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A sincere inquiry about the ecumenical councils

Discussion in 'General Theology' started by Kameaux, May 11, 2021.

  1. Kameaux

    Kameaux New Member

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    Hello,

    My question relates to details about the validity of the ecumenical councils. The past seven years i have been studying religion in my free-time, especially Eastern religions. This ultimately inspired me to study Christianity and became very impressed by it's depth and consistency. However, there remain some problems which keep me from taking a clear theological position.

    Most Christians do not consider priests, bishops or saints to be infallible. This means that they can't (solely) be appealed to in order to justify the validity of developments within Christian doctrine. The ecumenical councils, though, are considered by most Catholics and Orthodox Christians to be error-free, at least when speaking on a specific subject. My questions is as follows; if priests, bishops, saints (and even the apostles) aren't considered to be without fault, then on what grounds is infallibility ascribed to the ecumenical councils? I am aware that Christ promised Peter that His Church wouldn't be overcome by the gates of Hades, but when many Christian branches don't recognise each other - this implies that there is a specific criteria outside of the consensus of the clergy, by which the validity of developments relating to doctrine are confirmed or rejected. The ecumenical councils weren't discussed by Jesus and his disciples and aren't advocated for in Scripture either. If the ecumenical councils can't be reasoned to be infallible i see no reason to ascribe validity to any Christian teaching past the teachings of the apostolic fathers, as these were the last people to be taught by the actual witnesses of Christ's ministry. This would leave us with no basis upon which to accept, for instance, the Trinity, at least not as we know it today, being an invention by Tertullian that self-admittedly came with a majority opposition from his contemporary Christians.

    It would be appreciated if somebody can answer this question in detail or forward me to literature that deals with these inquiries.

    With kind regards,

    Kameaux
     
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  2. Carl Emerson

    Carl Emerson Well-Known Member

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    I think there is a difference between individual infallibility and the deliberations of the gathered church leaders... The former does not exist, the latter is spoken of in scripture but conditional on being in unity of mind and heart. There was a significant period of history when church leaders throughout the church worked together - I would suggest that the councils should be taken as inspired up to that point, before the great divide.
     
  3. HTacianas

    HTacianas Well-Known Member

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    To begin with, you are using terms that are not universally accepted. Things like infallibility, error-free, and the like. Setting those aside, Jesus gave to his apostles a certain amount of authority in what are sometimes referred to as Church Order commandments, as the power to "bind and loose" given to them at Matthew 18:18. The power to bind and loose is the authority to make decisions for the Church. There are others, such as the authority to forgive sins at John 20:23. All those powers or authorities did not end with the apostles. Neither did they end with the Apostolic Fathers, as you mentioned, but continued on throughout the history of the Church. The apostles chose their successors, who chose their successors, and so on down to modern times.

    Note something else that Jesus said to the apostles at Matthew 18:19:

    "Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven."

    The "two" that must agree is not simply two. To believe that it simply means two leads to absurdities. The meaning is "two out of three", i.e., a majority vote of them. One apostle may be wrong, but a majority of them would not be. As Jesus then said at Matt 18:20:

    "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."

    Where two or three apostles gather, such as the Council of Jerusalem described at Acts 15, or the Ecumenical Councils made up of their successors, Jesus was present with them, and through the working of the Holy Spirit those successors made decisions about the Church.

    We could go on and on discussing schisms and splits and squabbles over time, but those are the basics of it.
     
  4. Carl Emerson

    Carl Emerson Well-Known Member

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    There is not even agreement regarding the basics that HT has raised, we seem to be launched into a sea of questions in which He is holding His chosen together in truth despite the unresolved issues.
     
  5. Kameaux

    Kameaux New Member

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    Thank you for the reply, but i don't consider this explanation to be satisfactory. This is an appeal to the consensus of the clergy, but i would argue that this argument is incompatible with Eastern Orthodoxy (your faith), simply because Eastern Orthodox are in the minority. If the consensus of the majority of clergy is a reflection of the workings of the Holy Spirit it follows that every denomination aside from Roman Catholicism is heretical.
     
  6. Hmm

    Hmm Well-Known Member

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    That's interesting because it suggests, as you imply, that the church, whatever may have been the case previously, cannot be held to be infallible now because it is no longer unified. Would you be able to quote the scripture you're referring to?
     
  7. GreekOrthodox

    GreekOrthodox Psalti Chrysostom

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    There is also if an EC was accepted by the general population as a whole over a period of time. So even if a council declared something but the monastics and laity rejected it, the term "robber council" would be applied to the council. For example, the Second Council of Ephesus of 449 which the Oriental Orthodox accept, was declared to be a robber council by the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
     
  8. Carl Emerson

    Carl Emerson Well-Known Member

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    Matthew 18:19
    “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven.

    John 17
    The glory which You have given Me I also have given to them, so that they may be one, just as We are one; 23 I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and You loved them, just as You loved Me.
     
  9. HTacianas

    HTacianas Well-Known Member

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    Actually, no. The councils held by the Roman Church are valid within the Roman Church. They are the equivalent of Synods, which can either be accepted or rejected by a future Ecumenical Council. It wouldn't be the first time. Ecumenical Councils are called to resolve disputes within the Church. If there were no disputes there would be no need for Councils.
     
  10. Hmm

    Hmm Well-Known Member

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    Thanks. This does seem to suggest that the church as a whole should give a lot more credence towards coming together again than to each faction carrying on in their own sweet way.
     
  11. Carl Emerson

    Carl Emerson Well-Known Member

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    I might point out that the unity of Christ can exist in a branch of the church.
     
  12. Hmm

    Hmm Well-Known Member

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    But doesn't that go against what you said here:

    It seems reasonable time me that if the church speaks with one voice then a case can be made that this is God's voice but if the church is divided into different branches this doesn't seem very plausible: everyone will be arguing that their church is the true one and this argument will go on forever.
     
  13. disciple Clint

    disciple Clint Well-Known Member

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    A. Ecumenical Councils
    (1) An ecumenical or general, as distinguished from a particular or provincial council, is an assembly of bishops which juridically represents the universal Church as hierarchically constituted by Christ; and, since the primacy of Peter and of his successor, the pope, is an essential feature in the hierarchical constitution of the Church, it follows that there can be no such thing as an ecumenical council independent of, or in opposition to, the pope. No body can perform a strictly corporate function validly without the consent and cooperation of its head. Hence (a) the right to summon an ecumenical council belongs properly to the pope alone, though by his express or presumed consent given ante or post factum, the summons may be issued, as in the case of most of the early councils, in the name of the civil authority. For ecumenicity in the adequate sense all the bishops of the world in communion with the Holy See should be summoned, but it is not required that all or even a majority should be present. (b) As regards the conduct of the deliberations, the right of presidency, of course, belongs to the pope or his representative; while as regards the decisions arrived at unanimity is not required. (c) Finally, papal approbation is required to give ecumenical value and authority to conciliar decrees, and this must be subsequent to conciliar action, unless the pope, by his personal presence and conscience, has already given his official ratification (for details see General Councils).

    (2) That an ecumenical council which satisfies the conditions above stated is an organ of infallibility will not be denied by anyone who admits that the Church is endowed with infallible doctrinal authority. How, if not through such an organ, could infallible authority effectively express itself—unless indeed through the pope? If Christ promised to be present with even two or three of His disciples gathered together in His name (Matt., xviii, 20), a fortiori will He be present efficaciously in a representative assembly of His authorized teachers; and the Paraclete whom He promised will be present, so that whatever the council defines may be prefaced with the Apostolic formula, “it hath seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us”. And this is the view which the councils held regarding their own authority and upon which the defender of orthodoxy insisted. The councils insisted on their definitions being accepted under pain of anathema, while St. Athanasius, for example, says that “the word of the Lord pronounced by the ecumenical synod of Nicaea stands for ever” (Ep. ad Afros, n. 2, in P.G., XXVI, 1031), and St. Leo the Great proves the unchangeable character of definitive conciliar teaching on the ground that God has irrevocably confirmed its truth—”universae fraternitatis irretractabili firmavit assensu” (Ep. cxx, 1, in P.L., LIV, 1047).

    (3) It remains to be observed, in opposition to the theory of conciliar infallibility usually defended by High Church Anglicans, that once the requisite papal confirmation has been given the doctrinal decisions of an ecumenical council become infallible and irreformable; there is no need to wait perhaps hundreds of years for the unanimous acceptance and approbation of the whole Christian world. Such a theory really amounts to a denial of conciliar infallibility, and sets up in the final court of appeal an altogether vague and ineffective tribunal. If the theory be true, were not the Arians perfectly justified in their prolonged struggle to reverse Nicaea, and has not the persistent refusal of the Nestorians down to our own day to accept Ephesus and of the Monophysites to accept Chalcedon been sufficient to defeat the ratification of those councils? No workable rule can be given for deciding when such subsequent ratification as this theory requires becomes effective; and even if this could be done in the case of some of the earlier councils whose definitions are received by the Anglicans, it would still be true that since the Photian schism it has been practically impossible to secure any such consensus as is required—in other words that the working of infallible authority, the purpose of which is to teach every generation, has been suspended since the ninth century, and that Christ’s promises to His Church have been falsified. It is consoling, no doubt, to cling to the abstract doctrine of an infallible authority, but if one adopts a theory which represents that authority as unable to fulfil its appointed task during the greater part of the Church‘s life, it is not easy to see how this consolatory belief is anything more than a delusion. Infallibility
    Infallibility
     
  14. Kameaux

    Kameaux New Member

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    I understand that, but i don't belief this discredits my critique. If the Church, with a capital C, was founded by the apostles, and if all clergy members are (in theory) successors of the apostles, this still means that Catholicism is the true faith because most clergy and Christians are Catholic. The fact that there was a schism is irrelevant because, regardless of what denomination is subscribed to, all Christians gather together in the name of Christ. Therefore, if Matthew 18:19 is believed to be the word of Christ but Catholicism isn't embraced by him who believes in that verse, it means that he is either a hypocrite, or it means that there is an additional criteria for determining the validity of theology which we have not yet discussed. This is the, apparently, foundational criteria by which the validity of developments is judged, and my inquiry relates specifically to discussing the existence and nature of this criteria, as i don't understand what it is.
     
  15. Kameaux

    Kameaux New Member

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    If there can be no ecumenical council independent of, or in opposition to, the pope then why did the sixth ecumenical council anathematise pope Honorius I for believing in monotheletism?
     
  16. HTacianas

    HTacianas Well-Known Member

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    I understand what you mean. But not all clergy members are successors to the apostles. I don't like "picking on" any particular group, but you and I would probably agree that Mormon clergy members are not successors to the apostles. That is a point where we breach the divide between schism and heresy. But then there are both minor and major heresies.

    But to find your answer you should peel back the layers of the onion. By working back through history, or forward through history from the beginning, you'll find it. I have done that myself.
     
  17. hedrick

    hedrick Senior Veteran Supporter

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    I assume you're aware by now that Christians disagree on many things. The people who assert most strongly that leaders can err also don't consider the councils error-free. So your question is directed at the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

    I think the answers so far are typical of those traditions: it is the Church as a whole that is protected from error. Generally those traditions consider themselves to be true successors to the Apostles (although in modern times they understand that there are Christians outside of their group), and at least de facto only consider the protection from error to apply to their own tradition.
     
  18. hedrick

    hedrick Senior Veteran Supporter

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    I'm part of the liberal half of Protestantism. Unlike both Catholic / Orthodox, and conservative Protestantism, we don't think either the Church or Scripture is inerrant. I would say that Mat 18:19 is not intended for a context like this, but is really directed at church discipline and possibly prayer for healing and the like.

    It's also not clear that it implies inerrancy. 18:18 is similar to and probably based on the rabbinical power of loosing and binding, which was a rabbi's authority to make interpretations of the Torah. But rabbis certainly did not all agree. I would say that each community has the responsibility to interpret Scripture for their community, and the authority from Christ to do so. But that doesn't mean they'll always agree or be right, nor that judgements should be the same in differing circumstances. It does mean that those who make those judgements will be responsible to God for how they used their authority.

    Since the context of the saying is church discipline, the saying shouldn't be taken too far. A church can't, for example, make the earth to have been created in 6 days if it wasn't. However they can establish rules for their members, and members who don't think they are using that authority properly should seriously consider whether it's right to continue in that group.
     
    Last edited: May 11, 2021
  19. Kameaux

    Kameaux New Member

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    Starting from the beginning is, ironically, the reason why i developed these questions. To clarify, the time taken to answer my questions is appreciated and i'm certainly not trying to destabilise someone's faith or corner anybody, but it seems to me that the justification for developments regarding theology seem to become rather arbitrary after the 1st century. Bear in mind, i'm not advocating for Seventh-day Adventism, but, nevertheless, i find it hard to find objective or logical justification for any theology diverging from the contents of Scripture or the teachings of the apostolic fathers. I would argue that, beside Scripture, the apostolic fathers are the only trustworthy sources of Christianity, as they received their teachings directly from the disciples of Christ. As far as i know, there are no people in the ancient world that can make that claim. Arguments in defence of post-1st century teachings seem, therefore, cyclical;

    1. The Holy Spirit is believed to accompany and guide developments in the Church.

    2. When there are discrepancies among various branches of Christianity people are referred to Scripture.

    3. When there is uncertainty with regards to interpretation people are referred back to the Church.

    I understand there is a difference between schism and heresy, however, what constitutes heresy has always, generally speaking, been decided by the ecumenical councils, but i've never heard arguments that justify the validity of the ecumenical councils that aren't cyclical. I have elaborated my response to clarify my positions to other people reading the thread as well, there is no need to feel pressured into answering as i'm aware that this is a very complicated subject.
     
  20. Albion

    Albion Facilitator

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    Very good. :oldthumbsup:

    First, we have to reiterate what you said by way of introduction--that what you are talking about is the attitude of most (Roman) Catholics and Orthodox Eastern Christians. It applies to very few Christians of other denominations.

    The "Ecumenical" Councils are presumed to be infallible because they allegedly represented the wisdom of the whole church and therefore are taken for having been conducted in accordance with the Scriptural promises about the Holy Spirit protecting his church and guiding it into all truth.

    Yes.

    Okay. Welcome to reformed Christianity. You will be in good company. ;)

    Well, the Trinity is not an invention of Tertullian, but is definitely shown by Scripture to be the nature of our God.

    Thanks for your inquiry.
     
    Last edited: May 11, 2021
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