Saturday, July 22, 2006

Why the current fascination with the Dogma of the Seventh Ecumenical Council?

A discussion starter for the Network folks, strongly worded to aid thought!
By Peter Toon

All of a sudden, it seems, the dogma of the Seventh Council (Nicea II, A.D. 787) has become a live issue for Anglicans in the USA and Canada, who are looking to form new forms of union outside the Episcopal Church and Anglican Church of Canada, and in fellowship with Anglican provinces overseas. For reasons that are not clear to me or others I have asked, there seems to be a desire to include this dogma in the doctrinal agreements that will bind the various “orthodox” Anglican groups together as they seek acceptance from abroad. So let us delve further into this dogma.

If I were an Orthodox Catholic priest I would embrace the dogma, the doctrinal definition of the Seventh Ecumenical Council; likewise if I were a Roman Catholic priest I would embrace the doctrinal definition of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, together with the parallel dogma set forth by the Council of Trent. However (and this is a big “however”) I hope that I would make tremendous efforts in explaining to my flock the basis of the dogma of icons and, further, that I would carefully distinguish for them the distinction between reverence/veneration and adoration shown to an icon for this is most important.

Further, I can see that those who call themselves Anglicans and have abandoned the authority of the classic Formularies (Articles of Religion, classic BCP & Ordinal) in order to use the Anglican Missal for “mass” have a need to embrace the Seventh Council in order to justify their abandonment of Reformed Catholicism and their embrace of a kind of half-way house between the classic Anglican Way and Roman Catholicism of the Tridentine period. It is generally the case that the use of the Missal is accompanied by the practical if not the fervent rejection of the Thirty-Nine Articles – as in The Affirmation of St Louis of 1977.

And also I can see that those who have embraced the 1979 ECUSA Prayer Book (and have thereby also rejected the historic Formularies), and also see themselves as true Anglo-Catholics in doctrine and devotion, can easily say that they embrace the Seventh Council to justify their doctrine and devotions, because the 1979 book is itself a mixture of doctrines and varied services and has no real standard of doctrine to forbid them.

Added to all this I can see that Anglo-Catholics who do not wish to go to Rome or Orthodoxy, and who want to have as much of traditional devotion as possible, will make big efforts to justify such devotion by the teaching of the Seventh Council and also, at the same time,will seek to make it acceptable within the Anglican Way by a variety of historical and theological arguments (see e.g., as various scholars like Fr Mason have done).

Yet for those who are Reformed Catholic, truly committed to the Anglican Way, and Anglicans in the normal sense, to embrace the doctrinal definition of the Seventh Council is not possible or permissible – not because it is plainly wrong and not because it does not possess logical symmetry; but, because it cannot be proved from Scripture by any straightforward type of exegesis and interpretation. It is a definition that builds upon certain dogma set forth by earlier Councils and it is logically related to it; but nevertheless it is not clearly a doctrine that can be proved from the plain meaning and content of Holy Scripture. It is a development of doctrine which when tested by the principles of Biblical interpretation set forth in The Articles of Religion cannot be justified in any way whatsoever. Further, even if could be so proved as being not contrary to Scriptural teaching, then there is the massive pastoral problem of it being difficult, to say the least, to distinguish pastorally in devotion to an icon between reverence and adoration. Idolatry lurks dangerously near this. This is why it has never been embraced by the Church of England or any province of the Anglican Communion. The Anglican Way has generally admitted the truth of the doctrinal definitions of the first four Councils because they can be shown to be in harmony with Scriptural truth; but for others Councils there is to say the least caution, and in relation to the Seventh, much caution (See Articles VI, XX, XXI, XXII, XXXIV).

The doctrinal definitions from Nicea II are found in various collections of texts – I have before me Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, ed Norman P.Tanner, S.J. 1990 in Greek, Latin and English. There are various books on the Ecumenical Councils – I have before me my own book: Peter Toon, Yesterday, Today and Forever: Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity in the Teaching of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, 1996

After giving a translation of the Greek text, I summarized the doctrinal decree concerning images and icons of Christ, Mary and the apostles and saints in this way:

1. The offering of adoration (latreia) to any created person or thing is idolatry and forbidden by God.
2. The sacred pictures, the icons, are to be given veneration (proskunesis) not adoration according to tradition.
3. The icons are useful for instruction in the Faith.
4. The icons are required to preserve the truth that Jesus Christ is a real Person with true manhood and he was not merely a fantasy, theory or idea.
5. The veneration given to the icon passes on to the person represented, human or angelic, whom the icon represents.
6. The Lord Jesus Christ is truly God and truly Man. In his Godhead he is uncircumscribed, but in his Manhood he is limited and thus may be portrayed in painting, mosaic or other suitable material

Every time that I read the text of the Seventh Council I am impressed by its clarity and logical power. But what is exceedingly clear to me are the following things: (a) to venerate icons is absolutely not necessary to salvation or to living faithfully as a disciple of Jesus – after all none of the apostles venerated icons and neither did the Early Christians for several long centuries; (b) to venerate icons can so easily get near to breaking the first table of the Law, the Ten Commandments as one of the Homilies in The Book of Homilies demonstrates; (c) there is no way that one can – starting from Scripture alone – get anywhere near to the doctrine of the veneration of icons – as The Articles and The Homilies make clear ; (d) once you allow the veneration of icons you have also practically opened the door to not only the asking of the saints to pray for us but also to actually praying to the saints themselves ( as in many prayers in the Anglican Missal -- and clearly this is wholly contrary to the doctrine of the Formularies and in the classic BCP).

If the doctrinal definition of the Seventh Council is embraced by an Anglican group then that group cannot any longer be Reformed Catholic for it has denied the doctrine of the supremacy and sufficiency of Scripture (quote articles). It has moved as a spoke sticking out through the rim of the wheel into a kind of no-man’s land, which is not Anglican or anything else specifically!

Now it may be possible to show and prove that the Anglican Way as Reformed Catholic is wrong; if so, we all need to move out of it to another more sure and stable Way and stop the pretence. On the other hand, if it is still a viable form and jurisdiction of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church with its own vocation for its 80 million members in the totality of God’s will;, then it is as the way of Reformed Catholicism not semi-Roman Catholicism or semi-Orthodox Catholicism. It is Reformed Catholic and not medieval Catholic or Eastern Catholic because of its particular submission to the Scriptures and through them to the Lord of the Scriptures, the Word made flesh, who speaks through the Word written and who thus judges tradition that contradicts the plain teaching of the Holy Bible.

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