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Chalcedon & Lyons: Two Councils, Two Different Visions of the Church

By Robert Spencer


One of the claims that separates Roman Catholicism from the Orthodox Church is the Roman Catholic contention that there have been twenty-one ecumenical councils, not just the seven, eight (Photian), or nine (Palamas Councils) that the Orthodox acknowledge. As ecumenical councils are a primary means by which the Holy Spirit guides the Church into the truth, as the Lord promised (John 16:13), Roman Catholic apologists sometimes cite the very existence of the Roman Catholic councils as evidence that in the Latin church, the Spirit has continued to guide the Church through these episcopal assemblies, while they claim that Orthodoxy’s lack of ecumenical councils for a millennium is evidence of its being ossified and incapable of addressing contemporary issues. These arguments, however, rest upon the assumption that Roman Catholicism’s post-schism ecumenical councils are substantially the same kind of assemblies as the seven pre-schism councils. Yet there is considerable reason to believe that they are not, as a comparison of the fourth ecumenical council, the Council of Chalcedon (451), with what Roman Catholics hold to be the fourteenth ecumenical council, the Second Council of Lyons (1274), shows clearly.

The ecumenical councils of the Orthodox Church were convened in order to settle disputed questions that were roiling the Church. The resolution of those questions came at the councils themselves, as the bishops devoted themselves to prayer, study of the writings of the Fathers, and theological discussion. These councils were not convoked by popes, and none of them took place in Rome or its environs. It appears that the pope of the time was not even aware of the second ecumenical council (which was held in Constantinople in 381), and none of his representatives were present. The proceedings of the fourth ecumenical council shows that in those days, no one, including the Pope of Rome himself, thought that the pope was “possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that His Church should be endowed for defining doctrine regarding faith or morals: and that therefore such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church,” [1] as the Roman Catholics’ twentieth ecumenical council, Vatican I, put it.

Before the Council of Chalcedon, Pope Leo wrote a document, known as the Tome, setting forth the Orthodox position on the question of Christ’s natures: that He has two natures, a divine and a human nature, in one divine Person. Cecropius, Bishop of Sebastopol, said at the Council that “the most holy Archbishop of Rome has given a formula with which we agree, and we have all subscribed his letter” [2]. His statement assumes the possibility that the Fathers, or some group of them, might not have agreed.

Anatolius, Patriarch of Constantinople, declared: “The letter of the most holy and religious Archbishop Leo agrees with the creed of our 318 Fathers at Nicaea, and of the 150 who afterwards assembled at Constantinople, and confirmed the same faith, and with the proceedings at Ephesus under the most blessed Cyril, who is among the saints, by the Ecumenical and holy Council, when it condemned Nestorius. I therefore agree to it, and willingly subscribe to it” [3]. These words show that Anatolius studied the Tome carefully before declaring it as orthodox, instead of simply receiving it as the final judgment of the one who was the final arbiter of what constituted orthodoxy.

Why did the Fathers assume that their approval was necessary at all? Why did they need to affirm that Leo’s letter was Orthodox? Clearly, they did not believe that the pope’s statement was infallible as a matter of course and that they should consequently simply accept it. Eight hundred years later, the Second Council of Lyons took place in a vastly different theological (and political) atmosphere. The Roman Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos had succeeded in restoring the empire in Constantinople after 57 years of Crusader occupation. Crusaders, however, and others still deeply threatened the empire, and Michael believed that a reunion of the Orthodox Church with the See of Rome would defuse those threats, as the Crusaders would not hesitate to attack “schismatics” but were less likely to move against those whom they saw as brothers in the faith.

The emperor accordingly wrote to Pope Clement IV, pointing out that the infighting among groups that were both Christians only strengthened the enemies of Christianity. Not having the power or the authority, given the Great Schism, that his predecessors had to convoke an ecumenical council himself, the emperor asked the pope to convene such a council be held in a Roman imperial city, which most likely would have been Constantinople itself, in order to affect the reunion.

Pope Clement, however, responded with the imperious brusqueness of a superior addressing a recalcitrant servant, demanding that Michael and all the people of the empire accept the primacy of the pope, the filioque, and unleavened bread in the Holy Eucharist without any discussion at all. Clement wrote:

To Palaeologus, Illustrious Emperor of the Greeks...Although you seek to have a council assembled in your land, we cannot agree to convoke such a council for the discussion or definition of the faith. Not that we fear the appearance of any particular persons or that the Greeks may take precedence over the sacred Roman church, but because it would be absolutely improper—indeed it cannot be permitted, since the purity of the faith cannot be cast into doubt… [4]

This was a strange argument, as ecumenical councils had been held throughout the Church’s first millennium without anyone fearing that the discussions at those councils would cast the purity of the faith into doubt. But the Roman Church had evolved. The pope of Rome was now the quintessential absolute monarch. Clement did not have in mind anything resembling the open and sometimes heated discussions of the past councils; instead, he simply demanded the submission of the “Greeks”: “Prepare yourself,” he told Michael, “so that at the arrival of our nuncios you, your clergy, and people may humbly accept and devoutly profess the truth of the faith in order that with the help of God progress may be facilitated [5].

Once that submission had been affected, then Michael could have his council: “After you, your clergy, and people have accepted the true faith..., [then] you may request the convocation of a council by this See at a place most suitable to this See..., a council to be strengthened by a perpetual treaty between Latins and Greeks” [6]. Clement told Michael that the reluctance of his people to go along with such a union was no excuse, and “if you cannot coerce them, shun them as schismatics” [7].

These discussions were cut short by the death of the pope; Clement died on November 28, 1268. The threat to the empire lived on, however, and Michael resumed reunion talks with Clement’s eventual successor after an interregnum of three years, Gregory X. The reunion council finally took place in 1274, not in Constantinople or anywhere within the Roman Empire, as had the earlier councils, but in the French city of Lyons. There was no discussion of the issues at hand; the Orthodox representatives arrived bearing letters accepting the filioque and the universal jurisdiction of the pope of Rome. Pope Gregory welcomed the “return of the Greeks to the obedience of the Roman Church” [8]. The Second Council of Lyons thus took place in a radically different ecclesiastical environment from that of the days when ecumenical councils and patristic writings held precedence. The papacy was now an absolute monarchy, and all that was required of everyone else was submission.

The reunion of Lyons failed, despite Michael’s harshness in forcing its acceptance. And the fact that the Orthodox were obliged simply to accept, without examination or discussion, Roman Catholic doctrines indicates that the Second Council of Lyons was not the same kind of assembly as the Council of Chalcedon. Chalcedon was convened precisely for “discussion and definition of the faith,” which is just what Pope Clement IV had ruled out before his successor convened the Second Council of Lyons.

The difference between these two councils encapsulates one aspect of how the Roman Church had evolved in its understanding of itself between the fifth century and the thirteenth. While the Bishop of Rome had the primacy [of Honor] in the Church at the time of Chalcedon, by the time of Lyons II he claimed much more than the primacy [of Honor], but absolute and unquestionable authority. The Council of Chalcedon demonstrates that the Church Fathers did not envision or recognize an absolute papal monarchy, and that the development of such an institution was an innovation, contrary to the apostolic faith.



[1]. First Vatican Council, “Decreta Dogmatica Concilli Vaticani De Fide Catholica Et De Ecclesia Christi,” in The Creeds of Christendom: With A History and Critical Notes, Volume II, ed. Philip Schaff (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1877), 270-271.

[2]. Bishop Cecropius of Sebastopol, “The Council of Chalcedon,” in Documents Illustrating Papal Authority, ed. E. Giles (London: S.P.C.K, 1952), 303.

[3]. Patriarch Anatolius of Constantinople, “General Introduction,” in Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume XIV, ed. Philip Schaff (Peabody: Hendrickson Publications, 1999), 245.

[4]. Alexander Alexakis, "Official and Unofficial Contacts between Rome and Constantinople before the Second Council of Lyons (1274)," in Annuarium Historiae Conciliorum, no. 39, 1-2, (2007): 99-124, doi:

[5]. Deno John Geanokoplos, Emperor Michael Palaeologus and the West, 1258-1282: A Study in Byzantine-Latin Relations (Whitefish: Literary Licensing, LLC, 2011), 172.

[6]. Ibid, 174.

[7]. Ibid, 174.

[8]. Ibid, 219.

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5 תגובות

31 בינו׳ 2023

Can you please explain: "the Orthodox representatives arrived bearing letters accepting the filioque and the universal jurisdiction of the pope of Rome."

Dn. A

בתשובה לפוסט של

Yes. I apologize for being imprecise. I certainly did not mean that those doctrines were Orthodox. I meant that the representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate were made to capitulate before the council even began.


Christopher of Montana
Christopher of Montana
31 בינו׳ 2023

Fantastic article, Robert! I’m slowly working my way through learning the towering history of the church (mountains of books) so your concise, well written history on this critical church conflict is profoundly helpful. God bless!

בתשובה לפוסט של

Thank you very much! And may God bless you and yours richly as well.

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