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Reading the Anglican Formularies in Light of the Ecumenical Councils

Part 4 of Nicea II and You: Conciliar Authority and Iconographic Devotion

By Fr. Mark Perkins

Editor’s Note: In this series, Fr. Mark Perkins responds to Fr. Ben Jefferies’ essay “All That Is Not True About Nicea II,” his latest salvo in our ongoing discussion of the invocation of the saints. Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here collectively established a theology of iconography. In this piece Fr. Mark counters Fr. Jefferies' piece, considering the place of the Formularies in the Anglican tradition. (See a few brief clarifications in response to criticisms here.) In future installments, he will evaluate the specific claims and anathemas of Nicea II (see Part 5 here), as well as Fr. Jefferies’ “argument from success” (see Part 6 here).

Both logically and in theological priority, being an orthodox and Catholic Christian precedes being Anglican. Though a thoughtful and challenging essay, Fr. Jefferies’ “All That Is Not True About Nicea II” reverses this order, describing the Anglican Formularies as sources of “ultimate authority” for Anglicans, rather than as witnesses to greater authority. Contra Fr. Jefferies’ fears, properly ordering these sources of identity will not encourage us to cross the Tiber or the Bosphorus but will instead deepen our confidence in the past, present, and future of the Anglican tradition. When we clearly distinguish what makes us Catholic from what makes us distinctively Anglican, we will better understand and interpret our own Anglican heritage — and the place of the Council of Nicea II (787) and iconography within our tradition.

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I opened this series by asking, “What are we arguing about when we argue about icons and invocation?” The answer is the Incarnation. Having now grounded iconography in the theology of the Incarnation in Part 1, described the nature of an icon in Part 2, and argued for the iconographic veneration of the saints in Part 3, I can finally begin addressing the specific arguments of Fr. Jefferies’ piece.

Fr. Jefferies pursues four lines of reasoning. First, he unpacks the Anglican Formularies, finding justification therein for our assent to the first four ecumenical councils but not the latter three. Second, he traces the history of the concept of “the seven ecumenical councils,” which he sees as alien to the Anglican tradition. Third, he examines Nicea II in particular and concludes that its teachings cannot be deemed Apostolic. Finally, he briefly makes an argument from success, suggesting that the flourishing of apparently iconoclastic movements and denominations should be interpreted as divine favor.

In this piece I once again affirm the ecumenical status of the Council of Nicea II before considering the proper status and authority of Councils and Formularies within Anglicanism. In short, while our Anglican forebears did not always recognize the Seven Ecumenical Councils, we will see that restoring their authoritative place throughout the Anglican tradition continues, deepens, and perfects the Anglican Reformers’ project of ressourcement.

Councils and Formularies

Fr. Jefferies affirms the first four Ecumenical Councils, as do we here at Earth & Altar — but we do not agree with his reasoning, nor with his approach to the final three Ecumenical Councils. Fr. Jefferies roots the Anglican assent to the four councils in the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds — or, more precisely, in the fact that Article VIII of the Thirty-Nine Articles affirms the creeds. There are at least two problems with this approach — one minor, and the other quite spectacularly major.

The minor problem is that Fr. Jefferies’ application of Article VIII is dubious at best. He says that, in receiving the Nicene Creed, “Anglicans are automatically committed to the first and second ecumenical councils” because the (so-called) Nicene Creed was a product of the councils of Nicea I (325) and Constantinople I (381). “Automatically” clearly overreaches. At most, Article VIII implicitly commits Anglicans to Nicea I and Constantinople I. Accepting the Nicene Creed certainly encourages attention to the Nicene and Constantinopolitan Councils, but it does not, in and of itself, require assent to them — any more than our affirmation the 27 canonical books of the New Testament automatically places us under the authority of St. Athanasius’s Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter. One may simply affirm the Nicene Creed as a reliable summary of biblical truths, regardless of its origin, as Article VIII seems to do: the creeds “ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.” Fr. Jefferies’ further claim that the Athanasian Creed commits us to Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451) is even less convincing, given that these councils did not even directly produce the Athanasian Creed.

If the first four Ecumenical Councils are to be accepted as authoritative — and they must be — their authority cannot derive from Article VIII, which leads us to the larger problem: the question of authority.

“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.”

Fr. Jefferies, in his desire to find an authoritative foundation for interpretation, has located it in the Anglican Formularies. The implication seems to be that we Anglicans can accept the first Four Councils as interpretations of Scripture because we accept the creeds — and we accept the creeds because the Articles tell us to do so.

This is exactly backwards. No doubt Fr. Jefferies would agree that we do not affirm Scripture because Article Six tells us we ought to — rather, the Articles are derivative witnesses to the truths of Scripture. Likewise, we do not accept the creeds because the Formularies say we should. To the contrary, we trust the Formularies insofar as they recognize the creeds.

I do not think Fr. Jefferies actually believes the Formularies are a more authoritative source of Christian teaching than the creeds, but his reasoning tends to obscure the theological priority of orthodox Catholicity over Anglican distinctives. Our acceptance of the supreme authority of the Scriptures and of the dogmatic teaching of the Nicene Creed places us within the broadest possible conception of historic Christian orthodoxy. We are Catholic Christians because we maintain Apostolic Succession, faithfully practice the Sacraments, and submit to the voice of the undivided Church in Ecumenical Council. The Formularies, so far from being the source of “ultimate authority” for Anglicans, are instead elements of our Anglican heritage which are secondary to and derivative of our orthodox Catholicity.

The structure of the Solemn Declaration of the Anglican Province of America (APA) nicely captures this distinction. The first paragraph affirms that which makes us Catholic Christians — Scripture, Creeds, Councils, Sacraments, Apostolic Orders — while the second paragraph identifies those sources of our identity as continuing Anglicans: the Book of Common Prayer (with all that it now comprises, i.e. the Psalter, the Ordinal, etc.) and the Affirmation of St. Louis (1977).

Authority and Infallibility

Fr. Jefferies has previously affirmed the authority — indeed, the infallibility! — of the Ecumenical Councils, so he accepts the basic principle that, when the Church speaks with an undivided voice in Ecumenical Council, her interpretations are authoritative and universally binding. We are left with two questions: whether the Church thus spoke at Nicea II and how we must respond.

In my first post, I suggested that the Anglican tendency to ignore or reject the Seventh Council’s ecumenical character stems from either a rejection of its conclusions or a rejection of conciliar authority as such. Fr. Jefferies proposed a third rationale, rejecting Nicea II’s authority based on its purported failure to be universally received by the Church as a whole. I responded by arguing that there are no historical grounds for rejecting the Seventh Council that would not also invalidate the First and Fourth Councils as well (Nicea I and Chalcedon, respectively). Interestingly, Fr. Jefferies’ latest salvo does not challenge these claims, shifting instead to the ambiguities of reception within the post-Reformation Church of England, as well as directly challenging the Seventh Council’s theological conclusions.

In my next essay, I will explore the theology of Nicea II. Later in this piece I address the vagaries of history behind the concept of “the seven ecumenical councils,” and I describe how best to interpret the Formularies in light of Nicea II. Before doing so, though, let me reiterate that, if the Church universally received Nicea II — and I see nothing in Fr. Jefferies’ latest to challenge the conclusion that it did so — then any rejection of Nicea II’s authority on the basis of supposedly errant theology amounts to a rejection of the Church’s teaching authority.

John 16:13 and history of the Councils themselves strongly suggest that, when the undivided Church speaks in Ecumenical Council, she does so infallibly. And even if you hold that, in theory, Ecumenical Councils may err, this purported fallibility in no way exempts you from submission to conciliar authority. As I have said before, “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.” To do so on the basis of the Formularies, moreover, leaves you “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.” Obedience to Jesus Christ requires that we submit our personal qualms to the dogmatic teaching of His Spirit-filled Mystical Body.

Ranking the Councils

Although Fr. Jefferies’ latest does not directly challenge the Seventh Council’s historical reception in the seven centuries following Nicea II, he does add a new argument to our conversation, not only distinguishing the first four Ecumenical Councils from the three later ones but also implying a kind of system for ranking all the Councils:

“These [later] councils do not generate the sort of heat and fame as the first four. They are remembered by the Anglican Church as they seem to be remembered by the Ancient Church: As secondary and derivative. As being of a slightly different character than the first four. Indeed, even among the first four, the first – Nicea – is clearly preeminent in memory, and to which the latter all pay homage.”

Council of Nicaea, St. Nicholas Basilica in Demre, Turkey.

That final sentence is unquestionably true. The Chalcedonian Definition constitutes the most comprehensive and definitive statement of orthodox Christology — yet in hindsight we see that it simply clarifies, extends, and applies the orthodoxy of Nicea I. Nothing that contradicts Chalcedon could be faithful to Nicea. Of course, we can say the same for Nicea’s relation to Scripture — nothing that contradicts Nicea could be faithful to Scripture! Moreover, it certainly is the case that the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Councils are not as sweeping or comprehensive as the First or Fourth — but then neither was the Third, Ephesus I (431). Indeed, one could argue that, historically speaking, the Third Council is the least definitive, given that it required Chalcedon’s throat-clearing clarifications a mere two decades later — in response to the attempt by the “Robber Synod” of Ephesus II (449) to claim the Third Council’s mantle in support of the monophysite heresy.

Yet no one doubts the authority of Ephesus I because the authority of an Ecumenical Council has nothing whatever to do with the intensity of its theological fireworks or historical impact. The Ecumenical Councils inevitably vary in their particulars, but, contra Fr. Jefferies, they do not vary in their character. (Lesser councils and synods do vary in character, bearing authority that is in no way ecumenical.) The Ecumenical Councils are identical in genre. Each rightly purports to speak for the undivided Church. We cannot rank the authority of Ecumenical Councils, because their ecumenical authority is an all-or-nothing matter: they either are the voice of the undivided Church, or they are not.

The Councils are identical in authority, though they diverge in their relevance to any given theological question. This situation bears a close analogy to the biblical canon. The four Gospels comprise the theological heart of Scripture, and thus when we seek to harmonize apparent discordances within Scripture, we look to the Gospels as our guide. They speak — and, in particular, Christ speaks — with an unmatched theological clarity and definitiveness. Nevertheless, the Gospels are not more canonical or more inspired than the other books of Scripture. That same principle applies not only across the canon but also within particular books. 2 Timothy 4:13 (“The cloke that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments.”) is not less canonical or authoritative than 4:2 (“Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine.”). But it is certainly less relevant to most of our theological questions and devotional disciplines, and so it generates less heat and fame.

The Ecumenical Councils all build upon one another and upon Scripture, extending and affirming and applying that which is already present in new contexts and in the face of new challenges. This is no less true for Nicea II than it is for Chalcedon. As my previous three posts demonstrated, the iconographic theology undergirding Nicea II simply applies and extends Chalcedonian orthodoxy and the witness of Jesus Christ himself in the Gospels.

Anglican Reformers and the Seven Ecumenical Councils

Fr. Jefferies’ essay also claims that “the Seven Ecumenical Councils” as a source of dogmatic authority only entered into Anglican consciousness relatively recently. He describes how the concept took hold among the Greek Orthodox in the 10th or 11th centuries in response to Roman novelties, and then much later among the 19th-century Old Catholics in the face of the even more extreme innovations promulgated by Vatican I. Shortly thereafter, some Anglicans began to embrace the concept and the phrase as they pursued deeper Catholicity within the Anglican tradition, as well as potential ecumenical reunion without.

I am quite interested in the historical question on a personal level — in a former life I was a graduate student in academic history and then a history teacher for nine years — but Fr. Jefferies wrongly assumes that the vagaries of history provide definitive data for theological reasoning. It is not entirely clear to me why Fr. Jefferies seems to think this historical narrative undermines the Councils — aside from, again, the entirely backwards idea that, if a concept “manifestly does not come from out of our own Anglican formularies,” it is “therefore… not an ultimate authority.”

This reflects a strange tendency among some Anglicans, who — in a manner bizarrely analogous to KJV-only fundamentalists — see the Anglican deposit of faith as beginning in 1549 *ahem* 1552 and ending in 1662. Thus, if one wishes to know whether a practice or belief is Anglican, one simply consults this oddly canonical Anglican century. If substantial evidence for the practice or belief is not in evidence — or if, God forbid, one finds that said practice or belief was explicitly proscribed or rejected — then one can safely declare it to be, once and for all, contrary to Anglicanism. Such Anglicans forget that the Church of England predates Henry VIII and postdates Charles II — and that what makes us Anglican must always be downstream of what makes us Catholic.

A while ago, I pointed out to one such obsessive that the best of the Anglican Reformers were constantly driven to read the fathers of the undivided Church, and that we should follow their lead — to which he replied that the Reformers were such excellent interpreters of the fathers that to read them is to read the fathers. I cannot imagine that any of the Magisterial Reformers would have been happy with that answer.

In the face of unprecedented Romish innovation and papal power grabs, the Eastern Orthodox and later the Old Catholics sought out the voice of the undivided Church. This is precisely what the Anglican Reformers did in the Reformation Era. All the Magisterial Reformers saw their task as one of recovery in contrast to Roman innovation — and preeminently so in England. Anglicans have always been particularly interested in Eastern sources, from Archbishop Cranmer and on down to today, as Fr. Jefferies’ narrative of the ecumenical movement reflects. In search of stable and authoritative ground for interpreting Scripture, each of these traditions eventually turned to the voice of the undivided Church in Ecumenical Council. This is hardly a mark against the Seven Ecumenical Councils as a concept.

The best of our Anglican forebears sought the voice of the undivided Church, and so should we. In recovering the Seven Councils — and Nicea II in particular — we are therefore well within the spirit of the Anglican Reformers, though not always the letter.

Ranking the Formularies

Fr. Jefferies’ reliance upon the Articles as the source for Anglican assent to the first four Ecumenical Councils misconstrues the relation between Councils and Creeds and fails as a reading of Article VIII itself. It also implies that the Articles are a more authoritative basis for affirming the creeds than the liturgies of the prayer book. In order to understand why this is an error, we need to think a bit more about the Anglican Formularies.

“The Formularies” is itself a nebulous phrase — a collection of resources that, by contrast with the Ecumenical Councils, are not generically identical. Nor are Anglicans even unanimous about precisely which documents count as part of the Formularies. Fr. Jefferies lists “The Thirty Nine Articles, The Book of Common Prayer, The Homilies, the Canons of 1604.” This seems a straightforward list, but it is not. The 1604 Canons are not always (or usually?) included, and the 1662 BCP is frequently specified as the authoritative prayer book, whereas other lists (such as Fr. Jefferies’) leave ambiguous the all-important question of which prayer book counts. Obviously, Anglican prayer books vary over time and across different provinces — as do the Articles. The American Books of Common Prayer, for example, have always included the Articles as adopted by the General Convention of 1801. This revision excludes Article XXI, meaning that, since 1801, the American version of the Articles has deliberately not asserted that councils may err.

Even with a specific list of documents, we would find that the precise authority and role of the Formularies has changed over time and continues to vary by jurisdiction. In the Anglican Province of America, for instance, the Homilies, the Canons of 1604, and the 1662 BCP certainly bear reflection as part of our Anglican heritage and as a testament to our Anglican forebears — but they are given no tangible authority by our Constitution and Canons. (Article X of our Constitution does imply that the Bishop Ordinary could authorize the 1662 BCP for parochial use.)

The Articles of Religion likewise form no part of our liturgical services, and, as has been true throughout United States history, no American clergy are required to affirm them. Nevertheless, they bear more weight in the APA than the aforementioned historical documents due to their being appended to the 1928 BCP and explicitly mentioned in our jurisdiction’s Solemn Declaration as part of an Anglican heritage to be preserved. The precise nature of this weight, though, is unspecified. In our province they play a role loosely analogous, perhaps, to that of the Federalist Papers in American constitutional law — important in interpreting our Anglican heritage, but not finally determinative of theological decisions or ecclesial policies today.

By contrast, the 1928 BCP, as our jurisdiction’s only universally authorized prayer book, constitutes the liturgical norm for our province. Given the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, this makes it the theological standard. In addition, a number of supplementary resources including the American and English Missals are also explicitly authorized in Article X of our Constitution and thus bear a secondary authority.

“the Creeds and Ecumenical Councils [are] the authoritative grid through which to interpret (1) the finally authoritative witness of Scripture and (2) the derivative authority of the historic Anglican formularies.”

And, within the Formularies, the jurisdictionally authorized prayer book (for us, the 1928 BCP) “acts as a living framework through which we pray our theology” and is therefore preeminent. In the APA, the Articles are accorded a (rather ambiguous) second place, given their inclusion in the 1928 BCP and the Solemn Declaration. All the other documents (the 1662 BCP and Ordinal, the Homilies, the Canons of 1604) are relegated to a distant third — worthy of consideration but not authoritative.

We now turn to the question of what these distinctions actually mean for us in practice, particularly in relation to Nicea II.

Reading the Formularies in Light of the Councils

For the most part, there is strong agreement between the Anglican Formularies and the Seven Councils, but there are places where they seem to be in conflict. Given the principles outlined above, we must give precedence to the voice of the undivided Church — but how we go about reconciling any apparent conflict varies.

The 1928 BCP does not contradict the Councils. But supposing one were in a jurisdiction which adopted a prayer book that did — what then? Such Anglicans would be in a bind, given that their immediately authoritative text (the BCP) would be in conflict with the finally authoritative interpreter of Scripture (the undivided Church in Ecumenical Council). Exploring such a circumstance is beyond the scope of this essay and, in any case, it cannot really be evaluated in the abstract, given the various contextual and prudential considerations that it would entail — including the theological gravity of the error; its impact on one’s diocese, parish, and person; and the prospects for rectification.

The Articles do contain a few passages that could be interpreted as contradictory to Nicea II. Article XXII has already received much attention in this conversation — see links 1-3 and 5 in our link round-up. I will not recapitulate the argument here, but the hierarchy of authority described above can help us negotiate these disputed points with more clarity. The Article reads in full:

“The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.”

Previous discussion naturally focused upon invocation, but the matter most relevant to Nicea II is “Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics.” The question confronting us — which we will explore in more depth in our next installment — is whether this contradicts Nicea II. If in fact it does, then we in the APA must simply acknowledge that the Articles are in error on this point, treat the error as a regrettable part of our heritage, and move on, since they have no binding authority over any Anglican in our jurisdiction.

If, however, there is a way of reading the Article in harmony with the Seventh Council — as not a rejection of iconography in general nor of Nicea II in particular but rather of Romish abuses thereof — then we should interpret it thusly. Likewise, Article XXI, which I have already noted does not apply to Americans, need not be read as referring to Ecumenical Councils at all — and, in any case, it is irrelevant to conciliar authority as such. The Councils dictate our reception and reading of the Articles — not the other way around.

The Homilies are a different matter. For one thing, there is no getting around it: the “Homily on Peril of Idolatry” condemns Nicea II and iconography alike. Although the various revisions of the Homily “revealed a marked shift away from virulent iconoclastic language, limiting the destruction to abused images” — apparently at the behest of Queen Elizabeth (Davis, 90) — even in its apparently more moderate final form, the Homily remains plenty virulent in condemning images and quite obstinate in rejecting the biblical and patristic distinction between veneration and worship (see pages 66, 72-74 for examples).

It is not at all possible to affirm Nicea II and the Homily on Idolatry simultaneously — nor, contra Fr. Jefferies’ assertion, can one embrace “the hearty theology of St. John of Damascus” while also accepting the Homily. To the contrary, the Homily consistently undermines or outright rejects his theological claims. The one explicit reference to St. John of Damascus is likewise a rejection. (“And here again their allegation out of Gregory the First and Damascene, that images be the laymen’s books, and that pictures are the scripture of idiots and simple persons, is worthy to be considered. For as it hath been touched in divers places before, how they be books teaching nothing but lies… so what manner of books and scripture these painted and gilt images of saints be unto the common people, note well I pray you” [102].)

We must, then, acknowledge that the Homily on Peril of Idolatry is wrong — and grievously so. In our jurisdiction, at least, there is nothing to revise or reconcile, because the Homilies are nothing other than historical documents — testaments to our blessed but fallible heritage.

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In no way should the foregoing encourage Anglicans to swim the Tiber or the Bosphorus. Roman claims to jurisdictional — not to mention papal — infallibility only seem appealing to those who fear the vagaries and ambiguities of history and of the human condition. Likewise, the mirage of a monolithic and univocal Eastern Orthodox tradition simply does not do justice to her own history of inter-jurisdictional contention, not to mention the particular cultural situatedness that undermines her claims of universality. These unsupportable Roman and Eastern claims breed an inevitable defensiveness — a refusal to think too deeply about or look too closely at the complications of their own histories.

We Anglicans need not share in their defensiveness. Paradoxically, our Anglican heritage gives us the confidence to acknowledge the fallibility of the Formularies without fear. Article XIX has no bearing on Ecumenical Councils, but it does imply that every jurisdiction and particular tradition is fallible, our own very much included. While we have much to learn from our Roman and Eastern brethren, one thing Anglicans might teach them is that humility about one’s own tradition need not undermine confidence in Christ’s Church. Our confidence is in — as our ultimate allegiance is to — Jesus Christ’s Spirit-filled Body. Her Ecumenical Councils are not the property of Rome or of the Eastern jurisdictions but are, rather, the treasury of the one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, of which we are full members.

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


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