Monday, June 02, 2014

Fetishising Councils?

A friend shared with me Fr. Hunwicke's recent series of posts in response to Archimandrite Taft's query about the ecumenical nature of post-schism councils.  Fr. Hunwicke spends a post attacking Taft's position, and then in a later post explains what he thinks the roots of Archimandrite Taft's mistake are:
Icon of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council
with Arius beneath their feet
Taft's big mistake, I suspect, is to fetichise Councils and, by expecting too much of them, to have problems when they fail to live up to the standards he has set them. This is not surprising; given a lifetime of scholarly work on Byzantine Christianity, it is natural that he should have some of its unspoken assumptions rubbed off, as it were, upon him. And an extremely high regard, even an adulation, of councils, seems, to the poor and ignorant Westerner who is writing this, to be a marked feature of Orthodoxy (I am humbly open to correction from Orthodox readers). 
What interests me is Fr. Hunwicke's suggestion that such an adulation of councils is an unspoken assumption of the Church.  For the Byzantine tradition, the adulation is anything but.  The Sunday after the Feast of the Ascension celebrates the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, who are lauded over and over again in the strophes for Vespers and Matins.  The Kontakion for the Feast is very clear about the import of the work of Nicea:
The preaching of the apostles and the teaching of the Fathers have confirmed the faith of the Church, which she wears as the garment of truth, woven from the theology on high, as she faithfully imparts and glorifies the great mystery of devotion.
Here the work of Nicea is placed in the context of the apostolic preaching and as integral to the mission of the Church.  The Troparion specifically praises Christ for establishing the Fathers of Nicea as "beacons on the earth."

Throughout the year, the fathers of the six subsequent Councils are remembered: Constantinople I is on May 22, Ephesus on Sept. 9th, Chalcedon on July 16th, or the closest Sunday (Typikon of the Great Church), Constantinople II on July 25, Constantinople III on January 23, and Nicea II on the Sunday closest to Oct. 11.  For Churches following the Slavic practice, the fathers of the first six ecumenical councils are commemorated on the Sunday between July 13th and 19th to guarantee that all of the faithful are given a Sunday to celebrate all of those men.  And the Sunday in October has come to be a celebration of the Fathers of all of the first seven ecumenical councils.  Gregory DiPippo has posted on the Christological content of this last Sunday here.
19th Century Russian Icon
of the Fathers of the First Seven Ecumenical Councils

Some of the texts from the vespers for the Sunday in October are astounding:
The Book of the Law has truly honored the seventh day for the Hebrews who were dispersed  in the shadow of the Law and devoted to it.  But you Fathers, by your participation in the Seven Councils, by the inspiration of God who in six days finished this universe and blessed the seventh day, have made it more honorable by decreeing the bounds of faith.
Then the number of the Councils is given another typological interpretation, with the Fathers being credited for revealing first the Trinity, and then the Trinity's role in creating the four elements of all creation, hence 3+4 becomes a catechesis in itself:
You have given all, O thrice-blessed Fathers, to know the Father, the Son, and the Spirit clearly by their works: the Trinity who is the cause of the creation of the world.  By your mystical speech you called the first three councils and then the next four.  Now you have appeared as the champions of the true faith, thus proving that the Trinity is truly the Creator of the four elements of the world.
And lastly, the seven councils are linked to the work of the prophets:
It would have sufficed Elisha the Prophet to bend but once to instill life into the son of the servant, but he knelt and bent seven times.  Thus, in his foreknowledge he prophesied your gathering through which you revived the Incarnation of the Word of God, and humiliated Arius and his colleagues.
To repeat then, it is no unspoken assumption of the Eastern Churches, but rather it is declared in sacred liturgical hymnody that the first seven ecumenical councils have a very special sharing in the identity and mission of the Church.  Through these seven councils the Church has participated in the work of the new creation, has revealed the special link between the mystery of the Trinity and the mystery of Creation, and has taken up the prophetic mantle as the privileged herald and beacon of Christ's revelation.

The early fathers also recognized a special role to the early ecumenical Councils, although in the West there was more weight given the first four as opposed to the first seven.  Pope Gregory the Dialogist noted in a letter (I, 24): "I confess that I receive and revere, as the four books of the Gospel so also the four Councils."  And a bit later on Gregory invokes his own typological argument, noting that the Church, built "as on a four-square stone, rises the structure of the holy faith."  I mention this only to show that the reverence for the early ecumenical councils is not simply, as one might argue, a post-schismatic mind-set retroactively investing Councils with some exceptional authority, but rather something the Church has had in her mind from very early on.

Which then brings me back to Fr. Hunwicke's concern for over-valuing the councils. With such an incredible liturgical testimony to the important and unique status of those first seven Councils, it seems wise to call to mind what a Pope Pius XII expressed in Mediator Dei:
 In the sacred liturgy we profess the Catholic faith explicitly and openly, not only by the celebration of the mysteries, and by offering the holy sacrifice and administering the sacraments, but also by saying or singing the credo or Symbol of the faith - it is indeed the sign and badge, as it were, of the Christian - along with other texts.... The entire liturgy, therefore, has the Catholic faith for its content, inasmuch as it bears public witness to the faith of the Church.For this reason, whenever there was question of defining a truth revealed by God, the Sovereign Pontiff and the Councils in their recourse to the "theological sources," as they are called, have not seldom drawn many an argument from this sacred science of the liturgy....Hence the well-known and venerable maxim, "Legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi" - let the rule for prayer determine the rule of belief.
If we are to take seriously  lex orandi, lex credendi, and if we grant that this law is valid for the liturgies of the East and the West, it seems we are far more in danger of undervaluing those first seven councils, than we are of fetishising them.  And if we do not feel comfortable giving this same devotion to all those synods that the Roman Catholic Church canonically rules to be ecumenical, then doesn't it seem to fair to ask: What's the difference?

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