Friday, October 12, 2007

A Few Concessions on the Issue of Councils in the Early Church

After reading the 19th century Protestant church historian, Philip Schaff on ecumenical councils of the NPN (Nicene/Post-Nicene) era, I would like to make a few concessions to the Roman Catholic side. I will post a few sections of Schaff and comment after each. In speaking of the ecumenical councils, Schaff notes:

“The authority of these councils in the decision of all points of controversy was supreme and final.
Their doctrinal decisions were early invested with infallibility; the promises of the Lord respecting the indestructibleness of his church, his own perpetual presence with the ministry, and the guidance of the Spirit of truth, being applied in the full sense to those councils, as representing the whole church. After the example of the apostolic council, the usual formula for a decree was: Visum est Sprirtui Sancto et nobis. Constantine the Great, in a circular letter to the churches, styles the decrees of the Nicene council a divine command; a phrase, however, in reference to which the abuse of the word divine, in the language of the Byzantine despots, must not be forgotten. Athanasius says, with reference to the doctrine of the divinity of Christ: "What God has spoken by the council of Nice, abides forever." The council of Chalcedon pronounced the decrees of the Nicene fathers unalterable statutes, since God himself had spoken through them. The council of Ephesus, in the sentence of deposition against Nestorius, uses the formula: "The Lord Jesus Christ, whom he has blasphemed, determines through this most holy council." Pope Leo speaks of an "irretractabilis consensus" of the council of Chalcedon upon the doctrine of the person of Christ. Pope Gregory the Great even placed the first four councils, which refuted and destroyed respectively the heresies and impieties of Arius, Macedonius, Nestorius, and Eutyches, on a level with the four canonical Gospels. In like manner Justinian puts the dogmas of the first four councils on the same footing with the Holy Scriptures, and their canons by the side of laws of the realm. The remaining three general councils have neither a theological importance, nor therefore an authority, equal to that of those first four, which laid the foundations of ecumenical orthodoxy. Otherwise Gregory would have mentioned also the fifth council, of 553, in the passage to which we have just referred. And even among the first four there is a difference of rank; the councils of Nice and Chalcedon standing highest in the character of their results.”
-Philip Schaff, The History of the Christian Church 3.5.65

Schaff states straightforwardly that many (if not most who made a comment on the subject) of the NPN fathers believed that the Christological decrees of the first four ecumenical councils were infallible.

Having made this concession, I’ve read in both Roman Catholic as well as Protestant church historians that the fathers state that Nicea only proclaimed what was already clear from Scripture (J.N.D. Kelly, Brian Tierney, Louis Bouyer, etc.).

This and statements like them are found in a number of passages from the fathers (Athanasius, Four Discourses Against the Arians, Discourse 1.4.13, De Synodis, 1.6, Against the Heathen 1.1, Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity 2.3, 8.43, Ambrose, On the Holy Spirit 3.14.94, Augustine, Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament, Sermon 2.1, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Letters of the Blessed Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrus, Letter 99-To Claudianus the Antigrapharius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 5.12 (though this refers to the Apostle’s Creed), John Cassian, On the Incarnation 6.4 (though this is on the creed of the Council of Antioch), etc., etc., etc.).

Could it be that they believed the Christological decree of the council to be infallible simply because it proclaimed a summation of the clear Biblical teaching? I’ll have to look into this topic.

Schaff goes on to make a partial exception:

“Augustine, the ablest and the most devout of the fathers, conceived, in the best vein of his age, a philosophical view of this authority of the councils, which strikes a wise and wholesome mean between the extremes of veneration and disparagement, and approaches the free spirit of evangelical Protestantism. He justly subordinates these councils to the Holy Scriptures, which are the highest and the perfect rule of faith, and supposes that the decrees of a council may be, not indeed set aside and repealed, yet enlarged and completed by, the deeper research of a later day. They embody, for the general need, the results already duly prepared by preceding theological controversies, and give the consciousness of the church, on the subject in question, the clearest and most precise expression possible at the time. But this consciousness itself is subject to development. While the Holy Scriptures present the truth unequivocally and infallibly, and allow no room for doubt, the judgment of bishops may be corrected and enriched with new truths from the word of God, by the wiser judgment of other bishops; the judgment of the provincial council by that of a general; and the views of one general council by those of a later. In this Augustine presumed, that all the transactions of a council were conducted in the spirit of Christian humility, harmony, and love; but had he attended the council of Ephesus, in 431, to which he was summoned about the time of his death, he would, to his grief, have found the very opposite spirit reigning there. Augustine, therefore, manifestly acknowledges a gradual advancement of the church doctrine, which reaches its corresponding expression from time to time through the general councils; but a progress within the truth, without positive error. For in a certain sense, as against heretics, he made the authority of Holy Scripture dependent on the authority of the catholic church, in his famous dictum against the Manichaean heretics: "I would not believe the gospel, did not the authority of the catholic church compel me." In like manner Vincentius Lerinensis teaches, that the church doctrine passes indeed through various stages of growth in knowledge, and becomes more and more clearly defined in opposition to ever-rising errors, but can never become altered or dismembered.”
-Philip Schaff, The History of the Christian Church 3.5.65

So, according to Schaff, Mike (in the combox) was probably right when he had at first said, “You quote Augustine as though he says that earlier plenary councils are corrected by later ones in the sense that the earlier could be erroneous. He does not say that. He says that later examples of conduct or practice or doctrinal teaching may not have been anticipated and therefore did not fall under the purview of the earlier council's pronouncements.” So, Augustine never actually stated that ecumenical councils could be corrected (though he did not say that they were infallible either). [Although, I must say that I am confused by Augustine’s writing style. He uses the same sort of language when referring to the fact that Cyprian was wrong concerning his belief in re-baptizing former heretics as he does in referring to plenary councils. Nevertheless, I concede that I am probably wrong and apologize.]

Having said that, Schaff (along with several other church historians on both sides) say that Augustine held the Scriptures to be clear and of the highest authority for the Christian (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine 2.9, 2.42, Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament, Sermon 2.1, St. Augustine on the Psalms 8:2.8, Letters of St. Augustine, Letter 82.1.3, Letter 82.2.5, Letter 137.5.18, City of God 11.3, Reply to Faustus the Manichaean 13.5, 23.9, On Baptism, Against the Donatists 2.3, On Nature and Grace, Against Pelagius, ch.71, Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount 1.11.32).

Having said *that*, Schaff seems to acknowledge the Roman Catholic interpretation of the passage in Against the Epistle of Manichaeus Called Fundamental, ch.5. In fact, the footnote he gives in Augustine’s letter cites another church historian:

“[This is one of the earliest distinct assertions of the dependence of the Scriptures for authority on the Church.-A. H. N.]”

Interesting. To what kind or degree of authority is not said, but nevertheless, I’ll have to research this a bit more.

The rest is on the Protestant view of the ecumenical councils if you are interested.


Saint and Sinner said...


First, thank you for your kind words.

Second, I believe that I'm going to take a brake from posting blog posts and comments for a while. There are 95 verses cited in DA's book, and I have only covered 2! I need some time to write a few more before I post again.


Mike Burgess said...

I understand completely. Thank you very much for your obvious dedication to studying these issues, and for providing the forum. I look forward to your future posts and the opportunity to interact.

Thank you for your frankness and, although it certainly wasn't expected, apology in the post itself. I accept in the spirit in which it was offered.

God's blessings to you and yours.

steve said...

I think there are some tensions in the Catholic/Orthodox appeal to conciliar authority:

High-Church apologists appeal to Acts 15 as the archetypal ecumenical council. But Acts 15 operates on the principle of inspired unanimity.

By contrast, don't ecumenical councils operate on the principle of majority rule rather than unanimity? And, of course, over and above the majority is the heavy-hand of the Emperor.

That's a very different principle. It's a question of who has the most votes. There are winners and losers. Not at all the same thing as unanimity.

In addition, how could the bishops be inspired under this process? Is the majority report inspired, but the minority report is uninspired? If you're in the majority, you're inspired—but if you're in the minority, you're uninspired? Isn't that rather ad hoc and arbitrary?

And it gets rather complicated since the bishops deliberate on a variety of issues and issue a variety of canons. Presumably you don't have the same majority for each canon. So is the same bishop inspired some of the time, but uninspired at other times, during the course of conciliar deliberations? He's inspired when he votes with the majority, but uninspired when he votes with the minority. Is that how the process is supposed to work?

Anonymous said...

"Augustine, the ablest and the most devout of the fathers,..."

The only reason this man is idolized so much is that he brought Manichean aspects into western theology that made it extremely distinct from the east.

orthodox said...

"By contrast, don't ecumenical councils operate on the principle of majority rule rather than unanimity?"

From an Orthodox point of view, no not really. While the council may make a resolution based on majority rule, it is not considered an inspired decision until it is accepted by almost all.

steve said...

orthodox said...
"By contrast, don't ecumenical councils operate on the principle of majority rule rather than unanimity?"

From an Orthodox point of view, no not really. While the council may make a resolution based on majority rule, it is not considered an inspired decision until it is accepted by almost all.


Which misses the point. Only the majority was (supposedly) inspired.

steve said...

I see that Perry Robinson just made the very same point I was making: