Patriarch Photios and Early Orthodoxy

We Greek Orthodox find ourselves baptized into the faith when we are too young even to understand what is going on.

As we grow into children and teenagers, our parents teach us many of the rituals associated with the faith, such as: dressing up nicely to go to church on Sunday; making the sign of the cross when eating a meal, when passing a Greek church, or when praying; fasting on Good Friday – probably during all of Holy Week, and perhaps during all of Lent; and getting used to the fact that in most years, most of our friends celebrated Easter one or several weeks earlier.

We learn that when we go to church, we may receive communion, which is bread dipped in sweet wine. Our priests chant a great deal – mostly in Greek but increasingly in English. Unlike most other Christian denominations, they are called “priests” rather than “ministers,” and unlike the Catholic priests, they are married and have children.

Few of us, though, delve deeper into our faith, to ask ourselves what makes us different from Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Moravians, Swedenborgians, Christian Scientists, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, and countless other variations of Christianity?

As good a starting point as any is to examine some of Christian Fathers of the first millennium. Consider, for instance, Patriarch Photios, who served from 858 to 867 and from 877 to 886, and later was canonized as St. Photios the Great, whose Feast Day we celebrate on February 6.


One of the most educated Orthodox religious leaders of all time, Photios was a prolific writer, and his words had a profound effect not only on his followers, but on the popes of the time, who sent him into exile, twice. In 863, Photios was strongly criticized for his objection to the supremacy of the papacy in Christianity, and used the opportunity to defend Bulgaria, which recently converted to Christianity, to dispute the Roman Catholic version of the procession of the Holy Spirit (the Filioque).

He wrote: “The Bulgarians turned from idolatry to the knowledge of God and the Christian Faith. Then was the cunning devil stirred up because of his envy…for the Bulgarians had not been baptized when dishonorable men (the West) emerged from out of the darkness and poured down like hail, or better, charged like wild boars upon the newly-planted vineyard of the Lord. They destroyed it with hoof and tusk, which is to say, by their shameful lies and corrupted dogmas.
“The papal missionaries and clergy wanted these Orthodox Christians to depart from the correct and pure dogmas of our irreproachable Faith.”


Clearly drawing distinctions between Eastern and Western Christianity, Photios wrote that “the first error of Westerners was to compel the faithful to fast on Saturdays. Next, the compelled the faithful to despise the marriage of the priests. Likewise, they persuaded the Bulgarians that all who had been chrismated by priests had to be anointed again by bishops. In this way, they had hoped to show that Chrism by priests had no value, thereby ridiculing this divine and supernatural Christian Mystery.

“From where does this law come that forbids priests to anoint with Holy Chrism? What lawgiver, Apostle, Father, or Council uttered such a thing? For if a priest cannot chrismate the newly-baptized, then, to be sure, neither can he baptize. Moreover, how can a priest consecrate the Body and Blood of Christ our Lord in the Divine Liturgy, if at the same time he cannot chrismate with Holy Chrism?
“If this grace, then, is taken from priests, the episcopal rank is diminished, for the bishop stands at the head of the choir of priests.”


Photios proceeded to criticize the Western Christians for changing the historical understanding of the procession of the Holy Spirit: “the impious Westerners, by their false (and lawless) opinions, attempted to distort and ruin the holy and sacred Nicene Symbol of Faith, which by both conciliar and universal decisions possesses invincible power, by adding to it that the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father, as the Symbol declares, but from the Son as well.
“Until now, no one has heard even a heretic pronounce such a teaching. What Christian can accept the introduction of two sources into the Holy Trinity? What Christian can accept that the Father is one source of the Son and the Holy Spirit, and that the Son is another source of the Holy Spirit, thereby transforming the monarchy of the Holy Trinity into a dual divinity?”


To demonstrate that this notion leads to an illogical conclusion, Photios continues: Rome makes “the Son greater than the Sprit, for they consider the Son a principle, irreverently placing him closer to the Father. By introducing a dual principle into the Holy Trinity, as they do, they offend the Son; for by making Him a  source of that which already has a source, they thus render Him unnecessary as a source.

“They also divide the Holy Spirit into two parts: one from the Father and one from the Son. In the Holy Trinity, which is united as an indivisible unity, all three hypostases are inviolable. Now if the Son contributes to the procession of the Spirit, Sonship is then injured, and the hypostatic property damaged.

“It is impossible,” Photios dramatically declared, “how according to the Filioque teaching, the Holy Spirit could not be called a grandson!”


The full text of the Nicene Creed, as recited by Orthodox Christians, is:
I believe in one God, Father Almighty, Creator of

heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of

God, begotten of the Father before all ages;

Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten,

not created, of one essence with the Father

through Whom all things were made.

Who for us men and for our salvation

came down from heaven and was incarnate 

of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man.

He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, 

and suffered and was buried;

And He rose on the third day,

according to the Scriptures.

He ascended into heaven

and is seated at the right hand of the Father;

And He will come again with glory to judge the living

and dead. His kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Creator of life, 

Who proceeds from the Father*, Who together with the

Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, Who 

spoke through the prophets.

In one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

I look for the resurrection of the dead, 

and the life of the age to come.


* The Roman Catholic Church has restated the Creed to read: “And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Creator of life, Who proceeds from the Father and the Son…”