Last week we addressed the portion of Canon 6 of Nicæa which has for many centuries been used by Roman Catholic apologists to advance the case for Roman primacy. Their argument is based on one of the most pervasive myths in the history of ecclesiology. The text of Canon 6 refers to a “similar custom” regarding the Bishop of Rome, and uses that “similar custom” as the basis for recognizing the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan of Alexandria within the three specified provinces of Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis. As we discussed in last week’s article, the problem facing the council of Nicæa was that under Diocletian’s reorganization of the empire in 293 A.D., the Metropolitans of Alexandria and Antioch were located within a single civil diocese—the Diocese of Oriens, or “the East.” Diocletian’s arrangement made it impossible for the council simply to define Metropolitan jurisdiction in diocesan terms. To do so would have perpetuated the very problem the council was attempting to solve.
As we showed last week, the “similar custom” with reference to the Bishop of Rome was quite clear: the Bishop of Rome functioned as a Metropolitan within the greater Diocese of Italy, of which Milan was the chief Metropolitan seat. Just as the Bishop of Rome had carved out a small portion of the Diocese of Italy, within which portion he exercised provincial Metropolitan authority, the Bishop of Alexandria had done the same in the Diocese of the East, administering only the portion of the diocese assigned to him. That way Milan and Antioch would each remain the chief Metropolitans of their respective Dioceses, while Rome and Alexandria would function within each diocese, exercising provincial metropolitan authority. That was the “similar custom” with reference to the Bishop of Rome.
Sometime between the Council of Nicæa (325 A.D.) and the Council of Constantinople (381 A.D.), the Diocese of the East was split in two. Under that new arrangement, Alexandria became the chief Metropolitan seat of the newly created Diocese of Egypt, and Antioch remained the chief Metropolitan seat of the now much smaller Diocese of the East (Diocecis Orientis). Thus, while the Council of Nicæa had identified Alexandria’s jurisdiction in provincial terms, i.e., “Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis” (Council of Nicæa, Canon 6), the later formation of the Diocese of Egypt made it possible for Alexandria’s jurisdiction to be defined in strictly diocesan terms at the Council of Constantinople, i.e., “the bishop of Alexandria is to administer affairs in Egypt only” (Council of Constantinople, Canon 2).
That division of Diocesis Orientis would certainly have taken place later than 347 A.D. when Athanasius was compiling his Apologia Contra Arianos. In that Apologia, Athanasius was still using the provincial language of Nicæa to define the limits of his jurisdiction. This he did multiple times.
When describing the assembled bishops who had acquitted him at Alexandria, he referred to the “more than three hundred Bishops, out of the provinces of Egypt, Libya, and Pentapolis, Palestine, Arabia,” etc… (Athanasius, Apologia Contra Arianos, Part I, chapter 1, paragraph 1). Later, he refers to “our fellow-ministers in Libya, Pentapolis, and Egypt” (Athanasius, Apologia Contra Arianos, Part I, chapter 1, paragraph 19). And again, “There are in Egypt, Libya, and Pentapolis, nearly one hundred Bishops; none of whom laid anything to my charge;” (Athanasius, Apologia Contra Arianos, Part II, chapter 6, paragraph 71). Most notably, Athanasius retains that provincial language of Nicæa to describe his jurisdiction even when he lists other bishops by their respective dioceses:
“[T]here is also the great Hosius, together with the Bishops of [the diocese of] Italy, and of [the diocese of] Gaul, and others from [the diocese of] Spain, and from [the provinces of] Egypt, and Libya, and all those from Pentapolis” (Athanasius, Apologia Contra Arianos, Part II, chapter 6, paragraph 89).
Thus, the final division of Oriens into two dioceses would have taken place later than Nicæa. Decades later.
But that division would have taken place prior to the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D., by which time the provincial language had disappeared and was replaced with the diocesan description of “Egypt only.” The Synodical Letter from the Council of Constantinople records that Flavian of Antioch had been ordained Metropolitan bishop over “the diocese of the East” (Council of Constantinople, Synodical Letter), while the Canons identify Alexandria as the chief Metropolis of the Diocese of Egypt (Council of Constantinople, Canon 2). We suspect that the creation of the Diocese of Egypt may even be placed prior to 374 A.D., because Jerome lived there at that time, and yet seemed to be unaware that the boundaries of Oriens had ever been any different than what they were at the Council of Constantinople.
Jerome lived in Antioch, or in the nearby desert, from 374 to 380 A.D.. He had been ordained by Paulinas, Bishop of Antioch during that time, and then attended the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. (Schaff, Prelegomena to Jerome, section II: Contemporary History). He therefore would have been familiar with the workings of the Diocese of Oriens, aware of Paulinas’ metropolitan jurisdiction and knowledgeable of the canonical language of Constantinople.
But the several changes since Diocletian—the civil reorganization of the empire into dioceses, the recent creation of the Diocese of Egypt, and the subtle shift in terminology between the two councils—left Jerome not a little confused as he attempted to reconstruct the acts of Nicæa.
That the Bishop of Antioch currently had the whole Diocecis Orientis assigned to him was clear enough to Jerome. Under the current arrangement, Antioch had the whole Diocese of the East, and Alexandria had the whole newly created Diocese of Egypt. At the time of Nicæa, however, the two had still been one single diocese, Diocecis Orientis, and neither the Bishop of Antioch nor the Bishop of Alexandria had the whole diocese assigned to him. Jerome’s confusion arose because he was reading Nicæa through the lens of the late fourth century, instead of through the lens of the early fourth century. On that account, Jerome erroneously believed that Nicæa had granted to Antioch jurisdiction over the whole diocese of the East—the very thing Nicæa could not, and did not, do.
We find Jerome’s mistake in the account of his dispute with John of Jerusalem in 398 A.D.. In the heat of the argument, John had appealed to Alexandria for help. Jerome believed that the appeal was judicially out of order, since each diocese was to manage its own affairs. According to Nicæa, Jerome reasoned, a bishop in the Diocese of Egypt had no authority to speak on a dispute taking place in the Diocese of the East:
“A question is put to you in Palestine, your answer is given in Egypt. … you are silent, dare not open your lips, and, challenged in Palestine, speak at Alexandria. … You, who ask for ecclesiastical rules, and make use of the canons of the Council of Nicæa, and claim authority over clerics who belong to another diocese and are actually living with their own bishop, answer my question, What has Palestine to do with the bishop of Alexandria?” (Jerome, To Pammachius Against John of Jerusalem, paragraphs 4, 10 and 37)
In Jerome’s thinking, the dispute was between two bishops within the same diocese and therefore ought to have been handled entirely within in the Diocese of the East; the Diocese of Egypt should have stayed out of it. “Unless I am deceived,” Jerome continued, the canons of Nicæa had dealt with the jurisdiction of a Metropolis, and had assigned to Antioch “the whole East,” or in Latin “totius Orientis” (Jerome, Contra Joannem, Migne, Patrologia Latina, v. 23 col. 389). For this reason, John’s “letters ought rather to be addressed to Antioch” than to Alexandria (Jerome, To Pammachius Against John of Jerusalem, paragraph 37).
Jerome was correct on the matter of Metropolitan jurisdiction, and the fact that John should not have appealed outside of the diocese. But Jerome was wrong in his reconstruction of Canon 6 of Nicæa. As we noted last week, the council could not assign the “whole Diocese of the East” to Antioch for the simple reason that Alexandria was at that time located within the very same diocese. The Diocese of Egypt had not even been created yet, which was the very reason Nicæa could define neither Antiochian nor Alexandrian jurisdiction in diocesan terms. Instead of assigning “the whole East” to either metropolis, the council had simply described Alexandrian jurisdiction in terms of the provinces of “Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis,” and left the rest of the diocese to Antioch. Jerome’s reconstruction of Canon 6 was in fact the very opposite of what Nicæa had done. The council had not assigned “the whole East” to Antioch at all.
The cause of Jerome’s mistake is simple enough to discern. By the time of Jerome’s letter against John of Jerusalem, the Diocese of Egypt was now firmly established, as were the now smaller boundaries of the Diocese of the East. Jerome’s perception of Nicæa was dictated by the new order. But Nicæa’s canons had been written under the old. Nicæa’s delicate handling of Alexandrian authority within Diocecis Orientis was therefore completely lost on Jerome, and he was in fact deceived by his own anachronism.
The acute anachronism of Jerome nevertheless became the foundation of later claims of Roman Primacy based on Nicæa. If Jerome was not even aware of the significance of the recent civil reorganization, the problem would be much worse for later historians trying to reconstruct the period. The creation of the Diocese of Egypt was recorded in the Notitia Dignitatum, a late fourth or early fifth century Roman administrative document. But that Notitia Dignitatum lay hidden in obscurity until the 16th century, at which time multiple commentaries from various authors began to expound upon its contents.
Due to the obscurity in which the fourth century diocesan reorganization lay hidden for more than a thousand years, confusion over the geographic implications of the Nicæan canons continued to propagate. This resulted in the acute anachronisms committed by such learned historians as Justellus in 1671 and Hefele in 1855. Both of these men erroneously interpreted Canon 6 of Nicæa to grant to Alexandria authority over “the whole Diocese of Egypt,” the very thing Nicæa could not possibly do. Both men, like Jerome, assumed that the Diocese of Egypt had already existed at the time of the council.
Justellus explained the significance of Canon 6 as follows:
“Haec ἐξουσία est potestas Metropolitani, quam Nicaeni Patres decernunt deberi in tribus provinciis hoc Canone denominatis, Aegypto, Libya, & Pentapoli, quae totam Aegyptiacam diœcesim constituebant tam in civilibus quam Ecclesiasticus.”
“This ἐξουσία is the power of the Metropolitan, which the Nicene Fathers decreed was to be exercised in the three provinces identified in the Canon as, Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis, which constituted the whole diocese of Egypt, both civil and ecclesiastical.” (Gulielmi Voelli & Henrici Justellus, Bibliotheca Iuris Canonici Veteris, Tome 1 (Lutetiæ Parisorum, 1671) 71, cols. 1-2)
Hefele explained the significance of the canon in similar terms:
“Die ersten Worte unseres Canons besagen sonach: ‘dem Bischof von Alexandrien soll sein altes Borrecht, wonach die ganze (burgerliche) Diocese Aegypten unter seiner (geistlichen) Oberleitung steht, bestatigt werden.’ “
“The first Words of our Canon therefore say: ‘the Bishop of Alexandria according to this ancient privilege, whereupon the whole (civil) Diocese of Egypt is under his (spiritual) jurisdiction, is confirmed.” (Carl Joseph Von Hefele, Conciliengeschichte, 2d ed., (Freiburg im Breisgau, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, 1855) 390).
The problem with both men’s anachronistic interpretations, as we have described above, is quite simple: the Diocese of Egypt did not exist at the time of the Council of Nicæa. The Council could no more assign to Alexandria the charge of a nonexistent “Diocese of Egypt,” than it could assign “totius Orientis” to Antioch when half the diocese was being governed from Alexandria.
This anachronism of Jerome, Justellus and Hefele came to its head in 1880 with what is now considered to be the gold standard regarding claims of papal primacy at Nicæa. Based on the same anachronism, Fr. James F. Loughlin in his article, The Sixth Nicene Canon and the Papacy, argued that the meaning of Canon 6 of Nicæa was as simple as it was profound. Metropolitan jurisdictions are assigned at the diocesan level “because the Roman Pontiff wishes it”:
“Therefore, the clause in question can bear no other interpretation than this: ‘Alexandria and the other great Sees must retain their ancient sway because the Roman Pontiff wishes it.’ ” (James F. Loughlin, The Sixth Nicene Canon and the Papacy, American Catholic Quarterly Review, vol. 5, January to October 1880, (Philadelphia, PA: Hardy & Mahony, 1880) 230)
But Loughlin had come to his conclusion based on the same gross anachronism of Jerome, Justellus and Hefele. He assumed that Alexandria was not located within the Diocese of Oriens at the time of the Council of Nicæa. Therefore he assumed that Nicæa had assigned to Antioch totius Orientis, the whole Diocese of Oriens—the very thing Nicæa could not, and did not, do. Loughlin argued,
“The Bishop of Alexandria had been, from time immemorial, every inch a patriarch throughout his vast domain. The Bishop of Antioch enjoyed a similar authority throughout the great diocese of Oriens. Their jurisdiction was immediate and ordinary, and there is no difficulty in defining its nature and the limits within which it was exercised.” (Loughlin, 237)
But that assumption was wrong. The Bishop of Antioch did not exercise his authority “throughout the great diocese of Oriens” for the very simple reason that the Bishop of Alexandria was located within that same “great diocese,” and was currently exercising authority there, too. That is precisely why the Council was presented with the difficulty of defining the nature and limits of their respective jurisdictions. For Loughlin to make such an assertion shows that he had missed the very issue at the heart of Canon 6—the problem of two Metropolitans residing in a single civil diocese. That was the reason their domain had to be defined in provincial rather than diocesan terms in the first place.
Missing the reason Antiochian jurisdiction could not be defined by the borders of Oriens, and missing the reason Alexandrian jurisdiction had to be defined in provincial rather than diocesan terms, Loughlin rushes forward to his conclusion. If Alexandrian authority over the Diocese of Egypt was based on a custom from Rome, it must be because diocesan territories were assigned to Metropolitan bishops at the pleasure and prerogative of the Pope.
This is where the ancient myth based on Canon 6 pays its fraudulent dividends to history. If it can simply be assumed that the boundaries of Oriens at Nicæa (325 A.D.) were the same as they were at Constantinople (381 A.D.)—and if Protestants can be made to adopt that assumption—all that remains is for Protestants to try to explain why Nicæa would invoke a Roman custom to validate Alexandrian jurisdiction within the Diocese of Egypt. In fact, that is precisely the trap into which Phillip Schaff fell as he explained the meaning of Canon 6 from a Protestant perspective.
In his analysis of Canon 6, Schaff recognized that while the limits of Alexandria’s jurisdiction were described explicitly, the limits of Antioch’s were not. How then could we know the limits of Antiochian jurisdiction at Nicæa? Here Schaff makes the critical mistake of looking to the Council of Constantinople to determine what the boundaries of the Diocese of Oriens would have been at Nicæa. That was Jerome’s error too, the very cause of the anachronism which we have elucidated above. After explaining Alexandrian jurisdiction from Canon 6 of Nicæa, Schaff continued, appealing to Constantinople to determine the boundaries of Oriens at Nicæa:
“There only remains to see what were the bounds of the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Antioch. The civil diocese of Oriens is shown by the Second Canon of Constantinople to be conterminous with what was afterward called the Patriarchate of Antioch.” (Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, vol 14, The Seven Ecumenical Councils, Nicæa, Canon VI)
For the reasons we have highlighted above, the Council of Constantinople is precisely the wrong place to look for knowledge of the limits of the Diocese of Oriens at Nicæa. The fact is that the boundaries of the Diocese had changed between the two councils, and to overlook that fact is to miss the meaning of Canon 6. Schaff adopts the anachronism outright, explaining that under Constantine, both the Diocese of Oriens and the Diocese of Egypt were already in existence (Schaff, History of the Christian Church, § 54. Organization of the Hierarchy, n488). On this basis, Schaff then proceeds with his interpretation of Canon 6:
“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).” (Schaff, History of the Christian Church, § 56. Synodical Legislation on the Patriarchal Power and Jurisdiction).
But neither the Bishop of Rome, nor the Bishop of Alexandria had “his own diocese.”
The way Schaff interpreted the Canon plays right into the hands of Rome. If Canon 6 assigns to Alexandria the whole Diocese of Egypt, the Protestant rendering of the canon reads as if the Bishop of Alexandria rules the Diocese of Egypt because the Bishop of Rome, too, has his own diocese. To this, Loughlin very properly responds that the context simply does not call for such a rendering. If it were in the mind of the Council to invoke a relevant illustration, and if the Diocese of Egypt already existed, then the bishops should have invoked Antioch instead of Rome, for Antioch provided the more relevant, more proximate, illustration. Loughlin reasons in just this way:
“If, therefore, the Council had ‘illustrated the sort of power,’ which it accorded to the Bishop of Alexandria, ‘by referring to a similar power exercised by the’ Bishop of Antioch, then the term of comparison would be clearly intelligible; because both were patriarchs, with pretty much the same sort of power and the same extent of territory.” (Loughlin, 237)
We agree here with Loughlin: if his anachronism were valid, and if the Diocese of Egypt already existed at Nicæa, then invoking the Roman custom as the basis for Alexandrian jurisdiction within the Diocese of Egypt makes the canon frankly unintelligible. Roman Catholicism then thinks to step in to clear it all up with Papal Primacy.
And here we can see the value of the ancient Roman myth regarding Canon 6. Loughlin proceeds to extract from the myth all 1500 years of its returns at once. Noting that among all the four bishops mentioned in Canons 6 and 7—in Alexandria, Rome, Antioch and Jerusalem—Loughlin observes that Rome’s is the only one whose boundaries are not listed, for “who has ever defined satisfactorily the limits and nature of Rome’s patriarchal sway?” (Loughlin, 237). Thus, to Loughlin, Canon 6 represents “the very first utterance by the Universal Church on the subject of the prerogatives of the Bishop of Rome” (Loughlin, 222). There is the payout on the myth: if the Diocese of Egypt was already in existence at the time of Nicæa, then the appeal to the Roman custom in Canon 6 may plausibly pass for an appeal to Roman Primacy and the universal “patriarchal sway” of a Pope who assigns dioceses to their Metropolitans.
But it is just a myth. There was no Diocese of Egypt at the time of Nicæa, and for this reason Antioch did not enjoy “authority throughout the great diocese of Oriens,” and the Council had not assigned “the whole Diocese of Egypt” to Alexandria on the basis of a custom in Rome.
The Council had not invoked the Roman custom to illustrate Alexandrian jurisdiction within the Diocese of Egypt. The council had invoked the Roman custom to illustrate Alexandrian jurisdiction within the Diocese of Oriens, for both Alexandria and Antioch were located within the same civil diocese.
That was the whole point of the canon, and from this we can see clearly what Alexandria and Rome had in common, and why the Roman custom was relevant in the matter of Alexandrian jurisdiction in Oriens: Milan was the chief Metropolitan seat of the Diocese of Italy, and yet Rome exercised provincial Metropolitan authority within that diocese by carving out a portion of it. Just so, Antioch was the chief Metropolitan seat of the Diocese of Oriens, and yet Alexandria exercised provincial Metropolitan authority within that diocese by carving out a portion of it. That is exactly what Nicæa recognized and decreed.
Because the Bishop of Rome and the Bishop of Alexandria each resided within civil dioceses of which neither was the chief Metropolitan, both had to define their jurisdictions in provincial rather than diocesan terms. That was the similar custom with reference to the Bishop of Rome, and it spoke not of Papal primacy but rather in diminutive terms of Rome’s limited “patriarchal sway.” All of that is lost in the fog of history if Rome is allowed to retain her precious assumption that the Diocese of Egypt had already been formed at the time of Nicæa, and that the council had granted to Antioch “the whole Diocese of Oriens.”
We of course are not surprised to find Rome attempting to reach back to Nicæa to find ancient evidence for her late fourth century novelties. This we have seen from her repeatedly. We are also not surprised to find that the best case Rome can make for Roman primacy at Nicæa is founded upon a grotesque anachronism that requires us to accept a historical impossibility: the existence of the Diocese of Egypt at the time of Nicæa.
Rome’s apologists, and yes even our Protestant brethren, can be excused for being deceived by an ancient anachronism, an error of such magnitude and antiquity that it passes for an inviolable “truth” of history. But as Loughlin correctly observes in his article, “An error, be it ever so common, is an error still” (Loughlin, 223). And a deception, be it ever so antiquated, is a deception still.
On that note, we will allow Loughlin to close out this week’s article for us, so profoundly accurate is his statement about the proper study of Canon 6:
“Now if we sincerely desire to know what the Council really said, we must first of all discard translations and comments, and allow the canon to speak for itself. The endless controversies which our canon has given rise would, in great part at least, have been avoided if this course had been pursued. Indeed, one of the main objects of this paper is to convince theological students, by an apt illustration, how necessary it is to study ecclesiastical documents in their authentic source and original dress of language.” (Loughlin, 222-23)
Yes, a very apt illustration indeed. Modern Roman Catholic claims of Papal primacy at Nicæa are founded upon a myth that is easily dispelled with the study of ecclesiastical documents, authentic sources and the council’s “original dress of language.” That council knew nothing of Roman primacy.
In fact, “the very first utterance by the Universal Church on the subject of the prerogatives of the Bishop of Rome” was that his jurisdiction was as limited in Italy as Alexandria’s was in Oriens. He had no civil diocese of his own, and was a provincial Metropolitan, nothing more.
And every bishop gathered at Nicæa knew it.