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?

The “Triumph of Orthodoxy”

Late 14th century icon illustrating the "Triumph of Orthodoxy" under the Byzantine Empress Theodora and her son Michael III over iconoclasm in 843. (National Icon Collection 18, British Museum)
Late 14th century icon illustrating the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” under the Byzantine Empress Theodora and her son Michael III over iconoclasm in 843. (National Icon Collection 18, British Museum)

Eastern and Western Easter are very far apart this year — we just observed Palm Sunday by the Western calendar, while our brothers and sisters in the Eastern churches* just celebrated the First Sunday of Great Lent, the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. When I did my series of presentations on Ancient Christianity for the Greek Evangelical Chuch in Nicosia, Cyprus, one of the gentlemen present was very concerned with the Triumph of Orthodoxy and the Orthodox use of icons. The Triumph of Orthodoxy, you see, is a feast celebrating the reaffirmation in 843 of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the Second of Nicaea, that took place in 787, and approved the use of icons in Christian worship. My focus today is on 787 as the triumph, even if we had to wait until 843 for its full acceptance in the East.

His concern was that the Orthodox are so obsessed with icons that they see the settling of the icon question as central to their identity, and call it the ‘triumph’ of Orthodoxy. The Greek Evangelical Church of Cyprus, like its relative (but structurally distinct) in Greece, is a Presbyterian denomination. The Reformed are always cautious of images. And for Protestants in Orthodox countries, the ubiquity of icons becomes a stumbling block between the different Christian communities. This fellow felt that Orthodox iconodulism (veneration of icons) obscures the Gospel. I don’t recall everything he expressed to me, so I cannot say how close he feels it comes to idolatry.

John Calvin certainly felt that images were by nature impious.

Now, I am not Eastern Orthodox, so I may accidentally misrepresent something here. My apologies.

Nevertheless, the question arises: Why celebrate Second Nicaea, in 787, and its affirmation in 843, every year as the Triumph of Orthodoxy?

The answer is not simply that Orthodox Christians loves them some icons. I mean, they do — this Saturday, Father Raphael was explaining some of the icons in the chapel in Edinburgh to my wife and me. But when Father Raphael discusses the theology of icons and iconology, it becomes apparent that the images are to be venerated as signs and signifiers of greater wonders, theological truths, mysteries of faith, historical encounters with God.

But that is not why the Seventh Ecumenical Council is the Triumph of Orthodoxy.

The great controversies of the Seven Ecumenical Councils are all Christological:

  1. At Nicaea in 325, the question was debated as to whether ‘there was when Christ was not’ and if Christ is to be called homoousios (no to the former, yes to the latter). The resulting Creed was much debated until
  2. the First Council of Constantinople in 381 that reaffirmed the teaching of Nicaea and added some further clauses on the Holy Spirit. Having settled the question of Christ’s divinity to their satisfaction, the bishops of the imperial church began to debate about what it means for Him to be both human and divine.
  3. At Ephesus in 431, the apparent teaching of Nestorius was rejected that divided Christ to such a degree that He was two persons; the epithet Theotokos, God-bearer, was approved for the BVM because it affirms that the Person born of her was, indeed, fully God from the moment of conception.
  4. The Fourth Ecumenical Council, at Chalcedon in 451, affirmed that the single Person of Christ has two natures, one human and one divine, drafting a definition of faith to that effect.
  5. The Fifth Ecumenical Council, the Second of Constantinople, in 553, tried to reconcile Chalcedon to the conservative Cyrillians (Mono-/Miaphysites) by giving it a more Cyrillian interpretation and anathematising certain persons and teachings.
  6. The Sixth Ecumenical Council, the Third of Constantinople, of 681, rejected the teachings of Monothelitism and upheld the teachings of St Maximus the Confessor that maintain that if Christ has two natures, he must have two wills.
  7. The Seventh Ecumenical Council, the Second of Nicaea, in 787, upheld the production and use of icons in Christian worship.
Seventh ecumenical council, Icon, 17th century, Novodevichy Convent, Moscow
Seventh ecumenical council, Icon, 17th century, Novodevichy Convent, Moscow

Put this way, it is obvious how the first six are Christological, but less so regarding the Seventh, unless you look at what the Council Fathers affirm. After affirming their rootedness in tradition, the Council Fathers declare that representational art:

is quite in harmony with the history of the spread of the gospel, as it provides confirmation that the becoming man of the Word of God was real and not just imaginary, and as it brings us a similar benefit. For, things that mutually illustrate one another undoubtedly possess one another’s message.

They say a bit later:

The more frequently they 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. Certainly this is not the full adoration {latria} in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but it resembles that given to the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred cult objects. Further, people are drawn to honour these images with the offering of incense and lights, as was piously established by ancient custom. Indeed, the honour paid to an image traverses it, reaching the model, and he who venerates the image, venerates the person represented in that image.

The logic of icons of Our Lord is simple. God the Word became Incarnate as a real, flesh and blood human being, possessing a true human nature and existing as a real, single person. This He did for our salvation. The Apostles saw him and touched him. If they had wanted to, they could have painted him. If there had been cameras, they could have photographed him. Jesus was real, not fake. There is no space for docetism in orthodox Christianity. Therefore, the teaching of Deuteronomy 4, that the Israelites could not make images of God because they had not seen him, no longer holds for God the Word Incarnate, although it still counts for God the Father and the Trinity as a whole, as I have discussed.

The Reformed are free to dispute and argue with this, so long as they stand within the bounds of logic and Scripture. However, what they cannot dispute is that images of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, are approved by the ancient churches on the grounds of the Incarnation, on the grounds of the Gospel truth that God became man in order to save us.

The Seventh Ecumenical Council is the final council of the united church. None of the General Councils of the western church from the Middle Ages to Vatican II can truly be ecumenical without Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. This council affirms the teaching of the ‘last’ of the Eastern Fathers, that iconodule St John of Damascus, the most famous supporter of icons, who was my introduction to the Iconoclast Controversy through the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.

East and West both affirm the full divinity and humanity of Christ the Word Incarnate. Centuries of debate went into our orthodox understanding of Christ to produce teachings that are the most biblically faithful and philosophical coherent ones out there. Their culmination was in the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The foundations for subsequent Christian theology were thus laid, and in just under three centuries, East and West would part ways. This was also a great moment of unity for us.

How could this not be the triumph of orthodoxy?

*I make this plural not because I am confused about whether or not Greek, Russian, Serbian, Romanian, Antiochian, etc, Churches are all the same thing but because Eastern Orthodox and Eastern/Greek/Byzantine Rite Catholic (“Uniate” in some circles) follow the same calendar; Oriental Orthodox Churches, I believe, have the same Easter, but I am not certain of their other feasts, since they do not recognise all Seven Ecumenical Councils.