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The Council of Sardica Just Because It Is Interesting
February 07, 2017

An ironic story from a discussion (debate?) about whether the bishop of Rome had authority over all churches since the time of Peter:

My opponent in this discussion/debate was trying to drive the Roman bishop's authority back in time to the fourth century (and earlier). He came up with a canon from the Council of Sardica,, which was held in 343. How he found canon 4 of that council, I have no idea, but I am impressed.

Anyway, this canon says (paraphrasing) that if any bishop is deposed by his neighboring bishops and the deposed bishop appeals to Rome, then the neighboring bishops shall not be allowed to appoint a replacement for the deposed bishop until Rome has made a decision.

That's a really powerful argument for the authority of the pope, unless ...

Unless you know what was going on at the Council of Sardica!

The west side of the empire was being run by the emperors Constans and Constantine II, two of Constantine's sons. They supported the Nicene Creed. The eastern empire was being run by Constantius, their brother, who supported the bishops who opposed the Council of Nicea. We will call those bishops "Arian" even though it is doubtful that all of them deserve that title.

Because of their emperors, the churches of the western empire were in peace. The eastern churches, however, were mired in battle over the Nicene Creed, and Constantius made the battle worse by constantly replacing Nicene bishops (chosen by the people) with Arian bishops. This lead to riots and even a brutal assassination of a Roman general, Hermogenes, who was pulled from his home in the middle of the night and beaten to death by the good Christians of Constantinople. These Christians were the ones who supported the Nicene Creed, not the Arians.

Infuriated, Emperor Constantius personally removed the Nicene bishop of Constantinople, Paul, and he banished Athanasius (bishop of Alexandria) as well. Both men wound up in Rome under the protection of the Roman bishop, whom I'm pretty sure was Julius (bishop from 337-352).

The competing sides of the empire tried to have a council to resolve the problems. It was going to be at Sardica (modern Sofia, Bulgaria). The problem is, the western bishops brought Paul and Athanasius, so the eastern bishops refused to meet with them. Instead, they held a council at Philippopolis, about 100 miles away.

The Council of Sardica approved the Nicene Creed and re-installed Paul and Athanasius as bishops of their respective sees (on paper, anyway), and the Philippopolis council rejected the Nicene Creed by saying the term "one in substance" (homoousios) should never be used in a creed.

Thus, it did not surprise me to find out that the Sardica council of western bishops said that a deposed bishop could appeal to Rome and thus not be replaced. They did not appreciate that the new bishops of Constantinople and Alexandria (Macedonius and George, respectively) did not support the Nicene Creed and had been appointed (and forcibly installed) by Constantius. Thus, they passed a canon not allowing the bishops near those cities to replace Paul and Athanasius.

Reality is that the bishop of Rome then tried to send both bishops home. Emperor Constantius could not have cared less about Canon 4 of the Council of Sardica, of course, and Paul and Athanasius were both quickly banished again. Over the next few years Constantine II died and Constans was killed in a coup around AD 350. Constantius came to the west to quash the coup, and on the way he had Paul killed. He tried to banish Athanasius again, but Athanasius managed to remain bishop in Alexandria while Constans was busy in the west.

In the west, Constantius replaced some bishops, including Liberius, who had replaced Julius in Rome. This happened in 358, about 15 years after Sardica and Philippopolis.

Constantius eventually forced Liberius to sign a paper against the Council of Nicea, but when Constantius returned to the east, the western bishops replaced all the Arian bishops with Nicene bishops again. During Consantius' time in the west, while hs was shutting down a coup and replacing Nicene bishops with Arian ones in his spare time, it seemed so much like the church had become Arian that Jerome (almost a century later) remarked, "The world awoke and was astonished to find itself Arian!"

That's the real story of Sardica, which shows that when you declare the bishop of Rome as authority over the emperor in Constantinople, the bishop of Rome and the bishops he supports need to prepare for martyrdom, imprisonment, or torture. Mind you, that would be a glorious testimony and mark of prestige for the bishop of Rome, giving his life to take away the emperor's control over the churches, but it does not prove nor even hint that the eastern churches ever agreed that the bishop of Rome had authority over them.

This kind of story, by the way, is why both enjoyed and wept over the history of the Council of Nicea that I wrote, called Decoding Nicea. It is now available in audiobook on Audible as well as on all major bookseller web sites.

Paul Pavao

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