The Ecumenical Councils and Us

Dear Friends in Christ,

On Sunday, we commemorated the Fathers of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, all those bishops and teachers who assembled on seven occasions between A.D. 325 and A.D. 787 to debate and define precisely the Christian faith against those who were challenging it from within. This is an aspect of the Orthodox Church which is not common in other churches; when correct doctrine is defined in opposition to erroneous opinions, the teachings are not only enshrined in decrees, but are also incorporated into the hymnody. This is in keeping with an ancient maxim: “Lex orandi, lex credendi” or, loosely translated, “what is prayed is what is believed.” Our faith in Christ is proclaimed loudly, and what we believe has a profound and direct impact on our personal spiritual life (c.f. my earlier reflections “Doctrines and Spirituality” and “Spiritual, but not Religious”). One of the hymns states:

Ye have become exact keepers of the apostolic traditions, O Holy Fathers; for in setting forth in council the dogma of the consubstantiality of the Holy Trinity in Orthodox fashion, ye cast down the blasphemy of Arius. Then, after censuring Macedonius, the enemy of the Holy Spirit, ye condemned Nestorius, Eutychius, Dioscorus, Sabellius, and Severus the headless. Wherefore, make ye entreaty that we be delivered from their error, and that our life be preserved blameless in the Faith, we pray (Aposticha of Vespers).

For those interested in a general run-through of Church history, I recommend as a starting point The Early Church by Henry Chadwick. What becomes apparent in reading through the history of the Church, however, is that even before the Holy Bible was compiled into the present form we have now, with an Old and New Testament, there were already debates about who exactly Christ is, and how He is related to the Father, with the priest Arius arguing the erroneous opinion that Christ, the Son, was not the same as God the Father in essence. When this was resolved and Arius was refuted, some people followed Macedonius and contended that the Holy Spirit was not the same as the Father and the Son. Nestorius taught that Christ’s human and divine natures were not united, while Eutychius, Dioscorus, and Severus taught the opposite extreme, namely that His humanity was swallowed up by His divinity. Sabellius taught what is known as Modalism, namely that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are functions of the one God, and do not co-operate and co-exist simultaneously. Finally, those who taught against the veneration of the holy icons were refuted at the final council, held in Nicea in A.D. 787.

During the Protestant Reformation, some of the more extreme reformers contended that all these debates and creeds were pointless, and espoused a cavalier approach: “No creed but Christ!” Such reductionism and oversimplification, however, may appeal at first in the sight of over four hundred years of debating about the fine points of theology, many of which are difficult to understand even by seasoned theologians, but such an approach is ultimately unhelpful, and leads us away from Christ, as I argued in my previous two messages. Even though some of the debating revolved around precise points, the content that was being debated was essential: is Christ God? If so, how does He relate to the Father and the Spirit? When He took flesh, did a new person come in to being?, etc. Without settling these fundamental points, Christians would have no sure foundation upon which to build their spiritual lives. If Jesus Christ were not God incarnate, but just a great guy with some good ideas, would you change your whole life for Him? But knowing that

Seedlessly and of the Divine Spirit, and by the will of the Father, didst thou conceive the Son of God, Who, from the Father, existed before the ages without mother. And thou hast brought forth in the flesh Him Who, for our sakes, came forth from thee without father; and thou has suckled Him as a babe (Aposticha Theotokion)

puts the entire plan of salvation in a different light! The eternal God, uncontainable, existing before the ages, took flesh from a Virgin maid and dwelt among men, and suffered on the Cross for our sins! For this reason we honor these holy fathers, who struggled to “become exact keepers of the apostolic traditions” and to preserve the true teachings about Christ for our spiritual benefit! No other church but the Orthodox can demonstrate that it has continued this great reverence for preserving the doctrines that were formulated in this early time, before there were any divisions between Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox.

A final point of clarification is necessary. In some modern presentations of church history, a theory of “development of doctrine” is presented. Each of these dogmatic disputes is seen as a conflict between two parties, both of which are presumed by unaffiliated scholars to be equally correct, but differing in opinion, and influenced oftentimes by various historical, cultural, and social factors. The controversy over Monophysitism, for instance, is reduced to a dispute between elite Greeks and the peasant Copts and Syrians living in the countryside. Iconoclasm is seen as primarily a reaction against military losses in the late Roman Empire. Christians do not believe such nonsense!

While it is true that such factors may have played a secondary role in the debates, what is clear is that there was always an Orthodox teaching, present from the beginning, and there were always heretical opinions, but they were seen as divergent. The Fathers taught clearly that Arius and all the others were not presenting an equally valid opinion that they simply were not interested in accepting, but rather that Arius’s position was a novelty, and simply untrue to the inherited tradition of the earlier fathers, traceable all the way back to Christ.

Through the Orthodox practice of fasting, prayer, reading of Scripture, and acts of charity, man truly can come to have God dwell in him, and such persons were the God-bearing holy fathers that met in the Seven Councils. When they proclaimed the truth about God, they did not state one opinion in opposition to other opinions, but they revealed—through the grace of the Holy Spirit—what they themselves had experienced already! They were in a sense oracles of the divine teachings, setting forth in order that which they had already understood personally, while the heretics such as Arius were stating opinions often the result of philosophical thinking, and not based on experience.

I invite you, my brothers and sisters, to come to the Church and learn more about Christ and experience His presence in your life!

Faithfully,


Fr. Anastasios