Catholics, Orthodox, and the Robber Council

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.


  1. Couldn’t you say that the Pope is a necessary but not sufficient condition of church authority? So that when he acted along with the other patriarchs, that was authoritative, but not now when he acts alone? In that way, the bible is not the only possible source of authority, but just e only one in existence given the divided nature of the post schism church.

  2. “So that when he acted along with the other patriarchs, that was authoritative, but not now when he acts alone?”

    This doesn’t work. First, who determines what a patriarchy is? Apart from Rome, the other most ancient but lesser patriarchies were Antioch and Alexandria. Both of these were important because of their connection to the Petrine ministry (St. Peter had been bishop of Antioch, and his follower St. Mark had been bishop at Alexandria). The patriarchs of the other major sees were established later. Second, who determines who the patriarch is? Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria each have many rival patriarchs. Finally, each of these patriarchies fell into heresy early on in the history of the Church, at least at (important) times. The council of Chalcedon had the bishop of Rome but was opposed by the patriarch of Alexandria. That didn’t make the Council of Chalcedon illegitimate, did it?

  3. HocCogitat,

    If by “the majority of them” you mean a majority of Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, then yes, on the “Filoque controversy.” But to even arrive at this answer, you have to ignore everything Kevin said.

    Go back to his (excellent) comment. He raises two questions:

    (1) Who determines which cities are patriarchates?

    (2) Who determines who the patriarch is of that city?

    So to even answer the question of whether a majority of patriarchs agree with Rome, we have to know the answers to these two questions. For number one, on what basis would we count Constantinople and not, say, Venice? For number two, if we count the vote of Alexandria, do we go with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria, the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, or the Catholic Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria?

    The core problem is simple: you can’t just make up an endless series of alternative standards to avoid papal authority. The simple fact is, Scripture depicts Peter as the head of the Apostles, and depicts him as going to Rome. Early Church testimonies tell us that his successors, the lineage of Roman bishops, continued to maintain a headship over the other churches, and Rome is unique amongst the major Sees in having never fallen into heresy, over 2000 years.

    No Church, not the Catholic Church, not the Orthodox Church, not any of the Protestant denominations I know of, use a “Rome plus at least two other Patriarchates” test for determining the institutional movement of the Holy Spirit. There’s no Scriptural or Patristic authority. So even if it is true that at least two Patriarchates always sided with Rome until the Great Schism, that would simply be a testimony to Rome’s orthodoxy, not some secondary principle.

    Rather, the historical evidence shows that the other Patriarchs deferred to Rome, and it’s on the basis of papal authority alone that the Eastern Orthodox have Seven Ecumenical Councils instead of eight — or none.

    God Bless,


  4. A majority of whom? The patriarchs? Which ones? The bishops of the whole church meeting in council?

    In terms of just those five patriarchies (which is a completely arbitrary number, and includes at least one patriarch–Constantinople–that really shouldn’t be included in the list), then I’m not sure. At Ephesus (#3), the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Antioch embraced heresy and were condemned and deposed by the council. At the 6th council, Antioch and Alexandria embraced heresy, while Constantinople turned away from it during the course of the proceedings. These would be 2 and 2 decisions, with the “patriarch of Rome” as a fifth patriarchal vote, in both cases for orthodoxy. This still wouldn’t resolve the problem of how to determine who the real patriarch is once you have rival churches in one patriarchy, as in Alexandria after the council of chalcedon, which would still require communion with Peter as a mark of catholicity.

  5. I’ve always thought it was interesting when people say, “Rome has never fallen to heresy”.

    Rome is the one the declares heresy. Why would it declare itself heretical? Even when it does “bad” things it attempts to excuse/justify them or apologizes for its actions.

    Can you explain to me why it would even be possible for Rome to be heretical if papal authority and succession are valid?

  6. Brock, it’s not possible for Rome to fall into heresy, because of the promises of Christ to St. Peter that are recorded in sacred scripture. God doesn’t lie.

    If you are a Protestant, it may be an interesting experiment to sit down with a good history of the popes/councils, and go through and mark the times that any gathering of the church’s bishops embraced what you believe to be heresy in something like a council. You will find that you and the bishop of Rome are, miraculously, on the same page for at least hundreds of years, through every single controversy that rocked the church until at least 500 AD (and possibly up to 800 AD, depending on the sort of Protestantism you embrace). You and the pope will always be on the same page. That even goes for many non-doctrinal issues, such as when to celebrate the great feast of Easter. How would you account for this? Pure coincidence?

  7. Hey Brock,

    Yeah, I’ve often heard that statement made and thought it was a little self-fulfilling.

    However, using modern standards of what Christians would constitute as heresy (Modalism, Monothelitism etc.), we find that Rome remained remarkably free of these. Jerusalem, Antioch etc. were not so fortunate.

    God bless,


  8. Brock,

    One simple test is continuity. Can you affirm the public, de fide teachings of all of the popes without fear of contradiction? Yes, and Catholics do so. But you can’t do that for the others. For example, Alexandria had a long string (from about 451 to 536) of alternating Chalcedonian and Monophysite Patriarchs. The two are mutually exclusive, so both sides simply can’t be right. Without having to even inquire into which party was right, we can say that Alexandria was not free from heresy (since one side had to be heretical).

    Or take Antioch. The eleventh-century Patriarchs of Antioch were responsible for splitting with Rome and joining Eastern Orthodoxy, while another Patriarch of Antioch, Cyril VI, was responsible for bringing the Melkite Church back home to the Catholic Church in 1754.

    So even if you assume Eastern Orthodoxy to be the true orthodoxy, the Eastern Orthodox fail as an infallible guide, since there have been Patriarchs in each of the cities who advocated theologies or ecclessiologies which are now condemned by the Orthodox.

    Rome has been consistent where Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria have been inconsistent. So if there’s an infallible visible body on Earth, it has to be Rome.

    In Christ,


  9. Wait. I thought Catholics admitted that there’d been heretic popes. Just that they did “formally define” the heresy. Like the one who thought we didn’t receive the beatific vision till the general resurrection, etc.

  10. Sort of. In a few cases (such as the one you cited there of Pope John XXII), popes have held to incorrect beliefs which weren’t formally defined yet by the Church. For the same reason, the Monophysites before Chalcedon are in a much different position than the Monophysites after Chalcedon. In one case, they’re just wrong, and in the other, they’re promoting what’s (now) clearly heretical.

    In fact, in the case of Pope John XXII, he backed off of his views on the Beatific Vision after the College of Cardinals held a consistory on the subject. So I think his own conduct shows the difference between someone who holds an incorrect view when the matter hasn’t been formally defined by the Church, and one who holds an incorrect view in defiance of the Church.

  11. Do you really want to expand infallibility to everything the pope thinks about that has been formally defined in the past, even if it isn’t formally stated, addressed to the whole church, etc? That seems quite beyond what Vatican 1 claimed.

  12. No, I was merely showing that Rome’s been the surest guide for orthodoxy throughout history. I don’t think I need to claim any more for the papacy than what the First Vatican Council claimed for it … a Council which, by the way, we consider an Ecumenical Council. Is there any principled reason it isn’t?

  13. Well, ok, that was a tangent, but I think I have shown that the claim is self fulfilling, except to the extent that Rome has not contradicted a prior official statement with a latter one.( But even that takes some pretty intense gymnastics on things like no one saved out of the church.)

    And we can say Vatican 1 was not a council bc the majority of patriarchs did not support it. Once the patriarchs are set up, you can’t just ignore them, regardless of whether one patriarch was the original parent of another.

  14. HocCogitat,

    I agree, it was a tangent. Go back to what both Kevin and I said initially in response. “Rome plus majority consensus” is neither a real standard, nor a workable one (there are also times, as with the Filoque controversy, where Rome was right, and a majority of the Patriarchs were wrong). Historically, there was one standard: the papacy. “Rome plus majority consensus” is just a counter-standard you made up, after your last standard (“Rome plus unanimous consensus”) failed.

    Evasions aside, I think you have all the evidence needed to recognize the role which the papacy plays in the Church: not some last Catholic invention or expansion of the papacy, but the papacy in the early days of the Church.

    So to the extent that we can say anything is an Ecumenical Council, it’s because the pope certifies it as one (not that Councils aren’t held without prior papal approval, but that they aren’t deemed “Ecumenical” without the pope adopting them). By that standard alone can we say First Ephesus is an Ecumenical Council and Second Ephesus isn’t. And by that very same standard, we can say that Trent and Vatican I are Ecumenical Councils. What I don’t see is any principled, non-arbitrary way of getting the first Seven and no more.

    In Christ,


  15. Brock, whoops, sorry for being so aggressive. As you could probably tell, I was responding from the perspective of someone who thought he had a pretty firm grasp on what “heresy” was even as a Protestant. Granted, that sort of argument would only make sense to someone who was already firmly Christian, as either a Protestant or an Orthodox believer. From a different point of view, I can see how it can look self-justifying. Secular religion classes at my college often made reference to what they thought were arbitrary judgments of orthodoxy that depended only on who “won” and who “lost.” The Da Vinci code makes a lot out of this, too. I suppose it ultimately comes down to the fact that everyone is orthodox in his or her own mind, so we have to look for the authority that must have been established to help us out of that quandary.

  16. Wow! Always an honor to make the main page. Nice article and the combox pretty well seals the escape routes. That is, unless we want to start proposing utterly arbitrary characteristics of the first 7 councils as the key to ecumenity. Perhaps they and only they started on odd days of the month, but some things can be chalked up to coincidence.

  17. Have you ever read the Acta of the Oecumenical Synods? Your commentary betrays a superficial understanding of what the Church is and how it functions.

  18. You are misinformed about the Orthodox understanding of an Oecumenical Synod, about Orthodox ecclesiology in general, and about the role of an Oecumenical Synod within Orthodox ecclesiology in particular. You admit to not knowing the details of Second Ephesos as given in the Acta of Chalcedon. Had you been familiar with them, it would have been plain why the Robber Council is so-named. It was a violent affair full of every manner of machination, deceit, and coercion. Your question is moot. It is you who must show that the Seven Oecumenical Synods are not unique. You must show how they are like every false synod with one exception: they have the pope’s ratification. It is simply dishonest to rely on abstraction when speaking of concrete events with lengthy records of their proceedings. Learn the facts about the Synods, and then pretend to tell us that there is no hope for distinguishing genuine ecclesiastical rulings from latrocinia.

  19. Tikhon,

    Why is it Catholics “who must show that the Seven Oecumenical Synods are not unique. You must show how they are like every false synod with one exception: they have the pope’s ratification”? Shouldn’t it be your own burden to show why you accept only those Seven?

    And do you really want to hang your hat on the acts of the Ecumenical Councils? What about the various proclamations in favor of papal supremacy?

    In any case, I answer your arguments here. God bless,


  20. The view that Rome had to accept a council to make it ecumenical is circular reasoning because Rome did eventually accept all of them (even by force as Constantinople II shows us). If I turn it around and say, “The Patriarchate of Antioch must accept a council to make it Ecumenical” that cannot be denied because the Patriarch of Antioch eventually did accepted all seven of the classical Ecumenical councils just as Rome. The same is true of Alexandria, Constantinople, or Jerusalem. There’s no way to test for potential falsehood of the assertion so it’s not a real argument and thus combines the worst of the so called “No True Scotsman” ( and “Texas Sharpshooter”( arguments.

    As for Rome defining something an EC and thus it is, the Council of Sardica was, as I recall, actually called by a Pope (one of the few) and was intended as a second Ecumenical Council but never became that because the bishops present split and the Arians just picked up and left. It produced valid canons and decrees but never took the title “ecumenical.” Had Rome’s approval been what makes a gathering “ecumenical,” we’d be referring to the “Ecumenical Council of Sardica” but we don’t.

    Truth be told, the only common denominators that could actually result in making a council “ecumenical” in the classical age of Christianity is A) being called by the Emperor (that’s why pre-Nicean councils were never considered ecumenical even though some of them could be argued to have been called by a Pope) and B) standing the test of time in acceptance.

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