In my last post, I argued that the doctrine of original sin as defined at the Council of Carthage in 418 is just as authoritative in the East as it is in the West because of the inclusion of the canons from Carthage in Canon 2 of the Council in Trullo (692, also known as the Quinisext or Penthekti Council). At first glance, this case may appear significantly overstated; yet another wooden canonical reading by an Internet pedagogue. After all, Trullo has long been understood in the East to be merely administrative in function: a standardization of various canonical norms. Surely, one might propose, Trullo did not intend to take on so weighty a theological matter as original sin!
This objection is a strong one. Trullo indeed is administrative and there was no recorded controversy over original sin in the 7th century which would necessitate such a move. However, this objection contains a fatal flaw: it assumes that Carthage’s doctrine of original sin would have been so controversial in the 7th century East that its addition via Trullo to the Greek nomocanon would have been anything but pro forma.
The goal of this post is to demonstrate this assumption false. Specifically, I will lay out a case that original sin was confirmed both East and West and that Carthage came to be authoritative in the East immediately, in or around the year 419; or at the very least by the Council of Ephesus (431). Thus, the action taken at Trullo was simply a move of Carthage in ecclesiastical law from de facto to de jure. Put simply, by the time 692 rolled around, Carthage was so widely accepted in the East that its official adoption at Trullo was a mere formality.
A Brief Timeline of the Pelagian Controversy
Pelagius traveled from Britain to Rome circa 380. There, he befriended Celestius. After the fall of Rome in 410, the two moved to Carthage. Celestius petitioned for ordination in Carthage, but due to questions about his doctrine, his theology was reviewed at the Conference of Carthage in 411. The synod ruled Celestius’ theology deficient on six points. Celestius eventually moves to Ephesus where he was ordained.
The next year, Pelagius arrives alone in Palestine. But in a short time, controversy arose again. At the accusation of St Jerome and Orosius, a small council is called in Jerusalem (415) under Bishop John. The council is unable to come to a decision due to the Greek/Latin language difficulties and a poor translator. Both parties agree to forward the dispute to a Latin adjudicator, but within two years a new council is called in Diospolis (417). The primary accusers were prevented from attending by illness, and Orosius was detained by Bishop John. Having no accusers, Pelagius was able to convince the council by duplicity (de Gestis Pelagii XXXII). Pelagius is thus acquitted by Jerusalem, but not without condemning certain of his doctrines.
The acquittal of Pelagius in Jerusalem caused an explosion in activity around the world in 417 and 418. In North Africa, several local councils quickly condemn Pelagius again. In the East, Celestius is condemned in Constantinople under Bishop Atticus upon review of the canons of Carthage from 411 (Marius Mercator Comm. 1.1). Similarly, Celestius is again condemned by an imperial court in Cilicia under Theodosius II. Hoping to gain some traction in the East, Julian of Eclanum (another Western Pelagian), writes to Rufus of Thessaloniki attempting to exploit the ill will between Rufus and Atticus. This attempt fails as Rufus sides with Atticus and Augustine, passing a copy of this epistle to the West for refutation.
Alexandria is drawn into the dispute as well. Pelagius was distributing a heavily edited copy of the Acts of Jerusalem, showing it to be far more in favor with him. Simultaneously, Augustine wrote to Jerusalem and to Cyril of Alexandria (an unbiased third party) to request copies of the acts of the council, a fact we know from a recently discovered epistle of Augustine. As part of the exchange with Cyril, Augustine provides a copy of his work de Gestis Pelagii (the only known work of Augustine with a Greek translation!). The inclusion of this work causes a minor controversy in Alexandria which we will deal with shortly. Augustine also provided his work de Natura et Gratia to Jersusalem. Scholars Wickham and Dunn additionally theorize that:
- These works were sent to Constantinople as well.
- That all three cities had copies of both of Augustine’s works as well as Jerome’s.
The previously mentioned councils of North Africa ultimately appeal to Rome for a final judgement, and Pope Innocent I accepts the doctrine of original sin and condemns both Pelagius and Celestius. This victory is short lived, however, because only weeks after this judgement, Pope Innocent I dies and Pope Zosimas is convinced by Celestius to reopen the case.
The Council of Carthage is called in 418, where Pelagius and Celestius are condemned, this time in nine points. Due to the global nature of the problem, immediately after the council, Pope Zosimas sends his Epistola Tractoria throughout the world. Emperors of the East and West, Theodosius II and Honorius respectively, enforce the decision as Roman imperial policy and send a joint letter to Aurelius and Augustine informing them of the banishment of Celestius and Pelagius as well as encouraging the bishops to write theological letters to encourage theological adoption of the council. The global scope of this controversy, the epistle of Pope Zosimas and the imperial enforcement of this ruling made sure that the ruling was widely distributed in the Greek speaking world.
The Reception of Carthage in the East
Marius was a North African expatriate living in Constantinople from 429. He was involved directly in the Council of Ephesus, and records the Pelagian controversy from a Constantinopolitan perspective in his work Commonitorium De Coelestio Imperatori Oblatum. The impact of this work, in Latin, among Greek speakers is unknown. However, his first chapter is extremely helpful in its description of the records available in the East before Ephesus.
Constantinople possesses the acts of the earlier council of Carthage (411), including the six canons of condemnation against Celestius. Constantinople also possesses the acts of the review of Celestius by Pope Zosimas that leads to the calling of Carthage in 418. Most importantly, in 1.5, Marius gives us two important details regarding the Epistola Tractoria. First, it contains the canons of Carthage in 418 (capitula de quibus accusatus). Second, Marius describes the destinations to which the letter was sent: Egypt, Constantinople, Thessalonica and Jerusalem (notably missing: Antioch).
Marius further goes to explain that the Epistola Tractoria was signed by the bishops of these sees per the request of Pope Zosimas. Put simply, every major see in the East, with the exception of Antioch, had agreed to the condemnation of Pelagius and Celestius and had signed off on the Canons of Carthage (418).
The Council of Ephesus
Within a decade of the end of the Pelagian controversy, Nestorius was elected bishop of Constantinople. His involvement with the local Christological debates stirred up a controversy over his Christology. The details of this dispute are largely irrelevant for this thesis, but what is significant is that Celestius had managed to find sanctuary under Nestorius.
St Cyril of Alexandria, with the imperial support of Theodosius II, called what we now consider the 3rd Ecumenical Council which would ultimately condemn Nestorius. St Cyril had a problem, however: the council was already starting to unravel before the delegations from Antioch or Rome had arrived. In a controversial move, he began the council anyway. Within five days, Antioch had arrived but refused to recognize the validity of the council. After another five days, Rome’s delegation finally arrived. By this time, the precarious situation of the council had gone from bad to worse: Antioch had called its own council and gone into schism.
In order to make the council authoritative, it would need reception from both Rome and Jerusalem. Constantinople, whose patriarch was on trial, would never approve of the verdict and Antioch had already denounced it. In addition to episcopal support, imperial support would be needed as well. Further, without a broad base of support across both the anti-Nestorian and undecided laity in Constantinople and Jerusalem, Ephesus would probably just result in schism as local people rallied around their bishops. The answer, we will find, will come in Nestorius’ support for Celestius.
Celestius receives four mentions in the council of Ephesus: three in session seven (one in the preface, and two in the canons) and one in the concluding letter to Rome. They are as follows (emphasis added):
Session VII – Preface
The holy and ecumenical Synod, gathered together in Ephesus by the decree of our most religious Emperors [Valentinian III and Theodosius II], to the bishops, presbyters, deacons, and all the people in every province and city:
When we had assembled, according to the religious decree [of the Emperors], in the Metropolis of Ephesus, certain persons, a little more than thirty in number, withdrew from among us, having for the leader of their schism John, Bishop of Antioch. Their names are as follows: first, the said John of Antioch in Syria, [etc.] … These men, having no privilege of ecclesiastical communion on the ground of a priestly authority, by which they could injure or benefit any persons; since some of them had already been deposed; and since from their refusing to join in our decree against Nestorius, it was manifestly evident to all men that they were all promoting the opinions of Nestorius and Celestius; the Holy Synod, by one common decree, deposed them from all ecclesiastical communion, and deprived them of all their priestly power by which they might injure or profit any persons.
Session VII – Canon 1
Whereas it is needful that they who were detained from the holy Synod and remained in their own district or city, for any reason, ecclesiastical or personal, should not be ignorant of the matters which were thereby decreed; we, therefore, notify your holiness and charity that if any Metropolitan of a Province, forsaking the holy and Ecumenical Synod, has joined the assembly of the apostates, or shall join the same hereafter; or, if he has adopted, or shall hereafter adopt, the doctrines of Celestius, he has no power in any way to do anything in opposition to the bishops of the province, since he is already cast forth from all ecclesiastical communion and made incapable of exercising his ministry; but he shall himself be subject in all things to those very bishops of the province and to the neighbouring orthodox metropolitans, and shall be degraded from his episcopal rank.
Session VII – Canon 4
If any of the clergy should fall away, and publicly or privately presume to maintain the doctrines of Nestorius or Celestius, it is declared just by the holy Synod that these also should be deposed.
The Letter of the Synod to Pope Celestine
For as soon as [John of Antioch] had come to Ephesus, before he had even shaken off the dust of the journey, or changed his travelling dress, he assembled those who had sided with Nestorius and who had uttered blasphemies against their head, and only not derided the glory of Christ, and gathering as a college to himself, I suppose, thirty men, having the name of bishops (some of whom were without sees, wandering about and having no dioceses, others again had for many years been deposed for serious causes from their metropolises, and with these were Pelagians and the followers of Celestius, and some of those who were turned out of Thessaly), he had the presumption to commit a piece of iniquity no man had ever done before.
First, it must be noted that nowhere in this council is Celestius put on trial. On the contrary, his guilt is everywhere assumed by St Cyril and the acts of Ephesus. Neither is there any recorded controversy on this point.
Second, anyone who will be tempted to side with Nestorius will not be afraid of the condemnation of Nestorius. Nor are they likely to be afraid of a few bishops (unjustly?) deposed. The real threat behind these pronouncements is the assumption that to support Nestorius is the same as supporting the Pelagian heresy. The clear intention is to use Celestius and his condemnation at Carthage to borrow credibility for Ephesus.
How does this line of argumentation affect each of the players at Ephesus?
For Rome, the answer is obvious. Rome has already condemned Nestorius for his failure to recant within ten days and the assent to Carthage’s condemnation of Celestius just sweetens the deal. The end result is that Rome will overlook the minor procedural issues and accept the council.
For Jerusalem, upholding Ephesus gives them an opportunity to be on the right side of the Pelagian controversy after their previous acquittal of Pelagius. Conversely, a failure to subscribe to Ephesus might raise suspicions that they aren’t willing to condemn Pelagianism, in spite of their signature on the Epistola Tractoria. This latter problem would also interfere with their desire to see Jerusalem replace Antioch in the hierarchy. The cost for Jerusalem in rejecting the council would be quite high.
For Theodosius II, the case is obvious: Nestorius, by harboring Celestius, is in violation of imperial law. And given Theodosius’ direct involvement in the Pelagian controversy, it is obvious which side he will have to be on to save face. The inclusion of Celestius in Ephesus simply forces the imperial hand.
The cleverness of the move to drag Celestius into the Council of Ephesus is how to reach those in Constantinople and Syria who are either opposed to Nestorius or are otherwise uncommitted. The key here comes in St Melania the Younger. St Melania was a wealthy Roman noblewoman who, having amicably left her marriage for monasticism, was one of the principal opponents of Nestorius in Constantinople. She had expended considerable wealth constructing churches, founding monasteries and charity in Asia Minor and Jerusalem. However, before she had arrived in the East she and her husband had spent seven years in (you guessed it) Carthage, including significant time under the direct tutelage of St Augustine. In fact, there is even scholarly debate about whether the Augustinian monastic rule was created for the use of St Melania. She and her husband were both so beloved by the people that he was almost ordained against his will due to threats of violence. Although the influence of St Melania on the reception of Ephesus in the East is likely unmeasurable, a woman so highly regarded both in the imperial court and among the laity and who was already deeply involved in the unseating of Nestorius is likely to have exerted a great deal of influence on the popular level.
Cyril of Alexandria
The question we must ask, then, is “Did Cyril of Alexandria support the condemnation of Pelagius merely for pragmatic reasons?” The Lionel Wickham answers this question in the affirmative in his article Pelagianism in the East. This is based upon two criteria:
- The historical record of an accusation that Cyril had admitted a Pelagian to communion.
- The lack of any sort of theological controversy in Alexandria or any reference to Augustine in Cyril’s writings.
Geoffrey D. Dunn, in his article Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria and the Pelagian Controversy, argues against Wickham based on a theological analysis of Cyril’s notion of original sin. I will not recount the full force of his argument here, but it can be summarized by quoting Dunn himself:
[Cyril] was, from early in his episcopate, theologically an opponent of Pelagius’s views implicitly though not explicitly. … His position would have raised no questions of his orthodoxy in Augustine’s mind.
– Augustinian Studies, Issue 37 Volume 1 p87
To this, a few other thoughts need to be added. First, the accusation of Cyril’s admission of a Pelagian to communion only further establishes my thesis: the condemnation of Pelagianism was widely accepted in the East, which is why the accusation is potentially scandalous for Cyril. The presence of a Pelagian in Alexandria does not necessarily imply Cyril’s theological agreement with Pelagianism, however. It was often politically useful to permit the presence of an opponent in your territory.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, a minor controversy did in fact break out over Augustine’s correspondence with Cyril, but not over the issue of original sin. Augustine had written that not all sinners would face eternal punishment (he is suggesting here a primitive notion of purgatory). This statement, and not his musings on original sin, were found to be controversial in Alexandria. Since Augustine had already obtained significant stature in the East, it was presumed that the messenger had corrupted the text. Hence Cyril wrote back to Augustine to obtain the “correct” version of his work. Augustine responded that the version he sent was the correct one and the messenger had not edited the text. That Cyril explicitly questioned a portion of the document not related to original sin means that he read the work of Augustine, understood it, and commented intelligently. When combined with Dunn’s thorough argument from Cyril’s theology and Cyril’s signature on the Epistola Tractoria a clear picture emerges: Cyril was a supporter of Carthage.
The Legacy of Carthage and Later Councils
One last point on the reception of Carthage in the East needs to be made regarding Atticus’ legacy in the following years. Atticus, as we have seen, was an opponent of Pelagianism. During his episcopate, he was involved in only one other minor theological issue. Thus, if we find that Atticus is upheld in later days as a touchstone of Orthodoxy, it is precisely for his role against Pelagianism. And this is, in fact, what we find.
In the first session of the Council of Ephesus, Atticus’ statement on Christology is listed among statements from other great teachers of Orthodoxy: Ambrose, Basil, Gregory the Theologian, and Gregory of Nyssa, among many others.
During the Council in Constantinople (448) against Eutyches, as recorded in the acts of Chalcedon, the prosecutor Eusebius declares a statement of his Orthodoxy as follows (emphasis added):
[I] have abided by the creed of the 318 holy fathers who convened at Nicaea, all the proceedings of the great and holy council in the metropolis of Ephesus, and the beliefs and definitions of the blessed Cyril then bishop of the great city of Alexandria, Athanasius, Gregory the Great, Gregory and Gregory, and Atticus and Proclus the holy bishops.
Similarly, when Eutyches attempts to defend himself via an appeal to Pope St Leo I, he says (emphasis added):
I agree to everything that was laid down about the same Faith by the same holy Synod: of which Synod the leader and chief was Cyril of blessed memory bishop of the Alexandrians, the partner and sharer in the preaching and in the Faith of those saints and elect of God, Gregory the greater, and the other Gregory, Basil, Athanasius, Atticus and Proclus.
And again, at 2nd Constantinople we find a similar list, with a curious modification. St Justinian says (emphasis added):
We further declare that we hold fast to the decrees of the four Councils, and in every way follow the holy Fathers, Athanasius, Hilary, Basil, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, Theophilus, John (Chrysostom) of Constantinople, Cyril, Augustine, Proclus, Leo and their writings on the true faith.
While Atticus isn’t mentioned in this last quote, Augustine takes his place in exactly the same order. The switch to Augustine here is to utilize his reputation as an opponent of Pelagius to gain credibility for his writing which permits the condemnation of a person after their death. This will be used in order to condemn Origen.
Thus it is clear that the universal reception of the condemnation of Pelagius is used to bring credibility not only to Ephesus, but to Chalcedon and 2nd Constantinople.
The Reception of Pelagius in the Nestorian East
The acceptance of Carthage among the major sees of Roman Christianity, East and West, meant the expulsion of Pelagianism from the Roman Empire. Most of the major Pelagian figures we find in Constantinople under Nestorius follow Nestorius into East Syria where they find refuge there. This exile proceeds to have a strong impact on the Assyrian Church of the East:
The only Eastern Communion which seems to have fallen into any serious doctrinal error on the subject of Baptism, is the Nestorian. Theodore of Mopsuestia, if not absolutely heretical, was at least extremely unsound, on the subject of original sin; and his followers have, as usual, added to his errors. Thus Sabarjesus, Catholicus of Chaldæa, in a synod holden by him in A.D. 596, condemned those who asserted that, since the fall of Adam, sin is innate in human nature. This is clear enough; and no doubt the statements of subsequent Nestorian writers are extremely unsatisfactory, and may easily be perverted into Pelagianism. Thus, George of Arbela; “Of old time adults were baptized, involved in sin, and called by grace to faith. But now, the children of Christian Nestorians are baptized; infants who are pure, and not polluted with sins.” And again, Timothy II, who was Catholicus, as we have seen, about A.D. 1320; “If Baptism is for the remission of sins, why do we baptize infants and children, who are free from sin?” At the same time, it is pretty clear that both writers are speaking of actual, not of original, sin. For the same George of Arbela, in another part of the same work, sets forth clearly the true doctrine; and he is quoted with approbation by Timothy, in his work on the Seven Sacraments. All that can be concluded is that, by the Nestorians, the subject has been treated in a confused and unsatisfactory manner; and that the doctrine of original sin has not been brought prominently forward. This is clear from the fact that the Nestorian ritual actually contains a burial office for children dying unbaptized.
– John Mason Neale, A History of the Holy Eastern Church, p950.
The dispute that arose over Pelagianism was not localized to the West—it was truly a global phenomenon. Even during the controversy, it had strong opponents in the East. The Epistola Tractoria, containing the results of Carthage, gained nearly universal support in the Greek speaking world. This is so true that the rejection of Pelagianism becomes a touchstone of Orthodoxy in nearly every later council, but most especially Ephesus.
When this is combined with the anthropology of St Maximus who incorporates Carthage’s doctrinal points, it becomes clear that the position of Carthage was well established in the East before we ever arrive at Trullo. Trullo’s intent then is simply to acknowledge in law what has long been acknowledged in praxis and theology: the canons of Carthage on original sin are ecumenical.