There are two different Councils of Constantinople IV. The Roman Catholics recognize a synod which deposed Saint Photius in 869-870 AD as properly ecumenical and authoritative. The Orthodox generally* recognize a council that goes by the same name, which was held exactly ten years later. This council anathematized those who would “make additions” to the Filioque and recognized Saint Photius as Bishop of Constantinople, ending a schism between East and West.

*Orthodox usually only recognize seven ecumenical councils and even Saint Photius appears to hold the “big seven” in higher regard then the one in 879-880 AD.

I am hardly astute enough to add anything all that new or profound to this conversation, so bear with me, but I cannot help but observe that the Roman view of Constantinople IV appears to be X-Files level conspiracy theory. The historical evidence appears to show that traditional Roman apologetics about Constantinople IV are incorrect.

Allow me to explain–perhaps by observations have some merit.

Background. In 869-870 AD a council was held by Byzantine Emperor Basil I and Pope Adrian II. It supported the use of icons, deposed the current Bishop of Constantinople (Saint Photius,) and tried to resolve a territory dispute in Bulgaria between the Eastern and Western churches. It had only 109 Bishops attending and its small attendance probably reflects not only its lack of theological importance, but also the lack of conviction of Bishops worldwide to join the council (or their outright opposition to it.) Being that this article is against conspiracy theories, we will not speculate further. Whatever the significance of the council of 869-870 AD, it pretty much served to depose Photius.

In 879-880 AD, another council was held, again in Constantinople, where 383 Bishops attended. What makes this council notable is that it annulled the earlier council and reiterated the Creed without the Filioque, forbidding anything to be added.

While this very council would not preclude Roman Catholics from including the Filioque when using other creeds in that “each church” was “guaranteed its own liturgical usages,” it disallows for the use of the Filioque in the Constantinopolitan Creed. Not surprisingly, Rome now rejects the 879-880 council.

Which Council is Constantinople IV? According to Roman Catholic historian Father Francis Dvornik in his book The Photian Schism: History and Legend, the council of 879-880 AD, not the council of 869-870 AD, was accepted by both the Roman and Eastern churches. Yet, this would contradict modern Roman teaching that the council of 869-870 is the legitimate Council of Constantinople IV, making the council of 879-880 a “robber council.”

So, what’s the big deal? In short, how can Roman Catholics be sure that their Church has definitively settled an issue if they waffle on what constitutes and ecumenical council?Under what circumstance can the Roman Church demand that a Creed not be altered without its decision being undone due to some later “clarification?”

Weighing the Evidence. While calling the council of 879-880 a “robber council” would be a somewhat dubious distinction in light of the fact it was attended by four times the Bishops, Roman Catholics do have their reasons for it, chiefly:

  • Pope John VIII was tricked by his legates into accepting Constantinople IV (879-880).
  • Upon finding out that he was tricked, he condemned Photius.
  • Therefore, Pope John VIII never, in an informed fashion, accepted the council of 879-880 and therefore it lacks proper “ecumenicity.”

The conspiracy theory of trickery gets a little more conspiratorial. Catholics claim that:

(1)We do know that Photius presented altered versions of the Pope’s letters to the emperor and patriarch…(2)It is less clear whether the Pope ever assented to a total repudiation of the earlier council….(3)After the council was closed, the legates returned to Rome and misrepresented to the Pope what they had done. Accordingly, Pope John sent a letter to Constantinople, thanking the emperor and others for restoring peace through the synod….(4)When the Pope learned what really happened at the Photian synod, he sent the cleric Marinus [i.e. Martin I] to Constantinople to declare invalid what the legates had done. Marinus was mistreated and imprisoned for thirty days. Upon Marinus’ return to Rome, Pope John stood on the pulpit and anathematized Photius and anyone who supports him. Marinus renewed the anathema when he became Pope in 882.

Let’s deal with each of these claims one at a time.

  1. The claim that Photius “altered letters.”

I am not a big fan of positing that there were conspiratorial changes made in the manuscripts of ancient works, not because it is impossible, but without a divergent manuscript tradition it would be impossible to verify. Simply making an unverified claim does not make it true.

Ironically, in this case, we have both a Latin and Greek manuscript tradition for Pope John VIII’s letters read publicly during the council of 879-880. The Latin agrees with the Greek in all of the important aspects at dispute. The only differences pertain to honorifics.

Perhaps honorifics were added to the Latin letters for Western consumption, or they were removed in the Greek to prevent offending the eastern Bishop. Who knows, maybe they were doctored by Photius–or the Latin ones were doctored by later Roman scribes. A UFO from Mars could have screwed them up too. In the end we do not know, but it is hardly important as the letters affirm acceptance of the council of 879-880 and the negation of 869-870.

2. The Pope was “unclear” whether he called for the council of 869-870 to be abrogated.

The preceding point appears to be undone in the Latin manuscript tradition of the Pope’s letters:

As for the Synod that was summoned against your Reverence we have annulled here and have completely banished, and have ejected [it from our archives], because of the other causes and because our blessed predecessor Pope Hadrian did not subscribe to it…We [Pope John VIII] wish that it is declared before the Synod, that the Synod which took place against the aforementioned Patriarch Photios at the time of Hadrian, the Most holy Pope in Rome, and [the Synod] in Constantinople [869/70] should be ostracized from this present moment and be regarded as annulled and groundless, and should not be co-enumerated with any other holy Synods…We also anathematize those who fail to eject what was written or said against him by the aforementioned by yourselves, the so-called [Eighth] Synod.

An interesting historical detail in the preceding can be seen in the underlined. There is a claim that Pope Adrian II, the same Pope who deposed Photius, never accepted the council of 869-870.

“C’mon Photius,” some may say. “If you are going to make a forgery, and magically hide it in the Latin manuscript tradition, at least try a little harder!”

In fact, the subtle detail, alongside with the fact the manuscript is preserved in the West, is a huge clue to its authenticity.

Apparently, the Papal legates approved of Canons in the council of 869-870 which gave the East de facto jurisdiction over Bulgaria (as it essentially left it up to the Byzantine Emperor to decide). This was something that Pope Adrian II was not willing to accept. So, while it may be a tad disingenuous for Pope John VIII to claim that Pope Adrian II did not receive the council of 869-870 over the Bulgaria issue (for this would only be a half truth,) we can see why one may diplomatically make such a claim if one were aiming to re-instate Photius (something that no one claims John VIII did not set out to do.) Such a subtle detail, it in itself a little dig against Constantinople on the Bulgaria question, would seem out of place in a forgery.

To get back to the subject matter at hand, it would also appear to be disingenuous to say that Pope John VIII was “unclear” over the issue whether or not the council of 869-870 was abrogated. It would be hard to imagine how he could have more emphatically declared that the council of 869-870 is null and void then what his letters actually said.

In light of this, we must question, how can the modern Roman church accept the 869-870 council as the eighth ecumenical council when we have the writings of a Pope explicitly against it? Because of a baseless conspiracy theory? Call Mulder and Scully!

3. The legates went back to Rome and tricked the Pope.

The preceding point I do not feel compelled to prove wrong. Simply, I ask, please provide the letter from the Pope that says, “I was tricked.”

What contemporary evidence proves this contention, or is this a later rationalization? Perhaps a letter can be dug up? But, how do we know it was not falsified?

We allegedly have another letter after the council from John VIII which vaguely condemns the usage of the Filioque in the Roman liturgy and voices agreement with Photius. It should be noted that the authenticity of such a letter should not be controversial, as at this time Rome did not use the Filioque in their liturgy to begin with. The letter appears diplomatic in that it seems to agree with Photius without actually conceding anything. Being that we actually have historical evidence of such a letter, and none that I know of about trickery, a reasonable person must conclude that the historical evidence is inconsistent with John VIII immediately finding out he was tricked and condemning Photius.

But wait, there’s more! About six years after the 879-880 council ,Photius himself speaks of “my John [VIII]…he is mine because, besides other reasons, he was more in harmony with others who are our Fathers” (Mystagogy on the Holy Spirit, Paragraph 89).

The audacity of writing this way, if it were public knowledge that John VIII immediately found out he was tricked and condemned Photius (as per the Roman conspiracy theory) is almost unimaginable–but then again, we have a President in the United States that does this on a daily basis. But again, almost unimaginable.

Lastly, the issue of Photius’ condemnation by John VIII never came up in a letter written shortly after the events in question (between a Greek Bishop and Pope Stephen V.)  According to Father Francis Dvornik, this makes a condemnation from John VIII unlikely.

4. The future Pope Martin I went to Constantinople and invalidated the council of 879-880.

I am unsure of the historical details involved with legate Martin going back to Constantinople. Do we have any record of what he actually wrote or said?

Father Dvornik doubts such a trip even occurred due to gross inaccuracies in the Roman records (for example, the Anti-Photian screeds that contain the claim also claim that John VIII condemned Photius as a legate in 869-870, something which is impossible, see p. 219 of his book). The fact we have no letter written by him on the matter (as far as I can tell) to me shows that it is a later myth not based upon any evidence contemporaneous with the events in question.

But, let’s presume his trip really occurred for the sake of taking all the historical evidence at face value. Was his opposition over specific issues such as Bulgaria, or was it a lashing out over the whole council because of the supposed trickery? Did explicit opposition to the 879-880 AD council even exist?

Interestingly enough, because Pope Martin I transferred Sees, his ordination as Pope was in dispute. Photius, among others did not recognize it, writing: “[T]he holy Hadrian [III], his [John VIII’s] successor, sent us a synodical letter according to the prescription of ancient custom, sending us the same doctrine, testifying for the same theology, namely, that the Spirit proceeds from the Father” (Mystagogy on the Holy Spirit, Paragraph 89).

From Photius’ writings, there appears to be no love lost between Martin I and Photius. It is indeed possible that Martin I rejected the council of 879-880, or at the very least, took a much more aggressive stance against Photius or his interests.  Yet, Adrian III after Martin I’s passing sent a “synodical letter” (which was probably widely published and public knowledge) affirming the Creed without the Filioque. Though this not an explicit endorsement of Photius’ Pneumatology, it was perceived to be an affirmation of the 879-880 council, and this is not a faulty presumption being that the council merely re-affirmed the Creed without the Filioque as a way of avoiding the Pneumatological dispute. Hence, the synodical letter shows continuity with the Council which would be inconsistent with Roman conspiracy theories of its historically unrecorded rejection.

Soon afterward, Photius’ fortunes changed. Pope Stephen V wrote to the Byzantine emperor that Photius should be deposed. Whether this deposition was empowered by 869-870, the alleged condemnation of John VIII, an act of Martin I, or a decree of Pope Stephen V himself is unclear. It probably was not all that relevant to the Emperor, who thought the Photius was implicated in a coup attempt against him. Whatever the case, Photius was deposed again and remained so the rest of his life.

Conclusion. In the case of Constantinople IV, it would appear that Orthodox claims to the council of 879-880’s ecumenicity, even by Roman Catholic standards which require Papal approval, are very strong. The Roman Catholic response, that John VIII was tricked and supposedly publicly denounced the council, is weak in light of the lack of historical evidence bearing this out.

Which leads us to the heart of the matter. If the Roman Church chose the wrong council as ecumenical, then their claims to infallibly declare what council is in and which is out is seriously compromised, especially considering that Constantinople IV itself asserts that not changing the creed is a matter of faith and morals (or “horos” in the terminology of the day.) Hence, this council introduces a great deal of uncertainty in an “infallible” system’s ability to settle even one of the most crucial things that can be settled.

Granted, does this article definitively prove that the Roman conspiracy theories are wrong? Absolutely not. Everything could have occurred exactly the way Roman apologists understand it.

Furthermore, does this article address the Roman critique that asserting something is “horos” does not necessarily pertain to “faith and morals?” Or that John VIII did not definitively reject 869-870, because he merely wrote that it “should not be co-enumerated with any other holy Synods” instead of “must not be co-enumerated?” Or 879-880 was not clear enough in what constitutes imposing one’s “own invented phrases” onto the Constantinopolitan Creed (though clearly it was the Filioque which was at this time in dispute)?

No, we did not an ultimately cannot address the endless excuses Rome’s defense attorneys may devise. After all, they have the benefit of shooting the arrow in 879-880 AD and painting the target around it later. They can (it does not mean that they do) contrive all sorts of rules (that no one was seemingly aware of in 879-880) in which to invalidate contradictions and impute to these rules infallibility on the basis of the intrinsic nature of Rome. Was 879-880AD considered an ecumenical council at one time? Does not matter, they say.

Even though it dealt with the issue of Pneumatology and the Creed, it was not explicit enough in its treatment of the Filioque. Rome can just clarify further how simply citing “horos” is not good enough. Being that Rome determines the rules of the game in the present, it is irrelevant to argue they seemingly broke the rules in the past–I will not waste more effort into calling such logic into question.

All we can say in response is that Rome’s apologetics represent the less likely of two historical possibilities. If one is trying to historically discern whether the Orthodox or Roman Catholics have a stronger claim to preserving the historical faith of Christianity and Apostolic epistemology, then the fact that Constantinople IV probably was the 879-880 AD council is simply is a persuasive factor in siding with the Orthodox.

If Roman claims can only be defended by reading their most recent position and then reading backwards into history, making a conspiracy theory over whatever is inconsistent with their present view, then one must conclude Rome’s epistemological paradigm ultimately does not hinge upon history or even their own plainly written words. Rome’s claims are always modified and constantly re-evaluated. It is philosophically possible, but put in these terms, probably seems unsavory to most.