Photios, the Franks, and the Filioque, Part 3

In the mind of the scholar-patriarch Photios—the reader of Herodotus’ Histories, Hellenistic romances, and the mystical theology of Pseudo-Dionysios—the principal sin of the Latins was contained in the tiny addition to the Nicene Creed that said “and the Son” (Filioque). 

The inclusion of this phrase into the Creed as recited during the liturgy was a Carolingian legacy.  Apparently as an antidote to persistent neo-Arianism in Spain, the Carolingians had determined that the phrase “and the Son” should be added to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed in order to shore up the consubstantiality—and hence equality in essence—of the Father and the Son. Thus did Charlemagne’s priests chant the Creed when they said Mass in his palace at Aachen, and thence Frankish priests took and spread this practice throughout his realm—and beyond.  Even before it became an issue in the Balkans, Frankish priests celebrating in the Holy Land had scandalized Greek monks when they chanted their interpolated Creed.  The Franks, of course, were only proclaiming the Creed in the manner that it was sung in the imperial chapel.  The complaints of the Greeks even reached the ears of Pope Leo III, the man who had crowned Charlemagne, but who now reproached the Frankish Church for introducing a novel formula into the doctrinal statement of the fathers of Nicaea and Constantinople. 

The pope was unyielding.  In Rome’s view, the theology behind the Filioque—the idea that the Holy Spirit depends existentially on both the First and Second Persons of the Trinity—may have been impeccably orthodox. (After all, in the seventh century Martin I, the courageous martyr-pope, had included some sort of Filioque clause in the profession of faith he forwarded to Constantinople upon his ascent to the see of Rome).  But not for that should one jot or tittle be added to the sacrosanct Creed of Nicaea as recited publicly in the liturgy and as the common bond uniting all of Christendom. In protest, Pope Leo even had the Nicene Creed—sans Filioque—engraved on two silver shields and prominently displayed as an anchor against alteration. (Long after these shields were lost, Byzantine polemicists would refer to them in order to embarrass their Latin adversaries; one Dominican responded that the shields had been counterfeited and set up in Rome by some no-good Calabrian Greek monks). 

Photios, in his Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit, wrote voluminously (and tediously) against the Filioque as the fons et origo of a panoply of Trinitarian errors. On the one hand, he wrote, to say that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son disrupted the Father’s unique monarchy over the life of the Deity by propping up the Son as a second source beside the Father. But unless the Trinity could be reduced to a singular principle, Its essential unity would be undermined. (This critique would force Latin theologians to specify that they had never maintained that the Father and the Son were two distinct causes of the procession of the Holy Spirit—but we’ll address this later on in the series).

Moreover, Photios wrote, the Latins’ claim that the Son should share in the procession of the Spirit in order to be recognized as consubstantial with the Father resulted in blasphemous absurdity, for according to this same logic the Holy Spirit—in order to be considered consubstantial—must partake in the procession of yet some other “Person”—thus ruining the Trinity by substituting a Quaternity in its place, or worse—the procession, ad infinitum, of divine persons. (Again, we shall have space later on to consider the Latins’ reasons for positing the Filioque, quite apart from Photios’ interpretations of the Latin position). Yes, yes, Photios conceded, some Latin fathers may have muttered something about the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Son, but what weight can the isolated opinion of an Augustine or a Jerome or an Ambrose have again the entire patristic tradition? It is best to cover the shame of your fathers, Photios advised the Latins, rather than drawing upon yourselves the curse of Ham who exhibited the nakedness of Noah. 

In scope and venom, this Eastern attack on the orthodoxy of the Latins—Franks and Romans alike—was unprecedented. Though Pope Nicholas I was no mere court chaplain to the Carolingians (to whose chagrin the pontiff had vigorously asserted his own right, “ratione peccati,” to intervene even in the marital transactions of the imperial family), Photios had lumped Nicholas—his personal enemy—in with the Franks in his condemnation of the Filioque. (Pope Nicholas likely believed that the doctrine of the Filioque was unobjectionable, even if he continued to recite the Creed in its pristine form—it does not appear that he condemned the Franks on this point whatsoever). Photios even exploited the Filioque problem as an occasion for critiquing Pope Nicholas’ claims to universal rule (claims that were begrudged him even in the West), though it would not be farfetched to descry a more delimited territory in the patriarch’s mind: the disputed Balkans.

In the midst of the conflict ramping up between Rome and Constantinople over the souls of the Slavs and Turks, Nicholas had upped the ante by excommunicating Photios for “usurping” the throne of Constantinople. Now, with the Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit, Photios had gone the nuclear option.  In council—and with the support of Emperor Michael “the Drunkard” who had previously dispatched to the Roman pontiff what one scholar memorably called “the rudest letter in Byzantine history”—Patriarch Photios solemnly excommunicated Pope Nicholas I and decreed him removed from the throne of Elder Rome in 867.

Charles C. Yost

Charles C. Yost

13 Responses

  1. Charles C. Yost says:

    Hey, Dr. Fleming, didn’t I write this? Or was I just dreaming?

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Not only did I write this, but, for a few minutes, you wrote the piece on “Fatal Mistakes”. Now, stepping out of the Twilight Zone…

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    By the way, I have never understood why Dionysios must be Pseudo-Dionysios. It was among the two or three most common names in late antiquity. Yes, it is to distinguish him from the Areopagite, and it is an academic custom that you would have been ill-advised to ignore. I still deplore it as pseudo-erudition, reminiscent of the old gag about the Hellenist who argued that the Iliad was not written by Homer but by a blind Greek of the same name. Perhaps we should start calling the author of the Apocalypse Pseudo-John, if we don’t regard him (as I do not) as the the Apostle John. I am thinking of referring to the pop historian as Pseudo-Thomas-Fleming.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I neglected to say, “good piece.” Perhaps you could take few minutes to explain the status of the Holy Ghost, A) Before Pentecost, and B) before the creation.

  5. Charles C. Yost says:

    Thanks, Dr. Fleming. You’re right–more accurate would be to say the Ps.-Areopagite. Photios’ treatment of this text in his Bibliotheca is fascinating. It shows that from fairly early on there were doubts about the identification of the writer of the Mystical Theology and other foundational works with the convert of St. Paul. (Photios is reviews a treatise defending the identification, which implies that there were doubts). In the Latin West, the matter got even more complex when Paul’s convert and the mystical theologian became identified with the first bishop of Paris, St. Denis, a 3rd c. figure…. Peter Abaelard stirred up trouble in the 12th c. when he denied the identification of the writer and the Apostolic figure…

    Yes, the pop historian (RIP) was definitely the Pseudo-Fleming.

  6. Charles C. Yost says:

    Dear Dr. Fleming–hefty questions! I’ll get back to you soon.

  7. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    This morning we were reading the fifth book of Eusebius in which he treats the growing controversy over the dating of Easter. The Eastern Churches, as everyone is probably aware, were “quartodeciman”, meaning essentially that they retained the Jewish dating of the passover, which meant that Easter (and Good Friday) could fall on any day of the week. Rome and the West had fairly early on had decided that Easter had to be celebrated on the Lord’s Day. Pope Victor, unfortunately feeling his oats, first tried to get all the churches to agree with Rome and then excommunicated the hold-outs. Irenaeus, a great bishop in Gaul, agreed with the dating but not the excommunication, and he politely rebuked Victor, reminding him that when Polycarp, the disciple of the Apostle John, visited Rome, he and Pope Anicetus had respectfully disagreed but Polycarp was allowed to maintain his custom. The Eastern bishops cited not just Polycarp and John but also the example of the Apostle Philip and countless other disciples, saints, and martyrs.

    Victor’s arrogant and one-sided decision on a matter that was important but involved no heresy is a good example of how not to do things. It was also a bit premature, both in the sense that the custom was not officially ended until the time of Constntine and lived on long enough after that to have been censured by St John Chrysostom, and in the sense that Rome did not yet enjoy such preeminence that it could stand up, unilaterally, to Alexandria, much less to so many churches in the East.

  8. Charles C. Yost says:

    Thank you for bringing up this case of Pope Victor and the dating of Easter. This is an extremely illuminating episode for a variety of reasons. First, it shows that major division in the Church well preceded the better known Arian controversy and that it involved at center an issue of praxis. There is a tendency seen in many soda-pop histories of Christianity to assume that “global” Christian divisions began with Arius (if not Michael Keroularios/Humbert or Martin Luther/Pope Leo X). The dating of Easter was a major issue. Catholics of an ultramontanist bent also like to cite Pope Victor’s intervention as a proof to the historicity of papal supremacy. As Dr. Fleming has intimated, the case was not so clear-cut. Victor thought he had the authority to excommunicate Christians in Asia Minor, certainly–but they certainly would have disputed that Victor had the authority to do so or make them discontinue a tradition that, as they maintained, was of Apostolic origin.

    Dear Dr. Fleming, I confess I tremble before the questions you posed regarding the Holy Ghost prior to Creation and Pentecost. All matters regarding the Holy Trinity are dreadful and way above my pay-grade. I’m trying to understand a little bit better what you are getting at by pin-pointing these particular moments: are you linking the procession of the Holy Spirit to the abiding of the Spirit upon the waters (as in Genesis) or to His descent upon the disciples at Pentecost?

  9. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    No, in my uncertain view, the Holy Ghost existed before time, manifested himself in the OT–perhaps in the image of the spirit upon the waters (as I’d like to think) and in informing the prophets, and in His descent as a dove at the Baptism of Christ. I have a very rough notion that the Holy Ghost only fully enters into human history and abides, working through the Church, with all Christians since Pentecost, but I don’t know enough about the history of the question to determine whether or not this view is orthodox or at least not heterodox.

    Speaking of which, I would not casual readers to conclude that I am disputing Rome’s claim to preeminence among the apostolic sees, only that it is one of things that evolved. Similarly–though it is not quite parallel–is the evolution of ideas about celibacy and communism that early Christians seem to have believed were mandatory and only gradually came to see that such requirements were part of monastic life.

    One very common mistake is to regard the infancy of the Church as its highest point, but that is like regarding babies as the perfection of humanity or the so-called Paleolithic diet as the best. The myth of primitivism is an exact parallel to the myth of progress.

  10. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    A Platonist would point out that the terms better and worse are not functions of time but of a perfection or form that is never realized in this word, and an Aristotelian would introduce the notion of entelechy–the process by which an institution or art, beginning in crude seeds, grows to bud, blossom, and bear fruit before–though t his is not inevitable–decaying. In real life, there are cycles within cycles, rather as in Ptolemaic astronomy. Music reaches a peak in Bach, Handel, and Scarlatti, but rises again, after some fall-back, in Haydn and music, lapses into romanticism, but is forever popping up when composers go back to Haydn or Handel. That is a crude comparison, but might suffice for the sake of argument.

  11. Robert Reavis says:

    Have enjoyed these posts by Mr. Yost.
    The comments about the Holy Ghost in the OT are indeed orthodox and grounded in the long procession of the communion of saints

  12. Robert Reavis says:

    As for the evangelical counsels, they are not for everyone. Which does not mean as the Protestant experiment has proven and the American Catholic’s desire to imitate their Protestant neighbors has verified , that they are not for anyone.

  13. Aetolian says:

    Thank you Mr Yost for one of the most fascinating and objective pieces of Roman Byzantine history. Kudos!