Questions from an Eastern Orthodox Christian.

I was recently visiting an Eastern Orthodox forum and came across the following by Constantinos. I thought that I would share his questions here at CAF:

[size=3]In recent debates with those of other faiths, I’ve come across a very interesting question to which I confess I have no distinct and authoritative answer:

By what criteria do we Orthodox authoritatively, objectively, and externally judge whether a given council was ecumenical or not?

If you sit down and think hard about it, it’s a much more difficult question than it appears at first blush. We can dismiss standards such as “convocation by the Emperor” or “lots of bishops” as immediately ludicrous on their face. Even the more reasonable alternatives, however, have severe problems:


Suppose we say, “ratification by a subsequent council.” This raises issues:

I’m fairly sure there have been heretical councils subsequently ratified by other heretical councils. yet we don’t count those as ecumenical.
Is this a question of “oomph,” or can any piddly local council basically create ecumenical councils by fiat? If it’s “oomph” that counts, how do we determine whether it’s sufficient, without running into the infinite causes dilemma?

2. Suppose we say, “participation by the Pentarchy.” This raises issues:

Does this mean that, since the Great Schism, Orthodoxy has lost its ability to hold new Ecumenical Councils? This would have serious implications as to Orthodoxy’s catholicity.

What of the First Ecumenical Council? Constantinople wasn’t even a big-name see at the time.

What of the Second Ecumenical Council? The Bishop of Rome was not present.

What of the Ignatian council of 869? What of the Council of Florence? Both had at least ostensible participation by all the Patriarchates.

3. Suppose we say, “ratification by the Pentarchy.” This raises issues:

Again, does this mean Orthodoxy is stripped of the ability to hold new Ecumenical Councils?

Again, what of the Ignatian council, and Florence, where the Pentarchy apparently ratified 'em, but we Orthodox reject them?

More importantly, what of Chalcedon and the other councils we do accept that weren’t ratified by the whole Pentarchy?

Especially, what of Chalceon canon 28, which was rejected by Pope St. Leo the Great, a move apparently accepted as legitimate by St. Anatolius?

4. Suppose we say, “ratification by the laity.” This raises issues:

How many need to ratify a given council? 51%? 66%? 75%? 90%? How can we know what proportion is right? How can we measure whether this consensus exists? Within what length of time should it come to a proper degree of laity acceptance?

What of all the times when heresy plagued the Church to such extent that probably a majority of the laity were in heresy? (I’m thinking specifically of Maximus the Confessor, and “Athanasius against the world.”)

What makes an ecumenical council necessary at all, under this scheme? If majority rules, and Truth always wins out over the centuries, then why not just leave it to the body of the faithful?

5. Suppose we say, “ratification by the bishop of Rome.” This raises issues:

Why are we still Orthodox, then? :stuck_out_tongue:

What of the Photian council of 879, which was apparently ratified by Rome and then deratified? Does this mean the foundations of the Faith are subject to repeal on the whim of one man?

If true, why was the papacy’s vote so frequently ignored (Chalcedon canon 28) or outright opposed (St. Cyprian)?

Again, it seems this would obviate the need for an ecumenical council except for informational and diplomatic purposes, if the papacy were able to decree authoritatively what was and wasn’t true doctrine.

On the face, it does seem, however, that this rule is the easiest to fit into the majority of historical circumstances.

(My gut inclines me to say that it’s a combination of 2, 3, and 4, on something of a sliding scale, but while this answer seems to me the most logically tenable, it is by no means particularly satisfying.)

Finally, I would be extremely interested to see any authoritative documentation–that is, in the canons or Church Fathers–as to what constitutes a valid ecumenical council. It seems to me that 20/20 hindsight and subjective private judgment is not a wise or solid foundation for something so incredibly vital to Orthodox ecclesiology.[/size]

It is good that they can be candid about this topic. I think they are all serious questions and therefore very valid. That would what I think the delimma of the Orthodox. It is therefore not a coincidence that they only accept the 7 Ecumenical Councils and all of these are pre-schism.

There are a few things that seems inconclusive as put up by some of the Orthodox posters here though granted they are much in the defensive and probably that nullify their argument somewhat.

Basically it is what they do with the supremacy of Peter. Some accept this while some don’t. For those in between they don’t seem to know what the supremacy entails.

That is the key to the Ecumenical Councils. Either they accept the supremacy of Peter and that he is a key player or they don’t. If that is resolved, the question of what makes a council ecumenical is easier to decide and we don’t have to really spend thread after thread and pages after pages to get it right. For the Catholic Church it is plain enough but then again there are many things that are not clear in the Orthodoxy and to be left as mystery. Sometimes that may done on purpose. If that’s so perhaps there is something missing and not complete after the schism which can only be addressed after the reconciliation. Just my two cents. :shrug:

I believe that the role of the supremacy, or primacy of the See of Rome has not even been made clear by the Holy Father himself. The way it came to be defined over the years even up to Vatican I can easily be seen as something that developed due to historical circumstances. In the West there were many royal families, and the Pope had to take on a special role in ministering to them as the sole Patriarch of the West. The situation among the Greeks and Russians has been quite different, so equality among the college of Bishops has taken a greater emphasis.

I have seen many Roman Catholics take the side that the Holy Father can do whatever he wants, regardless of what anyone says. I have also seen many Catholics state that the Bishop of Rome’s authority comes out of charity, which Pope Benedict the XVI recently spoke on: "The chair of Peter evokes another memory: the famous expression from Saint Ignatius of Antioch’s letter to the Romans, where he says of the Church of Rome that she “presides in charity”. In truth, presiding in faith is inseparably linked to presiding in love. Faith without love would no longer be an authentic Christian faith. But the words of Saint Ignatius have another much more concrete implication: the word “charity”, in fact, was also used by the early Church to indicate the Eucharist.” according to

Could you respond to post # 1? :slight_smile:

Not sure about it, it confuses me too. The folks at Monachos are very knowledgeable however when it comes to all things regarding Orthodoxy as there are several monks and members of clergy which post on their forum.

I’ll check it out. Thanks. :slight_smile:

The Catholic Church has a criterion by which they judge: the Pope. People can say what they like about the papacy, but he is at least a consistent principle of authority on the face of things. Where can the same thing be found in the EOCs, is my question. How can the EOCs know to accept/reject what they accept/reject? What is the historically consistent standard by which their claims may be judged?

What is the external, objective criterion/criteria that distinguish(es) the councils that the Orthodox accept, from those they do not?

Agreed. Papal ratification, no matter how much the term bothers people, works internally (throughout history) as a principle of authority vis-a-vis the identification of a valid Ecumenical Council, which begs the question: Why does Orthodoxy challenge this principle all the while adopting absolutely no internal principle of authority of their own?

Good question. :thumbsup: Which brings us back to post #1.

Does seem to be the prevailing question on all threads, which of course also admits all men are fallible, and only Christ in infallible. Then which fallible teaching of the non existing teaching authority shall we discern? Should we mine quote? Should we read a newly released book by a fallible man and call it Truth? Should we interpret to Councils to coincide with ones “own” understanding?

Well, not really. For example, what of Pope Theodore’s Synod of the Lateran of the year 649 (presided over by Pope St. Martin)? Maximos the Confessor himself referred to it as an Ecumenical Council, and it seems clear that the intent was for the synod to be an Ecumenical Council. Furthermore, it fits the criteria which later would be used by 17th century Roman Catholic canonists to declare a council ecumenical (it was convened by a pope, presided over by a pope, made doctrinal declarations binding on the faithful, and it was ratified by a pope). By all means, this council should be, by the common Roman Catholic definition, the sixth Ecumenical Council, and Vatican II should thereby be the twenty second Ecumenical Council. Furthermore, what of the Latin Canonists in the 15th and 16th centuries who inconsistently referred to Florence as the Ninth or Tenth Ecumenical Council (see Francis Dvornik’s article on which councils are ecumenical)? These canonists were seemingly unaware that the four Lateran Councils and the two councils in Lyons were all ecumenical. So you are right that the principle of papal ratification works internally for the Roman Catholic Church (we would contend that it is an example if post hoc reasoning), but not that it matches with the history of what councils were considered ecumenical in their day.

First, your thoughts on post # 1?

This would make for a great thread; start one. Let’s stay on task here though…:thumbsup:

Because historical fact says otherwise. The first 7 Ecumenical Councils were not Ecumenical by Papal Ratification. They were Ecumenical by broad acceptance of the Church. So why would we change how it was done in the First Millennium?

The following was retrieved from here:
Tome of Leo

Often cited as a proof of Papal Supremacy[27][28][29][30] is the Tome of Leo which is a letter sent by Pope Leo to the Second Ecumenical Council. It in part seems to suggest that Leo speaks with the authority of Peter. It is the position of Orthodox Christianity that the approval of the Tome is simply to state a unity of faith, not only of the pope but other churchmen as well.

The eastern bishops:

"After reading of the forgoing epistle (Pope Leo’s), the most reverend bishops cried out: "This is the faith of the fathers, this is the faith of the Apostles. So we all believe, thus the orthodox believe. Anathema to him who does not thus believe. Peter has spoken thus through Leo. So taught the Apostles. Piously and truly did Leo teach, so taught Cyril. Everlasting be the memory of Cyril. Leo and Cyril taught the same thing, anathema to him who does not so believe. This is the true faith. Those of us who are orthodox thus believe.”[31]

I understand the reasoning of the site. However, why even acknowledge Peter as speaking through Leo? Why not just say: Leo has spoken?

The tome of Pope Leo the Great was accepted because of its orthodoxy, not because it was issued by the Pope. An ecumenical council condemned Pope Honorious, what does that say? A Pope is not above an Ecumenical Council.

Why acclaim that Peter has spoken through Leo if Leo was supposed to be Peter’s successor? Why state the obvious?

Great post…

ConstantineTG;10215658]The tome of Pope Leo the Great was accepted because of its orthodoxy, not because it was issued by the Pope. An ecumenical council condemned Pope Honorious, what does that say? A Pope is not above an Ecumenical Council.

Pope Honorious would make for a great thread; too extensive to cover here.

Why acclaim that Peter has spoken through Leo if Leo was supposed to be Peter’s successor? Why state the obvious?

As Peter’s successor, why not just say: Pope Leo has spoken? I guess you are not seeing anything significant about the inclusion of Peter’s name, so I won’t press the matter. :thumbsup: I was just wondering, in what sense, did Peter speak through Leo…:shrug:

The answer to the question, by what criteria does the Orthodox authoritatively, objectively, and externally determine whether a given council was (or is) ecumenical, or not is:

“broad acceptance of the Church”?

Can you please be a little more clear on what you mean by broad? As the first post questioned, are we talking about 90% of the Church? 80%? 60%? 51%? And who determines if its broad enough anyway?

Indeed, a great question. So why is the synod of the Lateran of 649 not an Ecumenical Council? Why did Latin canonists at one point refer to Florence as the ninth or tenth Ecumenical Council? You can pretend that the matter is so cut and dry, and yet it isn’t, even with your method of papal approval determining whether a Council is Ecumenical. It seems even within Roman Catholicism, what criteria are sufficient for a council to be ecumenical have not been detailed (at least not in a manner wholly consistent with history), only what criteria are necessary. I am therefore not so sure why Roman Catholics receive a free pass, while it all of a sudden becomes a “problem” for the Orthodox that we also do not have a set of sufficient criteria for a council to be declared objectively to be an Ecumenical Council.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit