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Bishop Kallistos Ware
Orthodox Church

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  • Part I: History.
    • Byzantium: The Church of the Seven Councils
      • The first Six Councils (325-681).
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The first Six Councils (325-681).

The  life  of  the Church  in  the  earlier Byzantine  period is dominated  by  the  seven General

Councils. These Councils fulfilled a double task. First, they clarified and articulated the visible

organization of the Church, crystallizing the position of the five great sees or Patriarchates, as

they came to be known. Secondly, and more important, the Councils defined once and for all the

Church.s teaching upon the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith . the Trinity and the

Incarnation. All Christians agree in regarding these things as .mysteries. which lie beyond hu-

man understanding and language. The bishops, when they drew up definitions at the Councils,

did not imagine that they had explained the mystery; they merely sought to exclude certain false

ways of speaking  and thinking about it.  To prevent men from deviating  into error and heresy,

they drew a fence around the mystery; that was all.

  The discussions at the Councils at times sound abstract and remote, yet they were inspired

by a very practical purpose: the salvation of man. Man, so the New Testament teaches, is sepa-

rated from God by sin,  and cannot through his  own efforts break down the wall of separation

which  his  sinfulness  has  createdGod  has  therefore  taken  the  initiative:  He  became man,  was

crucified, and rose from the dead, thereby delivering humanity  from the bondage of sin and

death. This is the central message of the Christian faith, and it is this message of redemption that

the Councils were concerned to safeguard. Heresies were dangerous and required condemnation,

because they impaired the teaching of the New Testament, setting up a barrier between man and

God, and so making it impossible for man to attain full salvation.

  Saint Paul expressed this message of redemption in terms of sharing. Christ shared our pov-

erty that we might share the riches of His divinity: .Our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was

rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich. (2 Cor. 8:9).

In Saint John.s Gospel the same idea is found in a slightly different form. Christ states that He

has given His disciples  a share in the divine glory,  and He prays that they may  achieve union

with God: .And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as

we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one.. (John 17:22-23).

The Greek Fathers took these and similar texts in their literal sense, and dared to speak of man.s

.deification. (in Greek, theosis). If man is to share in God.s glory, they argued, he is to be .per-

fectly one. with God, this means in effect that man must be .deified.: he is called to become by

grace what God is by nature. Accordingly Saint Athanasius summed up the purpose of the Incar-

nation by saying: .God became man that we might be made god. (On the Incarnation, 54).

  Now if this .being made  god,. this  theosis,  is  to  be  possibleChrist  the  Saviour  must  be

both fully man and fully God. No one less than God can save man; therefore if Christ is to save,

He must be God. But only if He is also truly a man, as we are, can we men participate in what He

has done for us. A bridge is formed between God and man by the Incarnate Christ who is both.

.Hereafter you shall see heaven open,. Our Lord promised, .and the angels of God ascending

and descending upon the Son of Man. (John 1:51). Not only angels use that ladder, but the hu-

man race.

  Christ must be fully God and fully man. Each heresy in turn undermined some part of this

vital affirmation. Either Christ was made less than God (Arianism); or His manhood was so di-


vided from His Godhead that He became two persons instead of one (Nestorianism); or He was

not presented as truly man (Monophysitism, Monothelitism). Each Council defended this affir-

mation. The first two, held in the fourth century, concentrated upon the earlier part (that Christ

must be fully God)  and  formulated the doctrine  of the Trinity. The next four, during the fifth,

sixth, and seventh centuries, turned to the second part (the fullness of Christ.s manhood) and also

sought to explain how manhood and Godhead  could be united in a single person. The seventh

Council, in defense of the Holy Icons, seems at first to stand somewhat apart, but like the first six

it was ultimately concerned with the Incarnation and with man.s salvation.

  The main work of the Council of Nicaea in 325 was the condemnation of Arianism. Arius, a

priest in Alexandria, maintained that the Son was inferior to the Father, and, in drawing a divid-

ing line between God and creation, he placed the Son among created things: a superior creature,

it is true, but a creature none the less. His motive, no doubt, was to protect the uniqueness and

the transcendence of God, but the effect of his teaching, in making Christ less than God, was to

render man.s deification impossible. Only if Christ is truly God, the Council answered, can He

unite us to God, for none but God Himself can open to man the way of union. Christ is .one in

essence. (homoousios)  with the Father. He is no demigod or superior creature, but God in the

same sense that the  Father is  God: .true God from true God,. the Council proclaimed in the

Creed which it drew up, .begotten not made, one in essence with the Father..

  The Council of Nicaea dealt also with the visible organization of the Church. It singled out

for mention three great centers: Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch (Canon 6). It also laid down that

the see of Jerusalem, while remaining subject to the Metropolitan of Caesarea, should be given

the next place in honor after these three (Canon 7). Constantinople naturally was not mentioned,

since it was not officially inaugurated as the new capital until five years later; it continued to be

subject, as before, to the Metropolitan of Heraclea.

  The work of Nicaea was taken up by the second Ecumenical Council, held at Constantin-

ople in 381. This Council expanded and adapted the Nicene Creed, developing in particular the

teaching upon the Holy Spirit, whom it affirmed to be God even as the Father and Son are God:

.who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and to-

gether glorified.. The Council also altered the provisions of the Sixth Canon of Nicaea. The po-

sition of Constantinople, now the capital of the Empire, could no longer be ignored, and it was

assigned the second place,  after Rome  and above Alexandria. .The Bishop of Constantinople

shall have the prerogatives of honor after the Bishop of Rome, because Constantinople is New

Rome. (Canon 3).

  Behind the definitions of the Councils lay the work of theologians, who gave precision to

the words which the Councils employed. It was the supreme achievement of Saint Athanasius of

Alexandria to draw out the full implications of the key word in the Nicene Creed: homoousios,

one  in  essence  or  substanceconsubstantialComplementary  to  his  work  was  that  of  the  three

Cappadocian Fathers, Saints Gregory of Nazianzus, known in the Orthodox Church as Gregory

the Theologian  (329?-390?), Basil the  Great (330?-379), and his  younger brother Gregory of

Nyssa (died 394). While Athanasius emphasized the unity of God . Father and Son are one in

essence (ousia) . the Cappadocians stressed God.s threeness . FatherSon, and Holy Spirit

are three persons (hypostaseis). Preserving a delicate balance between the threeness and the one-

ness in God, they gave full meaning to the classic summary of Trinitarian doctrine, three persons

in one essence. Never before or since has the Church possessed four theologians of such stature

within a single generation.


  After 381 Arianism quickly ceased to be  a living issue, except in certain  parts of western

Europe. The controversial aspect of the Council.s work lay in its third  Canon, which was re-

sented alike by Rome and by Alexandria. Old Rome wondered where the claims of New Rome

would end: might not Constantinople before long claim first place? Rome chose therefore to ig-

nore the offending Canon, and not until the Lateran Council (1215) did the Pope formally recog-

nize Constantinople.s claim to second place. (Constantinople was at that time in the hands of the

Crusaders and under the rule of a Latin Patriarch). But the Canon was equally a challenge to Al-

exandria, which hitherto had occupied the first  place in the east. The next seventy  years wit-

nessed a sharp conflict between Constantinople and Alexandria, in which for a time the victory

went to the latter. The first major Alexandrian success was at the Synod of the Oak, when Theo-

philus of Alexandria secured the deposition and exile of the  Bishop of Constantinople, Saint

John Chrysostom, .John of the Golden Mouth. (344?-407). A fluent and eloquent preacher .

his sermons must often have lasted for an hour or more . John expressed in popular form the

theological ideas put forward by Athanasius and the Cappadocians. A man of strict and austere

life, he was inspired by a deep compassion for the poor and by a burning zeal for social right-

eousness. Of all the Fathers he is perhaps the best loved in the Orthodox Church, and the one

whose works are most widely read.

  Alexandria.s second major success was won by the nephew and successor of Theophilus,

Saint Cyril of Alexandria (died 444), who brought about the fall of another Bishop of Constan-

tinople, Nestorius, at the third General Council, held in Ephesus (431). But at Ephesus there was

more at stake than the rivalry of two great sees. Doctrinal issues, quiescent since 381, once more

emerged, centering now not on the  Trinity  but  on the Person of Christ. Cyril  and Nestorius

agreed that Christ was fully God, one of the Trinity, but they diverged in their descriptions of His

manhood and in their method of explaining the union of God and man in a single person. They

represented different traditions or schools of theology. Nestorius, brought up in the school of An-

tioch, upheld the integrity of Christ.s manhood,  but distinguished so emphatically between the

manhood and the Godhead that he seemed in danger of ending, not with one person, but with two

persons coexisting in the same body. Cyril, the protagonist of the opposite tradition of Alexan-

dria, started from the unity of Christ.s person rather than the diversity of His manhood and God-

head, but spoke about Christ.s humanity less vividly than the Antiochenes. Either approach, if

pressed too far, could lead to heresy, but the Church had need of both in order to form a balanced

picture of the whole Christ. It was a tragedy for Christendom that the two schools, instead of bal-

ancing one another, entered into conflict.

  Nestorius  precipitated  the  controversy  by  declining  to  call  the  Virgin  Mary  .Mother  of

God. (Theotokos). This title was already accepted in popular devotion, but it seemed to Nesto-

rius to imply a confusion of Christ.s manhood and His Godhead. Mary, he argued . and here

his Antiochene .separatism. is evident . is only to be called .Mother of Man. or at the most

.Mother of Christ,. since she is mother only of Christ.s humanity, not of His divinity. Cyril,

supported by the Council, answered with the text .The Word was made flesh. (John 1:14): Mary

is God.s mother, for .she bore the Word of God made flesh. (See  the  first  of Cyril.s Twelve  Anath-

emas). What Mary bore was not a man loosely united to God, but a single and undivided person,

who is God and man at  once. The name Theotokos safeguards the unity  of Christ.s person: to

deny her this title is to separate the Incarnate Christ into two, breaking down the bridge between

God and man and erecting within Christ.s person a middle wall of partition. Thus we can see that

not only titles of devotion were involved  at Ephesus, but the very message of salvation. The


same primacy that the word homoousios occupies in the doctrine of the Trinity, the word The-

otokos holds in the doctrine of the Incarnation.

  Alexandria won another victory at a second Council held in Ephesus in 449, but this gather-

ing, unlike its predecessor of 431, was not accepted by the Church at large. It was felt that the

Alexandrian party had this time gone too far. Dioscorus and Eutyches, pressing Cyril.s teaching

to extremes, maintained that in Christ there was not only a unity of personality but a single na-

ture . Monophysitism. It seemed to their opponents . although the Monophysites themselves

denied that this was a just interpretation of their  views . that such a way of speaking endan-

gered the fullness of Christ.s manhood, which in Monophysitism became so fused with His di-

vinity as to be swallowed up in it like a drop of water in the ocean.

  Only two  years later, in 451, the Emperor summoned to Chalcedonfresh  gathering of

bishops, which the Church of Byzantium and the west regarded as the fourth General Council.

The pendulum now swung back in an Antiochene direction. The Council reacted strongly against

Monophysite terminology, and stated that while Christ is one person, there is in Him not one na-

ture but two. The bishops acclaimed the Tome of Saint Leo the Great, Pope of Rome (died 461),

in which the two natures are clearly distinguished. In their proclamation of faith they stated their

belief in .one and the same Son, perfect in Godhead and perfect in manhood, truly God and truly

man. acknowledged in two natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the

difference between the natures is in no way removed because of the union, but rather the peculiar

property of each nature is preserved, and both combine in one person and in one hypostasis.. The

Definition of Chalcedon, we may note, is aimed not only at the Monophysites (.in two natures,

unconfusedly, unchangeably.), but also at the followers of Nestorius (.one and the same Son.

indivisibly, inseperably.).

  But Chalcedon was more than a defeat for Alexandrian theology: it was a defeat for Alex-

andrian claims to rule supreme in the east. Canon 28 of Chalcedon confirmed Canon 3 of Con-

stantinople, assigning to New Rome the place next in honor after Old Rome. Leo repudiated this

Canon, but the east has ever since recognized its validity. The Council also freed Jerusalem from

the jurisdiction of Caesarea and  gave it the fifth place among the great  sees. The system later

known among Orthodox as the Pentarchy was now complete, whereby five great sees in the

Church were held in particular honor, and a settled order of precedence was established among

them: in order of rank, Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem. All five claimed

Apostolic foundation. The first four were the most important cities in  the Roman Empire; the

fifth was added because it was the place where Christ had suffered on the Cross and risen from

the dead. The bishop in  each of these cities received the title Patriarch. The five Patriarchates

between them divided into spheres of jurisdiction the whole of the known world, apart from Cy-

prus, which was granted independence by the Council of Ephesus and has remained self-

governing ever since.

  When speaking of the Orthodox conception of the Pentarchy there are two possible misun-

derstandings which must be avoided. First, the system of Patriarchs and Metropolitans is a matter

of ecclesiastical organization. But if we look at the Church from the viewpoint not of ecclesias-

tical order but of divine right, then we must say that all bishops are essentially equal, however

humble or exalted the city over which each presides. All bishops share equally in the apostolic

succession, all have the same sacramental powers, all are divinely appointed teachers of the faith.

If  a dispute about doctrine arises, it is not enough for the Patriarchs to express their opinion:

every diocesan bishop has the right to attend a General Council, to speak, and to cast his vote.


The system of the Pentarchy does not impair the essential equality of all bishops, nor does it de-

prive each local community of the importance which Ignatius assigned to it.

  The Orthodox Church does not accept the doctrine of Papal authority set forth in the decrees

of the Vatican Council of 1870, and taught today in the Roman Catholic Church; but at the same

time Orthodoxy does not deny to the Holy and Apostolic See of Rome a primacy of honor, to-

gether with the right (under certain conditions) to hear appeals from all parts of Christendom.

  Note that we have used the word .primacy,. not .supremacy.. Orthodox regard the Pope as

the bishop .who presides in love,. to adapt a phrase of Saint Ignatius: Rome.s mistake . so Or-

thodox believe . has been to turn this primacy or .presidency of love. into a supremacy of ex-

ternal power and jurisdiction.

  This  primacy which Rome  enjoys  takes  its  origin  from three  factors.  First, Rome was the

city where Saint Peter and Saint Paul were martyred, and where Peter was bishop. ***The Or-

thodox Church acknowledges Peter as the first among the Apostles: it does not forget the cele-

brated .Petrine texts. in the Gospels (Matthew 26:18-19; Luke 22:32; John 21:15-17) although

Orthodox theologians do not understand these texts  in quite the same way  as modern Roman

Catholic commentators.

  And while many Orthodox theologians would say that not only the Bishop of Rome but all

bishops are successors of Peter, yet most of them at the same time admit that the Bishop of Rome

is Peter.s successor in a special sense. Secondly, the see of Rome also owed its primacy to the

position occupied by the city of Rome in the Empire: she was the capital, the chief city of the

ancient world, and such in some measure she continued to be even after the foundation of Con-

stantinople. Thirdly, although there were occasions when Popes fell into  heresy, on the  whole

during the first eight centuries of the Church.s history the Roman see was noted for the purity of

its faith: other Patriarchates wavered during the great doctrinal disputes, but Rome for the most

part stood firm. When hard pressed in the struggle against heretics, men felt that they could turn

with confidence to the Pope. Not only the Bishop of Rome, but every bishop, is appointed by

God to be a teacher of the faith; yet because the see of Rome had in practice taught the faith with

an outstanding loyalty to the truth, it was above all to Rome that men appealed for guidance in

the early centuries of the Church.

  But as with Patriarchs, so with the Pope: the primacy assigned to Rome does not overthrow

the essential equality of all bishops. The Pope is the first bishop in the Church . but he is the

first among equals.

  Ephesus and Chalcedon were a rock of Orthodoxy, but they were also a terrible rock of of-

fence. The Arians had been gradually reconciled and formed no lasting schism. But to this day

there exist Nestorian Christians who cannot accept the decisions of Ephesus, and Monophysites

who cannot accept those of Chalcedon. The Nestorians lay for the most part outside the Empire,

and little more is heard of them in Byzantine history. But large numbers of Monophysites, par-

ticularly in Egypt and Syria, were subjects of the Emperor, and repeated though unsuccessful ef-

forts were made  to  bring  them  back  into  communion with the Byzantine Church.  As  so  often,

theological differences were made more bitter by cultural and national tension. Egypt and Syria,

both predominantly non-Greek in language and background, resented the power of Greek Con-

stantinople, alike in religious and in political matters. Thus ecclesiastical schism was reinforced

by political separatism. Had it not been for these non-theological factors, the two sides might

perhaps have  reached  a  theological understanding  after Chalcedon. Many modern scholars are

inclined to think that the difference between Monophysites and .Chalcedonians. was basically


one of terminology, not of theology: the two parties used different language, but ultimately both

were concerned to uphold the same truths.

  The Definition of Chalcedon was supplemented by two later Councils, both held at

Constantinople. The fifth Ecumenical Council (553) reinterpreted the decrees of Chalcedon from

an Alexandrian point of view, and sought to explain, in more constructive terms than Chalcedon

had used, how the two  natures of Christ unite to form a single person. The sixth Ecumenical

Council (680-681) condemned the Monothelite  heresy, a  new form of  Monophysitism. The

Monothelites argued that although Christ has two natures, yet since He is a single person, He has

only one will. The Council replied that if He has two natures, then He must also have two wills.

The Monothelites, like  the Monophysites, impaired the  fullness of Christ.s humanity, since

manhood without a human will would be  incomplete, a mere abstraction. Since Christ is  true

man as well as true God, He must have a human will as well as a divine.

  During the fifty years before the meeting of the sixth Council, Byzantium was faced with a

sudden and alarming development: the rise of Islam. The most striking fact about Mohammedan

expansion is its speed. When the Prophet died in 632, his authority scarcely extended beyond the

Hejaz. But within fifteen years his Arab followers had taken Syria, Palestine, and Egypt; within

fifty years they were at the walls of Constantinople and almost captured the city; within a hun-

dred they had swept across North Africa, advanced through Spain, and forced western Europe to

fight for its life at the Battle of Poitiers. The Arab invasions have been called .a centrifugal ex-

plosion, driving in every direction small bodies of mounted raiders in quest of food, plunder, and

conquest. The old empires were in no state to resist them.  (H. St. L. B. Moss, in Baynes and Moss,

Byzantium:  An  Introduction, Oxford1948pp11-12). Christendom survived, but only with difficulty.

The Byzantines lost their eastern possessions, and the three Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch,

and Jerusalem passed under infidel control; within the Christian Empire of the East, the Patriar-

chate of Constantinople was now without rival. Henceforward  Byzantium was never free for

very long from Mohammedan attacks, and although it held out for eight centuries more, yet in

the end it succumbed.


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