Orthodox Authority (Even Though it’s a Misnomer) Pt. 2

If you’ve read my last post in this short series, you’ll recall that I mentioned that councils were the final authority. But then I immediately qualified that statement with a further question as to whether councils are the final authority or not.

Drama class really paid off for me!

The answer as to the final authority of councils is a bit more nuanced. Orthodoxy certainly accepts the Seven Ecumenical Councils as authoritative. There are also a number of smaller, more local, councils that are broadly accepted as having some level of theological authority.

But who accepts the councils as having authority? The bishops who make up the councils? Well, of course they would. But that’s not enough. The laity of the Orthodox Church get a say in accepting these councils. To put it in modern terms, you could say that there is a directly democratic check (which the Orthodox believe derives inspiration from the Holy Spirit) on the statements of the councils.

It’s not enough that the First Council of Nicea happened and was accepted by the majority of the attending bishops and representatives. If the council is not accepted by the laity then its authority is null. There have been instances of this, historically. The Council of Florence took place in 1431 in Basel, Switzerland.

Eh, this looks like Florence

Actually, the council finally settled in Florence after stopping off at Ferrara.

No. FerrarA!

The Orthodox prelates at this conference basically accepted every demand the West threw at them. There have been conflicting interpretations as to the reasons why: Genuine ecumenical interest and desire for reconciliation is an interpretation that sits at one end of the spectrum. At the other end sits the interpretation that the prelates were pressured into agreement by the Byzantine emperor out of his desire for western mercenaries. At any rate, the road crew looked set to pave over the differences that had separated the churches for roughly 400 years.

There was just one problem: The people of the Orthodox Church overwhelmingly rejected the decision reached at Florence. Now, one could take the uncharitable view that perhaps everyone was just stuck in their ways by then and didn’t want to change. But I think the desire for reconciliation was (and is) a genuine desire. The Orthodox still prayer for reconciliation in their liturgy. It’s just that the particular terms of the council of Florence regarding reconciliation were seen as a betrayal of Orthodoxy.

With this addition of “popular democracy” to the Eastern Orthodox structure of hierarchy, there is ample space for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Bishops can make mistakes. History is littered with examples. Patriarchs can make mistakes. Every individual at every level of church hierarchy is an inherently flawed person. By allowing a “popular democracy,” the Orthodox Church recognizes this inherent limitation and puts a check on any potential instance of a false shepherd misleading the flock. It’s even a check on a true shepherd who may simply be honestly mistaken or misled himself.

We can swim this!

The Orthodox “popular democracy” may appear chaotic, but it’s actually a very valuable balance. It’s a valuable avenue for the entire Church to listen to the Holy Spirit. It’s a powerful tool of humility for those ordained into the higher orders. “Remember, thou art man.” In fact, in my own current denomination of Methodism, I can’t imagine the council of bishops or the General Conference even considering such a popular revolt as being a valid avenue for the Holy Spirit to work. It may be entirely unique for a church that does not veer toward an “anything goes” mentality to allow such practice.


~ by crossingthebosporus on July 7, 2012.

11 Responses to “Orthodox Authority (Even Though it’s a Misnomer) Pt. 2”

  1. Interesting – prompts a desire to know more about what the people were told, who told them, and how accurately what they were told reflected what was agreed – but as I know nothing about this, I’d better go educate myself. Thanks for posting on this.

    • I’m sure, like with every other issue, you’ll find a plethora of sources claiming completely contradictory things!

      • I bet 🙂 I must ask C (who is exhausted from driving me on a mercy mission) about this – it is the sort of thing he knows – when he can be persuaded that he is not going to influence me 🙂

      • I hope you’re okay and the mercy mission wasn’t to a hospital or anything.

      • No. My grandfather in law has dementia. My husband is in the army and away serving, so when we got a call this morning from the home saying he was not well, I thought I’d better go – C drove me, as I was in a bit of a state. It turns out Tom (my gf in law) is responding to the medication, so I was able to come back this evening.

      • Glad to hear things are okay for now. I’ve had similar experiences with relatives that had dementia. You and Tom will be in my prayers.

      • Thank you. He still, bless him, responds to hugs and to love – and there is something in that which helps.

  2. The fact that Bishop Mark of Ephesus refused to sign was also a huge reason for the failure of the council (from a Catholic viewpoint). I think the pope made a statement to the effect of “if Mark hasn’t signed, then the whole thing has been a failure.”

  3. This aspect of the authority question had me stumped for a bit. Although most of the Orthodox I have encountered would espouse the view of this post, I have been taught by one very knowledgeable Orthodox person that this is not an adequate view, however popular it is at the moment (this won’t help Jessica’s frustrations….). This ‘reception’ view was popularized, as far as I know, by Alexei Khomiakov in 19th Century Russia. But apparently Khomiakov himself was barred from teaching in Russia by the hierarchy there because he had absolutely no authority to teach – he was a philosopher, not a theologian of the Church. But he got his stuff published elsewhere. His view has truth in it, in that it really is important for the laity to receive the decisions of the council (as the ‘amen’ of the Divine Liturgy affirms). *However,* this is often treated as the ‘main’ thing. If you read the canons and decrees/definitions at the councils themselves, they were definitely not tentatively waiting for the approval of the people. Their declarations were considered true and binding from the moment of their declaration. Also, how does this help when looking at, say, Chalcedon. The Orthodox would say that it was ‘received by the faithful.’ The non-Chalcedonians would say that it was not received by the faithful. Who are the faithful? The Orthodox may be right in their claim that Chalcedon was truly received by ‘the faithful’ but it doesn’t help people like us to determine which side was the faithful side. [My apologies for picking such a sticky topic as Chalcedon in this particular discussion; I only used it as an illustration because both sides still exist today and could make claim to being ‘the faithful’].
    Now, that said, perhaps ‘reception by the faithful/laity’ is a *necessary* condition for determining the truth of an ecumenical council (or the truth of any teaching whatsoever) after it has made its declarations. After all, if a council decides something and then nobody else believes it, ever, then that is problematic for its claims to truth. But that doesn’t mean that ‘reception’ is a *sufficient* condition. That is, reception alone is not enough. Other factors must be in place for the first seven councils: invitations must have gone out to all of the pentarchy (and possibly they each must have delegates there); there can be no coercion or bribery involved in the decision-making process and it must be a free decision for those involved; the pentarchy – other than any under trial at that moment – must affirm the truthfulness of the council; it must express the same faith as the Church has always known; it must be received by the faithful (perhaps more, but these come to mind). And then, because Alexandria was under judgment by the other five sees, their presence at the subsequent councils was not an issue. Their presence no longer qualified because they were excluded by Chalcedon. Sometimes these conditions take time to be met. As far as I know, Constantinople 1 wasn’t even accepted by Rome until the 5th Century, but yet it was still considered authoritative and binding in the East (interesting in the face of claims that Rome’s ratification of a council is the only necessary condition; I guess the Eastern sees didn’t get that memo already in the late 4th century).
    That also shows us to keep in mind that these are conditions for *knowing* that a council declared truth through the work of the Holy Spirit, not conditions for *making* it true. Its truth makes it true. Its faithfulness to the mystery of Christ and the truth of the Gospel and the Tradition of the Church makes it true. These are the conditions that guarantee us to *know* which councils can be trusted as the voice of the Spirit and not the work of bribery/bias/etc. This also comes to play at the council of Florence (which I may have mentioned already in your other post…sorry if there’s repetition).

    On a similar note, read one of the doctrinal decrees of the fifth ecumenical council regarding Pope Vigilius of Rome:
    “And because it happened that the most religious Vigilius stopping in this royal city, was present at all the discussions with regard to the Three Chapters, and had often condemned them orally and in writing, nevertheless afterwards he gave his consent in writing to be present at the Council and examine together with us the Three Chapters, that a suitable definition of the right faith might be set forth by us all. Moreover the most pious Emperor, according to what had seemed good between us, exhorted both him and us to meet together, because it is comely that the priesthood should after common discussion impose a common faith. On this account we besought his reverence to fulfil his written promises; for it was not right that the scandal with regard to these Three Chapters should go any further, and the Church of God be disturbed thereby. And to this end we brought to his remembrance the great examples left us by the Apostles, and the traditions of the Fathers. For although the grace of the Holy Spirit abounded in each one of the Apostles, so that no one of them needed the counsel of another in the execution of his work, yet they were not willing to define on the question then raised touching the circumcision of the Gentiles, until being gathered together they had confirmed their own several sayings by the testimony of the divine Scriptures. And thus they arrived unanimously at this sentence, which they wrote to the Gentiles: “It has seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us, to lay upon you no other burden than these necessary things, that ye abstain from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication.” But also the Holy Fathers, who from time to time have met in the four holy councils, following the example of the ancients, have by a common discussion, disposed of by a fixed decree the heresies and questions which had sprung up, as it was certainly known, that by common discussion when the matter in dispute was presented by each side, the light of truth expels the darkness of falsehood. Nor is there any other way in which the truth can be made manifest when there are discussions concerning the faith, since each one needs the help of his neighbour, as we read in the Proverbs of Solomon: “A brother helping his brother shall be exalted like a walled city; and he shall be strong as a well-founded kingdom;” and again in Ecclesiastes he says: “Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour.” http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214.xii.vi.html)

  4. If you have a lot of time to “waste” then read the comment thread on this:
    Again, my recommendation is to focus on the comments of “Perry”, of course also reading those who disagree with him in order to see if his arguments stand up to criticism. He may also appear under the name “acolyte,” but go with Perry first. As you will see, much of the stuff I’ve tried to learn from him is talked about in the thread. The Catholics criticize the ‘reception hypothesis’ and he responds.

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