Taking Council in the Church
This week in Crete many Orthodox bishops have been gathered together for what has been called The Great and Holy Council. And so it seems like a good opportunity to consider the meaning and importance of councils in the Orthodox Church. It may help to begin with the situation in the West, where we live. Catholicism and Protestantism seemingly place an “infallible” guidepost at their center, which determines and defines what is true and false, what is Christian and what is not. So in the West, where this kind of system has been influential for a long time, it is not uncommon to hear someone explain that Ecumenical Councils are the infallible touchstones that are roughly equivalent to the Pope in Catholicism or the Bible in Protestantism—same system; different “infallible” guide.
It is understandable that Protestants or Catholics might assume this is the Orthodox understanding. After all, it is how they understand themselves. But is this really the way Orthodox understand Ecumenical Councils? And, more importantly, is the system that has an “infallible guide” at its core really the Orthodox understanding of the Church and God’s ordering of creation? I think it’s safe to say that the answer is “yes.” And “no.”
But let’s unpack that a little bit. Let’s start with “No.” For Orthodox, the Ecumenical Councils do not have the same place as the Pope in Catholicism or the Bible in Protestantism. But that’s not because there’s some other “infallible guide” at the center. You could say that Orthodoxy just doesn’t arrange its furniture that way. Scripture, Bishops, Councils, Liturgy: These are all things that support, reinforce, and harmonize with each other in a symphony of truth. Councils are not arbiters over Liturgy; Bishops are not more infallible than Scripture. They all speak in their unique ways in witness to the one truth. And this brings us to the “Yes.”
Yes, there is an infallible guide at the center of the Church that will never fail. And that, of course, is God Himself. We do not confess in the Creed “I believe in one Pope…” or “…in one Bible…”or even “…in seven Councils…” We confess that we trust and believe in one God. He is the one who has spoken to his people and inspired certain writers of what we call Scripture. He is the one who inspires the leaders of the Church to read those Scriptures rightly. He is the one who guides their understanding of the Faith and its articulation in the Creed and Councils. He is the one who gives and receives the Liturgy through the hands of his ministers. It is his one Voice speaking in the Scriptures, and through the Bishops, and in the Councils, and in the Liturgy.
Of course, Orthodox have a name for all these things: All together we call them Holy Tradition. But Holy Tradition is not merely the collection of all these visible aspects of the Church. Holy Tradition is nothing less than the continuous, unbroken activity of the Holy Spirit in the people of God, handed down generation after generation through such things as the Scriptures, and Bishops, and Councils, and Liturgy. The same God who acted and spoke then continues to act and speak to us today in these same ways. And it is in him alone we trust, always to lead us into all truth and deliver us from all error.
Dn Basil Ferguson
“Give me a word!”
The Saints were people just like all of us. Many of them started with grievous sins but through repentance they attained to the Kingdom of Heaven. And everyone who reaches the Kingdom of Heaven does so through repentance, which the Merciful Lord granted us by His sufferings.
In the Kingdom of Heaven where dwell the Lord and His most pure Mother, abide all the Saints…. Thither aspires my soul - to that wondrous holy assembly which the Holy Spirit has gathered together. But woe is me! Inasmuch as I lack humility, the Lord does not grant me the strength to fight, and my feeble spirit flickers out like a tiny candle, whereas the spirit of the Saints burned with a bright flame, which the wind of temptation not only failed to extinguish but set burning more fiercely than ever. They trod the earth and worked with their hands but their spirits continued with God, of Whom they were ever mindful. For the love of Christ they endured every affliction on earth, and feared no suffering, and thus glorified the Lord. Wherefore the Lord loved them and glorified them, and granted them the eternal Kingdom with Him.
~St Silouan the Athonite