Of Anglicans and Ecumenical Councils
Anglo-Catholics (of whom I count myself one) frequently appeal to the “seven ecumenical councils” as a source of authority for Christian dogma. On the face of it, this seems to be a rather solid place to put down one’s doctrinal anchor, but is it?
Upon closer examination, two contrary conclusions present themselves, namely:
- The “seven ecumenical councils” are not a recognized source of ultimate authority for Anglicans.
- The so-called seventh ecumenical council makes assertions and anathemas that are patently un-catholic. Its decrees are not authoritative for the universal church, and it is therefore not an ecumenical council.
Now, it might appear that I am just antagonizing my APA brothers over at Earth & Altar, but that is not my goal. I believe that if we are not clear in the Anglican Church about what our real authorities are, and what they say, and what they prohibit, then there is in reality nothing preventing Anglicans from becoming Roman Catholic (as we have seen several high-profile cases of recently) or Eastern Orthodox. Indeed, I think without the catholic restraint of our clear Anglican formularies, there is actually a positive force pushing for the swimming of the Tiber (or Bosphorus), resisted only by aesthetics or inconsistency.
(As an aside: I am aware that most of the continuing bodies, since the 1977 Affirmation of St. Louis, have placed the “seven ecumenical councils” as their standard for doctrine, but I hope to show that this was a departure from, and not an organic development within, the Anglican Tradition, which I think is much better summarized in the language of the Fundamental Declarations of the Anglican Church in North America: “Concerning the seven Councils of the undivided Church, we affirm the teaching of the first four Councils and the Christological clarifications of the fifth, sixth and seventh
Councils, in so far as they are agreeable to the Holy Scriptures.” I hope this essay shall establish this contention.)
WHAT ANGLICAN FORMULARIES ASSERT
Article Eight of the Thirty-Nine Articles asserts that the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed, “ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.”
What here goes by the name of “Nicene Creed,” as that Creed is printed in the Prayer Book (and as it has always been known in the West; the Symbol of Nicea (325) never getting well-circulated) is now more carefully called the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, because it was formulated in the Second Ecumenical Council of 381, as being the Definition of Faith that came out of that Council.
(Here it is worth noting, that not everything that is mentioned at an Ecumenical Council is ecumencially binding. All of the councils have disciplinary canons and letters-received that were a part of the council’s work, but these lesser productions are matters of discipline and practice, and have often been shaped and re-shaped over the years. It is the definition of the Faith and the corresponding anathemas that are of ecumenical and eternal significance. The neglect of this distinction is what has led to some claiming that Nicea II enjoins the Invocation of Saints. When I refer simply to a council, I mean it as a short-hand way of referring to the Definition of the Faith that came out of that council.)
In receiving the Nicene Creed as we do then, Anglicans are automatically committed to the first and second ecumenical councils.
The Athanasian Creed, which historians believe to be a product of southern Gaul in the late 4th or early 5th century, contains the doctrine of the Trinity that was formulated at Ephesus (431) and its correction to her overly-zealous disciples, Chalcedon (451). The language and thought is in places identical, in places perfectly harmonious with these two ecumenical councils, and so, by way of the Athanasian Creed, all Anglicans are bound to these councils as well.
Thus far we have seen that the Thirty-Nine Articles, in enjoining the Creeds that compose the prayers of the Church in the Book of Common Prayer, bind all Anglicans to rest the doctrinal expression of the Faith on the first four ecumenical councils.
Thus far, all Anglicans are agreed.
But what of the fifth, sixth, and seventh ecumenical councils? What do our Anglican Formularies (The Thirty Nine Articles, The Book of Common Prayer, The Homilies, the Canons of 1604) say about them? The Prayer Book is silent. The Articles are silent. The Homilies speak of them only in one place, in the Homily Against Peril of Idolatry. This near total silence does not mean that we Anglicans fail to recognize the Faith that St. Maximus confessed, so ably defended against the many permutations of monophysitism in the 6th and 7th centuries. On the contrary, the second part of the homily on idolatry commends the sixth council for condemning “the heresy of the Monothelites, not without cause indeed, but very justly.” The Definitions of Faith that came out of Constantinople II & III are indeed perfect extensions of the orthodoxy of Chalcedon. They were formulated to do battle with those who had already fundamentally rejected Chalcedon. But if you have Chalcedon, you already have the truth of the 5th and 6th Councils. In many ways the further-definitions of these councils were a uniquely eastern ecclesial problem, and inter-relate with idiosyncratic and historically-conditioned anthropologies (how do mind, will, nature, and person, inter-relate, as notionally and/or ontically distinct parts of a human being?). These councils do not generate the sort of heat and fame as the first four. They are remembered by the Anglican Church as they seem to be remembered by the Ancient Church: As secondary and derivative. As being of a slightly different character than the first four. Indeed, even among the first four, the first – Nicea – is clearly preeminent in memory, and to which the latter all pay homage.
Manifestly, “the seven ecumenical councils” do not appear in our Anglican formularies of the 16th century.
So, when do they appear?
SEARCHING FOR AUTHORITY IN THE FACE OF AN UNDESIRABLE PAPACY
The idea of “seven ecumenical councils” began to be refined as a source of doctrine first by the Greek Church somewhere in the 10th or 11th century. When the tearing away of the Western (Roman) Church was being perceived, and the Pope in Rome was claiming increasingly more authority for himself, the East realized it could not bear with such novelties, and so it codified the “seven ecumenical councils” as their seat of their teaching authority. Thus it has been with them ever since — dogma has remained essentially frozen since the last ecumenical council, even as doctrine and piety have continued to develop in esoteric directions (vide, Hesychasm).
Four hundred years later in the West, when there were three rival claims to the papacy (which, recall, at this point post-unum sanctum, was self-understood to be the most powerful position on earth), in the midst of the Avignon schism, theologians started to wonder whether or not the papacy was all that it claimed to be. Perhaps councils had supreme authority? This idea became known as conciliarism and was promulgated by luminaries like Jean Gerson and Nicholas of Cusa. The necessity of a council to end the dispute about the papacy (The Council of Constance 1414-1418) bolstered the theory, but in the end it was squashed by a powerful Medici pope (Leo X) who reasserted the supremacy of a pope over any council at the so called “eighteenth ecumenical council”, Lateran V. The idea of conciliarism had a little bit of an after-life in Lutheran dreams of what reformation could look like, but ultimately was foreclosed by the papally-directed council of Trent.
A generation later, Philippe Labbe (1607-1667) would compile the first ever printed collection of all the acts of all the Church Councils that had happened in the past 1500 years. In these he lists with an adjective those councils that are ecumenical, and in no way distinguishes the councils that took place before the Great Schism with the East from those that took place after, numbering the council of Trent as the nineteenth “ecumenical council”. This work was further codified by Giovanni Mansi, the editor who gave his name to the foundational collection of conciliar documentation still used as a primary source today. Prior to these printed collections, the “fifth” and “sixth” ecumenical councils had remained in relative obscurity, but now they formed a part of an official list.
When Vatican I (1870) happened, and the Pope was declared by a slim majority of voting Bishops to be the infallible authority and ground of certain truth for the magisterium of the Church, a number of German and Swiss clergy and theologians were profoundly disgruntled. They joined the already disgruntled “old catholic” archbishop of Utrecht, and led by the inimitable Döllinger, through several conferences at Bonn in the 1870s, formed a union of so-called “old-catholics” who received traditional catholicism generally, but who rejected Vatican I and Papal Infallibility. In their quest to identify an authority that could unite and under-write their new ecclesial outfit, they latched on to the Greek motto: “The Seven Ecumenical Councils!” After the first “seven” it was plain that papal authority began to rise, and an inevitable trajectory from the Great Schism to Vatican I could clearly be seen. Coupled with a desire to unite fragmented groups, and to spear-head a non-papally submissive ecclesiastical reunion, the convictions of the Eastern Orthodox were taken into account, and thus the first seven were circumscribed as the locus of authority for “old catholics.”
Thus does the idea of the “Seven Councils” enter the consciousness of Churchmen in the West for the first time in world history. Prior to the 1870s, Anglicans chiefly spoke of four ecumenical councils (vide, Lancelot Andrewes), or occasionally six (vide, Richard Field, William Palmer), but with Döllinger’s influence in England, and dreams of church reunion ascendant in the minds of catholically-convicted Anglicans, Anglicans for the first time began to speak of “the seven ecumenical councils”.
As interaction with the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches ballooned among Anglicans in the early 20th century, this formulation seemed to be particularly amenable to ecumenical dialogue with our brothers in the East.
Then C.B. Moss, the Anglican Historian who was a second generation devotee to the Big Ideas of the “old catholic” movement, further emphasized the seventh ecumenical council in his novel 1957 essay. This seems to be the linking node for the awareness of the clergy who gathered in St. Louis in 1977, and ever since “the seven ecumenical councils” has been a watch-word in the continuing churches, and increasingly normal among all catholically-minded Anglicans. It is worth noting though that even Forward in Faith North America (FiFNA) didn’t have “the seven ecumenical councils” in its doctrinal documents until the revision of their “Declaration of Common Faith and Purpose” in July of 2013.
In tracing this history it is evident that what has been normal for the last generation of Anglicans — to speak of “the seven ecumenical councils” as normative for doctrine — is in fact a borrowed idea that was presented by German scholars who were revolted by Vatican I, and it manifestly does not come from out of our own Anglican formularies, and therefore are not an ultimate authority.
Indeed, outside of the first four ecumenical councils, ratified by the Creeds that embody their doctrine, the Articles are quite cautious of councils in a general sense, and therefore, of Nicea II (787) in its particulars. Article 21 very plainly states, “when they [General Councils of the Church] be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.”
One of the reasons that Anglican Divines have never historically spoken of “the seven ecumenical councils” is because the “seventh” council — Nicea II — has always been understood as falling under the sentence of Article 21 as having erred.
This is made explicit in the Homiliy Against Peril of Idolatry that concurs with the council of Frankfurt that the Second Council of Nicea (787) was an “arrogant, foolish, and ungodly council” and that the outcomes of receiving Nicea II were likewise disastrous, “Thus we see what a sea of mischiefs the maintenance of images hath brought with it,” and agreeing with my assessment of the early church, concludes:
“That images and image worshipping were in the primitive Church, which was most pure and uncorrupt, abhorred and detested as abominable and contrary to true Christian religion; and that, when images began to creep into the Church, they were not only spoken and written against by godly and learned bishops, doctors, and clerks, but also condemned by whole Councils of bishops and learned men assembled together.”
If an “ecumenical council” is defined as one that promulgates and defines the Faith of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church in such an orthodox manner that it is received by the universal church as bearing witness to the Faith that has been held from the beginning, then, by definition, Anglicans do not consider Nicea II to be an ecumenical council, as was plainly voiced in the Homilies.
EXAMINING NICEA II (787) MORE CLOSELY
Just to be clear at the outset, to throw shade on Nicea II does not mean actively supporting the iconoclasts, or even to claim that the theology that animated the council is itself inherently wrong. On the contrary, in many cases it would be ipso facto sacrilege to destroy a holy image. The hearty theology of St. John of Damascus continues to be a bulwark against Docetists, ancient and modern. But the Second Council of Nicea goes much further. To be clear (and this is Tanner’s translation, the trusted in the field) the final Definition of Faith of Nicea II states:
We decree with full precision and care that, like the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, the revered and holy images…are to be exposed in the holy churches of God, on sacred instruments and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by public ways
Not just can be, but are to be — a point driven home by two of the attached anathemas:
If anyone does not accept representation in art of evangelical scenes, let him be anathema.
If anyone does not salute such representations as standing for the Lord and his saints, let him be anathema.
“Anathema” means to be cast out of the Church and the Communion of the Body of Christ, for holding false doctrine and acting on it. To be anathema is to be opposed to catholic Christianity. One must avoid anathema in order to maintain the Faith that was once for all delivered to the Saints.
So, were the assembled bishops of Nicea II right when they declared thus and anathematized thus?
Let us zoom out and take a larger view of the Church to answer that question:
IF IT’S NOT APOSTOLIC, IT CAN’T BE CATHOLIC
Since the Christian Faith, by definition, cannot change, by virtue of its conciliar anathemas, Nicea II is claiming that it is of the essence of the Christian Faith to (1) make images of Christ and his Saints, and (2) To honor those images with a gesture of reverence. In other words, that this is nothing more nor less than the catholic faith. The Faith that was delivered to the Apostles, and has been believed in all places, at all times. So, is this true? A cursory knowledge of the earliest days of the Church speaks plainly to the contrary.
The Apostolic record, a.k.a. the New Testament, while it gives plenty of instructions to the Church, including things like the regular public reading of Scripture (1 Tim 4:13), says nothing about the necessity of making and honoring images. The earliest records from the Church after the Apostolic Age — that invaluable collection of ‘Apostolic Fathers’ — says nothing about the necessity of making and honoring images. The very earliest images on display in the Church are present in the Roman catacombs, and they are all typological representations of Old Testament scenes, I.e. indirect portrayals of Christian truths, and therefore were almost certainly not reverenced with gestures. Icons as we know them today seem not to have existed in any way until the late 4th century at the earliest, and the reverence shown them seems to be a later development still.
So, if Nicea II were true, it would mean that St. Paul and St. John and St. James and the other Apostles were insufficiently informed about what is and what is not of the Faith. So too were 300 years of Christians and martyrs who spread the Faith to the ends of the World — their faith was deficient. They would have fallen under the anathemas of Nicea II, if they could have heard them.
All those who hold a Newmanian understanding of ‘The Development of Doctrine’ (such as our friends in the continuing churches) are often saying “We believe dogma stays the same, but devotion can develop” or something to that effect. But Nicea II explicitly takes the devotion to Icons and asserts that it is actually a matter of dogma for the Church. To claim the “seven ecumenical councils” as an authority is to claim Nicea II, which is to admit that dogma can develop. And, if it can develop thus, why can’t it also develop a higher view of the papacy, or of the conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Indeed, Newman himself brought candor to his own logic by becoming Roman Catholic.
GOD HAS MANIFESTLY BLESSED LEADERS AND MOVEMENTS IN THE CHURCH THAT WOULD FALL UNDER THE ANATHEMAS OF NICEA II
As well as condemning the Apostles themselves — a most sacrilegious thought — the Definition and Anathemas of Nicea II, if they were truly the voice of the Spirit of God speaking through the Council, would certainly be ratified by the judgments of God that followed after it. But is this the case? Have all those who failed to make and to honor images withered and dried up by cutting themselves off from the vine, the way all bodies that hold false-doctrine are inevitably cast down? No, they have not. Indeed, even apart from our own Anglican heritage, which for 300+ years never exercised let alone prescribed the honoring of images, some of the greatest movements of God in the Church have had more caution than zeal about images. First and foremost the mighty work of St. Bernard and the Cistercians — the cornerstone of all enduring monasticism in the West — comes to mind. In every Cistercian abbey for its first hundred years, images were intentionally excised, and when kept, placed in such a way as to not invite obeisance. While the Apostles might be a disputed case, surely a movement 300 years after Nicea II would not have been such a tool of revitalization in the Hand of God if it was in its very constitution anathema? This is just one example, but hopefully a sufficient one, to demonstrate that there does not appear to be a heavenly ratification of the dictums of Nicea II.
Nicea II was the first in a long line of official acts in the Church — in both the East and the West — of forgetting that God forbids adding to the Faith as much as he forbids taking away from the Faith (Rev 22:18-19). The Decree and Anathemas of the Council do not square with what we know of the Faith of the Apostles, nor with vibrant reform movements like the Cistercians. Until the 1870s, no Anglican ever claimed Nicea II as authoritative, and the very idea of “seven ecumenical councils” was an import from a renegade 19th century, anti-papal German reunion movement.
I hope that one day Anglicans will see that our own formularies are as excellent as they are authoritative, and are most useful for circumscribing the true Faith of the Church: The actual Faith that was once for all delivered to the Saints, rather than a man-made amalgam of our own devising.