How is the validity of the Councils determined?
by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
Why do we consider the Ecumenical Councils infallible? Why do we respect them so much? Where does their worth spring from? Is it perhaps from the majority? From a consensus? From the priests? From universality? From the institution itself? Or does their worth perhaps spring from the Holy-Spiritual experience of the Pentecost that is borne by the Saints?
Fr. George Florovsky points out that the truth can be expressed by even a few only Saints – that is, by the minority, and not simply the majority; furthermore, that the truth can also be formulated without a Council.
"The overall truth can be expressed even by the few, even by isolated confessors of the faith, and that suffices. To be precise, in order to be able to recognize and to express the overall truth, we do not need any ecumenical, worldwide convention and vote – not even an ecumenical council. The sacred dignity of a Council is not dependent on the number of members that represent their respective Churches. It is possible for one, large, “general” council to prove itself to be a “robber council” (latrocinium), or even a council of apostates. And the “ecclesia sparsa” – the consensus of the Church - often condemns it for its invalidity with a silent reaction. The number of bishops (numerus episcoporum) does not solve the problem.
The historical and practical methods that recognize a sacred and universal Tradition can be many. The convening of ecumenical councils is one method, but it is not the only one. This does not mean that there is no need to convene councils and conventions. It is, however, possible for the truth to be expressed by the minority during a council.
More importantly, the truth can be revealed even without a council. The opinions of the Fathers and the ecumenical Teachers of the Church are often of a much greater spiritual value and straightforwardness than the definitions set down by certain councils; and those opinions have no need of confirmation and acceptance by “ecumenical consent”. On the contrary, those very opinions comprise the criterion and are the ones that are able to provide proof of it. That is precisely what the Church testifies to, with a silent «receptio». Of decisive value is an “inner” universality, and not any empirical ecumenicity. The opinions of the Fathers are acknowledged, not as an official obeisance to an external authority, but because of the “innermost” testimony of their opinions’ universal truth. The entire corpus of the Church has the right to verify, and in fact the right – or rather the duty – to confirm.”
This view by Fr. George Florovsky is a significant one. Of course one must stress that an Ecumenical Council does have immense authority. Saint Nicodemus the Hagiorite observes: “Hence, and by everyone, it is not the divine Scripture but the Ecumenical council that is proclaimed as the ultimate judge of Ecclesiastic affairs”. That is how the Church synodically opines on all matters. However, this should be stressed with two, necessary clarifications:
The first clarification is that the Church is a perpetual Council and a Council is the voice of the Church. In the first centuries the Church existed and functioned smoothly, without there being a need to convene an Ecumenical Council. Of course we have the Apostolic Council and other, local councils, but no Ecumenical ones, which have certain characteristic features that distinguish them from other, regional Councils. It is a fact, that the need to convene a Council and reach a decision arose when heresies began to appear at a Christological and Trinitarian level.
Besides, it is not the decisions of Ecumenical Councils that reveal the truth; they only formulate it. In other words, the truth - as lived and experienced by the Church ever since the Pentecost – is expressed through the Ecumenical Councils because of the emergence of heretical teachings. If there were no heretical teachings in existence, there would have been no need to convene Ecumenical Councils. This in no way means that the truth would not have existed.
The second precondition is that which Fr. Florovsky had stated and the one we mentioned earlier, namely, that “The opinions of the Fathers and the ecumenical Teachers of the Church are often of a much greater spiritual value and straightforwardness than the definitions set down by certain councils; and those opinions have no need of confirmation and acceptance by “ecumenical consent”. On the contrary, those very opinions comprise the criterion and are the ones that are able to provide proof of it.”
The Ecumenical Councils were not dependent simply on the majority, but rather on the participating, major Patristic figures. In the First Ecumenical Council a significant role was played by Athanasius the Great; in the Second Ecumenical Council it was the theology of Basil the Great, of Saint Gregory the Theologian, and of Saint Gregory of Nyssa. In the Third Ecumenical Council a major role was played by Saint Cyril of Alexandria. In the Sixth Council the theology of Saint Maximus the Confessor was taken seriously into consideration and in the Seventh Council it was the theology of Saint John of Damascus. The theology of Saint Gregory Palamas contained the substructure of the entire theology of the Councils of 1341, 1347 and 1351. In view of the above points, it is obvious that none of those major Fathers was deluded: not prior to the Synod, nor after it.
It is noteworthy, that in the “Synodicon of Orthodoxy” there is a special paragraph in which all the defenders of the truth and the true teachers of the Church are commemorated: “…of Gregory, the most saintly metropolitan of Thessaloniki, who synodically, in the presence of the great church, had brought down Barlaam and Akindynos - the leaders and inventors of the new heresies […] according to the divine Scriptures, and also of the theologians who were their exegetes – namely, I say Athanasius and Basil, Gregory and John the Golden-speaking and Cyril; among them also Maximus the wise and the God-speaking one from Damascus… may their memory be eternal.”
Hence the worth of the enlightened and unwavering teachers of the Church is immense. This is why, in the “Synodicon of Orthodoxy”, this phrase is repeatedly used: “... in accordance with the divinely inspired theologies of the saints, and the pious phronema (conscience) of the Church.” We believe that it is the major Fathers who had attained enlightenment and deification (theosis) that had bestowed the Ecumenical Councils with prestige, and not reversely – i.e., that those Councils had bestowed the Fathers with prestige.
This is evident from all the Minutes of the Ecumenical Councils. I will mention only a few examples:
In the third epistle of Saint Cyril to Nestorius, the following are also stated: “... (We) follow in everything the confessions of the holy fathers, which they had observed whilst the Holy Spirit was uttering within them…”.
In an epistle by Saint Cyril addressed to John of Antioch he states: “Do not move elsewhere the eternal boundaries that your fathers had placed, (for) they were not the ones who were uttering, but the Spirit of God and Father…” It was the Most Holy Spirit that acted inside the holy Fathers and was the One Who guided them to “all the truth.”
In the “clause of faith” of the Fourth Ecumenical Council the following are included: “…having renewed the unwavering faith of the Fathers”. In addition, one is reassured that the Fathers of this Council have followed the teachings of the precedent holy Fathers: “They have thus followed after the holy Fathers…”
Thus, an Ecumenical Council follows after the Fathers to whom the Church has given prominence and who have been established as unimpaired teachers. The Fathers are precedent and the Council is pursuant. We often encounter this phrase: “In everything they follow the terms of the Fathers”. Of course, before each Ecumenical Council considerable preparatory work took place, and the Fathers thereafter proclaimed the terms, in accordance with the teaching of the unimpaired Father.
In the “clause of faith” of the Sixth Ecumenical Council it says: “Thus, our holy and ecumenical Council, which has ever since and to the present years driven far away the delusion of irreverence and has followed without deviation the straight path of the holy and reputed Fathers….”
Also in the “clause of faith” of the same Council it is mentioned that it (the Council) follows the teaching of the Ecumenical Councils and the holy Fathers. Whereas it could have mentioned only the decisions, the terms of the Ecumenical Councils, it nevertheless also names the holy Fathers: “Following the holy and Ecumenical five Councils and the holy and reputed Fathers and stipulating accordingly, it confesses….”
It is in this spirit that we must examine the Minutes of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The major contribution of the Fathers is stressed in this Council, since they are the ones who are directed by Christ and the Most Holy Spirit to “all the truth.” It is written: “Having fulfilled the divine command of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ, our holy Fathers did not hide underneath the container the lamp of divine knowledge that was given to them by Him, but placed it atop the lamp-stand of most beneficial teaching, so that it would shine upon everyone in the house, that is, upon those in the Universal Church who are lauded… For they have expelled every delusion of the heretics, and the rotten member, which is incurably sick, they excise…”
Thus, with their communion with God, the holy Fathers attained divine knowledge and confessed it in the Church, within Conciliar formulations. That is why the holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council once again confess: “And we, by holding on to the dogmas and the acts of those same God-bearing Fathers in everything, proclaim with one voice and one heart, adding nothing to, and deducting nothing from what was delivered to us by them, are instead reassured by them, we are supported by them; thus do we confess, thus do we teach, as the holy and ecumenical six Councils decreed and reassured.”
It is very important that the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council acknowledge all the prophetic voices: “We also respect the Lord’s and the apostolic and the prophetic voices… first and foremost the truly God-bearer Theotokos… also the holy and angelic powers, the blessed and greatly honoured apostles, and the glorious prophets, and the gloriously triumphant and championing for Christ martyrs , and all the holy and God-bearing teachers, and all the hallowed men; and we beseech the mediations of all of them, as ones who are able to familiarize us with God the almighty king of all... These are the things we were taught to believe and have been assured of, by both our holy Fathers and their God-delivered teaching.”
It is also important to appose the faith of the Fathers of the Council of Constantinople ( 879-880 AD) at the time of Saint Photios the Great, which is likewise regarded an Ecumenical one ** as regards Photios, about whom it is said: “The holy Council has hailed our most holy hierarch and ecumenical patriarch (Photios); being united from the beginning, we not only have never been divided, but in fact we have become ready to even spill our own blood willingly for his sake, to those who would ask such things.”
This points to what we mentioned earlier, that the holy and God-bearing Fathers - who had received the divine knowledge from God - are the spiritual infrastructure of an Ecumenical Council. Whosoever does not move “along the divinely-inspired theologies of the saints and the phronema (conscience) of the Church”; whosoever does not admit the holy Gregory Palamas and “the monks who coincide with him” as “the most unerring advocates and protagonists of the Church and of piety, as well as Her helpers” - and even more so, those who write and speak against Gregory Palamas and the Hesychasts - are subjected to the penance of excommunication: “But also, should any of the others be detected who either upholds or mentions or authors against the aforementioned most precious Hieromonk, the late Gregory Palamas and the monks who are with him, and further, whosoever is against the sacred theologians and this Church, we vote the same against him, and submit him likewise to the same sentence, regardless if he is of the priesthood, or of the laity.”
From the above it becomes clearly evident that the holy Fathers and their teaching are precedent, and the Council is pursuant to them. The theological foundation of the Ecumenical Council is the theology of the holy Fathers who have attained enlightenment and theosis (deification). The Ecumenical Councils themselves proclaim the holy Fathers as champions of the faith, infallible, divinely inspired, undeceived and God-bearing teachers whom the Christians must follow, because they interpret in an unwavering manner the Revelations they received from God.
The holy Fathers who had arrived at theosis had acquired the knowledge of God; however, this does not necessarily mean they all have the same expressions when formulating the same personal experience. The difference in their expressive formulation is attributed to many factors. At any rate, when holy Fathers (with the same experience), meet at an Ecumenical Council, that is when they agree with each other. John Romanides writes about this characteristically: “Neither radiance nor glorification can be institutionalised. The sameness of this experience of radiance and glorification among the gifted ones who are in that condition does not necessarily impose a sameness in dogmatic expression, especially when the gifted ones are geographically distanced for long periods of time. Nevertheless, when they meet, they easily agree on the matter of uniformity in the dogmatic formulation of their identical experience. A powerful move towards identical dogmatic expression took place during the time that Christianity had been made the official religion of the Romaic Empire and had satisfied the State’s need to discern the genuine healers from the pseudo-physicians, the same way that government services have the responsibility to discern the genuine members of the medical profession from the quack doctors and the appropriators of the science of medicine, for the protection of their subjects”.
It becomes clear from this, that the acquisition of the knowledge of God, the glorification and the deification (theosis) of the holy Fathers was precedent, whereas the formulation of that experience became necessary, after the appearance of the heretics. It also becomes evident that, by participating in the Ecumenical Councils, the holy Fathers had confirmed that knowledge and had expressed it identically. It further becomes obvious that the Ecumenical Councils were convened in order to distinguish between the followers of the Orthodox Tradition - which is basically a hesychastic one – and those who follow the western tradition, which is basically a rationalistic one.
** Copyist’s Note: Likewise, the Ninth Ecumenical Council of 1341 was also supported by a holy man – Saint Gregory Palamas.
Excerpt from the Book "THE REVELATION OF GOD" (p.43-51)