Volume III - Church History

Ninth Century

Saint Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople

Saint Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople

In Constantinople there were two parties struggling for power in both ecclesiastical and civil affairs—the so-called zealots or conservatives, and the moderates. In 858, in an effort to provide a leader capable of restoring peace to the Church, Photius was elected to be the new patriarch, succeeding Ignatius, who had been unjustly deposed. As the brilliant, popular, highly distinguished professor of philosophy at the University in Constantinople, Photius was an excellent choice, even though he was still a layman. He was ordained and quickly elevated to the patriarchal office.

The extremists of the so-called conservative party were not satisfied. They appealed to the Church of Rome, using the good name of the former patriarch Ignatius—who had accepted his forced retirement for the good of the Church—against Photius and the imperial government which confirmed his election. Pope Nicholas I proceeded to seize this opportunity to interfere in the affairs of the Church of Constantinople, in order to try to demonstrate that the Papacy had legitimate authority over the Eastern Churches as well as the Church in the West. To make this point, he decided to try to have Ignatius restored as patriarch of Constantinople.

In 861 a council was held in Constantinople to resolve the dispute. With the papal legates who presided over the council in full agreement, this council decided that Photius was indeed the rightful patriarch. However, when the legates returned to Rome, Pope Nicholas rejected their decision, since it was not the result that he desired. He held a council in Rome in 863, which presumed to have Photius deposed—along with all the clergy he had ordained in the preceding five years!—and Ignatius was proclaimed as the legitimate patriarch of Constantinople. As proof that the Papacy really had no legitimate authority over the Eastern Churches, the decrees of this council were ignored throughout the East. Patriarch Photius did not even deign to give Pope Nicholas a reply.

Four years later, in 867, Photius finally responded by calling a major council of five hundred bishops meeting in Constantinople. This council condemned Pope Nicholas and declared him to be deposed for interfering in the internal affairs of the Church of Constantinople—and also for interfering in the affairs of the new Bulgarian Church. This council also made the first official condemnation by the Eastern Church of the addition of the filioque to the Nicene Creed.

Later in 867, Basil I the Macedonian (r. 867–886) usurped the throne from Emperor Michael III, who was assassinated. In order to win the support of Rome for this usurpation, Basil reinstated Ignatius as patriarch, which did indeed heal the breach between Rome and Constantinople that had existed since 863. And in 869–870 a council was held in Constantinople, known as the Ignatian Council, which affirmed Ignatius as patriarch and condemned Photius, who was sent into exile. However, Pope Hadrian (r. 867–872) was not entirely pleased with this council, because it refused to give the Bulgarian Church over to the authority of Rome.

By 873, Emperor Basil no longer felt such a need for the approval of Rome, and his favor was turning to the moderates in Constantinople. So Photius was brought out of exile, and was made the tutor for the emperor’s two sons. Photius and Ignatius became reconciled, to such an extent that before Ignatius died in 877, he stipulated that he wanted Photius to succeed him as patriarch. So in that year Photius returned to the patriarchal throne, and soon led the effort by which Patriarch Ignatius was glorified as a saint.

In 879 a huge council, known as the Photian Council, took place in Constantinople. Once again papal legates were in attendance, and again they agreed with the council’s decisions. The council affirmed Photius as the legitimate patriarch, nullifying the decisions of the previous councils of 863 in Rome and 869–870 in Constantinople. It also reaffirmed Rome’s position as the first among equals among the great patriarchates, but without having jurisdictional authority over the East. The Nicene Creed without the filioque was affirmed, and the Council of Nicea of 787 was officially recognized as the Seventh Ecumenical Council.

Pope John VIII (r. 872–882) was not pleased with this council’s decisions, but for the sake of peace in the Church he accepted them. For nearly two centuries this council was considered by Rome to be the Eighth Ecumenical Council.

Photius was officially canonized a saint by the Orthodox Church in the tenth century. She honors him with exceptional regard as Saint Photius the Great, one of the Three Pillars of Orthodoxy (along with Saint Gregory Palamas and Saint Mark of Ephesus). He was a man of many talents. An excellent diplomat in political affairs, he was also a great theologian who wrote extensively. His powerful critique of the filioque, the improper and theologically erroneous addition to the Nicene Creed, has remained the basic Orthodox refutation of this innovation ever since. He was a compiler and reviewer of both classical and patristic writings. As a brilliant scholar and professor as well as a leading churchman, he dominated the cultural flowering in Byzantium in the years after the restoration of the icons in 843. And we recall that he also guided the mission to the Slavs by sending Saints Cyril and Methodius to Moravia in 863.

In relations with the West, Saint Photius defended the authentic Church Tradition in confrontation with the exaggerated claims and unwarranted interference of Pope Nicholas, while ultimately preserving unity with the Roman Church and Pope John VIII. However, he will long be remembered disparagingly in the West for his stubborn resistance to Papal claims. The break in relations between the Western and Eastern Churches from 863 to 867, initiated by the Council of Rome which condemned him, is still known in the West as the “Photian Schism”—i.e., blaming Photius for the schism. Only in the last half century or so has he been acknowledged at least by some in the West as a great bishop with personal humility and wisdom. He was one of the greatest bishops in Christian history.