Sunday, November 8, 2009

John Chrysostom and the Pope

I stumbled onto's section of creeds, confessions, and the writings of the Early Church Fathers as I was doing research for my high school girl's group last week. Since I've been reading about Eastern Orthodoxy and I've learned how important John Chrysostom is to them, I printed off something of his to read. It's a series of letters back and forth from him to the Pope. Chrysostom and a bunch of his fellow leaders had been exiled from Constantinople by a rogue trouble-making bishop from Alexandria. Chrysostom asks the Pope to speak on his behalf.

There were a few things in the letter that interested me, like the mention of troops entering a Cathedral and interrupting a baptism and the women who were ready to be baptized scattering, naked. Did you know that for centuries they baptized naked? So SO weird to me.

Most interesting, though, was to see how Chrysostom addressed the pope. This was in the 5th century, and I wanted to see whether he would view the Pope as the supreme authority to appeal to, or as a leader that might be able to put a good word in to his own leaders.

I was really interested in the final letter, which was actually the second reply of the Pope to Chrysostom. He is sympathetic to his plight and determined to fight for fairness. He talks about the correct process of authority that the rogue Bishop has gone around, and says, "As regard the observance of the canons we lay it down that we ought to follow those, which were defined at Nicaea, to which alone the Catholic Church is bound to pay obedience and recognition."

It's interesting to see his absolute deference to the recent things determined at Nicaea - the councils were considered the supreme authority, and still are in the Eastern Orthodox Church. As to the plea for action from Chrysostom, the Pope replies,
"But what are we to do against such things at the present time? A synodical decision of them is necessary, and we have long declared that a synod ought to be convened, as it is the only means of allaying the agitation of such tempests as these: and if we obtain this it is expedient that the healing of these evils should be committed to the will of the great God, and His Christ our Lord.... For we ourselves also are considering much by what means the ecumenical synod may be brought together in order that by the will of God these disturbing movements may be brought to and end."
To me, these words are striking because it is the Pope - and yet he speaks as though he has no authority in a patriarchate not his own, and so he urges Chrysostom to wait for an authoritative church council to speak on the matter. I know that Roman Catholics today also consider the Councils to be authoritative, but what is striking is that the Bishop of Rome doesn't seem to consider himself able to rule outside of his own area.


CM said...

Naked baptism? Huh. I remember hearing that there were some kind of deaconesses or something in the early Church... that would make sense in the light of that.

I am now curious to read more of this back and forth dialogue. The first quote makes complete sense to me, because if the Pope, magesterium, and councils are all authoritative, one would not contradict another. Each pope, all the bishops, are bound to uphold what came before them. That's why I sometimes love reading Church documents (SO nerdy, I know), because I love all the references to the things that came before. I know that no one, not the pope or anyone, no matter what kind of authority they have, is just making stuff up. I love the way it grounds me to all that has come before me.

As to the second quote, I don't feel that I have enough of a context to respond to it, whether to agree or disagree with your conclusions. Maybe if I study it some more, I'll have to get back to this.

Amy said...

This is a fascinating and important glimpse from church history! Please keep the historical stuff coming.

A couple of only half-formed questions come to mind in reading this that maybe you might have some thoughts on:

1. What should an ecumenical council REALLY look like today? Is one even possible? How would we decide who it should include? Just the Orthodox Church? Orthodox and Catholics? Orthodox and Catholics and Protestants? How would we draw the line at who is in and who is out?

Of course the Catholic church argues it has been having them up to the near present, most recently Vatican II. But I don't buy that, and I doubt you do either.

2. I am looking forward to reading you discoveries about Orthodoxy (the denomination), and what, if any, theological differences would compel you to convert to or reject Orthodoxy.

PresterJosh said...

That is quite an interesting passage, though I don't think it really says anything about how the Pope viewed his authority.

It could be read as you suggest, or it could be read as implying that because of practical concerns (distance, politics, etc.) only an ecumenical council could effectively solve the issue, regardless of whether the Pope had the right to do it himself.

Kacie said...

PresterJosh - true, it could be that, it's hard to tell really because nowadays we can never fully know the author's intent, only do our best to interpret. I'd like to see if I could find other similar letters, or see more of how Chrysostom refers to the Pope in the rest of his writings.

Kacie said...

Amy - I find your question really fascinating - what WOULD an ecumenical council look like today? I believe the Catholic church believes that there could be no council that was authoritative without the Pope being counted as authoritative by the Council.... sooo.... that makes it difficult.

I mean at the times the Councils were treated as putting truth into a solid worded format - so essentially the creeds that came out of the councils were treated as gospel truth. Today I see it feasible that we meet to talk about what we agree on, but I can't imagine there ever being enough trust to agree that whatever came out of the council would be absolutely true.

PresterJosh said...

Kacie: Are you familiar with the Letter of Clement to the Corinthians (80ish AD) or the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch (110ish AD)? You might find those interesting.

Clement's letter is basically a rebuke to the Corinthian church (outside of his region) telling them to get their act together. After it was received, this letter was so revered by the Corinthians that they actually had it read in the liturgy along with the scriptures for many years afterwards.

Ignatius's letters were written as he was being carried to Rome to be martyred. It's interesting to look at the way that he writes to Rome vs the way he writes to other Churches.

Of course, none of this is decisive, but maybe you'll find it helpful.

CM said...

It's interesting that you mention that the Councils are treated as putting truth in solid worded format. That's one of the features of any Council. I found this quote in a commentary in the Navarre Bible (a Catholic Bible) about the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15.

"[T]he Council of Jerusalem displays the same features as the later ecumenical councils in the history of the Church: a) it is a meeting of the rulers of the entire Church, not of ministers of one particular place; b) it promulgates rules which have binding force on all Christians; c) the content of its decrees deals with faith and morals; d) its decisions are recorded in a written document- a formal proclamation to the whole Church; e) Peter [or his lawful successor] presides over the assembly."

The only reason I bring it up is that I sometimes have only vague ideas of what Councils are, and I like specifics. I grant you that is the Catholic definition, so you may not agree with every part. I don't think it's possible to talk about a true Council, though, without having the ability to have written, formalized decrees. Anything else is just a meeting. It may be a very productive, grace-filled meeting, but it is not a Council.