Some thoughts on church councils

Folio 148v, Paris, lat. 11611 of Rusticus' Acts of Chalcedon, including a version of the Creed
Folio 148v, Paris, lat. 11611 of Rusticus’ Acts of Chalcedon, including a version of the Creed

I was going crazy hunting through a pdf of this manuscript today, looking for a few of Leo the Great’s letters (found them on 134v-137r). The manuscript is a copy of a Latin translation of the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon (451) made by a fellow named Rusticus in the mid-500s. Rusticus was the nephew of Pope Vigilius (pope, 537-555), so you’d think he’d have things pretty easy in the world of geo-ecclesiology.

However, at the time Rusticus put together his Latin version of the Chalcedonian Acts, he was hiding out in a monastery in Constantinople with some monks called the Sleepless Ones (‘Acoemetae’/’Akoimetai’) — as one does. Rusticus was hiding out for the same reason he put together this collection of Chalcedonian documents. He was opposed to the Emperor Justinian’s activities against the so-called ‘Three Chapters’. As I have written before (with more context on the issue), opposition of the Three Chapters need not mean abrogation of the Chalcedonian doctrinal settlement.

Be that as it may, people like Rusticus* felt that anything that sounded as thought it undid any of the things that Chalcedon did (whether doctrinal or canonical) undid the whole council. And the Council of Chalcedon, because of its espousing of the western Christology of Pope Leo the Great (pope, 440-461), was seen as essential to the western church — especially essential to East-West unity.

Putting together his own translation of the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon and gathering together some of the relevant documents, then, was not just Rusticus’ way of killing time with the Sleepless Monks. It had a polemical purpose — to provide accurate ammunition to the western cause of support for the Three Chapters.

In the end, Rusticus’ cause lost. Despite the fact that ‘Origenism’ (whatever that is) gets most of the airtime these days, the ‘Fifth Ecumenical Council’ of 553 was not about Origenism but about Christology. Obviously, the question of universalism is more of a hot topic today than the natures of Christ, but back then, this is what mattered to church unity and concord. As part of his attempts to restore unity in the eastern church whilst maintaining it with the western church, Justinian guided the Council of Constantinople of 553 to what he hoped was a compromise position, and the Three Chapters were condemned. Ultimately this plan failed, but there we have it.

Thinking on Rusticus, Chalcedon, and the Three Chapters/Council of 553 reminded me that ecclesiastical history is not, was not, set in stone. Sometimes we read the history of the church, and especially the ‘Seven Ecumenical Councils’ teleologically. We assume that of course the bishops gathered at Ecumenical Council X would approve Doctrinal Position Y. We act as though the doctrinal statements of the councils are the only logically inevitable results of a reasoned reading of Scripture.

First, even if I accept that the seven councils termed ‘ecumenical’ are, in fact, true, even if I believe that they are the most biblically faithful and philosophically coherent options out there (I do), this doesn’t mean that, from the perspective of history and of the people living through them, these settlements were foregone conclusions.

Take Nicaea, for instance. Nicene orthodoxy had a long, uphill battle for its establishment as the official doctrine of the church within the Roman Empire, and of the Germanic Christians outside imperial control, the only ones who really converted before being totally assimilated by their neighbours were the Visigoths in the 580s. If we set aside convictions that the truth will always prevail, it is certainly not a foregone conclusion that Nicene Christianity would survive and thrive as it has.

Second, part of what makes orthodoxy ‘so perilous’ and ‘so exciting’ (quoting Chesterton) is the fighting. I have a friend who says that one reason she became Anglican is that, ‘God is in the fighting.’ Not just the fighting, of course — much of that is petty, ungodly, un-Jesus-y. But the uncertainty of it all — fighting for or against the Three Chapters. Believing that Chalcedon is the one hope for orthodoxy. Gathering together all the evidence you can find, just as Rusticus and Facundus did in the sixth century. God is with us in the struggle to learn and defend the Truth.

We do not know for certain what the exact shape of orthodoxy’s road will be. Often, it is ratified after the fact. Indeed, it wasn’t until Chalcedon in 451 that the ‘Second’ Ecumenical Council of 381 was really and truly upheld as a universal council — and what makes it so different from the unratified, non-ecumenical Council of Sardica of 344? Outside of strong papal disapproval of Second Ephesus (448) (Leo calls it a ‘den of robbers’, latrocinium), is it so different from the First Council of Ephesus (now the ‘Third’ Ecumenical Council) in 431?

We are the heirs of these councils — by faith in the Holy Spirit, we can believe that what the council fathers approved was orthodoxy. But to the people who lived through it — nothing was written. Not yet.

Who knows what the future will mean for our days?

*And a significant swathe of western/Latin ecclesiastics, including the whole diocese of Aquileia and a certain Facundus of Hermiana who wrote a book In Defense of the Three Chapters and Victor of Tonnena, who wrote a chronicle. And loads more.

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