The story behind the 6th century Emperor Justinian and the Three Chapters Controversy is one of the most suspensful episodes in Church History. Elsewhere, I’ve written a lengthy commentary, but here I’d like to focus in on one part of the 5th Ecumenical Council that is much overlooked by contemporary subscribers to the Catholic doctrine of the Papacy and scarcely known by opponents to that doctrine. In particular, the Eastern Orthodox have here what they might call a Golden Gun (c.f. GoldenEye 007, N64) with which to bring to the fight against Catholics over Papal Supremacy. What I’m talking about is the Council of Constantinople (553) and its detailed commentary on the fall of Pope Vigilius (537-555), not to include the thorny issue of the two contradictory Constituta of Vigilius (that’s another Golden Gun consideration). To make a very long and dense story very short, the event of this Council has to do with the problems that arose with the Council of Chalcedon (451) and its “apparent” acceptance of Nestorianism through its embrace of Theodoret of Cyrrhus and, more importantly, Ibas of Edessa, whose “letter” to Mari of Persia may be read to have waffled on the clarity of Cyrillian Christology. In order to both vindicate the Chalcedonian legacy, as well as extend an olive branch to the Eastern Episcopates that “understandably” refused assent to Chalcedon, i.e. the Miaphysites of the East, the Emperor Justinian thought it wise to assemble the writings of Three Heads, or Three Chapters, namely, of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrrus, and Ibas of Edessa, and condemn them outright. The Pope, as well as the other Chalcedonian Eastern Patriarchs, were hesitant to subscribe to this “Edict” condemning the Three Chapters, but were subsequently brought under a quick process of Imperial aggression which imposed force upon the Church’s Primates to sign on to it.
With enough pressure and persuasion (i.e. depositions, exilment, and sheer threat ), the Emperor was largely successful in gaining cooperation, with a unique exception in Pope Vigilius. The Pope proved himself indecisive and hesitant to follow through. Eventually, the Pope and the Emperor agreed that an Ecumenical Council where Bishops from both East and West should assemble to decide the matter. However, this Council was soon proven to be a gathering overly controlled by the Emperor, unsurprisingly, and the Pope decided that he would not participate. For one, the Pope’s wish of a sufficient Western representation was not provided (whether by the Emperor’s unwillingness or the unwillingness of the Western Churches that grew suspicious of the Emperor). The Pope’s uncooperation was not just an affront to the Emperor, but eventually the Emperor got the Bishops assembled at the Council to gang up against Vigilius and they all reached a point where the removed Vigilius from the diptychs under the charge of heresy (for failing to agree to condemn the Three Chapters) and pronounced a statement indicting the Pope’s actions against the Council. The Greek Bishops went ahead and completed the Council without the Pope, and 6 months afterwards the Pope eventually came around to confirm its decrees. Below is the full text of the Council’s statement on Vigilius (in Italic; emphasis in bold red), and it won’t be difficult to see how what is said therein touches upon the subject of Papal Supremacy “over and against” what Apostolic and Patristic Tradition. The following will be largely a joy ride for Orthodox readers. For Catholics, put your seat belt on.Continue reading