Thursday, April 28, 2011

Questions about Ecumenical Councils

In August 2009 I posted a question about the great schism that generated a lot of discussion about Eastern Orthodoxy (55 comments, actually). During the discussion I raised some questions about ecumenical councils which I still wonder about. Although I got some helpful feedback and modified some of my views in the course of the discussion, the questions I raised do remain relevant in  struggling to know what to think about Eastern Orthodoxy. For example, I raised the important question of how a person knows whether an Ecumenical council is truly Ecumenical. I'll re-post what I said to hopefully generate some feedback:

Thomas Hopko, in his article “Criteria of Truth in Orthodox Theology” surveys a great number of Orthodox theologians and concludes that there is no ultimate criterion of truth for Christians other than the Holy Spirit, least of all any authority that is “external” to the believer (which the councils clearly are). Similarly, in a book that my brother sent me, titled Common Ground: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity for the American Christian by Jordan Bajis, this Orthodox writer states that “Neither Pope, Church structure, the Bible alone, ‘Apostolic Succession, ‘tradition’, or councils [note well] can be trusted to always testify to the Truth.” This seems to be at odds with your view that ecumenical councils can be trusted to always give us the truth and provide a barometer that is external to the believer. Bajis ends up having to default to personal experience as the ultimate criterion: “No extrinsic authority can take the place of Christ’s reign in the Church as manifested by the Spirit. …every Church member is actively involved in the process of discerning His voice, and every church member personally experiences the fruit of His government. God’s authority is real and absolute, but it can only be communicated and encountered personally.”

Well, quite frankly, I can do that as a Protestant just as easily, maybe even better, so what is the big difference? Is Eastern Orthodoxy just one more denomination to choose from if the only authority it offers is something that has to be felt but can’t even be defined?
Given that the Orthodox admit that councils are not infallible and do not constitute a final external authority (see quotations from Jordan Bajis cited earlier), they cannot appeal to these councils as the reason we know certain jurisdictions are “aberrant”. It seems that the key, as far as the Orthodox are concerned, is being able to establish that a council is truly ecumenical. But even here the Orthodox are incredibly vague. Timothy Ware revealingly asks, “How then can one be certain that a particular gathering is truly an Ecumenical Council and therefore that its decrees are infallible? Many councils have considered themselves ecumenical and have claimed to speak in the name of the whole Church, and yet the Church has rejected them as heretical... Yet these councils seem in no way different in outward appearance from the Ecumenical Councils. What, then, is the criterion for determining whether a council is ecumenical?...This is a more difficult question to answer than might at first appear, and though it has been much discussed by Orthodox during the past hundred years, it cannot be said that the solution suggested are entirely satisfactory. All Orthodox know which are the seven councils that their Church accepts as ecumenical, but precisely what it is that makes a council ecumenical is not so clear.” At the end, all the Orthodox can do is argue in a circle: judging councils by the yardstick of correct doctrine and judging correct doctrine by the yardstick of councils. Even saying that an ecumenical council is one that is accepted by the whole church doesn’t help. Chalcedon was rejected by Syria and Egypt: does that mean that Chalcedon is not ecumenical? Don’t forget that the whole church didn’t accept Nicaea immediately. And what about the heretics themselves: was it unnecessary for the Arian party to accept the council since, as soon as the council was complete, the Arians were no longer part of the church? If so, then heresy is determined by majority vote? What then are we to do with the time when Athanasius stood against the world? My point is that the very concept of an ecumenical council is incoherent if there is no way to determine what can pass as an ecumenical council. I have a good friend who accepts certain ecumenical councils that both Rome and the East later annulled. But this raises the question: if the East can annul a council that was once considered ecumenical, what is stopping them from annulling Nicaea in a few thousand years? In the end nothing is solid and Eastern Orthodoxy gives us an epistemology in which all doctrine is potentially reversible and in which theology is in a constant state of potential flux. Ironically, this was the very claim that was made against Protestantism.

Given the fact that you have said that the “official” church can error, just as politicians might usurp the Congress, we would need to be able to know that this is not what happened in the case of the councils on which Eastern Orthodoxy is accustomed to rely. Call them Orthodox councils rather than ecumenical and the fundamental problem remains. The problem is summarized by Timothy Ware when he asked “How then can one be certain that a particular gathering is truly an Ecumenical [Orthodox] Council and therefore that its decrees are infallible?” He doesn’t know, saying that “precisely what it is that makes a council ecumenical [Orthodox] is not so clear.” As I said before, even saying that an ecumenical council is one that is accepted by the whole church doesn’t help. It still seems that the very concept of an Orthodox council is incoherent if there is no way to determine what can pass as Orthodox. You have told me what the criteria is NOT (“The criteria is neither that the whole world participated nor a majority vote nor officialdom. Nestorius was a Patriarch and many martyrs were killed by the ‘official’ church”) but not what it IS.

To say that Nicea could never be revoked because it rightly divided the right doctrine seems to be begging the question. We have to first establish that Nicea in fact rightly divided the correct doctrine, that the Holy Spirit in fact directed experience at that time, but some councils which the Orthodox once believed did rightly divide the right doctrine they have later decided did not (an Orthodox friend told me that). Thus, I think that my concern about the potential reversibility of doctrine remains a legitimate concern. A similar concern could be urged against your comment about the yardstick the Orthodox use to divide the Truth.

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