St. Theodore the Studite (759-826) : Eastern Orthodox Saint and Papal Infallibility

St._Theodore_Studite,_west_wall_of_naos

St Theodore the Studite

Are the frequent appeals to Rome from St. Theodore the Studite regarding the Iconoclastic controversy merely indicative of a pragmatic and opportunistic motive? Is it the case that Theodore really had no sense of attributing Papal supremacy, nor infallibility, and was just speaking with flowery language, excessive rhetoric, and literary devices in order to give an allegorical or symbolic sense of primacy?

To answer this question, we must investigate what  Theodore understood about the position of St. Peter among the Apostles, the Bishop of Rome among the Church, and particularly the Patriarch of Rome among the other Patriarchs.                                                                                                                                                                                                                     For Theodore, the apostle Peter was the Koryphaios (chief/head) of the Apostles. This title is not merely meant to convey a primacy of honor, otherwise popularly known as primus inter pares. Theodore makes use of Matthew 16:18-20, John 21:15-18, and Luke 22:31-32 to describe Peter’s relationship with the Church. For example, in a letter to the Byzantine Emperor, Michael II, Theodore urges him to believe in the exposition of faith held by the Roman Church, and gives a reason for it:

“…for it is the chief Church, since Peter, who held the first place (was its bishop), to whom was said, ‘Thou art Peter and upon this Rock I will build My Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it'”. (Ep. 11.86; PG 99.1332 B)

In a letter representative letter of many higoumeni (heads of Monasteries),  Theodore wrote the following to the Iconoclast Synod of 815:

“We are established securely on that See of which Christ said, ‘Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it'” (Ep II.1; PG 99, 1117B)

In a letter to Pope Leo III, he writes:

Since it is to the great Peter that Christ our God gave the keys of the kingdom of heaven and entrusted the dignity of chief of the flock , it is to Peter, that is to say, his successor, that one ought to submit every innovation which is made in the Catholic Church by those who turn aside from the truth. That is what we humble and lowly monks have learnt from the ancient fathers… There has been held, o Ruler divine of all rulers, a synod of prevaricators, as says the prophet Jeremiah, a council of adulterers…..For if they, usurping an authority which does not belong to them, have dared to convene a heretical council, while those who, following ancient custom, have not even the right of convoking an orthodox one without your knowledge, it seems absolutely necessary, we dare to say it to you, that your divine primacy should call together a lawful council, so that the Catholic dogma may drive away heresy and that neither your primacy may be anathematized with all the orthodox by these new voices without authority, nor that wills evilly disposed may find in this adulterous council an excuse for being involved in sin. It is in order to obey your divine authority as chief pastor that we have set forth these things as it befitted our nothingness” (Patrologia Graeca 99, 1017 – Epistle 1)

It is very clear that Theodore understood the Petrine passages of Scripture to apply to Peter’s jurisdictional authority, and that this passed on through a successive line in the Archepiscopal Chair of the Church of Rome.  Just observe how he refers back to antiquity to the present, as if the primacy of the Pope were the final authority on matters of doctrine. It is not wonder, therefore, that in another letter to a certain Byzantine official named Leo, Theodore states that the Emperor could hold a Council on the following conditions:

“…if he wished him [i.e. the Pope] from the West to be present to whom is referred the power of an ecumenical council…But if the Emperor holds that Nicephorus has fallen away from the truth, let him send to Rome and from there let him receive the guarantee of the faith” (PG 99.1420 A-B)

Again, from the letter already cited to the Iconoclast synod of 815, we read more about the connection between Christ, Peter, and the See of Rome:

We venerate images….not because we are assured that we are right by the second holy synod of Nicaea or by that which earlier decided divinely, but from the very coming of our lord and God in writing and without writing we have been made firm and rest securely upon that [Roman] See to which Christ say – you are Peter , and upon this rock I will build my church , and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (PG 99, 1117)

In a letter to Pope Paschal, this is repeated:

“…the rock of faith on which is built the Catholic Church, for you are Peter, who adorn and govern the See of Peter” (Ep II.12, PG 99, 1152 C)

In a second letter to the same:

You, therefore, are the untroubled and sincere well of orthodoxy from the beginning; you are the untroubled inland haven of the whole Church from every heretical storm; you are the God-chosen city of refute for salvation” (Ep 11.18, PG 99, 1156 A-B)

This here is startling. Theodore insists that Rome was orthodox “from the beginning“.

In a letter to Naucratius, Theodore describes Rome as the :

“...leading See, where Christ has placed the keys of faith, against which (i.e. faith) the gates of hell have not prevailed from the beginning nor will they prevail to the end, that is to say, the mouths of heretics; as He has promised who does not lie” (Ep II.63, PG 99, 1281 A)

This is nothing less than the teaching that the teaching ministry of Rome is infallible and indefectible. It perfectly parallels what is said by the 1st Vatican Council (1870) in Session IV:

Indeed, their [i.e. Popes] apostolic teaching was embraced by all the venerable fathers and reverenced and followed by all the holy orthodox doctors, for they knew very well that this See of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Savior to the prince of his disciples: I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren

Now, some Byzantine historians have pointed out that such Papal-apologetical quote-mining, such as the above, is a misrepresentation of the facts. For example, Dr. A. Ed. Siecienski says the following in his Papacy and the Orthodox:

Among the most effusive in his praise of Rome was Theodore the Studite (d. 826)…Theodore addressed them in the most flattering terms as ‘O most divine Head of heads. Chief Shepherd of the Church of Heaven,’ ‘Keybearer of the Kingdom of heaven. Rock of faith upon whom the Catholic Church is built. For Peter thou art, who adorns and governs the Chair of Peter.’ For Theodore the iconoclasts had ‘torn themselves away from the body of Christ, from the Supreme See in which Christ placed the keys of faith, against which the gates of Hell, by which I mean the mouth of heretics, have not prevailed and never will until the Consummation‘. Like Maximus before him, Theodore’s praise of Rome was a reflection of his need to enlist its support and the ‘glow of gratitude’ he felt once he received it. To forget this context, and read Theodore as an advocate of a monarchical papacy is to grossly distort his intent. In fact, alongside his occasional rhetorical excess vis-a-vis Rome Theodore continued to embrace the pentarchical ideal referring to the ‘five-headed body of the Church’. It is to them [the pentarchic authority in the Church] that all decisions belongs in divine dogmas.” (Pages 218-219)

In the first place, I’m not sure why Siecienski feels that the most likely option for Theodore’s terminology is superficial and excessive rhetoric and flattery. Why could it not be that he really meant what he said? Since flattery and superficial ‘buttering up’ can be a near occasion of deceit, it would be more fitting to assume that a Saint such as Theodore means ‘yes’ when he says yes and ‘no’ when he says no, and thus take him literally at his word. Besides, we have countless examples of Saints giving such terms to the authority and infallibility of Sacred Scripture, which was more often than not consulted in order to teach orthodoxy doctrine and falsify heterodox doctrine. Are we to suggest that using similar terms for the absolute indefectibility of Scripture is just excessive flattery not meant to be taken literally since all we are doing is trying to extract the need of truth from it? That would be nonsense. It seems, though, that if a Byzantine theologian addresses the Pope with such terminology in order to resolve a doctrinal or disciplinary conflict, it could only mean he is buttering Rome up to try and make the effort worthwhile. It is also more unlikely that flattery can explain the letter exchanges between Theodore and his Eastern counterparts. I can’t think of a worse strategy than to cite some Micky Mouse story about Peter and his successors being the supreme arbiters on faith and doctrine to fellow Easterners who are already critical about Rome. What motive would there be to speak in such non-literal fluff in that context? I think it gets worse. If we tried the same tactic on Ecumenical Councils, then we are left with arguing that Councils have no real authority either. What I mean is that you can cite this or that Saint of both Eastern and Western patrimony which speaks with very flowery terms about the need for the authority of Councils in order to resolve doctrinal disputes. But what if someone were to say all that superficial language was merely there just because they were going to use a Council to end a dispute in a pragmatic sense. Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox would not be attracted to that alternative interpretation, and rightly so. But why is it the likely interpretation when it comes to Papal claims?

But what about Siecienski’s comments on Theodore’s view of the Pentarchy? In fact, in one letter to Leo the Sacellarius , he writes:

The right to judge [worldly affairs] rests with the Emperor and the secular tribunal. But here [in our discussion] it is a question of divine and heavenly decisions and those are reserved only to Him to whom the Word of God has said: ‘ Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven’ (Matthew 16:19). And who are the men to whom this order was given? The apostles and their successors. And who are their successors? He who occupies the throne of Rome and is the First; the one who sits upon the throne of Constantinople and is the second; after the, those of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. That is the Pentarchic authority in the Church. It is to them who all decision belong in divine dogmas. The Emperor and the secular authority have the duty to aid them and to confirm what they have decided” (PG 99, 1417C, Letter 129; taken from Byzantium and the Roman Primacy by Francis Dvorink, pg. 101)

Here, the prerogative of Apostolic Succession, undoubtedly descending to all Bishops, is particularly unique to the Pentarchic Head(s) of the universal Church. Theodore understands these 5-Heads to be the tribunal on matters related to “heavenly” and “divine” decisions (i.e. doctrine, discipline, canons, council, etc,etc), in contradistinction to the secular authority of the Roman Emperor, to whom was given special oversight over the secular realm in aid to the Church. One could argue, therefore, that since Theodore sees the Church governed by 5-heads, he was a Pentarchist instead of a Papalist, and with this, a 5-fold equality between the Patriarchs. However, there are good reasons to reject this interpretation. In the first place, Theodore is contrasting the realm of Church authority versus Imperial authority, and no so much contrasting the authority of Rome or Constantinople with each other, the other Patriarchs, and the universal Church. In his time, the 5-heads was a reference to the signification of the Church universal, since it encompassed all jurisdictions, all metropolitans, bishops, priests, and faithful under the sun. However, if Theodore wants to speak directly to the unique status of Rome among the 5-heads, he would say what we have seen above, which is nothing less than the divine and immediate universal jurisdiction of the Pope and doctrinal indefectibility. The 5-heads represent the oikumene, or the whole Church, and so a reference to them would be a fitting description of what stands in contrast to the subject of Imperial authority. The lead Pastors of the whole Church, the 5 Patriarchates, are the realm to which divine and heavenly decisions pertain , not in the Imperial court of Constantinople. I believe Fr. Francis Dvornik summarized this context herein:

“The idea of the Pentarachy has often been considered as being very dangerous for the Roman Primacy and in direct opposition to it, but this opinion is surely exaggerated. We must understand the problem from the Byzantine point of view. The Pentarchic idea was an expression of the universality of the Church. This universality was no longer represented by the universality of the Empire, which at this period was considerably reduced by the loss of the Eastern provinces. Besides, the idea that the teaching of our Lord should be defined and explained by the five patriarchs, each of them representing the bishops of his patriarchate, was aimed at safeguarding the rights of the Sacerdotium which the Imperium should never infringe. From this point of view the Pentarchic idea represented great progress in the contest which the Sacerdotium had carried on for so long against the Imperium, since the latter continued to misunderstand the true spirit of Christian Hellenism and sought to usurp the rights of the Sacerdotium in matters of doctrine…..We should also recognize that the Pentarchic idea did not at all suppose absolute equality among the Patriarchs. The see of the ancient city of Rome was considered the first. This is always made sufficiently clear by those who remained faithfully attached to the principle [of the pentarchy]. We may cite , for example, the Patriarch Nicephorus who, speaking of the condemnation of the Iconoclasts by the seventh Ecumenical Council, added: ‘that the Iconoclasts have been rejected by the Catholic Church we know from the wise testimony and from the confirmation in the letters which were, a short time ago, sent by the most holy and Archbishop of Ancient Rome, that is to say the first Apostolic See.'” (ibid, pg. 103-104)

That last sentence there is sounds just like what Theodore said atop on the base reason for why the Catholic Church is assured of the legality of venerating images. Not so much the 2nd Council of Nicaea, but because of the confirmation which came through the Apostolic See. In any case, the Pentarchy or 5-heads did not entail a 5-fold equality between the Patriarchs.

In conclusions, we must, I argue, take seriously the comments made by Theodore on the prerogatives of the Roman See, for otherwise we will be insincerely discounting credit to the Papal claims where they are due.

[citations to the Greek of PG and their English translations have been taken from Patrick O’Connell, S.J.’s work in the Orientalia Christiana Anlecta N. 194, “The Ecclesiology of St. Nicephorus I”, particularly on the section covering St. Theodore the Studite]

5 thoughts on “St. Theodore the Studite (759-826) : Eastern Orthodox Saint and Papal Infallibility

  1. “Since flattery and superficial ‘buttering up’ can be a near occasion of deceit, it would be more fitting to assume that a Saint such as Theodore means ‘yes’ when he says yes and ‘no’ when he says no, and thus take him literally at his word. Besides, we have countless examples of Saints giving such terms to the authority and infallibility of Sacred Scripture, which was more often than not consulted in order to teach orthodoxy doctrine and falsify heterodox doctrine. Are we to suggest that using similar terms for the absolute indefectibility of Scripture is just excessive flattery not meant to be taken literally since all we are doing is trying to extract the need of truth from it?”

    This is probably the most elegant rebuttal to the constant claims I hear that every mention of the Pope’s headship in the early church is just flowery language. It also makes much more sense of the given data.

    • Greg M,

      Thank you. I’ve picked it up from others along the way.

      I’ve also added this into the article on that very line:

      “It is also more unlikely that flattery can explain the letter exchanges between Theodore and his Eastern counterparts. I can’t think of a worse strategy than to cite some Micky Mouse story about Peter and his successors being the supreme arbiters on faith and doctrine to fellow Easterners who are already critical about Rome. What motive would there be to speak in such non-literal fluff in that context? I think it gets worse. If we tried the same tactic on Ecumenical Councils, then we are left with arguing that Councils have no real authority either. What I mean is that you can cite this or that Saint of both Eastern and Western patrimony which speaks with very flowery terms about the need for the authority of Councils in order to resolve doctrinal disputes. But what if someone were to say all that superficial language was merely there just because they were going to use a Council to end a dispute in a pragmatic sense. Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox would not be attracted to that alternative interpretation, and rightly so. But why is it the likely interpretation when it comes to Papal claims? “

  2. Pingback: The Papacy in History – Fr. Alexander Schmemann | Erick Ybarra

  3. Hi Erick
    I’m so happy to write to you .. My name is Jo.. I’m Maronite from Egypt and a humble catholic apologist (35 years old).. I’m the admin of the most famous catholic page in Egypt (in arabic of course) …But I created a group in English on Facebook called “Resources for catholic apologetics”.. It contains of catholic links (including your amazing site) and very rare catholic books on archive.org.. I will be honored if you join it …

    I found this amazing rare book and i’m sending you its link

    S. Peter, Bishop of Rome, or, The Roman episcopate of the Prince of the Apostles : proved from the Fathers, history, and archaeology, and illustrated by arguments from other sources.
    by Livius, Thomas Stiverd,
    Dedicated to His Eminence Cardinal Newman

    https://archive.org/download/stpeterbishop00liviuoft/stpeterbishop00liviuoft.pdf

    In Christ
    Jo HECHEMA

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s