Friday, July 13, 2007

Ten More Interesting Facts About the Struggle for the Nicene Faith, Part II: The First Council of Constantinople (381)

(1) After the death of Athanasius (373), the intellectual and spiritual struggle against Arianism was taken up by the "new" Nicene party of the Eastern or Greek Church, consisting of old Origenists and former Homoiousians (i.e., "of like substance" with the Father), who had been persuaded by Athanasius to support the Nicene formula. Early on, the mantle of both organizational and theological leadership fell upon Basil of Caesarea (in Cappadocia). He, along with his brother, Gregory of Nyssa, and lifelong friend, Gregory of Nazianzus, would come to be known as the Cappadocian Fathers.

(2) Basil wrote his famous treatise, On the Holy Spirit, to combat the Macedonians or Pneumatomachi ("Spirit-fighters"), a party of former Homoiousians who admitted the divinity of the Son, but not that of the Spirit. Gregory of Nazianzus, known as an orator of great distinction, left behind many homilies defending the cause of the Nicene Faith. Of the three, Gregory of Nyssa possessed the most theological depth, and it was his development of Basil's theology that led to the critical rethink and revision of Eastern Origenist theology that finally brought the "new" Nicenes and the "old" Nicenes together.

(3) Up to this point, the "old" Nicenes had always contended for a single divine hypostasis through which the three Persons -- Father, Son, and Spirit -- subsisted. This explanation sounded suspiciously modalistic to Eastern ears, and, indeed, in some individual cases (like that Marcellus of Ancyra) it frequently was! In contrast, the East had always contended for three individual Hypostases.

(4) By carefully distinguishing between the terms ousia and hupostasis, Gregory successfully contended that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are three distinct hypostases (i.e., concrete, subsistent realities) that shared a single, identical being or nature (thus properly considered homoousios). What sets the hypostases apart is not activity, but how each hypostasis relates to the others and to the whole, as Source, Offspring, and Procession.

(5) The political and theological turning point for the Cappadocian cause was the defeat of the eastern Augustus, Valens, by the Visigoths at the Battle of Adrianople in 378. The surviving emperor in the West, Gratian, promptly appointed Theodosius I ("the Great") as Augustus in the East, who, unlike Valens, was committed to the Nicene faith. Together, Gratian and Theodosius issued a decree that the whole empire should practice the religion of Damasus of Rome and Peter of Alexandria (i.e., the Nicene faith), effectively establishing these sees as the "senior churches" and guardians of orthodoxy. The Nicene faith was now the official religion of the entire Empire.

(6) Theodosius summoned the council of Constantinople in 381 to deal with the Macedonian issue. Consisting of only 150 eastern bishops, the council had not been intended as an "ecumenical" council at all, but would gradually and eventually be recognized as such.

(7) The council, in contending for the deity of the Spirit, naturally confirmed the original symbol of Nicaea. It also considered another formula based on a baptismal creed in which key Nicene terms and phrases were inserted, and including a phrase declaring that the Holy Spirit is "worshiped and glorified together with the Father and the Son."

(8) The council never actually adopted the new symbol, ironically due to the desire of some and the reluctance of others to insert the term homoousios in reference to the Spirit. Nevertheless, the creed would always be associated with its name and work. Because of its increasing popularity and use as a liturgical symbol, the creed eventually achieved universal acceptance. It was finally confirmed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which solemnly declared it to be the faith of the 150 bishops assembled under Theodosius at Constantinople. This creed, rather than the original symbol of Nicaea, is the one we know and recite today as the "Nicene Creed."

(9) Far from being free of contention and controversy, the Council of Constantinople became the source of further tensions between the East and the West: first, by bypassing Rome and Alexandria's choice for president of the council -- Paulinus , a prominent leader of the "old" Nicenes -- in favor of Meletius, a "new" Nicene supported by the majority. Meletius, however, died in the course of the meeting, and the council proceeded to appoint another "new" Nicene, Flavian of Antioch. Gregory of Nazianzus, who had been elected at the beginning of the council to replace the Arian bishop of Constantinople, quickly resigned his see in protest to the council's failure to conciliate Rome. The council then elected Nectarius to be bishop of Constantinople.

(10) The council's Second and Third Canons served to further alienate Rome and Alexandria by declaring (i) Constantinople to be a patriarchal see, and (ii) the bishop of Constantinople to have "the primacy of honor" after the bishop of Rome on the grounds that Constantinople was "new Rome." This not only set up a new source of friction between East and West, but also a new rivalry between Constantinople and Alexandria


Bobby J. Kennedy said...

Thanks for posting these. I tend to think we often approach history in black and white categories - no gray. We treat historical events as simple events with no depth or complexity. Things were messy and it is not until much later that we often are able to look back and see an event clearly. At least as cleary as we are able.

Third Mill Catholic said...

You're quite right, Bobby. My intention behind this series (which I plan to continue through the whole conciliar period)is to underscore the "gray" as you put it.

Understanding that retrospection is often done by Romantics for idealistic ends is half the battle in our present struggles. With Lambeth Conference coming up (I'm an Anglican remember), and with all of the pre-Lambeth posturing going on, I think it is critical that we immerse ourselves in historical perspective.

Ephraim Radner (from ACI) wrote an article fairly recently on Lambeth and Nicaea, which should be required reading for all Anglicans prepared to boycott the upcoming Lambeth. To boycott Lambeth, IMO, would amount to writing off the entire Communion.