Ask an Anglican: The Ecumenical Councils

Jay M. writes:

I wanted to ask you why so many Anglicans refer only to the first Four Ecumenical Councils while Anglo-Catholics (and Eastern Orthodox as well) speak of the first great Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Church. What is it about those last three Councils that makes them less authoritative to some? They were Councils of the Undivided Church, were they not? Is that in dispute? Thanks for your help!

This is a great question, not just because there is such great confusion on this topic, but also because this is a major issue in our ecumenical dealings. In order to understand the classical Anglican take on this, we need to examine how classical Anglicanism addressed the doctrine of conciliarity.

One has to remember when reading the Anglican Reformers and Divines on this topic that the Church of England was trying to defend herself at the Reformation against the assertion of the Church of Rome that she alone had the authority to call an Ecumenical Council and that the decisions of such councils were infallible. The Council of Trent, with its anathematizing of all Protestants, was characterized by Rome as supreme and unquestionable. All Protestants were keen to reject Trent, not just Anglicans, and a part of discrediting Trent involved discrediting of the very idea that the words of a Council, even an Ecumenical Council, should be received as a direct revelation of the Holy Spirit, equal to if not higher than the divine revelation found in Holy Scripture. It is against this backdrop that we read Article XXI which tells us that General Councils of the Church “may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God.”

Even so, the Church of England’s prime interest in this period was the recovery of the faith of the primitive, undivided Church. Hence, in the canons of 1571, authorized the same year as the 39 Articles, bishops and priests of the Church were directed to “teach nothing which you would have religiously held and believed by the people, save what is agreeable to the teaching of the Old or New Testament, and what the Catholic and ancient bishops have collected from this self-same doctrine.” It would be impossible to claim to be the inheritor of the faith of the early Church without inheriting also the decrees of the early councils. Thus, Anglican theologians spent a tremendous amount of time, from the Elizabethan Settlement up and until the English Civil War, articulating an understanding of conciliarity that would uphold the doctrines of the great early councils without allowing for the errors of Trent.

Reading through the massive amount that the Divines wrote on this subject, one sees that a consensus position quickly emerged. The arguments made by the Divines can be summarized in five parts:

1 – Ecumenical Councils are not absolutely necessary for the Church to exist

This was to forestall the idea that only the Roman Church could be the true Church because only the Roman Pontiff or his legate could convene and preside at a council. In addition to the theological problems inherent in Rome’s position, the Divines pointed out that the first Ecumenical Council did not occur until 325 and that somehow the Church had managed to shepherd souls in those first three centuries despite not having the statements of councils to guide them.

2 – Councils are the best way to resolve certain types of crises in the Church

Though they may not be essential to the Church, councils are an important tool for dispelling certain types of heresies. Richard Field, a contemporary of Richard Hooker and chaplain to both Queen Elizabeth I and King James I, wrote that “Some heresies may be easily suppressed without troubling all the Bishops of the world to meet in a General council, and that some others cannot easily be suppressed without General Councils.” For this reason,

General Councils are the best means for preserving unity of doctrine, severity of discipline, and preventing of schisms when they may be had; and though they be not absolutely necessary to the being of the Church, yet are they most behoveful for the best, readiest, and most gracious governing of the same: and howsoever there may be a kind of exercise of the supreme jurisdiction that is in the Church by the concurrence of particular synods… yet the highest and most excellent exercise of the supreme ecclesiastical jurisdiction is in General Councils.

3 – The authority of councils is derived from the Church as a whole

Councils are by their very nature representative rather than comprehensive. The bishops of the various churches around the world represent their dioceses and synods when they gather in council. The power they have, therefore, comes not from themselves but from the gift of the Holy Spirit found in the Church as a whole. “If [the Spirit] be in the whole Church principally,” wrote William Laud, “then is it in a General Council by consequent, as the Council represents the whole. And that which belongs to a thing by consequent doth not otherwise nor longer belong unto it than it consents and cleaves to that upon which it is consequent.” Thus, Laud explains how it can be that an Ecumenical Council may err in the way that Article XXI describes. If a Council ceases to be representative of the Church, which for Laud meant not just the visible Church of his day but the whole Catholic Church throughout the centuries, than it no longer abides under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and errors are certain to follow.

4 -A truly Ecumenical Council is authoritative in its final conclusions about faith and salvation and must not be rejected in those areas

While it is possible for a Council to err, it is so manifestly unlikely in the event of a truly Ecumenical Council that the conclusions of such a Council should be treated as final. Field says that in the event that a Council can be shown to be truly ecumenical, then “we are so strongly to presume that it is true and right that with unanimous consent is agreed on in such a Council, that we must not so much as profess publicly that we think otherwise.”

Laud goes even further, saying that in all that is necessary to salvation, “I shall easily grant that a General Council cannot err, suffering itself to be led by this Spirit of Truth in the Scripture, and not taking upon it to lead both the Spirit and the Scripture.”

It is important to note that this authority only stretches to the final conclusions of Ecumenical Councils in matters of faith, not to every word uttered by every bishop who was present.

5 – A truly Ecumenical Council can be discerned by certain characteristics

Given the tremendous authority that is granted to the conclusions of Ecumenical Councils, it is imperative that the Church have a way of telling when a council meets the criteria to truly be called Ecumenical. The consensus among the Divines is that a Council cannot be said to be Ecumenical unless it is led primarily by bishops, includes bishops from all the legitimate churches throughout the world, is called for either by the patriarchs or primates of the churches or by the decree of Christian emperors or kings (and in any event, cannot be called for against the wishes of Christian monarchs), and bases its conclusions on Holy Scripture as interpreted by the Fathers. This last part is the most crucial, as the Divines argue that a learned man should be able to see how the bishops came to their conclusions. In other words, the Council has to be able to show its work, not just to make decrees from on high. If the teaching of a Council has no discernible basis in Holy Scripture, than that teaching cannot be considered binding, no matter how many of the other criteria for an Ecumenical Council are satisfied.

The Numbers Game

All that being said, Anglicanism has tended to be conservative in setting the bar for how many councils are truly to be regarded as General or Ecumenical, precisely because once a Council is considered Ecumenical its conclusions become binding. None of the formularies explicitly endorse any of the councils, but we see their acceptance by implication in the fact that the Prayer Book makes use of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The second Book of Homilies, which could hardly be called Anglo-Catholic, quotes from six of the seven early councils that the Christian East considers Ecumenical and only questions the seventh council because of a somewhat deficient understanding of what the Second Nicene Council actually said (BC has done a fine job of speaking about the issue of the seventh council here). Nevertheless, the majority of the Divines follow the example of Jeremy Taylor who said, “The Church of England receives the four first Generals as of highest regard, not that they are infallible, but that they have determined wisely and holily.” Field is hardly a lone voice, however, in accepting the first six councils. He rejects the seventh only on the grounds that men have misunderstood its teaching.

What is most important to understand is that for Anglicanism rejecting a Council’s status as Ecumenical does not mean a blanket rejection of the Council. Perhaps the most helpful voice on this is that of the Irish bishop John Jebb who wrote in 1815 that from Elizabeth I onward, the King or Queen has been “empowered to appoint commissioners, for restraining heretical pravity.” The judgment of those commissioners must be made first and foremost in accord with Holy Scripture, but they are to look “secondly, to the decisions of the first four general councils; and thirdly, to the decision of any other general council, founded on the express and plain words of holy scripture.” So then, using Jebb’s framework, we come to understand that in Anglicanism, the first four Ecumenical Councils hold a special authority because there can be no doubt but that they are Ecumenical, according to the criteria laid out by the Divines. The later councils have varying issues that bring their status as Ecumenical into doubt, but they may still be considered as authoritative to a lesser degree, in as much as they fulfill most of the criteria and they draw irrefutable conclusions from the Holy Scriptures and the Fathers.

In any event, what should be clear is just how seriously Anglicanism takes the doctrine of conciliarity. This classical Anglican reverence for the work of councils should make the modern Anglican Communion blush for our lack of upholding this basic principle of catholic ecclesiology. As in so many other things, the key to a rejuvenated future for Anglicanism lies not in the charting of a brand new course but in the recovery of a mostly forgotten past.

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8 Responses to Ask an Anglican: The Ecumenical Councils

  1. Jay M. says:

    Fr. Jonathan,

    Awesome assessment! And very helpful…

  2. BC says:

    Many thanks for this and for highlighting the significance of our understanding of the Councils to Anglicanism contemporary crisis. The reference to the 2nd Book of Homilies quoting from the first 6 should send us all back to our copies of the Homilies!

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Newman pulled a bunch of the relevant quotes in Tract 90. While I generally think that Tract 90 goes too far in its efforts to reconcile the Articles with Trent, Newman’s evaluation of the Homilies is pretty spot on.

  3. Eugene says:

    Hi, Fr. Jonathan: lengthy (and interesting) article, and I had to work hard to make my response concise. But here it is — as always, with good will:

    The Anglican way of looking at the Ecumenical Councils might be a good illustration of the saying by Khomiakov, quoted by Bishop Kallistos Ware:

    “All Protestants are Crypto-Papists… all the West knows but one datum “a”; whether it be preceded by the positive sign +, as with the Romanists, or with the negative – , as with the Protestants, the “a” remains the same. Now a passage to Orthodoxy seems indeed like an apostasy from the past…”

    I might arrive at this conclusion from these words from your post:

    “… part of discrediting Trent involved discrediting of the very idea that the words of a Council, even an Ecumenical Council, should be received as a direct revelation of the Holy Spirit, equal to if not higher than the divine revelation found in Holy Scripture.”

    What if (so to speak) there were no Trent? What if Anglicans were to return to the outlook and spirit of “the primitive church”, which knew nothing of Trent — or of the Papacy? How much did Trent inform Anglican understanding of the Councils – or indeed of its whole idea of conciliarity? I’m not sure the Anglican church can ever arrive at what the “primitive” Church taught; it may be that its idea of conciliarity will always be derived from its relationship to the Papacy.

    Otherwise, the Anglican approach could indeed be to accept what was “collected” from the “ancient bishops” — and articulated in all Seven Councils.


  4. Fr. Jonathan says:

    Hi Eugene,

    I’m not sure that I understand the quote from Khomiakov. Is he saying that Protestantism is invalid because it rejects the papacy? I don’t see how that would make any kind of sense.

    To answer your questions, I think that Trent affected the way in which the Anglican Reformers and Divines wrote about conciliarity in terms of what they brought to the forefront. The 39 Articles are minimalist, precisely because the work of the Articles was to differentiate the Church of England from other Christian groups, Rome among them. So Article XXI becomes, by and large, a response to Trent. That does not mean, however, that this is all that the Reformers and Divines had to say on the matter, as I was trying to demonstrate, though perhaps I did not do an adequate job of it. The Divines actually wrote quite a bit on this topic and their reflections on the role and place of Ecumenical Councils is not primarily rooted in response to Trent but in Holy Scripture and the witness of the primitive Church. The fact that both Scripture and the Fathers are a great bulwark against the errors of Trent is an added bonus, but it was not the Divines’ first concern.

    Is your contention that Ecumenical Councils are direct revelations of the Holy Spirit and therefore infallible over or apart from the Holy Scripture? If so, I think that’s a hard case to make, and one that the early Church Fathers would have rejected. After all, what makes a council truly authoritative cannot simply be that the assembled bishops declare it so, for if this was the case we would have many more Ecumenical Councils to contend with than we presently do. After the first Council of Nicaea, there were a number of subsequent councils prior to Constantinople, some with more bishops present than Nicaea had, in which the Arian position was upheld and the orthodox denied. So what makes Nicaea and Constantinople true Ecumenical Councils and the others not? When I’ve heard Eastern Orthodox theologians discuss this, the answer they tend to give is that a council is not considered Ecumenical unless accepted by the faithful. But this seems to me to be somewhat incomplete. After all, if it were left to a vote, the Arians had more people in their churches at some points in time, so one imagines that the Arians would have carried the day. But orthodoxy survived, precisely because the mind that was expressed at Nicaea and Constantinople is consonant with the teaching that the people had received since the days of the apostles, teaching that finds its perfect expression in the Holy Scriptures, whereas what was promulgated by those other councils was not.

    There are many things that were said at even the first four Ecumenical Councils that we would not want to continue to uphold. The canons that call, for instance, for Christians not to consort with Jews are particularly heinous. But in every authoritative point made by the Ecumenical Councils, that which we find in the creeds and the historic formulations of doctrine, the basis offered is scriptural, just as it is in the writings of the Fathers themselves. Now, obviously the Councils’ work was necessary to interpret the scriptures. Anglicans are not sola scriptura. We do not believe that the scriptures are always self-explanatory. Nevertheless, that which is not grounded in the scriptures but speaks contrary to them can never be authoritative.

    For a really good modern look at the way that Anglicanism understands the Ecumenical Councils, check out “The Cruelty of Heresy” by Fitzsimons Allison. Bishop Allison is the former bishop of South Carolina in The Episcopal Church. The book is short and pretty easy to read. I highly recommend it.

  5. Christopher says:

    Rather helpful for a young Anglican in my understanding on this important issue. Thank you!

  6. Pingback: Ask an Anglican: Confessionalism Vs. Conciliarity | The Conciliar Anglican

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