Photios, the Franks, and the Filioque, Part II

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June 3, 2019

Ever since Charlemagne had smashed the Avars at the eastern marches of his expanding realm, agents of the Frankish empire had begun infiltrating into the northern Balkans, including the lands inhabited by the Slavic tribe of the Moravians (the ancestors of the Czechs and Slovaks). Among these agents were missionaries, for the empire of Charlemagne was a Christian empire, the true Israel in the fancy of his court theologians, and the progress of the Gospel must keep pace with the expansion of boundaries into heathendom. There was bound to be a conflict then, when heathendom meant not only the Germanic North but the Slavic East: the very backyard of Byzantium—the only true orthodox and ecumenical empire according to the fundamental conviction of its emperors and priests, even as they brooded on the great offense offered by the Roman Church and her barbarian protégés for suggesting otherwise since Christmas Day of 800. Now the imperial government of Constantinople, no longer distracted by the quarrel over icons, was better prepared to make good on its pretensions. 

In 862, Patriarch Photios dispatched the scholar-brothers Constantine-Cyril and Methodios on a mission to the Slavic peoples in the northwest Balkans, including the Moravians. As was befitting former imperial diplomats, the brothers displayed exemplary sensitivity and tact during their mission. The Slavic immigrants in the southern Balkans had been obliged to be content with a Greek Gospel and liturgy. Among the Slavs of Moravia and the Dalmatian coast, however, the brothers and their followers preached Christ in the Slavonic tongue—not exactly a “vernacular” (as is often claimed) but a generic Slavic idiom devised by the brothers on the basis of the dialect spoken by Slavs in the neighborhood of Thessaloniki. Moreover, the missionaries agreed to go to Rome and seek the pope’s blessing for their work in order to quiet the suspicions of the Latins whom they were encountering in the field. T

he brothers were undoubtedly well aware of Rome’s historical claims of jurisdiction over the souls in Illyricum. In Venice, on their way to Rome, the locals rebuked the Byzantine missionaries for allowing the Slavs to hear Mass in their own tongue. Didn’t they know that God could only properly be worshipped in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew—the three languages in which Pontius Pilate had written the charge against Christ hung above His cross? This anecdote, recorded in the Greek vita of Cyril-Constantine, apparently formed the basis of an accusation of heresy that the Byzantines would hurl at the Latins long after: the heresy of “trilingualism.” However much hagiographical tradition is here founded in reality, “trilingualism” was not, thankfully, the official view of the Carolingians—who ruled in synod that it was erroneous to believe that a man would not be heard by God unless he prayed in Latin—or, much less, the Pope himself. Pope Nicholas I received these Byzantine missionaries—although in 863 he had excommunicated the patriarch who had originally sent them—endorsed their methods and blessed their mission—albeit undoubtedly with the assumption that the Slavs baptized by their hands would thenceforth belong under Roman jurisdiction. The missionaries themselves, less concerned with church politics than with saving souls, continued their holy work. 

The pope was one thing. The Carolingians were another. When the followers of Cyril and Methodius went into the Illyrican mission fields, they encountered Frankish clerics bent on establishing Frankish mission-dioceses under Frankish bishops who would report to their emperor in Aachen and exclude “outside” (i.e., Greek) influence. The Greek missionaries were hounded out of Moravia by their Frankish competitors who, unlike the Byzantines, had military support close at hand. 

And the Byzantines were soon chagrined to see the Latins gaining ground in Bulgaria. Essential to Khan Boris’ project of state-building was the establishment of an independent national Church. Disappointed by the unwillingness of the patriarchate of Constantinople to grant ecclesiastical autonomy to her newly-christened Bulgarian subjects, Boris began courting the patronage of the Roman Church in the hopes that he could get a better deal from Pope Nicholas I. (Boris would ultimately be disappointed once more on this front as Rome was equally unwilling to grant such freedom to the neophyte Bulgarian Church). Nevertheless, Boris quizzed Pope Nicholas about every facet of Christian observance that troubled his Bulgarian heart (‘do Christians really have to abstain from bathing on Wednesdays and Fridays, as the Greeks say?’ Boris wondered—‘Of course not, the Greeks are silly,’ responded Pope Nicholas). Sufficiently satisfied by what he had learned (and undoubtedly motivated by political considerations of the benefits of a closer alliance with the Franks), Boris expressed his preference for Latin Christianity by expelling the Greek missionaries from his realm. 

Defeated Byzantine missionaries streamed back into the Empire bearing disturbing reports to their Patriarch Photios of the heterodox practices and beliefs that the Frankish barbarians were spreading among the Moravians and Bulgars. 

First, they complained, Frankish missionaries were apparently instructing converts that they should fast not only on Friday, but on Saturday as well. The Saturday fast was an ancient practice of the Roman Church in honor of the day that Christ lay dead in the tomb. But it seemed disordered to the Byzantines, for whom Saturdays (excluding Holy Saturday) recalled the joy of the great Sabbath of God’s rest after the creation of the world and on which day (along with Sundays) the Divine Liturgy was customarily celebrated. 

The Franks were also teaching their Slavic neophytes that priests and deacons should be celibate and, plausibly, instructing them to shun married clergy. Readers of this column may be familiar with long-standing difference between the Eastern and Western Churches as regards the permissibility of a married clergy. Without getting into too many details here, suffice it to say that celibacy had been the expectation demanded by the Roman Church of candidates for the higher orders of sacred ministry (subdeacons, deacons, priests/bishops), at least in theory, for centuries. The thirteenth canon of the synod “in Trullo” (691/2), a Constantinopolitan council that understood itself as the lawful continuation of the fifth and sixth ecumenical councils but which no western prelates attended, criticized the Roman Church on these grounds while ruling that candidates for holy orders should be allowed to keep their wives and continue to enjoy conjugal relations with them even after ordination to the diaconate and priesthood—so long as they had, in fact, married before receiving orders. (Bishops, of course, were bound to observe celibacy). 

The third great sin of the Latins was their notion that only bishops could impart the sacrament of confirmation. In the Greek East, mere priests bestowed this sacrament immediately after baptism. It seems likely that in the primitive Church, only the leaders of a particular Christian community (i.e., bishops) offered this mystery to the faithful—just as the bishop presided over the one Eucharistic table in which all the faithful of a particular church would share. But the growth of Christianity required the bishop to enlist presbyters to whom he delegated a share in his own ministry, including the celebration of the sacraments. In the Latin West, apparently, the sacrament of confirmation was never thus delegated. The Western restriction of the sacrament of confirmation to bishops was to have major consequences for Latin sacramental praxis, including the eventual lapse of infant communion—another discrepancy between East and West that is all too apparent to the present. 

But in the eyes of the learned Patriarch Photios, the error errorum of the Latins was enshrined in one word: Filioque. Next time, we shall discuss this problem and its origins; we shall take a brief look at the character of Photios’ attack on the Filioque, and the eventual resolution of the conflict between Rome and Constantinople. 

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Charles C. Yost

Charles C. Yost