Orthodoxy: Ecumenicity, Receptionism and the Councils

How do Christians know with certainty which councils are valid and which are not? What criteria does the Catholic Church use for its determination? How exactly do the Eastern Orthodox Churches determine which Councils they consider valid?

These questions and more are the subject of this thread, and I’ll begin by posting the following taken from OrthodoxWiki here (all emphasis added by me, of course, and I have emphasized a LOT of this for reasons which become obvious):

Ecumenical Councils

Ecumenical Councils are extraordinary synods of bishops which primarily decide upon dogmatic formulations, especially in the face of heresy. Secondarily, they also issue canonical legislation which governs the administration of the Church.

Ecumenicity

An ecclesiological theory which has been popular since the time of the Slavophile philosopher Alexis Khomiakov first defined it is that ecumenicity—the idea that a particular council is of universal, infallible significance for the Church—is determined by the reception of the whole body of the Church. That is, while a particular council may declare itself to be ecumenical, it may later be regarded by the Church as being a Robber Council, that is, a council which did not declare the truth but rather heresy. Likewise, a council may properly teach the truth but not be of universal significance for the Church. Such councils are usually termed local. That a council must be “received” by the Church before it can be considered ecumenical is sometimes termed receptionism.

Receptionism was formed primarily in opposition to Roman Catholic viewpoints on the same question. For the Roman Catholic Church, a council’s ecumenicity is primarily determined by its ratification by the Pope of Rome. Orthodoxy does not have the same ecclesiological structure as Rome, however, and so Khomiakov and others attempted to formulate another model by which the infallibility of Ecumenical Councils may be determined.

A form of receptionism (or, at least, language which is conducive to receptionist thought) may also be found in the 1848 Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs, which proclaims against papism that the guardian of the truth is not the office of the pope, but the whole people of God.

Theologians such as Fr. John S. Romanides have argued, however, that the councils universally regarded as ecumenical within the Orthodox Church seemed of themselves to have no sense of requiring a reception by the Church before they went into effect. Their texts do indeed include self-declarations of their ecumenicity, and in most cases, their decrees immediately were written into Roman imperial law. No condition of later reception is reflected in the councils’ texts.

Further, the question of when exactly one may say that the Church has received or rejected a council is not answerable by receptionist theory. Another ecclesiological problem is also created by receptionism: Why is it, for instance, that the Fourth Ecumenical Council may be said to have been “received by the whole Church” while significant numbers of Christians apparently within the Church rejected it, leading to the schism which even now persists? Such reasoning is circular, because whoever accepts a council is therefore inside the Church, but any who reject it are outside. In other words, such councils are ecumenical essentially because those who hold to their decrees declare themselves exclusively to be the Church.

The practical needs of the historical circumstances of the councils also bear out Romanides’ analysis. Dogmatic decisions were needed right away when the councils met. The idea that one could wait for decades or even centuries to know whether a council was truly ecumenical would have radically changed the character of such a council. The councils’ fathers regarded their decisions as immediately binding.

At the current time, the episcopacy of the Church has not as yet put forward a universal definition as to what precisely lends a council its ecumenicity. What is generally held is that councils may be regarded as ecumenical and infallible because they accurately teach the truth handed down in tradition from the Church Fathers.

Well, that certainly raises lots of questions, doesn’t it? :yup:

How exactly does a member of one of the many Eastern Orthodox churches know with certainty whether a decree or doctrine is from a valid council or not?

As Orthodox Bishop Timothy “Kallistos” Ware, has said:

“All Orthodox know which are the seven councils that their Church accepts as ecumenical, but precisely what it is that makes a council ecumenical is not so clear.”

It raises question for you maybe. I’ll give you a hint. Most of us have never read a single canon from an ecumenical council. :wink:

You’re opening an epistemological can of worms which your own church has not solved (unless one subscribes to magisterial positivism). Ecumenical councils even in the eyes of Westerners are so largely by convention, as even in the Latin theory, the assent of the Pope is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a council to be ecumenical. This is why it is possible that the council of the Lateran of 649 is not regarded as ecumenical, even though it was called by a pope and was intended to be ecumenical, or that the first few Councils of the Lateran held during the beginning of the second millennium were originally not listed as ecumenical by canonists only to have their designation slowly changed to ecumenical by the 16th century. There are also, I might add, similar issues with how one is to know whether a papal document was proclaimed infallibly (the relatio leads to such a conclusion, because the official relatio teaches that one cannot restrict or define the form of an ex-Cathedra statement).

I’ll post this for you. I think it gives the best explanation of our position I have ever read. It is from a book by Fr Sergius Bulgakov. I recommend you really soak in what he is saying and then I think, if you don’t already, you’ll have a good idea of what we believe.

Although different forms of “conciliation” can exist, outside of regular councils, nevertheless ecclesiastical assemblies or councils, in the real sense of the word, are the most natural and the most direct means of conciliation. This is just the place which the councils have always held in the life of the Church, beginning with the Council in Jerusalem. The councils are, above all, the tangible expression of the spirit of conciliarity and its realization. A council must not be considered as a wholly exterior institution, which, with the voice of authority, proclaims a divine or ecclesiastical law, a truth otherwise inaccessible to the isolated members of the Church. By a natural process the significance of the councils is determined in that they receive, later on, the authority of permanent ecclesiastical institutions. But the institution of canonical legislation, of jus ecclesiasticum, has only a practical and not a dogmatic character. The Church, deprived, for one reason or another, of the possibility of convoking councils, does not cease to be the Church; and among other traits, it remains “sobornaia,” conciliar, in the internal sense, for that is its nature.

Lacking councils, there yet remain other means of “conciliation,” for example, the direct relations between different local churches in apostolic times. It must be noted that, in our day, in the century of the development of the press and other means of circulation, councils have lost a great part of the utility of former times, such as those of the ecumenical councils. In our day ecumenical, universal conciliation is being realized almost imperceptibly, by means of the press and of scientific relations. But today the councils hold their special, unique place in conciliation because they alone offer the opportunity of immediate realization of the conciliarity of the Church. The meetings of representatives of the Church, in the cases where it is given to them to become ecclesiastical councils, actualize the conscience of the Church, in regard to some question which has been previously the object of personal judgment. These assemblies can demonstrate the conciliarity of the Church and become, consequently, true councils. Then, conscious of their true conciliarity and at the same time seeking it, the councils say of themselves: “It has pleased the Holy Spirit (who lives in the Church) and us.” They consider themselves as identical with the Church where the Holy Spirit lives. Every ecclesiastical assembly expresses in its prayer the desire to become a council. But all ecclesiastical assemblies are not councils, however much they pretend to be or fulfill the exterior conditions requisite to that end, for example, the pseudo-councils of Ephesus, the iconoclastic council of 754, the council of Florence, which the Orthodox Church does not recognize as councils. It must be remembered that even ecumenical councils are not external organs established for the infallible proclamation of the truth and instituted expressly for that. Such a proposition would lead to the conclusion that, without councils, the Church would cease to be “catholic” and infallible. Apart from this consideration, the mere idea of an external organ to proclaim the truth would place that organ above the Church, it would subordinate the action of the Holy Spirit to an external fact, such as an ecclesiastical assembly. Only the Church in its identity with itself can testify to the truth and the knowledge of conciliarity. Is a given assembly of bishops really a council of the Church which testifies in the name of the Church, to the truth of the Church? Only the Church can know. It is the Church which pronounces its yes. It is the Church which agrees, or not, with the council. There are not, and there cannot be, external forms established beforehand for the testimony of the Church about itself.

The life of the Church is a miracle which cannot be explained by external factors. The Church recognizes or does not recognize a given ecclesiastical assembly representing itself as a council: this is a known historical fact. Another historical fact is that to be accepted by the Church as such, it is not sufficient for an ecclesiastical assembly to proclaim itself as a council. It is not a question of a juridical and formal acceptance. This does not mean that the decisions of the councils should be confirmed by a general plebiscite and that without such a plebiscite they have no force. There is no such plebiscite. But from historical experience it clearly appears that the voice of a given council has truly been the voice of the Church or it has not: that is all. There are not, there cannot be, external organs or methods of testifying to the internal evidence of the Church; this must be admitted frankly and resolutely. Anyone who is troubled by this lack of external evidence for ecclesiastical truth does not believe in the Church and does not truly know it. The action of the Holy Spirit in the Church is an unfathomable mystery which fulfils itself in human acts and human consciousness. The ecclesiastical fetishism which seeks an oracle speaking in the name of the Holy Spirit and which finds it in the person of a supreme hierarch, or in the Episcopal order and its assemblies — this fetishism is a terrible symptom of half-faith. - The Orthodox Church, Fr Sergius Bulgakov

These will be interesting questions to discuss, Cav, and I’m sure that lots of folks will have lots of ideas to share with you.

But just between you and me, I’ve been doing apologetics online since 2006. When I first started, I had a pretty good handle on what Catholics believe and what the scriptures say, but I was truly clueless about how to handle the unique “gotcha” questions that Protestants typically ask. Needless to say, I had a lot of reading, studying, listening to podcasts, and, of course, hanging out here at CAF to do…and fast!

Fast forward to 2014, and I think it is fair to say that I can handle myself reasonably well in most apologetics discussions with Bible Christians of all varieties. There are some topics that I’m weaker on because I’m not terribly interested in them, but generally speaking, I can provide a solid, Catholic Answer to most of the questions that are posted in the Apologetics subforum.

Now, as you know, about a year ago, I dipped my toes for the first time into the Eastern Catholicism subforum. Boy, those were fun times, weren’t they? And silly me, I thought that you and I would have so much in common since we believe so many of the same doctrines. Talk about naive. You guys have a whole different vocabulary and set of excuses for remaining separated from the Pope. Needless to say, I have a whole lot of reading, studying, listening to podcasts, and, of course, hanging out here at CAF to do.

But trust me, Cav, every day, I’m doing just that to learn more and become stronger in my defense of Catholicism vis-a-vis Orthodoxy. And as I do, my questions for my EO friends here will become sharper and more astute.

I have you and a few others to thank for pushing me and indentifying my many weaknesses and misunderstandings about Orthodoxy. Hopefully, over the next six or seven years, I will become a more formidable challenge for you.

That’s the plan, anyway. :thumbsup:

I will print this out and read it, Joey, but I think you should do the same with the article in my OP, because in another thread you were advocating receptionism pretty clearly, weren’t you?

Regarding receptionism, I posted:

Another ecclesiological problem is also created by receptionism: Why is it, for instance, that the Fourth Ecumenical Council may be said to have been “received by the whole Church” while significant numbers of Christians apparently within the Church rejected it, leading to the schism which even now persists? Such reasoning is circular, because whoever accepts a council is therefore inside the Church, but any who reject it are outside. In other words, such councils are ecumenical essentially because those who hold to their decrees declare themselves exclusively to be the Church.

There is no problem. You are setting up a red herring. No one said the truth of a council depends upon the number of Christians who accept it, as though the acts are published for every single one of the faithful to peruse and vote on. Re-read what I posted and you’ll understand.

In his book, The Shape of Sola Scriptura, Reformed author Keith Mathison quotes the Orthodox Bishop Timothy Ware and is quick to pounce on Bp. Ware’s admission:

This is extremely important because if the Church does not know what it is that makes a council ecumenical, how can the Church say that any council is ecumenical? Ware tends toward an answer proposed by Alexis Khomaiakov which has become widely accepted within the Orthodox church. According to this theory, “a council cannot be considered ecumenical unless its decrees are accepted by the whole Church.” Of course, this answer raises almost as many problems as the original question. Chalcedon was rejected by Syria and Egypt. Does this mean that Chalcedon is not ecumenical? Khomaikov’s answer to the problem is circular. An ecumenical council is defined as a council accepted by the whole Church, yet the Church is defined as those who accept the councils. Those who do not accept the council are defined out of the Church in order to maintain the idea that the “whole Church” accepts the council.
…]
This impossibility results in the added difficulty, if not impossibility, of explaining how Arianism could have been anathematized by a council. Was it unnecessary for the Arian party to accept the council? Or is the “whole Church” only those who agree with the majority decision at the council?

It’s worth noting that while Mathison clearly sees the flaws in the Orthodox understanding of Councils, he doesn’t have a better solution. But Catholicism *does *present a solution, and it’s one supported by history: acceptance by the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.

So let’s take Mathison’s point one step further. When Chalcedon was rejected by Syria and Egypt, it meant that they had left the Church, in defiance of the Council to which they should have been subject. In contrast, when the Robber Council was rejected by Rome, it meant that the council was invalid. Just as this shows that Syria and Egypt were beneath the Council, it shows that Rome is above. If that doesn’t show the centrality of papal approval to the validity of a Council, it’s hard to see what could.

Source: Shameless Popery, catholicdefense.blogspot.com/2011/07/catholics-orthodox-and-robber-council.html

But this is a Protestant/Catholic problem. It is no problem for us. The Church knows itself.

Wow! How can you so easily just dismiss that post? Can you at least attempt to address the points that were made and provide a defense? “The Church knows itself” is not an answer, in fact it only supports what Randy has presented. The Church is defined as those who accept the councils therefore those who do not accept them are not part of the Church. That is the basis on which the EO operate. It has nothing to do with Protestantism. They have never participated in a council. :shrug:

Well I’m sorry. I’ll try to be more thoughtful in my posts going forward. :slight_smile:

Again that’s the same red herring. Catholics seek an infallible organ and find it in the person of the pope. Protestants seek an infallible organ and find it in sola scriptura. You then assume, as far as I can tell, that we see councils as serving that same function. We are then asked to defend that position. But that is not what is taught. There is no infallible organ speaking in the name of the Church. If we don’t even share the same premise it’s very difficult to understand each other. If you haven’t already I suggest you read that section from Fr Bulgakov’s book. It will help you understand.

I’ll take a look but why don’t you give us the reader’s digest version. What is the main point Fr. Bulgakov is trying to get across and that you are trying convey as is it relates to the thread topic?

Sorry, I just don’t care for being given homework as an answer, interesting as the book may be. If it has a valid point why don’t we get it out here so that we can all learn?

Thanks.

Must be this fellow Fr Sergius Bulgakov? Thanks for the recommendation.

they concluded that the accusations of heresy against Bulgakov were unfounded but that his theological opinions showed serious flaws and needed correction. Vladimir Lossky responded to Bulgakov’s self-apology in a large and deep study : Spor o Sofii (The Debate on Sophia, Paris, 1936), pointing out the various dogmatic errors of Bulgakov’s theology.

google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CB4QFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Forthodoxwiki.org%2FSergius_Bulgakov&ei=Yv1wVMCvBIelgwT4_4PYDw&usg=AFQjCNGKcMNa5bA5nsCYvUMq_ybASwz2rA

:thumbsup:

I was doing some reading about the Robber Council when I saw an argument concerning the Second Council of Ephesus (which I will be discussing in this thread. :yup:) That article linked to the OrthodoxWiki article quoted in my OP wherein I immediately heard the echoes of Seraphim73’s explanations.

Seraphim73 is espousing receptionism plain and simple, and he doesn’t see (or can’t admit) the circularity of it.

This is a really big deal, because just as Protestants have Sixty-Six Books in their Bible, but can’t explain why those Sixty-Six and no others, the Orthodox have Seven Councils, but can’t explain why those Seven and no others.

“How do Christians know with certainty which councils are valid and which are not?”

Oh that’s easy… It’s in the book right next to “The Big Book of Ex Cathedra Teachings.”

:slight_smile:

(If you’re having trouble finding it, it’s in the same section as the “Compendium of Modern Confessional Lutheran Bishops.”

Of which all knowledge is from theoria. :bowdown:

“The word theoria is derived from a verb meaning to look, or to see: for the Greeks, knowing was a kind of seeing, a sort of intellectual seeing.” And a small “t”

That will be helpful.

Again that’s the same red herring. Catholics seek an infallible organ and find it in the person of the pope. Protestants seek an infallible organ and find it in sola scriptura. You then assume, as far as I can tell, that we see councils as serving that same function. We are then asked to defend that position. But that is not what is taught. There is no infallible organ speaking in the name of the Church. If we don’t even share the same premise it’s very difficult to understand each other. If you haven’t already I suggest you read that section from Fr Bulgakov’s book. It will help you understand.

No, this is a complete misunderstanding of the situation.

We’re not suggesting that you are looking to the Councils as infallible sources of authority. Given your acceptance of receptionism, the only authority you seem to recognize is that of the “whole Church” - provided that Church agrees with you, of course. But as has been pointed out in my OP, it could take decades or even hundreds of years before the “whole church” has decided on any given council. Exactly *how *that is done, is subject for another debate, I suppose.

No, what we’re pointing out is that you don’t know why you accept seven councils and not eight or nine. Or 21.

You see, the seven you do accept are not actually the first seven councils of the Church, are they? You reject the Second Council of Ephesus (the "Robber Council), but why?

130 Bishops were present…almost as many as at Ephesus I. I’m told that those present were from a wider distribution of the Church than the previous Council. And the subject matter, the monophysite controversy, certainly concerned the universal church. So, by those criteria, Ephesus II was a valid Ecumenical Council. Yet, it is rejected by you and all Eastern Orthodox. Why?

Because the papal legate condemned the decision of the Bishops to promote the heresy that had been previously condemned at Ephesus I, and the pope upheld that condemnation. IOW, Ephesus I and Ephesus II contradicted one another and if both were valid, then the Catholic Church would have formally taught error through the teaching of a Council of the Church.

Thanks to the the gift of infallibility by which God protects His Church (as promised where? in scripture), the pope rejected the vote of all the Eastern Bishops who supported the monophysite heresy. Peter strengthened his brothers just as Jesus commanded. And as a result of the pope’s rejection of that Council, the Eastern Church rejected it, also. The authority of the Bishop of Rome to judge a council - and no other - is the reason why you reject Ephesus II.

The Bishop of Rome judges councils as the universal pastor of the one flock of Christ. Not the other way around.

Which is a clever post, but not such clever thinking, Ben, because you’re kind of in the same boat. If Lutherans accept seven councils, how do you know with certainty that the ones you accept are the right ones?

Why not eight? Or six?
Why skip over the fourth physical gathering of bishops known as the Robber Council?
Why not accept the Quinisext Council? You’re familiar with it, right?

It was held in the East, and accepted by the Eastern Orthodox, but rejected by the papacy. For that reason, the East today is careful to recognize it, not as an additional Council, but as additional canons to be added to existing Councils (this way, they can say that they affirm just the first Seven Ecumenical Councils :rolleyes:).

Two things make it remarkable. First, Basil of Gortyna presented himself as the “papal legate,” although he was not. The fact that it was viewed as necessary that there be a papal legate present speaks volumes.

Second, the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian II, was outraged that the pope refused to accept the council, and actually sent an officer to Rome to kidnap him. Italian troops came down from Ravenna (then the capital of the Western Roman Empire) and stopped him. That the pope, and he alone, was viewed as a significant enough figure to send troops to kidnap him a thousand miles away is telling. If papal approval of the Council was unnecessary, why bother trying to arrest him?

I didn’t ask you to read a book. I pointed you to the three paragraphs from the book that I posted earlier in the thread.

Apologies, I missed that. I’ll go back and take a look.

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