Lancelotian Romanticism, Biblical Interpretation, and Nicea II

While River Devereux’s recent article “Anglicanism and Nicaea II” makes a good point here and there, it also embodies an unhistorical and cognitively dissonant approach to the Church’s first millennium. The so-called “classical Anglican” position on the Ecumenical Councils — accepting only the first four as authoritative — might be more plausible if it did not so often require its proponents to maintain, at one and the same time, both a maximally naive view of the first five centuries of the Church’s history and a maximally cynical view of the next five. Along the course of his argument, Mr. Devereux also misreads his own citations, misunderstands conciliar authority, and badly misconstrues opposing views. Most fatally, Mr. Devereux mischaracterizes what was in truth a debate over interpreting Scripture as though it were a contest between an apparently self-interpreting Scripture — viewed from nowhere — and the extra-Scriptural accretions of an unbiblical tradition. He thereby dodges hard questions about how to resolve biblical debates. Contrary to his portrayal, the Ecumenical Councils and Creeds are not convenient summaries of biblical data to be accepted or rejected on the basis of their fidelity to (one’s own interpretation of) Scripture. Rather, they claim to interpret Scripture with the authority of Christ’s Mystical Body. They demand our assent and not merely our agreement.

In order to cast doubt on Nicea II’s ecumenical reception, critics inevitably minimize or ignore the fierce dissension that marked the first four Ecumenical Councils’ background, proceedings, and subsequent reception by the broader Church. Even by the standards of this genre — which, begging pardon from the justifiably beloved divine of blessed memory, we might term “Lancelotian Romanticism” — even by these standards, Mr. Devereux’s idealism is remarkable. He asserts that the conclusions of the First Ecumenical Council, Nicea I, constitute “a pretty open and shut case,” a claim so far out of keeping with the historical record as to be almost bizarre. For every sordid detail he shares about the Empress Irene, who convened Nicea II, the historical record offers an equally wicked anecdote about Constantine the Great’s own murders, assassinations, and enormities — before, during, and after he convened Nicea I. The notion that the Council maintained its purity by way of chronological proximity to the era of persecution is precious in light of the political machinations accompanying its deliberations. The idea that Chalcedon retained the wholesomeness of the persecuted Church after one-hundred-forty years of imperial favor is ridiculous. As always, attempts to divide the first four Ecumenical Councils from the latter three require ever-more-fanciful flights into an ever-more-primitive early Church.

There was nothing like a settled consensus about how best to interpret the Christological data of the New Testament prior to Nicea I. I have made this general point before, but David Bentley Hart has recently made it far more forcefully and in more detail in chapter five of his Tradition and Apocalypse. Many respected church fathers made what, in hindsight, appear to be troublingly heterodox ruminations on the status of the Son. Granted, Hart was obviously (and admittedly) offering something of a hyperbolic overcorrection to simplistic narratives. I happen to agree with Mr. Devereux that, ultimately and inevitably, Nicea I represents the only faithful response to the data of Scripture — specifically, the worship of Jesus Christ by unrelenting Jewish monotheists. Hart himself admits as much. But that outcome was far from an “open and shut case.”

More to the point, the resolution of Nicea I was no more obvious than that of Nicea II, which is likewise the only inevitable outcome of sustained theological reflection on the Incarnation, as understood and explicated by the previous Ecumenical Councils. Mr. Devereux objects that “however logical [the Incarnational argument for images] may be, [it] finds no basis in Scripture ” (emphasis always original). One could just as easily turn this against the first four Ecumenical Councils. Scripture nowhere speaks explicitly of consubstantiality or hypostatic union, nor of a Trinity of Persons in Unity of Substance. For every patristic diatribe against idolatry he produces — some of which are irrelevant, some from sources of dubious orthodoxy, and some which, by the very intensity of their objection to icons, inadvertently attest to a lively and widespread tradition of iconographic veneration in the early Church — Hart has another seemingly heterodox statement about the Son’s inferiority by an early Church father, including some of the same fathers cited by Mr. Devereux.

That’s because patristic reflection on Scripture was never the bland stringing together of proof texts that Mr. Devereux seems to imagine. Rather, it constituted a sustained reflection on the meaning and implications of the data of Scripture, worked out over generations. The Incarnation and the Trinity are logically unavoidable implications of Scripture, but they are never explicitly elaborated in Scripture, nor are they self-evidently obvious, not even in hindsight. Likewise, Nicea II’s teachings on sacred images — teachings that are significantly more subdued and limited than her polemical opponents would have you believe — are simply the fruit of sustained reflection on the Incarnation as explicated by the Ecumenical Councils — and on the saints as members of Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church.

Mr. Devereux’s own use of Scripture inadvertently reveals how, far from maintaining a consistently iconoclastic view, the Bible is ambiguous on the question. He starts “with the obvious” — that “the second of the Ten Commandments forbids constructing or bowing before images that resemble anything in creation,” and he points out that Deuteronomy 27:15 curses anyone “who makes a carved or cast metal image.” He then rejects Nicea II’s attempt to distinguish between icons and idols, stating that “Exodus 20:4 does not forbid idols, but any image in the likeness of anything in creation.” This all sounds emphatically clear — except that, a mere four sentences later, Mr. Devereux acknowledges “that within the Temple there were images of Cherubim.”

This admission rather dramatically understates the biblical reality — as though the Temple looked like your average Puritan meeting house, but for the two angels flanking the altar. In fact, the Temple was chock full of images of created things: palm trees and open flowers on the walls (1 Kgs. 6:29, 32); bronze castings of the sea, of gourds, and of twelve oxen (7:23-25); panels featuring lions, more oxen, more cherubim, and more palm trees; and some pomegranates on the latticework too, for good measure (7:29, 36, 42-43). By way of explanation, Mr. Devereux correctly informs his readers that “the English Reformers” had no problem with “images themselves (which even the Homily Against Peril of Idolatry admits are not inherently bad), but the adoration of them.” True as this may be, it is a bit hard to square with his immediately preceding interpretation of the second commandment as forbidding not idols but rather “any image in the likeness of anything in creation.” Mr. Devereux does not attempt to resolve this impasse. It is not clear from his essay that he is even aware of this stark internal contradiction.

Meanwhile, his use of New Testament texts is entirely circular. He presents a series of verses denouncing pagan idolatry — the force of which wholly depends upon his prior, undemonstrated assumption that venerating images is a species of idolatry.

Mr. Devereux does make a few good points. He is probably right to critique as unsustainable the attempt by the fathers of Nicea II to trace a consistent verbal distinction in Scripture between veneration/reverence and worship/adoration. But this verbal distinction matters far less than the basic conceptual distinction between veneration given to many, on the one hand, and worship given only to God, on the other. That distinction is affirmed throughout Scripture, as I have argued before and as Mr. Devereux’s own citations from St. John of Damascus and the Council demonstrate.[1] True, veneration and worship are not neatly distinguished in biblical vocabulary in the way that the fathers of Nicea II hoped. However, the Bible’s conceptual distinction is far more obvious than any of the finer points of Christology put forward in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. And this broader conceptual point is more than enough to sustain the distinction made by Nicea II, regardless of the fathers’ particular digressions into vocabulary.

By admitting probable error in some of the particulars of the Council’s Bible reading, have I implicitly admitted that the Council is not authoritative? Here is where Mr. Devereux’s misunderstanding of conciliar authority rears its head. Actually, this confusion was evident from the very first sentence of the piece. Putting aside that sentence’s incomprehensibility as originally published (a critical word or phrase appears to have been inadvertently cut at some point in the editing process), Mr. Devereux claims that Nicea II “anathematised those who did not approve the adoration of relics and religious images.” Although this seems accurate — you can go read the anathemas declared by the Council fathers right now! — it is imprecise. It muddles the critical distinction between the Definitions and Creeds authoritatively promulgated by the Ecumenical Councils and the rest of the conciliar proceedings. Conciliar deliberations, while critical for understanding the mind of the Council fathers, are not in and of themselves authoritative proclamations. And, as I have argued at some length, the anathemas belong to the broader proceedings of the Council, not to its Definition. Nicea II’s polemical critics inevitably obscure this distinction. It is easier to criticize and dismiss the extraneous material — such as the more or less spontaneous acclamations, which include the anathemas — than the tightly circumscribed Definition, which the fathers decreed “with full precision and care.” Granted, this is a common and excusable mistake — one made not only by Protestant opponents of the Council but occasionally also by Eastern Orthodox partisans, who wish for Nicea II to demand more than it actually does.

A more egregious error is his depiction of Catholic ecclesiology at the time of the Reformation. According to Mr. Devereux, “‘the Church’ was seen to essentially be the college of Bishops and/or the Pope, who could not err.” For Roman Catholics then and now, the episcopacy and papacy are indeed essential to the Church — meaning that without them the Church would cease to be the Church — but, contra Mr. Devereux, Rome has never maintained that the episcopacy and/or papacy, taken alone, constitute the full essence of the Church. Moreover, Rome does not hold, nor has she ever held, the patently absurd notion that “the Pope… could not err.” This is nothing more than a flimsy piece of anti-Catholic propaganda.

I would not expect Mr. Devereux to agree with Catholic ecclesiology — only to make more of an effort to portray it fairly. Nor could I expect him to affirm the Council’s interpretation of Scripture — only to grant that the Council does in fact seek to interpret biblical data. Instead, he casts the debate as though it were a simple and obvious matter of Scripture versus the Council. On this model, one need not specify how and where to find faithful and authoritative biblical interpretation — Scripture seems to interpret itself automatically and objectively. Agreement apparently only requires a modicum of education and goodwill. Nevermind that, for at least eight centuries, the Eastern and Western Churches unanimously disagreed with his reading of Scripture, and that iconoclasm remains a minority opinion in the Church today. By this framing of the debate, Mr. Devereux not only mischaracterizes his opponents; he also avoids confronting difficult questions about how we reconcile competing interpretations of the Bible.

It is true that Catholic approaches to apostolic succession can be overly wooden — as though apostolic hands not only confer authority but automatically infuse faithful interpretation of Scripture into a new bishop. Mr. Devereux rightly objects to this kind of misuse of St. Irenaeus’s comments on apostolic succession. Indeed, his claim could have been stronger had he noted that the saint’s basic point was actually the sufficiency of Scripture as a deposit of apostolic teaching, by contrast with sects positing secret extra-biblical teachings of Christ. But Mr. Devereux’s reduction of apostolic succession to an authority deriving wholly from “theological education” — as though what Irenaeus had in mind were pastors with properly accredited MDivs — is even more anachronistic. Yes, Irenaeus denies an external deposit of private teaching apart from Scripture, but he points not to properly educated theologians but specifically to bishops in apostolic succession, whose office includes the faithful transmission of apostolic witness.

The authority question is not a new problem, of course, and the Magisterial Protestant tradition tends to refer to the rule of faith or even the sensus fidelium. Although this concept can prove a little ambiguous in practice, it is a reasonable approach. Mr. Devereux does not, however, make this move. I am not sure whether this is because he does not believe it, or because it is an especially unhelpful standard for rejecting Nicea II — viewed by both East and West as an Ecumenical Council for nearly eight centuries prior to the Reformation, and still viewed as such by the Roman and Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions (not to mention Anglo-Catholics and Old Catholics). It is hard to square any notion of an ecclesial rule of faith with the idea, put forth by the Homily Concerning the coming down of the Holy Ghost and endorsed by Mr. Devereux, that the Church had by the sixteenth century all but ceased to exist for nine centuries.

Mr. Devereux’s reading of Scripture is inadequate and his historical claims are dubious, but the most damaging defect of the piece is its failure to address this fundamental hermeneutical problem. The specter of an unidentified authoritative interpreter of Scripture floats behind every line of his essay. It is hard to avoid the impression that he is that authoritative interpreter — that the interpretive authority of the Nicene Creed or of an Ecumenical Council is always secondary to that of the individual Christian. As I have said many times before, if you adjudicate the authority of a Council on the basis of whether it adheres to (your personal interpretation of) Scripture, then clearly the authoritative interpreter is not the Council but you.

Notes:

  1. The distinction is also an unavoidable fact in day-to-day life. Without such a distinction, all of us without exception are either complete atheists or unmitigated idolaters. And while I suppose the most overeager human-heart-as-idol-factory zealots might cast all manner of unimpeachable acts as idolatrous — genuflecting towards the altar, bowing in the presence of royalty, taking off one’s cap in the presence of a lady, and so forth — surely none could be so stubbornly inhuman as to view a toddler kissing a picture of a grandmother as idolatry. If there is any distinction between these acts and true worship, then the distinction stands.

 


Fr. Mark Perkins

Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Executive Editor of Earth & Altar.


'Lancelotian Romanticism, Biblical Interpretation, and Nicea II' has 1 comment

  1. June 14, 2022 @ 10:01 am Connor Perry

    > As I have said many times before, if you adjudicate the authority of a Council on the basis of whether it adheres to (your personal interpretation of) Scripture, then clearly the authoritative interpreter is not the Council but you.

    Using God-given reason to determine the truth of the statements of other men is neither arrogant nor denies the authority of a council in any respect. Arguments from Scripture are just that, arguments. They have determinable truth value and must show themselves to be coherent on the merits of logical reasoning. Whilst having many men endorse an argument is a good indicator for its truth than having no men endorse it, to say a smaller number cannot critique the views of a larger number of men is to critique the Christians for disobeying the Sanhedrin. The Church is the authoritative interpreter of Scripture, but the Church is made up of all those who are in Christ. This is not a man disagreeing with “the Church”, this is one man of God disagreeing with other men of God, part of the Church against other parts of the Church. This must be solved with reason, not by appeals to the majority.
    I have never understood this fascination amongst “Traditionalists” to scorn and libel the use of private judgement in critiquing a council or a confession. All men must use their private judgement to determine whether they can truthfully affirm or deny a council, to deny it’s value when one disagrees with you is an absurdity. Councils themselves are merely the combination of many Christians’ private judgements put to the test of logical analysis of revelation by other men. In both cases, Christians pray that judgements are guided by the Spirit in truth and holiness-but we are forced by honesty and humility to confess that councils have, can, and will contradict the Will of God in both minor and major ways due to the sinfulness of man.
    The judgement of a single person *adds* to the judgement of many by adding another voice to the chorus of judgements, it does not disrespect the judgment of others when utilized correctly. This is why the Patristics gave their judgements as single persons, and these combined into the whole testimony of the Fathers-not free from contradicting each other where they deemed it appropriate. We analyze what is true by reason and the faculties of the mind, not by the number of men.

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