Reception of General Councils

westminsterAt Covenant-Communion, Mr. Sam Keyes, an Anglo-Catholic seminary student, posted an insightful piece on Anglican receptionism and General Councils. We know from Article 21, General Councils “may err and sometimes have erred”. The rulings of General Councils and the Church must also not be repugnant nor contrary to scripture. Yet on what basis is an ecumenical council properly received, true, and catholic? This was a question I struggled with on a cumbersome post regarding Original Intent , i.e., the concilar/catholic basis within Magisterial Protestantism. Mr. Keyes gives a succinct list of criterion based on Anglicanism’s eucharistic ecclesiology (equality of bishops) which is distinctly patristic. As always receptionist theories tend to be elusive, but I think the one below is fairly solid:

What makes a Council Catholic?
1.  No council can presume to follow the model of the ecumenical councils without first accepting the infallible decrees of the ecumenical councils.

2.  The conciliar model is not an abstraction but presumes the communion of the Catholic Church.  Though the councils are a means of common discernment they are not merely functional but flow out of the life of the Church in the Holy Spirit.

3.  To describe the ecumenical councils as “infallible” is a tautology.  A council can only be “ecumenical” when it is accepted by the whole Church (through her bishops) as infallible.

4.  To accept an ecumenical council “insofar as it is in accord with Holy Scripture” is tautological in a negative sense:  were a Council not in accord with Holy Scripture, it would not be truly ecumenical.  Such statements thus forge an artificial wedge between Scripture and Tradition when the foundational assumption of the conciliar tradition is that they are inseparable.  (Further, any council that cannot bother itself to engage theologically with previous councils—saying “it’s up to Scripture” is avoiding the question—calls into question its own theological competence.)

5.  Discernment in council happens through an unhurried and unconstrained commitment to find a common mind in accordance with dogmatic tradition (e.g. solutions which deny the Chalcedonic statements on the unity of Christ’s person are off the table).

6.  Fidelity to dogmatic tradition does not constrain the Church; it frees the Church to be herself.  Attempts to create (or re-create) “pure” dogma in discontinuity from the historical life of the Church make the Incarnation an abstraction.

7.  The discernment of a common mind does not happen independent of common worship.  Theological questions are always liturgical questions and vice versa.

8.  The validity, viability and wisdom of councils can only be known in retrospect.  Presumably all councils can say, internally, “It seems good to us and the Holy Spirit,” but saying this at the time does not make it so.  Claims to the movement of the Spirit in contemporary ecclesial life must always be tested not only by the Scriptures but also by the dogmatic tradition of the Church preserved through her hierarchy.

9.  A “conciliar” model put in opposition to a “papal” model is a distortion of both conciliarism and papalism:  “It is this faith, the faith of all the baptised in communion, and this only, that each bishop utters with the body of bishops in council. It is this faith which the Bishop of Rome in certain circumstances has a duty to discern and make explicit. This form of authoritative teaching has no stronger guarantee from the Spirit than have the solemn definitions of ecumenical councils. The reception of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome entails the recognition of this specific ministry of the universal primate. We believe that this is a gift to be received by all the churches.” (Par. 47, “The Gift of Authority,” ARCIC)

10.  Conciliar clarifications of dogma are always apophatic safeguards against being too easily satisfied by human limitations on theology.  They do not exhaust articulation of the faith but rather ensure its continuity.

11.  To say that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit is—unless we wish to rely on constant and incontrovertible private revelation—to say that the Church is guided by holy tradition.

12.  Not all traditions come from the Spirit, yet there is no part of ecclesial life that is not traditioned.  Attempts to separate discernment from tradition (whether by pure reason or pure readings of Scripture) inevitably produce further human traditions.

13.  Christian discipleship demands not that we have assurance of our correctness but that we remain faithful to what we have received.

14.  The perseverance of the Church (her indefectibility) does not rely on our faithfulness but on Christ’s.

15. The ecumenical councils are a demonstration of God’s faithfulness.

I believe the above list further specifies what makes a biblical exegesis most ‘catholic’. While perhaps we may disagree with particulars which Mr. Keyes categorizes,  it certainly gives something tangible that we might chew on.  Perhaps a post is in order regarding the number of ecumenical councils received by the Church of England– four, six, or seven? For an excellent understanding of catholicity, read St. Vincent’s Commonitory.

9 responses to “Reception of General Councils

  1. The Church of England and classical, orthodox Anglicanism receives all seven of the generally recognized Councils in terms of the dogmatic and theological definitions, but only the first four in regards to their disciplinary canons. From the fifth council onwards the councils were at variance with Holy Scripture in their disciplinary actions with the marriage of the clergy being perhaps the chief issue at point.

    The distinction between the reception of the first four and the later three is based entirely on the faithfulness of the councils to the tradition of the Church as contained primarily in Holy Scripture. It is as simple as that.

    The ninth article in the above is a violation of the teaching of the councils and also of Holy Scripture as received by the Church. The overwhelming majority of the fathers rejected the interpretation of the passage in Matthew which forms the basis of the Petrine myth. The councils gave the Roman see a primacy of honour as being the church of the former imperial capital. However the phrase used, primer inter pares, denied that see any authority over any others based upon either Holy Scripture or the Catholic and Apostolic faith. Indeed, Rome in the sense in which both Antioch and Alexandria can lay claim to be of apostolic foundation, plainly is not so. I could be more blunt but that would be taken to be rude.

    The rest however is pretty good.


    • Yes, #9 raised an eyebrow with me as well. Here is an interesting article by Fr.Kirby regarding the Pope’s proper catholic authority:

      I’d be interested in your opinions. ?


      • Fr. Kirby, in his typical style, makes use of scholastic argument against the Papal Claims — the same sorts of arguments that many Roman Catholics unsuccessfully raised at Vatican I. To me, once you accept the notion that the Pope is a juridical successor of Peter, then its very hard to put define limits on his authority. Fr. Kirby falls in the “ultrajectine ” or Old Catholic side, whereas Roman Catholics obviously now fall on the ultramontane side of the coin.

        IMHO, the Eastern view of the papacy is more convincing as well as more than 500 years older than any Western rebuttal of Vatican I. Indeed, the East never saw the Pope as a unique successor to Peter in a juridical sense. Rather, in light of Rome’s history of being on the correct side of most dogmatic issues in antiquity, they came to understand Rome as the Petrine See because Peter’s bodily relics were in Rome and must have been miraculously guiding the See, as the other great Sees of the Pentarchy alternatively fell into error time and time again. In sum, the East was willing to grant Rome a primacy by acclimation AS LONG AS IT COOPERATED WITH PETRINE GRACE. Once Rome started to fall into error, as judged against Tradition and the witness of the accord the other ancient patriarchates with Tradition and each other, then it defaulted its prior standing as the Petrine See and the Pope was no longer considered the Successor of Peter. Should Rome put aside error and listen to the “old bones” under its feet, the Church might again accord it a primacy of honor, not of any legalistic right, but by acclimation if and only if it again demonstrates the doctrinal correctness, spiritual leadership, and corporeal mercy that it exhibited in the first millenium.


    • Dear Lee and Death,

      Can you provide a reference or any authorative statements belonging to the period, 16th-18th centuries, that might back this up? I am ready to bite, “classical, orthodox Anglicanism receives all seven of the generally recognized Councils in terms of the dogmatic and theological definitions, but only the first four in regards to their disciplinary canons.” The issue of celibacy in prior ecumencial councils make sense, but I thought, at least with the seventh, more was in question. The discrepency between doctrine and discipline clears up why some Anglicans say four vs. six. But, don’t you think any appropriation of St. Damascus, 8th century, would have been filtered through the humanism of the time? Not only was there a return to patristics, but also a revival of Greek language and critical evaluation of tradition by scripture? Humanism, and even residual scholastic method, was another factor? The celibacy question indeed explains why the fifth and sixth councils are somewhat glossed over when discussing Anglican receptionism, but curious if celibacy was an official reason for passing the latter councils, etc.?


      • This is as favor as I can speak to your questions; perhaps Lee can go further:

        Bicknell points out that the Act of Settlement enumerates four ecumenical councils as general (but the language is not necessarily exclusive), and numerous Caroline Divines enumerated six. Bishop Bramhall even stated that Anglicans need not fear any doctrine of the first seven councils, but that was not a typical or common expression among Churchmen. Rather, C.B. Moss in his monograph on the Seventh Council argues (persuasively IMHO), that although no formal act or document of the C of E ever recognized the Seventh Council, the practice of Churchmen from the time of the Settlement on has been completely consistent and consonant therewith. Therefore, Moss contents, though only Six are expressly recognized as General, the validity of the Seventh is implicitly approved by the C of E in fact–that is by practice.


  2. I agree with Lee, but ask what I believe to be the truly challenging question for Anglican Churchmen is whether the Eighth Council of 879-80.

    This council anathematized any who altered the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed thereby implicity condemning the Filioque, which was sweeping through Frankish Europe. The papacy, which until the Eleventh century was controlled by Old Roman Aristocratic families, which were still part of the old Greco-Roman cultural and religious milieu and therefore resisted the unilateral interpolation to the Latin-Frankish Filioque, accepted and fully endorsed Council. In the 11th century, after control of the papacy fell under into Germanic hands, Rome quietly dropped the Eighth Council from its enumeration and adopted the Filioque, becoming the last major center of the Christian West to do so.

    Given that (1) the Creed was universally accepted by the Church until zealous disciples of Augustine of Hippo began interpolating it with the Filioque; (2) the Filioque dependant on barbarian (non-Greek speaking) Frankish political power to gradually gain acceptance in the West, belatedly in the ancient See of Rome, and never in the East, should not the Eighth Council with its implicit rejection of the unilateral interpolation of the Filioque into the Creed be accepted as a General, Ecumenical Council?


  3. “Item, That they ought and must utterly refuse and condemn all those opinions contrary to the said articles, which were of long time past condemned in the four holy councils, that is to say, in the council of Nice, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedonens, and all other sith that time in any point consonant to the same.” – Henricus Rex


  4. I agree with Lee, but ask what I believe to be the truly challenging question for Anglican Churchmen is whether the Eighth Council of 879-80.

    That they ought and must utterly refuse and condemn all those opinions contrary to the said articles, which were of long time past condemned in the four holy councils, that is to say, in the council of Nice, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedonens, and all other sith that time in any point consonant to the same.” – Henricus Rex

    The previous quote by Anonymous answers Death Bredon’s query, when the quote is presented in full.
    Interestingly , according to Bishop Tunstall,writing to Cardinal Pole, Henry ,’observed,’ 8 Councils!’


    • Yes, High churchman, that is very interesting about Henry’s thought on ecumenical councils. Perhaps it explains why the ACC draws an authoritative line with Henrician period? Interesting…


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