Most Anglicans have heard of Richard Hooker, author of Ecclesiastical Polity, and one of the great books of the Anglican Way. Not so many have heard of a personal friend of Hooker, Richard Field, who also wrote one of the great books of the Anglican Way, under the title Of the Church (1606-1610).
In the Fifth Book in Of the Church (xlviii-lii) this learned author deals with Church Councils and, apart from desiring to confirm the Reformed Catholic Faith of Anglicans, he seeks also to answer the criticisms of Puritans and Roman Catholics. With respect to the first seven Councils of the Church he wrote:
“…..therefore it is not to be marveled at if Gregory [the Great] profess that he honoureth the first four Councils as the Four Gospels; and that whosoever admitteth them not, though he seem to be a stone elect and precious, yet he lieth beside the foundation and out of the building. Of this sort there are only six; the First (Nicea I) defining the Son of God to be coessential, coeternal and coequal with the Father. The Second (Constantinople I, 391) defining that the Holy Ghost is truly God, coessential, coeternal and coequal with the Father and the Son. The Third (Ephesus 431), the unity of Christ’s person. The Fourth (Chalcedon 451), the distinction and diversity of His natures, in and after the personal union. The Fifth (Constantinople II, 553), condemning some remains of Nestorianism, more fully explaining things stumbled at in the Council of Chalcedon…. And the Sixth (Constantinople III, 680-1), defining and clearing the distinction of operations, actions, powers and wills in Christ, according to the diversity of His natures. These were all the lawful General Councils (lawful I say both in their beginning, and proceeding, and continuance) that ever were holden in the Christian Church touching matters of faith.
For the Seventh, which is Nicea II, was not called about any question of faith, but of manners; in which our adversaries confess that there may be something inconveniently prescribed, and so as to be the occasion of great and grievous evils; and surely that is our conceit of the Seventh General Council, Nicea II; for howsoever it condemn the religious adoration and worshipping of pictures and seem to allow no other use of them but that which is historical, yet in permitting men by outward signs of reverence and respect towards the pictures of saints to express their love towards them, and the desire they have of enjoying their happy society, and in condemning so bitterly such as upon dislike of abuses wished there might be no pictures in the Church at all, it may seem to have given some occasion and have opened up the way unto that grow idolatry which afterwards entered into the Church.”
Field then goes on to argue that there are no other General Councils rightly so-called.
Obviously to get the full meaning of Field here we need to be sure we know how he used such expressions as – “inconveniently prescribed” and “our conceit.”
But what is clear is that like his famous contemporaries ( Richard Hooker and Lancelot Andrewes) and many divines to follow them, he had a great respect for the first Four Councils, highly regarded the next two, and was cautious about the Seventh. This has been the basic Anglican position and remains so, I think!
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)