confirm the decisions of the Council of Nicea (325), expel heresies and find a new bishop for Constantinople (since for 40 years it had been a pro-Arian city, where Macedonius, Eudoxius, and Demophilus had embraced in the Church of the Twelve Apostles the homoean (Arian) standpoint of the Council of Ariminum of 359). Therefore, it was to Theodosius that the Synod appealed when it ended for the ratification of its decisions. The imperial edict issued on July 30, 381, listed the bishops in each civil diocese of the eastern half of the Empire with whom others had to be in eucharistic communion if they were to considered orthodox. There was no mention of the western half of the Empire in this decree since Gratian, the Western Emperor, had no part in the calling or the approving of this Synod. In fact, only one bishop (Acholius of Thessalonica) from the West attended and that only because he had baptized Theodosius when he had been seriously ill in 380.

The Ecumenical Creed

For primary sources of information concerning this Synod/Council, historians are limited. The original acts of this Synod do not exist and neither does the Tomos, a theological statement, agreed by the 150 Fathers, which set forth the true and orthodox Faith and addressed the heresies of the time.

What do exist are the Letter from the Synod/Council to Theodosius, the list of the members of the Council, and the Canons that were issued. Then also there are the references to the meeting by the early historians of the Church (for example, Socrates, Sozomen and Theodoret); the Letter written to Pope Damasus by the Council that met in Constantinople in 382 and was attended by many of the same persons who had been there in 381; and the autobiographical references in the works of Gregory the Theologian, who for a short time during the Council of 381 was the bishop of Constantinople but who resigned when it was made known that his translation to Constantinople was opposed by the Bishops of Rome and Alexandria.

Further, and of great importance, there is the attribution by the Council of Chalcedon (451) to the Council of Constantinople (381) of the Creed, later accepted by the whole Christian world as ‘the Nicene Creed’ and referred to by some scholars as ‘the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed’.

This Creed from Constantinople is not identical to the Creed produced by the Council of Nicea in 325.Thus it is not the Nicene Creed, properly speaking. It belongs, however, to the same tradition of Faith teaching that the Son is homoousios (of the same, identical substance/deity) with the Father. It also adds teaching on the Person of the Holy Ghost, that he is to be worshipped and glorified together with the Father and the Son.

The immediate origin of the Creed of Constantinople seems to be the Creed professed by Nectarius, the senator, in his amazingly rapid movement from being an unbaptized layman to being the Bishop of Constantinople during the proceedings of this Council, after the resignation of Gregory. Before Nectarius used this Creed, it was probably used as a baptismal creed in various churches of the East since it appears in nearly identical form at the conclusion of the doctrinal treatise, Ancoratus, by St Epiphanius in 374. Apparently, the original Nicene Creed of 325 was used in modified form all over the Christian East as a baptismal profession and so it is highly probable that the Creed of Constantinople is one, preferred, developed form of it, used by Nectarius.

Whatever be the precise origin of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, it has great importance because of its dogma of the Holy Trinity, Three Persons each possessing the one, identical divine nature. Behind the clarity of its words, phrases and sentences there lies the theological work of such Fathers as Athanasius of Alexandria and the Cappadocians (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianus & Gregory of Nyssa) who expounded biblical doctrine in a way that made no room for the various and virulent forms of the Arian and Sabellian (Modalist) heresies that seemed to spread like wild-fire between 320 and 370 and were favoured in high places.

One in Faith: Constantinople follows Nicea

There is no doubt but that the 150 Fathers of Constantinople believed that what they taught (in their lost Tome and pastoral work) was the same Faith as what the 318 Fathers of Nicea had taught, for their first Canon stated:

Let no one undermine the Faith of the 318 Fathers gathered at Nicea in Bithynia, but let it remain firm and untouched, and let every heresy by anathematised; in particular, that of the Eunomians or Anomeans, that of the Arians or Eudoxians, that of the Semi-Arians or Pneumatomachoi, that of the Sabellians, that of the Marcellians, that of the Photians, and that of Apollinarians.

Here we are faced with various heresies of both a subordinationist (the Son is less divine than is the Father) and modalistic (the distinction between the Persons is only in Name not in reality) type which developed between 325 and 381, together with heresy (Apollinarianism) concerning the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. All of them are to be banished from the Church of God.

Though we do not have the Tome of 381, we do have the Letter sent by the local Council of Constantinople a year later to Rome and it is reasonable to presume that what it states concerning truth and heresy is much the same as that of the lost Tome (since apparently the same bishops drafted both). Here is an extract from that Letter which both tells of the tribulation caused by the heretics and indicates the nature of their heresies:

For whether we endured persecutions or afflictions, or imperial threats or the cruelties of governors, or any other trial from heretics, we withstood all for the sake of the Gospel Faith (Creed) as authenticated by the 318 Fathers at Nicea in Bithynia. This Faith should satisfy you and us, and all who do not pervert the word of truth – for it is the most ancient, it accords with the creed of our baptism and teaches us to believe in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost – believing, that is to say, in one Godhead and power and substance of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, of equal dignity and co-eternal majesty, in three perfect Hypostases, that is three perfect Persons.

Thus no place is found for the error of Sabellius in which the Hypostases are confused and their individualities taken away, nor does the blasphemy of the Eunomians and Arians and Pneumatomoachi [=‘fighters against the Spirit’] prevail, in which the substance or nature of the Godhead is cut up and some kind of later nature, created and a different substance, is added to the uncreated and consubstantial and coeternal Trinity.

We also preserve unperverted the doctrine of the incarnation of the Lord, receiving the dispensation of the flesh as neither without soul nor without mind nor incomplete, but knowing that he existed as perfect God, the Word, before all ages, and became perfect man in the last days for our salvation.

In passing we may note a change in the use of an important word in Christology – hypostasis. At the Council of Nicea it is used in the anathemas against Arianism as a synonym for ousia. Literally, hypo-stasis is ‘that which stands under’ and refers to the permanent being which underlies the appearance of things. Ousia has the similar but more abstract meaning of essence or being. However, because of the work of the Cappadocian theologians the word hypostasis came to be used for the subsistence of being, not being itself, and thus they spoke of the hypostases, that is the subsistences of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost in the Holy Trinity, One God. At the same time, the word ousia retained its general meaning of essence and being and was used of the deity, the Godhead, common to each of the Three. Thus the later statement of orthodoxy used by the Fathers – one ousia and three hypostases.

In concluding this section, it may be worth remarking that while the Creeds of Nicea and Constantinople, being the joint confession of the assembly of the holy Fathers, began with the first person plural, pisteuomen & credimus, when they were used as baptismal creeds they used the first person singular form. And when they later entered the Liturgy as baptismal creeds they did so also in the first person singular so that to this day Credo begins the Creed of the western and Pisteuo the Creed of the eastern Liturgy. The use of ‘We believe’ in English liturgy points to a synodical rather than a baptismal creed and is thus improper.

Jurisdiction and discipline

The second Canon of Constantinople (381) begins:

Let the bishops refrain from interfering in churches outside the limits of a diocese and from causing trouble in the churches …If they are not invited, let the bishops refrain from going outside a diocese for an ordination or for any other ecclesiastical act…

The use of the word diocese here is an innovation for church law, for at no previous Council ( for example, Nicea, Antioch and Sardica) had there been mention of a diocese. Obviously it marks the growing tendency to model the local jurisdictions of the Church on the civil arrangements and boundaries of the Roman Empire. Apparently, the particular reason for this Canon was the repeated interference of the Bishop of Alexandria in Antioch and other places.

The third Canon is brief but important:

As for the Bishop of Constantinople, let him have the prerogatives of honour after the Bishop of Rome, seeing that this city is the new Rome.

The city of Constantinople had been built by Constantine the Great between 330 and 336 alongside the ancient site of Byzantium, on the European coast of the Bosphorus. As the new imperial capital it was exempt from dependence on Heraclea and was not considered to be linked administratively to the province of Europe. This had its effects upon the status of the church and bishop in Constantinople. In fact, Bishop Alexander of Byzantium (314–336) and then of Constantinople (336–7) was called at the end of his life ‘bishop of the new Rome’.

This Canon merely puts into church law the situation as it then was in the Empire and Church. In the order of ecclesiastical precedence the Bishop of Constantinople comes immediately after the Bishop of Rome.

In summary

It is sobering to reflect that the Church in the twenty-first century is still facing serious heresies concerning the Nature and Naming of the Holy Trinity and the full and complete Identity and Personhood of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus there is need to contend with grace and zeal for the Faith once delivered to the saints and to do so in harmony with the Tradition and Creed from Constantinople and in a way that can be understood today. Regrettably today we admit heresies into the churches by poor translations of the Nicene Creed itself!

Further, it is of more than passing interest to note that the question of bishops entering other dioceses than their own is very much a matter of debate today.

Finally, even as the eyes of the Christian world looked to the Sees of the ancient and the new Rome in 381 so today they continue to do so! Much has changed in the world and the Church but these two Patriarchates of West and East still remain prominent to serve the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church and the Holy Trinity.

(For further reading: NQ King, The Emperor Theodosius and the Establishment of Christianity, SCM, 1961; JND Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, Longman, 1991; Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, ed NP Tanner, Vol 1, Sheed & Ward, 1990.)

Peter Toon is Vicar of Christchurch, Biddulph