The Orthodox Consensus at the End of the Sixth Century

Bart Byl
9 min readDec 22, 2022

(A review of the last chapter of Volume 1 in Jaroslav Pelikan’s series on the development of Christian doctrine.)

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. Volume 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100–600). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971. 357 pp.

The cover of Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. Volume 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100–600)

In the final chapter of the first volume of his magnum opus, Pelikan surveys “The Orthodox Consensus” as it stood by the end of the sixth century, once the dust had settled on the tumultuous Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries.

Vincent of Lérins, writing in 434, had defined the catholic faith as that which had been believed “everywhere, always, by all”, thus supplying the three marks of orthodoxy: “universality, antiquity, and consensus” (333). Novelty and idiosyncrasy were sure marks of heresy. So was extremism, often generated by violent overreaction to an earlier and opposite heresy, as was the case with the monophysitism and Nestorianism. The catholic and orthodox Church, by contrast, confessed and taught the whole counsel of God, careful to hold the entire body of doctrine in a balanced and measured way.

The consensus of the church had been codified in the decrees of the four ecumenical councils: Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451), which had been received by the faithful of the whole church, East and West. Acceptance of the four holy councils, together with the four holy gospels, signified the church’s submission to the Spirit’s guiding voice in Scripture and tradition. The councils had neither created new doctrines nor uncovered new revelations: they understood themselves only to be explicitly declaring and defining what had always been believed by the faithful. And because the church’s catholicity extended not only through space but also through time, sound doctrine was expected to bear the mark of antiquity. Thus the first recourse in any dispute on the meaning of Scripture was to the writings of the holy fathers, for though the heretics were loud in their esteem of Scripture, they twisted it by refusing to submit their interpretations to the wisdom of tradition and the rule of faith. “It was inconceivable to the exponents of the orthodox consensus,” Pelikan points out, “that there could be any contradiction between Scripture properly interpreted and the tradition of the ancient fathers, or, more precisely, Scripture was properly interpreted only when it was seen as standing in agreement with tradition” (336–37). Tradition did not and could not function in competition with Scripture, for it was not a second potential source of revelation but the channel through which the life-giving word of God spoke to the church.

This is not to say that the writings of every dead theologian were to be uncritically embraced, even if he had died in the bosom of the church. Origen of Alexandria was a famous example of this rule: although he was perhaps the church’s most brilliant biblical theologian before Augustine, nevertheless some of his more speculative teachings were condemned at the Second Council of Constantinople. The authority of antiquity lay not in the outlying speculations and aberrations of the individual fathers, but what they held in common: the so-called consensus patrum.

For the third element of Vincent’s dictum was that the catholic faith was that which was believed “by all”. This of course could not mean absolute unanimity; the early centuries of the church offered ample evidence that every advance in doctrinal clarity was won only after protracted, bitter, and sometimes violent disputes with those who saw things quite differently. And at times, the great heroes of orthodoxy (such as Athanasius contra mundum, and, in the seventh century, Maximus the Confessor) might find themselves in the minority position within the church of the day, yet they were embraced in the bosom of the church of the ages. For although clerics might and often did err, the real heart of Christian doctrine lay in the devotion and liturgy of the praying and worshipping church, hence Prosper of Aquitaine’s principle, “the rule of prayer should lay down the rule of faith” (339).

Still, even at the end of the sixth century, growing doctrinal divergences were evident between East and West, which Pelikan explores in turn. The Eastern churches were absorbed with Christological debates over how the divine and human natures of Christ were united in the incarnation, debates that continued until the Third Council of Constantinople condemned monothelitism in 680–681.

Pelikan offers, as “the most representative spokesman for catholic orthodoxy in the East”, Justinian the Great, Eastern Roman Emperor from 527 to 565, for whom the problems of theology were as absorbing as those of politics and administration. Justinian, in his writings against Severus of Antioch and the other non-Chalcedonians, strongly emphasised loyalty to the tradition of the fathers. It is at least partly because of Justinian, Pelikan suggests, that “although Byzantine theology after the sixth and seventh centuries did not become as petrified as the caricatures of it suggest, it was characterized by a distinctive subservience to the past even in its most original and creative periods of theological discussion.” (342)

Another key factor in the doctrinal development of the Christian East was the mystical theology of pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. His assumed name, that of the Apostle Paul’s convert in Athens, was taken at face value by his readers, and gave his writings nearly apostolic authority, although his Neoplatonism (including direct quotations from Plotinus) point to an actual composition date around 500. The teaching of theosis (which Dionysius believed was “as much as attainable, assimilation to God and union with him”) proved to be the key link between Christian (particularly sacramental) theology and Neoplatonic mysticism, the pathway by which what was lower and earthly could ascend up the chain of being to participate in what was divine and heavenly.

Mosaic of Dionysius in Hosios Loukas monastery

In Pelikan’s view, Dionysius’s highly influential corpus was a vehicle for the entry into orthodox Christianity of new pantheistic tendencies that tended to obscure the Creator-creature distinction. He charges that “in such a system of mystical doctrine, Jesus himself could become no more than a ‘chief symbol’ for the transcendent reality of man’s union with God through mystical ascent” (346). Dionysius’s theology of negation, which stresses that all positive descriptions of God fall short because they can only be based on human analogies, risks swallowing up all that is revealed of God and confessed by the church in an abyss of mystical unknowability. Yet although Pelikan complains that “most of the doctrines on account of which the Second Council of Constantinople anathematized Origen were far less dangerous to the tradition of catholic orthodoxy than was the Crypto-Origenism canonized in the works of Dionysius the Areopagite” (348), the quotations he provides as evidence could easily have been penned by so orthodox a patristic writer as, say, Gregory of Nyssa, and it is hard to see how the dubious apostolic provenance of his writings would have been so readily accepted had they not been in basic accord with the mystical tradition which already existed.

The final section of Pelikan’s chapter is entitled, “Orthodox Catholicism in the West.” The Latin counterparts to Justinian and Dionysius whom he chooses are Gregory and Boethius. “Like Dionysius, Boethius provided orthodox Christian sanction for ideas whose non-Christian origin might otherwise have disqualified them” (349), but where Dionysius borrowed mysticism, Boethius imported rationalism. He “intended to expound what ‘catholics confess in accordance with reason [rationabiliter],’ and elsewhere he bade his reader, ‘If possible, reconcile faith and reason.’” (349–50). Here we see the beginning of a particularly Latin emphasis that was to bear later flower in medieval scholasticism. Boethius saw himself as a humble interpreter of Augustine, as did Gregory the Great and virtually every Western theologian after the fifth century. Doctrinal debates in the West for some time are arguments over the interpretation of Augustine, not his authority, which all presumed. Augustine, of course, had a massive body of writings, not all parts of which were consonant with the rest of his work or indeed with the tradition of the church. Augustine’s statements on predestination and free will in particular fell into this category, and it took Gregory and the Synod of Orange to provide an authoritative interpretation of Augustine’s theology that was more in accord with catholic orthodoxy.

The colossal stature of Augustine in the West has no equivalent in the East, which points to a telling difference between what would become two separate Christian communions. In the East, no single figure was ever permitted to so dominate theology. Even the brilliant Origen could be censured and his system condemned after his death, and Gregory of Nyssa’s universalism rejected while the theologian himself was canonized. For the Greeks, what counted was the consensus of the fathers and the judgment of the whole church. The Latins, on the other hand, were much more willing to submit themselves to the authority of a single theologian, much as they were willing to submit themselves to the authority of a single bishop.

Saint Gregory and Saint Augustine by Juan de Borgoña (c.1495–1536). Photo credit: The Bowes Museum.

It was Gregory I who really provides the theological basis for papal authority (and it is only for its doctrinal importance that the papacy is given attention in Pelikan’s book). In fact, Gregory may be viewed as the first Pope, who understood the office as the Roman church does today. Gregory quoted Matthew 16:18 (“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church”) to prove not only that Peter was the prince of the apostles, but that the bishop of Rome had inherited his authority over the universal church. And truly Rome had been a bastion of orthodoxy; when the patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria had in turn fallen into heresy, Rome could always be relied on to maintain apostolic truth. But although the primacy of the see of Peter was generally acknowledged, precisely what sort of authority this entailed had not been defined. What was the relationship of the Pope to the other four patriarchs, or to an ecumenical council? And what would happen if the bishop of Rome deviated from orthodoxy (as later happened with Honorius I, who has condemned as a monothelite after his death in 638)? Without answering these hypotheticals, Gregory vigorously asserted papal authority, where at least in the West it reigned unchallenged. He lent his authority to two theological developments in particular: the doctrine of purgatory and the doctrine of the sacrifice of the Mass. These would take on a level of importance in the West they never enjoyed in the East, perhaps because of the legal and forensic element that was peculiar to the Latin mindset. But more than particular doctrines, what the rise of the papacy meant for the development of doctrine was a new locus of authority: doctrinal orthodoxy could be measured by adherence to the bishop of Rome.

The paradox we confront after reading Pelikan’s chapter is that the turn of the seventh century marks both the conclusion of a period of consolidation and the first signs of a painful fracture within Christendom. It is evident that though open conflict is centuries away, East and West are drifting apart. The roots of division are many, but Pelikan’s chapter suggests that Augustine must bear at least some of the blame. It is telling that Vincent of Lérins’s definition of the catholic faith as that which had been believed “everywhere, always, by all” was specifically directed against Augustine’s theological innovations regarding predestination (333). For all his brilliance, Augustine could not easily read Greek, and was thus somewhat isolated from the Eastern theological tradition. (And the East from him: most of his works were not translated into Greek until the fourteenth century.) Augustine may not even have been aware of the long and unanimous chain of voices before him who had spoken in defence of human free will. Regardless, Augustine marks the beginning of a distinct Latin doctrinal tradition, which, bolstered by papal authority, feels confident to seek its own way, more keen to assert its authority than to seek consensus with its Eastern brethren. The age of true catholicity was nearly over.

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Bart Byl

Th.M. student at Regent College. Canadian in Georgia. 🇨🇦🇬🇪