Response to Objections Concerning the Papal Claims of Pope Hadrian I at the 2nd Council of Nicaea (787)

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Erick Ybarra © November 5th, 2021

This post will be aimed at answering the following objections:

  • Pope Hadrian was simply using “empty honorifics” that had no “application in reality”. Therefore, his letters contain nothing of semblance to the Papal claims of Vatican 1.
  • Charlemagne and the Libri Carolini (Books of Charles or Charlemagne), both which contain glowing honorific descriptions of the Apostolic See of Rome, rejected the 2nd Council of Nicaea and Pope Hadrian’s theological defense of icon veneration. This shows that glowing praise of the authority of the Apostolic See is an empty honorific the lacks any application towards real decision-making.
  • The 2nd Council of Nicaea’s ignoring and rejecting the Pope’s demand for a return of the Petrine patrimonies of Sicily and Calabria (funds for candle-making and distribution to the poor), as well as the refusal to return Rome’s Patriarchal supervision of the same territories as well as the prefecture of Illyricum (Greece, Macedonia, Thessaloniki) shows that the Pope had no authority in the matter, and therefore doesn’t have universal and immediate jurisdiction
  • The 2nd Council of Nicaea’s use of the famous Matthean Tu es Petrus (Matt 16:18-19) citation applies to the whole Church, and not only Rome, showing that, in reality, they had no belief in a Petrine supremacy individuated uniquely to the bishop of Rome.
  • The 7th session of the 2nd Council of Nicaea says that the mere “cooperation” of the Roman Church is needed alongside the “assent” of all the other Patriarchs for a Council, duly convened by the Roman Emperor, to be ranked Ecumenical. This contradicts the Vatican 1 teaching that an Ecumenical Council merely needs the ratification of the Pope.
  • The Greek version of Pope Hadrian’s letter to the Emperors says that all Bishops succeed to the pastoral commission of the Matthean Tu es Petrus (Matt 16:18-19) because it says that all those who succeed to “their thrones” (plural), indicating that it is not just Rome that perpetuates that commission, but every successor to the Apostles.
  • The letter of Pope Hadrian to Tarasios, which does not delete its Papal claims, are not congruent with the claims made in the Latin version of Hadrian’s letter to the Emperors, and therefore the former does not contain anything intolerable to Byzantine ears like the latter did.
  • [Above summarized from Orthodox Craig Truglia who provided content: see link, link, and link]
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Preliminary Remarks

One of the most common mistakes made in pursuit to test the evidence of the Papacy in the early Church throughout the 1st millennium is when the researcher has an unreasonable criterion for what amounts to evidence. Some have the expectation that every piece of the evidence must contain the full-blown content of what is defined at the 1st Vatican Council on the primacy and authority of Peter and his successors. Still others believe, more radically, that the 1st Vatican Council simply teaches that the Pope is invincibly infallible, and that Councils are ecumenical simply because he says so. Some have this idea that the magisterial government of the Pope is like adding extra pages to the Holy Bible in human form. With such an overblown understanding of the Papacy, it is no wonder that many go into history and find next to nothing in support of it. The best remedy for this is for folks to purchase the decrees of the 1st Vatican Council and read them carefully in a reliable translation. I recommend McNabb, V. (Ed.), The Decrees of the Vatican Council (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1907). It is crucial that we understand that the Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on Papal authority is an elaborate argument that builds through an organic development of the idea of the primacy of St. Peter.

In this presentation, all that is found to be taught from the 2nd Council of Nicaea is that data that Christ divinely singled out Peter and gave him a unique power to govern the universal Church, and that this pastoral commission and prerogative of power is inherited by Peter’s successors in the Roman bishopric until the consummation of all things. This simpler idea is evidenced in the Acts of the Council, and it is the foundation for the more developed definition of Papal authority in the 19th century. Now, that data does not explicitly say anything about Papal infallibility, however much it might be implied. Moreover, 2nd Nicaea does not “formally teach” anything about the rights and nature of Papal authority. Therefore, to the question, “Does 2nd Nicaea teach Papal supremacy and infallibility?”, a Catholic may answer in the negative. The first Council that formally teaches upon the nature of the Petrine primacy in Rome is at the Council of Lyons (1274). Nevertheless, there are important forms of evidence for the Papal supremacy to be observed in the Acts of 2nd Nicaea, and it is to those observations that a Catholic should be bound to provide explanation for. None of these observed points can be thought to “prove” Papal supremacy or infallibility, but when all the points are taken together, they form what St. John Henry Newman called a “cumulative argument” that arises in favor of something akin to the Petrine primacy that is taught by the Catholic Church, and the same argument, in the opposite direction, recommends less the view of Orthodoxy or Protestantism. Can it be said that all the Byzantines at the time believed in the Roman view of Petrine supremacy? Probably not, but the late French Byzantine historian Charles Diehl was probably correct when he said that the Greeks at the time of the iconoclastic controversy “were ready to acknowledge Roman supremacy and the right of the Roman Church to pronounce final judgment in all ecclesiastical difficulties, provided this would enable them to liberate the Eastern Church from imperial dictatorship.” (Charles Diehl, Byzantium: Greatness and Decline, trans. Naomi Walford (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutger’s University Press, 1957),168).

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My Favorite Book on the History of the Papacy and its relationship to the Church

My favorite book on the history of the Papacy and its relationship to the Church in history is a volume of 8 lectures delivered before the University of Oxford in 1942 by the late Rev. Dr. Trevor Jalland, an Anglican historical theologian. This volume was published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in a couple years after the lectures were delivered, and one can get this by searching the author name with the title of the volume, “The Church and the papacy: An Historical Study”.

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Protestant Historical Theologian Discusses St. Irenaeus’s view of Tradition, Authority, and the Written Word of God

In his book The Biblical Theology of Saint Irenaeus (1948), the Weslyan historian summarizes the view of St. Irenaeus on the authority of Tradition, the Scripture, and the ecclesial principle of Apostolic succession:


“With [Irenaeus] it is fundamental that the Scripture provide complete proof of all Christian doctrine….However, the question of religious authority for S. Irenaeus is by no means so simple as this. Very many other passages speak of the unwritten tradition of the Church as the determinative voice. It is even maintained that the faith could well have continued upon this ground alone, had the Apostles left no writings behind them” (pp. 32 f.)

“According to S. Irenaeus, the available authentic information from the Apostles regarding the life, teaching, and saving work of the Lord was not wholly written. There was also an oral tradition handed down by the Apostles and their successors. We may most accurately describe this tradition as the unwritten New Testament. It will be seen that in the system of Irenaeus it occupies a position of dogmatic value equivalent to that of the Epistles, save only that ink and paper is absent” (p 87)

“As the Canon and interpretation of the written tradition is to be determine by authority, so also is the unwritten…Once granted that there was such a thing as unwritten information to which valid appeal could be made, the only answer to the heretic was the plain assertion that the true oral tradition was the exclusive possession of the Church, just as was the written tradition. This was seconded by the assertion that, as the Church was alone competent to expound the Scripture, so she alone could determine the meaning of that which was not written…It was the teaching of S. Irenaeus that the witness to tradition is collective, and, indeed, by inherent nature universal. It is not individual, for individualism is the mark of heresy… The voice of the Church is always for practical purposes regarded as the voice of her official and recognized leaders” (pp. 91 f.)

“To enquire whether tradition or Scripture is the primary authority is to obscure the mind of S. Irenaeus by asking the wrong question. To him both are manifestations of one and the same thing, the apostolic truth by which the Christians lives….The truth hands by two cords, and he can speak of either as self-sufficient without intending to deny or subordinate the other” (p. 103)

“Religious authority…is bound to dissolve into the tones of the present voice of the Church… This ‘Living Voice’ is the actual religious authority for S. Irenaeus. We may candidly agree that he would probably not have recognized this as the truth about himself” (p. 105)

“The ‘Living Voice’ of the Church was therefore the essential and determinative factor in whatever he actually taught” (p. 292)

[citations found in B.C. Butler’s “The Church and Infallibility: A Reply to the Abridged ‘Salmon'” (1954), p. 28]