THE 4th COUNCIL of 
 
C
ONSTANTINOPLE (869-870)  INTRODUCTION
 

 

THIS council, designated as the eighth ecumenical council by western canonists, is not found in any canonical collections of the Byzantines; its acts and canons are completely ignored by them. Modern scholars have shown that it was included in the list of ecumenical councils only later, that is, after the eleventh century. We have decided to include the council, for the sake of historical completeness.

Emperor Basil I and the patriarch Ignatius, after being restored to his see of Constantinople, asked Pope Nicholas I to call a council to decide about the bishops and priests who had been ordained by Photius. It was held at Constantinople after the arrival of legates from Pope Hadrian II, who had meanwhile succeeded Nicholas. These legates were Donatus, Stephen and Marinus and they presided at the council. It began in the cathedral of Hagia Sophia on 5 October 869. The tenth and last session was held on 28 February 870, when 27 canons were read out and approved by the council. All who were willing to sign the Liber satisfactionis, which had been sent by Pope Hadrian II, were admitted to the council. The account made by Anastasius contains the authentic list of those who signed the acts of the council. Emperor Basil I and his sons, Constantine and Leo, signed the acts after the patriarchs and in the same year they promulgated the council’s decisions, after drawing up a decree for this purpose.

AS regards the canonical authority of these deliberations, various facts regarding the council held in the cathedral of Hagia Sophia in November 879, so that Photius might be restored to the see of Constantinople, should be remembered. Peter, a Roman cardinal, presided at this council. It took account of a letter of Pope John VIII, which had been sent to the emperor and translated into Greek. This reads (chapter 4): “We declare that the synod held at Rome against the most holy patriarch Photius in the time of the most blessed pope Hadrian, as well as the holy synod of Constantinople attacking the same most holy Photius (i.e., in 869-870), are totally condemned and abrogated and must in no way be invoked or named as synods. Let this not happen”. Some people have thought that this text had been altered by Photius; but in the so-called “unaltered” text of the letter this passage is replaced by dots (. . .), and the following passage reads: “For the see of blessed Peter, the key-bearer of the heavenly kingdom, has the power to dissolve, after suitable appraisal, any bonds imposed by bishops. This is so because it is agreed that already many patriarchs, for example Athanasius .. .. after having been condemned by a synod, have been, after formal acquittal by the apostolic see, promptly reinstated”. Ivo of Chartres explicitly affirms: “The synod of Constantinople which was held against Photius must not be recognised. John VIII wrote to the patriarch Photius (in 879): We make void that synod which was held against Photius at Constantinople and we have completely blotted it out for various reasons as well as for the fact that Pope Hadrian did not sign its acts”. Ivo adds from the instructions that John VIII gave to his legates for the council in 879: “You will say that, as regards the synods which were held against Photius under Pope Hadrian at Rome or Constantinople, we annul them and wholly exclude them from the number of the holy synods”. For these reasons there is no ground for thinking that the text was altered by Photius.

An authentic copy of the acts of the council of 869-870 was sent to Rome, as of right. Anastasius, the librarian, ordered a complete copy to be made for himself. Then, when the legates’ copy was stolen, he translated his own copy into Latin, on Pope Hadrian’s orders, making a word for word translation. Anastasius also makes it plain that the Greeks adopted every means to distort the acts, “by abbreviating here and by expanding or changing there”. He adds: “Whatever is found in the Latin copy of the acts of the eighth synod is completely free from the alloy of falsehood; however, whatever more is found in the Greek text is thoroughly infected with poisonous lies”.

The Greek text has been partly preserved from total destruction in the summary of an anonymous writer who copied out anti-Photian texts. This summary has 14 canons, as opposed to the 27 of Anastasius, and only contains excerpts, dealing with the most important points, of these canons. Where comparison is possible, the Latin version of Anastasius hardly departs from the Greek text. Indeed it is so literal that at times it can only be understood by comparison with the Greek text, and when the latter is missing we must sometimes rely on conjecture.

The documents are taken from the following: the “Definition” from the Roman edition, (Concilia generalia Ecclesiae catholicae [Editio Romana], Rome 4 vols, 1608-1612) 3, 284-287; the canons from Les canons des conciles oecumeniques, ed. P-P. Jouannou (Pontificia commissione per la redazione del codice di diritto canonico orientale. Fonti. Fasc. IX: Discipline generale antique [IIe-IXe s.] tome 1 part 1), Grottaferata 1962 289-342


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