A Digression on Ecumenical Councils

By Fr. Mark Perkins


16th-century fresco depicting the First Council of Nicaea

If you are following the conversation over “Ora Pro Nobis” and the invocation/advocation of saints, make sure you check out Fr. Ben Jefferies thoughtful and provocative (in the best sense!) response down in the comments section of Fr. Wesley’s latest piece. I want to respond, briefly, because Fr. Jefferies makes some very good points, and unpacking them just a little will help us better understand how to relate to the one Church of God as members of an Anglican jurisdiction.


Fr. Jefferies writes:

Part of why a reliance on historic Anglican formularies is so important to me is that it provides a canon by which the teachings and practices of individual bishops can be tested and to which Christian appeal can be made.

I agree — as did Fr. Wesley, implicitly, in his last piece. But the premise here leads us not simply to value the historic Anglican formularies but furthermore to prioritize the Creeds and Ecumenical Councils as the authoritative grid through which to interpret (1) the finally authoritative witness of Scripture and (2) the derivative authority of the historic Anglican formularies. (I would add — and I am sure Fr. Jefferies would agree — that our entire liturgy summed in the Book of Common Prayer acts as a living framework through which we pray our theology. Given the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, I would further argue that the liturgy, like the Councils and Creeds, acts as a guideline for interpreting and enacting the Articles, rather than vice versa.) As far as I can tell, all of us agree that Holy Scripture speaks finally and authoritatively — and also that the interpretation of Scripture is fraught and open to heretical misreadings. All of us therefore are wary of privileging personal judgment and interpretation in such a way as to disregard or diminish the witness of the Church corporate.


So we agree that the historic formularies are valuable in this sense. But as acts of one part of Christ’s Church, they necessarily are secondary to and under the authority of the universal witness of the whole Church — which witness we find most clearly and definitively in the Creeds and Ecumenical Councils.


Fr. Jefferies, however, raises two concerns. First, he argues that “The anethemas [sic] of the council of 787 are in plain sight, and they do not speak of the invocation of saints. You can find them half-way down the page here: https://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils/ecum07.htm.” However, what that link provides is a sample of anathemas — specifically of those "concerning holy images" — rather than a complete list. For the latter, see New Advent's excerpt from the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, where one finds the following: “17. If anyone denies the profit of the invocation of Saints, let him be anathema.” [Editor's note: Please see Fr. Jefferies' comment at the bottom, where he persuasively argues that I am in fact wrong on this particular point.] Of course, even if the Council had not included this anathema, invocation would still be at the heart of the matter — because invocation/advocation undergirds the entire concept of iconography, as Fr. Sean suggests here.


Secondly, Fr. Jefferies rightly points out that Anglicans (and Protestants generally) have frequently failed to embrace the Seventh Council, either in part or in its entirety. (As Fr. Wesley argued, those who accept the “Christological clarifications” of the latter three are bound to accept the Council’s teachings on invocation, which are inherently Christological.) However, my sense is that this rejection is less about doubting its validity as an Ecumenical Council — and far more about (1) rejecting its conclusions and (2) rejecting conciliar authority as such.


Per the latter point, some Reformed Anglicans do not accept that the Councils authoritatively interpret Scripture in the first place, basing their position on a particular reading of Article 21. That Article has never applied to the United States, and some argue that it does not refer to Ecumenical Councils at all. But laying those issues aside, what Article 21 claims is that councils “may err, and sometimes have erred.” It is worth noting, however, that authoritative interpretation need not be infallible. It is perfectly consistent to cede that Ecumenical Councils may err, while nevertheless maintaining their authority — in which case the solution to alleged error would be revision by a subsequent Ecumenical Council. Nothing short of that — no individual, no jurisdiction, no regional council — will do.


Others, while maintaining some theoretical authority of councils, follow John Calvin in rejecting iconography as inherently unscriptural — which in turn requires them to reject the authority of the Seventh Council. The problem here, of course, is that doing so inherently undermines conciliar authority: if you adjudicate the authority of a council on the basis of whether it adheres to (your personal interpretation of) Scripture, then clearly the authoritative interpreter is not the Council but you.


Fr. Jefferies does bring up the thorny question of determining which councils are authoritative. As Fr. Gene notes in the comments, the authority of the councils depends upon the reception of the Church as a whole over time. Even the most cursory reading of Church history shows that the judgments of the Councils were rarely accepted immediately and by all. Dueling interpretations and dueling councils proliferated. But, if I am not mistaken, the Roman Catholic Church and all the major Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions unanimously accept the Seven Councils and have done so for a thousand years. Only with the Reformation was their validity brought into question — and, again, these doubts were arguably premised not on the specific concerns about individual councils to which Fr. Jefferies alludes, but rather on a rejection of conciliar authority, tradition, and the Church’s teaching authority itself.


The tendency among some Anglicans, past and present, to pick and choose among the latter three Ecumenical Councils is curious, to say the least. And the tendency among some to accept the historic Anglican formularies while rejecting some of the Councils — and in particular to read the formularies in such a way as to make that rejection necessary — is doubly curious. They are left in the odd position of affirming the teaching authority of a particular instantiation of the Church to the exclusion of the Church’s ecumenical declarations.


Fr. Mark Perkins is Assistant Editor of Earth & Altar. He is also Assistant Curate at All Saints Anglican Church, Charlottesville and a full-time history teacher.