The Second Œcumenical Council
In the year 375, the bishops of the West are almost all firm defenders of the Nicene faith. The Church in the East has hitherto been a confusion of Homoousians, Anomœans, Homœans, Homœousians, Pneumatomachians and Apollinarians, but the labours of the Three Cappadocians have clarified the Church’s trinitarian language and allowed most of the bishops to accept the Nicene faith. Now the only thing standing in the way is the Emperor Valens’ enforcement of Homœan Arianism in the East.
As on previous occasions, secular events in the empire are about to change the situation of the church and we must now turn to these.
Toward the end of the year 375 the Emperor Valentinian in the West died. His brother Valens continued to rule as Augustus in the East while Valentinian’s two sons became Augusti in the West. The younger, named Valentinian after his father, was only four years old and under guardianship. The elder, Gratian, was sixteen years old but quite capable despite his age of filling an adult role, including commanding the army in the ceaseless stuggle against the barbarians. Gratian, like his father and unlike his uncle Valens, was a firm supporter of Nicene orthodoxy and had as spiritual guide St Ambrose, bishop of Milan.
The year 378 was one of Germanic invasions. Gratian was occupied containing an incursion of the Alamanni across the Rhine in Gaul. Valens was in Antioch in Syria negotiating with the Persians when the Goths crossed the Danube and began to pillage Thrace, to the consternation of the people of Constantinople, who were directly threatened. In May 378, Valens returned to Constantinople to gather troops to confront the Goths. The people of Constantinople thought that he was being too dilatory and, when he appeared in the hippodrome, the crowd took up the chant, Δὸς ὅπλα καὶ πολεμοῦμεν ἡμεῖς, ‘Give us arms and we’ll do the fighting.’ Valens, outraged by their insolence, left the city secretly and launched his army, unprepared, at the Goths. They were slaughtered and Valens himself killed at the battle of Adrianople on 9 August 378. (Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, IV.xxv.1, xxviii.3–7)
Gratian moved to Sirmium in the Balkans to counter the Goths, but needed a strong general there, since he would soon have to return to Gaul. He chose Theodosius, an experienced, well-known and well-regarded commander in the army, although just 30. He was an orthodox Christian from a noble family in Spain. Theodosius quickly stabilised the military situation in the Balkans. Gratian, to provide a strong rule in the East while he and his young brother remained in the West, raised Theodosius to the rank of Augustus equal to himself on 19 January 379.
Events in the Church now began to move swiftly.
In Rome, St Liberius had died in 366 and was succeeded as bishop by Damasus, a Spaniard. Damasus was a staunch defender of the Nicene faith but his theological ability was strictly limited and he had no patience for anyone who disagreed with him or failed to accept his sweeping jurisdictional claims.
In 370, the Arian bishop of Constantinople, Eudoxias, died and was succeeded by Demophilus, also a convinced Arian.
In Alexandria, the orthodox Peter had succeeded St Athanasius the Great on his death in May 373 but Valens had immediately imposed an Arian, Lucius, on the see and Peter had fled to Rome. Peter disliked St Basil the Great and St Meletius of Antioch and unfortunately turned Damasus against them, so that Damasus recognised Paulinus as bishop of Antioch.
In September 378, Gratian, now in Thessalonica, recalled the bishops exiled by Valens and called for toleration among the Christian parties, with the exception of Eunomians, Photinians and Manichæans. (Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, VII.i.3) Among the liberated bishops, Peter now returned to Alexandria, St Gregory to Nyssa and St Meletius to Antioch.
Antioch was divided into three parties. The Arian bishop was Dorotheus, who had succeeded Euzoïus in 376. The Meletian schism persisted among the orthodox, with Paulinus recognised as bishop by the sees of Rome and Alexandria, while most of the orthodox bishops of the East recognised Meletius as bishop. Meletius offered to share jurisdiction with Paulinus but the latter refused, so Meletius held his services outside the city walls. However, it seems that the orthodox clergy of the city, to set a limit to the schism, agreed that, on the death of either of the two bishops, his clergy would join those of the survivor.
There was now a significant development in the see of Constantinople. Arians dominated the city but the orthodox minority had members highly placed in society, and among them was a couple, Ablabius and Theodosia. Ablabius’s grandfather had been Vicar of Asia under Constantine the Great and his and Theodosia’s son would later be Prætorian Prefect of Africa. Theodosia was first cousin to St Gregory the Theologian and was the sister of St Amphilochius, bishop of Iconium, a close friend of St Basil the Great and of St Meletius of Antioch. She was also deeply pious. It is perhaps through her influence that on the death of Valens, the orthodox of Constantinople sent a delegation to Gregory, then in retirement in Seleucia of Isauria, asking him to come to Constantinople and lead them.
Gregory arrived in Constantinople in 379 early enough to celebrate Great and Holy Pascha on 21 April, his first service in the city and one that was disrupted by an Arian mob. He stayed with Ablabius and Theodosia, and held his services in a private dwelling converted into a chapel, which would later become the great church of the Anastasia. His teachings are preserved in his five Theological Orations. Thanks to his preaching, by the end of the year the orthodox were rapidly regaining their position in the city. Among those who heard his preaching was St Jerome, who would later describe him as ‘a most eloquent man, and my instructor in the Scriptures.’ (De Viris Illustribus, 117)
By the summer of 379, it is clear that events are moving rapidly toward the Second Œcumenical Council, but there remains much obscurity concerning the council itself. Its Acta have not survived, although there is evidence that they existed, as they were quoted at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The church historians have left us a clear idea of what the council did, but little knowledge of the order of events. I am going to give my personal view of what happened, since the historical accounts are meagre. My own conviction is that the council held in Constantinople in the summer of 381 was not originally intended as an œcumenical council. By the summer of 379, the emperors Gratian and Theodosius had decided to bring an end to the confusion in the Church by mandating a reaffirmation of the faith as declared at Nicæa in A.D. 325. I believe that the idea of holding an œcumenical council did not occur to them, since no new question of doctrine was involved. All that was needed were regional councils where the bishops would either reaffirm the Nicene Creed or face banishment. The original plan for the council at Constantinople was that it would be one of these.
I suspect that the first step in that policy was the council called by St Meletius at Antioch in the summer of 379. We know that it was attended by St Gregory of Nyssa. St Meletius was already working with Theodosius to restore the Nicene faith, and I believe that this was a trial run for regional councils. Probably by this point St Meletius was also convincing Theodosius that St Gregory the Theologian should be bishop of Constantinople.
On 28 February 380, the emperors Gratian and Theodosius in Thessalonica proclaimed one of the most famous decrees in Christian history, ‘Cunctos Populos’:
We wish that all people practise the religion bequeathed to the Romans by the holy apostle Peter … It is clear that it is that followed by the pontif Damasus and Peter, bishop of Alexandria … that is, that we must believe, according to the teaching of the apostles and the doctrine of the Gospel, in one only divinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in one equal majesty and one holy Trinity. We order that those who follow this law assemble under the name of catholic Christians; as for the others, senseless and mad, we judge that they must support the infamy attached to heretical dogma, that their assemblies do not bear the name of churches, that, smitten first of all by divine vengeance, they then suffer our punishment inspired by the heavenly will.
(Codex Theodosiani, XVI.i.2. French trans. Jean Rouge, Sources Chrétiennes, 497, 2005, p. 115)
(It is often said that this decree made Christianity the ‘official religion’ of the Roman empire, but this is a modern misunderstanding, as I explain in my blog entry for 27 February 2013. What the decree did was make the Nicene faith the sole doctrine of the Church.)
The decree spoke of Peter as bishop of Alexandria. Unknown to the emperors, he had died two weeks before and been succeeded by his brother, Timothy.
Theodosius arrived in Constantinople on 24 November 380. His first act was to summon Demophilus, the Arian bishop of the city, and order him either to conform to the Nicene faith or to leave the city. Demophilus chose to leave and, on 27 November, Theodosius put St Gregory the Theologian in charge of the churches of the city, although he was not yet consecrated its bishop. Thus ended forty years of Arian domination of the city.
On 10 January 381 Theodosius issued the decree ‘Nullis hæreticis,’ forbidding heretics to meet or hold services in towns, naming Photinians, Arians, Eunomians ‘and other sects abominable because of the monstrous names of their authors,’ and decreeing that the churches be delivered to bishops holding the Nicene faith. (Cod. Theod. XVI.v.6; op. cit., pp. 235–37)
At the same time, St Meletius arrived in Constantinople and began planning the council with Theodosius. Meanwhile in Milan, Gratian was planning a council at Aquileia in northern Italy with St Ambrose presiding with the same object.
St Gregory of Nyssa has provided us with an eye-witness account of the theological debates rife even among ordinary people in Constantinople at this time: ‘The whole city is full of it, the squares, the market places, the cross-roads, the alleyways; old-clothes men, money changers, food sellers: they are all busy arguing. If you ask someone to give you change, he philosophizes about the Begotten and the Unbegotten; if you inquire about the price of a loaf, you are told by way of reply that the Father is greater and the Son inferior; if you ask ‘Is my bath ready?’ the attendant answers that the Son was made out of nothing.’ (Gregory of Nyssa, Deitate filii et spiritus sancti, Migne PG 46, col. 557; trans. in Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, 1993, p.35: As the quotations show, the debate was primarily Arian.)
Theodosius summoned the bishops ‘of his faith [τῆς αὐτοῦ πίστεως],’ as Socrates Scholasticus puts it (Ecclesiastical History, V.viii.1), ‘of the same conviction [ὁμοδόξων]’ as Sozomen puts it (Ecclesiastical History, VII.vii.1) to meet in Constantinople at the beginning of May 381. They were mostly the same as had attended St Meletius’s council in Antioch in 379. The conventional number of 150 would later be attached to them. Their purpose was to reaffirm the Nicene Creed and to consecrate Gregory the Theologian as bishop of Constantinople. In addition to the 150 Nicene bishops of the council, Theodosius also summoned a number of bishops from the Hellespont, led by Eleusius of Cyzicus and Marcian of Lampsacus, who did not accept the divinity of the Holy Spirit, trying to reunite them with the orthodox and reminding them that they had agreed to do so fifteen years earlier at the Council of Lampsacus. They refused, however, and departed.
Theodosius welcomed the bishops in the palace but did not attend any sessions, which took place in various churches in the city. The council, with St Meletius as president, consecrated St Gregory the Theologian as bishop of Constantinople. They then proceeded to the reaffirmation of the Nicene Creed and must at this point have debated the question of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, a matter that the Nicene Creed had treated with the terse statement, ‘and we believe in the Holy Spirit.’ The rise of the Pneumatomachi demonstrated that this was not precise enough. Unfortunately, there was no agreement on how to describe the divinity of the Holy Spirit.
At this point, quite early in the council, St Meletius died. St Gregory now took over as president. The council now had a further task, to select a successor to Meletius as bishop of Antioch, a thorny problem given the ongoing schism.
It was probably at this point that, given these new difficulties, Theodosius decided to broaden the council and make it more œcumenical. He summoned Timothy of Alexandria and the Egyptian bishops, as well as Acholius of Thessalonica and a few others from Macedonia, giving the council a tenuous link to Rome. Proceedings now became even more confused, since Timothy objected to Gregory’s consecration on the grounds that he was bishop of Sasima and the translation of bishops was non-canonical, despite the fact that the practice was commonplace.
On the question of the Holy Spirit, Gregory wanted the council to declare him ‘consubstantial’ [ὁμοούσιον] with the Father and the Son, but many of the bishops were not prepared to go that far. And on the successor to Meletius, he wanted the council to recognise Paulinus as bishop, as the clergy of Antioch had agreed, but again they were unwilling to do so and instead chose Flavian, an Antiochene priest, thus perpetuating the schism. Gregory was disgusted with his fellow bishops—he later described them as ‘a flock of jackdaws, combining together, a rabble of adolescents, a gang of youths, a whirlwind raising dust under the pressure of air currents, people to whom nobody who was mature either in the fear of God or in years would pay any attention, they splutter confused stuff or like wasps rush directly at what is in front of their faces.’ (De Vita Sua, lines 1680–87; trans. in Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, p. 809)
Gregory did not stand up well under pressure and the challenge to his consecration was the last straw—he resigned the presidency of the council and his bishopric, and left Constantinople—and public life—forthwith.
Theodosius was instrumental in having the bishops choose a layman and high government official, Nectarius, as the new bishop of Constantinople. He was both baptized and consecrated on 9 June. Thicker-skinned than Gregory, he shepherded the jackdaws, adolescents and wasps through to the closing session of the council in July.
The council’s final decision on the Holy Spirit added to the Nicene Creed’s ‘and we believe in the Holy Spirit’ the words, ‘the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, who spoke through the Prophets.’ They did not use the word ‘homoousion,’ but what they said did recognise the full divinity of the Holy Spirit and his equality with the Father and the Son in the Trinity. The Fathers of the council did not consider their amendments to the Nicene Creed to be a new or different creed but a clarification of points that had not been in dispute in 325.
The council concluded with a letter to Theodosius. They described their labours thus: ‘When then we had assembled in Constantinople, according to the letter of your Piety, we first of all renewed our unity of heart each with the other, and then we pronounced some concise definitions, ratifying the Faith of the Nicene Fathers, and anathematizing the heresies which have sprung up, contrary thereto. Besides these things, we also framed certain Canons for the better ordering of the Churches, all which we have subjoined to this our letter. Wherefore we beseech your Piety that the decree of the Synod may be ratified, to the end that, as you have honoured the Church by your letter of citation, so you should set your seal to the conclusion of what has been decreed.’ (H.R. Percival, ed., The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, XIV, 1994, p. 170)
There were four canons. The first reaffirmed the faith of the 318 Fathers of the Council of Nicæa, and anathematized every heresy, naming specifically Anomœans, Homœans, the Pneumatomachi, Sabellians, Marcellians, Photinians and Apollinarians. The second canon provided that the churches of each province should be governed by their provincial synod, and should not interfere in the affairs of churches outside their province. The third canon gave the bishop of Constantinople, since Constantinople was New Rome, precedence immediately after the bishop of Old Rome. The fourth canon rejected the claim to be a bishop of one Maximus, a Cynic philosopher and associate of Timothy of Alexandria, who, with Timothy’s support, had attempted to interject himself into the see of Constantinople after Demophilus’s banishment.
On 31 July 381, following the council, Theodosius issued the decree ‘Episcopis tradi,’ reaffirming the Nicene faith: ‘We order that all the churches be given immediately to the bishops who confess the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit in one only majesty and virtue, in one same glory, in one only splendour; to those who make nothing conflicting by a sacrilegious separation, but who recognise the order of the Trinity by the affirmation of the persons [personarum] and the unity of the divinity.’ As was customary, the decree was in the name of all three emperors but was issued only to the churches of the East and made no mention of the bishop of Rome. (Cod. Theod. XVI.i.3; op. cit., p. 117)
Seventy years later, at the 4th Œcumenical Council held in Chalcedon in A.D. 451, the work of the Second Œcumenical Council was recalled: ‘therefore this present holy, great, and ecumenical synod, desiring to exclude every device against the Truth, and teaching that which is unchanged from the beginning, has at the very outset decreed that the faith of the Three Hundred and Eighteen Fathers [of Nicæa] shall be preserved inviolate. And on account of them that contend against the Holy Ghost, it confirms the doctrine afterwards delivered concerning the substance of the Spirit by the One Hundred and Fifty holy Fathers who assembled in the imperial City [Constantinople]; which doctrine they declared unto all men, not as though they were introducing anything that had been lacking in their predecessors, but in order to explain through written documents their faith concerning the Holy Ghost against those who were seeking to destroy his sovereignty.’ (The Seven Ecumenical Councils, op. cit., p. 263)
St Ambrose’s council in Aquileia followed that at Constantinople in the autumn of 381, deposing two Arian bishops, Palladius of Ratiaria and Secundianus of Singidinum. Ambrose had learned of what transpired at Constantinople in the summer and wrote to Theodosius on behalf of the council, mostly to complain, and in particular to complain that Flavian was chosen as bishop of Antioch, contrary to the original agreement between the followers of Meletius and Paulinus. The bishops at Aquileia wanted Theodosius to summon an œcumenical council in Alexandria, ‘that they may more fully discuss and define among themselves to whom Communion is to be imparted and with whom it is to be maintained.’ (Letter 12.5: Letters of St Ambrose Bishop of Milan, Oxford, 1881. Reproduced on the gutenburg.org website.)
Meanwhile, Theodosius had had the relics of St Meletius translated to Antioch in great pomp, with singing of psalms, and interred in the Church of St Babylas. At the same time, the relics of St Paul of Constantinople were brought back to Constantinople to be interred in the church recently built by Macedonius and now to be named after Paul.
In 382, Damasus summoned the western bishops to a council in Rome, principally to complain about those things done the previous year in Constantinople that offended him. Since he recognised Paulinus as bishop of Antioch, he protested against the council’s selection of Flavian. He objected to the censuring of Maximus because he supported him against St Gregory the Theologian. He especially objected to the ranking of Constantinople next after Rome among the churches. This was mainly because he claimed that the Church could not make such an important decision without the concurrence of the see of Rome. However, there was a practical side to it. Traditionally, Alexandria had been the second see of Christendom after Rome and it was now consigned to third place. But Alexandria had long been a close ecclesiastical ally of Rome and gave the bishop of Rome a channel for interfering in the affairs of the churches of the East. More generally, Damasus was offended that the Fathers of the council had paid no attention to his own sweeping jurisdictional claims for the see of Rome.
Damasus had asked bishops from the East to attend but they had already been summoned to a council held in June of 382 by Theodosius to complete the work of the previous year and to consider the letter from the bishops at Aquileia. They sent a response to Damasus, politely refusing his invitation, since they were already invited elsewhere, and rejecting, decorously but firmly, the western complaints. They reminded Damasus of the ancient custom that ‘in every province, the bishops of the province, and, with their consent, the neighbouring bishops with them, should perform ordinations as expediency may require.’ In accordance with this custom, Nectarius had been canonically appointed to the see of Constantinople and Flavian to the see of Antioch. They also, to reassure Damasus that they were untainted by heresy, gave a confession of their faith: ‘… there is one Godhead, Power and Substance [οὐσία] of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost; the dignity being equal, and the majesty being equal in three perfect essences [ὑποστάσεσιν] and three perfect persons [προσώποις].’ They describe the Trinity as ‘uncreated consubstantial and co-eternal [ἀκτίστῳ καὶ ὁμοουσίῳ καὶ συναϊδίῳ],’ thus for the first time confessing that the Holy Spirit is consubstantial. Interestingly enough, they also for the first time use the word œcumenical of the Council of Constantinople of the previous year [καὶ τῷ πέρυσιν ἐν Κωνσταντινουπόλει παρὰ τῆς οἰκουμενικῆς ἐκτεθέντι συνόδου], perhaps in reaction to the western carping. (Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, V.ix; trans. Blomfield Jackson, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, III, Oxford, 1892, p. 138; Migne PG 82, cols. 1216–17)
Theodosius summoned a third council to Constantinople in June 383, making a final effort to reconcile the Homœans, Anomœans and Pneumatomachi to the Nicene faith but without success. It was followed by imperial decrees on 25 July and 3 December 383, forbidding heretics to hold meetings in town or country, to travel about preaching or to make ordinations. (Cod. Theod. XVI.v.11, 12.)
In the five years from 379 to 383, six councils were held. It isn’t clear that any one of them, when it met, was intended as an œcumenical council. However, their combined effect was to condemn the Arian heresy at long last, and the council held at Constantinople in the summer of 381, which first decreed the divinity of the Holy Spirit, has ever since been honoured as the Second Œcumenical Council. Arianism would persist for a while longer, especially among some of the Germanic tribes, but to all intents and purposes the heresy, which has ever since been the symbol of all heresies, had been defeated at last after a struggle, sometimes bloody, of 65 years. For his decisive and unwavering support of the Church in this great trial, Theodosius the emperor has been recognised as a saint by the Church with the title Theodosius the Great, his feast on 17 January.