MIKHAIL EMILIEVITCH POSNOV (1873-1931),
A LITTLE KNOWN RUSSIAN ORTHODOX
HISTORIAN ON THE PAPACY

By JAMES LIKOUDIS


An early ecumenist, Mgr. Jean Rupp, the Bishop of Monaco who made some important visits to the Soviet Union during the Cold War to speak to Russian churchmen, first drew attention in his "Explorations Oecumeniques" (Editions Pastorelly, 1967) to the remarkable book of the Russian Orthodox church historian Mikhail Emilievitch Posnov, "The History of the Christian Church Until the Great Schism of 1054".

Professor Posnov had occupied the Chair of Church History at the University of St. Vladimir of Kiev, and fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution, taught at the Theological Academy of Sofia in Bulgaria and at the University of Sofia until his death in October 1931.

A shorter version of this book was published in Bulgaria after Posnov's death and later a fuller version in the original Russian by a publishing house in Belgium run by Posnov's daughter Irene. It was in writing his history of the schism between Rome and the Eastern churches led by Constantinople that Posnov became convinced that in the early Church the Eastern patriarchs and bishops had indeed acknowledged the Bishop of Rome's universal authority and jurisdiction.

As Bishop Rupp also noted, Posnov had studied in Berlin and there was trained in the historical research-methods of the celebrated German rationalist Adolph von Harnack (famous for his 1885 "History of Dogma"). However, Posnov possesed "a judicious spirit" and was a seeker of objective truth. He proceeded to assess in scholarly fashion the history of the first seven Ecumenical Councils only to find concrete evidence of Papal supremacy as an indispensable factor in the dogmatic life of the Church.

Posnov would seal his scholarly study by becoming an Eastern rite Catholic. His daughter Irene also became a Catholic and as a leader of the Russian Catholic community in Belgium and editor of the tri-quarterly "Letter of Foyer Oriental Chretien", helped thousands of Russians after World War II with her publishing house (La Vie en Dieu) that provided over a hundred pamphlets and books in Russian and French to enhance Catholic/Russian Orthodox understanding.

In his survey of the growth of the Church, its struggle with the early heresies, the key writings of the major Apologists and Fathers, and aspects of Christian worship and sacramental practice, Professor Posnov noted that Christians from the beginning believed that Christ founded the Church as a universal institution with a

"divinely instituted Church hierarchy".
(p.61)

It is remarkable that though one can still find Protestant and Orthodox writers who scour history to absolutely deny that a real primacy of supremacy was wielded by the Roman Pontiffs in the First Millennium Church, the Russian Orthodox Posnov had no difficulty in finding the historical evidence that supported the See of Rome's universal authority being exercised in both West and East.

"With [its] primacy of love, the Roman Church was also the leader in the development of Church teaching. All the great questions of Christian teaching of the second and third centuries found their resolution for the entire Church in Rome".
(p.78)

He observed St. Irenaeus declaring:

"that the Roman Church is the measure for all the other Churches. All other true churches must agree with the Roman Church in belief and structure....Only by being in communion with Rome could other true Christian communities exist. And this is not a personal statement only of Irenaeus and Cyprian, but the conviction of the entire ancient Church."
(Ibid.)

It was especially his study of the first seven Ecumenical Councils that brought conviction to Posnov that:

"Undoubtedly, the Pope did possess [and exercised] canonical authority in the East...The canonical authority of the Pope was firmly established... Many councils, canons and Imperial edicts testify to this fact. With time this [canonical] primacy had widened to dogmatic primacy...The history of the Ecumenical Councils proves that the most important material for conciliar deliberation was that given by the Western Church and the Pope. The material from the Roman Pope, in reality, played the primary role at most Ecumenical Councils."
(p. 482)

He studied how the Patriarchs of Constantinople reacted to the further intervention of the 9th c. Popes in the internal affairs of the the Byzantine State Church – an intervention intended to safeguard the rights of the Patriarch Ignatius against his opponent Photius. "The Patriarchs of Constantinople realized that by the coronation of Charlemagne as Roman Emperor [800 A.D.), the Popes had become odious political enemies in the eyes of the Byzantine emperors." This attitude prepared the way for the Patriarch Michael Cerularius (famous for his role in the dramatic event of 1054 ) and his successors to begin:

"their own fantastic program of self-elevation. The first step in this plan was to be freed from any canonical dependence on the Pope...The Patriarchs therefore preferred a complete break with the Pope, destroying the unity of the Church in order to achieve their independence from the Pope. They preferred independence to unity and communion with the Pope, which only reminded them of their canonical dependence on Rome. They were able to finally end communion with Rome because the Byzantine emperors hated the Popes after the coronation of the Carolingian dynasty. The majority of Greek believers agreed with the break because it had been presented to them as necessary in order to preserve the faith of the Eastern church from Western errors."
(p. 483)

Our Russian historian also took pains to dismiss what was to become for centuries the chief dogmatic "heresy" attributed to Catholics — namely, the doctrine embodied in the "Filioque" clause that was added to the Creed in the Latin liturgy. In his historical and canonical analysis of the Filioque question, he observed that:

"No one can deny that in the words of the Eastern Fathers there is an indication of some sort of participation of the Son in the procession of the Holy Spirit."

The statements of Orthodox polemicists rejecting the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from (or through) the Son

"have no authoritative support from the teachings of local or Ecumenical Councils. Hence, the voices of individual theologians cannot be placed above the general, unanimous teaching of half the universal church, the Western Church. Moreover, the expression 'filioque' was not condemned by any Ecumenical Council as a heretical expression...We also cannot agree that the Filioque is condemned automatically as an addition to the Creed."
(p.478)

Posnov's book is impressive as an Eastern Christian's non-polemical view of the origins of the Byzantine Greco-Slav Schism. It throws much light on the aggressive attempts of the patriarchs of Constantinople to dominate the other Eastern patriarchs and establish their ecclesiastical hegemony throughout the East with the aid of the Byzantine emperors. Political hostility to the Popes in the West revealed itself early when:

"the Byzantine emperors frequently were inflamed with anger at the independence of the Popes, especially during the monothelite and iconoclastic centuries. [7th and 8th centuries]".
(p.218)

The Emperor Justinian (507-565) especially established the legal relationship of the Emperors to the Church and refined the Byzantine union of Church and State thereby enabling later Byzantine Emperors to act often in their capacity as:

"the sole lawgiver and commander of Church affairs".
(p. 217)

They would never forgive or forget the insult to their universal Imperial authority when a Pope (Leo III) dared on Christmas 800 A.D. to crown Charlemagne as Emperor in the West. The affairs of the Byzantine Church took an unfortunate turn as its alleged "symphonia" of Church and State

"in practice turned into Caesaropapism – the Emperor's domination over the Church."
(p. 217)

One cannot underestimate the eclipse of the Petrine Primacy that took place in the mentality of 12th century churchmen who proved compliant to the political demands of the Byzantine State Church. The "artificial" theory of 5 equal patriarchates ruling the Church that was contrived by some Byzantine theologians, Posnov declared to:

"have no justification in apostolic tradition".
(p. 247)

Despite the tensions between Rome and the Byzantine political-ecclesiastical world which took place before 1054, our Russian historian leaves no doubt that the Pope exercised a "canonical authority over the East" in the First Millennium Church. It proved tragic when the essentially puerile doctrinal and liturgical grievances given prominence by the patriarchs Photius (858-867; 878-886) and Michael Cerularius (1043-1058) became inflamed by a growing chauvinistic nationalism among Byzantines which would consider:

"everything non-Byzantine to be heretical".
(p. 457 - Posnov quoting the judgment of historian M.E. Kovalnitsky of Odessa).

There are some inaccuracies and shortcomings in this work of a Russian scholar who in his search for truth overcame the anti-Catholic prejudices of his confreres to provide a new and more objective perspective on the historical events that resulted in tragic breaks in communion between Rome and Constantinople. Posnov's work has great value for dispelling traditional Greek and Russian Orthodox objections to the Roman church's Primacy of universal authority:

"The Papacy is an institution not just of the Latin Western Church but a universal, Catholic institution."
(p. 486)

The Papacy was not only an indispensable feature of the ancient canonical structure in the Church but as Vatican II would reaffirm some 30 years after Posnov's death, the Petrine office of the Pope was not of mere ecclesiastical institution but of explicit divine institution by Christ the Lord. Interestingly, our Russian historian saw no contradiction between the Petrine Primacy and the Easterns' traditional emphasis on Conciliarity (or Collegiality) in the life of the Church. Both were essential for the Church's effective mission.




Thanks are due to Dr. Thomas E. Herman, M.D., a Radiologist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, for his immense labor in translating into English this important book and making it available to readers interested in the Reunion of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. It can be purchased on-line from Amazon.com.


The above article was published in the June 23, 2011, issue of the national Catholic weekly "The Wanderer" (201 Ohio St., St. Paul MN 55107).

James Likoudis is the author of "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church", the most comprehensive work in English dealing with Eastern Orthodox objections to Catholic doctrines. It is available from the author, P.O.Box 852, Montour Falls, NY 14865, for $27.95 (covers S&H). For other articles of interest visit:    James Likoudis' Homepage