Sola Concilium and the Eastern Orthodox

Catholic apologists argue that sola scriptura, the Protestant idea that the Bible Alone is the sole rule of faith for the believer, is not found in scripture and is, therefore, self-refuting. Many adherents of this theological novelty have wasted long hours searching the scriptures in vain for an answer to the simple, but haunting question:

Where does the Bible teach sola scriptura?

Does a similar knock-down argument exist with regard to Eastern Orthodoxy?

Vladimir Soloviev, a Russian Orthodox who spent decades arguing for re-unification with the Catholic Church, suggests there is, and he makes the following demand of Eastern apologists who reject Catholic claims regarding the papacy: offer some alternative, positive principle of authority. He notes that Eastern apologists insist on conciliarism as the appropriate form of church structure. For them, ecumenical councils constitute the ultimate authority in matters of doctrine. But Soloviev scoffs at this. The East has never convoked and still cannot convoke an ecumenical council. So, the haunting question for our EO friends to answer is this:

Where has an ecumenical council decreed that ecumenical councils alone are the final authority for the Church?

I’m glad you’re enjoying your book, but is that any reason to make up terms in order to pretend that Eastern Orthodox are Protestants just because you are more comfortable trying to fit others into that binary way of looking at the world (where everything that isn’t Catholic is “Protestant” by default)?

Also, if the East has never convened an ecumenical council, why are the 7 that Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox both agree to the pronouncements of (with some variations, e.g., the different number of accepted canons at Constantinople I) considered ecumenical in both traditions? This is true despite the fact that they were all convened by Eastern emperors, and none were presided over by, nor attended by, the Roman Pope. So that’s a little odd, don’t you think? When did they stop being ecumenical for Rome and those within her? I would have thought they still are.

I find it odd that the Easterns count Constantine as an Eastern emperor when he was originally emperor of the Western division and then sole emperor after that.

Anyway, being convoked by the Byzantine emperor is not the same as being convoked by the East, because the Byzantine empire was both Western and Eastern. That is one reason those councils were ecumenical. And all of those Councils were confirmed by a pope. If being comvoked by an emperor was enough to make it ecumenical, then the whole Church has fallen into heresy numerous times, because many heretical councils have been convoked by emperors. What counts is for the Bishop of Rome to ratify it. Or else how do you explain the Robber Council?

If I had to guess, which I would (since I’m not EO), it probably has something to do with him being the founder of the Byzantine Empire… :wink:

Anyway, being convoked by the Byzantine emperor is not the same as being convoked by the East, because the Byzantine empire was both Western and Eastern.

No. The Roman Empire was Eastern and Western. The Byzantine Empire was the Eastern half of the Roman Empire after its division into Eastern and Western halves in 330 AD with the founding of “New Rome”/Constantinople at Byzantinum by Emperor Constantine.

Or else how do you explain the Robber Council?

Chalcedon? You’ll have to explain that one yourselves, as I don’t buy it. Just like I don’t buy the Roman Pope “confirming” anything. If that were the case, why didn’t his objections over the third canon of Constantinople hold sway? The Eastern churches accepted all the canons over the Roman Pope’s objections. Later on, the Byzantines held their council at Trullo without any Latin participation, and that is accepted to this day without any such confirmation or participation of Rome.

I do not pretend EO are Protestant. However, you haven’t answered the question.

At first thought, I tend to think they are not on a par. I don’t think EO believe an ecumenical council to be the only authority for doctrine, as they place high regard on the liturgy and prayers therein. Also, I would think that the behavior of appealing to the council is evidence enough as a sign of the authority of a council. Unlike sola scriptura, which is a finite volume which can be searched for a specific claim, I am not sure that a council needs to grant authority to itself when the very appeal of the Church already recognizes it as such to finally settle a dispute. Just as in Catholic theology, we have dogmatic pronouncements by way of an ordinary magisterium (i.e. dogmas without a specific formula articulated by the Pope or a council), I would think the Orthodox could appeal to the sensibilities of bishops in history turning toward councils for final appeal, even if they do not articulate that rule in a specific, dogmatic formula.

Soloviev’s position may work against certainly overly juridical forms of Orthodox theology, but it’s a bad argument on the whole, I think. Orthodoxy doesn’t rest on “councils alone” but on the Tradition. The most convincing versions of Orthodox theology (and before you start talking about “disunity,” there are many versions of Catholic theology too, some of which are very unconvincing indeed) reject a “juridical” approach altogether. Fr. George Florovsky wrote a great essay on the early Councils in which he argued that they were “charismatic events”–that is, the Church recognizes the Spirit as having acted in them.

I think this is the best approach for Catholics as well. The juridical approach is self-defeating all round.

Papal infallibility as defined in Vatican I can be interpreted not as a juridical process (when you treat it that way, you get yourself hopelessly entangled in technicalities about just what makes a papal statement infallible) but as the affirmation of the freedom of the Spirit to speak through the Pope as shepherd of all Christians, even if a Council has not been convened. In other words, it’s a rejection of juridical conciliarism.


I do understand that they are NOT “sola concilium” - I was just having some fun with the thread title. However, I’m not clear on the Magisterium aspect.

In a few brief exchanges with EO here at CAF, they have referenced the seven councils they do accept, but things get a little fuzzy when you ask about the last 1,000 years or so and the fact that they have never held another council since.

BTW - Florovsky wrote very favorably of Soloviev. Interesting, eh?

No ecumenical councils, I believe they might say. I think the major problem since the seventh century has been whether or not they could involve the Orthodox Christians (Melkites, though not necessarily as the term would be used today) beyond the Empire’s boundaries, i.e. in the lands occupied by the Muslims, and in the territory of the Roman Patriarchate.

I think you’re right for the most part…maybe completely. However, I’m trying to get at the grounds upon which the EO reject the authority of the pope in matters of doctrine. For example, they would say that of the first seven ecumenical councils do not support the idea of papal infallibility and since these are the only councils they accept as valid, papal infallibility is unacceptable purely because it is not conciliar by their reckoning.

My OP simply asks: Where has any Council declared that Councils are the source of this authority; conversely, where do any of the first seven councils deny the authority of the papacy?

Of course, in the absence of a positive proclamation, they will probably argue that this is proof that Papal claims are not apostolic.

I think it’s more that they see Rome to bear a burden of proof, which they do not think is satisfied either with respect to Scripture or Tradition, of which the councils are the clearest demonstration.

Yes. I suspect that Florovsky didn’t think much of the version of Orthodoxy that Soloviev was criticizing. They came from similar currents in Russian Orthodoxy, though of course Florovsky was much later and did not develop Soloviev’s “pro-Roman” views. He was pretty ecumenical, all around, though (at least by Orthodox standards).


For consideration:

If the EO had continued participating in the Ecumenical Councils called by Rome and IF they are correct regarding the papacy, then their presence at Vatican I may have prevented Catholicism from falling into error. So, to some extent, they must live with the burden of the guilt that they did nothing to prevent Rome’s heresy.

OTOH, if they had attended Vatican 1, they might have been persuaded by the other Fathers in attendance (and the Holy Spirit), and we would not be where we are today.

That, and, in my experience, the pope’s authority is rejected by Orthodox on the grounds that he cannot make a decision “by himself” “apart from the others.” Decisions must be made by “all of us.” Or some similar paraphrase. That being said, I don’t know of a single exercise of papal infallibility made that did not reflect an existing sentiment among bishops. In fact, and this excerpt may appear in a forthcoming blog post of mine :o, but take for example Pope John Paul II’s infallible statement on the immorality of abortion. He explicitly says he consulted his brethren in the decision and is vocalizing that sentiment––i.e. not one of his own apart from them:Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops-who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine–I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. (Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 62, 1995)

We learned from Florence what would happen if we attempted to be in submission to the Pope. Your Pope Pius IX invited us to “come back” and this exchange followed:

It is worth noting, that the Eastern contingent of those in Communion with Rome by and large opposed Papal Infallibility at Vatican I, for all the good that did.

Do you have a link that shows how the vote went?

The Councils themselves almost always appealed to the authority of previous councils. The Council of Chalcedon, for example, in its definition of faith, produces the symbols of faith of Nicaea and of First Constantinople, calling them together the, “wise and saving symbol of divine grace [which] sufficed for the perfect knowledge and confirmation of piety.” The Council of Chalcedon rested its authority not upon the jurisdictional and hierarchical authority of the bishops present, but upon what one might term charismatic authority, as found in the consonance of the council’s single-minded definition with the teachings of the Fathers, namely St. Cyril, Pope St. Leo, the Fathers of Nicaea, the Fathers of First Constantinople, and the Fathers of Ephesus. Accordingly, the definition of Chalcedon does not appeal to the authority of the bishops who helped draft it, but rather it appeals to the authority of the symbol of faith (of Nicaea), upon which it claims to expound out of necessity. We understand similarly that authority is linked to the confession of the Catholic faith, that faith which is founded upon the Rock, that saving confession of St. Peter, that Christ is the Son of the Living God. Bereft of confessing the Catholic faith, as expressed by the Ecumenical Councils and the Holy Fathers, one can have no true authority.

So, in other words, nowhere. But I do have some additional questions:

  1. Isn’t it true that the Fathers could propose all they wanted but until the Bishop of Rome approved the documents, nothing was final?
  2. How far back can this appeal to prior councils go? Jerusalem (Acts 15)? Prior to that, to whom did the Council of Jerusalem look for authority?
  3. If the documents of any council must be approved by “the people” - a process that might take centuries if Fr. Harrison is correct - then how can one Council rely on a previous council when the people may not have spoken yet?
  4. And following up on that, when was the council of Jerusalem finally accepted by the people? Good thing the Church went ahead with admission of the Gentiles immediately, huh?

I’m really intrigued as to how you’d prove that. Do you have some sources you could show us?

Um…I asked a question, and I will again: haven’t all of the councils submitted their documents to Rome for final approval?

I’m asking.

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