Experimental thoughts concerning General Synods and the theology of councils

Council of Chalcedon, from St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

Chances are, after the Anglican Communion explodes and the Anglican Church of Canada finally snuffs itself out with a whimper, the most important achievement of General Synod 2019 will have been the establishment of an ecclesiastical province for indigenous Anglicans, on the grounds that it will probably outlast white Anglicanism. In other news, we white Anglicans are all dissatisfied with how things went regarding marriage.

For the liberals/progressives/post-liberals, the dissatisfaction stems from the marriage canon remaining unchanged.

For the conservatives/evangelicals-catholics, the dissatisfaction stems from an amendment thereto allowing bishops to interpret the canon in such a way that it would allow for same-sex marriage, anyway.

A priest I know posted an interesting reflection on Facebook about how the Holy Spirit was invoked and called upon at General Synod, and these were the results. Whatever else is going on, this seems to be His will right now, even if it makes no sense to any of us.

As a person with a background researching the history of ancient church councils, this is an interesting point. If you read Eastern Orthodox discussions of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, you will find that they cite the precedent for the idea of an ecumenical council in the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 where it was decreed that Gentile Christians did not have to be circumcised or follow Mosaic law. The telling phrase for the history of the councils is, ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…’ (Acts 15:28) in the letter documenting the council’s results.

Ecumenical Councils are considered to be unerring in their doctrinal statements and universally binding in canon law. The reason why we didn’t get any between Acts 15 and Nicaea in 325 was the difficulty of getting church leaders together before Constantine’s conversion — at least, that’s what mediaeval accounts of events tell us.

The Seven Ecumenical Councils are:

  1. Nicaea (325): Jesus is God
  2. Constantinople (381): Jesus is God (round 2), also the Holy Spirit
  3. Ephesus (431): Jesus is a single, united person
  4. Chalcedon (451): Jesus is a single, united person with two natures
  5. Constantinople 2 (553): Jesus is still one person, that’s the main thing. Also, let’s condemn a few people while we’re at it.
  6. Constantinople 3 (681): Jesus had two wills because he had two natures.
  7. Nicaea 2 (787): Make pictures of Jesus and kiss them.

The Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox all agree that these are ecumenical councils and accept their canons and doctrine. Anglicans are fuzzier. We have historically embrace 1-4 with gusto, and the only recent statement on them I know of is GAFCON (bafflingly) saying that they also embrace 5-7 so far as they are in accordance with Holy Scripture (but, based on the understanding of the people sitting in those councils, everything they did was in accordance with Holy Scripture, so what does GAFCON mean? Don’t kiss icons? Ignore canon law?)

The argument that the Holy Spirit speaks through the ecumenical councils is something along the lines of the fact that an invitation went out, every bishop who could made it, and then the major bishops who weren’t able to be there ratified the outcome later. Bishops in the Late Antique church are elected by the clergy and people of their dioceses and anointed and consecrated by three other bishops after their selection has been approved as valid by the Metropolitan bishop. Their duty, in part, is to preserve orthodoxy.

The ancient church may not have been a representative democracy, but this is vaguely kind of what this is. Maybe. But not really. Moving on.

But a General Synod is not an Ecumenical Council. Not only that, but we Anglicans, outside of those who don’t give a rat’s behind about the 39 Articles, theoretically believe that ‘general councils’ can err and sometimes have erred (Article of Religion XXI). This Article is mostly directed at the mediaeval ‘general’ councils of the western Church, which may not even technically be ecumenical even by Rome’s own canons, as lucidly and provocatively argued by Norman P Tanner in an article in  Studies in Church History 38: The Church and the Book.

Anyway, what has this to do with General Synod?

By the Anglican view of things, General Synod can err. But did the Holy Spirit not show up? He was invoked. People prayed. This time, it seems delegates actually tried to act in love. Well, what about Lateran IV when it approved transubstantiation in 1215? I do not believe in transubstantiation. But I also believe that Innocent III and his cronies were praying men. Did the Holy Spirit show up?

What if sometimes the Holy Spirit shows up just to mess with us? I dunno, this is just an experiment. Setting aside medieval councils, consider:

  • The Council of Rimini, 359: the imperial church officially adopted a creed that said Jesus was ‘like’ (homoios) God the Father, rejecting all talk of essence (ousia). Given the engineering behind other councils, to say that Rimini was imperially engineered to that end need not necessarily take it out of the running as an ecumenical council. That homoian Christianity is heresy does. Hm.
  • The second ecumenical council, Constantinople (381), was probably not originally conceived as ecumenical, and certainly not received as such in the West at the time, possibly not until after Chalcedon in 451. Anyway, the Bishop of Constantinople who presided, Gregory of Nazianzus, resigned and left in a huff because they did not craft a creed that was completely unambiguous about the consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit. So even an ecumenical council may be perceived as messing up at the time. Hm.
  • In 448, a second council met at Ephesus and approved a one-nature formula of Christology. One of the reasons it was rejected was because of how it was run by the bullying Bishop of Alexandria, Dioscorus. Funnily enough, his sainted uncle, Cyril, was about as much a bully at the first council of Ephesus, and we accept it as ecumenical. Regardless, from 448 to 450, as far as anyone could tell, the imperial church was going to accept one-nature Christology. Hm.
  • In 754, there was an Iconoclast council at Constantinople that considered itself an ecumenical council. Iconoclasm, from the perspective of history as lived on the ground, had a lot of staying power until 787 at Nicaea 2, and was even reinstated by the imperial powers after that. Hm.

If we look at the ecumenical councils, we’ll see that there was a lot of arguing back and forth before and after them. They were not accepted immediately. Some spent a period of time being overturned, like Nicaea 1 and Nicaea 2. What makes them ecumenical is their long-term acceptance by the church — and even then, the so-called ‘Nestorian’ Church of the East only accepts two of seven, and the Oriental Orthodox of Miaphysite persuasion only accept three.

So what does this mean regarding Anglican General Synods?

Keep praying. Keep loving. Keep searching the Scriptures and their authority and figuring out what Truth is. Keep listening to the Holy Spirit. Hold fast to faith once delivered. Remember that the Church is Christ’s, not General Synod’s. Who knows why the Holy Spirit lets things happen that seem contrary to how we interpret Scripture and Gospel. But I like to think there was a purpose behind allowing the Council of Rimini to occur.

Oh, and if you’re a bishop: Obey canon law, for Pete’s sake.

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Nicaea and the principle of church councils

The Council of Nicaea
Council of Nicaea, St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

Today, my local Orthodox Church (Ecumenical Patriarchate of CP) was celebrating the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. I was hoping to slip into the Divine Liturgy, but no one unlocked the doors of the church, so I went for a short walk instead. Nonetheless, I felt it was timely, since this past Sunday my friend Cory was preaching on Acts 15, the ‘Council of Jerusalem’, wherein the Apostles gather to discuss whether Gentile Christians need to follow Mosaic ceremonial law or not.

The answer, as you know, is, ‘No.’

Actually, it’s a very interesting answer, because it includes this wonderful little phrase, ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…’ (Acts 15:28). It was not simply 12 Jewish dudes sitting around offering their own opinion on what level of commitment to Jewish law followers of the Way ought to have. Rather, the holy Apostles and the elders were gathered together in council, in dispute, and in prayer, and the Holy Spirit inspired them to see the way forward for the Jesus movement.

On what authority do these Apostles and elders decide that they know what seems good to the Holy Spirit?

Well, on the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, with whom they had travelled for a few years, whose resurrection they witnessed, whose deep teaching they received, and whose ascension into heaven left them dumbfounded. Not only that, but the Holy Spirit Himself has descended in miraculous power upon these people. They were selected by Jesus before He ascended. And they were anointed by the Holy Spirit in a stunningly palpable way afterwards.

The principle governing the Acts 15 council at Jerusalem was that when the leaders of Christ’s church, set apart for headship and anointed by the grace of the Holy Spirit, prayerfully meet together, the Holy Spirit can communicate through them.

This, whether you agree with the Council of Nicaea and the other six ecumenical councils, is the biblical foundation of the authority of the councils. It is an application as logically applied to these councils as any application your local Baptist or Presbyterian minister is likely to give you for your own life from any other passage of Acts.

Arguably, more so.

I once heard one of the guys who was at some point associated with the word ‘Emergent’ (honestly, it was my sole encounter with him, years ago) state that he didn’t want to have to believe the Nicene Creed just because a bunch of guys said this was orthodoxy. Who, he said, were they to tell him what to believe?

The argument is this: They are the church’s chosen, anointed leaders.

The bishops gathered together in council. They argued. They prayed. Some guys may have been punched (unlikely — sorry, St Nicholas fans). They argued. They put together a faith statement. They argued about it. They signed off on it.

According to the ideal church structures of the time, each of these bishops was an actual spiritual elder. For example, St Spyridon was a shepherd of such great holiness of life that he was chosen to be bishop by the local community in Cyprus. The theory of episcopal election was that the local bishop, the overseer of local church life, was chosen — elected, even — by his local community, both clerical and lay. So each of the alleged 318 ‘Fathers’ at Nicaea was an elected representative of the Christian community in his home city. That, at least, is the theory.

Another fact is that they did not see themselves as a bunch of unrelated, discrete units, entirely autonomous of each other. They believed that the individual Christian believers, their local congregations, and the congregations of cities reaching from London to Adiabene, from Gallaecia to Alexandria, were united through the simple fact that they were Christ’s mystical body. Therefore, if you could get a majority of their elected, anointed leaders to agree about something, it was something to which to pay heed.

Now, you may think that is still all nonsense. And, in fact, the councils for which we have the blow-by-blow records show us how fractious these assemblies of Christ’s elected, anointed ministers could be. Furthermore, orthodoxy should probably be better determined than simply a majority vote. I, personally, agree with the seven ecumenical councils because I think they are the most philosophically defensible and biblically faithful expression of Christian doctrine out there.

But that’s a different argument, isn’t it?

Dionysius Exiguus and church councils

The Council of Nicaea
Council of Nicaea, St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

In the introduction to his collection of canon law documents (canonical collection), Dionysius Exiguus (c. 525) discusses how the Greek canon is the same as the Latin regula, then moves on to a discussion of the (then) four main councils:

Now, the canons of the general councils begin from the times of Constantine since in the preceding years when persecution was raging, opportunity for teaching the people was least given. Then Christianity was divided into various heresies because there was no freedom for the bishops to come together into one except in the time of the abovementioned emperor. For he gave the opportunity to Christians to gather freely. Under this also the holy fathers, coming from all the globe of the lands in the Nicene Council handed down the second symbolum (henceforth ‘creed’) after the Apostles joined to the evangelical and apostolic faith. Amongst the rest of the councils, there are four venerable synods which principally embrace the whole faith just like the four Gospels and as many rivers of Paradise.

Of these, the first was the Nicene Synod of the three hundred and eighteen bishops, carried out with Constantine Augustus ruling. In this one, the blasphemy of the Arian falsehood was condemned, which concerning the inequality of the Holy Trinity that Arius indeed asserted, the holy synod defined that God the Son is consubstantial with God the Father through a creed.

The second synod of 400 fathers under Theodosius the Elder was gathered at Constantinople which, condemning Macedonius who denied that the Holy Spirit was God, demonstrated that the Holy Spirit is consubstantial with the Father and the Son, giving the shape to the creed which the entire confession of the Greeks and Latins proclaim in the churches.

The third synod is the first of Ephesus, of 200 bishops, produced under Theodosius the Younger, which justly condemned in an anathema Nestorius who was asserting that there were two persons in Christ, showing that there is one person of the Lord Jesus Christ in two natures.

The fourth synod, that of Chalcedon of 630 priests (sacerdotes), was held under the princeps Marcian. In it, one judgement of the fathers condemned Eutyches, an abbot of Constantinople who was a defender of the one nature of God the Word and the flesh, and a certain Bishop of Alexandria and Nestorius himself again with the rest of the heretics. The same synod proclaimed that Christ God was so born from the virgin that we confess in him the substance of the divine and human nature.

These are the four principal synods that proclaim most fully the teaching of the faith but also, if there are councils which the holy fathers, filled with the Spirit of God, sanctify after the authority of these four, they would remain with a sturdy strength, whose established deeds are contained in this work. (My trans. from Vat. lat. 1337, fol. 1r-v)

Dionysius’ main concern is not, of course, their doctrinal rulings, although he does include the symbolum of Nicaea amongst his texts. His concern is their canons, their regulations for church life, all of which he freshly translated out of Greek into Latin alongside the regulations from various local church councils and the document called the ‘Canons of the Apostles’. Later on he compiles a collection of papal letters (thus my interest in him). This letter collection is appended to that of the canons.

One quick reflection upon what is an intrinsically interesting document. All four councils were called by emperors, all of whom Dionysius names — Constantine, Theodosius I, Theodosius II, Marcian. Indeed, he states that such general councils would not have been possible before Constantine because of boiling persecution (persecutione feruente). This point is made elsewhere. It is worth thinking on. Today, we have no emperor to make safe the roads and compel bishops to come by edict. But back then, that was the only way to get as many together to qualify as worldwide (ecumenical). Note also that Dionysius leaves room for more councils!

It is also worth remembering that local synods are attested frequently before Constantine, such as the deposition of Paul of Samosata at an Antiochene synod in the 200s, or various local synods in Rome. Or others that escape my mind but likely happened. From the Council of Jerusalem in Acts, church leaders have always sought to gather together to discuss, pray, and debate thereby discovering what ‘seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ (Acts 15:28).