On the Ecumenical Councils

For years after I became actively involved in Christianity again, I had developed a misunderstanding of the nature of the Ecumenical Councils. Part of this can likely be attributed to the influence that conservative Catholics had on my formation at this time. My error was in believing that the role of the Ecumenical Council was to develop new doctrines. To be sure, these doctrines had to flow naturally (whatever that means) from previously held doctrines, but these were new developments. Other Western groups had a more severe understanding, and felt that by and large the councils had the job of creating entirely novel doctrines in many cases. Some groups might accept the doctrine of the divinity of Christ as having been correctly developed, but much else was just erroneous (most notably the proclamations about icons).

It wasn’t until I was becoming Orthodox, and maybe not until after, that I understood that the role of the Ecumenical Council was not to develop anything. Instead, their job was to proclaim with one voice that which had been passed down from the Apostles. Generally, these councils were called to address new “developments” and bring an end to them, not to create them.

This morning, I received the following quote from the Church Fathers Yahoo group, which makes the point nicely:

”…the following remark of Father Florovsky has much to commend it: ‘It will be no exaggeration
to suggest that [Oecumenical] Councils were never regarded as a canonical institution, but rather
as occasional ‘charismatic events.’  That is to say, ‘under the guidance of the Holy Spirit they
have witnessed to the Truth, in conformity with the Scripture as handed down in Apostolic
Tradition.’  What makes them authoritative is that they both ‘bear witness to’ and ‘defend the
truth;’ they do not so much define as express the truth.  This they could not have done without
the antecedent labors of the Fathers, who themselves testified to the same truth that was revealed
to the Prophets and the Apostles.  

Father James Thornton, The Oecumenical Synods of the Orthodox Church, Center for
Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, Etna, CA, 2007, p. 18.”