A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the Second Council of Ephesus, which was expected to be an Ecumenical Council. Unfortunately, the “council’s” decrees were heretical, and it was immediately denounced by the pope, who nicknamed it the “Robber Council.” This history is important, because it shows that the validity of an Ecumenical Council turns upon its acceptance by the Pope, something which the Eastern Orthodox and Protestants deny. Neither the Orthodox nor the Protestants have an principled basis on which to reject the Second Council of Ephesus, and accept any of the other Councils.
Robert Ritchie, in response to that post, wrote:
I found this fascinating, but thought that there was just no way the Orthodox didn’t have a better response than you gave them credit for. Turns out OrthodoxWiki (not a very authoritative source, obviously, but nonetheless) pretty much admits that they’ve got nothing at all in response to this.
It notes that “a particular council may declare itself to be ecumenical, it may later be regarded by the Church as being a Robber Council.” But then spends its whole time beating up the idea “which has been popular since the time of the Slavophile philosopher Alexis Khomiakov first defined it is that ecumenicity—the idea that a particular council is of universal, infallible significance for the Church—is determined by the reception of the whole body of the Church.”
The reason? “Such reasoning is circular, because whoever accepts a council is therefore inside the Church, but any who reject it are outside. In other words, such councils are ecumenical essentially because those who hold to their decrees declare themselves exclusively to be the Church.”
But that is the best they’ve got: “At the current time, the episcopacy of the Church has not as yet put forward a universal definition as to what precisely lends a council its ecumenicity. What is generally held is that councils may be regarded as ecumenical and infallible because they accurately teach the truth handed down in tradition from the Church Fathers.”
At which point my head started to spin since they decried circularity and presented even more circularity in its place, so I went and read a little Msgr. Knox as therapy:
“Strange as it may seem I had always assumed at the back of my mind that when my handbooks talked about ‘Arian’ and ‘Catholic’ bishops they knew what they were talking about; it never occurred to me that the Arians also regarded themselves as Catholics and wanted to know why they should be thought otherwise. ‘Ah! but,’ says my Church historian ‘the Church came to think otherwise, and thus they found themselves de-Catholicized in the long run.’ But what Church? Why did those who anathematized Nestorius come to be regarded as ‘Catholics’ rather than those who still accept his doctrines? I had used this argument against the attitude of the Greek Orthodox Church when it broke away from unity, but it had never occurred to me before that what we mean when we talk of the Catholic party is the party in which the Bishop of Rome was, and nothing else: that the handbooks had simply taken over the word without thinking or arguing about it, as if it explained itself; but it didn’t.”
Of all places, Reformed author Keith Mathison’s Shape of Sola Scriptura is some of the best support for Robert’s point. Mathison quotes the Orthodox Bishop Timothy Ware, who admits, “All Orthodox know which are the seven councils that their Church accepts as ecumenical, but precisely what it is that makes a council ecumenical is not so clear.” So just as Protestants have Sixty-Six Books in their Bible, but can’t explain why those Sixty-Six and no others, the Orthodox have Seven Councils, but can’t explain why those Seven and no others. Mathison is quick to pounce on Bp. Ware’s admission:
This is extremely important because if the Church does not know what it is that makes a council ecumenical, how can the Church say that any council is ecumenical? Ware tends toward an answer proposed by Alexis Khomaiakov which has become widely accepted within the Orthodox church. According to this theory, “a council cannot be considered ecumenical unless its decrees are accepted by the whole Church.” Of course, this answer raises almost as many problems as the original question. Chalcedon was rejected by Syria and Egypt. Does this mean that Chalcedon is not ecumenical? Khomaikov’s answer to the problem is circular. An ecumenical council is defined as a council accepted by the whole Church, yet the Church is defined as those who accept the councils. Those who do not accept the council are defined out of the Church in order to maintain the idea that the “whole Church” accepts the council.
This impossibility results in the added difficulty, if not impossibility, of explaining how Arianism could have been anathematized by a council. Was it unnecessary for the Arian party to accept the council? Or is the “whole Church” only those who agree with the majority decision at the council?
It’s worth noting that while Mathison clearly sees the flaws in the Orthodox understanding of Councils, he doesn’t have a better solution. But Catholicism does present a solution, and it’s one supported by history: acceptance by the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. So let’s take Mathison’s point one step further. When Chalcedon was rejected by Syria and Egypt, it meant that they had left the Church, in defiance of the Council to which they should have been subject. In contrast, when the Robber Council was rejected by Rome, it meant that the council was invalid. Just as this shows that Syria and Egypt were beneath the Council, it shows that Rome is above. If that doesn’t show the centrality of papal approval to the validity of a Council, it’s hard to see what could.