FIRST COUNCIL OF CONSTANTINOPLE
Summoned by Emperor Theodosius I and convened at Constantinople in May and June 381, and recognized as the second ecumenical council. About 150 bishops from the eastern provinces of the empire attended, to which may be added thirty-six “Macedonian” bishops, mainly from western Asia Minor, whom the emperor and the council vainly tried to convince that the Holy Spirit did indeed participate fully in the godhead with the Father and the Son, and that to deny this was Arian heresy.
The “Macedonian” issue was only one reason for the summons of the council. The main reason was the emperor’s determination to unite the empire on the basis of the Nicene faith. As a preliminary, immediately on his arrival in Constantinople on 24 November 380 (Socrates Scholasticus Historia ecclesiastica V.6), he summoned the semi-Arian bishop Demophilus and gave him the choice of accepting the Nicene Creed or deposition (25 November 380). To his honor, Demophilus chose the latter course.
There had, however, been a considerable shift in the emperor’s religious outlook since the issue of the edict Cunctos populos on 27 February 380 (Codex Theodosianus xvi.i.2). In this he had stated that the religion to which he ordered his subjects to adhere was that “taught by St. Peter to the Romans: which faithful tradition has preserved and which is now professed by the priest [pontificem] Damasus and by Peter II, bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness.” In the autumn, during a bout of severe illness, Theodosius had accepted baptism from the strongly pro-Western Bishop Ascholius of Thessalonica (Socrates, V.6; Sozomen Historia ecclesiastica VII.4.2).
Once arrived in Constantinople, the emperor began to move toward a more Eastern viewpoint. On 10 January 381 an edict setting out the Nicene faith made no mention of Pope Damasus or Peter of Alexandria, but simply stated that the faith asserted the “indivisible substance of the uncorrupt Trinity, which the Greeks express for those believing rightly with the term ousia.” He had already sent for a representative of this interpretation of the faith, the leader of the Nicene party in Constantinople, GREGORY OF NAZIANZUS, and placed him on the throne of the Church of the Twelve Apostles in the city (end of 380).
The council that Theodosius now summoned was designed to ratify these decisions and unite the empire behind the emperor’s policies. In Alexandria, however, Bishop Peter had played an uncertain if not a double game. In 379 he had been by no means unwilling to accept Gregory as bishop of Constantinople. But before he died on 14 February 380 he had changed his views. Using an unscrupulous adventurer named Maximus the Cynic, he set up an intrigue against Gregory and actually sent some suffragan bishops to consecrate Maximus as bishop of Constantinople (Gregory of Nazianzus, Carmen de seipso XI.844-847, 910ff.).
After Peter died, his successor, Timothy (380-385), was equally hostile to Gregory, and when the council assembled in May, there were already factions. The Western group, including Ambrose of Milan, leaned toward Maximus, while the Eastern, with the exception of the Egyptian bishops, was solid in its support of Gregory.
From the outset the latter gained the upper hand. The president of the council was Meletius of Antioch, a one-time opponent of Athanasius but now honored by the emperor (Theodoret Historia ecclesiastica 5.7) and a firm friend of Gregory. Gregory was duly enthroned as bishop in May 381. Meletius’ death, followed by Gregory’s sudden resignation a month later (June 381), did not give the Egyptians any advantage. Maximus’ claim to the bishopric was rejected. The senator Nectarius, a friend of Basil of Caesarea, was appointed bishop by the emperor (though he had not yet been baptized). The council’s decisions were to be far from palatable to Alexandria.
The canons of the council condemned all types of Arianism, together with the “Macedonians” and Apollinarians (canon 1). Canon 2 developed the legislation of the Council of NICAEA as to the territorial jurisdiction of the major sees and added the important proviso that bishops should not interfere in the affairs of civil dioceses other than their own. In particular the bishop of Alexandria must confine himself to Egypt. As a rider to this, canon 3 ordained that Constantinople should have an honorary preeminence after Rome “because Constantinople is new Rome.” Canon 4 repudiated Maximus the Cynic.
The creed that emerged from the council took cognizance of the development of Eastern theology since Nicaea. The role of the Holy Spirit was defined, and verbal changes were made in the text of the Nicene Creed that moved away from the strict Nicene standpoint championed by ATHANASIUS of Alexandria. Thus, the addition of the phrase “before all the ages” after “begotten from the Father” introduced a temporal element into the relation of the persons of the Trinity that Athanasius would have rejected (and similarly the phrase “of whose kingdom there will be no end”).
The upshot was that the council was a serious reverse for Alexandria and the church in Egypt. Not only had the Nicene Creed been altered in a neo-Nicene sense but Constantinople had been granted an outright preeminence over the bishoprics of the East, and Alexandria, by implication, had been censured for interference in its affairs. Canon 3 had, however, provided no apostolic justification for the promotion of the see of Constantinople, a fact that was to unite Alexandria and Rome in opposition to it.
The position of Constantinople was guaranteed finally by canon 28 of the Council of CHALCEDON. It was not until the end of the ACACIAN SCHISM in 519 that the papacy accepted the Council of Constantinople as an ecumenical council. Even then, it maintained silent reservations regarding canon 3. The First Council of Constantinople opened the period when differences among Constantinople, Alexandria, and Rome dominated the history of Christianity and led to the major division between Alexandria and the other patriarchates.
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- Gregory of Nazianzus. Carmina de seipso. In PG 37, cols. 961-1452. Paris, 1862.
- Hanson, R. P. C. The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, chap. 23. Edinburgh, 1988.
- Héfele, C. J., and H. Leclercq, trans. Histoire des conciles, Vol. 2, pt. 1, pp. 1-48. Paris, 1907.
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- Kidd, B. J. History of the Church to A.D. 461, Vol. 2. Oxford, 1922.
W. H. C. FREND