St. Photios the Great, the Photian Council, and Relations with the Roman Church



There is considerable discussion today within the worldwide Orthodox Church about the status of the so-called “Photian Council,” held in Constantinople in 879-880. This is an exceedingly important council in the history of the Orthodox Church, and therefore deserves to be much more widely known among the Orthodox faithful. And this Council is of special relevance for our Orthodox Church vis-a-vis the Roman Catholic Church, in that 1), it officially prohibited any addition to the Nicene Creed, thus rejecting the Filioque clause, which was in use by many churches in Western Europe at that time (though not in Rome until 1014); and 2), it implicitly rejected the principle of Papal Supremacy, or jurisdictional authority, over the Eastern Churches, in that this Council rendered null and void the pro-papal Ignatian Council held in Constantinople ten years earlier. But in one of the greatest ironies of Christian history, the Photian Council was recognized as legitimate by the papacy for nearly 200 years until the period of the Gregorian Reform, when the canon lawyers of Pope Gregory VII (r. 1073-1085) rejected the Photian Council and resurrected the Ignatian Council to take its place.

My personal opinion is that this substitution 200 years after the fact was made easier for the Roman Church due to the circumstance that the Eastern Church had not proclaimed the Photian Council to be the Eighth Ecumenical Council. There are understandable reasons for that circumstance, which I will discuss near the end of this paper. For now, I will simply observe that this substitution has made reconciliation between the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Churches tremendously more difficult through the centuries—since the Filioque and Papal Supremacy have been the two biggest stumbling blocks hindering reconciliation to this day.

The basic background to the story of these two councils

St. Photios the Great (c. 815—c. 891) has been called “the most distinguished thinker, the most outstanding politician, and the most skillful diplomat ever to hold office as Patriarch of Constantinople.”[1]

St. Tarasios, the uncle of St. Photios St. Tarasios, the uncle of St. Photios
He was from the upper nobility of Constantinople. His parents, Sergios Georgios and Irene, suffered as confessors for the faith since they were defending the veneration of the holy icons during the second wave of the heresy of Iconoclasm, and are saints in our Church. They were exiled, and separated from their son when he was about nine years old; they apparently never saw him again. Their feast day is May 13. And Photios's uncle was St. Tarasios, the Patriarch of Constantinople who presided over the Seventh Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea in 787, which officially defended the icons against the Iconoclasts.

The young Photios was given a superb classical education under the supervision of relatives. Early on he showed interest in monasticism, but he decided upon a career of statesmanship, having excellent connections in the imperial court. At first he served as an Imperial Secretary, and then as ambassador to Baghdad. Later, he became a professor at the newly invigorated University of Constantinople, which was playing a key role in the major revival of culture and learning that took place in Byzantium after the Triumph of Orthodoxy in 843, which once and for all restored the veneration of the holy icons.

On October 23, 858, Patriarch Ignatios of Constantinople resigned his office, partly under pressure from Emperor Michael III (son of St. Empress Theodora), at the urging of Caesar Bardas, Theodora's brother and virtual prime minister of the government, whose relationship with his daughter-in-law Patr. Ignatios had condemned as incestuous—though this may well have been an unfounded accusation. According to prominent Roman Catholic historian Francis Dvornik, Ignatios also resigned “on the advice of bishops who were anxious to prevent a conflict between the Church and the government.”[2] Dvornik immediately goes on to say that Ignatios

asked his adherents to select a new patriarch. In a local synod the bishops of both parties [the rigorists backing Ignatios, and the moderates backing Photios] recommended to the Emperor the layman Photios [whose brilliant talents were well-known], avoiding the election of a bishop from each [or either] rival party. Photios was recognized as the legitimate patriarch by all the bishops, even the five most faithful supporters of Ignatios, after Photios had given them certain guarantees concerning the position of Ignatios after his abdication.[3]

858: Photios’ consecration as Patriarch   

Very reluctantly, Photios accepted this completely unexpected summons by the Church and the Emperor to be the new patriarch. And because the Nativity of the Lord was fast approaching, and a patriarch would be needed to lead the services, Photios was elevated to the position of Patriarch through ceremonies of tonsuring, diaconal and priestly ordination, and consecration as bishop on five consecutive days (St. Ambrose of Milan had been elevated from layman to bishop in a similarly hasty fashion in 386, as had St. Tarasios in 784). His consecration as Patriarch was accomplished by Bp. “Gregory Asbestos, leader of the liberals, and by two Ignatian bishops.”[4]

Now the plot really thickens! According to Dvornik,

About two months after Photios' ordination, the extreme followers of Ignatios, assembled in the church of St. Irene, refused obedience to the new patriarch and demanded the reestablishment of Ignatios. The reason for this action may have lain in differing interpretations of the nature of the guarantees given by Photios to the five leaders of the Ignatian party. Photios convoked a synod in the church of the Holy Apostles (859). The opposing party prevented their condemnation by provoking a riot (Zonnaras, PG 137:1004f ), which had a political background and which was suppressed with bloodshed by the imperial police. Photios protested against the cruelty of the police, and threatened Bardas with his abdication [certainly this is a clear indication of his lack of lust for the position, as Western critics have so often accused him of for centuries].

After peace had been established, the synod was reconvened in the church of the Blachernae palace. In order to deprive the opposition of any claim concerning the legitimacy of Ignatios' patriarchate, the synod declared, on the request of Bardas, that the whole patriarchate of Ignatios was illegitimate because he had not been elected by a synod, but had simply been appointed by Empress [St.] Theodora [back in 847]. During the riots Ignatios and some of his followers were imprisoned. Ignatios was interned in various places, finally to a monastery on the island of Terebinthus. Bardas must, however, have convinced himself that Ignatios had not been responsible for the riots, because he allowed him to stay (860) in the palace of Posis in Constantinople, which had been built by Ignatios' mother.

Because of these troubles, only in 860 was Photios able to send [the customary] letter to Pope Nicholas I [and the other patriarchs—Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem] regarding his enthronement. In this communication, he announced that he had accepted his election unwillingly after Ignatios had abdicated.[5]

In this letter, according to Despina White, “Photios, after confessing his dedication to Orthodoxy, stated that he would have preferred to stay with his books and his eager pupils, but had agreed to become patriarch in ‘obedience to the will of God, who was thus punishing him for his transgressions.’”[6] Despina White goes on to recount: “In another epistle, to Bardas, Photios complained again that he was forced by Bardas to take the see against his will.”[7]

Some time later Photios wrote a more personal letter just to Pope Nicholas, in which he declared:

I left a peaceful life, I left a calm with sweetness… I left my favorite tranquillity. When I stayed at home I was immersed in the sweetest of pleasures, seeing the diligence of those who were learning, the seriousness of those who asked questions, and the enthusiasm of those who answered them… And when I had to go to my duties at the imperial palace, they sent me off with their warm farewells and asked me not to be long… And when I returned, this studious group was waiting for me in front of my door; … and all this was done frankly and plainly without malice, without intrigue, without jealousy. And who, after having known such a life, would tolerate seeing it overthrown and would not lament? It is all this that I have left, all this that I cry for, the privation of which has made me shed streams of tears, and has enveloped me in a fog of sadness.[8]

Surely these letters strongly disprove the typical Western charge that Photios lusted after the patriarchal office, and that he had somehow usurped it.

To continue with Dvornik's account: “The Emperor Michael and Photios also asked the Pope to send legates to a new council in Constantinople, which would once more condemn iconoclasm and confirm the decision made by Theodora in 843 concerning the reestablishment of the cult of images.”[9]

861: The Council in Constantinople

Now, Pope Nicholas, who would prove to be one of the strongest popes in the history of the Roman papacy, and one of the most intent on extending papal authority, was already busy trying to consolidate and extend the power of the papacy over the Western churches, which was far from secure at this time.[10] Nicholas was especially intent on doing this, since this was a time when papal prestige and authority were at a particularly low ebb, and he was an ardent proponent and promoter of the idea and practice of Papal Supremacy over all the Churches of Christ. It's quite evident from the way events unfolded that he saw this controversy in Constantinople as an excellent opportunity to try and extend papal power over the Eastern Church as well. So in 861 he eagerly accepted Photios’ invitation to send papal legates to Constantinople to attend this upcoming Church council, but with the idea to make it the occasion to investigate and reconsider the whole matter of Photios' elevation to the office of patriarch.

Back in Constantinople, further indicating his interest in maintaining good relations with Rome, Photios received the Papal legates with “great deference,”[11] even inviting them to preside at the council. And as we can tell from his letters, most likely Photios would have been quite happy to let Ignatios come back as patriarch.

This Council, held in 861, was indeed presided over by the papal legates. After a thorough investigation, the council determined that Photios was indeed the legitimate patriarch—and this decision was supported by the papal legates. But when the legates reported this verdict back to Nicholas, he refused to accept the decision, since he had not forced the Eastern Church to submit to his will to have Ignatios reinstated.

863: The Council in Rome

So Pope Nicholas declared that his legates “had exceeded their powers.”[12] He disowned their decision and that of the council to accept Photios as the legitimate patriarch, and proceeded to retry the case at a council held under his presidency at Rome in 863. This council quite predictably proclaimed Ignatios as patriarch, declaring “Photios to be deposed from all priestly dignity.”[13] Nicholas also asserted that all clergy ordained by Photios during the preceding five years were to be deposed! “This assertion of papal authority naturally gave great offence at Constantinople.”[14]   

Proof that the patriarchate of Constantinople in no way accepted papal pretensions of having jurisdictional authority over her is the fact that these pronouncements by Pope Nicholas and the Council of Rome of 863 were completely ignored by the Church in Constantinople; no reply was even sent to Nicholas! An open breach now existed between Constantinople and Rome—a breach which obviously was created by Nicholas and his council, and not by Photios! But because, from the Papal standpoint, Photios was defying Papal authority, this schism was blamed on him. Hence, ever since in the West, this schism has been known as the “Photian Schism.”

Nicholas’papal presumptions

Pope Nicholas tried to claim that a canon from the Council of Sardica (in 343) justified his actions at the council in Rome in 863. This canon (Canon 3) did allow appeals concerning any bishop put under condemnation to be made to Rome; but Rome is only authorized by this canon to grant a re-trial—if there is due cause—to be held in the region adjoining that of the condemned bishop. By demanding a re-trial after the Council of Constantinople of 861, and by holding it in Rome, Pope Nicholas far exceeded the limits of this canon from the Council of Sardica.[15]

Nicholas made his intentions very clear in 865 in a letter he wrote to Emperor Michael, in which he declared that the Roman Church has authority “over all the earth, that is, over every Church.”[16] As Roman Catholic historian David Knowles writes,

to the Emperor, claims were made to powers hitherto never exercised in the East, such as the right of Rome to summon parties to Rome for the examination of their case even though no appeal had been lodged by them. Nicholas uses language about the papacy which was not exceeded in strength even by Gregory VII [r. 1073-1085]. Set up as princes over the whole earth, the popes are an epitome of the whole Church; all Christians are subjected to papal rule; without the Church of Rome there is no Christianity; the pope is master of the bishops… The pope is mediator between Christ and man, and it is through him that the powers of both emperors and bishops flow.[17]

Boris I Boris I
The stalemate was intensified by conflict over the Frankish/German and Greek missionary work among the Slavs in eastern Europe, where the parallel missionary work being done by the Latin-speaking Germans and the Greek-speaking Byzantines was being carried out according to quite different principles. The showdown occurred in Bulgaria, where Khan Boris at first leaned toward the Germans, but when threatened by a Byzantine military invasion, he changed his mind and accepted Baptism from Greek clergy (taking Michael as his Baptismal name, after the Byzantine emperor) in 865. Shortly thereafter, Patriarch Photios wrote to Khan Boris a long letter describing all the duties of a proper Christian prince and ruler; in this letter he includes a detailed history of the seven Ecumenical Councils.[18]

But Khan Boris wanted the new Church in his land of Bulgaria to be as independent as possible, so he then looked to the West in hopes of better terms. He allowed the Latin missionaries a free hand, and they sharply criticized the Greek clergy for being married, for having different fasting regulations, for allowing priests to administer Chrismation (only bishops were doing this in the West, where it had become known as “confirmation”), and above all, for not using the Filioque! Though the Filioque was still not used officially in Rome (where it would continue to be resisted all the way until 1014, when it was first used in public worship there), Pope Nicholas had not tried to stop the Germans from using it—apparently he had fewer reservations about it than did his predecessor Pope Leo III, who, while allowing Charlemagne and the Franks to use it, in 808 had the original Nicene Creed engraved in silver tablets and prominently displayed in St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.

867: The Council in Constantinople

By 867, four years after Pope Nicholas and the Council of Rome of 863 had attempted to depose and anathematize him, Photios felt he could be silent no longer. In an encyclical letter to all the Eastern patriarchs, he denounced the presence of Latin missionaries in Bulgaria with their various non-Orthodox practices and beliefs—especially the Filioque—and announced an upcoming synod to be held in Constantinople to address these issues. Here is an excerpt from this letter concerning the Filioque: “Nevertheless, even if we did not cite all these and other innovations of the Church of Rome, the mere citing of their addition of the Filioque to the Nicene Creed would be enough to subject them to a thousand anathemas. This innovation blasphemes the Holy Spirit, or more correctly, the entire Holy Trinity.”[19]

We can add here that St. Photios later wrote an extended essay critiquing the Filioque, which he addressed to Western theologians, entitled The Mystagogia of the Holy Spirit.[20] In this work, Photios calls the Filioque “O deceiving drunkenness of impiety!” and “this blasphemous chattering which turns the monarchy [within the Godhead] into many principles and causes … in a sort of monstrous ‘semi-sabellianism.’”[21] According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Photios's critique of the Filioque “has furnished all subsequent Greek theologians with their objections to the Western dogma.”[22]

And this is how Photios described in that same letter to all the patriarchs the German missionaries who had come into Bulgaria:

For the Bulgarians had not been baptized even two years when dishonorable men emerged out of the darkness [i.e., the West], and poured down like hail—or better, charged like wild boars upon the newly-planted vineyard of the Lord. They destroyed it with hoof and tusk, which is to say, by their shameful lives and corrupted dogmas. The papal missionaries and clergy wanted these Orthodox Christians to depart from the correct and pure dogmas of our irreproachable Faith.[23]

In 1948 the Roman Catholic scholar Francis Dvornik published a meticulously researched book entitled The Photian Schism: History and Legend.[24] This bravely pioneering work has done much to soften the hostility and rancor held by the West against Photios for over a thousand years. But still, in this book Dvornik calls this letter by Patriarch Photios “a futile attack,” “an inconsiderate, hasty, and big lapse with fatal consequences.”[25] But as Bishop Kallistos Ware observes, it was the West which was the aggressor concerning the Filioque, with Rome allowing its use by the Franks. Since Photios was convinced it was heretical, he had to act.[26]

So in this momentous year of 867, a major council met in Constantinople, with something like 1000 bishops, priests, and monks in attendance. The council declared Pope Nicholas deposed, anathema, and ex-communicated; he was called “a heretic who ravages the vineyard of the Lord.”[27] And according to Dvornik, “Nicholas was condemned and the [Holy Roman] Emperor Louis II was asked to depose him.”[28] Also at this Council the Filioque was condemned as heretical, and Roman interference in the internal affairs of the Eastern Church was denounced as illegal.

On Sept. 23, 867, Basil the Macedonian, the co-emperor, upon hearing a rumor that Emperor Michael was planning to kill him, murdered the emperor (who was known, not without cause, as Michael the Drunkard) and murdered Caesar Bardas also, and usurped the throne, establishing a new dynasty—the Macedonian Dynasty. In order to win the favor and support of Rome—especially since he literally had “blood on his hands” from his murderous usurpation of the throne, he had Photios deposed and Ignatios reinstated as Patriarch of Constantinople. Communion with Rome was restored, with both Basil and Ignatios writing extremely deferential letters to Pope Nicholas—letters which seemed to acknowledge Papal supremacy even over the Eastern Church.[29]

On Nov. 13 in this same year, Pope Nicholas died, before hearing of his ex-communication by the Council of Constantinople held earlier that year. He was succeeded by Pope Hadrian II (r. 867-872), who proved to be a relatively strong pope, but not as forceful as Nicholas had been. Still, he oversaw a council in Rome held in 869, attended by Greek delegates, which condemned the Council of Constantinople of 867 and publicly burned its acts!

The “Ignatian Council” in Constantinople in 869-870

In 869-870, another council was held in Constantinople, this time under Patr. Ignatios. It was called by Emperor Basil and subjected to imperial pressure by him. This council opened with only twelve bishops (later to rise to 103). Its small numbers were due to the fact that “the great majority of the hierarchy and the clergy remained faithful to Photios.”[30] Known as the “Ignatian Council,” this gathering condemned and anathematized Photios. He was then sent into exile even without his books.[31] All in all, this council was the most pro-Roman council ever held within the Eastern Church. It asserted that “in the apostolic See [i.e., Rome], the Catholic religion has always been kept unsullied, and its teaching kept holy. Desiring in no way to be separated from this faith and doctrine ... we hope that we may deserve to be associated with you in the one communion which the apostolic See proclaims, in which the whole truth and perfect security of the Christian religion resides.” It's easy to see why this council was quoted at Vatican I, which declared Papal Infallibility to be dogma in 1870.[32]

One would have thought that this very pro-Roman council would have well satisfied the papacy. But this council had also asked Emperor Basil to resolve the status of the newly formed Bulgarian Church, and not surprisingly, he assigned it to the authority of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Patriarch Ignatios defied Roman protests about this, and appointed an archbishop and bishops for the Bulgarians, expelling all the Latin clergy. The Bulgarians accepted this development, as they finally realized that their Church would have more independence under Constantinople than under Rome. But Rome threatened Ignatios with ex-communication, and relations between the two Churches were very strained again.

Photios’ reconciliation with Emperor Basil and Patriarch Ignatios

In 873 Photios was recalled from exile by Emperor Basil, who by now had shifted his allegiance from the extreme conservatives in the Church to the more moderate party that still supported Photios. By now Basil was firmly ensconced in power and no longer needed the support of the Ignatian party, or that of Rome. He even made Photios the tutor for his sons Leo (the future emperor) and Alexander, and Photios resumed his lectures at the University.   

In the following years Ignatios and Photios were reconciled; and when Ignatios neared death, he stipulated that he wanted Photios to succeed him as patriarch. This indeed is what happened, for after Ignatios died, on October 23, 877, Photios was returned to the patriarchal throne. And soon thereafter, Photios worked for the official canonization of Ignatios as a saint—his feast day is October 23.

The "Photian Council" of Constantinople in 879-880

In 879-880 another council is held in Constantinople, with 383 bishops in attendance, which annulled the decisions of the much smaller and much more politically motivated Ignatian Council of 869-870 which had affirmed Ignatios rather than Photios to be the rightful patriarch of Constantinople. The Papal legates attending this council, known as the Photian Council, were apparently in full approval. Indeed, they joined in this declaration of the council's last session: “If any man refuses to recognize Photios as the holy patriarch and declines to be in communion with him, his lot shall be with Judas, and he shall not be included among the Christians!”[33]

According to a nineteenth century Western historian generally antagonistic towards Photios, “this council ‘was, on the whole, a truly majestic event, such as had not been seen since the Council of Chalcedon.’”[34] This council strictly prohibited any alteration of the Nicene Creed, thus rejecting the Filioque: “The Creed cannot be subtracted from, added to, altered or distorted in any way.”[35] The actual wording of the horos, or proclamation, of the council concerning the Nicene Creed is as follows:

Thus we think; in this Confession of Faith we were baptized; through this one word of truth every heresy is broken to pieces and canceled out. We enroll as brothers and fathers and coheirs of the heavenly city those who think thus. If anyone, however, dares to rewrite and call this Rule of Faith some other exposition besides that of the sacred Symbol which has been spread abroad from above by our blessed and holy Fathers even as far as ourselves, and to snatch the authority of the Confession of those divine men, and impose on it his own invented phrases (ἰδίαις εὑρεσιολογίαις) and put this forth as a common lesson to the faithful or to those who return from some kind of heresy, and display the audacity to falsify completely (κατακιβδηλεῦσαι ἀποθρασυνθείη) the antiquity of this sacred and venerable Horos (Rule) with illegitimate words, or additions, or subtractions, such a person should, according to the vote of the holy and Ecumenical Synods, which has been already acclaimed before us, be subjected to complete defrocking if he happens to be one of the clergymen, or be sent away with an anathema if he happens to be one of the lay people.[36]

In addition, “this council also argued that the pope was a patriarch like all other patriarchs, that he possessed no authority over the entire Church, and hence it was not necessary for the patriarch of Constantinople to receive the confirmation of the Roman pontiff.”[37] In the words of the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium about this council, “Although the ‘privileges’ of Rome were recognized [as being the ‘first among equals’], the canonical and judicial authority of pope and patriarch were defined in terms of equality (Canon 1). Papal jurisdiction over the Byzantine Church was thus excluded.”[38]

The pope now was John VIII (r. 872-882), successor of Pope Hadrian II. According to Vasiliev, “Greatly angered, John sent a legate to Constantinople to insist upon the annulment of any measure passed at the council which was disagreeable to the pope. The legate was also to obtain certain concessions regarding the Bulgarian Church. Basil and Photios refused to yield in any of these points, and even went so far as to arrest the legate.”[39]

In the end, Pope John did accept the decisions of this council, even if reluctantly, partly because of his antagonism against the Germans. He did not press the Filioque, he did not press German or Roman claims in Bulgaria, and he accepted Photios as the legitimate patriarch. Apparently he recognized that Nicholas's policies and aggressive attitude had been destructive to Christian unity.

This Photian Council was the council, and not the Ignatian Council that it overturned, which brought peace between Rome and Constantinople which lasted until the Great Schism of 1054. But that relationship had been severely strained by the interference of Pope Nicholas and that of his two successors in the internal life of the Church of Constantinople. Fr. Schmemann reflects the Orthodox point of view concerning this interference when he writes, “It would be difficult to imagine more misunderstanding, intolerance, and haughtiness than were shown by Pope Nicholas and his successors in their intervention in the internal difficulties of the Byzantine Church.”[40]

Photios’ later years

Photios served as patriarch for six more years, until, in 886, the new Emperor Leo (r. 886-912), Basil I's son, immediately deposed him, probably for personal reasons. It is known that Photios had sided with Basil in a dispute the emperor had had with his son Leo shortly before Basil's death.

St. Photios died in relative obscurity, in the monastery of Armeniakon[41] around the year 891.

Map of Vordonisi Island, where St. Photios died in the Armeniakon Monastery Map of Vordonisi Island, where St. Photios died in the Armeniakon Monastery

Rome’s acceptance and later rejection of the Photian Council

The Photian Council and its authority were not questioned in Rome for the next nearly 200 years. Strong evidence of this is given by the Roman Catholic writer Daniel J. Casellano when he states, “In the West, early canonists, most notably St. Ivo of Chartres (late eleventh cent.) and Gratian (twelfth cent.), considered the Photian synod of 879-880 to have been duly approved by Pope John VIII.”[42]

But during the time of Pope Gregory VII (r. 1073-1085), in the period known as the Gregorian Reform, as I mentioned at the beginning of this paper, Papal canon lawyers went back to the stormy decades of the 860s and 870s, and replaced the Photian Council with the Ignatian Council of ten years earlier. In the words of the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, the Photian Council had been “recognized as ecumenical by Rome until the Gregorian Reform, when the official Roman tradition was abandoned in favor of the Council of 869” (p. 513).

Orthodox scholar Fr. George Dragas asks,

How did it happen that Roman Catholics came to ignore this conciliar fact? Following Papadopoulos Kerameus, Johan Meijer—author of a most thorough study of the Constantinopolitan Council of 879/880—has pointed out that Roman Catholic canonists first referred to their Eighth Ecumenical Council (the Ignatian one) in the beginning of the twelfth century. In line with Dvornik and others, Meijer also explained that this was done deliberately because these canonists needed at that time canon 22 of that Council.[43] In point of fact, however, they overlooked the fact that this Council had been cancelled by another, the Photian Synod of 879-880—the acts of which were also kept in the pontifical archives.[44]

Repercussions for Orthodox-Roman Catholic relations

How different relations would have been in succeeding centuries, and all the way to the present, between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism if the Roman Church had continued to accept the Photian Council as legitimate, and if she had fully abided by its decrees! For if the Roman Church ever did reaffirm the legitimacy of the Photian Council, thus rejecting the Ignatian Council, the two biggest obstacles to the reconciliation of the Roman Church with Orthodoxy would be instantly removed: the Filioque, and the claims of the Roman Church to have jurisdictional authority over the Eastern Churches.

As Fr. John Meyendorff observes, in commenting on the mutual lifting by the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople in 1965 of the anathemas of 1054,

How immensely more significant, for example, would be the restoration in the list of the Ecumenical Councils recognized by Rome of the Council of Constantinople of 879-880, the only really successful attempt at reunion between east and west. For one of the most exciting results of contemporary historical research (especially the studies of F. Dvornik) has been the discovery that this council, sponsored and approved by Patriarch Photios and Pope John VIII, had remained in the western lists of Ecumenical Councils until the eleventh century [or at least had been accepted as fully legitimate, superseding the Ignatian Council], when the Latin canonists arbitrarily replaced it with the Council of 869-870. A decision of this sort would certainly change fundamentally the relations between Orthodoxy and Rome.[45]

And if I might hazard a speculation: if the Orthodox Church would now officially designate the Photian Council as the Eighth Ecumenical Council, perhaps the Roman Church would be nudged towards doing so herself, in the interest of reunion with Holy Orthodoxy. But even if that never happened, by making the Photian Council the Eighth Ecumenical Council and the Palamite Councils the Ninth Ecumenical Council; and having liturgical services in remembrance of them, along with, of course, veneration for the fathers at these councils; the tremendous importance of these councils would be impressed upon the Orthodox faithful, who could then benefit spiritually through learning about (or learning more about) their decisions.

Furthermore, through these moves, I believe the current dialogue between our Church and the Roman Church would thereby be greatly benefited, as three of the most important key issues would be sharpened, put in bolder relief, and the participants would be spurred to key in on them more decisively—the issues of 1), an unchanging Nicene Creed; 2), jurisdictional independence for our various Orthodox Churches—freedom from the oversight of the Papacy, except for restoring the ancient understanding of the primacy of honor of the Roman bishop as the “first among equals”; and 3), the crucial dogmatic distinction between the Essence and the Energies of God, and the understanding of salvation/sanctification/deification as consisting of each person's participation in the Divine Energies.

Assessment of Photios today

Western scholars, influenced by the vehemently anti-Photian Papal perspective, long have held that Photios was the chief figure at fault in causing the temporary schism from 863 to 867 with the Roman Church, which is why to this day it is called in the West the “Photian Schism”—as I mentioned earlier. Adrian Fortescue, the author of the article on “Photios” in the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1911,[46] even accuses him of being the chief source and cause of the Great Schism of 1054! Fortescue ends his article with these words:

One may perhaps sum up Photios by saying that he was a great man with one blot on his character—his insatiable and unscrupulous ambition. But that blot so covers his life that it eclipses everything else and makes him deserve our final judgment as one of the worst enemies the Church of Christ ever had, and the cause of the greatest calamity that ever befell her (my emphasis).

Thankfully, with Francis Dvornik's great study of 1948 which I referred to earlier, Photios is now more generally accepted in the West as, in Dvornik's words, “a great Churchman, a learned humanist, and a genuine Christian, generous enough to forgive his enemies, and to take the first steps towards reconciliation.”[47] He is still seen in a negative light, however, by all defenders of papal claims to rule over all the Churches of Christ, due to his adamant resistance against what we Orthodox understand to be this most fundamental error of the Roman Church.

St. Photios’ position in Orthodoxy could scarcely be higher, as he is honored, along with St. Mark of Ephesus and St. Gregory Palamas, as one of the Three Pillars of Orthodoxy. This designation seems to be intentionally parallel to the veneration given St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. John Chrysostom as the Three Holy Hierarchs.

St. Photios’ Feast Day is celebrated in the Holy Orthodox Church on February 6.

Why has the Photian Council not been considered to be ecumenical by the Orthodox Church?

It was called by the emperor; it had representation from all across the Orthodox world, including legates from Rome; it was large; its acts were signed by all the Patriarchates; and it referred to itself as “this holy and ecumenical Synod.” And as the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium states, “The Council's decisions were inserted in every subsequent Orthodox collection of canon law, and normally follow those of the first seven ecumenical councils. It is referred to as ‘ecumenical’ by some Byzantine authors.”[48]

However, its main focus was on an administrative/jurisdictional issue—concerning affirming the full legitimacy of the election of a ruling Eastern patriarch—rather than a pressing Christological issue, which each of the previous seven Ecumenical Councils had addressed—even though it could be affirmed that Triadology, and hence Christology, were indeed addressed, in that the Filioque was prohibited by this council.

In addition, Photios himself may have been reluctant to proclaim it as the Eighth Council for reasons of humility, since it fully exonerated him; and also because he was still intent on making sure that the Nicene Council of 787 was fully recognized as the Seventh Ecumenical Council—which was also affirmed at this council.

But whatever the reasons for the Orthodox Church not having designated the Photian Council as the Eighth Council until now, why couldn't this matter be reconsidered in our own time, with prayer and study and courage, which could result in the discernment that perhaps the Holy Spirit is trying to move our Church in this direction, for pastoral and evangelistic and sound ecumenical reasons?

Contemporary efforts in Orthodoxy to have it recognized as the Eighth Ecumenical Council

Here is a partial listing of examples of the fact that many in the Orthodox world are advocating that the Photian Council be officially designated as the Eighth Ecumenical Council:

“In an interview with Interfax-Religion, the head of the Synodal Department for Church-Society Relations and the Mass Media, Vladimir Legoida, gave us an insight into the forthcoming council and its preparation, and also spoke of how it differs from an Ecumenical Council and how the criticism of this forum should be perceived:

First of all, it is important to emphasize that Councils are the norm of Church life and not its distortion. The Seven Ecumenical Councils—the most important assemblies of bishops in the period of ancient of Christianity—have become firmly embedded in our consciousness. However, there were other extremely important councils of Orthodox hierarchs. For example, the Fourth Council of Constantinople, also known as the Council of Hagia Sophia, convoked in 879 under the presidency of Patriarch of Constantinople St. Photios. This Council, among other things, included the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 among the Ecumenical Councils. The decisions of the Council of 879 have become a part of the canon law of the Orthodox Church. Some saints considered this Council to be the Eighth Ecumenical Council. And although there was no later council in Church history which would affirm that this council had such a high status, the importance accorded to the Council of Hagia Sophia has to be taken into account, especially when we look at the fact that people say that the conciliar life of the Orthodox Church ended with the Seven Ecumenical Councils. This is not the case.[49]

From “An Official Recognition of the 8th and 9th Ecumenical Synods”:

A few years ago it was decided by the Church of Greece to begin the process of making the Eighth and Ninth Ecumenical Synods officially recognized, but since that time the issue has dropped. His Eminence Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus, who championed this recognition and presented it to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, has decided to move forward with it in his own Metropolis at the local level. Below is the Statement of His Eminence translated, and below that are the two Encyclicals for each of the two Ecumenical Synods, establishing the celebration of the Sacred Memory of the 383 God-bearing Fathers of the 8th Ecumenical Synod on the Second Sunday of February, and the God-bearing Fathers of the 9th Ecumenical Synod on the Second Sunday of Great Lent.[50]

This same Metr. Seraphim of Piraeus wrote to the Patriarch of Serbia concerning Patr. Irenei's proposal to the primates of the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches to officially recognize the Council of 879-880 in Constantinople as the Eighth Ecumenical Council, and the Palamite Council of 1351 as the Ninth Ecumenical Council: “You have done the work of the Holy Spirit. You have accomplished the work of the living Triune God.”[51]

Fr. John Romanides very strongly advocates for recognizing the Photian Council as the Eighth Ecumenical Council, and the Palamite series of councils as the Ninth Ecumenical Council.[52]

From “Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos of Nafpaktos on the Current Dialogue with Rome”:[53]

During the first millennium, the Orthodox Church had confronted the issue of an honorary recognition of the Pope of Rome. This occurred during the Council in the time of Photios the Great (879-880), which is regarded by many Orthodox as the Eighth Ecumenical Synod. These two kinds of ecclesiology—that is, of Papism and of the Orthodox Church—had been put forth during this Council. Patriarch Photios had acknowledged a primacy of honor for the Pope, but only within the Orthodox ecclesiological framework—i.e., that the Pope has a primacy of honor within the Church, but he cannot be placed above the Church. Therefore, in the discussion pertaining to the primacy of the Pope, the decision of this Council should be seriously taken into account.

Of course, during this Council the matter of the filioque was also discussed, along with the matter of the primacy; therefore when we discuss the matter of primacy today, we should look at it through the prism of honorary primacy, as we should in the case of the filioque (my emphasis).

Also, see Metr. Hierotheos Vlachos, “Photios the Great and the Eighth Ecumenical Synod,” posted at Mystagogia on Feb. 6 through Feb. 19, 2016 (in seven parts).

Also, the prolific modern Orthodox writer Fr. George Metallinos affirms the Photian Council as the Eighth Ecumenical Council.

According to the Orthodoxwiki article entitled “The Eighth Ecumenical Council,”

One of the first references as "Eighth Ecumenical Council" is to be made in the 15th century by St. Mark of Ephesus, who expresses the general theological view of that time in Constantinople during the so-called robber-council in Ferrara-Florence (to be referenced in Pedalion comments for the 879-880 "Synod gathered in Agia Sophia").

Further, the 1848 Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs refers explicitly to the “Eighth Ecumenical Council” regarding the synod of 879-880; and it was signed by the patriarchs of Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria, as well as the Holy Synods of the first three.

Fr. George Dion. Dragas writes in his “The Eighth Ecumenical Council: Constantinople IV (879/880) and the Condemnation of the Filioque, Addition and Doctrine,” posted at Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries on Dec. 28, 2009:

These Councils, including that of Constantinople 879/880, the “Eighth Ecumenical” as it is called in the Tomos Charas (Τόμος Χαρᾶς) of Patriarch Dositheos who first published its proceedings in 1705 and also by Metropolitan Nilus Rhodi whose text is cited in Mansi's edition, have not been enumerated [as being “Ecumenical”] in the East because of Orthodox anticipation of possible healing of the Schism of 1054, which was pursued by the Orthodox up to the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453. There are other obvious reasons that prevented enumeration, most of which relate to the difficult years that the Orthodox Church had to face after the capture of Constantinople and the dissolution of the Roman Empire that supported it.

Michael Prokurat, Bp. Alexander (Golitzin), and Michael D. Peterson write in their Historical Dictionary of the Orthodox Church: “By an agreement that appears to be in place in the Orthodox world, possibly the council held in 879 to vindicate the Patriarch Photios will at some future date be recognized as the eighth council.”[54] And further, “Given the convocation of another ecumenical council, the Orthodox Church would almost certainly recognize the synod of 879 as the Eighth Ecumenical Council.[55]

Dr. David Ford


[1] G. Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State, p. 199; quoted in Bp. Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, revised ed. [1993], p. 52.

[2] “Photios, Patriarch of Constantinople,” in the New Catholic Encyclopedia [1967], vol. 11, p. 327.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Despina S. White, Photios [Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1981], p. 23; also see pp. 72-73.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. pp. 72-73.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The churches in Germany (the Holy Roman Empire) were especially resistant to being subjected under the authority of the Roman bishop, as is very evident from the story of St. Methodios of Pannonia and Moravia (with his brother St. Cyril, they are known as the Apostles to the Slavs).

[11] Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 53.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed., p. 1087.

[15] Ware, p. 54.

[16] Ibid., p. 53.

[17] The Christian Centuries [New York: Paulist Press, 1969], vol. 2, pp. 78-79; my emphasis.

[18] PG 110.1048ff; English translation by Despina S. White and Joseph R. Berrigan, Jr., and entitled The Patriarch and the Prince [Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1982.

[19] Holy Apostles Convent, The Lives of the Pillars of Orthodoxy [Buena Vista, Colo.: Holy Apostles Convent, 1990], p. 66.

[20] English translation by Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Brookline, Mass. (1983), and by Joseph P. Farrell (Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Brookline, Mass., 1987).

[21] Mystagogia, para. 9.

[22] Second ed., p. 1088.

[23] Holy Apostles Convent, p. 64; other excerpts are given on pp. 64-67.

[24] Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1948.

[25] p. 433.

[26] Ware, p. 55.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Dvornik, p. 328.

[29] See A. A. Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire [Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1952], vol. 1, p. 330.

[30] Ibid.

[31] See his Letter 17 in Despina White's book, p. 161.

[32] See Neuner and Dupuis, The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church (New York: Alba House, 1981), p. 232.

[33] Vasiliev, vol. 1, p. 331.

[34] Joseph Hergenrother; quoted by Ibid.

[35] Mansi 17:516C; Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, p. 786.

[36] Translation by Fr. George Dragas, in “The Eighth Ecumenical Council: Constantinople IV (879/880) and the Condemnation of the Filioque, Addition and Doctrine,” posted in English on Dec. 28, 2009, at Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries (

[37] Vasiliev, vol. 1, p. 331.

[38] p. 513.

[39] Vasiliev, vol. 1, pp. 331-332.

[40] Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy (SVS Press, 1977), p. 246.

[41] According to Dvornik, p. 329.

[42] “Commentary on the Fourth Council of Constantinople,” arcane, 2013.

[43]   This canon prohibited the use of “lay investiture,” by which laymen (nobles, dukes, or kings) would appoint priests or bishops to their chapels, churches, abbacies, and bishoprics, instead of allowing the Church to make all such appointments. This was Pope Gregory VII's chief concern during his pontificate.

[44] “The Eighth Ecumenical Council: Constantinople IV (879/880) and the Condemnation of the Filioque, Addition and Doctrine”; Mystagogy website; his emphasis.

[45] Orthodoxy and Catholicity (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1966), pp. 168-169; my emphasis.

[46] Easily and prominently available on the internet at the very popular site

[47] The Photian Schism, p. 432.

[48] p. 513.

[49] Posted on, January 6, 2016, under the title, “Councils are the Norm of Church Life and Not Its Distortion.”

[50] Author's emphasis; posted at John Sanidopoulos’ Mystagogy website on Jan. 15, 2014

[51] In an article entitled “Serbian Church Proposes for the Recognition of the 8th and 9th Ecumenical Synods,” posted at John Sanidopoulos's Mystagogy website on Sept. 30, 2015.

[52] See his “The Myth of Only Seven Ecumenical Councils” and “What are the Criteria for an Ecumenical Council?” at Mystagogy.

[53] Written in 2009; found on Mystagogy.

[54] In the article entitled “Ecumenical Councils; (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1996), pp. 114-115.

[55] In the article entitled “Photios;” Ibid., p. 263.

See also
Fr Touma (Bitar) on the Council of Chalcedon Fr Touma (Bitar) on the Council of Chalcedon Fr Touma (Bitar) on the Council of Chalcedon Dogma and New Life
Fr Touma (Bitar) on the Council of Chalcedon
Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
For us, the ecumenical councils are, generally speaking, occasions for defining the faith, clarifying it, refuting every strange teaching and thus every strange way of life. For us, we receive the faith from those who preceded us and we pass it on to those who follow us.
An Exclusive Creed An Exclusive Creed
Fr. Lawrence Farley
An Exclusive Creed An Exclusive Creed
Fr. Lawrence Farley
Why this insistence on exclusion? The Fathers of Nicea wanted to exclude heresy from the Church for the same reason that a doctor wants to exclude cancer from the body of his patient—because if he includes the cancer in the patient’s body, the result will be the death of the patient. Cancer kills, and so does heresy. Heresy is not simply incorrect opinion, akin to getting a numerical sum wrong. Heresy is stubbornly refusing to accept the truth, in exactly the same way as someone who has been poisoned might stubbornly refuse to accept swallowing the antidote. A person who has been poisoned will die. And the good intentions of the heretic notwithstanding (for who knowingly accepts error?), the person who refuses God’s provided remedy of Christ will also die.
A Comparison: Francis of Assisi and St. Seraphim of Sarov A Comparison: Francis of Assisi and St. Seraphim of Sarov
Mitrophan Lodyzhensky
A Comparison: Francis of Assisi and St. Seraphim of Sarov A Comparison: Francis of Assisi and St. Seraphim of Sarov
Mitrophan Lodyzhensky
In contrast to Francis, St Seraphim did not seek to “feel himself transformed into Jesus” through his prayers and labors. He prayed simply and deeply, repenting of his sins.
Andy Holland1/8/2024 2:15 am
Thank you for a very good article. Where could I find all the canons/acts of the Photian Council? Was it simply the rule that you provided or was there more? Are they only in Greek? Very Truly Yours, Andy Holland
Castrese Tipaldi10/23/2016 11:49 am
I pray to the Lord to remind Her hierarchies that the Church in Her wholeness has already accepted and professes what the Councils of St. Photios the Great and St. Gregory Palamas have spoken, in order for them to issue a formal acknowledgement of this fact, thus disposing once for all of the Papist sirens. This would be a much better use of their time than the continual pollution in the ecumenical charade. Amen!
Ian10/19/2016 5:28 am
Thank you for this illuminating article.
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