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Papal Primacy and the Council of Nicea

Conciliarism is the hallmark of Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology. Eastern apologists hold that God intended the Church to be governed by councils of bishops. A gathering of bishops in an ecumenical council constitutes, for most Easterners, the supreme doctrinal and canonical authority. Other Eastern apologists declare that ultimate authority in all matters resides in the faithful as a whole: Ecumenical councils become authoritative only when they are accepted by all the people. Eastern theologians do recognize that there is no way to determine precisely when this necessary “reception” has occurred.

Eastern conciliarism is based neither in Scripture nor in Tradition. For scriptural precedent Easterners cite the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). That council gave rise, says Peter Gillquist, to “the idea of discerning God’s will in consensus,” which is Gillquist’s epitome of conciliarism.

The Council of Jerusalem simply gave its approval to a decision already made by Peter—or, rather, to a decision made by God and communicated to the Church through Peter (Acts 10 and 11). This is the pattern followed by all the early ecumenical councils. Each concurred in doctrinal decisions already made by a bishop or bishops of Rome—something I will show in this and subsequent articles.

Nor can the Eastern theory of conciliarism appeal to the councils themselves for its basis. No ecumenical council has taught that it, itself, is the supreme authority of the Church. No ecumenical council has taught that its decrees become authoritative only if and when accepted by all the faithful.

If what Easterners claim as the supreme authority has never declared itself to be the supreme authority, who has so designated it? The fact is, Eastern conciliarism is a substitute for universal papal jurisdiction. The theory was developed as a result of the Eastern churches’ growing estrangement and eventual separation from the see of Rome.

Drawing on the axiom of conciliarism, Meyendorff declares that in early centuries the pope had no “juridical power over the other bishops.” The facts prove quite the opposite. In the first century, Pope Clement put an end to schism in the Church at Corinth. He exacted obedience under penalty of serious sin, claiming to speak with the authority of Jesus Christ. In the second century, when Pope Victor threatened to excommunicate a large portion of the Church in the East, many protested the threat but none questioned the Pope’s authority, and all finally yielded to it.

The reason the pope had no juridical power, says Meyendorff, was that “nothing of this nature had been granted to him by a council.” Whence comes the notion that a council could grant to, or withhold from, the successors of Peter any juridical power? No recognized council has taught anything remotely resembling what Meyendorff assumes.

Meyendorff expresses the axiom of conciliarism another way. Unless a council granted it to him, the bishop of Rome had no juridical right by virtue of his office. Why not? Because, says Meyendorff, quoting an unnamed source, “‘no province is deprived of the grace of the Holy Spirit’; the latter is more likely to be working through the intermediary of ‘innumerable bishops’ than through one only.” Obviously, the grace of the Holy Spirit has not been withheld from any province. Just as obviously, this fact is irrelevant to the issue of papal jurisdiction. Is there a likelihood that the Holy Spirit would work through many bishops rather than through one? It might seem so to one with conciliarist presuppositions. But what if the Holy Spirit had previously chosen to work uniquely through one particular bishop?

The New Testament tells us that choice had been made, and it fell on Peter. Anti-Catholic apologists dispute, downplay, in some instances ignore the scriptural evidence for that choice. Eastern and Anglican apologists claim that the Catholic interpretation cannot be correct because the bishop of Rome did not exercise universal jurisdiction in the early centuries. Only through fortuitous circumstances many centuries later did the popes begin claiming and trying to exercise universal jurisdiction.

But turn the Eastern argument around. Suppose the Eastern reading of early Church history is mistaken. Suppose the bishop of Rome did exercise universal jurisdiction from the first century onward (as I have shown and will continue to show). Does not this validate the Catholic interpretation of the biblical revelation about the role of Peter in the Church? And does it not undercut the Eastern axiom of conciliarism?

The conciliarist approach is fundamentally ambiguous. “For Orthodoxy the sole criterion of the truth is the Holy Spirit himself, who will most assuredly guide the Church into all truth.” But how do we know when the Spirit has spoken? Through whom does he speak? How can we be sure what he is saying? What is the criterion of truth in the conciliarist scheme? In the ancient Church, “the criterion [of truth] was always truth itself, and not a visible organ of infallibility.” But the truth has to be articulated by someone. It does not suddenly appear out of the blue, perfectly apparent and clear to everyone.

Who is the guardian of truth in the Church? “[T]he sole guardian of truth is the Spirit of Truth which is loyal to the Church.” Again, the unanswered question is, through whom does the Spirit articulate and guard the faith? The Spirit is indeed loyal to the Church. But what happens when parts of the Church are disloyal to the Spirit? And how do we know they are in fact disloyal? The answer? “No institutional criterion, except the Spirit itself, can define the apostolic tradition.” Once more, how? Through whom? From conciliarism, still no answers.

Turn now to the role of the papacy in the proceedings of the first ecumenical council (Nicaea, 325). For background, we should glance briefly at two events in the third century involving Alexandria and Antioch, then the second and third most important sees of the Catholic Church. Alexandria was regarded as a Petrine see because it was founded by Peter’s protégé, Mark, and Peter himself had been the first bishop of Antioch, before moving to Rome.

According to the fourth-century historian Eusebius, Patriarch Dionysius of Antioch (died ca. 264) wrote to Pope Xystus II asking about rebaptism. He asked for advice from the Pope, he said, “for fear I am acting mistakenly.” Later the Patriarch wrote to Xystus’s successor, Pope Dionysius, informing him that the Sabellian heresy had appeared in his patriarchate. (This trinitarian heresy so emphasized the unity of the Godhead as to deny a distinction of divine Persons.) The Pope also wrote to two of his Egyptian bishops, emphasizing our Lord’s humanity. Certain persons in the see of Alexandria (perhaps those two bishops) reported to the Pope that Patriarch Dionysius was tending toward heretical views.

The Pope wrote the Egyptian bishops a letter detailing the errors of Sabellianism and what was later called Arianism and condemning them. He designated the term homoousios (“of the same substance”) as an appropriate safeguard of orthodox Christology. Note that sixty and more years before the Council of Nicaea, Pope Dionysius anticipated the Council’s work in condemning Arianism and in selecting the appropriate theological concept for the Church’s Christology.

The Pope wrote to Patriarch Dionysius, told him of the allegations against his orthodoxy, and asked for an explanation. Eastern Orthodox apologists tell us the Pope had no jurisdiction over other bishops. Here the Pope is calling on the second most important bishop of the Christian world to defend his orthodoxy. Did Patriarch Dionysius deny the Pope’s authority to bring him on the carpet, so to speak? Not at all. He welcomed the Pope’s inquiry and quickly wrote an explanation which the Pope accepted as satisfactory.

In the third century Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch, denied the personhood of the Logos, saying that only the divine Wisdom had become incarnate. In 264 the bishops of Syria, Palestine, and Asia Minor convened in synod and condemned Paul’s heresy. Because he persisted in his errors, a second and then a third synod met, and finally he was deposed and excommunicated. Domnus was named as replacement, but Paul refused to vacate the episcopal residence. The bishops appealed to Emperor Aurelian, who was in Antioch at that time. It would have been simple for the Emperor to settle the matter then and there and order Domnus installed as patriarch of Antioch. Instead, he asked Rome to decide who should be patriarch. Rome chose Domnus, and he was installed.

Note that this was a controversy among Eastern bishops, and it involved the rightful occupant of the third most important see in the Church, an Eastern see. Why did Aurelian turn to Rome for a decision? Why would he have the controversy settled in a way that would be a staggering affront to the Eastern bishops and to their authority . . . unless they recognized the pope’s universal jurisdiction. That they did. None objected. The matter was settled. ” Roma locuta est” (Rome has spoken).

An examination of the Council of Nicaea starts with the fact that the Arian question which provoked the council had been resolved by the popes a century and more earlier. In the second century Pope Victor excommunicated Theodotus, an early exponent of the heresy later called “Arianism.” As noted above, Pope Dionysius condemned the heresy later associated with Arius’s name and settled on the key theological term later adopted by the Council of Nicaea. Early in the fourth century the heresy condemned by Victor and Dionysius burst forth again in the teaching of Lucian of Antioch. Under the impetus of his pupil Arius, a priest of Alexandria, the heresy spread throughout the East like wildfire.

A reminder. All the significant heresies of the early centuries of the Church arose and flourished in the East. Often these heresies were espoused by the emperor of the East. At one time or another, and in some instances frequently, the Eastern patriarchal sees were occupied by heretics. Easterners were adept at creating heresies, but lacked the dominical authority to resolve them. In every single instance, it was the papacy that had to come to the rescue.

What should a pope have done in response to this fresh outbreak of heresy in the early fourth century? Another papal pronouncement would not resolve the issue. The popes had already condemned this heresy. The Arians, backed by the Emperor and influential Eastern bishops, were intransigent. No pope could separate them from their error.

Nor was it feasible for the papacy simply to issue a statement excommunicating all bishops who taught contrary to the doctrine enunciated by Rome. For one thing, a pope would need to know who were the unfaithful bishops. For another, the papal commission from Christ is first of all to “strengthen the brethren” if possible, not cast them out.

Papal infallibility involves divine assistance that preserves a pope from error when he does speak authoritatively in matters of faith and morals. That divine assistance does not dispense him from the necessity of using human means to determine how a particular doctrinal problem is to be solved. Those human means include study, reflection, widespread consultation with the bishops, and sometimes a council of bishops.

The Arian heresy originated in the East. It was therefore appropriate to summon the bishops of the East to express their judgment on the matter. A pope had already spoken. If the bishops spoke after him, it would not be the act of superiors, but of subordinates. The effect of their pronouncement would be to accept the pope’s decision as the norm.

The Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) is an example of concordant judgment. At that council James echoed the policy established through Peter by the Holy Spirit (Acts 10), explained by Peter to the leaders in Jerusalem (Acts11), and enunciated by Peter at the council (Acts 15).

Assisted by two papal priest-legates, Vito and Vincentius, Hosius of Cordova presided at the Council of Nicaea. It is reasonably certain that Pope Sylvester had designated Hosius, as well as the two legates, to represent him.

Hosius and the legates were the first to sign the decrees of the Council. In fact, says historian Luke Rivington, the Graeco-Russian liturgy, in the office for Pope Sylvester, speaks of him as actual head of the Council of Nicaea: “Thou hast shown thyself the supreme one of the Sacred Council, O Initiator into the sacred mysteries, and hast illustrated the Throne of the Supreme One of the Disciples.”

The Council of Nicaea condemned the teachings of Arius as b.asphemy and accepted the word homoousios (“of one substance”) as the appropriate term for the relation of God the Father and God the Son. The result of the council, according to Gillquist, was that “the Orthodoxy of Athanasius had prevailed at the Council.” The orthodoxy of whom? Where did Athanasius get his “Orthodoxy”? From Pope Victor, who a century and a half earlier had condemned the teaching of Theodotus, a doctrinal ancestor of Arius, and from Pope Dionysius, who sixty years earlier had condemned what was called later the Arian heresy and who fixed the term homoousios as a key to authentic Christology.

Meyendorff ignores the repeated, clearly attested exercise of papal universal jurisdiction which we have seen in the first, second, third, and fourth centuries. He declares that, except for the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the papacy “had no decisive influence upon the trinitarian and christological debates raging in the East” in the early centuries. Instead, the ultimate ecclesial authority was “the conciliar agreement of the episcopate.” The facts are otherwise. Only the successor of Peter could and did “strengthen the brethren” and bring about the triumph of orthodox christology.


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