Fourth Council of Constantinople A.D. 869-870 A.D. part one

For document sources noted, see Abbreviations


  • Definition
  • Canons


    This council, designated as the eighth ecumenical council by western canonists, is not found in any canonical collections of the Byzantines; its acts and canons are completely ignored by them. Modern scholars have shown that it was included in the list of ecumenical councils only later, that is, after the eleventh century. We have decided to include the council, for the sake of historical completeness.

    Emperor Basil I and the patriarch Ignatius, after being restored to his see of Constantinople, asked Pope Nicholas I to call a council to decide about the bishops and priests who had been ordained by Photius. It was held at Constantinople after the arrival of legates from Pope Hadrian II, who had meanwhile succeeded Nicholas. These legates were Donatus, Stephen and Marinus and they presided at the council. It began in the cathedral of Hagia Sophia on 5 October 869. The tenth and last session was held on 28 February 870, when 27 canons were read out and approved by the council. All who were willing to sign the Liber satisfactionis, which had been sent by Pope Hadrian II, were admitted to the council. The account made by Anastasius contains the authentic list of those who signed the acts of the council. Emperor Basil I and his sons, Constantine and Leo, signed the acts after the patriarchs and in the same year they promulgated the council's decisions, after drawing up a decree for this purpose.

    As regards the canonical authority of these deliberations, various facts regarding the council held in the cathedral of Hagia Sophia in November 879, so that Photius might be restored to the see of Constantinople, should be remembered. Peter, a Roman cardinal, presided at this council. It took account of a letter of Pope John VIII, which had been sent to the emperor and translated into Greek. This reads (chapter 4): "We declare that the synod held at Rome against the most holy patriarch Photius in the time of the most blessed pope Hadrian, as well as the holy synod of Constantinople attacking the same most holy Photius (i.e., in 869-870), are totally condemned and abrogated and must in no way be invoked or named as synods. Let this not happen". Some people have thought that this text had been altered by Photius; but in the so-called "unaltered" text of the letter this passage is replaced by dots (. . .), and the following passage reads: "For the see of blessed Peter, the key-bearer of the heavenly kingdom, has the power to dissolve, after suitable appraisal, any bonds imposed by bishops. This is so because it is agreed that already many patriarchs, for example Athanasius .. .. after having been condemned by a synod, have been, after formal acquittal by the apostolic see, promptly reinstated". Ivo of Chartres explicitly affirms: "The synod of Constantinople which was held against Photius must not be recognised. John VIII wrote to the patriarch Photius (in 879): We make void that synod which was held against Photius at Constantinople and we have completely blotted it out for various reasons as well as for the fact that Pope Hadrian did not sign its acts". Ivo adds from the instructions that John VIII gave to his legates for the council in 879: "You will say that, as regards the synods which were held against Photius under Pope Hadrian at Rome or Constantinople, we annul them and wholly exclude them from the number of the holy synods". For these reasons there is no ground for thinking that the text was altered by Photius.

    An authentic copy of the acts of the council of 869-870 was sent to Rome, as of right. Anastasius, the librarian, ordered a complete copy to be made for himself. Then, when the legates' copy was stolen, he translated his own copy into Latin, on Pope Hadrian's orders, making a word for word translation. Anastasius also makes it plain that the Greeks adopted every means to distort the acts, "by abbreviating here and by expanding or changing there". He adds: "Whatever is found in the Latin copy of the acts of the eighth synod is completely free from the alloy of falsehood; however, whatever more is found in the Greek text is thoroughly infected with poisonous lies".

    The Greek text has been partly preserved from total destruction in the summary of an anonymous writer who copied out anti-Photian texts. This summary has 14 canons, as opposed to the 27 of Anastasius, and only contains excerpts, dealing with the most important points, of these canons. Where comparison is possible, the Latin version of Anastasius hardly departs from the Greek text. Indeed it is so literal that at times it can only be understood by comparison with the Greek text, and when the latter is missing we must sometimes rely on conjecture.

    The documents printed below are taken from the following: the "Definition" from the Roman edition, (Concilia generalia Ecclesiae catholicae [Editio Romana], Rome 4 vols, 1608-1612) 3, 284-287; the canons from Les canons des conciles oecumeniques, ed. P-P. Jouannou (Pontificia commissione per la redazione del codice di diritto canonico orientale. Fonti. Fasc. IX: Discipline generale antique [IIe-IXe s.] tome 1 part 1), Grottaferata 1962 289-342.

    The English translation is from the Latin text, for the reasons mentioned above. The material in curly brackets { } has been added by the hypertext editor, as also has some of the formatting

    [Definition of the holy and universal eighth synod]

    The holy, great and universal synod, which was assembled by God's will and the favour of our divinely approved emperors Basil and Constantine, the holy friends of Christ, in this royal and divinely protected city and in the most famous church bearing the name of holy and great Wisdom, declared the following.

    The Word, of one nature with the almighty God and Father, is he who established heaven like a vault and fixed the ends of the earth and the place of all other things. He made it to be contingent and he rules, preserves and saves it. He says through the voice of the prophet, Isaiah: Lift up your eyes to heaven, because heaven has been fashioned like smoke, but the earth shall wear out like a garment; its inhabitants shall perish like them; but my salvation shall last for ever and my justice shall not fail. He was made like us for our sake and has established on earth heavenly justice and said, Heaven and earth shall pass away but my words shall not pass away. He said to all who believed in him: If you continue in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.

    It was our God and Lord of infinite power alone who, just like a farmer of supreme wisdom and power, uprooted and scattered and rightfully obliterated many others from an earlier time and from long ago who, given over to lies and in opposition to the truth, were sowing -- to use the gospel image -- evil tares in his field, that is, in the church, and were trying to overwhelm the pure grain of divine justice. He always prepared his manner of deliverance so as to give warning, he established his justice and revealed it with greater clarity. But nevertheless, in our time too, the sower of tares is trying to make the field of the church useless through some utterly depraved and impious people. With that one and the same providence, he has shown that this field is worthy of compassion and snatched it from the filth of iniquity and called it back to its ancient purity. For, to destroy injustice and reinforce divine justice, he has raised up, as an unwavering follower of his commandments, a person proved to be incorrupt in both his knowledge and his maintenance of the truth, our most devout and serene emperor, who is a friend of divine justice and an enemy of injustice. He, by means of the divine help and the overall favour of the church, has gathered together architects from the ends of the earth into this royal city, which must be built up by God, and has assembled a universal synod which, while guarding the strong defences of

    • the gospel sanctions,
    • the laws of Moses and the prophets together with
    • the commands of the apostles
    • and fathers as well as of
    • the councils,
    has revived the established forms of right conduct and proclaimed truth and justice in the courts of the church.

    {Now the customary recapitulation and reassertion of all previous ecumenical councils}

    Consequently, all of us bishops who have come to take part in the synod and to strengthen the true and undefiled faith of Christians and the teaching of orthodox religion, we declare our belief in one God, in three persons consubstantial, divine and autonomous, as, for example, we may look at the one nature of light in three suns not unlike each other or in the same number of dazzling objects. We confess, indeed, God to be one, unique in respect of substance, but threefold or three if we are speaking of him in respect of persons, and we declare he has not received from himself that he has been made, nor in any way whatsoever from anyone else; but that he is alone, ever existing without beginning, and eternal, ever the same and like to himself, and suffering no change or alteration, that he exists as the maker and source of all beings endowed with intelligence and feeling. For the holy and great synod of { 1 } Nicaea spoke thus when expounding the creed: Light from light, true God, clearly declaring the Son to be from the Father who is true God, and the rest as the catholic church received it. We too, accepting this in the identical meaning, anathematize as of unsound mind and an enemy of the truth, Arius and all who, with him and following him, speculate with faulty perceptions on the term "hetero-substantial", that is otherness of substance and unlikeness, with reference to the divinely-ruling and blessed Trinity. But no less do we accept the second, holy and universal synod {2 Constantinople I}, and we anathematize that adversary of the Spirit or rather adversary of God, Macedonius; for we admit in the distinction of persons no difference of substance between the Father, the Son and the divine and autonomous Spirit, as the aforementioned heresiarchs did, nor do we confuse, like the lunatic Sabellius, the persons in one and the same substance. Moreover, we also confess that the unique Word of God became incarnate and was made like us for our sake, for it was not an angel or an envoy but the Lord himself who came and saved us and was made Emmanuel with us; and he was true God, God of Israel and saviour of all, in accordance with the divine and prophetic utterances. For this reason we confess that Mary, most holy and without experience of marriage, who bore him, is properly and truly mother of God, just as the third universal synod, which first assembled at { 3 } Ephesus, proclaimed. In union with that council we too anathematize Nestorius, that worshipper of the man and most self-opinionated individual who possessed a Jewish mentality. We teach that the one and same Christ and Lord is twofold, that is, perfect God and perfect man, possessing in one person the differences of each nature but keeping their properties always unchangeable and unconfused, just as the fourth, holy and universal synod {4 Chalcedon } solemnly taught. In accepting this synod together with the three councils previously enumerated, just like the quadruplicity of the holy gospels, we anathematize the insane Eutyches and the mad Dioscorus. In addition, proclaiming the two natures in the one Christ, according to the still clearer teaching of the fifth, holy and universal synod { 5 Constantinople II}, we anathematize Severus , Peter and Zoharas the Syrian, as well as Origen with his useless knowledge, Theodore of Mopsuestia and Didymus along with Evagrius, who also, although of the same or different opinions, were ensnared in the same pit of damnation.

    Further, we accept the sixth, holy and universal synod {6 Constantinople III}, which shares the same beliefs and is in harmony with the previously mentioned synods in that it wisely laid down that in the two natures of the one Christ there are, as a consequence, two principles of action and the same number of wills. So, we anathematize Theodore who was bishop of Pharan, Sergius, Pyrrhus, Paul and Peter, the unholy prelates of the church of Constantinople, and with these, Honorius of Rome, Cyrus of Alexandria as well as Macarius of Antioch and his disciple Stephen, who followed the false teachings of the unholy heresiarchs Apollinarius, Eutyches and Severus and proclaimed that the flesh of God, while being animated by a rational and intellectual soul, was without a principle of action and without a will, they themselves being impaired in their senses and truly without reason. For if the one and same Christ and God exists as perfect God and perfect man, it is most certain that none of the natures which belong to him can exist partially without a will or without a principle of action, but that he carried out the mystery of his stewardship when willing and acting in accordance with each substance; this is how the chorus of all God's spokesmen, having knowledge of it from the apostles down to our own time, have constructed a colourful representation of that human form, assigning to each part of the one Christ natural properties distinct from each other, by which the meanings and conceptions of his divine nature and of his human nature are believed beyond all doubt to remain without confusion.

    We also know that the seventh, holy and universal synod, held for the second time at { 7 } Nicaea, taught correctly when it professed the one and same Christ as both invisible and visible lord, incomprehensible and comprehensible, unlimited and limited, incapable and capable of suffering, inexpressible and expressible in writing. In agreement with that synod, this holy and universal synod publicly anathematizes Anastasius , Constantine and Nicetas , that irrational prelature whose name stinks, or, to put it better, that plain corruption; so too Theodosius of Ephesus, Sisinnius Pastilas and Basil Tricacabus, not forgetting Theodoret, Antony and John, once prelates of new Rome, the royal city of Christians, but better called defamers of Christ. They declared by word and deed that, despite what the list of prophets proclaimed about Christ, he had been incapable of destroying the statues of the idols. Furthermore, we also anathematize Theodore, who was called Krithinos, whom this great and holy synod summoned and condemned and loudly dinned an anathema into his ears. Similarly we anathematize all those who agreed with or supported those who said that the Word of the divine incarnation came about and existed by fantasy and supposition, indeed that through the removal of the image of our Christ and saviour there came the simultaneous removal of the accepted form of the true body which bore God within it. Everything which cannot be grasped by the imagination is surely to be understood in two ways, either as not existing or as in fact existing but minimally understandable, inasmuch as being invisible and hidden.

    Therefore, if anyone happens to have taught any of these things about Christ the God and saviour of us all, he will be clearly proclaimed an enemy of true religion, since the first of these declares that Emmanuel was not truly made man and the second declares that he was indeed man but lacked human qualities, laid aside the flesh he assumed and had recourse in everything to his divine [nature] and to his incomprehensibility; this is alien to all the divinely inspired scriptures, which also clearly state that he will come once more as judge of all, and he is to be seen in the same way as he was seen by his disciples and apostles when he was taken up into heaven.

    That theory is full of Manichaean ideas and ungodliness inasmuch as it foolishly declares that a saying of the divinely inspired David was spoken about Christ, in which it says, He has set his tabernacle in the sun, since this impiety supposes that the casting off and laying aside of the Lord's deified body is meant. But the word of truth confidently says, both concerning the well-named Manes and all those who share his thought and are authors of the heresy about the destruction of icons and all other heresiarchs and enemies of religion: They have not known nor understood, but they walked in darkness. 0 you who abandon the right way and walk in the way of darkness, who rejoice in wrongdoing and exult in evil conversion; O you whose paths are evil and steps crooked so that they take you far from the right way and make you foreign to right thinking! Again, those who sowed what was corrupted by the wind have received destruction as their reward; and again, He that trusts in lies feeds the winds: and the same person runs after birds that fly away. For he has abandoned the rows of his vines, he wanders in the furrows of his field; for he wanders through a waterless desert and a great parched plain, yet gathers no fruit in his hands.

    For this reasons [the church] brands all these with an anathema and, besides recognizing the seven, holy and universal synods already enumerated by us, has gathered together this eighth universal synod through the grace of our all powerful Christ and God and the piety and zeal of our most serene and divinely strengthened emperor, to cut down and destroy the shoots of injustice that have sprung up against those synods, together with the evil stirrings and influences, in order to bring about peaceful order in the church and stability in the world. For it is not only the removal of true teaching which knows how to destroy those of evil mind and to agitate and disturb the church, but also quibbling over the meaning of the divine commandments equally brings the same destruction on those who are not vigilant, and the world is filled with storms and disturbances by those who are reckoned as Christians.

    {Now the council strikes out on its own}

    This is what happened in recent times through the folly, cunning and evil machinations of the wretched Photius. He entered the sheepfold not through the door but through a window, and, like a thief or a robber, a destroyer of souls, as the Lord's words indicate, has tried, on every occasion and by every means, to steal, slaughter and destroy the right-thinking sheep of Christ and, by engineering all manner of persecution, he has not ceased from contriving numerous arrests and imprisonments, confiscations of property, protracted periods of exile and, in addition to these, accusations, charges, false testimonies and forgeries against all who worked for true religion and fought for the truth. For he, like another Severus or Dioscorus, engineered the expulsion of the most just, lawful and canonically appointed high priest of the church of Constantinople, namely the most holy patriarch Ignatius, and like an adulterous robber, breaking into his see and repeatedly submitting him to a thousand charges involving dethronement and as many anathemas, he roused continuous turmoil and storms for all the churches of Christ our saviour, in a multiplicity of ways.

    However, the salt of the earth has not lost its savour, nor has the eye of the church become completely darkened, nor has the light of true religion been extinguished by the spirits of wickedness; nor has the fire of divine charity lost its destroying and burning power over sinful and worthless material, nor has the word of the Lord, which is sharper than a two-edged sword and a discerner of thoughts, been found ineffectual, nor did the foundation of solid stone collapse when submerged by swollen waters and floods of rivers and storms, but the precious cornerstone, which was laid down in Sion, that is, in the church, upon which the foundation stone of the apostles and prophets was laid for the building up of the church, in our time has sent out from every one of the church's established ranks, even into the ruling city, the new Rome, many other stones rolling over the land, as the prophet says, to destroy and lay waste the intrigues of those who desired and attempted to destroy truth and divine justice.

    But with greater force and particular significance, Nicholas, the most blessed and aptly-named pope of old Rome, was sent from above as another cornerstone for the church, preserving as far as possible the figurative likeness, as from an exalted and pre-eminent place, to confront the carefully organised opposition of Photius. By the missiles of his letters and speeches, he struck down the powerful leading supporters of Photius and, reflecting a story of the old Testament, after the manner of the zealot Phinehas, he pierced Photius with the lance of truth as if he were another Midianite defiling the assembly of Israel; and he completely destroyed him on his not [added in Hrd [1]] agreeing to accept the remedies of a healing discipline aimed at treating the scars and healing the adulterous wound, and just as another Peter dealt with Ananias and Sapphira, who stole what belonged to God, by an anathema included as it were in his priestly dignity, he committed him to death.

    Following these directives and decrees, the most religious friend of Christ, our emperor, whom the heavenly Emperor and Lord of majesty has raised up for the salvation of the world, has consigned Photius to a suitable place and recalled the most holy patriarch Ignatius to his rightful seat. Furthermore, for the perfect discernment and definition of what is agreed to be good and is beneficial, he has gathered together vicars from all the patriarchal seats and the whole college of bishops which is under his authority. Those of us who came together have celebrated this great and universal synod and, with much examination, testing and discussion, with due care and consistency, we have cut out with the sword of the spirit the roots of scandals and weeds along with their shoots, as we establish the truly innocent and most holy patriarch Ignatius in the controlling seat, while we condemn Photius, the interloper and illegal occupier with all his supporters and promoters of evil. For almighty God says somewhere by the mouth of a prophet: Because of the wickedness of their deeds I will drive them out of my house. I will do no more to love them. Ephraim is stricken, their root is dried up, they shall bear no fruit; and again: Canaan, there is a deceitful balance in his hand, he has loved oppression. And Ephraim said: But yet I am become rich, I have found for myself a place of repose: all his labours shall not find me, despite the iniquities that I have committed; and again: And the house of Jacob shall possess their own possessions. The house of Jacob shall be afire and the house of Joseph aflame, and the house of Esau stubble; they shall burn them and consume them, and there shall be no survivor to the house of Esau, for the Lord has spoken.

    For the wretched Photius was truly like the person who did not make God his refuge; but trusted in the abundance of his cunning and sought refuge in the vanity of his iniquities, following the example of Ephraim of old, in turning his back on the divine mercy; the word of the prophet mocks and derides him, saying: Ephraim is become as bread baked under ashes, that is not turned. Strangers have devoured his strength and he knew it not, grey hairs also are spread upon him, and he is ignorant of it. He shall be humbled by the insult of Israel before his face; and in all this he has not returned to the Lord, his God. Ephraim is become as a dove, that called upon the table of Egypt and went to the Assyrians. When they shall go, I will spread my net upon them as upon the birds of the air; I will bring them down, I will strike them to make their tribulation heard. For Photius was lifted up to the heights of arrogance in attacking the most blessed pope of old Rome, Nicholas, and he vomited out the poison of his evil. He gathered together false vicars from three supposedly eastern sees, set up what was thought to be a synodical council, and, making lists of the names of accusers and witnesses, fashioning profiles and speeches which seemed to be suited to each person who plays a part in a synodical investigation, and making up, writing down and organizing forged records as accounts of those proceedings, he had the audacity to anathematize the aforementioned most blessed pope Nicholas and all those in communion with him. Photius did this in such a way that as a result all the existing bishops and priests, that is, the other patriarchal sees and all the clerics within them, were included in the same anathema, for all were most certainly in communion with the leading bishop, and amongst them himself and his followers. The word of the prophet condemns and refutes him when it says: They have multiplied their transgressions, they have enacted extraneous laws and invoked their confession; and again: They conceived in their heart lying words and turned justice back, and righteousness has stood afar off from them; for truth has been destroyed in their streets and they have been unable to follow the right path. Truth has disappeared and changed their mind so that it cannot understand. And: He who turns from evil is attacked, and the Lord saw and it displeased him because there was no judgment, and again: Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Judah and for four, I will grant them no reprieve; because they have rejected the law of the Lord and have not kept his statutes. Therefore, as regards the man who has acted in this way and has disturbed and shaken the whole holy, catholic and apostolic church with so many brazen attacks of this kind, has utterly refused to be converted and repent, and has refused to submit to the decrees and judgment of the holy patriarchal sees, just as long ago the most blessed pope Nicholas and then his successor, the most holy pope Hadrian,

  • anathematized him, so too this holy and universal synod has reproved him and put him under an ever severer anathema while addressing to him, in the person of all God's people, the words of the prophet Isaiah: Just as a garment soiled in blood will not be clean, so you will not be clean, for you have defiled the church of Christ and have been a source of scandal and destruction to the people of God on many counts and in many ways. We command that those who do not share this view, but give Photius their willing support, if they are bishops or clerics, must be deposed for ever; we anathematize monks or lay people, until such time as they are converted from their false ways and wickedness.

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