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. 


Carlos said...

Father Hart,

The Seventh Council seems particularly important as many reformed groups began to develop a pseudo-iconoclasm perhaps more as a response to Roman Catholic opulance than direct heresy. How did the Angican Divines view the seventh ecumenical council and how is it viewed amongst Continuing and Canterbury Anglicans today?

As you said iconoclasm is not unique persay, but deals with divine mystery of the incarnation and so reaffirms the first few councils.

Fr. Wells said...

Anglicans from Launcelot Andrewes to J. W. C Wand have customarily spoken of the "Four Great Councils," and their orthodoxy and catholicity has not been impugned for it. Not that they denied the later councils; it was simply because they wish to emphasize that Nicaea I and Chalcedon were the two major Councils.

The great Princetonian Charles Hodge was on record as acknowledging the 5th and 6th Councils as well, while rejecting the 7th.

The important fact concerning ALL SEVEN Councils was that they, in submission to the Scriptures, sought to exalt Christ. The same concern is frequently missing with those mostly fascinated by the magic number Seven.

Fr. Wells said...

Carlos: you are right in your observation that the "iconoclasm" of Calvinist Protestants began as a reaction to RC opulence, and also to superstition
(such as statues and icons which had miraculous powers). That same reaction had actually begun with the Cistercians who favored very austere architecture with fewer images. The "Nestorian" Churches, I understand, make no use of icons, and the "Monophysite" Churches use icons sparingly, in comparison with the Byzantines. On he other hand, the Lutheran love of crucifixes and statues is well known.

Brian said...

the Lutheran love of crucifixes and statues is well known.

If only more Lutherans would continue that love instead of embracing rock band worship and the other trappings of generic evangelicalism!

Timothy said...

Do any of the Continuing Churches hold to the Eastern view contra the 3 dimensional "statues"? I tend to be sympathetic to that position, having been taught that a 2 dimensional icon is to be seen as a window to heaven. Obviously, a 3-d representation cannot serve this capacity.

CB in Ca said...

I agree with Fr. Wells that Calvinist opposition to images was a reaction to RC "opulences," also the superstition of statues having magical powers, etc. That said, ought there to be care in the Continuum that "veneration" not step over into idolatry?

Fr. Robert Hart said...

The subject of statues is interesting. Those who think of Rome and Constantinople as somehow being the voice of the Universal Church (a condition for which the cure does exist), it is worth pointing out that the common Eastern Orthodox reaction to statues in Church is still very negative indeed. Perhaps that means that someone will accuse the Eastern Orthodox of "Calvinism" before too long.

Pete said...

Ah, the Homily against Idolatry, running to 98 pages in my edition!

Methinks it doth protest too much. Wonder how many poor souls have had to sit through it all. It'd be enough to make you turn to the back of the PB and reading the articles!

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Pete wrote:

Ah, the Homily against Idolatry, running to 98 pages in my edition!

If the Homily takes 98 pages in your edition, then your edition must have pictures in it. It should take a mere 60 pages, a nice brief little homily of the kind sure to make a clergyman popular with his congregation.

It'd be enough to make you turn to the back of the PB and reading the articles!

Then public reading of it would serve a good purpose.

Anonymous said...

As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, formerly an Anglo-Catholic, I would like to ask if Anglicans anywhere encourage the veneration of icons by kissing them and praying before them.
Also, we have a long tradition of miracle-working icons, some of which (I was going to say 'whom' but forbore!) drip a sweet smelling oil (myrrh). I have myself encountered this phenomenon.
Rdr. James Morgan

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Some people recoil at such things, but I do not. The issue is whether signs bring people to faith in Christ, or merely attract attention to themselves. When the Nehushtan Factor (II Kings 18:4) comes into play is when we have a problem. Otherwise, whatever brings people to faith in Christ is at worst like the man who cast out demons in his Name; forbid him not.

RSC+ said...

I think the Apocrypha has a good teaching for helping us understand statues, icons, etc:

"And [when the Israelites] were being destroyed by the bites of writhing serpents, your wrath did not continue to the end; they were troubled for a little while as a warning and received a symbol for deliverance to remind them of your law’s command. For he who turned toward it was saved, not by what he saw, but by you, the Savior of all." Wis. Solomon 16:5-7.

Images have their place -- as sacramentals that point us toward the thing they depict. It's when we think that the image itself does something of its own power that we run into Bad Trouble.

Fr. Wells said...

When we bring up the Nehushtan incident in II Kings 18:1--, the most striking fact is that King Hezekiah (one of the few godly kings of Judah) is praised for destroying the brazen serpent which God commanded Moses to make. Was Hezekiah guilty of iconoclasm? Did he violate the teachings of Nicaea II by destroying the image opf the serpent?

Shaughn's take on the Wisdom text is I believe correct and it is a helpful passage, even if we do not read the Apocrypha "to establish any doctrine."
Sacramentals have their place in our Incarnational faith, but we always look to the "thing signified" beyond the "sign" itself.

We need to be careful about how we apply such an Old Testament/Apocryphcal passages, not forgetting that "In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathrs, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son" (Heb 1:1), who is God's Yea and Amen to us. The new covenant supercedes the old.

For those who wax indignant at my suggestion that attributing miraculous powers to statues and icons is "superstitious," if this is not superstitious, then what would superstition look like? What would qualify as "superstition"?

Brian said...

For those who wax indignant at my suggestion that attributing miraculous powers to statues and icons is "superstitious," if this is not superstitious, then what would superstition look like? What would qualify as "superstition"?

Presumably the growing and popular Mexican syncretic cult of St. Death (Santa Muerte) would qualify, although it's only a matter of time before liberal American RC start defending even that as an indigenous tradition to be cherished.

Curate said...

I am currently preaching on the First and Second Commandments, using the Homilies, particularly the one on the Peril of idolatry. Part II, on the history of the development of it in the early church, is particularly noteworthy.

The early church did not tolerate images of Christ. Part of the argument is experience, even where the image itself is not offensive. In time such images come to be worshipped.

Anonymous said...

welshmann said:

To all:

Things don't happen in an historical vacuum; there is always some kind of context involved. In the case of the Nicea II, I wonder what was really driving the iconoclasm that the bishops were forced to confront. Was it a sort of accommodation to Islam? Was it a response to iconic abuses? Was there a political motivation, i.e., kissing icons was too much like kissing the emperor's ring?

The irony is, I have been in conservative and fundamentalist Protestant churches all my life, but I have never, ever found any Trinitarian, Incarnational Christian who did not believe in the substance of Nicea II, even if he publicly denounced the Council itself and all who subscribe to it. I know that sounds incredible, but think about it; the most hard-shell Baptist knows that Jesus came in the flesh, that He cooked breakfast for the apostles after the Resurrection, and then posed for some photographs with them before His departure. Okay, that last bit isn't true, but the point is, it could be true. He could be photographed, or painted, or drawn. Every Christian agrees on this, even if they disagree on whether it is a good idea to do so.


Fr. Robert Hart said...

The early church did not tolerate images of Christ...In time such images come to be worshipped.

Really? Please back that up, if you think you can. What about the Very Icon?

Zee said...

I know this is a very old thread but it has put a lot of things into perspective for me. I am just a church going Canterbury Anglican who's becoming disillusioned with Anglicanism (at least the Canterbury side of it). The issue of the 7 councils is important to me as I cannot see how one can claim catholicity and reject widely accepted councils of the undivided church. By what authority can we reject such?

I never get honest answers regarding my reservations, but rather theologically intricate lectures that try to remind me that I am Anglican, first and foremost, implying that I should accept only the 4 councils.

I was accused in another forum of seeing the number 7 as magical. Well, I don't know what that means as my theology education never went past the confirmation class. I'm glad that there are Anglicans who affirm the 7 councils. I'm not trained in these matters but I always prefer objective truth rather than being quoted 16th century documents as proof of doctrine (that does no add up for me). I identify myself more with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church of which I am still seeking. That I currently practice that faith within Anglicanism is simply an accident of birth for me and feel no obligation to use the post-reformation church as the standard by which I seek the truth. It is for this reason that the existence of the Anglican Catholic Church excites me (although the closest one to me is 2 hours away). It has not taken much root yet here in South Africa.

As a side note, due to no continuing Anglican church close by - I have started attending Vespers at an Orthodox Church. I was taken aback when I found out that the 'famous icons" were nothing more than paintings (physically anyway), in the sense that I was expecting to see statues. A deacon took me to a mini tour prior to the service and explained how I am to interact with the icons. I must say that I found nothing to oppose as I venerate the cross every Good Friday at my Anglican Parish (and kiss it too). That he explained to me what each icon station represented made things clear for me (BUT then I've never been afraid of sacramentals as I understand idolatry to be a matter of the heart).

All in all, thank you for this post. It is well written and done so in a way that us mere Anglican church-goers can understand.