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(August 2016)

The Infallibility of (True) Councils and Ecumenical Synods

Source: “Empirical Dogmatics of the Orthodox Catholic Church according to the spoken teaching of Fr John Romanides,” Volume 1, Dogma, Ethics, Revelation, by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos.

Fr. John is the one theologian of our days whose writings constitute a modern day legacy, artfully, simply and succinctly emphasizing the deep gulf separating the hesychastic Orthodox dogma from the intellectualist and juridical expressions of Western dogmas (and heresies). The quoted text is from Fr. John’s writings-lectures.

It is well known that the Orthodox Faith was defined first in Local Councils, but later also in Ecumenical Councils through dogmas and sacred canons, by the Church’s Holy Fathers, who convened these Councils in order to deal with heretics.

The Ecumenical Councils are infallible, but this has to be interpreted in an Orthodox way:

“Today we have the teaching about the infallibility of the Ecumenical Councils. This teaching on the infallibility of the Ecumenical Councils, as it is described nowadays, is as though there were an institution called ‘Ecumenical Council,’ which has infallibility in the Church. In all the years that I have been reading the Fathers, I have never found that idea anywhere. Such a perception does not exist in the Fathers. The Ecumenical Council is definitely infallible, but it is not an infallible institution and it is not a permanent institution. The Church existed for three hundred and twenty-five years before the First Ecumenical Council and lived without an Ecumenical Council; and from the ninth Ecumenical Council in 1341 until today there has been no Ecumenical Council.” *

The divine inspiration of the Ecumenical Councils is connected with the presence at them of the Church’s Holy Fathers who were divinely inspired. The Council is not divinely inspired as an institution, but because glorified people take part in it.

“What makes an Ecumenical Council divinely inspired? Or, what makes a Local Council divinely inspired, and what is divine inspiration? When the Fathers of a Council, be it Local or Ecumenical, assemble to condemn a heresy, what constitutes the authority and the divine inspiration for this Council? For the bishop who takes part in a Council, together with all the other bishops, whether we take them singly or as a group, when does divine inspiration begin and when does it cease?

“I, for one, have never found anywhere the view that the Fathers of a Council are divinely inspired because they have come together in an Ecumenical council, and so at that time they are divinely inspired. Whether there is a Local Council or an Ecumenical Council, the views are the same as far as the Fathers of the Church are concerned. The difference is the universal nature of the one and the local nature of the other, which is not a matter of the Churches but a matter of the way they were convened.

“If we had one hundred and fifty bishops who were not divinely inspired before they went to the Council, would those who were not inspired before the Council become divinely inspired after the inaugural prayer of the Council? And would they cease to be divinely inspired after the end of the Council? What is happening here? Was the Apostle Paul divinely inspired before he picked up his pen to write the Epistle to the Romans, and did he cease to be divinely inspired when he wrote the Amen at the end? When did his divine inspiration begin and when did it end? The same can be asked of all the books of Holy Scripture.

“That is why I, for one, offered the view that divine inspiration in the Church is no different from the inspiration that scientists have.”

The bishops, who attained to the vision of God, beheld God and were in communion with Him, thus became the Fathers, who are the basis of the Ecumenical Councils.

Those who are guided by their experience are divinely inspired. Naturally this experience is of two kinds: the experience of illumination and the experience of glorification. These empirical Fathers are the basis of the Ecumenical Councils.

The glorified bishops reached the state of union with God and divine vision and have sure knowledge of God. The Holy Spirit acts through them. The Holy Fathers lived in various parts of the world, but through the Holy Spirit they had acquired experience of God, and when they gathered in Ecumenical Councils they also acquired a common terminology.

“Without there being any Pope of Rome among the Fathers to dictate what the dogmas were, all the Fathers together completely spontaneously always supported the same truth. These were people who were separated by vast geographical distances, which in those days were equivalent to the distance from us to the moon, because someone living in one part of the Empire was as far apart from someone else living in another part of the empire as if they were living on two different planets. As they had the same experience, however, they reached common decisions.”

There are, unfortunately, some people today who overlook the glorified Fathers and value the Councils more highly than the Fathers, whereas the opposite is the case. The Councils themselves call upon the teaching of the God-seeing Fathers.

“Orthodox people today do exactly the same. ‘The Church says,’ or ‘Holy Scripture says,’ or ‘the Ecumenical Council says.’ This is strange, because we learn from contemporary Orthodox Christians that the Ecumenical Council has great authority in the Church and they are doubtful about the authority of the Fathers of the Church. They put the Council above the Fathers of the Church.

“When you read the record of the proceedings of the Councils, the Ecumenical Council invokes the Fathers of the Church. They say, ‘The three hundred and eighteen Fathers said,’ ‘The one hundred and fifty Fathers said,’ ‘The six hundred Fathers said.’ When we think of an Ecumenical Council, for us it is Council of Fathers of the Church. It is an assembly of Fathers who teach these things...”

An Analogy to the Sciences of Astronomy and Medicine

In this section we will examine this issue by taking examples from two sciences: astronomy and medicine.

First of all, it should be stressed once more that the Church’s tradition is the experience of the God-seeing saints, Prophets, Apostles and Fathers. They lived this experience by the revelation of God and conveyed it to their spiritual children, and it is recorded in their writings. Thus three factors are very closely linked: the saints who behold God, their illuminated nous, by means of which they share in the experience of revelation, and their writings, in which the experience is recorded in created words and concepts. The basic elements of the tradition are the glorified saints (glorified=theosis), who are the bearers of the tradition.

“The Fathers of our Fathers in the Old Testament, the Prophets, had glorification (theosis) without the human nature of Christ. Afterwards, the Apostles also had glorification, with the human nature of Christ. And, after Pentecost we have another kind of glorification, with the experiences that they have after glorification, because the same experience of Pentecost continues within the Church and has not come to an end. Given that the experience of Pentecost has not come to an end, the bishops, who have this experience, are led to the same experience and know what they are talking about.

“Because of the continuity of this tradition, the Orthodox patristic tradition resembles modern biology, chemistry, astronomy and medical science. In this way the tradition of the Church is continued empirically. What experience, ultimately? The fact that cures continue and people are cured. People continue to learn the truth from astronomy, medical science, biology, in other words, from the experience of purification, the experience of illumination, which is the cure of the human personality, and the experience of glorification, which is the telescope and microscope of Orthodox theology. This is why we believe that we are on the right path and are still within the tradition.”

Those who behold God are like scientific astronomers, who examine the star-filled sky and discover stars that are invisible to the naked eye by using telescopes. Whatever they see they record in their writings. The saints do the same.

“We find this tradition dotted here and there throughout the writings of the Fathers, but mainly in the writings of St. Symeon the New Theologian, all his disciples and among those referred to as hesychasts. What is this tradition? It is extremely simple, as simple as can be.”

It is divine vision of the uncreated energy of God and guiding people on the basis of this experience. The vision of the inexpressible reality takes place by means of a special organ, the nous, which is illumined by the Holy Spirit. Those who behold God are in the state of illumination. They reach the state of glorification, participate in the Light and see the Light. In Your light we shall see light. On this point they resemble astronomers who see stars that are invisible to the naked eye by using special instruments called telescopes. Also, anyone who wishes to confirm the observations of astronomers has to use the same instruments. This means that any Christian who wishes to verify the experience of the God-seeing saints has to acquire an illuminated nous.

“When there are doubts concerning astronomical writings, we take telescopes and by means of telescopes we confirm the correct interpretation of the books concerning astronomy. One looks, another looks, a third one looks and so it goes on. And all those who check with telescopes, radio telescopes, etc., say, ‘Ah! That is what those notes mean. Did you see it when you looked through the telescope? That is the explanation.’

“And the correct interpretation continues down the years, because there are people who see and know how to use telescopes and radio telescopes and the equipment with which they measure distance analogous with the speed of light—spectrographs, spectrograms—they even know how to measure material composition, they can even measure speed with them.”

This example shows that astronomers are closely linked with telescopes and writings. In the same way, doctors are closely associated with equipment and operating theatres and with curing people.

If, however, astronomers lose their telescopes and start to imagine stars or to speculate about them, they become astrologers. The same can happen to doctors, who, if they lose their equipment, become charlatans.

“If astronomers lose their telescopes and no longer know how to handle the various pieces of astronomical equipment, they are reduced to being astrologers instead of astronomers. And, given that they have become astrologers, and the others have become sham doctors and pseudo-biologists and so on, are those who are no longer able to handle the scientific equipment of Orthodox theology astronomer-theologians or astrologer-theologians?”

In other words, true theologians are those who see God, who are like astronomers. When, however, without their nous being illuminated, they theologize by using speculation and their imagination instead, they turn into speculative thinkers and scholastics. Subsequently, when the astronomer, who has turned into an astrologer because he does not have the right equipment but uses speculation, takes part in a conference of astronomers, his participation in the conference does not in itself convert him into a scientific astronomer.

“This is the major question from the scientific point of view: Can someone who has become an astrologer, because he does not know how to use astronomical equipment, consider that this weakness is compensated for by the fact that he attends conferences? If astronomers forget about astronomical equipment and simply preserve the books about astronomy and misinterpretations begin, will they interpret the books about astronomy correctly, because they have gathered at a conference? I am simply posing the question. Will the conference produce correct astronomy? Will it upgrade astrology to astronomy? Is it the conference that will achieve this? Or will it be a conference of astrologers?”

The same can be observed in respect of doctors who are unable to use their instruments and equipment or operating-theatres in order to treat the sick. They are unable to cure people, and cannot be regarded as doctors merely because they attend medical congresses.

“Doctors have inherited the equipment of medical science, all the tools for surgical operations, from the past. We have X-ray equipment, hospitals, operating rooms and so on. What if the doctors who know how to use all this equipment disappeared, and untrained women who dabbled in practical medicine came in from the villages? And if the state made these untrained women responsible for the Universities and they taught the students, as the students were involved in strikes and politics, and these untrained women ended up being accepted by medical science, then they would start to be dangerous.

“Let us suppose that doctors have reached the point of no longer knowing how to use these tools, but use them at random. If the radiologist graduated from the University of Thessaloniki in 1870, so he does not know how to read X-rays and makes bad diagnoses, and the doctor performs bad surgical operations, and so on. So instead of people being cured, 90% die and 10% are cured. Whereas in America, France, England, Switzerland and Germany 60% are cured, in Greece 10% are cured. Well, if the Greek doctors have a conference will the success rate increase to 90% or 100%? What is the use of a conference of doctors who do not know medical science? What good does it do? Do you follow what I am trying to say?”

By analogy, the same happens with bishops who do not have the suitable equipment, an illuminated nous, when they participate in the Council. They cannot be real theologians and they are unable to know the tradition. They are not illuminated simply because they take part in a Council. Illumination comes first.

“As a researcher I raise a topic: This bishop has received his diploma, but would never have received it except that his Metropolitan continuously phoned up all his professors, and he received his diploma with five marks, whereas he deserved no marks at all. If he, together with seventy such bishops, gathers in a conference of bishops called a Council, will they make correct decisions? Because the Holy Spirit descended? Or is this a parallel situation with the situation in all the other positive sciences? What is the difference between theology and the other positive sciences? Do you follow my argument?

“I am afraid that I am telling you things that are rather shocking. How can I put it? I am, however, obliged as a researcher and historian—because my own special subject is history—as a historian I am obliged, when I undertake historical research and find certain things, I am obliged to inform you.”

From this point of view, if the Orthodox bishops, who are disciples of those theologians who are not followers of the patristic tradition, ever gather in a Council, will the fact that they are meeting together in a conference make them Fathers of the Church? And if we call the conference an Ecumenical Council, can it ever reach a correct decision?

Only if they copy Holy Scripture and the patristic texts to the letter, without adding a word of their own, only then is there any hope of them reaching an Orthodox decision, only then. If, however, they add words that are not in Holy Scripture and the patristic tradition, it is almost certain that they will produce a decision that is dogmatically incorrect. It is almost certain. Guaranteed! Guaranteed!”

Scientific astronomers have criteria in order to verify their conclusions. Of course there are books, but there are also telescopes that confirm their observations. The astrologers, who rely on speculation and imagination, have no criteria to separate which group of astrologers are genuine and which are not.

“If there is a group of astrologers, do they have the right to denounce another group of astrologers? Can one group say, ‘We are better astrologers than the others’, and the other group say, ‘We are better than you’, and someone else to say, ‘No, we are better than you’ and so on, and can the astrologers argue among themselves? With what criteria?”

This happens in Orthodox theology too. The God-seeing saints, like scientific astronomers, have secure criteria and, like true doctors, they have successes, because they use suitable instruments and are part of the Orthodox tradition. Heretics, by contrast, resemble astrologers who do not have secure criteria, as each one uses his own speculation, and they do not achieve success.

“I want to emphasize the fact that every science is judged by the end result, not just by the means. Because if a doctor appears and begins to carry out surgical operations, and other doctors follow the traditions, and he begins to do a surgical operation, the others say, ‘But he will kill the patient by doing that. What is he doing? We have never seen anyone doing an operation in that way before,’ and people are indignant, because they know that surgical operations are not usually performed in that manner, but are done differently. However, they see that he cures the patient. Then he repeats the same method once again. When they see good results produced five or six times, will the doctors continue to say that the method is no good? Then the doctors will not say that it is not a good method. Because if it were not a good method, how would it achieve so many successes?”

In the Orthodox tradition those who see God—the Prophets, Apostles and saints—are closely associated with their illuminated nous and their divinely inspired writings. That is why people are cured. There are successful cures, people continue to be sanctified, to reach illumination and glorification. Also, the interpretation of divinely inspired writings requires divinely inspired commentators, who have the same illuminated nous and the same tradition as the divinely inspired writers of Holy Scripture and the patristic books.

In the Orthodox Church we have both God-seeing saints, whose nous is illumined, and writings, so Holy Scripture is linked with Holy Tradition. When the ‘astronomers’ (God-seers) and the ‘telescopes’ (illuminated nous and glorification) are lost, the writings are also misinterpreted. Then the astronomers turn into astrologers who speculate, and their conference becomes a conference of astrologers instead of astronomers.

† † †

[*] From the “Orthodox Heritage” Editor: The esteemed Fr. John Romanides makes a clear recognition herein of the Church’s 8th and 9th Ecumenical Councils, both held in Constantinople, albeit not “officially” recognized yet as Ecumenical. A short reminder of these Holy Synods’ focus is a follows:

The 8th Ecumenical Council: This was the fourth Council of Constantinople, (879-880); restored St. Photius the Great to his see in Constantinople and anathematized the Latins’ heresy of filioque as well as any who altered the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, abrogating the decrees of the Robber Council of 869-870. This council was at first accepted as ecumenical by the West but later repudiated in favor of the robber council in 869-870 which had deposed Photius.

The 9th Ecumenical Council: This was the fifth Council of Constantinople, (1341-1351); affirmed hesychastic theology according to St. Gregory Palamas and condemned the Westernized philosopher Barlaam of Calabria and his associated heresies and blasphemy relative to the “created” energies of God.

Our Brotherhood considers it an unfortunate (deliberate) “miss” that the recently completed Council of Crete did not proceed with such official recognition. Given, though, the strong ecumenist motivations and spirit of the Cretan council, we can “understand” why such recognition was not deemed worthy by its organizers. It is our prayer and hope that a truly Pan-Orthodox Council in the future shall proceed with this recognition while concurrently condemning ecumenism, the heresy of all heresies.