The Council of Constantinople in AD 381 was not ecumenical.

“The Council of Constantinople met during May, June and July 381.” (RH, 805)

Authors quoted

LA = Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, 2004

RH = Hanson RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. 1988

Due to discoveries of ancient documents and significant progress, the scholarship of the past hundred years has concluded that the traditional account of the fourth-century Arian Controversy presents history from the perspective of the winner and is a complete travesty. These books reflect the revised account of that Controversy.

It was not an ecumenical council.

It is known as the Second Ecumenical Council. ‘Ecumenical’ that it represents all churches and perspectives. However, that council was far from ecumenical. It was a regional council of Antioch. For example, the Western church did not attend. 1Hanson refers to the “tenuous contact which the council might have been thought to have with the see of Rome.” (RH, 807)

Furthermore, already in the previous year, the emperor Theodosius had made the Trinitarian version of Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, exiled the Homoian bishop of the Capital, and outlawed all forms of non-Trinitarian Christianity, with threats of punishment. Consequently, no ‘Arian’ was allowed into the Council. It was attended only by pro-Nicenes:

“When Theodosius had entered Constantinople in November 380,” (the year before the council) he immediately exiled the Homoian bishop Demophilus and “accepted Gregory Nazianzen as de facto bishop.” (LA, 253) 

“Only about 150 bishops attended and they appear to have been carefully chosen from areas which would be friendly to Meletius, who was its president, that is areas under the influence of the see of Antioch.” (RH, 806) 2“Meletius was the initial president of the council.” (LA, 253) 3“It seems unlikely that this meeting was intended as a universal council to rival Seleucia/Ariminum or Nicaea itself. … Those present at the council initially came from a fairly restricted area and the majority from areas known to be favourable to Meletius.” (LA, 253)

“Negotiations with the Macedonians … were undertaken but no agreement could be reached and the Macedonian bishops, about 30 in number, left the council.” (RH, 807)

“The details … of this council indicate the problems with later presentation of the meeting as an ‘ecumenical’ reaffirmation of Nicaea.” (LA, 255)

The emperor controlled the meeting.

The emperor summoned the council; not the church. (LA, 253)

“Theodosius welcomed the participants in his magnificent throne-room in the Imperial palace, but the Council did not meet there. … After receiving the bishops, Theodosius did not appear at any session of the Council, but remained in the wings, as it were, holding a watching brief.” (RH, 806)

“The first act of the Council was to affirm that Gregory of Nazianzus was the Catholic and legitimate bishop of Constantinople.” (RH, 806; cf. LA, 253-4) Gregory was the person whom the emperor in the previous year unilaterally appointed as bishop of the Capital after he had exiled the incumbent Arian bishop.

The chairperson was the emperor’s agent:

The first chairperson was Meletius, but he died soon and was replaced as chairperson by Gregory Nazianzen – the person whom the emperor appointed as bishop of Constantinople. 4“During the council Meletius suddenly died, and Gregory of Constantinople was chosen to succeed him as president of the council.” (RH, 807; cf. LA, 254) 

But Gregory resigned5“In the council itself Gregory seems to have quickly made himself unpopular.” (LA, 254) “At some point he seems also to have lost the support of Theodosius. Gregory offered his resignation … and it was accepted.” (LA, 255) and was replaced by a person (Nectarius) who was the equivalent to the mayor of the city (“praetor urbanus in Constantinople” (RH, 811)), but who was a mere lay-person in the church. “It was as if today the cardinals had chosen as Pope … the mayor of Rome.” (RH, 811) 6In the place of Gregory, “the bishops of the council chose an unbaptised catechumen, an imperial civil servant, Nectarius, who then became the presiding officer.” (RH, 807) 7Nectarius was “an unbaptized civil official in Constantinople.” (LA, 255) Now the chairperson was fully under the emperor’s control.

Nectarius was also elected as bishop of Constantinople:

“The Council found itself in a quandary over the choice of a new bishop of the capital city. … They finally picked … an unbaptised layman, Nectarius, who had been praetor urbanus in Constantinople. … The bishop-elect was hastily baptised and ordained.” (RH, 811) 8“The Egyptians and Westerners could not object because they had acquiesced seven years ago at the choice for the important see of Milan of an unbaptised officer in the imperial service, Ambrose.” (RH, 811)

That the Council elected a civil servant as chairperson and as bishop of the Capital reveals the unity of church and state. The same person now managed both the city and the church. It also shows the control which the emperor had over the council.

It concluded the Meletian Schism.

As stated, Meletius, the bishop of Antioch and the first chairperson of the council, suddenly died. The meeting then discussed a replacement for Meletius as bishop of Antioch. The Meletian Schism is named after Meletius. It was a schism within the pro-Nicene camp, particularly over the rightful bishop of Antioch:

On the one side of that schism were the bishops of Rome and Alexandria (Athanasius, and his successor Peter, and Damasus, the bishop of Rome). They supported Paulinus as bishop of Antioch. All of them believed that Father, Son, and Spirit are one single Rational Faculty (one hypostasis).

In the third main center of the Empire, Constantinople, the bishop was a Homoian until the emperor exiled him. But the most important pro-Nicenes in the East were the Cappadocians and they, like the Homoians, taught three Rational Faculties (three hypostases). In this camp, Basil of Caesarea supported his friend Meletius as bishop of Antioch.

This tension continued in the council. For example:

Paulinus had been for years steadily supported by Damasus and Peter against Meletius, the leader of the party of the Easterners at the council. Considerable antagonism between him and the followers of Meletius must have been aroused.” (RH, 810)

“It is wholly improbable that the bishop of Alexandria would have attended the council as long as Meletius was presiding over it, and if the bishop of Thessalonica regarded himself as in any sense representing the bishop of Rome (and he may have done so), it is not likely that he would have been content to attend a council with Meletius at the head of it either.” (RH, 808-9)

The selection of the bishop of Antioch intensified this conflict. Gregory proposed Paulinus but the meeting elected Flavian:

“Gregory wanted the council to elect Paulinus in place of Meletius as bishop of Antioch, but it preferred to choose Flavian.” (RH, 807)

Flavian was “a prominent presbyter of the party of Paulinus.” (RH, 810) So, he was on the same side as Paulinus.

Nectarius, the praetor urbanus in Constantinople, who was elected as bishop of the Capital (Constantinople), supported “the Eustathian cause in Antioch.” (RH, 811) Eustathius was the leading Sabellian when the Arian Controversy began. Like the bishops of Rome and Alexandria, the Sabellians taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are one single Rational Faculty (hypostasis). Nectarius, therefore, was also in the ‘one-hypostasis camp’.

It is interesting that Gregory proposed Paulinus because Gregory, presumably, since he was one of the Cappadocians, supported Basil in this dispute. Perhaps the emperor instructed Gregory to propose Paulinus. The emperor’s Edict of Thessalonica of the previous year also took the one hypostasis side of that schism. It explicitly mentions Peter and Damasus in that edict as role models for the Trinity doctrine.

In conclusion, the delegates “have been carefully chosen from areas which would be friendly to Meletius.” (RH, 806) But the meeting ends with Meletius dead and his opponents in the Meletian Schism appointed as Bishops of Antioch and Constantinople, and as chairperson of the council. One wonders whether the emperor contributed more than his prayers to Meletius’ death. It seems as if the emperor fully hijacked Meletius’ meeting.

Other Decisions

“The council re-affirmed N but also produced the creed C. … All this lasted three months from May to July 381.” (RH, 807) See – Was the creed of AD 381 an update of the Nicene Creed of 325?

The council agreed that “the bishop of Constantinople is to enjoy precedence in honour next after the bishop of Rome because it is the New Rome’. It is very likely that this was intended to reduce the pretensions of the archbishop of Alexandria.” (RH, 808)


OTHER ARTICLES

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Hanson refers to the “tenuous contact which the council might have been thought to have with the see of Rome.” (RH, 807)
  • 2
    “Meletius was the initial president of the council.” (LA, 253)
  • 3
    “It seems unlikely that this meeting was intended as a universal council to rival Seleucia/Ariminum or Nicaea itself. … Those present at the council initially came from a fairly restricted area and the majority from areas known to be favourable to Meletius.” (LA, 253)
  • 4
    “During the council Meletius suddenly died, and Gregory of Constantinople was chosen to succeed him as president of the council.” (RH, 807; cf. LA, 254)
  • 5
    “In the council itself Gregory seems to have quickly made himself unpopular.” (LA, 254) “At some point he seems also to have lost the support of Theodosius. Gregory offered his resignation … and it was accepted.” (LA, 255)
  • 6
    In the place of Gregory, “the bishops of the council chose an unbaptised catechumen, an imperial civil servant, Nectarius, who then became the presiding officer.” (RH, 807)
  • 7
    Nectarius was “an unbaptized civil official in Constantinople.” (LA, 255)
  • 8
    “The Egyptians and Westerners could not object because they had acquiesced seven years ago at the choice for the important see of Milan of an unbaptised officer in the imperial service, Ambrose.” (RH, 811)

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