To follow now the ecclesiastical legislation respecting this patriarchal oligarchy in chronological order (having discussed the rise of the organization of the hierarchy and the rise of the patriarchs, Philip Schaff now proceeds to discuss the synodical legislation on the patriarchal power and jurisdiction—H.V.):
The germs of it already lay in the ante-Nicene period, when the bishops of Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome, partly in virtue of the age and apostolic origin of their churches, partly on account of the political prominence of those three cities as the three capitals of the Roman empire, steadily asserted a position of preeminence. The apostolic origin of the churches of Rome and Antioch is evident from the New Testament: Alexandria traced its Christianity, at least indirectly through the evangelist Mark, to Peter, and was politically more important than Antioch; while Rome from the first had precedence of both in church and in state. This preeminence of the oldest and most powerful metropolitans acquired formal legislative validity and firm establishment through the ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries.
The first ecumenical council of Nice, in 325, as yet knew nothing of five patriarchs, but only the three metropolitans above named, confirming them in their traditional rights. In the much-canvassed sixth canon, probably on occasion of the Meletian schism in Egypt, and the attacks connected with it on the rights of the bishop of Alexandria, that council declared as follows: “The ancient custom, which has obtained in Egypt, Libya, and the Pentapolis, shall continue in force, viz.: that the bishop of Alexandria have rule over all these (provinces), since this also is customary with the bishop of Rome (that is, not in Egypt, but with reference to his own diocese). Likewise also at Antioch and in the other eparchies, the churches shall retain their prerogatives. Now, it is perfectly clear, that, if anyone has been made bishop without the consent of the metropolitan, the great council does not allow him to be bishop.”
The Nicene fathers passed this canon not as introducing anything new, but merely as confirming an existing relation on the basis of church tradition ; and that, with ‘special reference to Alexandria, on account of the troubles existing there. Rome was named only for illustration; and Antioch and all the other eparchies or provinces were secured their admitted rights. The bishoprics of Alexandria, Rome, and Antioch were placed substantially on equal footing, yet in such tone, that Antioch, as the third capital of the Roman empire, already stands as a stepping stone to the ordinary metropolitans. By the “other eparchies” of the canon are to be understood either all provinces, and therefore all metropolitan districts, or more probably, as in the second canon of the first council of Constantinople, only the three eparchates of Caesarea in Cappadocia, Ephesus, and Asia Minor, and Heraclea in Thrace, which, after Constantine’s division of the East, possessed similar prerogatives, but were subsequently overshadowed and absorbed by Constantinople. In any case, however, this addition proves that at that time the rights and dignity of the patriarchs were not yet strictly distinguished from those of the other metropolitans. The bishops of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch here appear in relation to the other bishops simply as primi inter pares, as metropolitans of the first rank, in whom the highest political eminence was joined with the highest ecclesiastical. Next to them, in the second rank, come the bishops of Ephesus in the Asiatic diocese of the empire, of Neo-Caesarea in the Pontic, and of Heraclea in the Thracian; while Constantinople, which was not founded till five years later, is wholly unnoticed in the Nicene council, and Jerusalem is mentioned only under the name of Aelia.
Between the first and second ecumenical councils arose the new patriarchate of Constantinople, or New Rome, built by Constantine in 330, and elevated to the rank of the imperial residence. The bishop of this city was not only the successor of the bishop of the ancient Byzaritium, hitherto under the jurisdiction of the metropolitan of Heraclea, but, through the favor of the imperial court and the bishops, who were always numerously assembled there, it placed itself in a few decennia among the first metropolitans of the East; and in the fifth century became the most powerful rival of the bishop of old Rome.
This new patriarchate was first officially recognized at the first ecumenical council, held at Constantinople in 381, and was conceded “the precedence in honor, next to the bishop of Rome,” the second place among all bishops; and that, on the purely political consideration, that New Rome was the residence of the emperor. At the same time the imperial city and the diocese of Thrace (whose ecclesiastical metropolis hitherto had been Heraclea) were assigned as its district.
Many Greeks took this as a formal assertion of the equality of the bishop of Constantinople with the bishop of Rome, understanding “next” or “after” as referring only to time, not to rank. But it is more natural to regard this as conceding a primacy of honor, which the Roman see could claim on different grounds. The popes, as the subsequent protest of Leo shows, were not satisfied with this, because they were unwilling to be placed in the same category with the Constantinopolitan fledgling, and at the same time assumed a supremacy of jurisdiction over the whole church. On the other hand, this, decree was unwelcome also to the patriarch of Alexandria, because this see had hitherto held the second rank, and was now required to take the third. Hence the canon was not subscribed by Timotheus of Alexandria, and was regarded in Egypt as void. Afterward, however, the emperors prevailed with the Alexandrian patriarchs td yield this point.
After the council of 351, the bishop of Constantinople indulged in manifold encroachments on the rights of the metropolitans of Ephesus and Caesarea in Cappadocia, and even on the rights of the other patriarchs. In this extension of his authority he was favored by the fact that, in spite of the prohibition of the council of Sardica, the bishops of all the districts of the East continually resided in Constantinople, in order to present all kinds of interests to the emperor. These concerns of distant bishops were generally referred by the emperor to the bishop of Constantinople and his council, the council of the bishops resident in Constantinople, under his presidency. In this way his trespasses even upon the bounds of other patriarchs obtained the right of custom by consent of parties, if not the sanction of church legislation. Nectarius, who was not elected till after that council, claimed the presidency at a council in 394, over the two patriarchs who were present, Theophilus of Alexandria and Flavian of Antioch; decided the matter almost alone; and thus was the first to exercise the primacy over the entire East. Under his successor, Chrysostom, the compass of the see extended itself still farther, and, according to Theodoret, stretched over the capital, over all Thrace with its six provinces, over 911 Asia (Asia proconsularis) with eleven provinces, and over Pontus, which likewise embraced eleven provinces; thus covering twenty-eight provinces in all. In the year 400, Chrysostom went “by request to Ephesus,” to ordain there Heraclides of Ephesus, and at the same time to institute six bishops in the places of others deposed for simony. His second successor, Atticus, about the year 421, procured from the younger Theodosius a law, that no bishop should be ordained in the neighboring dioceses without tile consent of the bishop of Constantinople. This power still needed the solemn sanction of a general council, before it could have a firm legal foundation. It received this sanction at Chalcedon.
The fourth ecumenical council, held at Chalcedon in 451, confirmed and extended the power of the bishop of Constantinople, by ordaining in the celebrated twenty-eighth canon: “Following throughout the decrees of the holy fathers, and being acquainted with the recently read canon of the hundred and fifty bishops (i.e. the third canon of the second ecumenical council of 381)) we also have determined and decreed the same in reference to the prerogatives of the most holy church of Constantinople or New Rome. For with reason did the fathers confer prerogatives on the throne (the episcopal chair) of ancient Rome, on account of her character as the imperial city; and, moved by the same consideration, the hundred and fifty bishops recognized the same prerogatives also in the most holy throne of New Rome; with good reason judging, that the city, which is honored with the imperial dignity and the senate (i.e. where the emperor and senate reside), and enjoys the same (municipal) privileges as the ancient imperial Rome, should also be equally elevated in ecclesiastical respects, and be the second after the same. And (we decree) that of the dioceses of Pontus, Asia (Asia proconcularis), and Thrace, only the metropolitans, but in such districts of those dioceses as are occupied by barbarians, also the (ordinary) bishops, be ordained by the most holy throne of the most holy church at Constantinople; while of course every metropolitan in those dioceses ordains the new bishops of a province in concurrence with the existing bishops of that province, as is directed in the divine canons. But the metropolitans of those dioceses, as already said, shall be ordained by the archbishop of Constantinople, after they shall have been unanimously elected in the usual way, and he (the archbishop of Constantinople) shall have been informed of it.”
We have divided this celebrated Chalcedonian canon into two parts, though in the Greek text the parts are closely connected (the second part of this canon or decree begins with the words: “And (we decree) that of the dioceses of Pontus”—H.V.). The first part assigns to the bishop of Constantinople the second rank among the patriarchs, and is simply a repetition and confirmation of the third canon of the council of Constantinople; the second part goes farther, and sanctions the supremacy, already actually exercised by Chrysostom and his successors, of the patriarch of Constantinople, not only over the diocese of Thrace, but also over the dioceses of Asia Minor and Pontus, and gives him the exclusive right to ordain both the metropolitans of these three dioceses, and all the bishops of the barbarians within those bounds. This gave him a larger district than any other patriarch of the East. Subsequently an edict of the emperor Justinian, in 530, added to him the special prerogative of receiving appeals from the other patriarchs, and thus of governing the whole Orient.
The council of Chalcedon in this decree only followed consistently the oriental principle of politico-ecclesiastical division. Its intention was to make the new political capital also the ecclesiastical capital of the East, to advance its bishop over the bishops of Alexandria and Antioch, and to make him as nearly as possible equal to the bishop of Rome. Thus was imposed a wholesome check on the ambition of the Alexandrian patriarch, who in various ways, as the affair of Theophilus and, Dioscurus shows, had abused his power to the prejudice of the church.