The Correspondence between St. John Chrysostom and St. Innocent I – Does It Show A Denial of Roman Primacy (A Response to Geoffrey D Dunn)


Geoffrey D Dunn, professor of History at the University of Pretoria specializing in Patristics and Ancient Languages/Cultures, wrote a small essay on the subject of the correspondence between St. John Chrysostom and Pope St. Innocent I (see below link). The background is John’s deposition by the Synod of Oaks which was chiefly influenced by a certain Theophilus of Alexandria. Besides noting how John wrote letters of appeal to Aquileia, Milan, as well as Rome, insinuating that John had no concept of Roman primacy, he concludes his essay with the following:

“An examination of the correspondence between the bishops John Chrysostom of Constantinople and Innocent I of Rome in the context of Palladius’ interpretation of the events surrounding John’s exile in 404 reveals that imperial politics must be taken into account. While Honorius [Western Emperor] described Rome as “the greatest Church”, it was he, not the Bishop of Rome, who had the authority to initiate the process to resolve an inter-provincial ecclesial dispute by convoking an inter-provincial synod. The bishops of the time recognized this and neither John, in appealing to Innocent for help, nor Innocent, in responding to John’s plea, utilized the notion of Roman primacy….it was only by having an emperor as effective arbitrator of wide-spread Church disputes that such matters could be resolved”
I find this sort of interpretation to be prevalent among historians, even Catholic. It leaves me puzzled, as there is another way to interpret these sorts of events which align much more neatly into the overall puzzle of Roman primacy in the late 4th and 5th centuries.
(1) In the first place, Dunn seems to forget that Pope St. Julius had reversed the sentences of the Synods of Tyre and Jerusalem (held somewhere in the mid to late 330s) on the appeal to the “custom” of the Church which he further based upon the “constitutions” and “tradition” of the Apostles Peter and Paul. That was in 341-341 AD, nearly 60 years prior to the events of John Chrysostom.
(2) In the second, Dunn seems to forget that a Synod was held by the power of both Emperors (of East and West) in the convening of Sardica (343). There, it was likewise defended that the See of Rome, because of its inheritance from St. Peter, had the right to hear appeals from any deposed bishop from anywhere in the universal Church.
(3) Thirdly, Dunn seems to forget that instead of a lack of brute ecclesial authority, the authority of the Popes are not for the free and arbitrary misuse of the Popes’ whims. I call Pope St. Leo to the stand, who no historian, Protestant or Orthodox, denies held to the divine foundation of universal jurisdiction. For example, after Eutyches of Constantinople had appealed to Leo complaining of his unjust deposition by a Synod in Constantinople (448) held under the presidency of Bishop Flavian, Leo thought it was impossible to pass verdict on the situation at once. But what is the rationale? He writes to Flavian in a subsequent letter, “But having regard to the importance of the matter, we wish to know the reason of your action [deposing Eutyches] and to have the whole thing brought to our knowledge: for we , who desire the judgments of the Lord’s priests to be deliberate, cannot without information decide one way, or another, until we have all the proceedings accurately before us” (Epistle XXIII). Does this all of the sudden mean that Leo denies his own jurisdiction to overrule foreign synods over condemned bishops? Absolutely not, for we have elsewhere clear indication, from both Leo and others in the East, that he was capable of this. But we see that the saintly Pope also knew that governing the Churches was not a matter which could lack the virtue of prudence and justice. So yes, the Pope is limited by justice and virtue to aimless exercise power on matters he is not competent on. And being ignorant of the side of the accused or the accuser would constitute such an incompetence. That hardly amounts to a denial of Roman primacy. Dunn here seems to be committed to a foolish hermeneutic which has it that unless the Popes feel that they can so much as commit themselves to any authoritative decree, irregardless for wisdom, justice, prudence, charity, and desire for unity, they are admitting they have no more authority than any Bishop in the world.
(4) Fourthly, Dunn seems to think that by appealing to the Emperors, that this would mean that both Innocent and the associating bishops were under the impression that the secular arm is the real subject possessing inter-provincial jurisdiction in the universal Church. This is abject nonsense. The reason for appealing to the Emperors was also a prudent move in order to further coerce the Bishops whose humble obedience to Ecclesiastical law already proved null and void. Theophilus had already transgressed the canons of Nicaea in meddling into the affairs of the See of Constantinople from Egypt. By gaining the authority of the State, it was hoped that the Bishops in the East would be under more pressure to abide by justice, before any unwanted excommunications would result. This is a move under the dictates of prudence and mercy. The Bishops of Rome, even if they possess the authority that Vatican I defined centuries later, could not make disobedient bishops do anything with a snap of their fingers. Knowing that this might be the case, Innocent, as well as clergy from the See of Constantinople and Italy, appealed to the Western Emperor Honorius, that he might contact the Eastern Emperor Arcadius in order to convene a Synod by State authority to examine the case of Chrysostom. Put simply, it was a secondary measure to take before exploding with unwanted spiritual harshness upon the Eastern bishops, as well as another attempt to get witnesses from both sides to confirm the full story behind John’s deposition.
(5) Lastly, Dunn seems to also ignore that Pope St Innocent I did take measures into his own hands when he realized the East would not comply (for the scheduled Synod fell through). Innocent removed the names from the Diptychs of Alexandria, Constantinople, and Antioch, and urged them that the bare minimum condition of being included back into the sheepfold of Christ would be to add Chrysostom’s name to the memorial (diptychs). Eventually, this happened before the next Council (Ephesus 431) since by then see concord between the Churches, and John’s name did indeed get put back on the memorial, thanks be to God. And it is for this reason today that the Byzantines get to enjoy his veneration.

2 thoughts on “The Correspondence between St. John Chrysostom and St. Innocent I – Does It Show A Denial of Roman Primacy (A Response to Geoffrey D Dunn)

  1. Thanks for this, Erick! You did a great job. Upon my first hearing this argument against the Roman Primacy in this situation, it sort of dealt a blow to me, but later on, after doing more study of Church history, I got to thinking “this argument acts like Sardica never happened.” Glad I wasn’t the only one. Thanks so much for these posts, they’ve helped me out immensely.

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