On the Seventh Council

By Fr. Mark Perkins


“I confess and I agree to and I receive and I salute and I venerate in the first place the spotless image of our Lord Jesus Christ, our true God, and the holy image of her who bore him without seed, the holy Mother of God, and her help and protection and intercessions each day and night as a sinner to my aid I call for…. Likewise I also receive and venerate the images of the holy and most laudable Apostles, prophets, and martyrs and the fathers and cultivators of the desert. Not indeed as gods (God forbid!) do I ask all these with my whole heart to pray for me to God, that he may grant me through their intercessions to find mercy at his hand at the day of judgment.” -Unnamed bishop at Session I of the Seventh Council repudiating iconoclasm and asking to be received back into the Holy Catholic Church [Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, The Seven Ecumenical Councils (Vol. 14, Second Series), 534].

Fr. Jefferies once again provided substantive and productive engagement in the comments — this time below my piece on Anglicans and Ecumenical Councils. Let me first cede that I indeed misread my source material — due to, as Fr. Jefferies graciously notes, the rather confusing format employed by New Advent. The explicit anathema I mentioned is cited but not affirmed by the Seventh Council (and is indeed part of a rejected iconoclastic council). Hence, I was wrong to claim that the Seventh Council anathematized those who deny invocation. But, as I already stated and will demonstrate below, invocation remains at the heart of the matter even without the anathema.


Before that, let’s step back and consider what is necessary to prove our claim — which is simply that “ora pro nobis” is fitting and appropriate in Anglican public worship. By contrast, Fr. Jefferies maintains that invocation (or advocation) of the saints is inappropriate in Anglican public liturgy because it is contrary to the formularies, tends towards idolatry (or can so tend, at least), and has no precedent in Anglican liturgical history. Fr. Wesley has offered many arguments to the contrary. I still find his second piece to be fundamentally unanswered and unanswerable. Given the legitimately disputed nature of the Scripture in question, the absence of invocation in post-Reformational Anglican liturgy, as well as the controverted interpretation of Article XXII, a definitive answer to our question will be found in the Ecumenical Councils.


My previous piece maintained that we must submit the Anglican formularies to the greater authoritative witness of the Creeds and Ecumenical Councils. There is no argument for submitting private judgment to the judgment of the Church that does not properly culminate in acknowledging the authority of the Creeds and Councils. (As I note in my piece, this authority is by no means in competition with — much less standing over against — Scripture. Rather, the question is to whom do we turn when Scripture’s interpretation is in doubt? If the answer is not “private judgment,” then it cannot but ultimately be the universal witness of the undivided Church.) Fr. Jefferies agreed that Ecumenical Councils are authoritative. Indeed, he went further in affirming their infallibility! — a view to which I tend but did not commit myself.


Thus far we are substantially in agreement — and that is quite far! Hence, I take it that if I could convince Fr. Jefferies that the Seventh Council is in fact ecumenical and that it affirms invocation, he would cede the argument.


Before tackling those two claims, let me tangentially note my agreement that Scripture contains threads suggesting that icons can be misused in idolatrous ways. I expect the Eastern Orthodox would also concede as much. But of course Scripture itself can be misused in frankly idolatrous ways — as Fr. Myles Hixson recently and incidentally noted in The Sacramentalists — and so the potential for misuse can hardly be decisive. Moreover, I am wary of the implied connection between Hezekiah’s destruction of Moses’ serpent and icons. The serpent’s utility as a means of grace ceased with the end of the serpent epidemic in Numbers 21, whereas icons are by nature windows into eternity. Even when misused, their deliberate destruction cannot be countenanced — just as a response to “bibliolatry” is not destroying Bibles but rather reforming our view of the Bible. I nevertheless accept, as Fr. Wesley has indicated, that there may be times when fundamentally good practices may be temporarily withheld in order to curb abuse. For instance, a parishioner whose spiritual life suffered from excessive faith in the academic study of Scripture — to the detriment of faith in the Lord of Scripture — might be pastorally encouraged to put aside academic study for a time in favor of contemplative prayer.


Reception of the Ecumenical Councils


Let’s turn to the heart of the matter. Is the Council of 787 rightly deemed ecumenical? How do we decide whether a Council is ecumenical or not? As I suggested previously, “the Roman Catholic Church and all the major Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions unanimously accept the Seven Councils and have done so for a thousand years.” I simply cannot imagine a reasonable standard of reception that marginalizes that witness — particularly the universal witness of the Churches East and West in the half-millennium prior to the Reformation — without marginalizing all the Ecumenical Councils. Frankly, that seems to me to be the long and short of it.


This does not mean that, when we look closer at the inevitable murkiness and contingencies of historical life, things weren’t touch-and-go or obscure for a time. Quite the opposite! In my last piece I acknowledged the thorniness of the question — the messiness of the actual history, disguised neatly by the phrase “the Seven Ecumenical Councils”:


“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.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Fr. Jefferies’ most recent piece seems to minimize that messiness, producing a misleadingly sharp distinction between the universal reception of the first four councils and the “uncertain” reception of the latter three. He writes, “The Robber Synod of Ephesus [in AD 449] had all the marks of ecumenicity (Emperor-sanction, wide representation of bishops, intentionally self-styled as ecumenical) but its decrees were rejected by the wider church.” This is quite right — but how can we be sure it was rejected by the wider Church? Most fundamentally because the Fourth Ecumenical Council — that of Chalcedon in AD 451 — said so. As I suggested, the only recourse to such “alleged error would be revision by a subsequent Ecumenical Council. Nothing short of that — no individual, no jurisdiction, no regional council — will do.” Without an Ecumenical Council subsequently clarifying that the Council of Ephesus in AD 449 was an imposter, we would be on shaky ground in exercising our personal judgment to reach the same conclusion.


Likewise, Fr. Jefferies writes,


“The Council of Nicea was not well publicized in the West (recall, St. Hilary claims in 350 to have never heard of it!), but the moment the Spirit-filled Church did hear of it, it was received. This was further affirmed by Constantinople I, etc.”

I am no expert on fourth-century Christianity, but this seems far too neat. The standard histories (Henry Chadwick’s The Early Church and The Church in Ancient Society; Justo González’s The Story of Christianity) paint a broad picture not of immediate and universal reception — but rather a half-century of severe internal strife over Arianism. Even fifty years on, we find Valens, an out-and-out Arian heretic, occupying the imperial throne.


Hence, Fr. Jefferies’ picture of immediate reception seems overly rosy — and it is only with this arguably mythical version of reception in mind that the Seventh Council can be doubted. Fr. Jefferies argues that the rejection of Charlemagne and his court of bishops, along with the Synod of Frankfurt in AD 794, justifies labelling the Council’s reception as uncertain, despite the immediate acceptance of the four Eastern Patriarchates and the Bishop of Rome. But this rejection by Charlemagne — emperor of (a huge) part of Christendom — seems less compelling than the Arian heresy of multiple fourth-century Roman emperors, who ruled virtually the entire Christian world. Nor does any Christian body that I know of recognize the Frankfurt Synod as authoritative (even the Robber Synod can claim the endorsement of the Oriental Orthodox!). By contrast, the Fourth Council — universally accepted by Anglicans — triggered the first significant and ongoing schism in the history of the Church. If the schismatic secession of all Coptic and Syriac jurisdictions does not put Chalcedon’s authority in doubt — and we all agree that it does not — I hardly see how Charlemagne and his Frankish bishops justify legitimate doubt over the ecumenicity of the Seventh Ecumenical Council.


Despite this Frankish dissention, the Church in both East and West came to accept the Seventh Council as definitive and had done so for over 500 years prior to the Reformation. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions continue to do so up to this very day. Unless and until the Church again speaks in Ecumenical Council, there is no rejection of the Seven Councils that does not imply an elevation of personal judgment over the voice of the undivided Church.


Anglicans and the Councils


Why, then, have many Anglicans failed fully to accept the latter three as authoritative? In my last piece I suggested that much of the opposition is linked either to a rejection of conciliar authority as such or to a conviction that the Seventh Council misinterprets Scripture. (The latter, of course, implies the former — one cannot reject a Council’s interpretation of Scripture without thereby rejecting the Council’s authority in the first place.) Fr. Jefferies is right to suggest that this explanation is incomplete, given that it clearly does not describe figures like Lancelot Andrewes.


Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677): "Lancelot Andrewes"

Andrewes famously defined the patristic deposit of faith thusly:


“One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries, and the series of Fathers in that period — the centuries that is, before Constantine, and two after, determine the boundary of our faith.”

On the one hand, I might caution against placing too much theological weight on a brilliant mnemonic device. But, on the other, I must acknowledge the rather firm assertion of “the boundary of our faith.” Why does Andrewes place the boundary where he does? Ultimately I suspect this question is not answerable. I recall Dr. Bill Witt suggesting — in an off-hand comment in class as we discussed Andrewes — that he knew of no explanation from Andrewes or any other early Anglican divine for the silence about or partial acceptance of the latter three Ecumenical Councils. Perhaps Andrewes shared Fr. Jefferies’ concerns about reception. If so, we must conclude — fearfully and with all due respect — that Andrewes was wrong. The Ecumenical Councils may be infallible; even the greatest of our Anglican forebears were not.


Whatever the reason, Anglicans do seem to suffer from a kind of magical thinking about the first five centuries. As E. L. Mascall notes, “the notion that Christology came to a full stop with Chalcedon has become deeply rooted in English-speaking theological circles” — whether viewed as “its triumphant climax” or as “the end of a blind alley where it died of sheer frustration and inanition” (“On from Chalcedon,” Whatever Happened to the Human Mind?, 30). It is true that much of the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Councils amount to “mop up” — the core elements of Christology were settled at Chalcedon, and it is to Chalcedon that we rightly turn as a baseline for judging orthodoxy. But, as Mascall says, the Definition of Chalcedon “is the truth and nothing but the truth, but… it is not the whole truth” (29). The Third Council does not lose its authority simply because its determinations are less comprehensive than those before and after. Neither is this any good reason to reject the Fifth, Sixth, or Seventh Councils.


Invocation and the Seventh Council


Fr. Jefferies maintains an “out.” Even if he accepts the Seventh Council’s ecumenicity, he suggests that, since it doesn’t explicitly affirm invocation, then neither must we (whether we may is different). But it does.


Fr. Jefferies points out that “the fourth session expressly states that to exclaim in prayer, ‘Glory be to the God of [Saint's Name]!’ is what is intended as the right honoring of the saints.” This is indeed a right honoring of saints. None of us, of course, object to Fr. Jefferies’ “Reformed liturgy” on the grounds of its theological inappropriateness — as though it would be in any way wrong to give God glory for his saints! Far be it from us! Yet we can also affirm that the Seventh Council goes much, much further.


Fr. Jefferies rightly corrected my incorrect correction of his as-it-turns-out correct correction of Fr. Wesley (...got it?): the Seventh Council, it seems, does not anathemize opposition to invocation. But it does repeatedly assume the propriety of it — by invoking the saints! That same fourth session cited by Fr. Jefferies affirms,


“But we salute the voices of the Lord and of his Apostles through which we have been taught to honour in the first place her who is properly and truly the Mother of God and exalted above all the heavenly powers; also the holy and angelic powers; and the blessed and altogether lauded Apostles, and the glorious Prophets and the triumphant Martyrs which fought for Christ, and the holy and God-bearing Doctors, and all holy men; and to seek for their intercessions, as able to render us at home with the all-royal God of all, so long as we keep his commandments, and strive to live virtuously” [Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, The Seven Ecumenical Councils (Vol. 14, Second Series), 541, emphasis added].

Session I includes the petitions of several bishops who, having been led astray by the Iconoclasts, ask to be received back into the Holy Catholic Church. The first one cited is from Bishop Basil of Ancyra. He rehearses before the Council how he was led into error. He accepts all blame himself and repudiates his error thusly:


“I confess all things pertaining to the incarnation of one of the Holy Trinity, our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, as the Saints and the six Ecumenical Councils have handed down. And I reject and anathematize every heretical babbling, as they also have rejected them. I ask for the intercessions of our spotless Lady the Holy Mother of God, and those of the holy and heavenly powers, and those of all the Saints” [ibid., 533].

The footnote in NPCF attached to this quotation clarifies, “Thus far there was no expression of opinion from which the Iconoclasts would have dissented, for in all that regarded the Blessed Virgin and the Saints and their invocation and patronage, the heretics agreed with the Orthodox. Protestants have been in the habit of treating the Iconoclasts as if they were substantially agreed with them with regard to the cultus of the Blessed Virgin and the other Saints. What an error this is, is easily proved by citing two of the anathematisms of their Conciliabulum” (both affirm invocation; neither seems to be the particular one that led me astray).


After Bp. Basil concluded his petition, St. Tarasius, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, responded: “The whole sacred gathering yields glory and thanks to God for this confession of yours, which you have made to the Catholic Church.” The Holy Synod is recorded as declaring, “Glory to God which maketh one that which was severed” (ibid., 534).


The only other petition quoted — the source of the long quotation heading this essay — is even more explicit, asking “the holy Mother of God” for “her help and protection and intercessions each day and night,” and petitioning the saints “with my whole heart to pray for me to God, that he may grant me through their intercessions to find mercy at his hand at the day of judgment.” The bishop also cites Chrysostom as saying, “The charity of the Saints is not diminished by their death, nor does it come to an end with their exit from life, but after their death they are still more powerful than when they were alive” (the location of this quote is not provided). He likewise is received back into the fold of the Catholic Church.


A cursory perusal of the ten pages of the Council’s Acts provided by Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers turned up these examples. I imagine a more thorough study would uncover countless more instances of invocation. The long and short of it is that the Seventh Council did not explicitly rule on invocation — because it was assumed by iconoclasts and iconodules alike! The Council practiced invocation, and it endorsed invocation as practiced by repentant heretics seeking restoration to the Catholic Church.


To put my entire argument as briefly as possible: the voice of the Church speaks most authoritatively in Ecumenical Council; there is no argument for doubting the ecumenical character of the Second Council of Nicea which does not thereby cast doubt on most or all of the Ecumenical Councils, in particular the First and Fourth; the Seventh Ecumenical Council practices and endorses invocation.


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.