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Notes on Genre, Councils, and Historical Consciousness

By Fr. Mark Perkins

Editor's Note: The following is not officially part of Fr. Mark's ongoing series on Nicea II but is instead a brief digression from that series addressing particular objections to his essay "Reading the Anglican Formularies in Light of the Ecumenical Councils."

“Some historians of an older generation — especially Anglicans — were fond of referring to ‘the undivided Church of the first five centuries’; a phrase which will raise the eyebrows of the contemporary historian, familiar with the complex tensions and manifold variety of these centuries.”

The implication, perhaps, is that my harping on “the undivided Church” reflects historical naiveté — an out-of-date and unsupportably rosy view of the early Church. Engaging this implicit critique will help clarify what it means — and what it does not mean — to claim that an Ecumenical Council reflects the voice of the undivided Church. Ironically, we will see that the approach of some of my critics evinces a doubly-deficient historical consciousness: a failure to understand historical agents as they understood themselves, and a failure to distinguish historical data from theological reasoning.

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The first irony is that, in defending “classical Anglicanism,” my interlocutors resort to arguments that the Anglican Reformers themselves would have roundly rejected. Note that Archbishop Williams’ quarrel in the quote above is not with the Seven Councils but rather with Bishop Andrewes and the mainstream Anglican tradition, which ascribes authority to the four Ecumenical Councils of “the first five centuries” while denying it to the latter three Ecumenical Councils of the first millennium. In attempting to deny Nicea II, these critics end up undoing the very “boundary of our faith” that Bp. Andrewes, Fr. Ben Jefferies, and others attempt to maintain.

A second and related irony is that, as far as the quoted text goes, Archbishop Williams’ claim supports my own: there is absolutely no reason to draw a line after the first five centuries — nothing that makes Chalcedon more or less ecumenically authoritative than the other Councils of the first millennium.

Perhaps Archbishop Williams would not place as much emphasis on the division of the Church in 1054 A.D. as I do — not having read the book, I cannot say. My critics certainly reject the notion of meaningful unity prior to the Great Schism. Indeed, I was mildly surprised that, rather than continuing the doomed attempt to distinguish the reception of Chalcedon from that of Nicea II, some claimed instead that neither really has universal scope, since both are rejected by at least some jurisdictions. Obviously, if you do not accept the ecumenical authority of the first Four Councils, then little of what I wrote in my prior piece is relevant.

Which leads us to the third and most subtle irony. In rejecting the theological construct of “the undivided Church,” my critics appear to have historical nuance and sophistication on their side. But, as it turns out, their claims actually reveal a deficient historical consciousness — not a lack of historical data but rather a failure to think carefully enough about the nature and limits of historical thinking.

Perhaps some do see “the undivided Church” of the first millennium as a harmonious, happy-clappy unity where everyone held hands around campfires, and Christians were known only by their love. Certainly the phrase can be used to paper over the “complex tensions and manifold variety” evident in every era of the Church. We should also recognize that it is unavoidably anachronistic — as is every term used for a historical “pre-” era. The first-millennium Church did not have the theological construct of “the Seven Ecumenical Councils” or “the undivided Church” — any more than my American ancestors understood themselves to be living in “the Antebellum South.” Nor does the term homoousios date to the New Testament. The question in each instance is simply whether these inevitably anachronistic terms accurately describe the reality.

The historical significance of 1054 can be overextended. Historically speaking, the Great Schism amounts to a long-delayed acknowledgment of pre-existing realities of theological dispute and divergence. But while 1054 can be overblown, it can certainly be “underblown” as well. If the many ways in which East and West were already divided in 1054 — not to mention the infinite variety within each of these constructs of “East” and “West” — blind us to the theological significance of finally broken intercommunion between East and West, then something has gone wrong with our understanding of the Church.

The error stems from a failure to distinguish between sociological observation and theology. A sociological approach provides invaluable data for understanding the lived realities of Christians — their problems, practices, and communities. But sociology cannot see the ontological existence of the Church.

That same failure paradoxically undergirds the view that the English Reformation constitutes a complete break in the history of the Church of England — that, because the Reformation introduced revolutionary changes in ritual and theology and in society at large, any reference to a pre-Reformation heritage for Anglicans amounts to a kind of ahistorical Romanticism.

This brings us back to our first irony — that, in order to maintain the theological positions of the Anglican Reformers, Reformed Anglicans insist that the Reformers did in fact do precisely that which they claimed never to be doing. The Anglican Reformers saw themselves as defending a deposit of faith which, while expressed in theology and ritual, was not ultimately reducible to these concerns. The self-understanding of these “Anglicans” in the sixteenth century and beyond was that, despite dramatic and even revolutionary changes, the Church of England was not born in the sixteenth century but, rather, was an instantiation of the very Church of Christ.

My critics likewise fail to honor the self-understanding of the Ecumenical Councils. I claimed previously that the Formularies are “a collection of resources that, by contrast with the Ecumenical Councils, are not generically identical.” Some appear to have misread me as claiming that the Councils were “generally” identical. Generic identity, however, has nothing to do with the precise content of the text nor with its validity or veracity. It simply affirms, as I wrote, that “the Ecumenical Councils are identical in genre.” For example, the Four Gospels share certain traits that make them identifiable as Gospels — traits that they share with any number of apocryphal gospels. New Testament epistles likewise share generic traits that make them identifiable as epistles — and, again, they share these with various pseudonymous epistles. Genre tells you how a text presents itself — how it is intended to be read and received. Great mischief arises, not only in the Church but in history and in everyday life, when genre is misunderstood or misconstrued.

What makes the Ecumenical Councils generically identical has nothing to do with external reception. Rather, internal claims of authority constitute their generic identity. They all purport to speak on behalf of and for the whole Church. The Ecumenical Councils do not say, “Here’s how we read Scripture — hope y’all see it the same way!” Instead, the Councils claimed that their Definitions have universal authority over every Christian everywhere.

Of course, they share this generic identity with the “Robber Synod” of Ephesus in 449 and the “Mock Council” of Hieria in 754, as well as with any number of later purportedly ecumenical bodies in both East but especially West. Recognizing the genre does not require accepting the claim, but it does require actually wrestling with the expressed self-understanding of the Councils themselves.

As I suggested in my last piece, one can certainly affirm the content of the Nicene Creed and agree with Chalcedonian Christology without any direct resort to the Councils. To put it most bluntly, my quarrel here is with those who would like to maintain a pretense of adhering to the first Four Councils while simultaneously rejecting the explicit authority claims of all the Ecumenical Councils. I am reminded of a coworker who once declared, “I have no problem obeying rules, so long as I agree with them.” That’s not how rules work — nor is it how the Ecumenical Councils present themselves.

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Deciding who or what merits our trust is never easy, and the messy history of our particular tradition does not make it any easier. Yet the Church has always been a site of fierce dispute and contentious diversity from the days of St. Paul on down through our own. To trust the Councils does not require that we ignore the vagaries of history or deny the nuances and complexities of conciliar negotiation and dispute — indeed, the Councils themselves are the clearest evidence of ecclesial dispute that we have! These disputed Councils, however, all presuppose one thing that the undivided Church of the first millennium did affirm in every purported Ecumenical Council, whether legitimate or otherwise: that the Church could in theory speak — and that she had in fact spoken — universally and authoritatively in a manner that all Christians were bound to accept. This confidence rests not upon some illusory equanimity or easy agreement, nor are the tools of historical investigation sufficient in themselves to evaluate the claim. Rather, it depends upon our Lord Jesus Christ himself, who promised that the Spirit would lead his Mystical Body into all truth.

Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Executive Editor of Earth & Altar.


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