St. Photios the Great, the Photian Council, and Relations with the Roman Church



There is considerable discussion today within the
worldwide Orthodox Church about the status of the
so-called “Photian Council,” held in
Constantinople in 879-880. This is an exceedingly
important council in the history of the Orthodox Church,
and therefore deserves to be much more widely known among
the Orthodox faithful. And this Council is of special
relevance for our Orthodox Church vis-a-vis the Roman
Catholic Church, in that 1), it officially prohibited any
addition to the Nicene Creed, thus rejecting the Filioque
clause, which was in use by many churches in Western
Europe at that time (though not in Rome until 1014); and
2), it implicitly rejected the principle of Papal
Supremacy, or jurisdictional authority, over the Eastern
Churches, in that this Council rendered null and void the
pro-papal Ignatian Council held in Constantinople ten
years earlier. But in one of the greatest ironies of
Christian history, the Photian Council was recognized
as legitimate by the papacy for nearly 200 years

until the period of the Gregorian Reform, when
the canon lawyers of Pope Gregory VII (r. 1073-1085)
rejected the Photian Council and resurrected the Ignatian
Council to take its place.

My personal opinion is that this substitution 200 years
after the fact was made easier for the Roman Church due to
the circumstance that the Eastern Church had not
the Photian Council to be the Eighth
Ecumenical Council. There are understandable reasons for
that circumstance, which I will discuss near the end of
this paper. For now, I will simply observe that this
substitution has made reconciliation between the Roman
Catholic and the Eastern Churches tremendously more
difficult through the centuries—since the
Filioque and Papal Supremacy have been the two
biggest stumbling blocks hindering reconciliation to this

The basic background to the story of these two

St. Photios the Great (c. 815—c. 891) has been
called “the most distinguished thinker, the most
outstanding politician, and the most skillful diplomat
ever to hold office as Patriarch of

St. Tarasios, the uncle of St. Photios
St. Tarasios, the uncle of St. Photios
He was from the upper nobility of
Constantinople. His parents, Sergios Georgios and
Irene, suffered as confessors for the faith since
they were defending the veneration of the holy icons
during the second wave of the heresy of Iconoclasm,
and are saints in our Church. They were exiled, and
separated from their son when he was about nine years
old; they apparently never saw him again. Their feast
day is May 13. And Photios’s uncle was St.
Tarasios, the Patriarch of Constantinople who
presided over the Seventh
Ecumenical Council
, held in Nicea in 787, which
officially defended the icons against the

The young Photios was given a superb classical education
under the supervision of relatives. Early on he showed
interest in monasticism, but he decided upon a career of
statesmanship, having excellent connections in the
imperial court. At first he served as an Imperial
Secretary, and then as ambassador to Baghdad. Later, he
became a professor at the newly invigorated University of
Constantinople, which was playing a key role in the major
revival of culture and learning that took place in
Byzantium after the Triumph of Orthodoxy in 843, which
once and for all restored the veneration of the holy

On October 23, 858, Patriarch Ignatios of Constantinople
resigned his office, partly under pressure from Emperor
Michael III (son of St. Empress Theodora), at the urging
of Caesar Bardas, Theodora’s brother and virtual prime
minister of the government, whose relationship with his
daughter-in-law Patr. Ignatios had condemned as
incestuous—though this may well have been an
unfounded accusation. According to prominent Roman
Catholic historian Francis Dvornik, Ignatios also resigned
“on the advice of bishops who were anxious to
prevent a conflict between the Church and the
government.”[2] Dvornik immediately goes on to say
that Ignatios

asked his adherents to select a new patriarch. In a
local synod the bishops of both parties [the rigorists
backing Ignatios, and the moderates backing Photios]
recommended to the Emperor the layman Photios [whose
brilliant talents were well-known], avoiding the election
of a bishop from each [or either] rival party. Photios was
recognized as the legitimate patriarch by all the bishops,
even the five most faithful supporters of Ignatios, after
Photios had given them certain guarantees concerning the
position of Ignatios after his abdication.

858: Photios’ consecration as

Very reluctantly, Photios accepted this completely
unexpected summons by the Church and the Emperor to be the
new patriarch. And because the Nativity of the Lord was
fast approaching, and a patriarch would be needed to lead
the services, Photios was elevated to the position of
Patriarch through ceremonies of tonsuring, diaconal and
priestly ordination, and consecration as bishop on five
consecutive days (St. Ambrose of Milan had been elevated
from layman to bishop in a similarly hasty fashion in 386,
as had St. Tarasios in 784). His consecration as Patriarch
was accomplished by Bp. “Gregory Asbestos, leader of
the liberals, and by two Ignatian bishops.”[4]

Now the plot really thickens! According to Dvornik,

About two months after Photios’ ordination, the
extreme followers of Ignatios, assembled in the church of
St. Irene, refused obedience to the new patriarch and
demanded the reestablishment of Ignatios. The reason for
this action may have lain in differing interpretations of
the nature of the guarantees given by Photios to the five
leaders of the Ignatian party. Photios convoked a synod in
the church of the Holy Apostles (859). The opposing party
prevented their condemnation by provoking a riot
(Zonnaras, PG 137:1004f ), which had a political
background and which was suppressed with bloodshed by the
imperial police. Photios protested against the cruelty of
the police, and threatened Bardas with his abdication

[certainly this is a clear indication of his lack of lust
for the position, as Western critics have so often accused
him of for centuries].

After peace had been established, the synod was
reconvened in the church of the Blachernae palace. In
order to deprive the opposition of any claim concerning
the legitimacy of Ignatios’ patriarchate, the synod
declared, on the request of Bardas, that the whole
patriarchate of Ignatios was illegitimate because he had
not been elected by a synod, but had simply been appointed
by Empress [St.] Theodora [back in 847]. During the riots
Ignatios and some of his followers were imprisoned.
Ignatios was interned in various places, finally to a
monastery on the island of Terebinthus. Bardas must,
however, have convinced himself that Ignatios had not been
responsible for the riots, because he allowed him to stay
(860) in the palace of Posis in Constantinople, which had
been built by Ignatios’ mother.

Because of these troubles, only in 860 was Photios
able to send [the customary] letter to Pope Nicholas I
[and the other patriarchs—Alexandria, Antioch, and
Jerusalem] regarding his enthronement. In this
communication, he announced that he had accepted his
election unwillingly after Ignatios had

In this letter, according to Despina White,
“Photios, after confessing his dedication to
Orthodoxy, stated that he would have preferred to stay
with his books and his eager pupils, but had agreed to
become patriarch in ‘obedience to the will of God,
who was thus punishing him for his
transgressions.’”[6] Despina White goes on to recount:
“In another epistle, to Bardas, Photios
complained again that he was forced by Bardas to take
the see against his will.”[7]

Some time later Photios wrote a more personal letter just
to Pope Nicholas, in which he declared:

I left a peaceful life, I left a calm with
sweetness… I left my favorite tranquillity. When I
stayed at home I was immersed in the sweetest of
pleasures, seeing the diligence of those who were
learning, the seriousness of those who asked questions,
and the enthusiasm of those who answered them… And
when I had to go to my duties at the imperial palace, they
sent me off with their warm farewells and asked me not to
be long… And when I returned, this studious group
was waiting for me in front of my door; … and all
this was done frankly and plainly without malice, without
intrigue, without jealousy. And who, after having known
such a life, would tolerate seeing it overthrown and would
not lament? It is all this that I have left, all this that
I cry for, the privation of which has made me shed streams
of tears, and has enveloped me in a fog of

Surely these letters strongly disprove the typical Western
charge that Photios lusted after the patriarchal office,
and that he had somehow usurped it.

To continue with Dvornik’s account: “The Emperor
Michael and Photios also asked the Pope to send legates to
a new council in Constantinople, which would once more
condemn iconoclasm and confirm the decision made by
Theodora in 843 concerning the reestablishment of the cult
of images.”[9]

861: The Council in Constantinople

Now, Pope Nicholas, who would prove to be one of the
strongest popes in the history of the Roman papacy, and
one of the most intent on extending papal authority, was
already busy trying to consolidate and extend the power of
the papacy over the Western churches, which was far from
secure at this time.[10] Nicholas was especially intent on
doing this, since this was a time when papal prestige
and authority were at a particularly low ebb, and he
was an ardent proponent and promoter of the idea and
practice of Papal Supremacy over all the Churches of
Christ. It’s quite evident from the way events
unfolded that he saw this controversy in Constantinople
as an excellent opportunity to try and extend papal
power over the Eastern Church as well. So in 861 he
eagerly accepted Photios’ invitation to send
papal legates to Constantinople to attend this upcoming
Church council, but with the idea to make it the
occasion to investigate and reconsider the whole matter
of Photios’ elevation to the office of patriarch.

Back in Constantinople, further indicating his interest in
maintaining good relations with Rome, Photios received the
Papal legates with “great deference,”[11] even inviting them to
at the council. And as we can tell from
his letters, most likely Photios would have been quite
happy to let Ignatios come back as patriarch.

This Council, held in 861, was indeed presided over by the
papal legates. After a thorough investigation, the council
determined that Photios was indeed the legitimate
patriarch—and this decision was supported by the
papal legates. But when the legates reported this verdict
back to Nicholas, he refused to accept the decision, since
he had not forced the Eastern Church to submit to his will
to have Ignatios reinstated.

863: The Council in Rome

So Pope Nicholas declared that his legates “had
exceeded their powers.”[12] He disowned their decision and that
of the council to accept Photios as the legitimate
patriarch, and proceeded to retry the case at a council
held under his presidency at Rome in 863. This council
quite predictably proclaimed Ignatios as patriarch,
declaring “Photios to be deposed from all
priestly dignity.”[13] Nicholas also asserted that all
clergy ordained by Photios during the preceding five
years were to be deposed! “This assertion of
papal authority naturally gave great offence at

Proof that the patriarchate of Constantinople in no way
accepted papal pretensions of having jurisdictional
authority over her is the fact that these pronouncements
by Pope Nicholas and the Council of Rome of 863 were
completely ignored by the Church in Constantinople; no
reply was even sent to Nicholas! An open breach now
existed between Constantinople and Rome—a breach
which obviously was created by Nicholas and his council,
and not by Photios! But because, from the Papal
standpoint, Photios was defying Papal authority, this
schism was blamed on him. Hence, ever since in the West,
this schism has been known as the “Photian

Nicholas’papal presumptions

Pope Nicholas tried to claim that a canon from the Council
of Sardica (in 343) justified his actions at the council
in Rome in 863. This canon (Canon 3) did allow appeals
concerning any bishop put under condemnation to be made to
Rome; but Rome is only authorized by this canon to grant a
re-trial—if there is due cause—to be held in
the region adjoining that of the condemned bishop. By
demanding a re-trial after the Council of Constantinople
of 861, and by holding it in Rome, Pope Nicholas
far exceeded the limits of this canon from the Council of

Nicholas made his intentions very clear in 865 in a letter
he wrote to Emperor Michael, in which he declared that the
Roman Church has authority “over all the earth, that
is, over every Church.”[16] As Roman Catholic historian David
Knowles writes,

to the Emperor, claims were made to powers
hitherto never exercised in the East, such as the
right of Rome to summon parties to Rome for the
examination of their case even though no appeal had been
lodged by them. Nicholas uses language about the papacy
which was not exceeded in strength even by Gregory VII [r.
1073-1085]. Set up as princes over the whole earth, the
popes are an epitome of the whole Church; all Christians
are subjected to papal rule; without the Church of Rome
there is no Christianity; the pope is master of the
bishops… The pope is mediator between Christ and
man, and it is through him that the powers of both
emperors and bishops flow


Boris IBoris I
The stalemate was intensified by conflict
over the Frankish/German and Greek missionary work
among the Slavs in eastern Europe, where the parallel
missionary work being done by the Latin-speaking
Germans and the Greek-speaking Byzantines was being
carried out according to quite different principles.
The showdown occurred in Bulgaria, where Khan Boris at
first leaned toward the Germans, but when threatened by
a Byzantine military invasion, he changed his mind and
accepted Baptism from Greek clergy (taking Michael as
his Baptismal name, after the Byzantine emperor) in
865. Shortly thereafter, Patriarch Photios wrote to
Khan Boris a long letter describing all the duties of a
proper Christian prince and ruler; in this letter he
includes a detailed history of the seven Ecumenical

But Khan Boris wanted the new Church in his land of
Bulgaria to be as independent as possible, so he then
looked to the West in hopes of better terms. He allowed
the Latin missionaries a free hand, and they sharply
criticized the Greek clergy for being married, for having
different fasting regulations, for allowing priests to
administer Chrismation (only bishops were doing this in
the West, where it had become known as
“confirmation”), and above all, for not using
the Filioque! Though the Filioque was
still not used officially in Rome (where it would continue
to be resisted all the way until 1014, when it was first
used in public worship there), Pope Nicholas had not tried
to stop the Germans from using it—apparently he had
fewer reservations about it than did his predecessor Pope
Leo III, who, while allowing Charlemagne and the Franks to
use it, in 808 had the original Nicene Creed engraved in
silver tablets and prominently displayed in St.
Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

867: The Council in Constantinople

By 867, four years after Pope Nicholas and the Council of
Rome of 863 had attempted to depose and anathematize him,
Photios felt he could be silent no longer. In an
encyclical letter to all the Eastern patriarchs, he
denounced the presence of Latin missionaries in Bulgaria
with their various non-Orthodox practices and
beliefs—especially the Filioque—and
announced an upcoming synod to be held in Constantinople
to address these issues. Here is an excerpt from this
letter concerning the Filioque: “Nevertheless, even
if we did not cite all these and other innovations of the
Church of Rome, the mere citing of their addition of the
Filioque to the Nicene Creed would be enough to subject
them to a thousand anathemas. This innovation blasphemes
the Holy Spirit, or more correctly, the entire Holy

We can add here that St. Photios later wrote an extended
essay critiquing the Filioque, which he addressed
to Western theologians, entitled The Mystagogia of the
Holy Spirit
.[20] In this work, Photios calls the
Filioque “O deceiving drunkenness of
impiety!” and “this blasphemous chattering
which turns the monarchy [within the Godhead] into many
principles and causes … in a sort of monstrous
‘semi-sabellianism.’”[21] According to the Oxford
Dictionary of the Christian Church
, Photios’s
critique of the Filioque “has furnished
all subsequent Greek theologians with their objections
to the Western dogma.”[22]

And this is how Photios described in that same letter to
all the patriarchs the German missionaries who had come
into Bulgaria:

For the Bulgarians had not been baptized even two
years when dishonorable men emerged out of the darkness
[i.e., the West], and poured down like hail—or
better, charged like wild boars upon the newly-planted
vineyard of the Lord. They destroyed it with hoof and
tusk, which is to say, by their shameful lives and
corrupted dogmas. The papal missionaries and clergy wanted
these Orthodox Christians to depart from the correct and
pure dogmas of our irreproachable Faith

In 1948 the Roman Catholic scholar Francis Dvornik
published a meticulously researched book entitled The
Photian Schism: History and Legend
.[24] This bravely pioneering work has done
much to soften the hostility and rancor held by the
West against Photios for over a thousand years. But
still, in this book Dvornik calls this letter by
Patriarch Photios “a futile attack,”
“an inconsiderate, hasty, and big lapse with
fatal consequences.”[25] But as Bishop Kallistos Ware
observes, it was the West which was the aggressor
concerning the Filioque, with Rome allowing its use by
the Franks. Since Photios was convinced it was
heretical, he had to act.[26]

So in this momentous year of 867, a major council met in
Constantinople, with something like 1000 bishops, priests,
and monks in attendance. The council declared Pope
Nicholas deposed, anathema, and ex-communicated; he was
called “a heretic who ravages the vineyard of the
Lord.”[27] And according to Dvornik,
“Nicholas was condemned and the [Holy Roman]
Emperor Louis II was asked to depose him.”[28] Also at this Council the
Filioque was condemned as heretical, and Roman
interference in the internal affairs of the Eastern
Church was denounced as illegal.

On Sept. 23, 867, Basil the Macedonian, the co-emperor,
upon hearing a rumor that Emperor Michael was planning to
kill him, murdered the emperor (who was known, not without
cause, as Michael the Drunkard) and murdered Caesar Bardas
also, and usurped the throne, establishing a new
dynasty—the Macedonian Dynasty. In order to win the
favor and support of Rome—especially since he
literally had “blood on his hands” from his
murderous usurpation of the throne, he had Photios deposed
and Ignatios reinstated as Patriarch of Constantinople.
Communion with Rome was restored, with both Basil and
Ignatios writing extremely deferential letters to Pope
Nicholas—letters which seemed to acknowledge Papal
supremacy even over the Eastern Church.[29]

On Nov. 13 in this same year, Pope Nicholas died, before
hearing of his ex-communication by the Council of
Constantinople held earlier that year. He was succeeded by
Pope Hadrian II (r. 867-872), who proved to be a
relatively strong pope, but not as forceful as Nicholas
had been. Still, he oversaw a council in Rome held in 869,
attended by Greek delegates, which condemned the Council
of Constantinople of 867 and publicly burned its acts!

The “Ignatian Council” in
Constantinople in 869-870

In 869-870, another council was held in Constantinople,
this time under Patr. Ignatios. It was called by Emperor
Basil and subjected to imperial pressure by him. This
council opened with only twelve bishops (later to rise to
103). Its small numbers were due to the fact that
“the great majority of the hierarchy and the clergy
remained faithful to Photios.”[30] Known as the “Ignatian
Council,” this gathering condemned and
anathematized Photios. He was then sent into exile even
without his books.[31] All in all, this council was the most
pro-Roman council ever held within the Eastern Church.
It asserted that “in the apostolic See [i.e.,
Rome], the Catholic religion has always been kept
unsullied, and its teaching kept holy. Desiring in no
way to be separated from this faith and doctrine … we
hope that we may deserve to be associated with you in
the one communion which the apostolic See proclaims, in
which the whole truth and perfect security of the
Christian religion resides.” It’s easy to see
why this council was quoted at Vatican I, which
declared Papal Infallibility to be dogma in

One would have thought that this very pro-Roman council
would have well satisfied the papacy. But this council had
also asked Emperor Basil to resolve the status of the
newly formed Bulgarian Church, and not surprisingly, he
assigned it to the authority of the Patriarchate of
Constantinople. Patriarch Ignatios defied Roman protests
about this, and appointed an archbishop and bishops for
the Bulgarians, expelling all the Latin clergy. The
Bulgarians accepted this development, as they finally
realized that their Church would have more independence
under Constantinople than under Rome. But Rome threatened
Ignatios with ex-communication, and relations between the
two Churches were very strained again.

Photios’ reconciliation with Emperor Basil
and Patriarch Ignatios

In 873 Photios was recalled from exile by Emperor Basil,
who by now had shifted his allegiance from the extreme
conservatives in the Church to the more moderate party
that still supported Photios. By now Basil was firmly
ensconced in power and no longer needed the support of the
Ignatian party, or that of Rome. He even made Photios the
tutor for his sons Leo (the future emperor) and Alexander,
and Photios resumed his lectures at the University.

In the following years Ignatios and Photios were
reconciled; and when Ignatios neared death, he stipulated
that he wanted Photios to succeed him as patriarch. This
indeed is what happened, for after Ignatios died, on
October 23, 877, Photios was returned to the patriarchal
throne. And soon thereafter, Photios worked for the
official canonization of Ignatios as a saint—his
feast day is October 23.

The “Photian Council” of Constantinople
in 879-880

In 879-880 another council is held in Constantinople, with
383 bishops in attendance, which annulled the decisions of
the much smaller and much more politically motivated
Ignatian Council of 869-870 which had affirmed Ignatios
rather than Photios to be the rightful patriarch of
Constantinople. The Papal legates attending this council,
known as the Photian Council, were apparently in full
approval. Indeed, they joined in this declaration of the
council’s last session: “If any man refuses to
recognize Photios as the holy patriarch and declines to be
in communion with him, his lot shall be with Judas, and he
shall not be included among the Christians!”[33]

According to a nineteenth century Western historian
generally antagonistic towards Photios, “this
council ‘was, on the whole, a truly majestic event,
such as had not been seen since the Council of
Chalcedon.’”[34] This council strictly prohibited any
alteration of the Nicene Creed, thus rejecting the
Filioque: “The Creed cannot be subtracted from,
added to, altered or distorted in any
way.”[35] The actual wording of the horos, or
proclamation, of the council concerning the Nicene
Creed is as follows:

Thus we think; in this Confession of Faith we were
baptized; through this one word of truth every heresy is
broken to pieces and canceled out. We enroll as brothers
and fathers and coheirs of the heavenly city those who
think thus. If anyone, however, dares to rewrite and call
this Rule of Faith some other exposition besides that of
the sacred Symbol which has been spread abroad from above
by our blessed and holy Fathers even as far as ourselves,
and to snatch the authority of the Confession of those
divine men, and impose on it his own invented phrases
and put this forth as a common lesson to the faithful or
to those who return from some kind of heresy, and display
the audacity to falsify completely
the antiquity of this sacred and venerable Horos (Rule)
with illegitimate words, or additions, or subtractions,
such a person should, according to the vote of the holy
and Ecumenical Synods, which has been already acclaimed
before us, be subjected to complete defrocking if he
happens to be one of the clergymen, or be sent away with
an anathema if he happens to be one of the lay

In addition, “this council also argued that the pope
was a patriarch like all other patriarchs, that he
possessed no authority over the entire Church, and hence
it was not necessary for the patriarch of Constantinople
to receive the confirmation of the Roman
pontiff.”[37] In the words of the Oxford
Dictionary of Byzantium
about this council,
“Although the ‘privileges’ of Rome
were recognized [as being the ‘first among
equals’], the canonical and judicial authority of
pope and patriarch were defined in terms of equality
(Canon 1). Papal jurisdiction over the Byzantine Church
was thus excluded.”[38]

The pope now was John VIII (r. 872-882), successor of Pope
Hadrian II. According to Vasiliev, “Greatly angered,
John sent a legate to Constantinople to insist upon the
annulment of any measure passed at the council which was
disagreeable to the pope. The legate was also to obtain
certain concessions regarding the Bulgarian Church. Basil
and Photios refused to yield in any of these points, and
even went so far as to arrest the legate.”[39]

In the end, Pope John did accept the decisions of this
council, even if reluctantly, partly because of his
antagonism against the Germans. He did not press the
Filioque, he did not press German or Roman claims in
Bulgaria, and he accepted Photios as the legitimate
patriarch. Apparently he recognized that Nicholas’s
policies and aggressive attitude had been destructive to
Christian unity.

This Photian Council was the council, and not the
Ignatian Council that it overturned, which brought peace
between Rome and Constantinople which lasted until the
Great Schism of 1054. But that relationship had been
severely strained by the interference of Pope Nicholas and
that of his two successors in the internal life of the
Church of Constantinople. Fr. Schmemann reflects the
Orthodox point of view concerning this interference when
he writes, “It would be difficult to imagine more
misunderstanding, intolerance, and haughtiness than were
shown by Pope Nicholas and his successors in their
intervention in the internal difficulties of the Byzantine

Photios’ later years

Photios served as patriarch for six more years, until, in
886, the new Emperor Leo (r. 886-912), Basil I’s son,
immediately deposed him, probably for personal reasons. It
is known that Photios had sided with Basil in a dispute
the emperor had had with his son Leo shortly before
Basil’s death.

St. Photios died in relative obscurity, in the monastery
of Armeniakon[41] around the year 891.

Map of Vordonisi Island, where St. Photios died in the Armeniakon Monastery
Map of Vordonisi Island, where St. Photios died in the Armeniakon Monastery

Rome’s acceptance and later rejection of the
Photian Council

The Photian Council and its authority were not questioned
in Rome for the next nearly 200 years. Strong evidence of
this is given by the Roman Catholic writer Daniel J.
Casellano when he states, “In the West, early
canonists, most notably St. Ivo of Chartres (late eleventh
cent.) and Gratian (twelfth cent.), considered the Photian
synod of 879-880 to have been duly approved by Pope John

But during the time of Pope Gregory VII (r. 1073-1085), in
the period known as the Gregorian Reform, as I mentioned
at the beginning of this paper, Papal canon lawyers went
back to the stormy decades of the 860s and 870s, and
replaced the Photian Council with the Ignatian
Council of ten years earlier. In the words of the
Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, the Photian
Council had been “recognized as ecumenical by Rome
until the Gregorian Reform, when the official Roman
tradition was abandoned in favor of the Council of
869” (p. 513).

Orthodox scholar Fr. George Dragas asks,

How did it happen that Roman Catholics came to ignore
this conciliar fact? Following Papadopoulos Kerameus,
Johan Meijer—author of a most thorough study of the
Constantinopolitan Council of 879/880—has pointed
out that Roman Catholic canonists first referred to their
Eighth Ecumenical Council (the Ignatian one) in the
beginning of the twelfth century. In line with Dvornik and
others, Meijer also explained that this was done
deliberately because these canonists needed at that time
canon 22 of that Council.
[43] In point of fact, however, they
overlooked the fact that
this Council had been
cancelled by another, the Photian Synod of
879-880—the acts of which were also kept in the
pontifical archives.[44]

Repercussions for Orthodox-Roman Catholic

How different relations would have been in succeeding
centuries, and all the way to the present, between
Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism if the Roman Church had
continued to accept the Photian Council as legitimate, and
if she had fully abided by its decrees! For if the Roman
Church ever did reaffirm the legitimacy of the Photian
Council, thus rejecting the Ignatian Council, the two
biggest obstacles to the reconciliation of the Roman
Church with Orthodoxy would be instantly removed: the
Filioque, and the claims of the Roman Church to have
jurisdictional authority over the Eastern Churches.

As Fr. John Meyendorff observes, in commenting on the
mutual lifting by the Pope and the Patriarch of
Constantinople in 1965 of the anathemas of 1054,

How immensely more significant, for example,
would be the restoration in the list of the Ecumenical
Councils recognized by Rome of the Council of
Constantinople of 879-880, the only really successful
attempt at reunion between east and west. For one of the
most exciting results of contemporary historical research
(especially the studies of F. Dvornik) has been the
discovery that this council, sponsored and approved by
Patriarch Photios and Pope John VIII, had remained in the
western lists of Ecumenical Councils until the eleventh
[or at least had been accepted as fully
legitimate, superseding the Ignatian Council], when
the Latin canonists arbitrarily replaced it with the
Council of 869-870. A decision of this sort would
certainly change fundamentally the relations between
Orthodoxy and Rome

And if I might hazard a speculation: if the Orthodox
Church would now officially designate the Photian Council
as the Eighth Ecumenical Council, perhaps the Roman Church
would be nudged towards doing so herself, in the interest
of reunion with Holy Orthodoxy. But even if that never
happened, by making the Photian Council the Eighth
Ecumenical Council and the Palamite Councils the Ninth
Ecumenical Council
; and having liturgical services in
remembrance of them, along with, of course, veneration for
the fathers at these councils; the tremendous importance
of these councils would be impressed upon the Orthodox
faithful, who could then benefit spiritually through
learning about (or learning more about) their decisions.

Furthermore, through these moves, I believe the current
dialogue between our Church and the Roman Church would
thereby be greatly benefited, as three of the most
important key issues would be sharpened, put in bolder
relief, and the participants would be spurred to key in on
them more decisively—the issues of 1), an unchanging
Nicene Creed; 2), jurisdictional independence for our
various Orthodox Churches—freedom from the oversight
of the Papacy, except for restoring the ancient
understanding of the primacy of honor of the Roman bishop
as the “first among equals”; and 3), the
crucial dogmatic distinction between the Essence and the
Energies of God, and the understanding of
salvation/sanctification/deification as consisting of each
person’s participation in the Divine Energies.

Assessment of Photios today

Western scholars, influenced by the vehemently
anti-Photian Papal perspective, long have held that
Photios was the chief figure at fault in causing the
temporary schism from 863 to 867 with the Roman Church,
which is why to this day it is called in the West the
“Photian Schism”—as I mentioned earlier.
Adrian Fortescue, the author of the article on
“Photios” in the Catholic
of 1911,[46] even accuses him of being the
chief source and cause of the Great Schism of
Fortescue ends his article with these words:

One may perhaps sum up Photios by saying that he was a
great man with one blot on his character—his
insatiable and unscrupulous ambition. But that blot so
covers his life that it eclipses everything else and makes
him deserve our final judgment as
one of the worst
enemies the Church of Christ ever had, and the cause of
the greatest calamity that ever befell her (my emphasis).

Thankfully, with Francis Dvornik’s great study of 1948
which I referred to earlier, Photios is now more generally
accepted in the West as, in Dvornik’s words, “a
great Churchman, a learned humanist, and a genuine
Christian, generous enough to forgive his enemies, and to
take the first steps towards
reconciliation.”[47] He is still seen in a negative light,
however, by all defenders of papal claims to rule over
all the Churches of Christ, due to his adamant
resistance against what we Orthodox understand to be
this most fundamental error of the Roman Church.

St. Photios’ position in Orthodoxy could scarcely be
higher, as he is honored, along with St. Mark of Ephesus
and St. Gregory Palamas, as one of the Three Pillars of
Orthodoxy. This designation seems to be intentionally
parallel to the veneration given St. Basil the Great, St.
Gregory the Theologian, and St. John Chrysostom as the
Three Holy Hierarchs.

St. Photios’ Feast Day is celebrated in the Holy
Orthodox Church on February 6.

Why has the Photian Council not been considered to
be ecumenical by the Orthodox Church?

It was called by the emperor; it had representation from
all across the Orthodox world, including legates from
Rome; it was large; its acts were signed by all the
Patriarchates; and it referred to itself as “this
holy and ecumenical Synod.” And as the Oxford
Dictionary of Byzantium
states, “The
Council’s decisions were inserted in every subsequent
Orthodox collection of canon law, and normally follow
those of the first seven ecumenical councils. It is
referred to as ‘ecumenical’ by some Byzantine

However, its main focus was on an
administrative/jurisdictional issue—concerning
affirming the full legitimacy of the election of a ruling
Eastern patriarch—rather than a pressing
Christological issue, which each of the previous seven
Ecumenical Councils had addressed—even though it
could be affirmed that Triadology, and hence Christology,
were indeed addressed, in that the Filioque was prohibited
by this council.

In addition, Photios himself may have been reluctant to
proclaim it as the Eighth Council for reasons of humility,
since it fully exonerated him; and also because he was
still intent on making sure that the Nicene Council of 787
was fully recognized as the Seventh Ecumenical
Council—which was also affirmed at this council.

But whatever the reasons for the Orthodox Church not
having designated the Photian Council as the Eighth
Council until now, why couldn’t this matter be
reconsidered in our own time, with prayer and study and
courage, which could result in the discernment that
perhaps the Holy Spirit is trying to move our Church in
this direction, for pastoral and evangelistic and sound
ecumenical reasons?

Contemporary efforts in Orthodoxy to have it
recognized as the Eighth Ecumenical Council

Here is a partial listing of examples of the fact that
many in the Orthodox world are advocating that the Photian
Council be officially designated as the Eighth Ecumenical

“In an interview with Interfax-Religion, the head of
the Synodal Department for Church-Society Relations and
the Mass Media, Vladimir Legoida, gave us an insight into
the forthcoming council and its preparation, and also
spoke of how it differs from an Ecumenical Council and how
the criticism of this forum should be perceived:

First of all, it is important to emphasize that
Councils are the norm of Church life and not its
distortion. The Seven Ecumenical Councils—the most
important assemblies of bishops in the period of ancient
of Christianity—have become firmly embedded in our
consciousness. However, there were other extremely
important councils of Orthodox hierarchs. For example, the
Fourth Council of Constantinople, also known as the
Council of Hagia Sophia, convoked in 879 under the
presidency of Patriarch of Constantinople St. Photios.
This Council, among other things, included the Second
Council of Nicaea in 787 among the Ecumenical Councils.
The decisions of the Council of 879 have become a part of
the canon law of the Orthodox Church. Some saints
considered this Council to be the Eighth Ecumenical
Council. And although there was no later council in Church
history which would affirm that this council had such a
high status, the importance accorded to the Council of
Hagia Sophia has to be taken into account, especially when
we look at the fact that people say that the conciliar
life of the Orthodox Church ended with the Seven
Ecumenical Councils. This is not the case.

From “An Official Recognition of the 8th
and 9th Ecumenical Synods”:

A few years ago it was decided by the Church of Greece
to begin the process of making the Eighth and Ninth
Ecumenical Synods officially recognized, but since that
time the issue has dropped.
His Eminence Metropolitan
Seraphim of Piraeus, who championed this recognition and
presented it to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, has decided
to move forward with it in his own Metropolis at the local
level. Below is the Statement of His Eminence
translated, and below that are the two Encyclicals for
each of the two Ecumenical Synods, establishing the
celebration of the Sacred Memory of the 383 God-bearing
Fathers of the 8th Ecumenical Synod on the Second Sunday
of February, and the God-bearing Fathers of the 9th
Ecumenical Synod on the Second Sunday of Great

This same Metr. Seraphim of Piraeus wrote to the Patriarch
of Serbia concerning Patr. Irenei’s proposal to the
primates of the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches to
officially recognize the Council of 879-880 in
Constantinople as the Eighth Ecumenical Council, and the
Palamite Council of 1351 as the Ninth Ecumenical Council:
“You have done the work of the Holy Spirit. You have
accomplished the work of the living Triune

Fr. John Romanides very strongly advocates for recognizing
the Photian Council as the Eighth Ecumenical Council, and
the Palamite series of councils as the Ninth Ecumenical

From “Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos of Nafpaktos
on the Current Dialogue with Rome”:[53]

During the first millennium, the Orthodox Church had
confronted the issue of an honorary recognition of the
Pope of Rome. This occurred during the Council in the time
of Photios the Great (879-880),
which is regarded by
many Orthodox as the Eighth Ecumenical Synod. These
two kinds of ecclesiology—that is, of Papism and of
the Orthodox Church—had been put forth during this
Council. Patriarch Photios had acknowledged a primacy of
honor for the Pope, but only within the Orthodox
ecclesiological framework—i.e., that the Pope has a
primacy of honor within the Church, but he cannot be
placed above the Church. Therefore, in the discussion
pertaining to the primacy of the Pope, the decision of
this Council should be seriously taken into account.

Of course, during this Council the matter of the
filioque was also discussed, along with the matter of the
primacy; therefore when we discuss the matter of primacy
today, we should look at it through the prism of honorary
primacy, as we should in the case of the
(my emphasis).

Also, see Metr. Hierotheos Vlachos, “Photios the
Great and the Eighth Ecumenical Synod,” posted at
Mystagogia on Feb. 6 through Feb. 19, 2016 (in seven

Also, the prolific modern Orthodox writer Fr. George
Metallinos affirms the Photian Council as the Eighth
Ecumenical Council.

According to the Orthodoxwiki article entitled “The
Eighth Ecumenical Council,”

One of the first references as “Eighth Ecumenical
Council” is to be made in the 15th century by

St. Mark of Ephesus, who expresses the
general theological view of that time in Constantinople
during the
in Ferrara-Florence (to be referenced in
Pedalion comments for the 879-880 “Synod
gathered in Agia Sophia”).

Further, the 1848 Encyclical of the Eastern
refers explicitly to the “Eighth
Ecumenical Council” regarding the synod of 879-880;
and it was signed by the
of Constantinople,
Jerusalem, Antioch,
Alexandria, as well as the
Holy Synods of the first three.

Fr. George Dion. Dragas writes in his “The Eighth
Ecumenical Council: Constantinople IV (879/880) and the
Condemnation of the Filioque, Addition and
Doctrine,” posted at Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic
Enquiries on Dec. 28, 2009:

These Councils, including that of Constantinople
879/880, the “Eighth Ecumenical” as it is
called in the
Tomos Charas
Χαρᾶς) of Patriarch Dositheos
who first published its proceedings in 1705 and also by
Metropolitan Nilus Rhodi whose text is cited in
Mansi’s edition, have not been enumerated
being “Ecumenical”] in the East because of
Orthodox anticipation of possible healing of the Schism of
1054, which was pursued by the Orthodox up to the capture
of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453. There are other
obvious reasons that prevented enumeration, most of which
relate to the difficult years that the Orthodox Church had
to face after the capture of Constantinople and the
dissolution of the Roman Empire that supported it.

Michael Prokurat, Bp. Alexander (Golitzin), and Michael D.
Peterson write in their Historical Dictionary of the
Orthodox Church
: “By an agreement that appears
to be in place in the Orthodox world, possibly the council
held in 879 to vindicate the Patriarch Photios will at
some future date be recognized as the eighth
council.”[54] And further, “Given the
convocation of another ecumenical council, the Orthodox
Church would almost certainly recognize the synod of
879 as the Eighth Ecumenical Council.[55]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *