Perry Robinson has done a post on the criteria for an ecumenical council. I’ll quote what I take to be the highlights, then make some comments:
When I was first seriously considering becoming Orthodox, how the Orthodox understood church authority was an important area to map out. In discussing the matter with Catholics that I knew, they often objected that Orthodox ecclesiology falls prey to the same problems as Protestantism. There was no locus of authority in the offices of the church, but the source of normativity was ultimately to reside in the judgment of the people.
The second line of evidence that is proffered is that for the Orthodox an ecumenical council is either known to be such or becomes such when it has been accepted by the “whole church.” There is no shortage of Catholic apologetic materials that go down this path. (I suspect they do because they rely on pop-Orthodox works or some distinctly Russian theological works.)
The position usually isn’t stated very clearly. Usually it begins with a claim regarding what the sufficient conditions are for a council to be ecumenical, which is a metaphysical claim and then slides into a claim regarding how one can know that a council is ecumenical. This is apparent for example in the above cited source. I take the metaphysical claim to be the more significant. So the idea is that a council can only be ecumenical if the “whole church” assents to it. This is obviously problematic since no council could ever meet such conditions where every professing Christian agreed. There is no council that I know of, even the Apostolic council in Acts 15 that didn’t result in some measure of dissent. I think Catholics are right to object to this idea as untenable. But I don’t think it is Orthodox teaching as such either.
Now one might object that the Orthodox are not in a position to know which of these two groups is correctly and normatively representing Orthodox teaching since the Orthodox have no way of putting forth official teaching.
Now what I have not done is spell out in detail what conditions are necessary and sufficient for a council to be ecumenical and normative. That I am largely leaving for another post. But the answers to that question are not in the main that hard to discover and sort out. Take Henry Chadwick’s description of the judgments of 2nd Nicea in 787 for instance.
”The question of what constitutes a council as ecumenical rather than merely regional or local had been debated at the sixth session of the second Council of Nicea in 787, where it was urgent to rebut the claims made on behalf of the iconoclast Council of Hiereia in 754 at which the emperor himself had presided. In 787 the answer given was in terms of representation and assent by all the patriarchs of the pentarchy, each giving ratification on behalf of all churches under his jurisdiction.” East and West: The Making of a Rift in the Church, Oxford (2003), p. 143.
So an ecumenical council accepted by East and West teaches that what constitutes the ecumenical nature of the council is pentarchial ratification, rather than papal ratification.
1.Perry begins by framing the issue in terms of authority. And, indeed, that seems to be the primary reason that some Evangelicals convert to Catholicism or Orthodoxy.
As Perry states the issue: “they often objected that Orthodox ecclesiology falls prey to the same problems as Protestantism. There was no locus of authority in the offices of the church, but the source of normativity was ultimately to reside in the judgment of the people.”
2.Apropos (1), Orthodoxy must be able to solve the problem that Perry found problematic in Protestantism. If it can’t solve the problem it posed for itself, then it fails to measure up to its own yardstick.
3.Perry also admits that this goes to the question of who speaks for Orthodoxy:
“Now one might object that the Orthodox are not in a position to know which of these two groups is correctly and normatively representing Orthodox teaching since the Orthodox have no way of putting forth official teaching.”
4.Finally, he answers his own question by lodging the following appeal:
“So an ecumenical council accepted by East and West teaches that what constitutes the ecumenical nature of the council is pentarchial ratification, rather than papal ratification.”
Having set the stage, what do we make of his answer?
It suffers from two basic problems:
1.He mentioned the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. In my experience, the Orthodox treat this council as the prototype and archetype of ecumenical councils.
However, it wasn’t ratified by “all the patriarchs of the pentarchy.”
Therefore, the Orthodox paradigm of ecumenical counciliarity fails to meet the sufficient conditions of an ecumenical council!
2.If that weren’t bad enough, Perry’s criterion is vicious circular. He says an ecumenical council (2nd Nicea) laid down the sufficient conditions for an ecumenical council.
To know, on the one hand, that 2nd Nicea is ecumenical, you’d need to know that it satisfies the ecumenical criteria.
But to know, on the other hand, that your criteria are reliable, they’d need to be promulgated by an ecumenical council.
It takes a council to ratify the criteria while it takes the criteria to ratify a council.
I do want take this opportunity to thank Perry for exposing the vacuity of his authority-source. At the end of the day, Orthodox authority resembles a snake consuming itself, tail-first.