Friday, May 10, 2002


The student of the first seven general Councils will notice that there is a certain shift in the ground of authority to which they appeal.

While Scripture is always important, its practical function as the authoritative Word, and the basis of orthodox doctrine, gets less as each Council meets. This is somewhat worrying and needs to be faced in discussion of the development of doctrine.

At the first, Nicea 325, the orthodox had great difficulty in justifying the use of the non-scriptural word homoousios in their Creed, for they desired above all things to be true to the Bible.

At the second, Constantinople 381, the proclamation of the deity of the Holy Ghost was based primarily upon liturgical tradition in (a) the Formula for Baptism, and (b) the Gloria Patri; but, since the former was taken from the Gospel of Matthew the argument still remained within the direct appeal to the apostolic tradition in Scripture.

However, the custom began before the Council of Constantinople of collecting the sayings and teachings of the orthodox fathers and this became very important. The first patristic florilegium occurs in St Basil, On the Holy Ghost.

So it is not surprising that the appeal to florilegia with quotes from the orthodox fathers was very important in the next four councils (Ephesus 431; Chalcedon 451; Constantinople II, 553; Constantinople III, 680-81) in fixing what was declared to be orthodox doctrine. Not that Scripture was set aside but that tradition had great influence and clinched the matter.

When we get to the Seventh Council (Nicea II, 787) the establishing of the doctrine concerning icons is primarily by an appeal to the orthodox fathers and only general reference to Scripture is made. St. Basil is cited: "The honor paid to the image passes on to the prototype."

Starting only from Scripture, one would find it exceedingly difficult to come to the doctrine of icons of the Seventh Council with its careful distinction between proskunesis and latreia -- what is offered to the icon and what is offered to God himself. One can make a very good case that the two Iconoclast Councils of 754 & 815 are more overtly scriptural in their deliberations and conclusions than is Nicea II of 787.

In the Church of England (and I think in all the Provinces of the Anglican Communion) there is an acceptance of the Trinitarian and Christological dogma taught in the first six Councils. The Christology of the fifth and sixth is accepted primarily in the sense that its doctrine of the Person of Christ fills out the dogma of the first four Councils and is in harmony with it. Certainly the first four Councils are given high esteem in the Anglican formularies and mind.

As to the 7th Council, it is not accepted in any of the formularies of the Church of England. It is accepted as authoritative by several prominent high church and anglo-catholic divines but it is distrusted by most for what we may call devotional reasons - fear of sentimental religion and idolatry arising from prokunesis being offered to the image/icon. The official Homily of the Church of England (See Article XXXV) entitled "On the peril of idolatry" paints a horrific picture of corruption surrounding the use of icons but at the same time it accepts the dogma of the first six councils on the Trinity and the Person of Christ Jesus.

Amongst the Continuing Anglican Churches at least one jurisdiction has, I believe, made acceptance of the dogma of all Seven Councils mandatory. I take this to be unwise because (as far as I can tell) no province of the Anglican Family has ever made such a demand of bishops, clergy or laity. Many of us hold as true the doctrine set forth at Nicea II in 787 but we hold this as Anglicans as theological opinion rather than Creedal dogma. Further, we worry about the devotional use of this doctrine where there is not the most careful teaching and supervision of Christian souls.

The Forward in Faith magazine in England, New Directions, begins this month a series of the Seven Councils. I have written the essay on the Council of Constantinople of 381.

The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon
Minister of Christ Church, Biddulph Moor,
England & Vice-President and Emissary-at-Large
of The Prayer Book Society of America

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