Recently the leaders of the Patriarchal side in India expressed their opposition for His Holiness the Catholicos of the East to use several of his very important titles as the Catholicos of the East. One of the objections was against the traditional faith that the Catholicos sits on the Throne of St. Thomas the Apostle, as the head of the Indian Church. Metropolitan Mor Dionysius Thomas of Ankamali, the President of the Episcopal Synod of the Patriarchal dissident group of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in India, emphatically declared: “…the See of St. Thomas is just a myth or imagination (sankalpikam); there is nothing real about it”. It is so amusing to hear such a statement from a hierarch who is believed to have more knowledge about what Jesus had told about it.
This brief discourse is going to deal with some of the theological thoughts about apostolic sees. The only biblical reference substantiating a Throne or See for an apostle is from the Gospel according to St. Matthew. “So Jesus said to them, ‘Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration (new age), when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel’” (Mt 19:28 & Rev.11: 16). We believe that Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father. When he comes for the last judgment, he will be sitting on a throne of judgment; and at that time His apostles (followers) will sit on twelve thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel. Strictly speaking, is there a spiritual or theological value for anyone to keep a throne, when, in the past thrones belonged only to a king. For Christians their true king is Jesus Christ, and we, who belong to the Syriac tradition, also call Him “Christ the King” in our prefatory prayers of the Qauma. So strictly speaking Christ is the only one sitting on a throne for us. But he gave a special privilege for his twelve apostles to be seated with Him on other twelve thrones during the time of judgment.
Does this assurance made by Christ to His apostles bear anything more for us? If the twelve thrones have significance only during the time of judgment why do we have to make a lot of fuss about it when the judgment day is supposedly to be not at hand immediately? Priestly ministry in the Church is ultimately one of service to the people of God. No one, including a bishop or priest, should think that he is equal to God the Sovereign to sit on a throne and rule over people, like a tyrant or monarch.
In spite of this, from the early days of the church there developed the awareness that there were certain administrative functions in the church. These administrative functions were closely tied to the pastoral and priestly functions of the Church. It is based on these functions, that certain authorities in the Church were specially recognized. The Church has threefold major function; they are teaching, sanctification, and administration. Teaching consists of evangelization for the propagation of faith and of preaching to strengthen the believers in the faith they have received. Sanctification consists of the administering the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments) that sanctify the faithful. Administration consists of the general supervision and coordination required to guarantee that the other two functions are properly executed. These three functions were administratively controlled even from the days of Paul and Peter by an authority equal to an apostle or a successor of an apostle. This authority was needed to protect the unity of faith and morals taught by the Church. These authorities were united in faith and worship. You could call this a position of authority, a chair of authority. Although the Church is the mystical body of Christ, it is also a human body, a human organization that requires a visible local authority of control.
From this historical fact we deduce the following:
1. That this authority was apostolic, meaning that this authority came from apostles.
2. That bishops and priests were successors of apostles in general.
3. That their functions also were apostolic.
4. That it was not a dogma of faith, like those of the Holy Trinity or Redemption by Christ, to attribute succession of a particular bishop to a particular apostle
The Supreme Head of the Malankara Orthodox Church
H. H. Baselius Marthoma Mathews II
Let me emphasize that, in strict orthodox ecclesiology, there is very little theological significance for any bishop to claim succession to a particular apostle; because all bishops and priests are successors to the college of apostles in general. If a particular bishop is the successor to a particular apostle, even at present we will have only twelve bishops/ priests in the whole world (one bishop / priest for each of the twelve apostles); and even a Sunday School child knows that it is an absurdity. We know that the Holy Church cannot function now as the sanctifying body of Christ with just twelve bishops/ priests on earth. Hence the theological truth is that all bishops and priests are successors to the college of apostles. It is also the teaching of the Orthodox Church that every bishop has a See or Throne or Chair. It is this chair of authority to preach, sanctify and administer the church that he receives through the laying-on of hands as a successor to the college of apostles; his chair of authority is operable within his diocesan jurisdiction. An ordinary priest also receives this chair of authority by virtue of his priesthood and succession to the college of apostles; and this chair of authority is to preach, sanctify and administer the flock given to his spiritual care within the jurisdiction of his parish or mission station. In other words, an ordinary priest also sits on a throne!!!
In spite of this, the early church at least from the fourth century began to identify some seats of major bishoprics as apostolically more important. The mother See of all apostles, or later bishops, was Jerusalem. However, in the fourth century the See of Jerusalem was not at all considered the most important. The most important political power at that time was the Roman Empire. Therefore, the primacy among the bishoprics naturally went to the center of the Roman Empire, Rome. The second place went to Alexandria, the next commercial and political center within the Roman Empire. The Alexandrian Church was founded by St. Mark, a disciple of an apostle, not an apostle. The next rank went to the Church of Antioch, and actually Constantinople received only the fourth rank. However, when Constantinople became the NEW ROME, the second rank went to her. During the peak of the glory of the Byzantine Empire, which was considered by Greeks the true heir of the Ancient Roman Empire after the barbarian invasion and the collapse and disintegration of Rome during the Dark Ages, Constantinople claimed to be the true Rome, paving the way for eventual separation of the Roman Church from Byzantium.
See the struggle for dominance among these ancient bishoprics. The first bishop to be officially called a “Pope” was the head of the Alexandrian Church. Actually the political agendum behind the Council of Chalcedon was to steal the title of the Alexandrian Patriarch and to diminish the predominance enjoyed by Alexandria. If Cyril of Alexandria was orthodox in his Christology, definitely Dioscorus of Alexandria was also orthodox. Dioscorus said nothing more than what Cyril emphasized against Nestorius. Rome and Constantinople did not have any doubt about the orthodoxy of Cyril of Alexandria. Then what was the hidden agendum behind Chalcedon? It was indeed a political one.
It was in the Council of Chalcedon that succession to a particular bishop became a matter of preference. The tome Leo the Great (Patriarch of Rome) was presented in the Council against Dioscorus in order to anathematize him. Immediately after it was presented the Greeks clamored: “Peter speaks through the mouth of Leo!” This implies that Peter was the apostle of Rome, and Leo was his successor; it further implies that as Peter was the spokesman of the apostles, Leo was also the head of the bishops assembled in the Council acting in place of Peter! The deliberate intention of the Greek utterance was to substantiate the authenticity and legitimacy of Leo’s tome against Alexandria. It was for humiliating Alexandria and its allies that they invoked Leo’s apostolic connection. Up until that point no one claimed an apostolic connection for political reasons; whereas all legitimate bishops in the past claimed that they were disseminating the doctrines taught by all the apostles and they were all successors the apostles.
The rest is history. Greeks rejected the idea of primacy of Rome based on its so-called connection with Apostle Peter and as a divinely given position. Later Greeks asserted anyone who professed the faith Peter confessed is a successor of Peter (Nicholas Cabasilas). In fact, Peter had nothing to do with the See of Rome, except that he was taken there for trial and execution. He spent in Rome about two years waiting for his trial and crucifixion. If there was an apostle-founder of the Roman Church, it was Paul, and he also wrote a letter of exhortation to Romans. When St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, wrote his famous letter to Romans before his arrival there for trial, he did not even mention any of their connection to Apostle Peter. Three centuries after Chalcedon, Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome denied the relevance of any kind of primacy or supremacy. However, Rome subsequently began to profusely use its made-up connection with Peter to legitimize and canonize its claims of primacy and universal jurisdiction over the rest of the Christendom. Does this connection to a particular apostle stand in soteriology or even general theology? Not at all!
Then what is the meaning of the phrases, Successor to St. Peter, Successor to St. Mark, Successor to St. Thomas, Successor to St. Andrew, etc., etc.? Does not this title have any meaning? Maybe Metropolitan Dionysius Thomas (of Ankamali, Kerala, India), President of the Patriarchal Synod, is right; these titles are just MYTHS (Sankalpikam- having no foundation in reality). And it is sound Orthodox theology! If it is sound theology what is the point of arguing that Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Ignatios Zakka I Iwas is the successor of Peter. Like any other bishop he is also a successor to the college of bishops. Parenthetically, there are five Patriarchs claiming to be the chief hierarch of Antioch. If all of them claim to be successors to the Throne of Peter, Patriarch Ignatios Zakka I Iwas would get only 0.8 portion (four fifth) of a leg of Peter’s Throne! It should then be a very shaky throne! Imagine sitting on a chair that is supported by just one leg or less than a leg!
If the Throne or See of an apostle is a MYTH (Sankalpikam), let us now demythologize it. In the philosophy of religion every myth stands for a truth. Let us unravel this MYTH of the Throne of an Apostle. Although it does not have any theological or soteriological significance, the connection of the head of a national Church to its founder, particularly if he was an apostle, has more relevance historically and magisterially. It is a matter of great pride for a people if their patriarch is historically in line with an apostolic founder. It asserts the continuity of faith, doctrines and morals from that apostle, maintained and sustained by that Church. It also underscores the solidarity of a national church and solidifies its Christian heritage. Thus the successor of an apostle-founder of a national Church is an icon of the authenticity and genuineness of the dogmas of faith and morals enunciated by that Church and of the authority of that Church, particularly of the head of that Church. It further authenticates the teaching (magisterial) authority of that church and its national head. It is because of this, ancient churches always took pride in their apostolic founders and their heads claimed to be sitting on the throne of their apostolic founders. It is within these perspectives that the Catholicos of the East is enthroned on the See of St. Thomas as his successor. We have examples of this in Egypt, Constantinople, Rome, and other places.
However, the Roman popes had unusual claims. They claimed to be the successors of Peter, and to be sitting on the Apostolic See of St. Peter. For the popes, the claim had a twofold purpose. First, to authenticate their actions by the succession to an apostle; and two, to establish their claim of universal jurisdiction (Ecclesiae Catholicae Episcopus- this is how the pope signs an official document) as the successor of Peter who was the head of the apostles. After the barbarian invasion of Rome and the collapse of the Roman Empire, the popes usurped the position of the emperor, the political head of the empire, and began to act as sovereign and supreme pontiff of Rome (Roman Pontiff or Supreme Pontiff was also another title of the Emperor of Rome).
It was to substantiate this imperial primacy that the popes began to invoke the name of Peter. However certain fallacies haunt their claims: First, Peter was not the founder of the Roman Church.; second, even if Peter could be proven to be associated with the Roman Church, his so-called position as the spokesman of the apostles was never meant to be inherited by any of his so-called successors (?); for which there is no scriptural or patristic foundation. There was no biblical evidence to prove that there would be successors to Peter, and his successors will enjoy the same privileges he had. However, in patrology we see many records highlighting the headship of Peter among the apostles (Shem’un risho d’slihe), but there was no early patristic record that he would have a successor to enjoy this privilege. The East has consistently rejected this claim as a heresy. It was uniatism through which pope’s universal jurisdiction found its way in the East; but the Orthodox churches consider this claim as a heresy. The infallibility of the popes is also based on these false premises. It is because these premises are biblically and patristically unsound that the eastern churches reject the primacy of the Pope. However, it is to be observed that East has considered the pope of Rome as first among the equals based on the fact that he was the bishop of Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire, not on the assumption that he was successor to Peter who had been the head of apostles.
Unfortunately, in recent times the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchs of Antioch also began to claim whatever the popes in Rome had been claiming, as successors of Peter. The stationary of the Patriarch has a new title: “The Supreme Head of The Universal Syrian Orthodox Church”. Is there a Universal Syrian Orthodox Church? See how he imitates the popes! My understanding is that the flock under the Catholicos of the East is much bigger than that under the Patriarch of Antioch. I think the Malankarese Orthodox Syrian Church is more universal than the Syrian Church in the Middle East. The Roman Catholic Church was made universal through European colonialism; until the 15th century the Roman Church was much smaller than the Orthodox Churches. The Syrian Orthodox Church was not a beneficiary of colonialism; on the other hand it was weakened day by day by Muslim persecution and defection of its members to uniatism. The hidden agendum behind the use of the word, universal, is the popish ambition of ruling the other Syrians in the world, a corollary to the assumption that the Antiochian Syrian Patriarch is the successor to Peter, and that as Peter was the head of the apostles, he is doing somewhat like what the Pope of Rome does, i.e., claiming universal jurisdiction. Antiochian Patriarchs did not have a claim like this until a century ago. When did it start?
Bishop Gregorios Abdullah was a uniate Bishop of the Syrian Catholic Church in the Middle-East. When the legitimate Patriarch Ignatios Abded’Mashiho had problems with the civil authorities of Turkey to keep his Patriarchate, Bishop Gregorios Abdullah, a very cunning man (who had come to Malankara with Patriarch Ignatios Peter as an Orthodox monk during the last quarter of the 19th century and plundered the wealth of many churches with his perverted ingenuity and received the reprimands of the Patriarch), influenced the political authorities to withdraw their approbation of the Patriarch. When it was certain that he would get the Patriarchate, Bishop Gregorios defected back to the Orthodox Church, and upon political pressure on other bishops became the politically approved Patriarch of Antioch. It is this Patriarch who initiated claims as the successor of Peter with universal jurisdiction. It is this Patriarch who came to India and tried to intimidate Metropolitan Mor Dionysius Vattasseril of Malankara with his fabricated might of Petrine supremacy and its inheritance assigned to the occupants of the See of Antioch; this he learned as a bishop in the Roman Catholic Church. Henceforth, the Syrian Patriarchs were constantly trying to impose this doctrine Petrine primacy and its fabricated inheritance by them on the Church of Malankara.
After the uncanonical excommunication of Metropolitan Mor Dionysius Vattasseril by Patriarch Abdullah, the senior Patriarch Abded’Mashiho came to India and restored the Catholicate of the East in India, and that Catholicate was the continuation of the See of St. Thomas in the East. All the Catholicoi since 1912 were consecrated for the See of St. Thomas. It was a Catholicos sitting on the Throne of St. Thomas who received Patriarch Ignatios Yakub III into communion with the Malankarese Orthodox Syrian Church when the Patriarchal side came under the Catholicate upon losing their case at the Supreme Court of India in 1958. Patriarch Yakub III accepted Catholicos Basilios Givargis II as the chief hierarch of the East sitting on the Throne of St. Thomas. However, the Patriarch in 1970 changed his theology about one of the apostles and declared that St. Thomas was not even a priest. He then argued: “How could there be a throne for St. Thomas when he was not even a priest?” He knew very well that the foundation of the throne of St. Thomas is his priesthood or high priesthood, and if one denies the priesthood of St. Thomas, he can very well destroy his See. This was the most unforgivable heresy of the Christian Church in the 20th century. Patriarch Yakub III forgot the perennial theological truth that there is no apostleship (shlihutho) without priesthood (kohnutho). That is why Metropolitan Mor Thoma Dionysius of Niranam, of blessed memory, in a clergy conference at Parumala Seminary in 1970, suggested that Patriarch Yakub III should be admitted for immediate treatment at the London Lunatic Asylum!
Why did Yakub III deny the See of St.Thomas? There is only one convincing answer. He knew that if he recognized another Apostolic See in a fraternal attitude, he had to accept the Church under that Apostolic See as a sister church, which would not be subordinate to him. The only feasible way to subjugate that church was to dismantle its epicenter. The epicenter of the Church of Malankara is its See of St. Thomas. Yakub III knew that it was important to kill that establishment in order to keep the Syrian Church of Malankara under his universal jurisdiction. The Malankarese Orthodox Syrians should understand that by his action Yakub III was denying their ecclesiastical autonomy and autocephaly.
Now the Patriarchal side does not deny the priesthood of St. Thomas. They know that Patriarch Yakub III preached a heresy. Still Metropolitan Mor Dionysius Thomas of Ankamali and his cronies amorously embrace the “Yakubian” heresy that St. Thomas does not have a See. Your Eminence, Metropolitan Mor Dionysius Thomas of Ankamali: If St. Andrew has a See, St. Thomas has it. If St. Mark has a See, St. Thomas has it. If St. Peter has a Throne, St. Thomas has it. It is not just a myth without foundation in reality. I would like you read Matthew 19:28, not once, but several times until you comprehend the real meaning of that passage. Can you deny the throne Jesus promised for all of His apostles? Is not St. Thomas an apostle?
I want you to be aware of the tradition in Malankara. Our recorded history starts after the invasion of our Church by the Portuguese Roman missionaries. Long before that there had existed a manuscript lectionary guide in the Aramaic language transcribed by one Deacon Zechariah wherein you will find a reference on the Metropolitan of Malankara in this following manner: “ Our Primate is Mor Yakub, who presides over the Church of India as the Head of the Holy See of Apostle St. Thomas.”(This record is kept in the Vatican Library as The Syriac Manuscript of St. Thomas Christians). Since the oath by the Curved (Coonan) Cross of 1653, we had nine of our chief hierarchs consecutively named Mor Thoma (I through IX) to establish the fact that they were successors of St.Thomas. In another document, a Systaticon granted to Bishop Kyrillos Givargis of the Thozhiyur Independent Syrian Church in 1830, his consecrator, Metropolitan Mor Dionysius Philipos (Cheppad) of Malankara qualifies himself in the following manner:
“By the Grace of God, Dionysius Philipos, Shepherd of Christ’s Sheep and Lambs in the Malayalam country within the territories of India, and Metropolitan sitting on the Throne of Saint and Blessed Thomas, Father of the … Syrian Christian Community…”
In 1840 in a letter issued to Metropolitan Mor Dionysius Philipos (Cheppad) of Malankara by Patriarch Ignatios Elias II of Antioch, the Church of Malankara is referred thus: “… The Church belonging to the See of St. Thomas the Apostle”.
There was a certain foreign bishop named Mor Kyrillos Joachim who came to India in 1846. He claimed to have become the Metropolitan of Malankara; but the Cochin court disallowed his claim. Still he continued to use his name in connection with the See of St. Thomas. For example, on a Tablet consecrated by him at Fort Cochin we read: Kyrillos Joachim, Metropolitan on the Throne of St. Thomas in India. The same Mor Kyrillos Joachim was again mentioned on a stone tablet kept on the wall of the sanctuary of the Rakkatt Church as the Metropolitan reigning over the See of St. Thomas by Patriarch Mor Gregorios Abde d’Nuhro of Jerusalem when he visited India in 1857.
During the same period, Mor Athanasius Matthews Palakunnath became the Metropolitan of Malankara, and claimed that he was sitting on the See of St. Thomas.
Before the Catholicate was restored in 1912 there were clear references to the See of St. Thomas. Another example: Metropolitan Mor Dionysius Joseph Pulikkottil of Malankara (1865-1909) is featured as sitting on the Throne of St. Thomas by Mr. E. M. Philip in his book The Indian Church of St. Thomas (Malayalam Book).
Aren’t the Marthomites, who are not deeply concerned about the priestly dimensions of a Holy See as the center of their church, still calling their metropolitan, Mar Thoma as a continuation of that tradition? When Mor Athanasius Matthews consecrated his successor, he did it for the Throne of St. Thomas. Even now the Marthomites address their primate as Metropolitan …. Mar Thoma of the Apostolic See of Malankara.
Can we now say that the See of St. Thomas in Malankara is just a myth (Sankalpikam) without any foundation in reality? Didn’t our ancestors believe in a Throne of St. Thomas? Our history supplies a large number of evidences to support our claim for a See of St. Thomas. We did not just create an innovative idea of a Holy See.
It is not just a myth (Sankalpikam) without any meaning that the Catholicos sits on the Throne of St. Thomas; it is a myth transmitting thousands of years of history and heritage; and it is real for the children of St. Thomas. It represents a truth that St. Thomas begot us in Christ. It is the center of our unity. It is a matter of great pride that our Catholicos is in line with our apostolic founder. This throne asserts our continuity in Christian faith. Our Catholicos is the icon of the faith preached by St. Thomas. It is this See that grants authority to teach authentically the Christian faith preached by St. Thomas.
The one thing that deeply disturbs me is that some naïve Orthodox Christians do not comprehend the faith-like significance of this institution and suggest that we do not insist on the use of this title for the sake of peace, in order to make peace with the dissidents among us. Did not we wage a war of litigations for about a century and spend enormous amount of our resources to protect this See and what it is all about? Are we a free Church without the Holy See of St. Thomas? There is nothing greater than our freedom, and without the See of St. Thomas we are not entitled to that freedom. Therefore, watch these peacemakers who do not require the See of St. Thomas! Make no mistake: There is no compromise on the Throne of St. Thomas. The children of St. Thomas are determined to wage a war for another hundred years to defend this Holy See and the freedom of the Church.
Still a great enigma remains unsolved: “Despite all the very clear evidences corroborating the reality of the Apostolic See of St. Thomas, why do some of the children of St. Thomas betray him?”
(Some of the information directly connected with the examples highlighting the Throne of St. Thomas in Kerala on page 7 were gathered from Malankara Sabha and other sources in India)