The Pentarchy and the Moscow Patriarchate

The news that the Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople is convening a Synod of the Eastern Patriarchs on September 1, 2011, in Istanbul, with the participation of the Archbishop of Cyprus has generated contradictory assumptions concerning the forthcoming event as an attempt to reconstitute the Pentarchy. In the light of these developments, Albert Bondach believes it timely to analyze the history and possible relevance of the Pentarchy institute and to consider the place of the Moscow Patriarchate in it.

Загрузить увеличенное изображение. 526 x 800 px. Размер файла 448928 b.  The Cathedral of the Dormition in the Moscow Kremlin. Photo: S.Vlasov / Patriarchia.Ru
The Cathedral of the Dormition in the Moscow Kremlin. Photo: S.Vlasov / Patriarchia.Ru
The news that the Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople is convening a Synod of the Eastern Patriarchs on September 1, 2011, in Istanbul with the participation of the Archbishop of Cyprus has generated contradictory assumptions concerning the forthcoming event as an attempt ‘to reconstitute the Pentarchy’, in which the Primate of the Church of Cyprus suddenly comes to occupy the fifth place (after the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem) while being today the 10th in the diptychs of the heads of Orthodox Churches. These speculations have appeared both in Greek and Russian information resources. The Ukrainian schismatics, welcoming the convening of this Synod, have hasted to voice the hope that the new church body will finally recognize their ‘rights’ and put an end to the long-standing isolation of their non-canonical communities by somehow including the schismatics in the family of Orthodox Local Churches.

Regardless of these rumors we believe it timely to analyze the history and possible relevance of the Pentarchy institute and to consider the place of the Moscow Patriarchate in it.

* * *

Let us consider first whether the Pentarchy – in the present understanding of this institution – existed in Byzantium at all. The term pentarchy was never used by Byzantine theologians and canonists[1] but it does not mean of course that they were not aware of the very phenomenon we describe today as the Pentarchy.

None of the conciliar or patristic canons recognized by the whole Orthodox Church makes any mention of the existence of a church governing body consisting of five patriarchs. The canons regulating the status of major bishoprics (I Ecum. 6, II Ecum. 3, IV Ecum, 28, Trullo 36, etc.) set forth norms concerning either the individual powers of particular bishops or ‘the primacy of honour’ used as the basis for building relations between these bishops. Thus, Canon 6 of the First Ecumenical Council seals the precedence of three Churches, those of Alexandria (Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis), Rome and Antioch, each having metropolitans with bishops subjects to them. Canon 3 of the Second Ecumenical Council and Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council assign the Church of Constantinople the second place (after the Church of Rome) in the diptych and define the boundaries of its jurisdiction. Canon 36 of the Council of Trullo enumerates all the five patriarchates in accordance with ‘the primacy of honour’ (Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem). At the same time there are no norms providing for the convening of conferences of these bishops and for their joint exercise of legislative, executive or judicial powers over the whole of the Universal Orthodox Church[2].

These canonical norms quite conformed to the church practice. Although the names of the five patriarchs (or their representatives) are always put before the signatures of the fathers of Ecumenical Councils, it can be seen from the Councils’ actions that these patriarchs did not enjoyed any privileges during Councils (except for the privileges of honour) over other bishops and did not make decisions on any matters ‘in their narrow circle’. The patriarchs were far from always attending Councils personally. For instance, Pope Vigilius, while present in Constantinople during the Fifth Ecumenical Council, refused to attend it or send his legates to it because of a quarrel with the emperor. For this reason his signature is absent from the actions of this Council[3]; the Patriarch of Jerusalem was represented by his legates at that Council. The Sixth Ecumenical Council was attended by two patriarchs, those of Constantinople and Antioch, while the others were represented by legates. The Seventh Ecumenical Council was attended only by the Patriarch of Constantinople, while the three Eastern patriarchs were represented by two legates (Rome also sent some legates). Moreover, the participation of representatives of the five patriarchates in itself did not make a Council Ecumenical. The real status and significance of a Council depended rather on the will of the emperor (thus, the Fifth Ecumenical Council was recognised as Ecumenical in spite of the fact that the Church of Rome was not represented at it formally and the see of Rome agreed to recognize the actions of the Council only post factum), and the Pope of Rome (as is evident from the Council of Trullo – though it was attended by all the four Eastern patriarchs and papal legates, the Pope Sergius refused to approve the canons of this Council; Emperor Justinian II had to exert every effort to persuade and make the papal see to accept the decisions of the Council but failed to do it. While in the East the canons of this Council came later to be viewed as canons of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, in the West they have never been recognized fully), and on the consequent reception of the conciliar decisions by the plenitude of the Universal Church.

The indication that the Orthodox Church is headed by five bishops, those of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem and divided into respective five patriarchates is found in the Byzantine legislation, namely, in the Novels of Emperor Justinian I. In particular, there is the following formulation: ‘… the God’s Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church in which all the most holy patriarchs of the whole universe (and the Patriarch of Western Rome, and this imperial city, and Alexandria, and Antioch, and Jerusalem) and all the most reverend bishops installed by them preach in accord the apostolic faith and the Tradition’ (Nov. J. 109 pr.; cf. Nov. J. 131, 2). However, the state law did not contain any norms concerning a special collegial body of the five patriarchs either. It is also noteworthy that the notions entertained by the legislator with regard to the status of the patriarchs gradually changed. Already the constitutions of Justinian fixed the privileged status of the Patriarch of Constantinople. And in the Isagoge (the 9th century 80s) the Patriarch of Constantinople is put right above the rest of the Eastern patriarchs and invested with the powers to review their decisions (Eisag. II, 1 sq)[4].

Since the 7th century, the teaching on the five Orthodox patriarchates is found in patristic sourses. Important evidence about it is present in the writings of St. Maxim the Confessor[5] (d. 662), St. Theodore the Studite (d. 826), St. Nicephorus, Patriarch of Constantinople (d. 828), St. Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople (d. 896) and others. In the polemic with various heresies the unity in faith shown by the five primatial sees was for holy fathers an image of the plenitude of Universal Orthodoxy, the unity of the Catholic Church.

In the patristic writings, the teaching on the five patriarchates and their role in the Universal Church is presented most consistently and fully in the letters of St. Theodore the Studite[6]. According to St. Theodore, the Church is the mysterious Body of Christ, and Christ Himself is her invisible head (see for instance, Ep. 469.23-24. [7]; cf PG. Vol. 99. Col. 1397A), while visibly she is headed on earth by the five patriarchs. On this basis St. Theodore speaks of ‘the five-headed church body’ (πεντακόρυφον ἐκκλησιαστικὸν σῶμα — Ep. 406.27–28, 407.20–21; cf.: PG. Vol. 99. Col. 1280B, 1281B) and ‘the five-headed power of the Church’ (πεντακόρυφον κράτος τῆς ἐκκλησίας — Ep. 478.63–64; cf.: PG. Vol. 99. Col. 1417C). In his letter to Leo Sachellarius, St. Theodore stated that the five patriarchs jointly possessed the power necessary for making dogmatic judgments; a legal Ecumenical Council could not be convened without the knowledge and consent of the five patriarchs[8]. Singling out the five primatial patriarchal sees, St. Theodore conceded that the primates occupying them and their flocks could divert from Orthodoxy but believed that by God’s providence the right faith was always preserved in one of the Churches[9]. If any one of the patriarchs diverted from the true faith, St. Theodore said, he should ‘accept a correction’ from another patriarch and reunite with the body of the Church. Thus, reflecting on ‘the five patriarchs’, St. Theodore spoke of them as primarily the mouthpieces of the faith of the Churches they headed. He did not affirm that the ‘division’ of the one Church into five parts was something established by God and that it should exist to the end of time but rather described the situation of the contemporary Universal Church, stressing that all her parts (‘five heads’) should have one true faith which had been asserted from of old and should be asserted by Ecumenical Councils.

In a classical form the teaching on the Pentarchy was formulated by Patriarch Peter III of Antioch (1052-1056) mainly in his letters to Patriarch Dominique of Acquila (PG. Vol. 120. Col. 756–781; Acta et scripta quae de controversiis Ecclesiae Graecae et Latinae s. XI composita extant / Ed. C. Will. Lipsiae; Marpurgi, 1861. P. 208–228). Divine grace installed the five patriarchs in the world and this number could not be exceeded. The Church, the Body of Christ, has one Head – Christ Himself; as for the five patriarchs, they allegedly conform to the five human senses. Many Byzantine authors of that period put a special accent on the five patriarchs in the Pentarchy being equal among themselves. On that ground the teaching on the Pentarchy was often used for the polemics with the Western teaching on the primacy of the Pope of Rome: according to the Pentarchy theory, the Patriarch (Pope) of Rome is the primate of the Church of Rome alone rather than of all the Churches together or the Universal Church as a whole.

The number ‘five’ as a symbol of the unity of the patriarchs as representatives of Universal Orthodoxy in the Pentarchy theory reflects the historical situation as developed in a certain period of the Church’s existence. In Holy Scriptures and the patristic Tradition, the number ‘five’ is never linked with any special symbolism, nor did it point to a hidden mystical meaning (like the number ‘seven’ traditionally interpreted as pointing to the fullness of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, to the fullness of God’s grace, to the seven days as the whole history of the world, with the eighth one being already eternity, to the seven Ecumenical Councils as the full exposition of the Orthodox dogmata, etc). It means that the number of patriarchs, members of the Pentarchy, can be changed either way, considering specific historical circumstances.

Such a change actually happened as the Western Church separated herself from the Eastern one when the Pentarchy turned in fact into a tetrarchy[10]. Some later authors replaced the respective ad hoc symbols of ‘five senses’ by the symbolism of ‘four pillars’ supporting the mysterious body of the Universal Church. Thus, Patriarch Dositheus in his Tomos of Love cites the confession of the faith made in 1452 by the Constantinopolitan opponents of union with Rome. The confession states that ‘the Eastern Church is reinforced by four pillars, that is, patriarchal sees’ (ἡ ἀνατολικὴ ἐκκλησία, τέτρασι στύλοις τοῖς πατριαρχικοῖς θρόνοις ἐρειδομήνη — Τόμος ἀγάπης κατὰ λατίνων / Συλλεγεὶς καὶ τυποθεὶς παρὰ πατρ. Ἱ εροσολύμων Δοσίθεον. [Γιάσσιῳ], 1698. Σ. 331; see also: JugieM. Theologia Dogmatica christianorum orientalium. P., 1931. T. 4. P. 462).

It is in this sense (the four ‘Eastern patriarchates’) that the Greeks understood the Pentarchy in the post-Byzantine period up to the end of 16th century when a new patriarchate, that of ‘Moscow and All Russia and Northern Countries’,[11] was established.

In the Constituent Charter on the establishment of the patriarchate in 1589, there is a statement by Tsar Fyodor whereby the establishment of patriarchate in Moscow required the consent of both ‘the Archbishop of Constantinople the New Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarch’ and ‘other ecumenical patriarchs, those of Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and the whole council of Greece (Collection of State Charters and Treaties, Moscow 1819, part 2, No. 59). Since there was only one Patriarch of Constantinople in Moscow at that time, Jeremiah II, it was required that the election of Metropolitan Iov to the patriarchal see should be approved by a special Council.

This Council took place in 1590 in Constantinople. The Conciliar Charter (Analecta Byzantino-Russica / Ed. W. Regel. Petropoli, 1891. P. 85–92) was signed by the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch and Jerusalem (the see of Alexandria was vacant during the Council) and some of their subject bishops. The Charter begins with an explanation by Jeremiah. The Tsar Fyodor asked him to grant ‘the Archbishop of Moscow’ the title of patriarch borne by ‘the rest... of Orthodox patriarchs’ (καθὼς καὶ οἱ λοιπο ὶἐκλήθησαν καὶ ὠνομάσθησαν; then Jeremiah enumerated the first four sees according to the diptych). Taking into account the political importance of the Moscow kingdom, he (Jeremiah) agreed with the tsar and ‘consecrated Lord Iov as Patriarch of Moscow and also granted him the patriarchal deed (chrysobullon) defining ‘that... the Archbishop of Moscow Lord Iov be the fifth Patriarch and enjoy the patriarchal dignity and honour and be ranked among and commensurate with the rest of the patriarchs throughout the subsequent time’ (ἵνα ὁ αὐτὸς ἀρχιεπίσκοπος Μοσκοβίου κῦρ Ἰὼβ ὑπάρχη πέμπτος πατριάρχης, καὶ ἔχῃ τὴν πατριαρχικὴν ἀξίαν τὲ καὶ τιμήν, καὶ συναριθμῆται καὶ μετρῆται μετὰ τῶν λοιπῶν πατριαρχῶν, εἰς τὸν μετὰ ταῦτα αἰῶνα τὸν ἅπαντα — Analecta Byzantino-Russica. P. 86). Now, having come back to Constantinople, he (Jeremiah) convened a Council with the participation of the other three patriarchs. The Council (which described itself in its deed as ‘Ecumenical’) unanimously approved Jeremiah’s actions in Moscow, namely, the consecration of Iov and granting him the patriarchal status. It also approved the patriarchal chrysobullon and resolved that Iov should enjoy ‘the honour and mention’ after the Patriarch of Jerusalem, while regarding the Patriarch of Constantinople as ‘his head and the first one’ just as the rest patriarchs did. At the same time, the patriarchal status and title was to be borne not only by Iov but also his successors on the chair of Moscow, who would be installed by ‘a Council of Moscow’.

In 1591, the Russian government, in the belief that the Patriarch of Moscow deserved not the fifth but the third place in the diptych, approached the four Eastern patriarchs (Meletius Pegas had become the Patriarch of Alexandria by that time) requesting that the 1590 decision be reviewed. In this connection a new Council was convened in 1593 in Constantinople. The charter it issued was signed by the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria (who also represented the see of Antioch) and Jerusalem and their subject bishops. The charter reflected the statement made by Meletius Pegas during the Council. He stated that ‘the reigning, most glorious city of Moscow’ was rightly ‘magnified in the church affairs as well’. In this connection he cited several canons (IV Ecum. 28, as well as II Ecum. 3, I Ecum. 6 and Trullo 36), which defined the status of chairs in accordance with the political importance of their cities. Meletius proposed the establishment of the Moscow Patriarchate ‘because God ordained this country to be a kingdom’ ‘and the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia and Northern Countries to occupy the place after the most holy Patriarch of Jerusalem both in the sacred diptychs and the church gatherings (ἔχειν τὸν τόπον αὐτοῦ μετὰ τὸν παναγιώτατον Ἱεροσολύμων ἔν τε τοῖς ἱεροῖς διπτύχοις καὶ ἐν ταῖς ἐκκλησιαστικαῖς συνελεύσεσιν), so that we may observe as unshakable the above-mentioned canons of holy fathers and that he may be above the bishops, metropolitans and archbishops throughout the catholic Orthodox Church of Christ (ὑπερέχειν τε ἐπισκόπων, μητροπολιτῶν, ἀρχιεπισκόπων ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ καθολικῇ τῶν ὀρθοδόξων τοῦ Χριστοῦ ἐκκλησία)... and that he be and be named a brother of the Orthodox patriarchs according to the power of this designation, having equal rank and equal see and equal dignity (ἀδελφόν τε εἶναι καὶ λέγεσθαι τῶν ὀρθοδόξων πατριαρχῶν μετὰ ταύτης τῆς ἐπωνυμίας, ὁμοταγῆ καὶ σύνθρονον, ἴσον τὲ τῇ τάξει καὶ τῇ ἀξίᾳ )’. Jeremiah noted that ‘we have already established this’. Sophronius of Jerusalem stated, ‘And I too declare the same’. After this ‘the holy Council spoke out in one voice’ that ‘we all wish the same’ (tr. into Russian by Bishop Porphyry Uspensky and verified by the original in Фонкич Б. Л. Греческие рукописи и документы в России. С. 395).

The decision of the Council is mentioned in some letters Meletius sent to Russia. Thus, in Letter 30 (1593) to Patriarch Iov, he describes him as ‘all-hole master, brother and concelebrant of our Humbleness’ (Παναγιώτατε δέσποτα, ἀδελφὲ καὶ συλλειτουργὲ τῆς ἡμῶν μετριότητος — Analecta Byzantino-Russica. P. 96). Meletius reports later that the recent Council in Constantinople approved the establishment of the Patriarchate in Moscow endowed with equal dignity (ὁ μοταγ ῆ) with the rest Orthodox patriarchal sees (Analecta Byzantino-Russica. P. 97).

After the Time of Trouble, Filaret (Romanov) became a new Patriarch of Moscow. To elevate him to the rank of patriarch, Patriarch Theophanes of Jerusalem (1606-1644) was invited to Moscow. On July 5, 1619, Theophanes issued an official deed of the installation of Filaret as patriarch. There is a surviving official copy of this document made at the instruction of Theophanes in 1626 in Jassa (the Greek original and the Russian version published in Собрание государственных грамот и договоров. М., 1822. Ч. 3. № 46, and: Фонкич Б. Л. Грамота иерусалимского патриарха Феофана об утверждении московским патриархом Филарета Никитича // Греческие рукописи и документы в России. С. 403–409). The deed notes that the new patriarch enjoys the same status as Iov, makes reference to Jeremiah’s deed on the installation of Iov and stresses that Filaret is also ‘a brother and concelebrant of our Humbleness and the rest of the patriarchs’.

These deeds and the correspondence do not mention any limitations of the power of the Patriarch of Moscow; on the contrary, they repeatedly stress his equality with ‘the rest of the patriarchs’ who head the four ancient autocephalous Churches. It can be thus reckoned that the installation of the Patriarch of Moscow and his recognition as an Eastern patriarch equal in honour and the fifth place given him in the list of the heads of Orthodox Churches were actually a restoration of the original number of members of the Pentarchy after the see of Rome fell away from Orthodoxy.

It is also supported by the fact that Patriarch Iov was asked to send his official representative to Constantinople to participate in conferences with the other patriarchs on his behalf. Metropolitan Dionysius of Tyrna who was sent to Russia to convey the decisions of the 1590 Council of Constantinople said to Iov in Moscow, ‘And you should continue consult Patriarch Jeremiah about every church affair… just as other patriarchs do… And for the long journey you, the holy patriarch, should elect in your stead one of the Greek metropolitans or archbishops suitable for it and order him to come to the ecumenical patriarch for councils and church affairs instead of your Holiness… just as instead of other patriarchs… the patriarchal associates (i.e. representative apocrisiariuses of the Eastern patriarchs – A. B.) stay in Constantinople with the patriarch’ (Посольская книга по связям России с Грецией / Изд. подгот. М. П. Лукичев, Н. М. Рогожин. 1588–1594 гг. М., 1988. С. 97). Patriarch Iov said in response that he would discuss this matter with the tsar and the Council (apparently, no decision was ever made on this score in Moscow).

In the 17th-19th centuries, there were several Councils attended by all or some Eastern patriarchs and not attended by representatives of the Russian Church. The decisions of those Councils were basically theological. They did not consider administrative or judicial matters (at least such as going beyond the respective patriarchates). Therefore the absence of representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate (and later the Holy Synod) from those Councils cannot be viewed as exclusion of the head of the Russian Church from the Pentarchy understood as a church governance body.

In 1666-1667, the Patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch attended the Council of Moscow which considered ‘the case of Patriarch Nikon’. For the correct understanding of their role at the Council, it should be taken into account that the Eastern Patriarchs were invited to the Council by Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich in December 1662. They did not come on their own initiative. The Council consisted mostly of the bishops of the Russian Church and was greatly influenced by the tsar. When in February 1667 Ioasaf was elected a new patriarch, the conciliar actions began to be signed in this way: ‘We, by God’s grace the Ecumenical Patriarch Lord Paisius, and the Pope and Patriarch of the Great City of Alexandria and the universal judge, and Lord Macarius the Patriarch of God’s City of Great Antioch and All the East, together with our brother and concelebrant Lord Ioasaf, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, and the most reverend metropolitans, archbishops and bishops in Russia and together with the Greek hierarchs who happen to stay here and others and together with the whole sacred Council of the Great Russian State’ (Деяния Московских Соборов 1666 и 1667 гг. М., 1893. Л. 4 об. – 5, фолиация 2-я); ‘We, the Orthodox Patriarchs, Lord Ioasaf, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, and the whole sacred Council’ (Ibid. Л. 7 об. и др.). Thus the Eastern patriarchs saw the Patriarch of Moscow as their equal.

There is evidence of the early 18th century which seems to violate this principle of equality. The Response to the Anglicans of April 18, 1718, written on behalf of three patriarchs (Jeremiah of Constantinople, Samuel of Alexandria and Chrysanthus of Jerusalem) states: ‘Our holy Church of Christ is reinforced today by four pillars, that is, four patriarchs and remains immovable and inviolable. She has as the first in honour the Patriarch of Constantinople, the second the Pope of Alexandria, the third the [Patriarch of] Antioch, the fourth [the Patriarch of] Jerusalem. Together with them [the patriarchs] she is made up and filled by autocephalous archbishops, namely: the Archbishop of Moscow, who is also the Patriarch of All Russia, and two archbishops of the Asian Iberia... besides there is [the archbishop of] Ochride also called [the archbishop of] Old Justiniana and the archbishop of Cyprus called the archbishop of New Justiniana, as well as their numerous subject bishops and metropolitans’ (see, Mansi. v. 37. Col. 407–408). In spite of the fact that in this document the Patriarch of Moscow is ranked among the old Eastern patriarchs[12], the autocephaly of the Russian Church the patriarchal dignity of its head are reconfirmed in it and; the Moscow Patriarchate is the first in the list of the heads of the newly formed autocephalous Churches, preceding the heads of the Churches of Georgia, Bulgaria and Cyprus.

In 1721, the patriarchal office was abolished in the Russian Church by the decision of Emperor Peter I. To give the new church government a greater authority, Peter I addressed the Patriarch Jeremiah III of Constantinople on September 30, 1721, notifying him of the establishment of the Synod and asking him, in consultation with other patriarchs, ‘to be pleased to recognize the establishment of a church Synod as good’. In his letter the tsar expressed the wish that the Patriarchate of Constantinople ‘be in correspondence and contacts with the Synod concerning every church affair like it was with the Patriarchs of All Russia before’ (Peter’s deed with a parallel Greek translattion published in Бенешевич В. Н. Сборник памятников по истории церковного права… Пг., 1915. Вып. 2. С. 206–212). The answer to the point was given a year and a half later, on September 23, 1723. The text of the deed of Patriarch Jeremiah of Constantinople was duplicated by almost the same deed by Patriarch Athanasius of Antioch (the see of Alexandria was vacant at that time while the Patriarch of Jerusalem was ill) (see, ПСЗ РИ. 1-е собрание. Т. 7. № 4310).

In his deed Patriarch Jeremiah informed Peter about the recognition of the Holy Synod as ‘his brother in Christ’: ‘Our Humbleness, by the grace and power of the All-Holy, Life-giving and Holy Commanding Spirit, approves, seals and declares that the Synod established by the most pious autocrat, the holy tsar of all Muscovy, Minor and White Russia, and the Lord Master of all the northern, eastern, western and many other countries, the Sovereign Peter Alekseyevich, the Emperor and our beloved and most desired brother. The Synod in the Holy and Great Russian State is there and is called our brother in Christ, the Sacred and Holy Synod for all pious and Orthodox Christians, ordained and lay, principals and subjects and for all the officials. It has the right to do and establish the same as the four apostolic, most holy patriarchal sees. We advise, encourage and prescribe it to preserve and hold unchangeable the traditions and canons of the Seven Holy Ecumenical Councils and the other things held sacred by the Church. And may it stay inviolable for ages’ (Полное собрание постановлений по Ведомству Православного исповедания. Т. III. № 1115; Бенешевич В. Н. Сборник памятников. Вып. 2. С. 249–250). Thus the Holy Synod was recognized by the Patriarch of Constantinople as a permanent Council with equal status regardless of its age or ‘apostolic origin’).

In this sense, it is interesting to look at the circular letter sent on June 30, 1902, by the Ecumenical Patriarch Joachim III to the heads of all the Local Churches, proposing to discuss relations with the Catholics and the Protestants, as well as the church calendar and other things. Neither in the letter nor in the response to it by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church (Церковные ведомости. 1903. № 23. С. 240–244; № 24. С. 250–257) there is any hint at the Pentarchy; the texts are written in the spirit of recognition of all ‘autocephalous Churches’ as equal (‘sisters’).

* * *

The above material allows making the following conclusions:

1. In Byzantium, the Pentarchy never existed as the governing body of the Universal Church or ‘a conference of the heads of the five patriarchates’. Moreover, throughout the existence of the undivided Church, there was not a single case of a gathering or meeting attended by all the five patriarchs. In the church literature of that time, the Pentarchy appears to be a certain ideal power ensuring preservation of the purity of Universal Orthodox but no reference is made to the real mechanisms of its function.

2. As a product of the historical development of the early Church, the Pentarchy can change and even disappear as a result of the further transformations occurring in church life. There are no serious theological arguments whatsoever (presenting the patriarchates as human senses can hardly be viewed as such) both for the preservation of the Pentarchy in general and the concrete number of the patriarchates as its parts.

3. The ecclesiastical-legal status of the Pentarchy appears rather obscure. There are no reasons to assume that the existence of this ‘college’ is provided by church canons. The powers of the Pentarchy are absolutely unclear.

4. The Moscow Patriarchate was established by the decision of the Patriarch of Constantinople approved twice by the Councils attended by the rest of the Eastern Patriarchs. These Councils (1590 and 1593) placed the Patriarch of Moscow on the same footing as the four patriarchs and accorded him for the whole subsequent age the fifth place in the common church diptych, thus actually making him the fifth member of the Pentarchy. It is fundamentally important that the decisions of the 1590 and 1593 Councils have never been reviewed by Councils.

Albert G. Bondach


[1] The Greek term πενταρχία (five heads) was first used by Aristotle (Arist. Polit. 1273a) who wrote about the five-fold power as applied to state governance. The full-text search through TLG-online shows that there was no such term in the Byzantine ecclesiastical literature; therefore ‘pentarchy’ as a church term appeared only in the post-Byzantine period.

[2] It should be kept in mind that in the period when these canons were issued (4th-7th cent.) the Universal Church consisted of not only these five Local Churches (patriarchates). There was a number of Churches (in Carthage, Cyprus, etc.) which remained independent and did not belong to any patriarchate. Accordingly, these Churches could not be subjects to any of the patriarchs separately or to a hypothetical gathering of all the five patriarchs.

[3] As is known, Popes of Rome did not at all attend any of the Councils which the Orthodox Church recognizes as Ecumenical.

[4] These norms should certainly be understood in their historical context (the worsening relations between Byzantium and Rome, the decay of the three Eastern patriarchates after the Arab conquest). By no means can they be used for justifying any exclusive status of Constantinople in today’s Orthodox Church.

[5] While Maxim the Confessor is traditionally referred to as one of the founders of the theological justification of the Pentarchy, actually he speaks of ‘the Orthodox patriarchs’ only in The Dispute with Pyrrhus, discussing the Council convened by Pyrrhus in 639 in Constantinople: ‘... I wonder at your naming as Council what took place not according to laws or church canons and rules; indeed, there was neither a circular letter with the consent of the patriarchs nor a fixed day or venue... Those who assembled had no covering letters, either bishops from metropolitans or metropolitans from patriarchs. No letters or substitutes were sent from other patriarchs. Who then, being right in the head, would allow giving the name of Council to what has filled the earth with temptations and discords?’ (Maximus Confessor. Disputatio cum Pyrrho // PG. Vol. 91. Col. 352D). Therefore, the absence of the patriarchs’ consent to the convening of the Council is seen as one of the grounds for considering it illegal. However, St. Maxim does not state directly that the consent of the five patriarchs is essential. Important here is not the number of the patriarchal sees but the indication that there can be no legal Ecumenical Council without the representation of all the Orthodox Churches in this or that form.

The reference to the authority of Maxim the Confessor in defending of the Pentarchy theory is not quite relevant either because of the episode St. Maxim himself relates in his Letter to Monk Athanasius, which was later included in The Life of Maxim. The envoys of Patriarch Peter of Constantinople, who tried to persuade St. Maxim to embrace monophyletism, said to the saint, ‘Which Church do you belong to? – Byzantine, Rome, Antioch, Alexandria or Jerusalem? Behold, all these Churches with their subject dioceses have united. So, if, as you say, you belong to the catholic Church, then join [them] too’. St Maxim replied: ‘The God of everything has declared as catholic Church the right and saving faith in Him... I would like to find out the condition on which these Churches have united. If it is done correctly, I will not alienate myself from them’ (see, PG. 90. Col. 90, 132A). Therefore, Maxim the Confessor believed that even all the five Churches together could confess not only a true but also a false teaching. For this reason he agreed to join them only after their faith was tested.

[6] In considering the teaching of St. Theodore on the role of the five primatial sees in the Church, it is necessary to take into account the historical situation in which his views were formed. Defending the Orthodox teaching of icon-veneration, he had to speak out against both the emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople who supported iconoclasm. For this reason his task in justifying his rightness was to find a high authority who could overweight the unanimity of the emperor and the Patriarch. St. Theodore saw such an authority in the see of Rome. However, due to the strained relations between Constantinople and Rome, he could not refer directly to Rome as the only authority. Many could see it as a direct betrayal of Constantinople. For this reason, St. Theodore introduces the authority of Rome as that of ‘the primatial see’ in the Pentarchy whose task, as he saw it, was to bring back (together with another three patriarchal sees) to Orthodoxy those who in the Church of Constantinople had deviated into the iconoclastic heresy.

[7] Henceforth the references and numbering of letters are taken from Theodori Studitae Epistulae / Ed. G. Fatouros. Vol. 1–2. B., 1992 (the first number is that of the letter, the second is that of the lines in the Faturosa edition).

[8] “...We do not talk here about things mundane or carnal as the power to make judgments on them belongs to the tsar and the secular court but about divine and heavenly dogmata which have been entrusted not to anyone but only to those to whom God Himself said the Word: ‘Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosedin heaven’ (Mt. 16:19). Who are those to whom it is entrusted? – The apostles and their successors. Who are their successors? – the present patriarchs of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. They are the five-headed power of Christ; to them the right belongs to make judgments on divine dogmata... So, Sir, it is impossible to mix the divine court with the secular one, nor is it possible for the Church here to convene a Council without the consent of the five patriarchs. If anyone still asks how it can happen, I will tell him: it is necessary that the non-Orthodox should depart from God’s churches and that holy Patriarch Nikifor should receive his throne. Then he would make up a Council together with those who worked with him and together with representatives of the other patriarchs, and most importantly, that of the West to whom the highest power belongs at an Ecumenical Council and if the emperor wishes so he would complete the reconciliation and arrange the reunification of the Churches through his conciliar letters to the see of Rome. But if it does not please the emperor to do it and if, as he says, the primate Nikifor together with us has deviated from the truth, then either side should send envoys to the Patriarch of Rome and let the affirmation of the faith be received from there. For such is the rule: if one of the patriarchs deviates he should receive correction from his equals...” (Ep. 478.56–91).

While this quotation from Theodore the Studite refers to the five patriarchs, he still singles out the bishop of Rome among them whose special role in the Church was underscored in his other letters: “If you encounter something dubious... let your great and God-saved right hand zealous for the divine for the sake of the common good order to accept an explanation of the ancient Rome as was done from of old according to the patristic tradition. For there is the Christ-like Emperor – the most supreme of the Churches of God on whose throne sat Peter to whom the Lord said: ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ (Ep. 429.34–42)”. Therefore, St. Theodore’s teaching on the Pentarchy is closely linked with the teaching on the primacy of the Church of Rome, justified (in full conformity with traditional Western views) by the anciency and apostolic origin of the Church of Rome. Moreover, St. Theodore apparently believed that the Church of Rome always preserved the true faith and could not deviate into a heresy: ‘I testify before God and people: they have torn themselves from the body of Christ, from the supreme throne on which Christ laid the key of the faith which, according to True Scripture, was not and will not be overcome to the end of time by the gates of hell, that is, the mouth of heretics. So, may the most blessed and apostolic Paschal, proper to his name [the Pope of Rome] rejoice, for he has fulfilled the task of Peter’ (Ep. 407.8–15).

It is noteworthy that if the logic of St. Theodore is to be observed, the Church of Constantinople cannot replace that of Rome in her first place in the Pentarchy since she is not of the apostolic origin nor is it ancient. Therefore the proponents of the Pentarchy theory who seek to make their case using the opinion of St. Theodore as a patristic authority should understand that in this case they will also have to recognize as right his teaching on the primacy and inviolable truth of the see of Rome which has been refuted by history itself.

[9] Cf. the statements of St. Theodore about the Church of Constantinople: ‘Having recently fallen away from the four patriarchs, our Church acted unlawfully for nothing. But now is a favourable time, O Christ-loving master, now is a day of salvation, the time to reconcile with Christ through and by the good will of your peaceful power, to unite with the supreme one among the Churches of God, the Church of Rome, and through her with the other three patriarchs so that by one mind and in one voice we may glorify God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ with the Son and the Holy Spirit’ (Ep. 418.38–47). See an affirmation that despite the falling away of a particular Church, the true faith will remain intact to the end of the world, for instance, in this statement; ‘For since the apostolic time and later the Church has been invaded by many heresies and impure affairs have arisen, illegal and prohibited by canons, as is the case today. However, she, in the above-mentioned fashion, has remained undivided and immaculate and will remain so forever, while those who think and do bad are excommunicated and cast away from her like ferocious waves from an unshakable rock” (Ep. 28.128–134).

[10] True, this change was not realized in Byzantium immediately. In the 12th century Theodore Balsamon in a brief work on the status of the patriarchs addressed to Patriarch Mark of Alexandria reproduces the above-mentioned ideas of Patriarch Peter of Antioch while noting that a patriarch who deviated from Orthodoxy should not be replaced by a bishop occupying some other see. On the contrary, it is necessary to await ‘the pentarch’s’ conversion (Ράλλης Γ., Ποτλῆς Μ. Σύνταγμα τῶν θείων καὶ ἱερῶν κανόνων. Ἀθῆναι, 1854. Τ. 4. Σ. 542–555; PG. Vol. 138. Col. 1013–1033).

[11] Precisely this title of the Patriarch of Moscow (Πατριάρχης Μοσκόβου κα ὶ πάσης Ῥ ωσίας κα ὶ τ ῶ ν ὑ περβορείων μερ ῶ ν) was approved by the 1593 Council of Constantinople (the Greek original of this conciliar action see in: Фонкич Б. Л. Акт Koнстантинопольского собора 1593 г. об основании Московского Патриархата // Cyrillomethodianum. Thessaloniki, 1987. v. XI. Р. 9–31 [re-ed.: Ib.Греческие рукописи и документы в России в XIV – начале XVIII в. М.: Индрик, 2003. С. 385–399]; Russian version: Порфирий (Успенский), архим. Деяние Константинопольского Собора 1593 года, которым утверждено патриаршество в России // Труды Киевской духовной академии. 1865. Т. III. С. 237–248). It was also used later in many documents issued by Eastern patriarchs in the 16th-17th cent. (for instance in the 1619 Charter of Patriarch Theophanes: Фонкич Б. Л.Греческие рукописи и документы в России. С. 404, 405; in the deeds of Patriarch Dosytheus: Каптерев Н. Ф. Сношения Иерусалимского Патриарха Досифея с русским правительством (1669–1707 гг.) // Собр. соч.: В 2 т. М., 2008. Т. 1. С. 863, 865, 882–883). The Patriarchs of Moscow themselves used this title until the patriarchal office was abolished under Peter I (see some examples in: Бантыш-Каменский Д. Н. История Малой России со времен присоединения оной к российскому государству при Царе Алексее Михайловиче. М., 1822. Ч. 2. С. 308–313; Каптерев Н. Ф. Патриарх Никон и царь Алексей Михайлович. Сергиев Посад, 1909. Т. 2. С. 141–142; Богданов А. П. Русские патриархи (1589–1700): В 2 т. М., 1999. Т. 2. С. 297; Грамота Петра I Патриарху Адриану о взятии Азова // Вестник церковной истории. 2006, № 2. С. 240–242). Unfortunately, when the patriarchal office was restored in 1917 the title of the Patriarch was not brought in conformity with the 1593 Council’s decision. Meanwhile, the indication of jurisdiction over ‘Northern Countries’ rather than simply the territory of a particular state makes this title close to those of Eastern patriarchs (‘...and of All Africa’, ‘... and of all the East) and that of the pope of Rome who until 2006 was named ‘the patriarch of the West’. See it in the recent article by Балашов Н., прот.; Прекуп И., прот. История эстонского Православия и попытка ее недобросовестной ревизии: О книге архимандрита Григория Папатомаса «Несчастье быть маленькой церковью в маленькой стране» // Вестник церковной истории. М., 2011. № 1–2 (21–22). С. 282–284, 306–307.

[12] By that time the see of Moscow had been vacant for as long as almost 20 years. This fact could have affected the Eastern patriarchs’ assessment of the role of the Moscow Patriarchate.

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