At 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.