Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The authority of the ancient councils and the tradition of the Fathers (part 1)

Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council

Archpriest George Florovsky

The councils in the early Church

The scope of this essay is limited and restricted. It is no more than an introduction. Both subjects — the role of the Councils in the history of the Church and the function of Tradition — have been intensively studied in recent years. The purpose of the present essay is to offer some suggestions which may prove helpful in the further scrutiny of documentary evidence and in its theological assessment and interpretation. Indeed, the ultimate problem is ecclesiological. The Church historian is inevitably also a theologian. He is bound to bring in his personal options and commitments. On the other hand, it is imperative that theologians also should be aware of that wide historical perspective in which matters of faith and doctrine have been continuously discussed and comprehended. Anachronistic language must be carefully avoided. Each age must be discussed on its own terms.

The student of the Ancient Church must begin with the study of particular Councils, taken in their concrete historical setting, against their specific existential background, without attempting any overarching definition in advance. Indeed, it is precisely what historians are doing. There was no "Conciliar theory" in the Ancient Church, no elaborate "theology of the Councils," and even no fixed canonical regulations. The Councils of the Early Church, in the first three centuries, were occasional meetings, convened for special purposes, usually in the situation of urgency, to discuss particular items of common concern. They were events, rather than an institution. Or, to use the phrase of the late Dom Gregory Dix, "in the pre-Nicene times Councils were an occasional device, with no certain place in the scheme of Church government [Dom Gregory Dix, "Jurisdiction, Episcopal and Papal, in the Early Church," Laudate, XVI (No. 62, June 1938), 108]. Of course, it was commonly assumed and agreed, already at that time, that meeting and consultation of bishops, representing or rather personifying their respective local churches or "communities," was a proper and normal method to manifest and to achieve the unity and consent in matters of faith and discipline. The sense of the Unity of the Church was strong in Early times, although it had not yet been reflected on the organizational level. The "collegiality" of the bishops was assumed in principle and the concept of the Episcopatus unus was already in the process of formation. Bishops of a particular area used to meet for the election and consecration of new bishops. Foundations had been laid for the future Provincial or Metropolitan system. But all this was rather a spontaneous movement. It seems that "Councils" came into existence first in Asia Minor, by the end of the second century, in the period of intensive defense against the spread of the "New Prophecy," that is, of the Montanist enthusiastic explosion. In this situation it was but natural that the main emphasis should be put on "Apostolic Tradition," of which bishops were guardians and witnesses in their respective paroikiai. It was in North Africa that a kind of Conciliar system was established in the third century. It was found that Councils were the best device for witnessing, articulating, and proclaiming the common mind of the Church and the accord and unanimity of local churches. Professor Georg Kretschmar has rightly said, in his recent study on the Councils of the Ancient Church, that the basic concern of the Early Councils was precisely with the Unity of the Church: "Schon von ihrem Ursprung her ist ihr eigentliches Thema aber das Ringen um die rechte, geistliche Einheit der Kirche Gottes" [Georg Kretschmar, "Die Konzile der Alten Kirche," in: Die ökumenischen Konzile der Christenheit, hg. v. H. J. Margull, Stuttgart (1961), p. 1]. Yet, this Unity was based on the identity of Tradition and the unanimity in faith, rather than on any institutional pattern.

The imperial or ecumenical council

The situation changed with the Conversion of the Empire. Since Constantine, or rather since Theodosius, it has been commonly assumed and acknowledged that Church was co-extensive with Commonwealth, that is, with the Universal Empire which has been christened. The "Conversion of the Empire" made the Universality of the Church more visible than ever before. Of course, it did not add anything to the essential and intrinsic Universality of the Christian Church. But the new opportunity provided for its visible manifestation. It was in this situation that the first General Council was convened, the Great Council of Nicea. It was to become the model for the later Councils. "The new established position of the Church necessitated ecumenical action, precisely because Christian life was now lived in the world which was no longer organized on a basis of localism, but of the Empire as a whole … Because the Church has come out into the world the local churches had to learn to live no longer as self-contained units (as in practice, though not in theory, they have largely lived in the past), but as parts of a vast spiritual government" (Dom Gregory Dix, op. cit., p. 113). In a certain sense the General Councils as inaugurated at Nicea may be described as "Imperial Councils," die Reichskonzile, and this was probably the first and original meaning of the term "Ecumenical" as applied to the Councils (See Eduard Schwartz, "Über die Reichskonzilien von Theodosius bis Justinian" (1921), reprinted in his Gesammelte Schriften, IV (Berlin, 1960), pp. 111-158). It would be out of place now to discuss at any length the vexed and controversial problem of the nature or character of that peculiar structure which was the new Christian Commonwealth, the theocratic Res publica Christiana, in which the Church was strangely wedded with the Empire [Cf. my article, "Empire and Desert: Antinomies of Christian History," The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, III (No. 2, 1957), 133-159]. For our immediate purpose it is actually irrelevant. The Councils of the fourth century were still occasional meetings, or individual events, and their ultimate authority was still grounded in their conformity with the "Apostolic Tradition." It is significant that no attempt to develop a legal or canonical theory of "General Councils," as a seat of ultimate authority, with specific competence and models of procedure, was made at that time, in the fourth century, or later, although they were de facto acknowledged as a proper instance to deal with the questions of faith and doctrine and as an authority on these matters. It will be no exaggeration to suggest that Councils were never regarded as a canonical institution, but rather as occasional charismatic events. Councils were not regarded as periodical gatherings which had to be convened at certain fixed dates. And no Council was accepted as valid in advance, and many Councils were actually disavowed, in spite of their formal regularity. It is enough to mention the notorious Robber Council of 449. Indeed, those Councils which were actually recognized as "Ecumenical," in the sense of their binding and infallible authority, were recognized, immediately or after a delay, not because of their formal canonical competence, but because of their charismatic character: under the guidance of the Holy Spirit they have witnessed to the Truth, in conformity with the Scripture as handed down in Apostolic Tradition [See V. V. Bolotov, Lectures on the History of the Ancient Church, III (1913), p. 320 ff. (Russian), and his Letters to A. A. Kireev, ed. by D. N. Jakshich (1931), pp. 31 ff. (Russian); also A. P. Dobroklonsky, "The Ecumenical Councils of the Orthodox Church. Their Structure," Bogoslovlje, XI (2 & 3, 1936), 163-172 and 276-287 (Serbian.)]. There is no space now to discuss the theory of reception. In fact, there was no theory. There was simply an insight into the matters of faith. Hans Küng, in his recent book, Strukturen der Kirche, has suggested a helpful avenue of approach to this very problem. Indeed, Dr. Küng is not a historian, but his theological scheme can be fruitfully applied by historians. Küng suggested that we should regard the Church herself as a "Council," an Assembly, and as a Council convened by God Himself, aus göttlicher Berufung, and the historic Councils, that is, the Ecumenical or General Councils, as Councils aus menschlicher Berufung, as a "representation" of the Church, — indeed, a "true representation," but yet no more than a representation [Hans Küng, Strukturen der Kirche, 1962, pp. 11-74]. It is interesting to note that a similar conception had been made already many years ago by the great Russian Church historian, V. V. Bolotov, in his Lectures on the History of the Ancient Church. Church is ecclesia, an assembly, which is never adjourned [Bolotov, Lectures, I (1907), pp. 9-14]. In other words, the ultimate authority — and the ability to discern the truth in faith — is vested in the Church which is indeed a "Divine institution," in the proper and strict sense of the word, whereas no Council, and no "Conciliar institution," is de jure Divino, except in so far as it happens to be a true image or manifestation of the Church herself. We may seem to be involved here in a vicious circle. We may be actually involved in it, if we insist on formal guarantees in doctrinal matters. But, obviously, such "guarantees" do not exist and cannot be produced, especially in advance. Certain "Councils" were actually failures, no more than conciliabula, and did err. And for that reason they were subsequently disavowed. The story of the Councils in the fourth century is, in this respect, very instructive [Cf. Monald Goemans, O.F.M., Het algemeene Concilie in de vierde eeuw (Nijmegen-Utrecht, 1945)]. The claims of the Councils were accepted or rejected in the Church not on formal or "canonical" ground. And the verdict of the Church has been highly selective. The Council is not above the Church; this was the attitude of the Ancient Church. The Council is precisely a "representation." This explains why the Ancient Church never appealed to "Conciliar authority" in general or in abstracto, but always to particular Councils, or rather to their "faith" and witness. Pere Yves Congar has recently published an excellent article on the "Primacy of the first four Ecumenical Councils," and the evidence he has collected is highly instructive [Primauté des quatre premiers conciles oecuméniques," Le Concile et les Conciles, Contribution à l’histoire de la vie conciliaive de l’Eglise (1960), p. 75-109]. In fact, it was precisely the normative priority of Nicea, Ephesus, and Chalcedon, that is, of their dogmatic ruling, which was felt to be a faithful and adequate expression of the perennial commitment of faith as once delivered unto the Church. Again the stress was not so much on "canonical" authority, but on the truth. It leads us to the most intricate and crucial problem — what are the ultimate criteria of the Christian Truth? (cont)

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