Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Council of Nicæa Proves Papacy

The Papacy is one of the most decisive (and divisive) issues in Christendom, particularly in determining whether or not the Catholic Church is the One True Church. While much can be said as far as the Scriptural support goes, the testimony of Tradition is just as powerful in this regard, most notably the testimony of the early Ecumenical Councils.

At this point many Eastern Orthodox and Protestants would object, saying that the Councils actually suggest the opposite, namely that the Bishop of Rome did not have the authority Catholics claim. One of the leading examples appealed to is the 6th Canon of the Council of Nicaea, which says (quoting only the most relevant portion):
The ancient customs of Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis shall be maintained, according to which the bishop of Alexandria has authority over all these places since a similar custom exists with reference to the bishop of Rome. Similarly in Antioch and the other provinces the prerogatives of the churches are to be preserved.
Now there is some slightly different translations of certain terms of this canon, but this rendering is generally accepted. Reading this canon for the first time, many get the impression the Bishop of Rome is simply one bishop among others with no unique authority, directly undermining the notion of Papal Supremacy. This is the common take on this passage by Eastern Orthodox and Protestants.

The problem the Protestant is in is that even if their rendering were correct, the fact remains that this canon clearly teaches the Bishop of Rome has some high ranking authority, with the bishops of Alexandria and Antioch on some sort of equal footing. In other words, the early Church (as testified by this most important Council) was clearly one of a hierarchy of bishops, including very high ranking bishops - something totally incompatible with Protestantism. The only thing the Protestant can do is to ignore this Council and embrace an inconsistency of accepting the Council as orthodox Christianity but ignoring all the history and details of the Council (including the canons). This is indeed why many Protestants have no problem brushing off Nicaea or any other Council in favor of "Scripture Alone" (i.e. as soon as a "difficulty" arises, any part of any Council can be dispensed with).

But there is yet another detail here that is plain upon even a surface reading, and that is that this is a custom/tradition. Now if Nicaea took place in 325AD, it is no leap of faith to suggest this custom/tradition extended back at least 2-3 generations of Christians (if not further, as Catholics and Eastern Orthodox would suggest), meaning this custom goes back easily 75-100 years (again, if not further, which there's no reason to deny). This means there was an acknowledged bishop of Rome, with this authority, easily dating back to 225AD. Now if the last Apostle (St John) died around 90AD, and any given Protestant is going to suggest the Papacy is an apostate invention, then this means Christianity had to have gone apostate in under 150 years.

While the Eastern Orthodox would not deny the Bishop of Rome Traditionally had high authority (as many historical Christian testimonies prove), even being the "first among equals" (an uninspired and fictitious phrase invented by anti-Papal advocates) when it came to the (three) Patriarchs (i.e. Rome, Alexandria, Antioch), there still leaves the issue of whether this canon suggests Primacy or rather Roman subordination to this Council (and equal authority among Bishops). That the Bishop of Rome is looked to as a "standard" here in this canon is itself good evidence that the Bishop of Rome was not merely "first among equals" with no true superior authority. But that's only granting the anti-Papal interpretation of the canon!

What is the Catholic interpretation of this canon?

To answer that question, Catholics have made the following argument, masterfully stated in this article. Here is the essence of the argument:
  • To render Canon 6 along the lines of: "Let the Bishop of Alexandria rule this jurisdiction since the Bishop of Rome is also a Patriarch [with his own separate jurisdiction]" is nonsense; it's the non-sequitur fallacy: it doesn't follow nor fit with the (territorial) claims being made in regards to Alexandria.
  • The only reading that makes sense is something along the lines of: "Let the Bishop of Alexandria rule this jurisdiction since it is the tradition of the Pope to grant Alexandria this jurisdiction." This directly connects to the first clause, and the reasoning and force of the argument is that the authority to which it is appealing to (i.e. Rome) is sufficient to settle the matter.
This obviously entails two things: the Council submitting to the traditions of the Pope (Bishop of Rome), and a clear primacy over the other two Patriarchs (and by extension all bishops of the Church). This refutes Eastern Orthodoxy.

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Update: 5-12-12

I just found another great piece of evidence to supply to this argument. In the Second Ecumenical Council (i.e. Constantinople 1), about 50 years after Nicaea, here is what was said in Canon 2
Diocesan bishops are not to intrude in churches beyond their own boundaries nor are they to confuse the churches: but in accordance with the canons, the bishop of Alexandria is to administer affairs in Egypt only; the bishops of the East are to manage the East alone (whilst safeguarding the privileges granted to the church of the Antiochenes in the Nicene canons); and the bishops of the Asian diocese are to manage only Asian affairs; and those in Pontus only the affairs of Pontus; and those in Thrace only Thracian affairs. Unless invited bishops are not to go outside their diocese to perform an ordination or any other ecclesiastical business. If the letter of the canon about dioceses is kept, it is clear that the provincial synod will manage affairs in each province, as was decreed at Nicaea. But the churches of God among barbarian peoples must be administered in accordance with the custom in force at the time of the fathers.
This Canon is most certainly calling to mind Canon 6 of Nicaea. Yet notice that there is no mention of Rome among the two giants of Alexandria and Antioch. This strongly supports the claim that Rome has no boundaries, and thus Canon 6 was indeed not putting Rome as on par with Alexandria and Antioch. 

And to drive this point even further home, notice what Canon 3 of Constantinople 1 says:
Because it is new Rome, the bishop of Constantinople is to enjoy the privileges of honour after the bishop of Rome.
So here Rome is mentioned, and it clearly is shown to be the head, as even the man-made See of Constantinople (with no ancient customs and no apostolic roots) is said to be in second rank. 

In short, these two Councils did not dare to infringe upon the rights and prerogatives of Rome.


Phil said...

And what do you do with the fact that the Bishop of Rome supported Pelagianism? Which was later condemned as a heresy? Do you admit that the pope was a heretic?

costrowski said...

I assume that you are talking about Pope Zosimus, but I think you should be the one to clarify your own position. Therefore, could you please identify which pope you have in mind as well as the particulars of your charge. After all, the person who charges another with heresy should have the burden of supporting that heavy charge.

Denny Sellen said...

"This Canon is most certainly calling to mind Canon 6 of Nicaea. Yet notice that there is no mention of Rome among the two giants of Alexandria and Antioch. This strongly supports the claim that Rome has no boundaries, and thus Canon 6 was indeed not putting Rome as on par with Alexandria and Antioch."

This is a joke, right? I've always thought the "God-of-the-Gaps" argument was grasping at straws in desperation, likewise, the "Papal-Supremecy-of-the-Gaps" argument should be taken likewise.

No offense, Nick, you're a smart guy, you seem like you enjoy research, you want to do your Church good, etc. but you can do *A LOT* better than this. This just makes you look desperate.

costrowski said...

You might find it interesting to read a patristic commentary on Nicaea canon 6. The acts of Chalcedon for the XVI session record the following:

"Lucentius the most reverend bishop and legate of the Apostolic See,
said: It is manifest that the decrees of the 318 have been put aside...

The most glorious judges said: Let each party quote the canons.

Paschasinus, the most reverend bishop and representative, read: Canon Six of the 318 holy fathers, "The Roman Church hath always had the primacy. Let Egypt therefore so hold itself that the bishop of Alexandria have the authority over all, for this is also the custom as regards the bishop of Rome."

Nick said...


Sorry buddy but you seem pretty desperate. I've talked with enough EO and Protestants to see the same pattern: don't interact with the substance of an argument, but rather try to find some smaller detail and make a mountain of it.

There is nothing 'gaps' about my argument. I showed from the wording/logic of Canon 6 that it meant Papacy, which you ignored. I showed Canon 3 of Constantinople indicates Rome is the leader, which you ignored (and you probably don't care that there's no historical evidence for Constantinople having any apostolic roots). And I showed that Canon 2 of Constantinople clearly is referencing Canon 6, and comparing the two vindicates my reading of Canon 6, which you ignored.

Your whole argument is 'Canon 2 didn't mention Rome', but that's closing your eyes to all the evidence on the table.

Anonymous said...

You said that the Orthodox don’t interact with the substance of an argument. This article is by far the most substance-lacking argument I have ever seen.

For starters, your translation for the part you bolded in Canon 6 is highly inaccurate. A correct translation would read: “since this is also the treatment usually accorded to the bishop of Rome.” After a good bit of searching, every single source I have found (whether the source is online or in a book, whether it is Orthodox, Protestant, or without conviction) matches this translation except for one. This one I found on, clearly a highly bias source. With a correct translation, the non sequitur clearly becomes the Roman Catholic interpretation. Could any honest man truly say otherwise?

So what area was this jurisdiction over? It was over a small part of Southern Italy, as is proven quite incontestably on page 37 of this link: If you want a really, REALLY resounding proof of this, check out “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series, The Seven Ecumenical Councils,” starting on page 16.

Your argument for Canon 2 supporting the Papacy is that the bishop of Rome was not mentioned? In your last comment, you said that the Orthodox “try to find some smaller detail and make a mountain of it.” The hypocrisy in this statement is almost laughable. I have never before seen a weaker, or more desperate proof for the Papacy. If there was some universal authority in the bishop of Rome, wouldn’t that be a reason why he WOULD be mentioned in the Canon? Did you not think that, perhaps, he was left unmentioned because he was completely irrelevant to the topic of authority in the East? Your conclusion would be completely impossible to come to without a heavy, heavy bias already towards the Papacy.

Your use of Canon 3 as a proof is just blatant ignorance on many different levels.

Firstly, even if this canon did hint at a Papacy, for many centuries, THE CANON WAS REJECTED BY THE BISHOPS OF ROME. They believed that the canon was contradictory to the Nicene Canons. One of many examples of this is seen in the 16th session of the Council of Chalcedon, where the Papal Legate, Licentius expressly declared this. If the Pope had held a supreme authority, then this Canon would be null and void.

Secondly, the Canon in no way gives any evidence towards a Papacy. The Orthodox Church has always maintained that the head bishop is the first in honor. Today, the bishop of Constantinople holds this title, and there is obviously no supreme authority recognized in him. This canon only reaffirms the Collegial Tradition that the Orthodox Church maintains to this day. If there had been an Papacy, Canon 3 would have mentioned a privilege of authority or jurisdiction, certainly not one only of honor.

Finally, the meaning of this Canon is proven resoundingly by the 28th Canon of Chalcedon. This Canon starts off by stating that it is simply reaffirming the decrees of the Second Ecumenical Council, then proceeds to declare that the churches of Constantinople and Rome shall have equal privileges and priorities. So here, we clearly see that the Second and Fourth Councils saw absolutely no universal authority in the bishops of Rome. Roman Catholics love to try to claim that Canon 28 was not recognized by the Church because it was rejected by the bishop of Rome. This claim falls apart on many different levels, but here’s the grand slam: the 36th Canon of the Sixth Ecumenical Council reaffirmed Canon 28 of Chalcedon. Clearly, the opinion of the bishop of Rome had no authority in the matter. So, then, we already see that FOUR of the Ecumenical Councils (1st, 2nd, 4th, and 6th) did not even come close to recognizing a Papacy.

I think this article is a beautiful example of how Apologetics will try to twist documents to in some way support their system. Better luck next time.

costrowski said...

Your translation of Nicaea 6 (i.e., “accorded to the bishop of Rome” is exactly the same as that of an EO priest with whom I had this exact same discussion online. Consequently, I’m essentially re-posting here my response to him.

I don't know of any scholars who accept your translation of Nicaea 6, but I know plenty who flat out deny it. For example, L'Huillier translates the section in question as "according to Rome" while you translate it as "accorded to Rome". There's a huge difference there and one of which I doubt you'd find much academic support. Moreover, there should be no question about the proper translation because we have an "official" Greek patristic translation of this canon into Latin from Patriarch Atticus of Constantinople which he sent to Carthage:

"Antiqui mores obtineant qui apud Aegyptum sunt et Libiam et Penthapolim ut Alexandriae episcopus omnium habeat sollicitudinem quia et urbis Romae episcopo similis mos est."

The key word here is "quia" which from I can tell, translates into, 'because. It does not allow for your interpretation which essentially means 'given to'. Glen L. Thompson translates it as follows:

"Let the ancient customs prevail that the bishop of Alexandria should have the care of those in Egypt, Libya, and the Pentapolis, because the same custom obtains for the bishop of Rome."

The sense is essentially the same as the Latin translation brought home to Carthage from Nicaea in 325 by Caecilian:

"Antiqua per Egyptum atque Pentapolim consuetudo seruetur ut Alexandrinus episcopus horum habeat sollicitudinem, quoniam et urbis Rome episcopo similis mos est ut in suburbicaria loca sollicitudinem gerat"

The Latin word 'quoniam' has the same meaning of 'because', 'whereas', 'since', etc. as quia.

In short, I don't think your view has much, if any, patristic or academic support.

Anonymous said...


I do not see how the presence of the word “because” does not allow for my translation. For example, “because this is also the treatment usually accorded to the bishop of Rome.” Admittedly, this exact translation was from one of the less reliable sources I found. The more academic translations read more like this: “since the like is customary for the Bishop of Rome also.” This is equally contradictory to Roman Catholic claims.

Unless I am mistaken, your interpretation for the line Nick bolded seems to be that the phrase, “since a similar custom exists with reference to the bishop of Rome,” means “since the jurisdiction of Alexandria exists because the bishop of Rome allows it.” I find that, even with a translation like the one Nick used, this interpretation seems to be inaccurate. “Since a similar custom exists” is the important phrase, and the word “similar” is the crucial word. To claim that the “similar custom” is referring to the jurisdiction of the bishop of Alexandria simply does not make any sense in the given context. Why would the word “similar” be used? To me, it seems beyond any doubt that this “similar custom” must be referring to a completely separate instance. This leaves the other Patriarchs as viable options. It certainly does not seem to be the case that it is referring to any other than the bishop of Rome. Certainly, if that were the case, the canon would have at least mentioned the bishop to which it was referring. “Since another Patriarch practices this custom because the bishop of Rome allows it” would be a very strange-sounding and vague statement. So, then, for this “similar custom” to be referring to the jurisdiction of Rome seems to be the only logical conclusion. Therefore, if the jurisdiction of Rome is even remotely “similar” to that of Alexandria as the canon states, then universal jurisdiction would be impossible. At this point, it becomes clear that the phrase “with reference to the bishop of Rome” simply means that the canon is referencing the bishop of Rome as the bishop who holds this “similar custom.” So, in calling Nick’s translation inaccurate, I may have been in the wrong. “Misleading and confusing” would have been a better way to put it, because even using your translation, the Roman Catholic interpretation simply does not make sense.

Furthermore, your interpretation of Canon 6 is completely contradictory to the later councils, namely Canons 28 and 36, which I mentioned in my last comment.

About the scholars that you mentioned:

After examining L’Huillier’s commentary on this canon, I must say that I am puzzled as to why you cited him to support your argument. Firstly, he did not translate the section to say “according to Rome.” I an not sure where you may have gotten your translation. In his book, “The Church of the Ancient Councils,” the translation he uses reads, “since for the bishop of Rome there is a similar practice.” This translation perfectly lines up with the interpretation I have presented. Furthermore, over the next few pages, L’Huillier mentions multiple times his interpretation of the canon, that “Rome and Antioch were mentioned only for the sake of comparison” (page 46). As we both seem to agree that L’Huillier is a reliable resource, it certainly seems you should be changing your stance on this point. (continued)

Anonymous said...

I do not claim to be any expert on the Latin language, but I must disagree with the translation you provided from Glen L. Thompson, particularly on his translation of the Latin word “similis” into the English word “same.” After consulting five different Latin dictionaries, I have not found a single source that lists “same” as a viable translation for “similis.” Translations only include words such as “similar,” “resembling,” or “like.” Additionally, I looked into the book by Thompson that you seem to be getting this from (The Correspondence of Pope Julius I), and even he does not claim to find any hint of universal jurisdiction in Canon 6. On this canon, Thompson says, “For some time already it had been recognized that the Roman church had canonical jurisdiction over the other churches of Italy.”

So, it is clear that you have not yet been able to cite a single scholar who supports your view. You have only been able to accidentally give scholars who support mine.

You said, “In short, I don't think your view has much, if any, patristic or academic support.”

As the research cited thus far seems to strongly contribute to my argument, I continue struggling to understand the foundation of the premises of your argument.

As for academic support, I have copious amounts, such as that of Friedrich Maasen, Archbishop Peter L’Huillier, Abbe Guettee, and Glen Thompson, or expert commentaries on the Canons given by W. A. Hammond, Ffoulkes, Hefele, Bishop Stillingfleet, and Justellus. The book I have already mentioned, “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series, The Seven Ecumenical Councils” is a famous book written by Henry R. Percival, and contributed to by several other scholars including Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. In the book, the authors demonstrate an encyclopedic knowledge of which I have never seen the like. Every one of these authors strongly supports my translation and interpretation. As I continue to find more and more sources that accept my translation, it seems undeniable that, of the two, it is BY FAR the more accepted. I have even found a number of Roman Catholic sources (for example, that accept this translation, although they often still try to find in it some support of the Papacy.

Anonymous said...

And as for patristic support, there is plenty as well. Ruffinus was a Roman Scholar of the fourth century who wrote a detailed ecclesiastical history. In his work, he specifically mentions the very limited jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome, and then cites Canon 6. As Ruffinus lived in Rome, and was therefore under the Roman Bishop, surely he must have known the extent of its jurisdiction. I will once again encourage you to go to the sources I gave in my last comment (page 37 of “The Papacy” by Abbe Guettee, and pages 16-17 of “The Seven Ecumenical Councils). These sources elaborate much further upon this subject. The testimony of Ruffinus quite soundly justifies my interpretation of Canon 6.

Finally, there exists an “Ancient Epitome” of the Canons of the Ecumenical Councils. Although we do not know the exact date at which it was written, it is known to, at the very least, date well before the 10th century. The Ancient Epitome essentially takes every one of the canons, and puts them in shorter and simpler terms. The simpler wording of this document makes translating much easier. It reads, “The Bishop of Alexandria shall have jurisdiction over Egypt, Libya, and Pentapolis. As also the Roman bishop over those subject to Rome.” Here we find yet another ancient testimony interpreting this canon in a way flatly contradictory to the Roman Catholic interpretation.

As I have shown my interpretation to be rife with support of every kind, I am perplexed at your assertion that your argument is, in fact, the one bearing more support. I do hope you will put into consideration the arguments that I have presented.

costrowski said...

It's patently obvious that you didn't understand my argument which was actually quite narrow in scope. The problem is that you conflate Nick's argument with my own, but that is a mistake. My argument was simply that neither patristric tradition nor academic consensus support your view that a custom is "accorded" to Rome in the sense that it was given to her, but rather that Rome's own custom was used as a standard of confirmation for the prescriptions of Nicaea 6. L'Huillier supports this view as even does the link you provided despite your protestations to the contrary. For example, in that link appears the following:

"Let the ancient customs in Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis prevail, that the Bishop of Alexandria have jurisdiction in all these, since the like is customary for the Bishop of Rome also."

Similary, Peter L'Huillier translates the relevant portion as:

"Let the ancient customs be maintained in Egypt, in Libya, and in the Pentapolis so that the bishop of Alexandria has authority over all these territories, since for the bishop of Rome there is a similar practice and the same thing concerning Antioch"

L'Huillier then comments:

"However, the wording of the canon itself gives us a decisive argument: to justify respecting the ancient customs giving to the bishop of Alexandria jurisdiction over several provinces, the fathers of Nicea based themselves first and foremost on the example of Rome. Now we know with sufficient certitude that at that time the bishop of the capital exercised the authority of a metropolitan over all the civil territories dependent on the vicarius urbis, that is, over central and southern Italy as well as over Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica."

Thus, Rome's own custom is used as the standard. It is not some custom accorded to her in the sense of anything given to her by any man, but that is the problem associated with your own preferred translation.

As for the Latin word "similis", I'm not sure why you're focusing on that word despite the given scholarly interpretation. The relevant words are the Latin one which mean something along the line of 'because'. I guess the reason why you put the focus in the wrong spot was because you failed to grasp my actual argument.

Anonymous said...


There appears to have been a mutual misunderstanding in each other’s arguments. The point I was defending was not that the authority of Rome was given to her by man, but that Canon 6 was referring to a limited jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome (this is the Eastern Orthodox interpretation that Nick mentioned in his article). Perhaps you should re-read my comment with this in mind. Also, if you’ll notice, I updated my preferred translation to say “since the like is customary for the Bishop of Rome also.” I apologize for the confusion, I hope this clears everything up.

costrowski said...

I'm glad that we're clearing things up, but I still have to point out that when you say "accorded to Rome", you give the distinct impression that the custom was given to Rome, perhaps by other local churches, and that concept is simply absent from the canon as well as tradition.

Anonymous said...


My bad! The first time I used that translation, I only had in mind the implications it made as to the limited jurisdiction of Rome.