What Makes a Council Ecumenical [Commentary on Browne: Article XXI]

In order to discuss the thorny statement in Article XXI that general councils “may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God,” it is first necessary to establish what precisely a general council is, as well as whether and how a general council differs from an ecumenical council. In referring to councils, the terms “general” and “ecumenical” are often used synonymously, as when Browne says the First Council of Nicaea was “the first general or œcumenical council.”[1] Bishop A. P. Forbes observes to this effect, “In the strict sense of the term, General, Universal, Œcumenical, are the same.”[2] Yet, in the words of Henry R. Percival, “It is well to note that there have been many ‘General Councils’ which have not been ‘Ecumenical.’ It is true that in ordinary parlance we often use the expressions as interchangeable, but such really is not the case.”[3] The distinction between a general council and an ecumenical council, then, lies in the church’s universal reception of the latter:

A General Council is one in which the Church Militant as a whole is represented externally and pro forma. An Ecumenical Council is one, whether General or otherwise, which has been received by the whole Church Militant as rightly defining the Church’s teaching. An Ecumenical Council is said to be infallible, but such language should not be too strictly interpreted. The meaning is that the acceptance of the Council by the Church proves that it has not in fact erred.[4]

While other criteria have been cited for determining a council to be ecumenical—e.g., that the council be summoned by the relevant magistrate(s),[5] that a large number of bishops be present, and that these bishops represent the whole Christian world—none of these conditions in itself makes a council ecumenical: “It is not necessary to make a council ecumenical that the number of bishops present should be large…it is not necessary that it should be assembled with the intention of its being ecumenical…it is not necessary that all parts of the world should have been represented or even that the bishops of such parts should have been invited.”[6] Indeed, as Browne notes, “Councils have hitherto always consisted of a minority.”[7] In reality, “When the Church at large has universally received their decrees, then are they truly general [i.e., ecumenical] councils, and their authority equal to the authority of the Church itself.”[8] Moreover, the church must universally receive a council as ecumenical “on the grounds of Scripture.”[9] Thus when we read in the Article that “things ordained by [general councils] as necessary to Salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of Holy Scriptures”—and the question naturally arises, “Declared by whom?”—we should understand that this declaration is to be made by “the Church at large.”[10]

Note that when the Article says general, i.e., ecumenical, councils “may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God,” this is typically understood to refer to councils commonly called ecumenical, as opposed to councils that truly are ecumenical:

Had we nothing but the bare letter of the Article itself to consider, it might be plausibly maintained that by saying that “General Councils have erred,” it condemns those Councils which the whole Church has ever reverenced as truly general, and expressing her mind, such as Nicæa (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451). Nothing, however, is more certain than the fact that no such sweeping condemnation is intended.

It is certain, therefore, that it does not intend to cast any slur upon those Councils which are received “magna cum reverentia,” but that it uses the term “General Councils” in a loose and popular way, of Councils which claimed to be “general,” as well as of those which are truly representative of the mind of the whole Church.[11]

This brings us to the question of which councils are truly general, i.e., ecumenical. Anglicans have traditionally recognized either four or six general councils as ecumenical: “The first six [i.e., the First Council of Nicaea (325), the First Council of Constantinople (381), the Council of Ephesus (431), the Council of Chalcedon (451), the Second Council of Constantinople (553), and the Third Council of Constantinople (680)], or at least the first four, general councils have received this sanction of universal consent to their decisions.”[12] Notably, the Second Council of Nicaea (787) has frequently been cited by Anglican authors as an example of a so-called “ecumenical” council that erred. See, for example, Bishop Beveridge:

Now the first general council, I think, that ever decreed any thing contrary to these Articles, or so erred in matters of faith, was the second Nicene council, which, as Balsamon saith, relatively defined that images should be worshipped and saluted. And therefore they decreed also, “that all the childish scoffings and mad words, and all lying writings whatsoever, made against venerable images, ought to be given to the bishop of Constantinople, that they may be put amongst other heretical books.” And several other the like decrees about images did this council make, wherein, as we shall see in the next Article, the catholic church cannot but acknowledge they erred.[13]

A number of these authors, Browne included, have grounded this judgment on the fact that the Second Council of Nicaea was subsequently rejected at the Council of Frankfurt (794), for in his commentary on Article XXII he says, “In 794, Charlemagne assembled a synod at Frankfort, composed of 300 bishops from France, Germany, and Italy, who formally rejected the Synod of Nice, and declared that it was not to be esteemed the seventh general council.”[14]

However, for some time now Anglo-Catholics have maintained that Anglicans should accept the Second Council of Nicaea as ecumenical. Darwell Stone, for example, recognizes that “the Anglican divines have generally allowed six Oecumenical Councils,” but he adds that “the Second Council of Nicaea (A.D. 787) should also be reckoned as oecumenical.”[15] The usual rationale behind this sentiment is that the Council of Frankfurt, in rejecting the Second Council of Nicaea, did not really understand what that council actually taught, as a result of poor translation: “The acceptance of this Council was delayed in the West, the Council of Frankfort [794] rejecting it, apparently because of imperfect translations of its decrees.”[16] Moreover, it is often alleged that the Franks failed to grasp the crucial theological distinction between veneration and worship at play in the Second Council of Nicaea’s teaching on images:

One thing is abundantly clear, that the great point set forth with such learning and perspicuity by the Seventh Synod, to wit, the distinction between λατρεία [i.e., worship] and προσκύνεσις [i.e., veneration] was wholly lost upon these Frankish writers; and that their translation of both words by “adoro” gave rise to nine-tenths of the trouble that followed. The student of ecclesiastical history will remember how a similar logomachy followed nearly every one of the Ecumenical Synods, and will not therefore be astonished to find it likewise here.[17]

The Council declares multiple anathemas against “those who apply to the sacred images the sayings in divine scripture against idols,” “those who do not kiss the holy and venerable images,” “those who call the sacred images idols,” and “those who knowingly communicate with those who insult and dishonour the sacred images.”[18] Therefore, given that souls are at stake,[19] we cannot afford not to engage with the question of whether the Council truly is ecumenical and, by extension, the objections lodged against the Council of Frankfurt.

Regarding the latter, recent scholarship has dispensed with the notion that the original Latin translation of the Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea, however poor, prevented the Franks from knowledgeably responding to them. Thomas F. X. Noble, Professor Emeritus of medieval history at the University of Notre Dame, grants that the Latin translation of the Acts received by the Franks was “hastily and poorly done.”[20] Nonetheless, he maintains that the Frankish response to the Council—as embodied in the book called the Opus Caroli Regis, also known as the Libri Carolini—demonstrates a sound understanding of the Acts: “Recently two distinguished Byzantinists, Marie-France Auzépy and Hans Georg Thümmel, and a younger French scholar, Kristina Mitalaité, have dealt devastating blows to almost every aspect of the traditionally invidious comparisons between Theodulf [commonly thought to be the primary author of the Opus] and his Eastern contemporaries.” In particular, “Several passages in the Opus show that Theodulf did understand the distinction [between veneration and worship, or, alternatively, veneration and adoration]. He simply felt that the Byzantines failed to observe it.”[21] Noble summarizes the conclusions of these Byzantinist scholars in this way:

Auzépy concludes that “[o]n the whole, the author of the Libri Carolini understood perfectly the sense of the argumentation of II Nicaea and even its contorted subtleties.” Thümmel agrees and adds that the eighth century had been a bad time for intellectual life in the East, that Nicaea itself was not a model of intellectual rigor or profundity, and that theologians like Theodulf may well have been superior to their contemporaries at the other end of the Mediterranean. We may therefore proceed to a summation of Theodulf’s work on the confident assumption that he knew what he was talking about.[22]

Noble himself says something similar at the end of his book, writing that “it should no longer be possible to say that the Carolingians lacked the books, intellectual traditions, or theological sophistication to grapple with the more complex problems posed by sacred art.”[23] This assessment of the Frankish reception of the Second Council of Nicaea is shared by Richard Price, a retired Roman Catholic priest and former Professor of the History of Christianity at Heythrop College. One of Price’s notes from his translation of the Acts is worth quoting at length:

The wording of the Frankfurt decree against Nicaea II reflects, as said above, an error in the original Latin translation of the Acts. A statement made in Session III by Constantine of Konstanteia ‒ “I accept and embrace with honour the holy and venerable images, and I venerate with worship only the supersubstantial and life-originating Trinity” (p. 229) ‒ was translated into something meaningless, which, when corrected by Theodulf of Orleans, became “I accept and venerate with honour the holy and venerable images according to the worship that I pay to the consubstantial and life-giving Trinity.” It has become customary to criticize the Franks’ rejection of Nicaea II as arising from this and similar errors and from their inability to appreciate the subtleties of Greek theology. But the writers of the Libri Carolini knew other passages in the Acts which make the same distinction between the veneration of honour and that of worship and had not been mistranslated. They did not reject the distinction because they failed to understand it, but because it seemed to them that it did not justify the practice of praying to images or the attribution to them of miraculous power.[24]

Taking into account revised scholarly opinion, it appears as though the traditional foundation for setting aside the Council of Frankfurt has collapsed. This has not prevented some contemporary Anglo-Catholics from continuing to dismiss that council, however. Mark Perkins argues that the Council of Frankfurt’s rejection of the Second Council of Nicaea is not “compelling,” especially when compared to the negative reaction toward other general councils that are nonetheless universally regarded as ecumenical:

This rejection by Charlemagne — emperor of (a huge) part of Christendom — seems less compelling than the Arian heresy of multiple fourth-century Roman emperors, who ruled virtually the entire Christian world. Nor does any Christian body that I know of recognize the Frankfurt Synod as authoritative (even the Robber Synod can claim the endorsement of the Oriental Orthodox!). By contrast, the Fourth Council — universally accepted by Anglicans — triggered the first significant and ongoing schism in the history of the Church. If the schismatic secession of all Coptic and Syriac jurisdictions does not put Chalcedon’s authority in doubt — and we all agree that it does not — I hardly see how Charlemagne and his Frankish bishops justify legitimate doubt over the ecumenicity of the Seventh Ecumenical Council.[25]

I do not know of anyone else who claims that the Council of Frankfurt, as a council, was insignificant. In fact, multiple authors who have attempted to discredit that council acknowledge its importance. Percival writes that “for a full thousand years they [the decrees of the Second Council of Nicaea] have been received by the Latin and Greek Churches with but a few exceptions altogether insignificant, save the Frankish kingdom.”[26] Later on he adds, “It is true that this was a large and very important exception; so large and so important that it becomes necessary to examine in detail the causes which led to this rejection.”[27] In like manner, Francis J. Hall identifies the Council of Frankfurt as one of those “Provincial Councils [that], without being made Ecumenical, have been widely approved by theologians as expressing correctly the mind of the whole Church.”[28] Although Hall characterizes the Council of Frankfurt this way with reference to the Council’s rejection of adoptionism, adding that Frankfurt “rejected the Seventh Ecumenical Council under misapprehension,”[29] the fact remains that he recognizes its importance as a council. Perkins’s diminishment of the Council of Frankfurt therefore stands out as an aberration when compared to previous authors. Indeed, one gets the impression that advocates for the Second Council of Nicaea’s ecumenical nature have traditionally sought to portray the Council of Frankfurt as ignorant precisely because they recognized that, if this charge could not be sustained, then the Council of Frankfurt would overturn the Second Council of Nicaea’s claim to ecumenicity.

In summary, it is widely agreed among Anglicans that what makes a council ecumenical is its universal reception by the church. The Council of Frankfurt’s rejection of the Second Council of Nicaea has long been dismissed on the grounds that the Franks did not rightly understand what that council taught. It has now been shown that the attribution of ignorance to the Council of Frankfurt concerning the Second Council of Nicaea’s teaching is ill-founded. This being so, the Council of Frankfurt’s dissent is still in force, as it “was never rescinded.”[30] It remains an inconvenient, and undiscredited, reality for those who would insist that Anglicans (and Protestant Christians more broadly) must accept the Second Council of Nicaea’s teaching on images and veneration in order to be truly catholic.


  1. Compare William Beveridge, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (London: James Duncan, 1830), 414, and William Baker, A Plain Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: Rivington’s, 1883), 117‒18.
  2. A. P. Forbes, An Explanation of the Thirty-Nine Articles, 2nd ed. (Oxford and London: James Parker and Co., 1871), 299.
  3. Henry R. Percival, The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church (New York: The Christian Literature Company, 1900), xii.
  4. Francis J. Hall, Anglican Dogmatics: Francis J. Hall’s Dogmatic Theology, ed. John A. Porter, vol. 1, Bk. II, Authority, Ecclesiastical & Biblical (Nashotah, WI: Nashotah House Press, 2021), 186‒87, italics original. See also E. B. Pusey, The Articles Treated on in Tract 90 Reconsidered (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1841), 25‒26; Forbes, Explanation of the Thirty-Nine Articles, 299; and Darwell Stone, Outlines of Christian Dogma, 3rd ed. (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1903), 132.
  5. The Romanist principle that ecumenical councils are to be summoned by the pope is a late device, for the oldest councils universally esteemed ecumenical were all summoned by emperors. See Percival, Seven Ecumenical Councils, xii.
  6. Percival, Seven Ecumenical Councils, xi‒xii.
  7. On the ecumenical nature of a council not hinging on the number of bishops in attendance, see also Edgar C. S. Gibson, The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen and Co., 1898), 536, and John Mason Neale, A History of the Holy Eastern Church, vol. II, The Patriarchate of Alexandria (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1847), 134n1.
  8. See also Pusey, Articles Treated on in Tract 90, 29; Forbes, Explanation of the Thirty-Nine Articles, 299‒300; Gibson, Thirty-Nine Articles, 536; B. J. Kidd, The Thirty-Nine Articles: Their History and Explanation (London: Rivington’s, 1899), 188; Percival, Seven Ecumenical Councils, xi‒xii; Arthur J. Tait, Lecture Outlines on the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: Elliot Stock, 1910) 149; E. Tyrrell Green, The Thirty-Nine Articles and the Age of the Reformation, 2nd ed. (London: Wells, Gardner, Darton & Co., 1912), 140, 143; E. J. Bicknell, A Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, 2nd ed. (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1925), 341; Claude Beaufort Moss, The Church of England and the Seventh Council (London: The Faith Press, 1957), 5; and Hall, Anglican Dogmatics, 185‒86.
  9. See also G. F. Maclear and W. W. Williams, An Introduction to the Articles of the Church of England (London: Macmillan and Co., 1895), 260.
  10. Baker, Plain Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, 121.
  11. Gibson, Thirty-Nine Articles, 530‒31. See also Gilbert Burnet, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, ed. James R. Page (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1842), 282; Beveridge, Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, 423; George Tomline, Elements of Christian Theology, 14th ed., vol. II (London: T. Cadell, 1843), 299; Piers C. Claughton, A Brief Comparison of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England with Holy Scripture (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1843), 70‒71; Baker, Plain Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, 120; John Macbeth, Notes on the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., 1894), 110; Kidd, Thirty-Nine Articles, 183, 186; Maclear and Williams, Introduction to the Articles, 259; Green, Thirty-Nine Articles, 139, 143; and Bicknell, Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles, 339.
  12. See also Richard Field, Of the Church, Book V, in Paul Elmer More and Frank Leslie Cross, eds., Anglicanism (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 2008), 103; “An Homily Against Peril of Idolatry and Superfluous Decking of Churches,” in Gerald Bray, ed., The Books of Homilies: A Critical Edition (Cambridge, UK: James Clarke and Co., 2015), 240; Pusey, Articles Treated on in Tract 90, 24; Forbes, Explanation of the Thirty-Nine Articles, 300; T. P. Boultbee, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1871), 180; Baker, Plain Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, 119; Kidd, Thirty-Nine Articles, 188; Green, Thirty-Nine Articles, 144; Stone, Outlines, 313; and Bicknell, Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles, 341‒42.
  13. Beveridge, Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, 421‒22. See also H. C. O’Donnoghue, A Familiar and Practical Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (London: Taylor and Hessey, 1816), 176; James Beaven, A Catechism on the Thirty-Nine Articles (Oxford and London: John Henry Parker, 1850), 68; Boultbee, Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, 181; and Baker, Plain Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, 120.
  14. See also Bray, Homilies, 245‒46; Pusey, Articles Treated on in Tract 90, 26, note p; William Palmer, A Treatise on the Church of Christ, vol. II (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1841), 195; Neale, History of the Holy Eastern Church, 134n1; E. B. Pusey, A Letter to the Right Hon. and Right Rev. the Lord Bishop of London (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1851), 147; and Macbeth, Notes on the Thirty-Nine Articles, 114.
  15. Stone, Outlines, 313. See also Percival, Seven Ecumenical Councils, ix, and Hall, Anglican Dogmatics, 187.
  16. Hall, Anglican Dogmatics, 188n2. See also Percival, Seven Ecumenical Councils, 576‒77, 579‒80; Edward James Martin, A History of the Iconoclastic Controversy (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1930), 228‒29; and Moss, The Church of England and the Seventh Council, 17‒19, 25.
  17. Percival, Seven Ecumenical Councils, 582. See also Stone, Outlines, 313‒14; Martin, Iconoclastic Controversy, 251; and Moss, The Church of England the Seventh Council, 18. Romanist authors have made the same points against the Council of Frankfurt, as in Charles Joseph Hefele, A History of the Councils of the Church, vol. V, trans. William R. Clark (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1896), 366, and Leo Donald Davis, The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325‒787): Their History and Theology (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1987), 311, 313.
  18. Richard Price, trans., The Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787) (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2018), 577. Compare Percival, Seven Ecumenical Councils, 534.
  19. Mark Perkins has suggested, on the authority of Sergius Bulgakov, that because the Second Council of Nicaea’s anathemas are not included in its Definition (also known as the Decree), “they are not finally authoritative, and we are free to depart from them without rejecting Nicaea II” (Mark Perkins, “What Does Nicaea II Require of You? Part 5 of Nicaea II and You: Conciliar Authority and Iconographic Devotion,” Earth & Altar, https://www.earthaltar.org/post/what-does-nicea-ii-require-of-you). I do not see what special authority Bulgakov has, but even if this point were granted, it would still be the case that, as Perkins himself points out, the Decree “does affirm that the display of images is a dogmatic element of the faith.” Anathematization of those who deny this is therefore a corollary, regardless of whether or not such anathemas are spelled out in the Decree. As Richard Price puts it, “By decreeing…that images must be set up in churches and venerated, Nicaea II had implied that image veneration is an essential part of the Christian faith. The Acts do not say in so many words that venerating images is as important as holding the faith, but note in the Horos (824 fin.) the statement that images ‘confer the same benefit’ as the gospels in bearing witness to the reality of the incarnation, while the Refutation of the iconoclasts in Session VI accuses them of ‘uttering unrighteousness against the sublimity of [Christ’s] incarnation’ (p. 440): that is, of Christological heresy. It is in accordance with this that the anathemas appended in the Acts to the Horos and its subscription list include ‘To those who do not kiss the holy and venerable images anathema!’” Price, Acts, 73.
  20. Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 160.
  21. Noble, Images, 182.
  22. Noble, Images, 183.
  23. Noble, Images, 367‒68.
  24. Price, Acts, 69‒70. See also Price, Acts, 2.
  25. Mark Perkins, “On the Seventh Council,” Earth & Altar, https://www.earthaltar.org/post/on-the-seventh-council.
  26. Percival, Seven Councils, 524.
  27. Percival, Seven Councils, 576.
  28. Hall, Anglican Dogmatics, 189.
  29. Hall, Anglican Dogmatics, 189.
  30. Pusey, Articles Treated on in Tract 90, 26, note p. Compare Palmer, Treatise, 196.


James Clark

James Clark is the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. His writing has appeared in Cranmer Theological Journal, Journal of Classical Theology, and American Reformer, as well as other publications.

'What Makes a Council Ecumenical [Commentary on Browne: Article XXI]' have 6 comments

  1. February 14, 2024 @ 3:10 pm Seth Snyder

    Excellent article! Perkins\’ case is rendered even more implausible by the fact that the divisions following Chalcedon were largely the product of philosophical and terminological confusion, rather than substantive disagreement. The analogy from Chalcedon, then, doesn\’t work, since the Franks\’ rejection of Nicaea II was grounded on an understanding of the position being rejected. The case of Arian emperors is still less compelling, since there is an obvious distinction to be made between an emperor unilaterally overturning a position established from a landslide victory at council, and an emperor rejecting a questionable, principally Byzantine position based on the best scholarship of his best bishops.


  2. February 14, 2024 @ 4:59 pm Mack

    Arguing, it seems, that “recognized” councils are “infallible” to “declare” for the “whole church” what “doctrines” the scriptures really teach, is a dodgy way of evading the simple truth acknowledged by the Article, ie, that councils (as well as all other matters) are to be judged by the scriptures, and not the other way around.
    By the way, as internet smut, AI imagery, deep-fakes, virtual googles, web cam zooming, facial recognition, video games, etc, turn humanity into addicted zombies in a big-brother surveillance prison, perhaps it’s high time we take more seriously the scriptural prohibition against graven images.


  3. February 17, 2024 @ 7:24 am Fr. Mark Perkins

    A few clarifications:

    Contra footnote 19, I never claim Bulgakov as an authority. I simply agreed with his observation. That should be pretty clear in context, given that immediately after I agree with one point, I dismiss another of his claims about the Council.

    I appreciate your engagement of the Definition itself, although, contra Price, the Definition does not actually directly require veneration. This might be one of those places where, instead of getting caught up in scholarly combat, we should just read the thing ourselves. After requiring display, the Definition comments: “The more frequently [our Lord and Lady and angels and saints] are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration.”

    In other words, the Definition requires display and approves of veneration without requiring it. This isn’t sophistry. It’s just reading the text carefully — a text that, the conciliar fathers claimed, they decreed “with full precision and care.” Nor does the Definition directly define veneration, except negatively: it’s not worship, and veneration traverses the image to the prototype.

    I do in fact think that display of images is a relatively straightforward application of the Incarnation, and that churches or persons which reject imagery are inevitably guilty of misunderstanding the Incarnation. I do *not* think this means that those who fail to do so are damned. I do not think it is appropriate to say that a positive injunction equals an anathema. I don’t really believe most people think that dogmatic errors are automatically damnable either.

    Per Frankfort, I never called it “insignificant.” That is your own gloss, and it is not accurate. I simply maintained (and continue to maintain) that it is *less significant* than other dissensions from other Ecumenical Councils. Again, if the 1500-year schism of the Coptic and Syriac churches does not invalidate Chalcedon, I fail to see how Frankfort can automatically invalidate Nicea II.

    As I’ve pointed out before, one of the more tiring aspects of this debate is the tendency argue *around* the Definition rather than about it. It seems to me that the Eastern Orthodox do so in order to justify their reception of N2 as definitive, while Protestants do so because it makes N2 harder to accept and easier to justify rejecting.


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