In the comments, Tikhon, an Orthodox reader, responded to this by attacking Robert Ritchie (who I'd quoted, and who had commented) for his “allegedly superficial understanding of what the Church is and how it functions,” saying:
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.I was tempted to simply write this off as snobbery in lieu of reason, but I think it warrants a serious response. Here's what I'd say to each of Tikhon's three claims:
- “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.”
This is vague and unpersuasive. In the original post (and again, above), In the original post, I mentioned a surprising passage from Ketihh Mathison's book, The Shape of Sola Scriptura, in which he 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 the Catholic position, supported by the clear evidence from history, is that papal approval is necessary. The Orthodox position is, essentially, “We don't really know why we take these seven, and not the Robber Council.”
So unless Tikhon wants to educate + Ware about what the Orthodox Church's ecclessiology is all about, I don't think that this point stands. Simply put, the Orthodox accept the Seven on the basis of papal approval, and reject the Robber on the basis of papal rejection ... and don't even have an alibi suggesting otherwise.
- 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.
This is the alibi that Tikhon suggests: that there was “every manner of machination, deceit, and coercion.” Except that you could use the exact same argument to discredit the First Council of Nicea. In fact, those who claim to be Christian while rejecting the Trinity do just this, arguing:
Surrounding the Nicene council you have crime, cover-up, motive, dangerous ambition and power-mongering. You have fear, intimidation, intrigue, back stabbing, conniving, bludgeoning, and terrorizing. Did I mention violence?So simply showing that there were stupid and sinful things done by some of the stupid and sinful men who attended an Ecumenical Council has no impact on whether or not the Holy Spirit inspired the Council's canons.
As Tikhon himself argued, “It is simply dishonest to rely on abstraction when speaking of concrete events with lengthy records of their proceedings.” So let's take an honest look at some of the things done in the most revered of Ecumenical Councils, the First Council of Nicea. From
“ ” is in the eye of the beholder, but I can certainly say that if the shoe were on the other foot, and orthodox Trinitarianism were subject to a Council which burnt our books, excommunicated our bishops, and forcibly sent them into exile, we'd find it coercive.
Of course, I take the First Council of Nicea simply as an example. The heretic Nestorius brought an armed mob to the First Council of Ephesus, with the 1902 Encyclopaedia Britannica explaining that “Nestorius, with sixteen bishops and a large following of armed men, was among the first to arrive; soon afterwards came Cyril with fifty bishops.” The simple fact is, no Council in human history has ever been spotless. Even the glorious Council of Jerusalem, found in Acts 15, and recognized by every Christian, saw “much disputing” over how Gentiles could be saved, before St. Peter arose to settle the arguments (Acts 15:7).
So no, it won't do to say that a Council isn't an Ecumenical Council because of “machination, deceit, and coercion.” That will bar the Robber Council, surely, but will leave us with questions as to the status of the other Seven.
- “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.”
This standard is absurd, and even impossible. It's also not what we believe. The Catholic position isn't that every single false Council looked identical to every single orthodox Council, just like not every book pretending to be Scripture was very convincing -- there were some close calls (the Didache, 1 Clement), and some not-so-close calls (the Gnostic “Gospel of Thomas,” Emily Post's “Etiquette”). With the Robber Council, we've got a close call: it was called by the Emperor (which is how the early Councils were usually called), and attended by 130 bishops, nearly the same number as attended the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople. Ignoring the content of what was proclaimed, an observer would have guessed it was Ecumenical. And for obvious reasons, you can't base a Council's validity on whether or not you happen to agree with the content (or else you are judge of the Councils, instead of vice versa).
But in the first place, why would the burden be on Catholics to prove that the Orthodox couldn't concoct any argument? Shouldn't the Orthodox have some burden to explain their own faith? To show why they accept these Seven and no others? Simply showing that these Seven share some unique common features isn't enough. As Robert Ritchie said, we don't “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.” So no, the Orthodox have the burden here, and it's one that they've failed to carry.
We Catholics can say why these Seven alone are chosen: papal approval. Their own bishop, Kallistos Ware, was honest enough to say that they have no answer to this argument, that they can't say why these Seven. If Tikhon thinks he can succeed where + Ware has failed, coming up with some brilliant way of distinguishing these Seven from every other Council, he's welcome to try. It's a good question, and one which deserves a lot of thought. But his first attempt - that man's bad behavior makes a Council not Ecumenical - fails.