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a short history of the ecumenical patriarchate of constantinople

First among equals in the eastern orthodox church

Dino Geanakoplos
Professor of Byzantine History and Orthodox Church History,
Yale University


The Five Great Christian Sees: The PENTARCHY

The Five-Phase History of the Patriarchate

First Phase: The Formative Period

Second Phase: Photios, the Greatest Patriarch


Third Phase: The Last Byzantine Centuries

Fourth Phase: "The Tourkokratia"

Fifth Phase: The Modern Period

About the author

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first phase: the formative period

It was during our first period, 33-843, the most formative epoch of the entire Orthodox Church. that the vital questions of the formulation of dogma, the suppression of heresy, the utilization of classical Greek learning by the Church in order to help in explaining dogma, and the relationship of emperor and patriarch over the Church, were solved. Most of this was primarily the work of the famous Cappadocian Fathers (from Cappadocia in Asia Minor) and of St. John Chrysostom (of Antioch).

The late fourth century Patriarch of Constantinople, the Cappadocian St. Gregory the Theologian of Nazianzos, rendered inestimable service to the Christian Church against the first great heresy, Arianism. (Arianism taught that Christ, the second person of the Trinity, was not of exactly the same substance as the Father the first person of the Trinity, and hence, since Christ would then be inferior to the Father, Christ could not be fully God.) He also played a primary role in securing adoption by the Church of belief in the full divinity of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity and of the con substantiality (the same substance) of the Holy Spirit with the Father and Son.

Gregory's services lay primarily in his eloquent exegesis (interpretation) of such dogmas: hence the Orthodox Church has bestowed upon him (alone) the title of "the theologian." His intimate friend the great Cappadocian St. Basil, though never patriarch of Constantinople, rather bishop of Caesarea and other sees in Asia Minor, also made a vital contribution in helping to defend the nature of the Trinity. He, in addition, formulated what soon became the definitive rule for the guidance of the many monks (commonly called Basilians, that were beginning to proliferate in the Byzantine East). And, not least, he saved for Christianity the precious legacy of classical pagan Greek literature and philosophy by reconciling it with Christian doctrine and showing how a discriminating knowledge of classical Greek writings was indispensable for a deeper understanding of the Christian faith itself Hence he is considered the patron saint of education in the Orthodox Church. Still another champion of early orthodoxy, the third of the Treis Hierarchai (Three Hierarchs, established as such by the patriarchate in the eleventh century), was John Chrysostom. Originally from the patriarchate of Antioch, he became one of the most celebrated patriarchs of Constantinople. The homilies he preached against heresy and immoral living were so moving, so full of high moral content and characterized by eloquence of style, that he is universally referred to as Chrysostomos (the golden mouthed).

The value of the work of these much venerated Church Fathers in this early, crucial period of the Orthodox Church and patriarchate of Constantinople cannot be overestimated. Not only were they instrumental in establishing the official dogmas of the entire Church of East and West against the heresies of Arios, Nestorios, Dioscoros, Eutyches, and others, but their dedication and loyalty to the faith and to their office of patriarch (or bishop) has forever served as an inspiring example to their successors.

It was during this same period, in response to the need for reaching agreement on doctrinal beliefs and because of other growing differences in matters of church discipline and religious practice, that the famous Seven Ecumenical Councils were convoked by the emperors. These Ecumenical (universal) Councils (the first at Nicea in 325, the second at Constantinople in 381, the third at Ephesos in 431, the fourth at Chalcedon in 451, the fifth at Constantinople in 553, the sixth at Constantinople in 680, and the seventh and last at Nicea in 787) were all held in the Greek East in or near the imperial City of Constantinople. All five patriarchs, that of Rome and the four eastern ones, were (as came to be required for Ecumenical Councils) present at each council; all were convoked by the emperors; and the pronouncements of all were ratified by both Church and emperors. The adherence and unswerving allegiance of the patriarch of Constantinople and the other eastern patriarchs to the decisions of these councils has resulted in the Orthodox Church's unique claim to be called "the Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils."

Aside from decisions regarding doctrine and disciplinary matters taken by the Councils, it is significant to point out that it was the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople which ratified the canon affirming that "the Bishop of Constantinople shall have the primacy of honor (presveia times) after the Bishop of Rome, because Constantinople is the 'New Rome' " (a fact which granted Constantinople primacy of honor over the three other eastern patriarchs). And the Fourth Ecumenical Council, that of Chalcedon in 451, confirmed that the see of Constantinople shall have "privileges equal to those of Old Rome" and possessed jurisdiction over the churches of Pontos, Asia, and Thrace in the East. It is fair to point out, however, that the Roman Church claims never to have officially accepted this canon of 451.

During this first period the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople gradually increased, though he seemed sometimes to be under the thumb of the emperor. The latter, for political reasons (or as some emperors put it, for the sake of oikonomia, that is survival of the Basileia, meaning the empire), sought occasionally even to alter the dogmas decreed by the Ecumenical Councils in order to placate politically dangerous heretical groups in the East such as Monophysites, Nestorians, or Monotheletes. This tendency of the emperors to seek to interfere in the "inner life" of the Church reached its climax in the acts of the Isaurian Emperors during the famous Iconoclast struggle (726-43). These anti-icon rulers sought to destroy all the icons (representations of Christ, the Virgin and the Saints) on the grounds (they declared) that they were not being properly venerated but instead worshiped by the people virtually as idols. (Some scholars believe that among other reasons motivating the emperors was their belief that the monks, the chief protectors of the icons, were becoming too numerous and an increasingly "unproductive" element in society. They paid no taxes in these difficult times of continual Arab invasions and did not serve in the army.)

In any event, after a desperate struggle of over a century, Orthodoxy and icon-veneration finally triumphed and the icons were restored. The chief inspiration for the Iconodule (pro-icon) party was provided by the efforts of two remarkable monk theologians, John of Damascus and Theodore of Studios, who were primarily responsible for formulating the official Orthodox doctrine on the icons -- that the grace from the original prototypes of the icons (Christ, the Virgin, or the Saints) filters down from the original to their copies, the icons. Of course the Christian devotee is forbidden to actually worship the icon (a practice termed latreia). Yet the icon is itself considered a worthy object of veneration (proskynesis) and thus possesses a certain sanctity of its own. Hence the Christian should show it proper reverence. The great feast day commemorating the final triumph of the icons (permanently restored by the Empress Theodora in 843) is still commemorated in the Orthodox Church as the "Feast of Orthodoxy" on the First Sunday of Lent. It is during this service that icons are carried in procession around the church by the clergy and the Archons (the chief laymen supporting the Patriarch), and that the names of all the principal heretics of the Church, including especially those of the Iconoclast emperors and bishops, are formally anathematized. ("May the memory of the Orthodox Fathers be eternal and the memory of the heretics of the Church be eternally damned").

As a result of the triumph of these Iconodule views, the authority of the Orthodox Patriarchs, who usually led the struggle against the Iconoclasts, became more important in the Byzantine Empire than ever before. This may vividly be seen in the fact that henceforth the Patriarch was depicted by Byzantine artists in their paintings or mosaics as standing on the same level with the emperor instead of below him, as had formerly been the case.

Next -- second phase: Photios, the greatest patriarch

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