"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Fathers Gave Rome the Primacy

Eirenikon reposts a classic article.


jmw said...

In her book The Alexiad, Anna Comnena discusses the papacy. This was written between 1118 and 1153:

…it was the doing of the supreme high priest (the Pope), of him who presided over the whole inhabited world (according to the claims and belief of the Latins – another example of their arrogance). The truth is that when power was transferred from Rome to our country and the Queen of Cities (Constantinople), not to mention the senate and the whole administration, the senior archbishopric was also transferred here. From the beginning the emperors have acknowledged the primacy of the Constantinopolitan bishop, and the Council of Chalcedon especially raised that bishop to the place of highest honour and subordinated to him all the dioceses throughout the world. (Alexiad I.13)

She is referring to the 28th canon of the Council which reads:

Following in all things the decisions of the holy Fathers, and acknowledging the canon, which has been just read, of the One Hundred and Fifty Bishops beloved-of-God (who assembled in the imperial city of Constantinople, which is New Rome, in the time of the Emperor Theodosius of happy memory), we also do enact and decree the same things concerning the privileges of the most holy Church of Constantinople, which is New Rome. For the Fathers rightly granted privileges to the throne of old Rome, because it was the royal city. And the One Hundred and Fifty most religious Bishops, actuated by the same consideration, gave equal privileges (isa presbeia) to the most holy throne of New Rome, justly judging that the city which is honoured with the Sovereignty and the Senate, and enjoys equal privileges with the old imperial Rome, should in ecclesiastical matters also be magnified as she is, and rank next after her; so that, in the Pontic, the Asian, and the Thracian dioceses, the metropolitans only and such bishops also of the Dioceses aforesaid as are among the barbarians, should be ordained by the aforesaid most holy throne of the most holy Church of Constantinople; every metropolitan of the aforesaid dioceses, together with the bishops of his province, ordaining his own provincial bishops, as has been declared by the divine canons; but that, as has been above said, the metropolitans of the aforesaid Dioceses should be ordained by the archbishop of Constantinople, after the proper elections have been held according to custom and have been reported to him.

Bryan Cross said...


What distinguishes an Ecumenical Council from a non-Ecumenical Council, if not the formal approval of the bishop of Rome? And if so, then why do you think canon 28 was valid if the Robbers council (449) was invalid?

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Iohannes said...


An Eastern Catholic posted these comments (among many others) at the Touchstone blog last fall. I would be interested to know your reaction to them:

[1st quotation]

As I noted, Protestants seem to have a problem with the very notion of "primacy", let alone with specific ways in which it is exercised. But to have conciliarity, one must also have primacy. Neither can stand by itself. Primacy without conciliarity is despotism; conciliarity without primacy is anarchy. At the Eucharistic table, there is always a presider. At the a council, there is always a presider as well.

At the Jerusalem Council, James in fact held the primacy; he was head of the Mother Church, and he was the one who made the ultimate decision, "Therefore, I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God" (Acts 15:19). Note that James does not have any jurisdictonal authority over anyone, but he still has and exercises primacy. He presides. He gets the last word. And people LISTEN to what he has to say, because he wields auctoritas as head of the Mother Church (to say nothing of Brother of the Lord). The Council then votes, and UNANIMOUSLY agrees to follow the words of James, not because has any juridical power over them, but because as the one with the primacy, his words are given great weight and are considered very seriously. They seek unanimity, because unanimity is a mark of the presence of the Holy Spirit, a sign that their teaching is true.

The Jerusalem Church was caught up in the destruction of that city in AD 70, and never recovered its position. But before the end of the first century, Rome had taken its place as the "Church with priority", or, as St. Ignatios of Antioch put it, "The Church that presides in love".

The first century Roman Church did not have any juridical authority over any other Church--attempts to impose that authority retrospectively are anacrhonistic. But because it was a Church noted for its wealth, its position in the center of the Empire, its numerous martyrs and its foundation by not one but two Apostles, Rome already had immense prestige and moral authority, to the point that other Churches were already asking for guidance from Rome and sending their ecclesiastical disputes there for resolution (First Epistle to Clement).

In subsequent centuries, the position of Rome as holding the primacy was reaffirmed by two Ecumenical Councils. These did so on the basis of the principal of accommodation; i.e., that ecclesiastical structures should parallel civil structures. Rome was the capital of the Empire; Rome has priority within the Church. As the political center of gravity moved from Rome, first to Milan then to Constantinople, the Church of Rome began asserting its primacy on the basis of apostolicity--it was founded by Peter and Paul, whereas other Churches had just one apostolic founder. Later still, Paul got pushed into the background, and Rome's claim to primacy was made on the basis of Matt 16:18-- a claim resisted not only in the East, but by the Church of Africa and the Church in Gaul as well.

No matter, though, because throughout the first millennium, it was universally recognized that Rome did indeed possess primacy within a pentarchy of patriarchical Churhes (Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem). Rome had very limited juridical authority--its direct jurisdiction extended only over Rome, the suburbicanian dioceses, and the islands of Corsica and Sardinia. But Rome's moral authority was unchallenged. Ecclesiastical disputes could be appealed to Rome. And Rome's opinion and approval on any issue was eagerly sought. If Rome did not approve, then any teaching or action was considered suspect at best. Not because the Pope was infallible, but because, more often than not, Rome turned out to be on the side of orthodoxy (which may have been due to Rome's extreme theological conservatism and the fact that, as something of an intellectual backwater, it stood aloof from the great controversies of the day.

Throughout the first millennium, Rome constantly tried to impose its own self-image on the rest of the Church, which the rest of the Church usually resisted with success. Rome understood the Petrine ministry to be above all one of unity and of strengthening the brethren in faith. It was not willing to risk unity for the sake of its own prerogatives. It is a tragedy that, over time, the East and West became intellectually and emotionally separated from each other, so that neither knew the mind of the other any longer. With the advent of the German popes in the 11th century, who were utterly unfamiliar with the East and totally absorbed in their own struggle to revitalize the decadent Roman Church, that dedication to unity was pushed into the background--or rather, took on a new form in the idea of submission TO Rome, rather than communion WITH Rome.

That concept was cemented through the Middle Ages and the Reformation, but the Second Vatican Council opened a new window of opportunity by attempting, at least partially, to roll back the clock to a time when the Catholic Church was a communion of Churches. There are still problems with the Roman conception of Church, but then there are problems, too, with the Orthodox conception of Church--and of the Protestant conception of Church it is difficult to speak in the same breath either the Catholic or Orthodox models. But all should be agreed that the first century provides us with a working paradigm of Church unity--a unity that was imperfect but which was maintained for more than 1000 years. And it was a unity based on a balance of conciliarity and primacy.

As I have repeatedly urged, everyone should defer to the one with primacy and do nothing unusual without his consent; but that he who had the primacy should do nothing extraordinary without the advice and consent of all.

Consider that nowhere today is the spirit of this canon followed, Certainly we do not see it in the Orthodox Church, where the heads of various autocephalous Churches constantly take unilateral actions affecting other Churches. We do not see it in the Catholic Church, where the wishes of the Church of Rome are habitually imposed on other Churches without their consent or even consultation. And above all, we do not see it in the Protestant communities, which do not seem to acknowledge the concept of primacy at all, and thus are reduced to finding truth through plebicite.

Consider, if Canon 34 were followed by the Anglican communion. Certainly then, the Archbishop of Canterbury would be considered to have primacy within that communion, and all would defer to his opinion. That means the ECUSA would never have deigned to ordain a divorced, practicing homosexual man to the episcopate of its own willfulness. Conversely, the Archbishop of Canterbury would never attempt to impose his will unilaterally upon other churches in the communion without first consulting with all the churches.

Instead, we have neither primacy nor conciliarity, but anarchy.

We can say much the same of other Protestant communities, including the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Baptists, the Congregationalists--and down the line. With neither conciliarity nor primacy, each community is pulled into every smaller pieces, and in the process each loses its connection to the apostolic Church.

The time is coming, very shortly, when either the need for primacy will be recognized, or the entire Body of Christ will be reduced to a squabbling bunch of disparate denominations unable to present a common faith and a united face to an increasingly hostile world.

Either hang together, or hang separately.

[2nd quotation]

Unless you know the jargon, you can walk away from a statement with the wrong impression. Roman Catholic apologists often do this when they cite the acclamation of the Council of Chalcedon, "Peter has spoken through Leo!", not realizing that this was just pro forma for the day--there are countless other acclamations in which Peter, or the Apostles, or even Christ himself have spoken through this guy or that (often the God-beloved Emperor). So, if you want to prove something that way, you're out of luck.

In the case of Roman Catholic ecclesiastical pronunciations of the pre-conciliar era, they're full of highfalutin' rhetoric that sounds awesome (especially in Latin) but means a lot less than you think. Anathemas were passed on everything (possibly including which way the toilet paper is put on the roller), but you have to understand one important principle of Roman Catholic theology:

A doctrine can only be interpreted through the understanding of the Church.

Which is a fancy way of saying, "It means what we say it means at this particular time and place". It can mean something else in a different situation. The Church rightly refuses to be tied down to temporally conditioned expressions of doctrine that may, at some time, be misconstrued because of the variability of language.

You may not like it, in your search for theological "precision", but the fact is, if at some point the mind of the Catholic Church determines that Pastor Aeternus must be interpreted in a much less literal manner, THAT is the proper interpretation of Pastor Aeternus.

jmw said...

I am not offering my opinion of canon 28, but Anna Commena's opinion.

Had Rome been overrun by Muslims like Constantinople was, we would probably see things quite differently.

Iohannes said...

Hi Bryan,

I imagine you are busy, but if you can find some free time, I would still enjoy learning your thoughts on the quotations.

Also, my copy of Schatz's book has arrived. It is short and should not take long to finish. When done, I would be glad to mail it to you. Please sent a note if you are interested to jma8cv (at) gmail (dot) com.

God bless.

Bryan Cross said...

Hello Iohannes,

Sorry for not interacting much lately. I'm under a pretty tight writing schedule at the moment this week and next week. Thanks for the offer of Schatz. I have a copy of it on my desk. I'll get to it when I can.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Bryan Cross said...


I think the comments are not worth much because they are poorly argued. The person making the arguments merely asserts his premises. He asserts that James had the primacy initially. He asserts that the Church at Rome had no juridical authority in the first century. Assertions are easy. He asserts that the primacy of Rome was based on its wealth, not on the keys being given to Peter. I'm not sure what you want me to do with a a string of assertions. I prefer to interact with evidence and arguments. I think the evidence shows that the early Christians recognized the primacy of the Church at Rome *not* because Rome was wealthy and the capital of the empire, but because the two greatest Apostles died there, and because Peter's seat was there.

Also, in the second quotation you list, it seems to me that the writer doesn't understand both the hermeneutic of continuity and the Catholic understanding of development of doctrine.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Iohannes said...


Thanks for the reply. I hope you are doing well.

I think you might be setting the bar a little high for the commenter. He probably didn't intend to make a full blown argument. Any way, I was only interested in how your perspective relates to his, and I appreciate your answer.

On the topic of evidence and arguments, have you had a chance to read Schatz? He has an excellent grasp of the historical record, and is keen to stress the importance of proper theological-historical hermeneutics.

God bless.