History of the Catholic Church – The First Council of Constantinople (Story Series Ep6)

First the Son, now the Holy Ghost

“And we believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Life-giver”

We are at Constantinople (Istanbul for modern eyes) and some ecclesiastics are gathered together. It is easy to see their split into two divides. The group on the left number over a hundred, while the other party are not as many – less than forty. They seem to be heading for the Imperial Palace to see Theodosius the Great, Emperor of the East. Gratian, Emperor of the West, elevated him from general of the army to emperor after news of the defeat of Valens.

The Imperial Palace screams of the glory of New Rome in its frontiers, embellished with the modest excesses of the orients. Emperor Theodosius had summoned the bishops, both of the Catholics and of the ferocious Arian sect, in an attempt to settle the religious disorder in the East.

An imperial guard runs in to inform the emperor of the arrival of the bishops.
“Let them in. Have them make no formal introduction of themselves”, the emperor ordered in all gaiety and mildness.
As the bishops enter into the court, in fives, then in threes, the emperor in a fit of gladness only seen after triumphant conquests, approaches the old bishop who had now left his servant outside the court.
“It is you! I am sure!”, the emperor said kissing the head of the bishop. “You presented to me the imperial honours in a dream and not so long after that blessed sleep, Gratian raised me to Pontifex Novus Roma”
The bishop stood fixed as he replaced his mitre on his head. First his head, next his eyes, now his hands, the emperor seemed to go on thanking him for a coronation he was completely oblivious about.

Soon after the bishops settle for the meat of their travel – the error of the pneumatomachians (fighters of the Holy Ghost, if you prefer English) . Emperor Constantius, son of Constantine the Great, after falling into Arianism, imposed a certain Macedonius as Bishop of Constantinople. Macedonius, a chief Arian himself, persecuted the Catholics there, seized all the churches, deposed bishops and made not only invalid but sacrilegious ordinations.

Not contempt with denying the Divinity of the Son, he further denied the Divinity of the Holy Ghost, referring to the Third of the Blessed Three as a mere ministering spirit. A visibly wrong interpretation of Hebrews 1:4. A provincial synod at Illyricum had condemned his error. St. Athanasius wrote in defence of the Catholic Faith, against Macedonius from exile. The error however continued to spread even long after the death of Macedonius in 364.

Bishop Meletius of Antioch (not to be confused with the Meletius of the Meletian heresy), whom the emperor had bathed with thankful kisses was president of the synod but died shortly after.
Peter of Sebaste, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzen – the first two, brothers, the latter, closest friend, of Basil the Great. All four of them saints.

Meletius consecrated Gregory Nazianzen true bishop of Constantinople before he died. After his death, Gregory took over the proceedings of the council.

The council treated the heresy concerning the Holy Ghost by drawing up a creed similar to that of Nicaea. Whereas at Nicaea the bishops were content with saying: “We believe in the Holy Ghost”, this synod explains the orthodox faith in the Holy Ghost, saying:

“And we believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Life-giver, who proceedeth from the Father; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the Prophets.”

Gregory Nazianzen resigned both presidency of the council and bishop of Constantinople and left the council before its conclusion. Some young bishops present had refused to follow the decree at Nicaea concerning the bishops of the Meletian Schism. At Nicaea, the bishops decreed that at the death of a bishop of a see where there existed also a Meletian bishop, the Meletian, having renounced his errors, was to take over the see at the death of the Catholic bishop. Here, however, a new bishop was selected to replace Meletius of Antioch, instead of allowing Paul, who was still alive to take charge.

“I”, Gregory said one day before the council, “wish for the sake of peace, like Jonah, to be cast out”.
Many of the bishops accepted his resignation. Nectarius was elevated to replace him. Some Egyptian bishops who came later agreed with his resignation, even opposing his initial appointment as bishop. Gregory was already a bishop, and in an exception to the canons of the church was transferred to Constantinople.



This Council of Constantinople was not at first an ecumenical council seeing the Pope was not present himself nor represented by any legates. A year after another council which held in the same place sent the proceedings of the former council to Pope Damasus. The pope confirmed the decrees of this council concerning Faith, and so did the Popes Leo the Great, Vigilius, Pelagius II and Gregory the Great, who compared the first four ecumenical councils to the four gospels.

The decrees concerning ecclesiastical discipline were however not confirmed by the Church, especially because of its third canon which reads:

“The Bishop of Constantinople shall hold the first rank after the Bishop of Rome, because Constantinople is New Rome”

The Creed used by the Council

“We believe in one God, the 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 times (ages), Light from Light, very God from very God, begotten, not erected, of the same substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made Man; who was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried, and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end. And we believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Life-giver, who proceedeth from the Father; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the Prophets. And in one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. We acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins. We look for a resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”

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