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That Time the Eastern Churches Accepted Papal Infallibility

If you thought the Eastern churches have always been stalwartly opposed to the doctrine of papal infallibility, think again!

Bishops fighting bishops, doctrinal confusion, ambiguous teachings, open proclamation of heresy, forceful impositions of tyrannical ecclesial policies . . . does this sound like our present age? Though it might, this is a description of the state of the church in the fifth and sixth centuries.

There were many reasons behind the problems described above, but the main factor was the controversial Council of Chalcedon, which is considered the fourth ecumenical council by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. Some may be surprised to learn that Chalcedon wasn’t immediately received by all Christians. In fact, some of its ambiguities caused many to break away from the church—a wound in the body of Christ that lasts to this day with the separation of the Oriental Orthodox Churches.

What exactly was the controversy over the council? It was over whether Christ had one or two natures. Though the council fathers at Chalcedon affirmed Christ’s two natures, the language the council used gave some the impression that it taught the heresy of Nestorianism (i.e., that Jesus is two persons), which had been previously condemned by the third ecumenical council. In order to fix the fallout between Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Christians, Emperor Zeno released the Henoticon, a document that attempted to straddle the fence between the two camps. In this document, the emperor condemned Nestorius but did not explicitly affirm Chalcedon’s teaching about two natures. Both sides were dissatisfied.

Meanwhile, the patriarch of Constantinople, Acacius, persecuted Christians who did not adopt the Henoticon, which led to his condemnation by the pope. After several decades of schism, the new emperor, Justin I, pushed for reunion between Rome and Constantinople—yet this would come at a cost! Pope St. Hormisdas sent a confession of faith to the emperor, requiring his signature, along with that of the patriarch of Constantinople and many other Eastern bishops. This confession of faith, known as the Formula of Hormisdas, states the following:

The first condition of salvation is to keep the norm of the true faith and in no way to deviate from the established doctrine of the Fathers. For it is impossible that the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ who said, “Thou are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church” (Matt. 16:18), should not be verified. And their truth has been proven by the course of history, for in the apostolic see [Rome] the Catholic religion has always been kept unsullied (Eno, The Rise of the Papacy, 131).

Hormisdas clearly asserts that the true Faith may be known by the doctrinal decisions of the See of Rome.

Some might push back and say the formula merely attests to Rome’s orthodoxy unto the present and is silent about whether it will remain orthodox in the future. This seems to be an untenable interpretation since the formula situates the claim to Rome’s orthodoxy in the context of the promise that Christ made to the apostle Peter in Matthew 16:18. In other words, Rome has remained orthodox unto the present because of Christ’s promise to Peter—a promise that cannot be broken. Thus, the formula’s claim is that as Christ’s promise to Peter cannot be broken, then neither can Rome lose its doctrinal purity.

Amazingly, the Eastern bishops signed the formula! What is even more shocking is that Eastern Orthodox theologians recognize that this was a victory for Catholic ecclesiology, as it was the background for the First Vatican Council’s claim to papal infallibility. This is why Fr. Alexander Schmemann, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, wrote:

Even more characteristic of this eternal compromise with Rome was the signing of the formula of Pope Hormisdas by the Eastern bishops in 519, ending the thirty-year schism between Rome and Constantinople. The whole essence of the papal claims cannot be more clearly expressed than in this document, which was imposed upon the Eastern bishops (Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, 241).

Even the Anglican priest and scholar, Henry Chadwick, explicitly admits the connection between the Formula of Hormisdas and the First Vatican Council: “his formula was to enjoy later echoes and to be restated by the first Vatican Council in 1870” (Chadwick, East and West, 46).

This places Eastern Orthodox Christians in a difficult predicament. The Orthodox must either admit that the Eastern bishops were orthodox in their acceptance of papal infallibility or must claim that the Eastern fathers accepted heresy. Obviously, most Orthodox are going to opt for the latter option. However, the difficulty here is that the claim of papal infallibility, as expressed in the formula, is repeated by Pope Agatho at the third Council of Constantinople, to which the council fathers gladly assented. In other words, an Orthodox Christian should be hesitant to dismiss the claims of papal infallibility at the first Vatican council, given its Eastern acceptance in the first millennium.

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