Thursday, July 28, 2011
Seven Oecumenical Councils
Identity as the Church
The Affirmation of St. Louis very clearly and directly binds Continuing Anglicans to the Seven Ecumenical (or Oecumenical) Councils that took place in the First Millennium. The number seven, rather than four, has more significance concerning our identity than it does our theology. Constantinople II (553 AD), Constantinople III (680-681 AD) and Nicea II (787 AD) do not receive and need not receive as much attention by students of theology as the first four Ecumenical Councils.
That is not because the final three lack the same authority, nor because they were not necessary in their time to defend the truth. It is simply because all three of them defend, in essence, the work of the first four. For purposes of theology, most of the study that is done by potential clergy and teachers must focus on Nicea I (325 AD), Constantinople I (381 AD), Ephesus (431 AD) and Chalcedon (451 AD). What this boils down to is merely this: When we Affirm seven Ecumenical Councils, one major reason is to define who we are, to identify ourselves as the Church. The Affirmation of seven Councils, before what we call the Great Schism of east and west, says that we believe ourselves to be of that same One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church that goes all the way back to the beginning.
The Church of England, and the consequent Anglican Communion, always had so identified itself. Never did the Church of England present itself as having a sixteenth century origin. Never did Anglicans treat the Reformation as their birth. Never did any generation of Anglicans say, in the Creeds, "I believe in the Holy Catholic Church," or "Catholic and Apostolic Church" as if speaking of someone else instead of themselves. Always, in every generation, the Apostolic Succession of bishops - our bishops - was traced to the Apostles.
Matthew Parker was not the first Archbishop of Canterbury in some new church, but rather the seventy-first Archbishop of Canterbury. The Church of England after the Reformation was the same church as before. This feature of Anglicanism made it unique among the reformed churches. It also makes the Affirmation of St. Louis quite correct in holding to our ancient identity. We do not merely aspire to be of the Holy Catholic Church. We need not fly either to Rome or to Constantinople to be in the Church established by Christ through the Apostles. The Affirmation, therefore, of all seven Councils is consistent with the belief Anglicans have always had in their own identity as belonging to the Church.
Seventh Council and the homily on the perils of idolatry
It is assumed that Anglicans cannot hold to the Homily "Against Peril of Idolatry" and also to Nicea II. That assumption is based on the fact that Nicea II, the Second Council of Nicea and seventh Ecumenical Council, condemned the Iconoclasts. The first in the list of Anathemas says, "If anyone does not confess that Christ our God can be represented in his humanity, let him be anathema."
The danger represented by the heresy of Iconoclasm was really aimed at the Incarnation. The Iconoclasts, had they succeeded, would have created a doctrine that cannot be reconciled to the ultimate revelation of our Faith: "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth." (John 1:14)
But, the essence of the Anglican Homily was about something else. To say that the teaching in the Homily must contradict the essence of Nicea II is to equate icons with idols; in which case, it is the one who argues for their mutual exclusion, who thereby says that the Council and the Homily are irreconcilable, who discredits and rejects Nicea II. It is that person who treats the Council as favoring idolatry, and who calls it into question.
Furthermore, the Homily recounts the little understood fact that "the Greeks" were scandalized by the images of "the Latins." What does that mean? The answer is found in Eastern Orthodox practice to this day. They find the western practice of three dimensional images, or statues, objectionable. Furthermore, icons, in addition to being flat, are written images, symbolic with recognized meaning much the way written words signify rather than depict. Western art and icons are, thus, very different in nature.
The other issue is λατρεία (latreia), the worship reserved only for God. At times, in the west, images were allowed to become the objects of such worship. The justification for this was seen by the Eastern Church as an exercise in sophistry, therefore unconvincing. And, it is the practice of allowing λατρεία to be used for statues and other images that is also the real target of the Anglican Homily.
Irony of final Councils - Rome's apparent loss of status
It is an irony that various Protestants often cut the number of Councils to four. That is because it is the second, third and fourth Councils that ascribe to the Patriarch of Rome the first place of honor. In the actual texts from these Councils no reason is given beyond the imperial and political realities of the era.
But, the condemnation of Pope Honorius I (Pope from 625 to 638 AD) for heresy, more than half a century after his death, took place at the Third Council of Constantinople in 680-681 AD. As such, it is part of the official record of the Church that one of the popes was a heretic (probably an very unfair judgment in light of all the facts). It is a remarkable fact that in these final Ecumenical Councils we no longer find any reference to the Patriarch of Rome holding a first place of honor. So, it seems ironic that these Councils are mostly overlooked by a majority of the few Reformed churches that still recall the Councils.
Continuing Anglicans have Affirmed all seven Ecumenical Councils of the first millennium. This may seem like an extra step to certain other Anglicans. But this affirmation is very important in our day and age for letting the Two One True Churches know that we do not look to them to give us validity, and more so, to reminding ourselves of that fact. We do not aspire to be part of the Holy Catholic Church; rather, we are part of it. This understanding is consistent with the practice of Anglicans going back to the Reformation era, when Matthew Parker became the seventy-first in a long line of Archbishops of Canterbury. What was affirmed in St. Louis in 1977 was a logical continuation of everything that particular succession meant.