Photius & Papacy: A Glimpse (A.D. 879-80)


A quick look at the 9th century Orthodox confrontation with Papal supremacy.

Just before the Synod of Constantinople 879-80, Pope John VIII had written a letter to Emperor Basil I concerning the re-instating of Photius upon the death of St. Ignatius, who occupied the episcopal throne prior to. Photius had actually been reconciled to St. Ignatius, and actually canonized him after his death. This letter from John VIII contained clear indication of some of the basic elements of the definitions @ Vatican 1 on the founding and prerogatives of Papal power, and that in both Latin & Greek versions. Here is the passage I am referring to:

“Since it has seemed desirable to us to bring peace to the Church of God, we have sent our legates so that they might execute our will, even though, in your charity, you have already anticipated us, in reinstating Photius. We accept this action, which was done not by our own authority, even though we have the power to do it, but in obedience to the apostolic teachings. Since in fact we have received the keys of the kingdom of heaven from the High Priest, Jesus Christ, by the intermediary of the First of the Apostles to whom the Lord said: ‘I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; everything which you will bind upon earth will be found to be bound in heaven and everything which you will loose upon earth, will be found to be loosed in heaven’; therefore this apostolic throne [Roman bishop] has the power to bind and loose, and this according to the words of Jeremiah, to uproot and to plant. This is why, by the authority of Peter, the prince of the Apostles, we announce to you in union with the whole Church and through you as intermediary, we announce to our dear confreres and concelebrants, the patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem and to the other bishops and priests and to all the Church of Constantinople, that we are in agreement with you, or rather in agreement with God, and that we consent to your reques…Accept this man without any hesitation” (Mansi 17, 400)

The Greek version of this part of John’s letter was retained, and it shows us that Constantinople knew of the Papal claims to universal jurisdiction by year 9th century. Now, you will notice the reference to the Jeremiah passage (1:10) by the words “to uproot and to plant”. This allusion was actually used by Pope Nicholas I to describe the Imperial power of the Emperor Michael [predecessor to Basil]. So it is most probable that both Photius and Basil knew that this language of uprooting and planting was referring to jurisdiction-power.

Photius not only understood the claims of Rome then, but he seems to have accepted it, however much insincere it was (if it was). He writes in a letter to John the following:

“we may well ask who is the master who has taught you to act in this fashion? – surely, above all, it is Peter, the leaders of the Apostles whom the Lord has placed at the head of all the churches, when he said to him ‘Feed My sheep’. Nor is it only Peter, but also the holy synods and constitutions. And besides, it was the holy and orthodox decrees established by the fathers, as is clear from your divine and holy letters” (Mansi 17, 396 D; MGH , Epp VII, 167)

6 thoughts on “Photius & Papacy: A Glimpse (A.D. 879-80)

  1. A “glimpse” (cf Title) won’t prove much. However, it should be an introduction to how Latins and Byzantines respectively understood Councils and their content. It is obvious what Rome meant by its claim to supreme jurisdiction. What did Constantinople think about it? That’s a tricky question, and one which has different answers down through the centuries up unto the schism.

  2. Pingback: Pope St. Nicholas the Great (858-867 AD): Letter to Archbishop Hincmar of Reims and the Bishops of the West concerning Photius | Erick Ybarra's Registry of Apologetics

  3. Pingback: Inquirer into Eastern Orthodoxy: A Catholic Guideline | Erick Ybarra – Credo Ut Intelligam

  4. Pingback: Investigação sobre a ortodoxia oriental: um guia católico – Apologistas da Fé Católica

  5. Hey,

    I am a PhD student of Orthodox Theology. This year I started with my doctoral studies and the topic (which is not yet defined) is about Pope Nicholas I and his conception of the papal primacy. At this moment I’m collectnig literature. Whether there is a possibility to possess the full translation of the epistles?

    I wish You a blessed Easter!

    In Christ,

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