Introduction to Part Two of the Podcast: The Nicolaitan Schism

November 14, 2013 Length: 17:56

In the first episode of part two of his four-part podcast "Paradise and Utopia," Fr. John Strickland, a professor of history at Saint Katherine Orthodox College, describes how Pope Nicholas I paved the way for the rapid development of the papal theory of empire.





It was the year 858, and for Pope Nicholas I of Rome, the situation in Constantinople seemed intolerable. A well-meaning and faithful patriarch of the Byzantine Empire’s capital city named Ignatius, had been summarily deposed and placed under arrest by none other than the emperor himself. This was not simply an act of caesaropapism, by which, as I described in an early episode in Part One of this podcast, a ruler acted in an overbearing and detrimental way toward the Church hierarchy. It was worse than that. It was a violation of the Church’s canons. No emperor, no layman of any sort, had the authority to depose a member of the clergy, let alone the very patriarch of Constantinople. And yet, in the face of Ignatius’ high-minded criticisms of the court, especially in one case in which he excommunicated one of its most powerful officials on the grounds of incest, Emperor Michael III had decided to throw out the patriarch and choose a new one.

That was bad enough, but his choice was itself a scandal. His name was Photios. Suspiciously, he was a relative of the very court official whom Ignatius had censured. What is more, he had until that time been no more than a scholar in the capital, a layman with absolutely no experience in Church administration. And yet, in the course of a single week, he was tonsured a monk, promoted through the clerical ranks from reader to bishop, and then, on Christmas Day, proclaimed the new patriarch of Constantinople, second in authority only to the pope of Rome himself. It was intolerable. So Nicholas sent papal emissaries to Constantinople to investigate the situation, while he considered what to do.

He was aware that in the West he was being watched closely by advocates for a more ambitious and robust papacy. For many years, the Church’s most revered office of bishop had, along with the episcopate generally, been humiliated by the upstart Western Empire and its Frankish rulers. Nicholas was the first pope to fight back, and his struggle against political encroachments on the Church’s leadership put in motion a tendency in the West that would find fulfillment in the great pontificates of the high middle ages, those of Gregory VII, Urban II, and Innocent III. In a very readable study, entitled The Medieval Papacy, an historian named Geoffrey Barraclough summarized Nicholas’ role in this important development. These are the words of Barraclough.

The popes of the 9th century gradually extricated themselves from the position of subordination in which Charlemagne and the other Frankish rulers placed the papacy. In particular, the pontificate of Nicholas I saw a rapid development of the papal theory of the empire. Nothing, perhaps, contributed more to quicken Nicholas’ sense of the dignity of the papacy than the revival of the old controversy with Constantinople and the attack on the doctrine of papal primacy by the patriarch Photios and the Byzantine emperor Michael III. But Nicholas was quick to turn against the emperor of the West the theory of primacy he formulated against the emperor of the East. The purpose of which the empire existed, he said, was the exultation and peace of his mother, the holy and apostolic Church.

Nicholas staked out no new claims for the papacy, but the firmness with which he asserted his right to intervene against unjust rulers made a lasting impression. He acted, a contemporary wrote, as though he were lord of the world, and when he wrote to kings, his letters were full of terrible maledictions such as no previous pope had ever used. He also set the tone for his successors. When one of them insisted on the pope’s right, as the divinely ordained head of Christendom, to exercise political supervision of the empire, he was only applying principles asserted by Nicholas I.

Those are the words of Geoffrey Barraclough, in his book, The Medieval Papacy.

In the meantime, Nicholas had little inclination to be reconciled with Constantinople. Relations between the papacy of old Rome and the patriarchate of what was now known as the New Rome, had in recent times become strained, sometimes in the extreme. During the iconoclastic controversy of the previous century, the pope had watched helplessly as the heretical Byzantine emperor, Leo III, stripped him of his jurisdiction over southern Italy. There had been deep theological tensions as well. Historically, it had, after all, been from the Byzantine capital that so many diverse heresies had either sprung, as in the case of Nestorianism, or spread, as in the case of Arianism. The history of the Church’s struggle against heresy had to a significant degree been, at least in the eyes of Western Christians such as Nicholas, the history of Rome’s struggle against the East.

It had been Pope Leo the Great’s defense of orthodoxy against Monophysitism that had been upheld at the Fourth Ecumenical Council in 451. Most recently, it had been Pope Gregory III’s defense of orthodoxy against iconoclasm that had been upheld at the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787, when Emperor Leo III had learned of Gregory’s condemnation, he actually dispatched a ship to abduct the pope, but it was miraculously sunk by a storm en route. True, it would have pained Nicholas to recall that it had been his predecessor, Pope Honorius, who had himself helped formulate the heresy of Monothelitism in the 7th century, for which he was condemned at the Sixth Ecumenical Council of 681. Even subsequent popes for years to come assumed office with a solemn oath of anathema against their heretical predecessor.

But Honorius was the exception. In almost every case of theological dispute in the history of the Church until then, Rome, standing at a distance from the imperial capital and its politically influenced theological controversies, had shone forth as a defender of orthodoxy. For Nicholas, these surely were grounds for her status as the first source of Church leadership, a status inseparable from the fact that her bishops enjoyed linear succession from the first of the apostles himself, St. Peter. Not surprisingly then, when his emissaries returned cheerfully to Rome, Nicholas was disappointed. To his dismay, they reported meeting a faithful, capable, and self-confident patriarch on the throne in Constantinople. Rather than having assisted Nicholas in subverting Photios’ legitimacy, they admitted that they had actually participated in a council to confirm it.

And soon after this meeting with his bumbling emissaries, Nicholas was greeted by a refugee from the Byzantine court named Theognostus, who told a story about how Ignatius was forced under extreme duress to abdicate the patriarchate. The account given of the interview by Stephen Runciman in the second volume of his three-volume study of the history of Byzantium, describes it better than any other. These are the words of Runciman.

Theognostus now treated the pope to a graphic account of the unfairness of the recent inquiry, the perfidy of the witness, the iniquity of Photios and his friends, the loyalty of Ignatius to Rome, and, finally, all the tribulations that the old patriarch had been called upon to endure. These, it appeared, had, if anything, increased in severity since the council, and their efforts to force him into abdication, not that this should have been any longer necessary, his tormentors (that is to say, Ignatius’ tormentors) had arrested him once again, subjected him to further repeated beatings, starved him for a fortnight, and incarcerated him, naked except for a shirt, in the mortuary chapel of the Church of the Holy Apostles, where he had been stretched across what was left of the desecrated sarcophagus of the arch-iconoclast Constantine V—(that’s Constantine Copronymous, as he was known, son of Leo III)—with heavy stones tied to his ankles. At last when the poor man was barely conscious, a pen was thrust into his hand and guided to form a signature, above which Photios himself wrote an act of abdication.

Those are the words of Runciman, and Runciman himself, often unsympathetic towards Orthodox Church politics, notes how unreliable Theognostus’ report was. A supporter of Ignatius, the man had fallen from favor in the transition to Photios’ rule and had much to avenge. Every saint, after all, like Photios, has his enemies, and such a slanderous account as this was clearly the work of one of his. In any case, Runciman continues with his account of Nicholas I and Photios.

The pope hesitated no longer. First he addressed an encyclical letter to the patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, informing them that Ignatius had been illegally deposed and his place usurped by a base scoundrel, and calling upon them to do everything in their power to restore him to his rightful throne. Since the sees of all three patriarchs were now in Saracen (or Arab Muslim) hands, their chances of intervention were slim. He then wrote to the emperor and to Photios, setting out in no uncertain terms his own view of the matter, and emphasizing once again the supreme authority of the Roman pontiff, without whose approval no patriarch could assume or be deprived of office.

When these letters remained unanswered, he summoned a synod which met at the Lateran Palace in April 863. It divested Photios of all ecclesiastical status, declared him excommunicate unless he immediately renounced all claims to the patriarchate, pronounced a similar sentence on all other churchmen who owed their advancement to him, and restored Ignatius and all who had lost office in his cause to their former ranks and positions.

Those are the words of Runciman.

This act of Pope Nicholas was the beginning of what is usually called the Photian Schism, a break in communion between Rome and Constantinople that would last from 863 to 867. From an Orthodox point of view, it is misnamed. It is more appropriately called the Nicolaitan Schism, for it was the act of Pope Nicholas that severed Church unity and that as a result of the growing ambition of Rome to subordinate the patriarchate of Constantinople to its jurisdictional claims, not so much to ecclesiastical primacy as supremacy.

When Photios refused to vacate the patriarchate, and even issued his own excommunication of Nicholas soon after, the breach was complete. As such, it became a sort of rehearsal for the Great Schism that followed two centuries later. That schism has never been healed. The Nicolaitan Schism was. In 867, Pope Nicholas died. The same year, Emperor Michael III was brutally murdered by a usurper named Basil the Macedonian who, in order to win support from the West, decided to depose Photios and reinstate Ignatius. As a result, the conditions for the Nicolaitan Schism ceased to exist, and union between East and West was restored. Interestingly, when Ignatius died soon after, Photios was himself recalled to the patriarchate, and served a second term before retiring peacefully. It is striking that these two patriarchs of Constantinople, set against one another by the political forces of the Byzantine court and by the ecclesiastical policies of the Roman papacy, managed somehow to remain at peace throughout the affair. In fact, it is said that prior to Ignatius’ death in 877, they both proclaimed publicly their goodwill toward the other. The Orthodox Church commemorates both as saints, Photios, at the end of his life, himself calling for the canonization of his fellow patriarch.


Welcome back to Paradise and Utopia, reflections on the rise and fall of Christendom. It has been a few weeks now since my last episode. I apologize for that. Events here at St. Katherine College in San Diego have been very busy, and only this week have I managed to clear my desk of a large pile of exams and papers that my students patiently have been waiting for me to grade. Listeners will recall that in Part One of the podcast, which I completed in a previous episode on the flowering of liturgical arts, I told the history of Christendom from its inception at Pentecost under the influence of Christ’s Great Commission all the way up to the Great Schism. That latter event is usually dated to 1054, when the pope of Rome excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople and was himself excommunicated in turn.

In Part Two of this study which, like Part One, will consist of 10 episodes, broken as much as possible into smaller, downloader-friendly segments, I will explore the origins of the Great Schism and the consequences it brought to Christendom, both West and East, in the centuries that followed. In the West, this is the period in the history of Christendom which many regard as the highest point in its development: the age of papal supremacy, scholasticism, Crusades, and Gothic art. It is also, however, an age of incremental decline. After all, in a real sense, it culminated in the crisis of the Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Counter-reformation. I will attempt to show how patterns of medieval Roman Catholic culture and piety lay a foundation for the Christendom of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Oliver Cromwell, and even Jonathan Edwards.

For Muscovite Russia in the East, severed as she was from the civilization of Byzantium, which finally succumbed to Muslim conquest in 1453, the incremental decline of Western Christendom after the Great Schism remained for the most part remote, until the 17th century time of troubles. It would only be in the period after Peter the Great that the culturally creative force of traditional Christianity would be threatened there as well. But that is a story that belongs, along with the Renaissance, to Part Three of the podcast.

For the present, my goal in Part Two is to trace the continuing influence of traditional Christianity on Christendom, but also the ways in which departures from its central goal—man’s communion with God—resulted in the weakening of that civilization, first in the West and then in the East. Paradise became increasingly obscured during the centuries between the Great Schism and the Renaissance, leading members of Christendom to turn their hearts and minds toward its great alternative: utopia.

Join me next time, when I explore one of the developments that most came to distinguish Eastern and Western Christendom during the period before the Great Schism: theological reflection about the dignity of man and his place in the cosmos.