The Epiclesis Debate at the Council of Florence

by the Very Rev. Christiaan Kappes, S.L.D., Ph.L., Ph.D.

It is pretty standard in the history of science to hear about figures such as Copernicus (even if in reality he made but a first step toward a more verifiable cosmology) initiating a paradigm shift from a geo­centric universe to a so-called correctly imagined heliocentric universe (at least as it was advertised when I was a youngin’ in school). What is more, Kant too was a paradigm-shifter by suggesting that the fundamental means whereby we think that we know the objects of experience. In reality, for Kant, this fantasy of knowing the object in the outside world is actually best ex­plained by what we impose or project upon seeming data of experience; yet, we can’t presume (let alone prove) that these subjec­tive­ly convin­cing truths about quantity, quality, and anything else — in regard to items in the universe — are more than what our mind imposes upon ghosts from an unobtainable world of thingies out­side of ourselves. Of course, these examples of paradigm shifts are from cosmology or physics and philosophy. The tracking of paradigm shifts fasci­nated me in Thomas Kuhn’s celebrated The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Eventually, I got the urge to try my hand at applying some of these lessons learned to theological myth-busting.

The Epiclesis Debate at the Council of Florence is one such fruit of a more general project: Take theological paradigms and reverse them and compare them with the same authorities and sources and see what happens. For instance, take the Eastern Orthodox Church. Then, take the more able and celebrated exponents of its classical positions on Orthodox theology (e.g., Mark of Ephesus). Finally, presume that Mark’s position represents the theological conclusion to which the Roman Catholic Church must aim to be straight as an arrow; result: Read the Roman Catholic magisterial texts — even if with accuracy within their context — to use their classical Scholastic repertoire of distinctions and principles to arrive at the conclu­sions of Mark of Ephesus. In a nutshell, that’s what this monograph does. I simply ask the following question in two distinct ways:

  1. Was Mark of Ephesus able to be justified within his own theological context by authorities and documents that were available both to him and his contemporaries at Florence? Answer: Yes, indeed!
  2. Is Mark of Ephesus able to be justified within the present theological context by recourse to the present Roman Catholic magisterium and scientific liturgiology? Answer: Yes, even more so!

While — prima facie — the project may sound ludicrous, it is simply analagous to a kind of Popperian (The Logic of Scientific Discovery) fasification experiment. For Mark’s theory on a theological topic to be proven wrong, there must be some standard and means by which to falsify it. There are, as a metaphor, essentially two kinds of quasi-scientific societies that claim to have methods of testing the veracity of theological hypotheses. The classical Roman Catholic model is nowadays developed out of Melchior Cano’s posthu­mous De locis theologicis (d. 1560) and claims to be able to collocate all relevant theolog­ical data for litmus-testing theological hypotheses (opiniones theologicae) by recourse to authorities (Scripture, Tradition, Ecumenical Councils, Consensus of the Faithful, the Roman Church, The Fathers, canons, Scholastics, philosophers, and historical monu­ments/historians). Modern opinion makers (†Cyprian Vagaggini, OSB; †Alexander Schmemann, etc.) about Melchior Cano’s ideas (developed out of St. Vincent Lerins’ Commonitorium) would add another category; namely, Liturgy. As Schmemann called it: “a locus theologicus para excellence.” However, the other learned society (viz., Eastern Orthodox) has a looser weave of authorities and methods. How do I figure out how to set up the possibility of falsifying Mark of Ephesus from an Orthodox perspective? Actually, in my experiment, I do not attempt to do so. Instead, I take Mark’s teaching as a locus communis or the common opinion of all right-believing Orthodox so that Mark is assumed to be a sort of hypostati­zation of Tradition. Instead, I choose only to verify (not to falsify) his position vis-à-vis Orthodoxy within the patristic context (meaning that a discernable historical link can be made between Mark and the remote past of Christianity) and to verify that his position represented that of his Orthodox contemporaries, whether sainted or otherwise. So, the scientific society by whose scientific methods and means I set out to falsify Mark’s hypoth­esis is none other than the Renaissance Roman Catholic standards of their own orthodox authorities, which was a far less organized set of authorities than posterior Cano’s. First, I must identify Catholic Renaissance authorities, then show what they taught, and finally compare what would have actually been dogmatic for Renaissance Roman Catholics with Mark’s own theological positions. The results are striking and disturbing for paradigm worshippers: Mark’s theory is not falsifiable within a Roman Catholic Renaissance theological context! What is more, granted the authorities accepted by Renaissance men (both irony and pun intended), Mark’s arguments on behalf of the mode and moment of Eucharistic change represent the pars maior and pars sanior even amongst those in the Latin tradition of sacramentology. Even more horrid, when transitioning to modernity, the use of Melchior Cano’s loci theologici fairs no better at falsifying Mark, standing as a sort of vindication of his position. But what of modern papism? Can Mark really stand the test of the likes of Pio Nono (aka Pius IX) style popery? As surprising as it sounds, one peer reviewer of my monograph made me smile by noting the “delicious irony” that the current magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church clearly justifies the Ephesine. Even if foggier voices from the RC magisterial past made statements seemingly in prejudice to the epiclesis vis-à-vis Mark, a close Scholastic and Roman-juristic read of the sources, each in its historical context, leaves no doubt that Mark was never overtly accused of being wrong in the whole history of the controversy of the Eucharist from 1439-1992 (at the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church).

Incredible, you claim? Maybe so if you don’t get to see each step of the debate, the evidence, the rival Latin schools, the lacunae and fairly normative Scholastic language of compromise, ambiguity and concession to rival schools that was part and parcel of solving fights between Dominicans and Franciscans. Ambiguities or holes wide enough to drive a truck thru was simply par for the course when pope-ing for Dominicans and Franciscans from about 1277-1947, when the Franciscans won their last sacramental victory over their rival Dominicans by none other than eclectic Jesuits placing under the eyes of Pius XII a document favoring a sacramental theory that was directly in line with Mark of Ephesus’s school of sacramental thought. Of course, then the Franciscan school died an almost immediate theological death (stroke by Vatican II) within several short years after the council.

Mere word plays, ambiguities, decontextualized readings, forced definitions, and isogesis are all the usual tricks of the scholar attempting to be the first and only “to solve” the puzzle after centuries. The claim of scholars to have finally found the solution for world peace is perhaps too often a self-aggrandizing feature of scholars looking ultimately to sell them­selves or sell their books. The aforementioned claims would appear at first glance to be little more than hype. In fact, my solution is not really mine, nor is it really new. Instead, I simply track the use of sources by Mark of Ephesus and then show how his premier disciple Genna­dios Scholarios remained ever so faithful to the principles of the Ephesine in Eucharistic theology, all the while integrating salient features of Aquinas’s opera (among other Scholas­tics) into his solution. As the story turns out, Scholarios had already come up with a solution that could have settled the issue for both Latins (at least those who didn’t think borrowing from Scotism to be ipso facto devilish) and Greeks. While Dr. Panagiotis Athanasopoulos and I have already worked and published numerous articles showing Mark of Ephesus’s direct citations and exploitation of Scotus’s works on behalf of Orthodoxy (typically used as a foil against Thomism), it is nonetheless the case that Mark was an ad hoc or reserved sam­pler from the smorgasbord of Latin theories; for his part, Scholarios managed to use the principles of Mark (prioritized of course) and to apply faithfully and intelligently both features of Thomism and Scotism to speak the language of contemporary eclectic Scholasti­cism, all the while arriving at the conclusions of perfect and unadulterated Orthodoxy on the epiclesis. Hence, the very inspiration of my “falsifiability” idea was at least rooted in Scholarius’s own reception of his benefactor, spiritual father, and friend, Mark.

However, Eastern Orthodox will likely be disappointed if they are hoping for a rather simple, straightforward explanation of Eucharistic transmutation or transubstantiation as adopted by both Mark and Scholarius. We’ll find that the inadequate treatment of their positions is too often reduced or rather mangled beyond recognition in Orthodox quasi-catechisms that lack the discipline to translate and digest the clear teaching of the Star of Ephesus. Mark was clear: both the words of institution and the epicletic words (along with their crosses) are all and each necessary for a valid and transformative change of the gifts. One (the com­mon Latin position of popularity) or the other (the epiclesis-alone position) of the typical stances we see in the blogosphere and in classical apologetic treatments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries entirely miss the boat on the question. Interest­ingly, the one Latin who actually got Mark’s theory correct (without exaggeration or diminution) was the super-pope Pius X (d. 1914). He understood that Greeks need both the epiclesis and the dominical words to consecrate … but this is hardly the position of the hoi polloi Greeks or, if you will, Orthodox of today.

Hence, it was incumbent on me to provide translations in the appendix of all relevant texts so that the clarity of Mark’s position could stand out and so that the irony of history, wherein the Roman Catholic Cate­chism of the Catholic Church’s latest position (viz., that both the words of consecration and the epiclesis are together necessary for transubstantiation) is seen in all its Eugenican glory!

The book, as is ought, provides the reader with updat­ed biography of the main protagonist (Mark of Ephe­sus) and his antagonist (the able Juan Torque­mada). In addition to exploring in depth Mark’s use of Nich­olas Cabasilas’s and Symeon of Thessalonica’s com­men­taries on the liturgy, I spend the requisite time needed to get to the person and mentality of the “Con­science of Orthodoxy” so that the reader can have some feeling or insight into what drove him to each of his methods and stances on the questions surrounding the Eucharist. What is more, the each and every patristic and Scholastic text used by the aforestated pro­tagonist and antagonist is treated with exhaustive comment. I leave no stone unturned to discover the immediate book used for any one quote from a Father or authoritative text, its use, its value in its own context, and whether or not we can still think of it in the same way today in light of modern and historical theology and modern official stances of both Churches, still divided. The net result, I hope, is to see a way forward in ecumenical dia­logue, whereby taking the position of one’s interlocutor (which the Ephesine himself is quoted for doing) leads one to respect and appreciate each and every sincerely cited author­ity of the Ephesine, whose entire life was a credit to coeval scholarship and one of the few cases of entirely religiously motivated debate at the entire council. The effect, if I have done a honest and adequate job of dealing with the material, is to give the reader a play-by-play feel of how Roman Catholics can prioritize Eastern Orthodox theology in their investigations and come up with better insights into their own tradition and even the possibility of reconcilia­tion with their brethren based upon accurate and contextual reads of the surviving evidence within both traditions.

So, to conclude, it might be worthwhile summarizing the various stages of the argument that arrives at a confirmation of the Ephesine’s genius and the validation of his method from a contemporary historical theological point of view (incorporating — if you will — Robert Taft, SJ’s, demands for ecumenical theology, that above all, binds Truth with the contemporary scholarly virtue of “fairness”). The progression of the book is as follows:

  • The Historical Origins and Theological Significance of the Florentine Debate on the Epiclesis (Here I deal with the Palamite School and its influence upon the debate at Florence up to and including Mark; not to mention work of Palamites on liturgy)
  • The Life and Times of Mark of Ephesus (For the enthusiast of Mark, I include all the newest and least known facets of his life and times)
  • The Status questionis of Mark’s Theology and Works, and Preliminary Debate at Florence (This tracks Mark’s reputation in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy in the wake of Ferrara-Florence)
  • John Torquemada and His Cedula as Gleaned from the Sermo prior and Sermo alter (I do an analysis of the first anti-Greek document on the Eucharist at Florence: a patristic, historical, and Scholastic critique of the document; not to mention its merits)
  • Mark of Ephesus’s Libellus as Refutation of the Cedula and Sermo prior (This is a step-by-step analysis of the sources and logic of Mark’s refutation)
  • Torquemada’s Sermo alter and Reunion: A Refutation of the Libellus (Finally, I track Torquemada’s attempt to deliver a coup de grace to Mark’s work: I analyze the insufficiencies and inaccuracies of each line of the document, not to mention moments of flare of Torquemada’s genius)
  • Scholarius and Solutions to the Impasse (Finally, enter Scholarios who actually — in his knowledge of Aquinas and Scotus — was able to sail the Scylla and Charybdis of Florentine Schoolmen and salvage the ship of Orthodoxy)
  • Greek Solutions for Contemporary Problems (This tracks the variety of solutions available for the problem in our context given the accuracy of the theologian Scholarius)
  • Toward Greco-Roman Ecclesial Reunion (Finally, I give my own reflections on the benefits of this study, followed by each major document that was at the heart of the debate below:)
  • Appendix I: Sermo prior of John Torquemada: On the Matter and Form of the Most Holy Eucharist
  • Appendix II: The libellus of Mark of Ephesus on the Eucharistic Consecration
  • Appendix III: Sermo alter of John Torquemada: On the Matter and Form of the Most Holy Eucharist

I should like to conclude by saying: It’s too bad that Scholarius had gotten sick and tired of hanging out in Florence by early June of 1439, since the kicker was that he went home but a few days before the epiclesis dates as the only person able (since Mark was out with a debili­tating intestinal issue) to bring about some sort of solution. Alas, he returned back to the capital and the inadequate and ambiguous solution of Bessarion of Nicaea ended up being the compromise that has resulted in the current prejudice of Latins against Greeks and vice versa on the whole question. A careful reading of the monograph signals that perhaps even the other major areas of contention at the council beckon a similar method of investigation in hopes of an equally Orthodox (and by inference Catholic) solution to the division of the Churches.

* * *

Fr Christiaan Kappes is the Academic Dean of Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Saints Cyril and Methodius. Many of his articles are available at Also see his previously published Eclectic Orthodoxy articles: “The Essence/Energies Distinction,” “Rehabilitating a Patriarch,” and “The Essence/Energies Distinction in the Theology of St Gennadius Scholarios.”

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3 Responses to The Epiclesis Debate at the Council of Florence

  1. Devin Rice says:

    Does this book reference at all the Vatican document “Declaration on the Anaphora of Addai and Mari”


    • CWKappes says:

      Dear Devin,

      I provide but one short discussion. However, I do provide the principles and focus on them by which the Addai and Mari document (by the Holy See) can be validated from a traditional Scholastic point of view. In short, the church of the Latins has the idea of being able to add rites/prayer that are not part of Jesus’s original creation of a sacrament but the church has subsequently added. These are not essentially instituted by Christ, but only accidentally necessary because the church has the authority to keep stacking (in virtue of the power of apostolic keys) new conditions for sacraments to be valid. Addai and Mari use the material bread and wine (which material is non-negotiable for Scholastics [and Orhodox]) but the only description of Jesus’s Eucharistic prayer (form/consecratory words) are: “He gave thanks (Eucharisted), blessed, and gave to his disciples and (then) said: This is my body.” Clearly we don’t know how he gave thanks/eucharisted but only after he eucharistized + blessed does he then announce what this already is in the hands of the receiving-apostles (this interpretation is not merely straightforward but is found in the earlier Scholastic commentaries on Lombard’s Sentences -or their doctoral disserations on the Eucharist in the Universities). So, provided that the essential elements are spoken like Jesus (giving thanks and blessing [often added is some need for mention of sacrifice]) the patristic churches sometimes and then generally (though not universally) added the need to repeat the “institution narrative” (= Jesus words). This post-4th century phenomenon is a case of churches adding by apostolic authority new (accidental) forms for validity that Jesus did not himself put on Eucharist but that his apostles and their successors have the right to add.


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