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How is the validity of the Councils determined?
Why do we consider the Ecumenical Councils infallible? Why do we respect them so much? Where does their worth spring from? Is it perhaps from the majority? From a consensus? From the priests? From universality? From the institution itself? Or does their worth perhaps spring from the Holy-Spiritual experience of the Pentecost that is borne by the Saints?
Fr. George Florovsky points out that the truth can be expressed by even a few only Saints – that is, by the minority, and not simply the majority; furthermore, that the truth can also be formulated without a Council.
"The overall truth can be expressed even by the few, even by isolated confessors of the faith, and that suffices. To be precise, in order to be able to recognize and to express the overall truth, we do not need any ecumenical, worldwide convention and vote – not even an ecumenical council. The sacred dignity of a Council is not dependent on the number of members that represent their respective Churches. It is possible for one, large, “general” council to prove itself to be a “robber council” (latrocinium), or even a council of apostates. And the “ecclesia sparsa” – the consensus of the Church - often condemns it for its invalidity with a silent reaction. The number of bishops (numerus episcoporum) does not solve the problem.
The historical and practical methods that recognize a sacred and universal Tradition can be many. The convening of ecumenical councils is one method, but it is not the only one. This does not mean that there is no need to convene councils and conventions. It is, however, possible for the truth to be expressed by the minority during a council.
More importantly, the truth can be revealed even without a council. The opinions of the Fathers and the ecumenical Teachers of the Church are often of a much greater spiritual value and straightforwardness than the definitions set down by certain councils; and those opinions have no need of confirmation and acceptance by “ecumenical consent”. On the contrary, those very opinions comprise the criterion and are the ones that are able to provide proof of it. That is precisely what the Church testifies to, with a silent «receptio». Of decisive value is an “inner” universality, and not any empirical ecumenicity. The opinions of the Fathers are acknowledged, not as an official obeisance to an external authority, but because of the “innermost” testimony of their opinions’ universal truth. The entire corpus of the Church has the right to verify, and in fact the right – or rather the duty – to confirm.”
This view by Fr. George Florovsky is a significant one.
Of course one must stress that an Ecumenical Council does
have immense authority.
Saint Nicodemus the Hagiorite observes:
and by everyone, it is not the divine Scripture but the Ecumenical
council that is proclaimed as the ultimate judge of Ecclesiastic
affairs”. That is
how the Church synodically opines on all matters. However, this
should be stressed with two, necessary clarifications:
Besides, it is not the decisions of Ecumenical Councils that reveal the truth; they only formulate it. In other words, the truth - as lived and experienced by the Church ever since the Pentecost – is expressed through the Ecumenical Councils because of the emergence of heretical teachings. If there were no heretical teachings in existence, there would have been no need to convene Ecumenical Councils. This in no way means that the truth would not have existed.
The second precondition is that which Fr. Florovsky had stated and the one we mentioned earlier, namely, that “The opinions of the Fathers and the ecumenical Teachers of the Church are often of a much greater spiritual value and straightforwardness than the definitions set down by certain councils; and those opinions have no need of confirmation and acceptance by “ecumenical consent”. On the contrary, those very opinions comprise the criterion and are the ones that are able to provide proof of it.”
The Ecumenical Councils were not dependent simply on the majority, but rather on the participating, major Patristic figures. In the First Ecumenical Council a significant role was played by Athanasius the Great; in the Second Ecumenical Council it was the theology of Basil the Great, of Saint Gregory the Theologian, and of Saint Gregory of Nyssa. In the Third Ecumenical Council a major role was played by Saint Cyril of Alexandria. In the Sixth Council the theology of Saint Maximus the Confessor was taken seriously into consideration and in the Seventh Council it was the theology of Saint John of Damascus. The theology of Saint Gregory Palamas contained the substructure of the entire theology of the Councils of 1341, 1347 and 1351. In view of the above points, it is obvious that none of those major Fathers was deluded: not prior to the Synod, nor after it.
It is noteworthy, that in the “Synodicon of Orthodoxy” there is a
special paragraph in which all the defenders of the truth and the
true teachers of the Church are commemorated:
who synodically, in the presence of the great church, had brought
down Barlaam and Akindynos - the leaders and inventors of the new
heresies […] according to the divine Scriptures, and also of the
theologians who were their exegetes – namely, I say Athanasius and
Basil, Gregory and John the Golden-speaking and Cyril;
among them also Maximus the
wise and the God-speaking one from Damascus… may their memory be
This is evident from all the Minutes of the Ecumenical Councils. I
will mention only a few examples:
Also in the “clause of faith” of the same Council it is mentioned
that it (the Council) follows the teaching of the Ecumenical
Councils and the holy Fathers. Whereas it could have mentioned only
the decisions, the terms of the Ecumenical Councils, it nevertheless
also names the holy Fathers: “Following
the holy and Ecumenical five Councils and the holy and reputed
Fathers and stipulating accordingly, it confesses….”
Thus, with their communion with God, the holy Fathers attained
divine knowledge and confessed it in the Church, within Conciliar
formulations. That is why the
holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council once again confess: “And
we, by holding on to the dogmas and the acts of those same
God-bearing Fathers in everything, proclaim with one voice and one
heart, adding nothing to, and deducting nothing from what was
delivered to us by them, are instead reassured by them, we are
supported by them; thus do we confess, thus do we teach, as the holy
and ecumenical six Councils decreed and reassured.”
The holy Fathers who had arrived at theosis had acquired the knowledge of God; however, this does not necessarily mean they all have the same expressions when formulating the same personal experience. The difference in their expressive formulation is attributed to many factors. At any rate, when holy Fathers (with the same experience), meet at an Ecumenical Council, that is when they agree with each other. John Romanides writes about this characteristically: “Neither radiance nor glorification can be institutionalised. The sameness of this experience of radiance and glorification among the gifted ones who are in that condition does not necessarily impose a sameness in dogmatic expression, especially when the gifted ones are geographically distanced for long periods of time. Nevertheless, when they meet, they easily agree on the matter of uniformity in the dogmatic formulation of their identical experience. A powerful move towards identical dogmatic expression took place during the time that Christianity had been made the official religion of the Romaic Empire and had satisfied the State’s need to discern the genuine healers from the pseudo-physicians, the same way that government services have the responsibility to discern the genuine members of the medical profession from the quack doctors and the appropriators of the science of medicine, for the protection of their subjects”.
It becomes clear from this, that the acquisition of the knowledge of God, the glorification and the deification (theosis) of the holy Fathers was precedent, whereas the formulation of that experience became necessary, after the appearance of the heretics. It also becomes evident that, by participating in the Ecumenical Councils, the holy Fathers had confirmed that knowledge and had expressed it identically. It further becomes obvious that the Ecumenical Councils were convened in order to distinguish between the followers of the Orthodox Tradition - which is basically a hesychastic one – and those who follow the western tradition, which is basically a rationalistic one.
** Copyist’s Note: Likewise, the Ninth Ecumenical Council of 1341 was also supported by a holy man – Saint Gregory Palamas.
Translation: A.N. & R.I.
Article published in English on: 3-4-2018.
Last update: 3-4-2018.