Recently, I came across a scholarly claim I never heard about before–that Pope Vigilius taught monothelitism during the fifth ecumenical council.
Quoted in Henry Chadwick’s East and West: The Making of a Rift in the Church:
Vigilius in conciliatory mode twice declared that while there are two natures in Christ, there is only one activty, energia. In the next century this was monothelite and heretical; in consequence the Roman legates at the Sixth Council of 680 declared these places heretical corruptions of the original acts, and the Acts of 553 were transmitted only in a small part in Greek. They survive as a whole only in Latin (p. 57).
But ‘one energy’ had been language used by Pope Vigilius at the time of the Fifth Council (553).2
2 ACO IV i. 187. 32 and 188. 14. The authenticity of this utterance was anxiously denied by the Roman legates at the Sixth Council in the fourteenth session (ACO2 II 638 ff. especially 646-7, 652-3). (p. 59).
Quoted in Demtrios Bathrellos’ The Byzantine Christ:
Sebastian Brock has published some post-Chalcedonian excerpts belonging to a Syriac monothelite florilegium, in all probability compiled by a Chalcedonian monethelite. The first excerpt from the florilegium is ascribed to Pope Vigilius, and attributes to Christ one energy.414
414 The authenticity of the text is to be taken for granted, for it can be found in the Latin proceedings of the Fifth Ecumenical Council. (ACO iv, 187, 31-2). (p. 91).
To listen to Dr. Brock teach on the topic, click here.
I offer the following brief comments:
- The manuscript record on this point is unanimous. It exists in two Latin manuscripts (the only that exist for the fifth council). In the late 20th century, Dr. Brock uncovered a Syriac manuscript offering independent verification of the monthelite passages. When the doctrine of Papal Infallibility was devised during the 19th century, obviously this Syriac manuscript was unknown.
- The sixth ecumenical council cites the passage, which shows that if a corruption entered the manuscript record, it apparently did so about a century after the fifth council.
- Papal apologetics during the sixth council are certainly possible, but clearly implausible given the additional manuscript find.
- In the end of the day, this does not effect Roman Catholicism, because the presumption always is that history must be read in line with Roman Catholic doctrines as they are now presently understood. Even the study of history is presuppositional. So, the mere possibility that the claim of the Papal Legates during the sixth council is correct is sufficient to disprove all future manuscript finds. Perhaps, the only piece of historical evidence that can be unearthed which could undo the Roman Catholic interpretation would be a manuscript with Justinian’s handwriting on it.
- Using impartial historical standards, the claims of Papal legates that the passage is false are taken with a grain of salt. While there is some reason for the Syriac writings on the subject to be tampered with, due to the heresy existing in their land, there is little reason for a Greek heresy to be introduced into the Latin manuscript record. Essentially, the claim of the Papal legates is special pleading.
- For those who ask why eastern Bishops did not “push back” harder during the sixth council, I respond that I do not know, for I have not read the acts myself. I do speculate, however, that due to the fifth council being considered ecumenical, it was probably not in good taste to accept the passages’ authenticity as it called into question the conclusions of the sixth council. Nevertheless, due to no Christian believing councils are infallible in every point of their minutes, I do not see this as a glaring “contradiction” between the fifth and sixth councils. It does not affect Orthodox theories of ecumenicity. However, it does affect Papal Infallibility, as clearly a Pope teaching doctrine at an ecumenical council must certainly be considered ex cathedra–the essential bar of Papal Infallible teaching.
I welcome comments of those who have done more in depth research on this topic. My comments are tentative, as my exposure to this topic is only through secondary sources.
For what it’s worth, this is what I have come across, I do not have original references:
“HISTORY.—The origin of the Monothelite controversy is thus related by Sergius in his letter to Pope Honorius. When the Emperor Heraclius in the course of the war which he began about 619, came to Theodosiopolis (Erzeroum) in Armenia (about 622), a Monophysite named Paul, a leader of the Acephali, made a speech before him in favor of his heresy. The emperor refuted him with theological arguments, and incidentally made use of the expression “one operation” of Christ. Later on (about 626) he inquired of Cyrus, Bishop of Phasis and metropolitan of the Lazi, whether his words were correct. Cyrus was uncertain, and by the emperor’s order wrote to Sergius the Patriarch of Constantinople, whom Heraclius greatly trusted, for advice. Sergius in reply sent him a letter said to have been written by Mennas of Constantinople to Pope Vigilius and approved by the latter, in which several authorities were cited for one operation and one will. This letter was afterwards declared to be a forgery and was admitted to be such at the Sixth General Council. “
Yes, I know the legates claimed it to be a forgery in the 6th council. However, I am unaware of how others responded, though I presume they concurred.
I’ve only skimmed, but I can say this for now.
I look at this from a general and broad perspective, and then a more narrow and specific. For the general, it was the 6th Ecumenical Council that deemed the 2 offensive texts where Vigilius is said to have said “one operation”, and so it would rest on the authority of an Ecumenical Council that they are interpolations. Secondly, it was an Ecumenical Council which had utilized the 2 supposed texts of Vigilius as a testimony of his orthodoxy, i.e. his willingness to defend the Cyrillian-Leonine understanding of 2-in-1 and to condemn the Three Chapters. The two supposed texts were addressed by Vigilius to Empress Theodora and Emperor Justinian, both read aloud at the 7th session of the 5th Council.
With these two facts in mind, we have a set of consequences in front of us. The first comes from saying that the 6th Council (681) was right in its saying that these texts of Vigilius were interpolations, in which case Vigilius would be fully exonerated, but that the 5th Council unexpectedly received his confession as valid (something akin to the situation of Ibas of Edessa @ Chalcedon). This re-creates the same problem that wrecked the Mediterranean world in the mid-6th century with the Edict on the Three Chapters by the Emperor Justinian. On the other hand, the second comes from saying that the 6th Council was wrong, and that the 5th Council truly both heard and accepted Vigilius’s two confessions as a witness to his orthodoxy, and failed to condemn montheletism 100+ years before the 6th Council had to do so. This is more difficult, since even @ Chalcedon, at least Ibas and Theodoret admitted Leo’s tome was orthodox. We have on such transition in Vigilius, save for his proclaiming the faith which is coherent with the 2 supposedly offensive utterances which include “one operation”.
However doable those consequences seem, I think the better take away is as follows:
The evidence that the 2 statements of Vigilius are interpolations is very weak, and so we should examine what is on the table in the case that Vigilius truly did espouse “one operation”.
I think there are grounds to interpret this in an orthodox manner. Here’s why. In the letters of Vigilius (both the one to justinian/theodora), which are both almost identical, Vigilius is responding to the accusation that he, along with Theodore of Mopsuestia, break Christ into two. It should be noted that the language of “one operation” , in both Greek or Latin, can be found in St. Cyril of Alexandria, but it is interpreted in an orthodox manner. The text of Vigilius runs liket his – “Christ has one hypostasis, on person, and his one operation”. That he specified “his” indicates that Vigilius has in mind the personal operating of the Son of God which is a single operation, albeit a composition of 2 natures (God and man). Both Maximus, Martin, and Sophronius were keen on dissalowing their critics from thinking that their teaching on the 2 operations/energies/wills meant that there is one part of Christ which is choosing, operating, and energizing, and then another part of Christ which is doing other kinds of choosing, operating, and energizing. They foresaw this objection, and so emphasized that when the man-in-Christ felt tired, it was still the person of God in Christ who chose to sleep; conversely, when the God-in-Christ performed miracles, it was still the person who was a man who chose to perform the miracle. In other words, two operations arise from the two natures, but the actual operating is not divided between two parts of his person, but are altogether singular in the person acting.
There is no doubt that many in the 7th century who were called “Monothelites” were inaccurately accused of the heresy as spelled out at the Council because of this often and easily missed nuance. For more history of the persons, events, and theology both before, during, and after the 7th century feud of Monotheletism, Richard Price’s “Acts of the Lateran Synod 649” is Priceless 🙂
In conclusion, Vigilius very much, and likely meant, what I’ve described above. This also would help C’ple 553 dodge the problem of failing to condemn the two statements of Vigilius. But what about C’pl 681? As far as I’m concerned, they looked at a document, saw criss-crossed additions of the letters of Vigilius in the margins of the Latin copies, and deemed it incredible. That might be true (it is unlikely), but it at least is not an error or negligence related to the faith.
This sort of reminds me of St Maximus the Confessor’s reading of Honorius. It is ironic because the sixth council condemned Honorius and yet St Maximus was a contemporary and he personally knew the Papal “secretary” who wrote the letter(s), where (theoretically) he received their interpretation. So, is the 6th council wrong or is St Maximus in this regard?
I am a Protestant convert, so to be honest I am not overly concerned with our churches’ “infallible statements” not being very easily reconcilable. THe Scriptures, sometimes, are not easily reconcilable either.
Reading up on Vigilius, it appears the man himself was an opportunist and a liar. So, the truth of the matter is, whatever he taught we can be assured that he was writing what he thought people wanted to hear, because as soon as he had the opportunity, he always recanted what he said (other than the 5th council, because he died soon afterwards.) Such wording seems like he was trying to explain something that would please both Justinian and the then dead Theodora at the same time. So, my read of the statements is that they are theologically imprecise and happened upon a new doctrine (monothelitism) which in fact was heterodox.
Nevertheless, it would be unfair to the fifth council to hold their feet to the fire over an issue not truly under debate. For example, the term “same substance” went from bad to good between the third and fourth centuries. It’d be unfair to judge the 3rd century council in Antioch or wherever by the same standard we’d judge Nicea, because words and applications change meaning, or at least the main thrust of the debate is changing.
So, if Pope Vigilius was teaching Monothelitism, it was not *on purpose* nor was he really fleshing out the doctrine, because the doctrine did not yet exist. Nevertheless, was he dabbling with error? Perhaps, unless we take your reading of the issue, but the orthodoxy of your own reading is debatable I’d imagine if St Maximus would hear of it.
This opens interesting “possibilities” for Roman Catholics. Just how much error can Pope Francis teach without crossing “the line”? I’d imagine, the only way for a Pope to be truly “fallible” would be to teach against settled fact. Ironically, Liberius, Vigilius, and Honorius did not do this as all of the things they were teaching on were not yet settled to begin with.
Lastly, I think there is an allure to finding that “smoking gun” which “disproves” Roman Catholicism. i.e. we catch a Pope in an error. Okay, let’s say we did (and here, we have a good case for one, though not without alternate interpretations like the one you put forward.) Where does that leave us Orthodox? We have fallible Bishops. We have councils which we do not fully accept or are not generous with certain canons/teachings they include (like Dositheus on Scripture reading, banning it from the laity.) It would not makes RCism any less of a church, as we accept a degree of error within our own if “error” is not having everything right at every moment.
Anyway, just some food for thought. It’s just “more fun” to pick out the historical issues with a Pope than with a Bishop of anywhere else (with the exception of Jerusalem perhaps). THe other bishoprics had so many problems, it’d hardly be worth pointing out.
Thanks for your response.
Yes, it has some similarity. Though, the context of Vigilius’s confession (far from being ex-cathedra btw) is rooted in the christological controversy of his day, which had everything to do with re-emphasizing that although the Church held , with Leo’s tome, that Christ has two different natures, there is one subject of the Lord Christ Himself who both acts and operates as a single subject. There is no doubt that the original “Monotheletes” were actually not guilty of what many were accusing them of. Of course, there was a place to form a correction when the language traversed from “operation” and “energeia” to “will”. If you read the literature on this controversy, you will see that a mere reference to someone saying “single operation” or “single energy” is not enough to suit that person into the fold of the heresy condemned at the 6th Council. That goes just as much for St. Cyril of Alexandria, in whom we find “one operation”, as well. Which also brings to mind why Anglican scholars such as Henry Chadwick also have had a very low view of Ecumenical Councils. If Honorius can be condemned for a slight possible misunderstanding with the intention of the author, and that, 40 years after the man has a chance to say one way or the other, why is Augustine and Cyril of Alexandria not also given the anathema for filioquism and other misleading christological “heresies”. You’ll recall, a good deal of Egyptian and Syrian theologians were consistent enough to say that Pope St. Leo was the arch-heretic, and the cause of the valley of tears that Christendom would face from the 5th century forward; at the same time venerating “St.” Dioscorus. Moreover, what I’ve already written also goes in accord with what you have said. For you appeal to the authority of the 6th Council’s reading of Honorius’s letter, but then undercut this appeal by showing that the same Council brought forth baseless arguments for the interpolations of the 2 Vigilian texts which say “one operation”. Who is right? The scholars who have better grounds to say the lost Greek version had those words therein originally, or the 6th Council? Either way, we are stuck with putting a blemish on one council or the other, for if you go with the authority of the 6th Council, then you also prove the 5th Council negligent as to not catch the “heresy” of “Monotheletism” in the Vigilian texts. In fact, they utilize them as a witness to his orthodoxy. All in all, I can sympathize with the more “Protestant” reading of Councils (c.f. Chadwick on the “Anglican View of Ecumenical Councils”, since there is much room for picking up possible inconsistencies.
Just to clarify here, are you saying that since Scripture has contradictions within itself which cannot be reconciled, it is not problem for Councils to have contradictions which cannot be reconciled? I don’t think you mean that, but I’d like a clarification.
Well, while I would agree that Vigilius began his career as an opportunist, there are some grounds to believe he had a change of plan. For, upon entering Papal office, the whole idea of his subverting the faith together with Theodora went nowhere. Secondly, his willingness to endure the pain that he did for the amount of years that he did, shows that he may have been seeking to atone for his sins.
I agree 100%.
Well, it all really depends on whether by “one operation” Vigilius really meant what the heretics of the 7th century meant, namely, that the two natures are so united together that they do not retain their differences as produring in the life of Christ after the union. That is a very specified detail which would take a few more assertions from Vigilius to get at.
A Pope is normally just as open to erring as any prelate of the Church.
A lot here, so forgive me if I don’t respond point by point.
As for “Ex cathedra”, if the passage at issue was found in a letter read in the council minutes, I suppose the issue is whether Vigilius was there approving of what was said in the letter (I presume they would not be rejecting its contents when it was read?) and what his intent was in writing it to the Emperors of the Empire (I presume, to propagate what his teach *at the moment* was). Vigilius changed his mind so many times that honestly I don’t think we can never really know what he thought, we just know what he did.
I think due to councils allowing later clarifications on their teaching (the letters after Ephesus I, the FIfth council on Chalcedon, etc), I do not think it is tenable, nor controversial, to say a council is not infallible in all of its minutia. In the minutes, we see Bishops changing their minds on issue. So, I honestly don’t see an issue with the fifth council dabbling with something wrong, but not specifically propagating it (which would be a major issue for us Orthodox), and then the Church correcting any issues as time goes by. THis is an organic process and I think, can be seen “in real time” when we read Chalcedon for example.
How much Vigilius was “propagating” Monothelitism? I’m not sure how to quantify it, if we are not to presume upon your reading. He was writing to the highest sources of power, and what he was writing was meant to be conciliatory towards the Monophysites, so heretically tinged is probably most accurate. But, then in some respects we would have to say that about the fifth council. In some ways, the fifth council would be hard to understand other than it being an overt attempt to bring in the monophysites. I think, this is why the sixth council was needed, to clarify what was true in the fifth council and what was not (specifically the issue with monothelitism was addressed and denied factually). Perhaps I am too Protestant in my reading of the councils in this respect.
“Just to clarify here, are you saying that since Scripture has contradictions within itself which cannot be reconciled, it is not problem for Councils to have contradictions which cannot be reconciled? ”
This needs a fuller treatment. In short, Scriptures are word for word inerrant–if read correctly. The Scriptures obviously state things, at a literal level, which are wrong (contradicting numbers) or imprecise (Gospel of Luke says “5 or 7 days” at one point, which shows the inspired writer was not inspired to know the exact number of days that elapsed.) We, exegetically, look at these issues either as allegorical or human expressions teaching greater truths–hence, we can still maintain the inerrancy of said Scriptures.
There is no way we can say this about councils in their content. In fact, in Church history Popes doubted the ecumenicity of councils of previous Popes, as Orthodox doubt ecumenicity of councils that on paper appear ecumenical. When citing the councils we at present agree upon, the first seven, it is not common practice to quote every detail of their minutes.
If it makes any sense, I think a rough analogue for the councils is our system of law. The Constitution and Amendments are the *results* of the council and the minutes, writings, of contemporary saints, and how they were understood since the council are akin to English common law, the Federalist Paper, and the letters of the founding fathers. They offer the context to understand the authoritative text (i.e. the Constitution and Amendments in this example.)
This is why Athanasius can speak of the Nicene Creed as authoritative as the Scriptures and other fathers speaking of the Creed being inspired by the Holy Spirit. THe sentence of the fifth council says the same. However, I don’t think it is tenable to say that they viewed all of their deliberations, minutes, and off hand comments the same way–because they never said so.
Maybe I am wrong, but this is my theorizing at the moment.