I read Wikipedia’s article on ecumenical councils (gatherings of church leaders and theological experts purposed to discuss and settle matters of doctrine and practice) because I had recently began questioning whether, as it is commonly taught, the decisions of these councils really were an expression of universal agreement within the church that was meant to be authoritative throughout all subsequent generations.
My suspicions were confirmed.
In this post I will organize and summarize the article and make some observations.
Matters Discussed at the Councils
The first recorded council, the Council of Jerusalem (around 50 A.D.), is actually recorded in the scriptures in Acts 15, and councils have been held ever since.
Some of the things discussed were various things related to the Trinity, the nature of the deity and humanity of Jesus, whether the virgin Mary gave birth to God or only to the Christ, whether particular individuals/doctrines should be declared heretics/heresies, deciding successors for positions of leadership, what documents should be included in the biblical canon, how to exercise church discipline, how to deal with icons (images of Jesus, apostles, etc.), describing the authority held by ecclesiastical leaders, transubstantiation (the idea that when you take communion the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus), attempts to reunite different denominations, and church reform.
Here I’ll be focusing on the earlier councils since many people consider them to be authoritative for us today.
Participation was Limited
Bishops belonging to what became known as the Church of the East participated in none of the councils later than the second, and further noteworthy schisms led to non-participation by other members of what had previously been considered a single christian church. Later ecumenical councils thus included bishops of only parts of the church as previously constituted and were rejected or ignored by christians not belonging to those parts.
What this tells us is that the councils cannot really be considered to be “universal” in the sense that they expressed the consensual opinion of the entire church at that time. Only people from certain regions or groups took part, and thus the councils failed to include representatives from all bodies of believers.
I’m not aware of the details on how the councils made decisions, but they did involve voting and thus it seems to me that it did not express a genuine consensus but merely the majority opinion at that particular point in time. And history shows that the majority opinion never really was a reliable guide to good doctrine.
Besides, why should the ecclesiastical leaders and theological experts have the privilege of making such weighty decisions? What about the “commoners”? Did they have inferior relationships with God or less of an ability to think through the issues that emerged? (Did they even get to choose their “representatives” (if that’s what the ecclesiastical leaders and theological experts were at all)?) Personally, I’m curious as to what they thought. Unfortunately, we do not have writings of commoners with us today (if they even wrote anything; I doubt they were even able to write at all).
The Councils were Not Free of Political Motivations
Church councils were, from the beginning, bureaucratic exercises. Written documents were circulated, speeches made and responded to, votes taken, and final documents published and distributed.
Around the time when the councils that are often considered to be the most important took place (300 to 800 A.D.), theology wasn’t merely a matter of doctrine but had significant political ramifications as well, especially after the christian religion was given a privileged position by the emperor Constantine in 313 A.D.
Councils were primarily held because of theological controversy. When significant disagreements emerged, councils were called for to settle them. Thus, conclusively settling such issues was not necessarily (and most likely was not, at least for the emperor) motivated by a desire to do “good theology” but rather to come to a superficial “agreement” to evaporate the controversy and bring “unity” to the empire. Determining dogma by which all people were required to adhere to ensured a certain level of peace within nations and kept doctrinal controversies under control.
Thus, the first seven ecumenical councils (the major ones) as well as several others were convoked by “christian” emperors (I write “christian” because although they touted the christian religion, it is highly questionable whether they actually lived in relationship with God). They also enforced the decisions of those councils within the state church of the Roman Empire. On the other end, church fathers wielded their connections with political authorities to increase their influence over the councils’ decision making.
Variation in Acceptance of Councils
The following is an overview of major denominations and the councils they accept as authoritative. I provide this list to show that there is no general agreement on which councils should be accepted as authoritative.
- The Church of the East only accepts the First Council of Nicaea and the First Council of Constantinople.
- Oriental Orthodoxy only accepts Nicaea I, Constantinople I and Ephesus I.
- The Eastern Orthodox Church accepts the first seven ecumenical councils, with the Council in Trullo considered a continuation of the sixth.
- The Roman Catholic Church recognizes the seven councils in the early centuries of the church as well as fourteen councils in later times called or confirmed by the Pope (and thus that there can still be more ecumenical councils to come).
- Anglicans believe the councils may have erred and are only authoritative if their declarations can be said to be taken out of the scriptures (so they generally accept the first seven or first four).
- Some Protestants accept the teachings of the first seven (and occasionally four) councils but do not ascribe to the councils themselves the same authority as Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox do.
- Other Protestants claim that conformity to the decisions of the councils is purely voluntary and that they are to be considered binding only insofar as those doctrines are derived from the Scriptures; they assert that after the New Testament the doors of revelation were closed and councils can only give advice or guidance but have no authority.
- Nontrinitarian churches do not recognize ecumenical councils, viewing them as misguided human attempts to establish doctrine, and as attempts to define dogmas by debate rather than by revelation.
The Roman Catholic Church as well as most Eastern Orthodox theologians hold the doctrine that the ecumenical councils were infallible in the decisions they made, and thus the whole church must adhere to them (although, as mentioned above, they disagree as to which councils were infallible). Yet this doctrine does not claim that every aspect of every ecumenical council is infallible (in other words, they choose which parts are authoritative). On the other hand, Lutherans only accept the first four, most High Church Anglicans accept all seven as persuasive but not infallible, and most Protestants restrict infallibility to the Christological statements of the first seven councils (that Jesus is fully God and fully man, etc.).
Do you see what is going on? Basically, everyone considered the councils to be authoritative/ecumenical up to the point where they disagreed with their decision. LoL! People pick and choose which councils and, furthermore, which decisions of each council they will accept as authoritative by selecting criteria for what should and should not be accepted. But this choice of criteria is purely subjective. For example, the Roman Catholic Church considers recognition of a council by the Pope to be essential, the Eastern Orthodox views approval by the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) as being roughly equivalent to that of other patriarchs, and some Protestants say councils are never authoritative no matter what. And, really, the criteria is irrelevant, because it is possible to create criteria that effectively eliminates the councils you want to disqualify and retains the councils you want to qualify.
So in the end this is theological gymnastics in which people claim that what they agree with is authoritative. What it really comes down to is people saying, in essence, “what I believe is right and therefore authoritative.”
The Concept of Church Councils
As shown in the list above, there is even disagreement as to whether establishing doctrine for the entire christian faith through ecumenical councils is a legitimate practice. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox all accept the authority of ecumenical councils in principle, but it is rejected by many Protestants.
Holding councils to determine doctrine is not necessarily of God (but not necessarily anti-God either). It certainly isn’t biblical. Sure, even in the scriptures the apostles held one such meeting, but they never say that what they decide will stand true throughout all subsequent generations. Furthermore, the council the apostles held wasn’t to determine beliefs but church practice. The scriptures simply do not give any instruction telling us to hold councils to determine doctrine. It wasn’t God but people who decided to hold that council.
The concept of an ecumenical council establishing doctrine for the entire Christian faith has to be assumed as legitimate. Moreover, even if such a practice is legitimate, that a specific council and the decisions it came to was superintended by God (the council counting as a legitimate ecumenical council) also has to be assumed.
The church did not have concrete structures of authority like the empires in which it resided. What if the councils were born out of a desire to copy the institutional organizations and systems of law around them more than they were following God’s lead?
Did God even want the theological questions that emerged to be resolved? Maybe he’s okay with continuing exploration of questions. Does God really care that we have concrete answers to such questions that most people nowadays wouldn’t even think to ask? Maybe he’s content for us to be left in the realm of mystery. Does God desire that we set forth certain doctrines as requirements for people to be considered believers? Maybe he’s not concerned about making such distinctions.
This is not to say that the councils were meaningless; they just weren’t divine (unless you would like to assume they were). They have value but not ultimate authority (unless you would like to assume they do). We can learn from them but we are not bound by them (unless you would like to assume that we are).
A popular rule by Vincent of Lérins states, “all possible care must be taken to hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” Okay. So who are the “all”? Believers. Who are believers? People who claim to hold to a certain set of beliefs (hence the term “believers”). Which beliefs qualify people as believers? Those beliefs that are “essential.” Which beliefs are essential? Those beliefs that have been “believed everywhere, always, by all.” It is circular. (Similar arguments could be made for the “everywhere” and “always” aspects of the quote as well.)
There really is no objective way of determining what is correct doctrine and what is not.
How, then, should we approach the issues discussed at the ecumenical councils if they are not authoritative for us?
The councils are not without value, but neither are they pillars of truth. We should thus feel free to question the doctrines that were discussed at them. Agreement with those doctrines should not be used as a litmus test as to whether someone is a “legitimate believer” (whatever that means lol).