2016 is gearing up to be a huge year for the Eastern Orthodox Church. In a few days, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill will be meeting with Pope Francis. This is a meeting that the last few popes have fought hard for, and a meeting that is a thousand years overdue. Closely tied to this is a different meeting, scheduled for a few months from now: this summer, the leaders of the 14 independent Orthodox Churches are scheduled to meet in a “Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church,” the likes of which Orthodoxy hasn’t seen in over a millennium.
It looks like the Eastern Orthodox are trying to hold an Ecumenical Council. There’s a problem with this, though: they don’t know how. It turns out, Eastern Orthodoxy has an ‘infallibility problem’ very similar to the one facing modern Protestantism. Let’s look at each problem briefly.
I. Protestantism’s Fallible Set of Infallible Books
The Protestant idea: The Church is governed by inspired Scripture. The authority of the Bible is something all Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants should be able to get behind. Yet Catholics and Orthodox, with their arrogant insistence on an infallible Church, have created a rival authority to that of Sacred Scripture. Rather, we should join Martin Luther in rejecting popes and Councils to preserve the unrivaled authority of the Bible: “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”
The reality: Without Church infallibility, there’s no way to know for sure which Books are Scripture, or why.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s R.C. Sproul describing the problem from a Protestant perspective:
The historic Protestant position shared by Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and so on, has been that the canon of Scripture is a fallible collection of infallible books. This is the reasoning: At the time of the Reformation, one of the most important issues in the sixteenth century was the issue of authority. We’ve seen the central issue of justification by faith alone, which was captured by the slogan the Reformers used: sola fide, “by faith alone [we are justified].” Also there was the issue of authority, and the principle that emerged among Protestants was that of sola scriptura, which means that Scripture alone has the authority to bind our conscience. Scripture alone is infallible because God is infallible. The church receives the Scripture as God’s Word, and the church is not infallible. That is the view of all Protestant churches.
So unless the Church is infallible, it’s possible that the early Christians selected the wrong books to comprise the Bible. Worse, Protestants actually believe that the early Christians did select the wrong books. None of the early Christians used the 66-book Protestant canon. Within a few centuries, there was a general consensus on which books belonged in the Bible, but that consensus was in favor of the 73-book Catholic canon (the Bible explicitly affirmed by the Third Council of Carthage in North Africa, and the Bible advocated by St. Augustine).
Martin Luther (along with modern Protestants) rejected 7 of the Books in this Old Testament, and (unlike most modern Protestants) rejected the inspiration of four New Testament Books: James (which he rightly recognized as denying sola fide), Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation. John Calvin, on the other hand, accepted James, Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation… but (unlike modern Protestants) also accepted the Old Testament Book of Baruch as Scripture. So it’s not just the early Christians who didn’t have the 66-Book list that most Protestants assume is the Bible: Calvin and Luther didn’t hold to such a thing.
So the problem isn’t merely theoretical. Although there’s a general consensus (that there are 66 Books in the Protestant Bible), there have been prominent figures rejecting this consensus (like Augustine, Luther and Calvin) and there’s no clear reason why the modern consensus should be trusted. It’s a fallible collection of infallible Books, and a shaky one at that.
This problem is well enough known, so let’s look at its sister problem in Eastern Orthodoxy…
II. Orthodoxy’s Fallible Set of Infallible Councils
The Orthodox idea: The Church is governed by infallible Ecumenical Councils. We see this in the early Church, with the Seven Ecumenical Councils recognized by Catholics, Orthodox, and some Protestants. Eventually, as the Eastern Orthodox priest Fr. Viktor Potapov has claimed, “the pope of Rome began to attribute the privilege of ecclesiastical infallibility to himself alone,” stealing the authority of Ecumenical Councils. Catholics, with their arrogant insistence on an infallible pope, have created a rival authority to that of Church Councils.
The reality: Without papal infallibility, there’s no way to know for sure which Ecumenical Councils are Ecumenical Councils, or why.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s Bishop Kallistos Ware describing the problem from an Orthodox perspective:
How then can one be certain that a particular gathering is truly an Ecumenical Council and therefore that its decrees are infallible? Many councils have considered themselves ecumenical and have claimed to speak in the name of the whole Church, and yet the Church has rejected them as heretical: [Second] Ephesus in 449, for example, or the Iconoclast Council of Hieria in 754, or Florence in 1438-9. Yet these councils seem in no way different in outward appearance from the Ecumenical Councils. What, then, is the criterion for determining whether a council is ecumenical?
A quick aside: there’s an easy answer to this question in papal acceptance. The Catholic claim isn’t that the pope convened every Ecumenical Council, but that papal acceptance was a crucial component in a Council being an accepted (and therefore, authoritative and binding) Council. This is most clearly seen with the so-called Robber Council, “Second Ephesus” in 449. Formally, it looks like an Ecumenical Council, but it was rejected with a single word by the papal legate (contradicitur!). As a result, it was never accepted as a Council. And given that it was heretical, both Catholics and Orthodox should be grateful to God for this.
But if you can’t use papal acceptance/rejection as a criterion, what are you left with? Ware considers:
This is a more difficult question to answer than might at first appear, and though it has been much discussed by Orthodox during the past hundred years, it cannot be said that the solutions suggested are entirely satisfactory. 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.
Ware rejects certain obvious possibilities: a Council doesn’t automatically become Ecumenical by virtue of having a certain number of bishops, for example (some of the rejected Councils were larger than some of the accepted ones). Most intriguingly, Ware considers the idea, proposed by the 19th century theologian Aleksey Khomyakov, that “a council cannot be considered ecumenical unless its decrees are accepted by the whole Church.” He immediately recognizes two problems with this. One is that it suggests the kind of democratic ecclesiology more at home in Protestantism than in Orthodoxy or Catholicism. This problem is not insurmountable in Ware’s view, provided that the role of the laity was understood in a nuanced way, as guardians of the faith, rather than teachers of the faith.
But that leaves a bigger problem unsolved: “What about Chalcedon? It was rejected by Syria and Egypt – can we say, then, that it was ‘accepted by the Church at large’?” The Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) is accepted by both Catholics and Eastern Orthodox as the Fourth Ecumenical Council. It was a critically-important Council for defining the Hypostatic Union of Christ. Yet the Oriental Orthodox (including the Copts) actually broke away from the Church over this Council, refusing to accept its decrees. By Khomyakov’s standard, it would seem that Chalcedon wouldn’t be an Ecumenical Council. Worse, it would seem that no Ecumenical Council could ever settle a major doctrinal dispute: the “losing” faction need only to reject the Council to deprive it of infallible authority.
So we’re left with Ware’s statement that “precisely what it is that makes a council ecumenical is not so clear.” But the situation is actually worse than he describes. He says that “All Orthodox know which are the seven councils that their Church accepts as ecumenical,” but it’s not quite that simple:
- Some Orthodox treat the Council of Trullo (692) as amongst of the Seven Ecumenical Councils [it’s sometimes called the Quinisext, or Fifth-Sixth, Council because it falls in between the Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils].
- Some Orthodox believe that there was an Eighth Ecumenical Council, “Fourth Constantinople” of 879. This was a rival Council to the Fourth Constantinople accepted by the Catholic Church (869). It’s explicitly cited as the Eighth Ecumenical Council (twice) in the Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs (1848), addressed to Pope Pius IX by the bishops of the Synods of Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem.
- Some Orthodox accept a Ninth Ecumenical Council in what are really a series of 14th century councils sometimes called “Fifth Constantinople” (1341-51).
- The Great Council of 2016 currently planned for this summer is already raising questions about whether or not it’s going to be an Ecumenical Council. Currently, the Orthodox can’t answer that confidently, because they don’t know how Ecumenical Councils happen. (For example, can Ecumenical Councils happen after the Great Schism of 1054 has occurred? Can they happen after the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire?)
So the problem isn’t merely theoretical. Although there’s a general consensus (that there were seven Ecumenical Councils), there have been prominent figures rejecting this consensus (like the 19th century Patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem), and there’s no clear reason why the modern consensus should be trusted. It’s a fallible collection of infallible Councils, and a shaky one at that.
To be sure, Protestants are right to respect the authority of Sacred Scripture, and Orthodox are right to respect the authority of both Scripture and Church Councils. But trying to hold to either Scripture in isolation from the Church, or Councils in isolation from the papacy, and the end result isn’t the elevation of Biblical or conciliar authority. Rather, it’s the exact opposite: by reducing the Bible to a fallible collection or the Ecumenical Councils to a fallible list, they’re stripped of true authority.
None of this is to suggest that everything is always crystal clear in Roman Catholicism. Of course, that’s not the case. But unlike Protestantism, Catholicism has a living infallible authority capable of settling doctrinal disputes and clarifying teachings when the situation dictates. If there’s a question about how to interpret the Bible, there’s a way of finding out the right answer. And unlike Orthodoxy, Catholics have a way of identifying what this infallible authority is.
Imagine if I gave you a list of 20 teachings. Some of them, I explain, are inspired by the Holy Spirit. Others might not be: indeed, some of the teachings might be false, for all you know. If I don’t tell you which sentences are and aren’t inspired, and don’t leave you with any way of figuring it out on your own, what good does inspiration do? Not much. Having a fallible list containing a mix of infallible and false teachings defeats the whole point of infallibility.
For revelation to work, it must actually be revealed. If there’s no way of knowing when God has spoken through Sacred Scripture (cf. 2 Timothy 3:15-16), or when the Holy Spirit has taught through the Church at Council (cf. Acts 15:28), then there’s no way to reliably receive His revelation or to be led into the fullness of truth.
The infallibility of the Church isn’t a threat to the authority of Sacred Scripture. On the contrary, when the infallible Church clarifies which Books of the Bible are inspired, that brings the revelation of God into focus. So, too, the infallibility of the pope serves the Church collective, rather than undermining or supplanting it. It’s through papal infallibility (and the particular role of the pope in accepting or rejecting Councils) that Catholics can know whether or not a particular Council is valid and infallible.