Competing Secondary Authority: A Capstone on Recent Debates Over Nicaea II

It is with fear and trembling that I undertake, at the behest of our esteemed general editor, to write something of a capstone to the debates on the Second Council of Nicaea that have taken place largely (but not exclusively) here at The North American Anglican. As a refresher, this year’s debates on TNAA occurred as follows:

  • May 30, 2022 – Mr. River Devereux publishes “Reformation Anglicanism and Nicaea II,” in which he argues that the Anglican Formularies and the Reformation Principle of Sola Scriptura contradict the rulings of Nicaea II, as adoration of images is akin to idolatry.
  • June 6, 2022 – Fr. Ben Jefferies responds with “On the Rightful Rejection of Nicea II,” in which he agrees with Mr. Devereux and fleshes out additional Western rejection of the Council in the 8th Century via the Libri Carolini.
  • June 8, 2022 – “In Lancelotian Romanticism, Biblical Interprestaion, and Nicea II,” Fr. Mark Perkins replies to Mr. Devereux’s original article with an argument that one cannot logically accept the authority of the first four Councils without accepting all seven Ecumenical Councils, and questions some of the Scriptural and historical reasoning in the original article.
  • July 25, 2022 – In “Rejecting Nicea II (Again): Of Anglicans and Apostolic Faith and Practice,” Fr. Jefferies introduces a new term, iconotimists, to reflect the historic Anglican approach to honoring images of the Lord and the Saints without falling into either veneration (iconodulia) or destruction (iconoclast). He maintains an important distinction between image-making and image venerating.
  • August 8, 2022 – Mr. Devereux responds to Fr. Perkins with “To Reject a Council: An Essay on Scripture, the Church, and the Believer,” in which he describes how Sola Scriptura affects our understanding of Scripture, tradition, and the Church. Included in this essay is a strong case for an individual Christian following an informed conscience rather than an erring Church when it comes to fidelity to Scripture.
  • August 15, 2022 – In “Forsake Not Thy Mother: An Essay on Conciliar Authority,” Mr. Cory Byrum responds to Mr. Devereux’s previous article by making a case for conciliar authority over individual opinion.
  • August 22, 2022 – Mr. Devereux responds to Mr. Byrum with a lengthy essay titled “To Follow One’s Conscience: A Defense of True Protestantism,” in which he argues that individual convictions, while important, do not form an absolute authority. He then argues for a hierarchy of authority, with Scripture as the only infallible authority. As the other authorities are fallible, the individual’s conscience may require rejecting them, should they contradict Scripture.
  • August 29, 2022 – In “The Holy Spirit or the Zeitgeist? The Bible, the Church, and the Christian,” Fr. Perkins responds to Mr. Devereux with the accusation that his “theory of biblical interpretations is too calamitously misguided to ignore” as it allows for “radical individualism” to have too much authority in the interpretation of Scripture. He also clarifies aspects of Nicaea II where he sees Mr. Devereux misunderstanding or misrepresenting them.

While I have eagerly followed the lengthy back-and-forth, I find myself at least partly unconvinced by all sides of the argument. On the one hand, I have always been uneasy with the way the “Homily on the Peril of Idolatry” and similar contemporary Protestant dealings with Nicaea II muddle much of the historical context. I also rather enjoy Eastern-style icons and have them as “family portraits” in our parish. On the other hand, I am committed to our Formularies, and thus need to wrestle with the historic rejection of the Council by Anglicans. I indeed consider myself to be a “High Churchman.” But for me, that requires a fidelity to both our Reformation heritage and that of our ancient catholicity.

A Question of Authority

Whenever I am asked by parishioners or other Christians about the main differences between Anglicanism and either Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, I always respond that it is ultimately an issue of authority. For Anglicans, the Scriptures are indeed the ultimate authority, and all other authority is derivative and subject to the Scriptures. For our Roman Catholic and Easterm Orthodox friends, this is not the case, as “Sacred Tradition” is, to them, a parallel authority. This does not mean that we reject Church tradition (let alone Tradition with a capital “T”), but it does put Church tradition downstream from the Scriptures. Nor does this put the individual’s interpretation of Scripture or tradition in the driver’s seat; Article XXXIV is clear that the Church is indeed a legitimate authority, though not an ultimate or inerrant one (per Articles VI and XIX).

I doubt that any of the essayists in the debate would argue with this. There is, after all, a reason that even the most strident of Anglo-Catholics is Anglican rather than Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. The same can be said for the most strident of “Reformation Anglicans” with respect to becoming a Presbyterian, Baptist, or Lutheran.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that the recent debates surrounding the reception of Nicaea II ultimately boil down to questions of authority. If the Seventh Council is indeed Ecumenical (and there is little reason to doubt that it was),[1] does its Ecumenical status mean that the Anglican Church must submit to it as communicating Scriptural truth? Must we say the same thing of all seven Councils that we say of the Creeds: “for they may be provided by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture”?[2] Or does the Seventh Council fall under the censure of Article XXI, which says of General Councils that “they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God”? For that matter, do the Articles and Homilies have more authority over Anglicans than that of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, derivative as that authority maybe?

General Councils vs The Anglican Formularies

Insomuch as all Anglicans recognize the ultimate authority of Scripture, the answer to the relative authority of the Seventh Council and the historic Anglican Formularies becomes something of an in-house debate. It also puts into perspective the nature of the debate. On the one hand, the supporters of the Council often argue that its Ecumenical status trumps the Formularies. If our traditions can err, the argument goes, then the Formularies can also err. Where the Formularies are in conflict with any of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the Formularies must give way to older consensus. Neither the Homilies nor the Articles are sacrosanct. The Councils are from the undivided Church Catholic, and thus they are more authoritative than any local or particular Formulary.

On the other hand, those who reject the Seventh Council would argue that the Formularies represent the proper Scriptural interpretation on this and other issues, and thus can properly trump the Councils when the Councils are shown to be in error. As Dr. Percival wrote, “If its doctrines are false, then one of the Ecumenical Synods set forth false doctrine, a statement which should give no trouble, so far as I can understand, to anyone who does not hold the necessary infallibility of Ecumenical Synods.”[3]

This is where I find the approach taken in the Fundamental Declarations of the Constitution of the Anglican Church in North America to be particularly helpful: “Concerning the 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.” While this statement could be considered an example of “Anglican fudge,” it does represent a baseline consensus for theologically conservative Anglicanism, as any such consensus currently stands. Furthermore, it points us back to the proper place for real debate: the doctrines of the Council. Can we accept the basic doctrine of the Council while rejecting some of its implications for church practice? Is the “Christological clarification” enough? For my part, I think it is.

“Christological clarifications”?

So, what is the “Christological clarification” of Nicaea II? As far as I can tell, this refers to St. John of Damascus’ argument that the reality of the Incarnation implies that depictions of Jesus are not a violation of the Second Commandment’s prohibition against making graven images. Furthermore, the Damascene argues, God commands certain images in Scripture, even images for use in Temple worship. Therefore, images cannot inherently be idolatrous. The longstanding and widespread depictions of Jesus and the saints in stained glass windows and other ecclesiastical art by Anglicans should tell us that our tradition generally affirms these two arguments.

But what of the Council’s decree that veneration or honor (proskunesis in Greek) should be given to such images, while true worship or adoration (latria) is reserved for God alone? While the Council goes to great lengths to make a distinction between these two forms of rendering honor, the classical Protestant argument (including that of our Formularies) maintains that this is a distinction without a difference in actual practice. In light of various abuses and superstition, both medieval and current, our Divines historically concluded that proskunesis is too easily perverted into idolatry. We should not be too quick to dismiss such a conclusion.

Nevertheless, this distinction is an important one theologically. One cannot read the various canons and decrees of the Council without coming to the conclusion that the Council Fathers were not driven by superstition. After all, the Seventh Council was accepted by the vast majority of the Church, both East and West, for almost 1,000 years without significant controversy.

Just as we should not be too quick to dismiss the concerns of our Divines, nor should we be too quick to dismiss the historic consensus of the undivided Church, so long as we can agree that Scripture gets the final say. While my own convictions regarding the Scriptures and our tradition lead me to give our Formularies the benefit of the doubt, I can understand the more Anglo-Catholic position that comes from the opposite perspective.

An Anglican Attempt at Reconciliation

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not point out that there have indeed been valiant attempts at reconciling the two positions from within our own Anglican history. I find the argument put forth by C. B. Moss in his booklet The Church of England and the Seventh Council to be most cogent. In short, he points out that much of the problem may be one of cultural differences between East and West than actual theological ones. The way that we as Westerners would show proskunesis, he argues, would naturally be different from those in the East. He quotes English writer Charles Lamb to illustrate a more Western difference between proskunesis and latria: “If Shakespeare came into this room we should all stand up, but if Jesus Christ came into this room we should all kneel down.”[4] If this kind of respect for images of Jesus and the saints is what we mean by proskunesis, I think I can live with that, without compromising my commitment to the Formularies, let alone my commitment to the Scriptures.

Notes:

[1] Henry R. Percival, The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church: Their Canons and Dogmatic Decrees. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Volume 14 (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2012), 523.

[2] Article VIII.

[3] Percival, 524.

[4] Claude Beauford Moss, The Church of England and the Seventh Council (Project Canterbury, 2003), 31. Downloaded from http://anglicanhistory.org/cbmoss/seventh.pdf. As Moss was highly interested in Ecumenical affairs and the reunion of East and West, he was hardly objective in his conclusions. Nevertheless, his treatment of the history behind the controversy is very evenhanded. Thus, I highly recommend this booklet to those interested in the controversy.



Fr. Isaac is the Archdeacon for liturgy in the Anglican Diocese of the West (ACNA), and the Rector of All Saints Anglican Church in San Antonio, Texas, where he lives with his wife, Heather, and daughters, Leah and Victoria. A bi-vocational priest, he works as a residential real estate appraiser and dabbles in various forms of music. Fr. Isaac earned his BA from the University of Texas at San Antonio and his Master of Christian Ministry from Wayland Baptist University.


'Competing Secondary Authority: A Capstone on Recent Debates Over Nicaea II' have 11 comments

  1. September 16, 2022 @ 10:09 am Sudduth Rea Cummings

    Thanks for so deftly handling the issue of the 7 Councils and the Articles. As an Anglican who grew up in the Disciples of Christ until college when I was confirmed by the saintly Bishop of Oklahoma then, Chilton Powell, at that moment he admonished to never forget the priority and study of Holy Scripture. That’s solid Anglicanism–Scripture and Tradition together, in practice. (And, by the way, I was Rector of St. Mark’s Church in San Antonio, TX for ten years. It’s a great town.

    Reply

    • September 16, 2022 @ 10:32 am Fr. Isaac J. Rehberg

      The one downtown? I’ve known quite a few people who were on staff there at one time or another! I’ve been in San Antonio since my dad got stationed here when I was in 8th grade, so it’s really become home and I do love it here (other than the Summer heat). Thank you for your kind words!

      Reply

      • September 16, 2022 @ 12:54 pm Sudduth Rea Cummings

        Yes, I was rector of St. Mark’s, in downtown San Antonio, TX from 1980=1990. Before then, I attended and graduated from Philips University in Enid, OK (when it was still operating) from 1964-1968. Fr. Frank Crow was the rector at St. Matthew’s to be succeeded by Fr. Barny Jackson. Both priests encouraged my vocation (which I had accepted at a summer church camp in the Ozarks when I was 14 years old. But I had always known that the ordained ministry was my destiny.)

        St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church was then still raw concrete blocks in the interior, but the brick exterior was completed. After graduating from college, Bpl Powell sent me to The General Theological Seminary in New York City, which was in its last golden age of great professors and strong community life. All the students lived on the close unless you were married and then you lived across 19th street (I think that’s the street number) in a seminary owned building.

        Reply

  2. September 16, 2022 @ 11:38 am Fr. Mark Perkins

    Thanks for this irenic and valuable engagement. Aside from a jot here and a tittle there, I am in agreement, and I certainly think this lays out some common ground upon which most Anglicans should be able to agree.

    Blessings,
    Fr. Mark Perkins

    Reply

  3. September 16, 2022 @ 6:17 pm River Devereux

    Thank you for this article Fr. Isaac, I believe it gives a charitable perspective on the issue that will be beneficial to readers. I must say I particularly valued your overview of the relevant articles, as I believe you provided an accurate summary of their contents which will be helpful in clarifying the debate.

    Reply

    • September 18, 2022 @ 6:17 pm Fr. Isaac J. Rehberg

      Thanks, River! I enjoyed hearing you on “Doth Protest Too Much” last week also

      Reply

  4. September 17, 2022 @ 9:36 am Alice Linsley

    Thank you, Fr. Isaac Rehberg for this summation. I tried to follow that lengthy debate, but I missed some of the points made. For insights into linguistic and metaphysical distinctions between the Latin and Greek churches, I recommend Dr. David Bradshaw’s book “Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom” Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    Reply

    • September 18, 2022 @ 6:24 pm Fr. Isaac J. Rehberg

      I found one site where it looks like a used copy is on sale for under $20. Might have to pick that up soon!

      Reply

  5. September 17, 2022 @ 10:53 am Simon

    Thank you father Isaac for the article. It was a “middle way” approach, very Anglican! I do believe that veneration/worship distinction is at least in principle, in harmony with formularies, though I am certainly sensitive to the issue of abuse. I sometimes wonder if the real issue why the anglican divines did not accept the authority of Nicea 2 was not really over that, but over those specific canons which mandated the use of icons and made them somehow salvific. What are your thoughts on that?

    Reply

    • September 18, 2022 @ 6:20 pm Fr. Isaac J. Rehberg

      I think that’s probably a big part of it. I mean, we see the Reformers and Divines of the next couple generations not hostile to images in principle, just their abuse. And they had certainly seen a lot of that in recent memory. I’m not sure if they saw any way that veneration wouldn’t lead to such abuse, but again, that makes sense in their context.

      Reply


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