I believe we have an instance in the 5th-century where a reigning Pope of Rome exercised something like an immediate jurisdiction over the Eastern See of Constantinople, and, by extension, even over the Council of Ephesus (431). The background begins with a newly ordained Bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, who would go on to espouse the heresy which has it that there are two persons in Christ Jesus, the Human and Divine. He rejected the term “theotokos” (Mother of God) because he thought it violated the human status of the Savior, as well as deify the Virgin Mary. How could anyone beget God unless they, too, are God? This heresy of Nestorius was promulgated through his sermons, and the Pope of Rome, St. Celestine, received word on this. Choosing to work with the 2nd See of Christendom, St. Celestine chose to interact in exchanges with the Bishop of Alexandria, St. Cyril, on the brewing heresy in Constantinople’s new Bishop. The heresy of Nestorius reached a high-water mark around April of 430, and this caused St. Cyril to write a sober letter to the Pope requesting some sort of corrective action. That letter reads as follows:
“Cyril sends greetings…It would be more agreeable if we could keep silence, but God demands of us vigilance, and ancient church custom requires me to inform your holiness…I have hitherto observed a profound silence….I was unwilling openly to sever communion with him until I had laid these facts before you. Deign therefore to decide what seems right, whether we ought to communicate at all with him, or to tell him plainly that no one communicates with a person who holds and teaches what he does. Further, the purpose of your holiness ought to be made known by letter to the most religious and God-loving Bishops of Macedonia, and to all Bishops of the East, for we shall then give them, according to their desire, the opportunity of standing together in unity of soul and mind, and lead them to contend earnestly for the orthodox faith which is being attacked” (St. Cyril to Pope St. Celestine, PL 77.80)
Notice that St. Cyril felt obliged to inform the Pope by the ancient custom of the Church. This is a Bishop of the pre-eminent See of Alexandria (First of the East) who is accusing another Bishop of an Eastern See (Constantinople) with heresy, and he senses the obligation to inform the Western Bishop of Rome. That right there is striking. One might ask, if St. Cyril is writing in 430, what precedent could there have been prior to this point that would motivate him to refer to this on the principle of “ancient” church custom? What precisely is this ancient thing, and what makes it ancient by St. Cyril’s time? Well, he may have known about the Pelagian controversy which received a final judgment from Pope St. Innocent I. There is the situation of Athanasius and other Eastern Bishops who were restored to their Sees by Pope St. Julius, effectively overturning the Eastern provincial synod of Tyre (335). Then there is the Council of Sardica (343) which put into canonical form the process of appeals to the Peter’s See, where condemned bishops could have their case retried (merely stamping what the Pope did with St Athanasius). I am sure there are many elements to this, but I mention these to give a bit of background as to what may have been in St. Cyril’s mind. However, I will say this, this letter from St. Cyril to the Pope is anything but following the famous three canons of Sardica which spell out the manner of appeals to the Bishop of Rome in Episcopal trials. If one reads those canons, they stipulate that a sentence has already been passed upon a Bishop, and that the accused and condemned may, if he deem his case to be good enough, can petition to the See of Rome to have the matter re-opened. In our context here, the accused, Nestorius, is not the one writing to Rome, nor has there been a sentence passed against him. It will not, therefore, suffice to appeal to the Sardican canons to explain what St Cyril means here by “ancient custom”, for the very thing he is doing is outside of the strict Sardican parameters. In any case, it seems well established by his time that Rome is the final arbiter on any and all disciplinary and even doctrinal cases, and he simply felt the obligation to act accordingly.
Upon receiving this letter, the Pope convened a Synod in Rome to discuss the case of Nestorius. At the close of this Synod, Pope St. Celestine writes to St Cyril with the following:
“If he, Nestorius, persists, an open sentence must be passed on him…and so, appropriating to yourself the authority of our See, and using our position, you shall with resolute severity carry out this sentence, that either he shall within ten days, counted from the day of your notice, condemn in writing this wicked assertion of his….or if he will not do this he will know that he is in every way removed from our body….We have written the same to our brothers and fellow Bishops John, Rufus, Juvenal, and Flavian, so our judgment about him, or rather the divine sentence of our Christ, may be known”
(PL L.466ff; English taken from Creeds Councils, and Controversies: Documents Illustrative of the History of the Church A.D. 337-461 Ed. by J. Stevenson; also see Documents Illustrating Papal Authority: AD 96-454, E. Giles p. 240)
This is no vote-of-one from the West, as some skeptics of Papal authority might be tempted to say. This is not a motion from someone under the impression that they have a wonderful primacy, yet one of mere honor or moral influence. On the contrary, this Pope insists that his motion had the authority to carry out an “open sentence” of excommunication, by the “divine sentence” of Jesus Christ, upon the Bishop of Constantinople. This particular Pope of Rome happens to be venerated by not just Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, but also the Coptic Orthodox Church. And yet, it is of this Pope that Anglican Patristics scholar, J.N.D. Kelly, describes in the following terms:
“In his correspondence and through his legates at the Council Celestine repeatedly asserted, with an unprecedented insistence, the Pope’s claim, as successor and living representative of St. Peter, to paternal oversight of the entire Church, Eastern no less than Western“ (Oxford Dictionary of Pope, Pg. 42)
We can tell from the context here that the St. Celestine believed it was well within his authority as the successor of St. Peter to exercise immediate jurisdiction in the matter with Nestorius. What do I mean by “immediate”? I don’t mean that he decided to isolate himself from his brother Bishops in the process. Quite to the contrary, Pope St. Celestine, just after receiving that first letter from St. Cyril cited above, as already alluded, convened a Council in Rome, and it was through a synodal process that they reached the conclusion that Nestorius’s beliefs were heterodox. Only after this does the Pope write to St Cyril dispatching him with the authority of the See of Peter to carry out the open sentenc eof excommunication. But that also does not mean that the Pope’s authority is not flattened with the Bishops. As president of the Apostolic See, he has the authority to convene and ratify what is even synodally reached, making his primacy of significance.
When St. Cyril receive this letter from the Pope, he , in turn, wrote another letter to Nestorius with warnings. This includes the following:
“Take notice then that in conjunction with the holy synod which was assembled in great Rome, under the presidency of our most pious and religious brother and fellow-minister, Bishop Celestine, we conjure and counsel you, in this third letter also, to abstain from these mischievous and perverse doctrines, which you both hold and teach…And unless your religiounsess does this by the time prescribed in the epistle of our aforementioned, most pious and religious brother and fellow-minister, Celestine, bishop of the Romans, know that you have neither part nor lot with us, nor place nor rank among the priests and bishops of God.” (Cyril, Ep. XVII , P.G. LXXVII 105-22; English taken from Creeds, Councils, and Controversies, Pg. 281; see also E. Giles, Pg. 242)
From this section of St. Cyril’s letter, we see very clearly that he did not think the claims of Pope St. Celestine to take immediate action in excommunicating Nestorius by an “open sentence”, which far exceeds merely the removal of one’s name from the diptycha of divine services, as some sort of abuse of Papal power. In other words, St. Cyril was paying heed to the authoritative claims of the Pope, and was prepared to see the Papal letter coming from the Roman synod, which included the threat of excommunication, carried out in full force. It is important to note, therefore, that this was far before any idea of a Council is planned to convene on behalf of Nestorius.
On December 7th, 430, the letters of Pope St. Celestine and St. Nestorius were served to Nestorius. The 10 day stipulation which the Pope gave for Nestorius to recant of his error expired on December 17th. However, before notice of this had reached the Emperor Theodosius II, the latter had issued a summons for a Synod to be assembled in Ephesus on November 19th for the examination of Nestorius’s doctrine against the standard of the holy fathers. Thus by the time the letters sent by St. Cyril and St. Celestine reached Constantinople, by four messengers, the Imperial summons to convene at Ephesus had already been spreading abroad. Of course, Nestorius himself had not heeded the threat of excommunication from the Pope, believing the Council could afford him opportunity to defend himself. John, Bishop of Antioch, urged him to submit to the Pope’s letter. Also, when Nestorius reached Ephesus, the Bishop of Ephesus, Memnom, locked the doors of the churches to Nestorius. Apparently, they understood the Papal letter of St. Celestine to have been effective.
In any case, when St. Cyril came to find out that Nestorius procured an Imperial summons to an Ecumenical Council in Ephesus, he wrote a letter to the Pope inquiring whether the hammer of excommunication is to be considered to have dropped, or should the Council examine Nestorius afresh? A copy of this letter is actually lost, but we have the response of the Pope to St. Cyril’s question:
“We are replying briefly to your holiness…You ask whether the holy Synod [of Ephesus] ought to receive a man who condemns what it preaches; or, because the time of delay has elapsed, whether the sentence already delivered is in force. Concerning this matter let us consult the Lord in whose worship we are united. Will he not answer us straightway through the prophet, ‘I do not desire the death of the one who dies’; and through the apostle Paul that he ‘willeth all men to be saved and come to know the truth’? Never is a quick repentance displeasing to God in any man” (Celestine, Epistle 16; E. Giles, Pg. 244)
This shows that St. Cyril himself did not know whether to understand the convening of an Ecumenical Council to have annulled the excommunication of the Pope and allowed for a fresh trial. Unfortunately, the Pope’s letter which makes clear that he intended a fresh trial to be allowed for Nestorius, although on the same criteria already laid down, did not arrive to St. Cyril until it came with the Papal legates to the Council of Ephesus in Session II (they were delayed in travel). Thus, Session I of the holy Synod was convened without knowing whether the Pope was willing to extend the time for the allowance of Nestorius to recant or not. The Bishops who convened at Ephesus thus opened up under the presidency of St. Cyril. At the opening, the list of names has the following for St Cyril:
“By Cyril of Alexandria, who managed the place of the most holy and sacred [Pope] Celestine, Archbishop of the Roman Church” (Latin/Greek)
Session I proceeds with reading the letters of Nestorius and Pope St. Celestine. The Bishops summoned Nestorius to appear at the Council, but he never showed up. To close the first session, the bishops concluded with the following:
“As, in addition to other things, the impious Nestorius has not obeyed our citation, and did not receive the holy bishops who were sent by us to him, we were compelled to examine his ungodly doctrines. We discovered that he had held and published impious doctrines in his letters and treatises, as well as in discourses which he delivered in this city, and which have been testified to. Compelled thereto by the canons and by the letter (ἀναγκαίως κατεπειχθέντες ἀπό τε τῶν κανόνων, καὶ ἐκ τὴς ἐπιστολῆς, κ.τ.λ.) of our most holy father and fellow-servant Cœlestine, the Roman bishop, we have come, with many tears, to this sorrowful sentence against him, namely, that our Lord Jesus Christ, whom he has blasphemed, decrees by the holy Synod that Nestorius be excluded from the episcopal dignity, and from all priestly communion.” (Decree of the Council Against Nestorius)
The last part of the Decree gives the reasons for why they are compelled to carry through with the open sentence of excommunication on Nestorius. Notice that the Council Father appeal to the letter of Pope St. Celestine, which had said an “open sentence” of excommunication would have to be passed on Nestorius. It seems quite apparent that since the summoning of the Synod came to the notice of all in the East, that they were going to have to give Nestorius the space to defend himself, or recant. And yet, still without knowing that the Pope gave the extension to his threat to Nestorius, the Council Fathers believed that the Pope’s letter was still in force. Otherwise, why would they be “compelled” by it? If, as some Eastern Orthodox and Anglican historians have attempted to argue, the Council thought of the Pope’s letter as a having no intrinsic bearing on the examination of Nestorius in the fresh venue of the supreme authority of an Ecumenical Council, then why are these Council Fathers compelled by the Pope’s letter? It is, I believe, because they understood the hammer dropping on Nestorius to have been under the open force of the Pope’s letter. In other words, there was no need to judge Nestorius since the Pope’s letter itself was enough, together with the canonical disobedience to the Council’s summons, to pass the sentence they did.
When the legates arrive, the Council went into its 2nd Session. Here at the opening, the legate Phillip opened up with the following:
“Philip the presbyter and legate of the Apostolic See said: We bless the holy and adorable Trinity that our lowliness has been deemed worthy to attend your holy Synod. For a long time ago (πάλαι) our most holy and blessed pope Cœlestine, bishop of the Apostolic See, through his letters to that holy and most pious man Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, gave judgment concerning the present cause and affair (ὥρισεν) which letters have been shown to your holy assembly. And now again for the corroboration of the Catholic (καθολικῆς) faith, he has sent through us letters to all your holinesses, which you will bid (κελούσατε) to be read with becoming reverence (πρεπόντως) and to be entered on the ecclesiastical minutes.”
(all citations of the Council sessions are taken from NewAdvent)
The legate make is clear that while Pope St. Celestine understood the criteria of orthodox faith and the discipline of Nestorius had not changed, his dispatching of legates is clear implication that he understood a wider space to examine Nestorius was provided.
During the reading of the Pope’s letter to the Council, the instructions that the Pope gave to his legates are included:
“Out of our solicitude, we have sent our holy brethren and fellow priests, who are at one with us and are most approved men, Arcedius, and Projectus, the bishops, and our presbyter, Philip, that they may be present at what is done and may carry out what things have been already decreed by us (quæ a nobis antea statuta sunt, exequantur).”
Important to see here that the Pope understood his decisions which were put in the original letter to have been not open for question. The matter had been decided already, and this council was merely to determine whether Nestorius was going to repent or not.
The papal legate, Projectus, then stood up and exhorted the Council fathers to give their assent to the Papal letter:
“Projectus, the most reverend bishop and legate, said: Let your holiness consider the form (τύπον) of the writings of the holy and venerable pope Cœlestine, the bishop, who has exhorted your holiness (not as if teaching the ignorant, but as reminding them that know) that those things which he had long ago defined, and now thought it right to remind you of, you might give command to be carried out to the uttermost, according to the canon of the common faith, and according to the use of the Catholic Church.”
Again, that original Papal letter continues to be presented as the non-negotiable settlement on the matter of the faith.
Firmus, Bishop of Caesarea, speaking on behalf of the Council fathers responded to the Papal legates with this:
“Firmus, the bishop of Cæsarea in Cappadocia said: The Apostolic and holy see of the most holy bishop Cœlestine, has previously given a decision and type (τύπον) in this matter, through the writings which were sent to the most God beloved bishops, to wit to Cyril of Alexandria, and to Juvenal of Jerusalem, and to Rufus of Thessalonica, and to the holy churches, both of Constantinople and of Antioch. This we have also followed and (since the limit set for Nestorius’s emendation was long gone by, and much time has passed since our arrival at the city of Ephesus in accordance with the decree of the most pious emperor, and thereupon having delayed no little time so that the day fixed by the emperor was past; and since Nestorius although cited had not appeared) we carried into effect the type (τύπον) having pronounced against him a canonical and apostolic judgment.”
This representative of the Council has striking words. They recognized that they were carrying out the sentence, under St. Cyril (whom the Pope originally dispatched), that had been pronounced a long time ago by the Pope. The express words are “we carried into effect the τύπον” of Pope St. Celestine. Thus the Council understood itself as working off the Pope’s authority in the matter.
In the 3rd Session, the Papal legate Phillip stood up and gave one of the clearest expositions of the Papal-Apostolic theory of Rome’s primacy:
“Philip the presbyter and legate of the Apostolic See said: There is no doubt, and in fact it has been known in all ages, that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince (ἔξαρχος) and head of the Apostles, pillar of the faith, and foundation (θεμέλιος) of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour and Redeemer of the human race, and that to him was given the power of loosing and binding sins: who down even to today and forever both lives and judges in his successors. The holy and most blessed pope Cœlestine, according to due order, is his successor and holds his place, and us he sent to supply his place in this holy synod, which the most humane and Christian Emperors have commanded to assemble, bearing in mind and continually watching over the Catholic faith. For they both have kept and are now keeping intact the apostolic doctrine handed down to them from their most pious and humane grandfathers and fathers of holy memory down to the present time”
What is most striking is the context. The context is that the letters of the Pope which sought to depose an Eastern bishop (Nestorius) is an example of a Petrine authority which had been inherited by the occupant of Peter’s chair in Rome. Another striking occurrence is that St. Cyril of Alexandria chimed in after Phillip and others were done speaking and gives obedience to what the Papal legates said, and offers a conclusion to the whole matter of Nestorius:
“Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria said: The professions which have been made by Arcadius and Projectus, the most holy and pious bishops, as also by Philip, the most religious presbyter of the Roman Church, stand manifest to the holy Synod. For they have made their profession in the place of the Apostolic See, and of the whole of the holy synod of the God-beloved and most holy bishops of the West. Wherefore let those things which were defined by the most holy Cœlestine, the God-beloved bishop, be carried into effect, and the vote cast against Nestorius the heretic, by the holy Synod, which met in the metropolis of Ephesus be agreed to universally; for this purpose let there be added to the already prepared acts the proceedings of yesterday and today, and let them be shown to their holiness, so that by their subscription according to custom, their canonical agreement with all of us may be manifest.”
Thus, St. Cyril believed the Papal-Apostolic theory of Rome’s primacy. Secondly, he also realizes that the force of the Pope’s original letter to Nestorius is what is being dropped into the Council as its own decision.
Now, since I intended to write this post, in particular, for my Coptic and Eastern Orthodox readers, I want to pose the question if the above data can be reconciled with their respective ecclesiologies. Some might want to point out that where the Pope had Nestorius excommunicated 10 days of the receipt of his letter, the Bishops of the Council of Ephesus celebrated him as “reverend Nestorius”, i.e. a man in good standing. The implication here is that the Pope’s letter of excommunication was a dead letter which carried no authority whatsoever. The Pope claimed a pending excommunication at the failure to recant at 10 days, and it did not actually happen, some might point out. Those who would point this out might also say that it was only when a Council met together and judged in a Conciliar fashion that penal action was taken against Nestorius. Ergo, Council is above the Pope, and a Pope cannot judge and excommunicate Bishops outside of his Patriarch. There are some problems with this gloss. First, it ignores the fact that St. Celestine himself believed he was capable of excommunicating Nestorius by the authority of his See, which he gave a share of to St. Cyril (as cited above). That is significant testimony right there. This is not a self-aggrandizing Nebuchadnezzar who was hungry for power and money. On the contrary, he is a venerated Saint. Secondly, this gloss ignores the fact that St. Cyril of Alexandria was ready and prepared to see the Pope’s excommunication get carried out quite apart from any idea of a Council. So did St. Cyril buy into the Papal claims, too? If one is going to sustain the objection I’ve described, this is the inevitable implication. Third, it ignores the fact that when the letters of the Pope arrived to be served to Nestorius in Constantinople, it had already been more than 2 weeks after the Emperor Theodosius II had already sent out a summons for the Bishops to assemble in Ephesus on account of Nestorius (and some other matters). The four bishops which were sent by St. Cyril to serve Nestorius must have returned even far after that to inform St. Cyril of the summons. Then, as I cited above, St. Cyril was torn in half as to allow the Council to provide a fresh trial or to assume Nestorius was already condemned by the authority of the Pope’s letter. On the contrary, if St. Cyril was of the mind that a Council dictates to the Pope, then the idea would have been straightforward: [Cyril speaking to himself] “Well an Ecumenical Councils has been called, so obviously the Pope’s letter is dead, and washed aside”. However, that was not the instinct of St. Cyril, as we know from his question to the Pope. When the Council convened, it appears as if St. Cyril, not having received the Pope’s reply to his question yet (that comes with the late-coming Papal legates in the 2nd Session of the Council), provided a fresh trial for Nestorius, however, continued to use the authority of the Pope’s letter to ground the excommunication of Nestorius. This is why, therefore, the Council understood itself as merely “carrying into effect” what had already been decided by the Pope. If it were the case that the Council thought itself as a superior court than the Pope’s, then the Council would have not considered themselves “carrying into effect” a decision from the Pope, but rather their own decision, and on the basis of their own authority. But we see the contrary. Fourth, and lastly, if Pope St. Celestine’s letter of excommunication were an overstepping of his boundaries, then why is it that not only the Pope himself, nor St Cyril, but neither the Council took any care to rebuke the Pope? There is no use in appealing to the canons of Sardica (3, 4, & 5) since, if the Pope were restricted to what was canonically defined for him, then his letter of excommunication to Nestorius was violating even the canons of Sardica, for in that Council it is the accused Bishop or the Bishops who passed sentence who are to write to Rome. And even then, the Sardican canons only specify re-trials by neighboring bishops or a cleric sent from Rome (or judges he appoints).
Therefore, the more preferable interpretation is that the Pope’s letter was not anticipating a Council to be convened, but on the knowledge of said convening, it was obvious to both St. Cyril and St. Celestine that some sort of an extension or delay is to be put on the Pope’s letter. Just by the fact that St. Celestine sent legates to Ephesus (431) shows that he understood there to be some room for Nestorius to recant of his error in the mode of a Council. However, the idea here is not that the letter becomes brushed to the side. Far to the contrary, we see the Council still respecting its authority as *still in force*! If it were the case that the Bishop of Ephesus (431) were really Eastern Orthodox, they would have not been so happy with the overstepping of the boundaries of St. Celestine. Remember, this was not merely the Pope’s removing Nestorius’s name from the diptycha, making some sort of a internal schism at time. It was a claim for an open sentence , and to trust that sentence as coming from Jesus Christ. And yet, it is the Pope’s sentence which is , by the admission of the Council, carried out. If it were an abusive Papal overreach, then the Council is saying that an abusive Papal overreach had been united to their own judgment, thereby condemning themselves. For great reasons, I reject this reading of the situation. In short, all the evidence presented shows that the Council followed the orders of the Pope, and so we have to be careful how we are characterizing the initial judgment of the Pope. For if we taint it with Papal-overreach, than the Council falls prey to it. If it were a failed attempt at exercising universal jurisdiction, then the Council falls prey in holding the Pope’s orders as the center of gravity for its decisions. What other way can we interpret the representative voice of Fimus of Caesarea from the Council who said:
“The Apostolic and holy see of the most holy bishop Cœlestine, has previously given a decision and type (τύπον) in this matter…This we have also followed and we carried into effect the type (τύπον) having pronounced against him a canonical and apostolic judgment.”
This testimony is not consistent with the view that sees the Pope’s original order against Nestorius as basically invalid in light of the Council. The Pope had no intention of carrying the sentence into effect himself, and this is why he dispatched St. Cyril to make a public sentence.
There is only one single alternative which makes any sense of the data: The Bishop of Rome , as successor to the primacy of St. Peter, is endowed with the power of the keys to bind and to loose, over the universal Church and has judged on the matter of Nestorius long ago, and while a fresh examination of Nestorius has been conceded on account of the unforeseen convening of an Ecumenical Council, it is the very same judgment of the Pope, made long ago, that is ordered to take effect through the Council.
There is actually one more piece from this Council which corroborates that the Pope was understood to judge and ratify Councils. The Bishop of Antioch, John, did not actually make it to Ephesus to join with the Bishops in Council. In fact, he opposed the Council, and sought to exclude St. Cyril from communion for condemning Nestorius. In the letter of the Council to the Pope, they describe his opposition to the Council:
“For we had hoped that the most reverend John, bishop of Antioch would have praised the sedulous care and piety of the Synod, and that perchance he would have blamed the slowness of Nestorius’s deposition. But all things turned out contrary to our hope. For he was found to be an enemy, and a most warlike one, to the holy Synod, and even to the orthodox faith of the churches, as these things indicate.”
So what did the Holy Synod do about John’s refusal to attend, and his unwanted opposition? We read in the same letter to the Pope:
” But although most justly and in accordance with law he would have suffered this punishment yet in the hope that by our patience his temerity might be conquered, we have reserved this to the decision of your holiness.”
Now, why would the Council of Ephesus (431), if it were a higher court than the Apostolic See, reserve the judgment of a wayward cleric to the Pope? It would seem unbecoming of a Council, if it were the only venue to judge the Bishops of any region, to reserve a matter to the Pope. It would almost appear as if they understood the Apostolic See to be endowed with the prerogative of judging both the Council and the Bishops of all Sees.