An Infallible Council

“No doubt the party lists were anxiously scanned for an assessment of voting intentions.But a result could only be attained if there was unanimity.  The bishops did not come to a council to negotiate a compromise. They came to recognize, and under the Holy Spirit to affirm, the true faith. Unanimity was the guarantee that the Holy Spirit was speaking. Without it a council would fail.”

Norman Russell, Cyril of Alexandria, p. 47

11 Responses to An Infallible Council

  1. Steve,

    I am not sure how John could have given the council unanimity if John was not a council participant. The question would be rather did John accept and apply the council’s decisions in his jurisdiction or not? Few councils if any bring “peace” to the church. Most councils have fall out and take a while to gain the acceptance that they do, if they do at all. This is not to imply on my part that their authority derives principlally from post facto acceptance. That is a question begging venture. Consequently, I think ephesus was infallible because of other conditions and not because this or that faction accepted it.

    Even in those councils where we know via Scripture, Acts 15 that the Spirit worked, it wasn’t the case that everyone in the church abided by their decision. Such was the case with the Judiazers. Furthermore, it is well known that Cyril in good faith waited a goodly amount of time for John to participate and Cyril abided by not only imperial but ecclesastical practice of abiding by John’s note, namely that the council had to be open to the major sees, either by actual presence, delegation as with Rome or by letter givnig permission.

    The fact is that John’s initial rejection of the council says something about John’s reaction to the council and not the council’s decision or findings, both of which John agrees with as it was made clear to him that Nestorius did indeed hold to a dual subject/dual substance Christology. This wasn’t initially apparent to him or Theodoret till later. Consequently unanimity via imperial as well as ecclesiastical custom was achieved without John’s presence. Its application was widened after John’s agreement with it.

    So, I don’t see how John’s absence tells us anything about the legitimacy of infallibility of the council. I don’t know how one gets from there to here. Partof the problem seems to be that people assume that unanimity representing the mind of the church requires some kind of actual and complete presence. If it did, then no council of any tradition could ever represent the mind of any religious body, including Acts 15, which seems obviously false. On Orthodox ecclesiology groups of individuals can “activate” divine energies or powers and simply be the church and so represent the mind of the church without actual full bodily representation. This is why each local church simply is the church in that local and isn’t a part of a wider entity. Each energy is fully what it is and interpenetrated by each and every other energy without reduction. Consequently, the doctrine of the divine energies can’t be divorced from practical matters in ecclesiology and vice versa. This is why I have harped on in the past the fact that the Papacy and Protestant ecclesiological ideas can’t be divorced from Trinitarianism.

    As for your example, it would still be the case if Peter had such a council that all other things being equal the council was legitimate and was activating and acting with divine power and Paul raising hell would be a problem for Paul and not the council. What Cyril wanted then was a counciliar decision, which explains quite nicely why John and others were unhappy with it. If councils required the kind unanimity that you seem to have in mind it seems difficult to explain why they had a problem. On my view it seems far easier or so I think.

  2. Steven W says:

    Also, we don’t have to continue this, but I apologize if I indicated too much criticism. My only intent originally was to comment on the way I thought the Russell quote was being presented, and I think I did that adequately.

    I’m no expert on all things Ephesus.

  3. Steven W says:

    Sorry for my tardy reply. I’ve been working on a paper this week, as well as school, church, and job requirements.

    Let me explain my original point and try not to veer away into other issues. I’m not questioning the correctness of the decision made by Cyril, nor am I privy to the contributors’ internal motives.

    My claim is that to say that Ephesus’ unanimous conclusion represented what it was claiming- the infallible and universal mind of the Church- is really tough to swallow.\

    Imagine Peter calling a council and starting before Paul arrives. Paul later shows up and raises hell, and then the Church splits for about a year and leaves people wondering for about two decades. That would be about the opposite of what Cyril was going for when he headed into Ephesus.

  4. Steve,

    So the simple absence of the Antiochians via John implies that the unity was “faked?” I am not sure how you get from that premise to that conclusion. Can you explain the connection? Is there any reason why Cyril or other participants of the council didn’t think so?

    And what do you think “doctrinal development” means for Ayers or for youself for that matter?

  5. PB and J says:

    if unanimity is a requirement for infallibility, then even the most famous of the ecumenical councils, the Council of Nicea, wouldn’t have been unanymous, because Eusebius (the bishop who represented Arius’ theological perspective) didn’t agree to the decision.

    so that would imply that no council was led by the Spirit (besides perhaps the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15), right???


  6. On pg. 52, “The fact of the matter was, however, that the council had failed. Cyril’s gamble in presenting John of Antioch with a fait accompli on his arrival at Ephesus had not paid off. Instead of accepting the majority decision, the Easterners repudiated what was done on 22 Jude, thereby denying the council the unanimity that would have brought peace to the Church.”

    I thought Russell’s book was excellent and very fair to all sides. He did not demonize Cyril for being such a meanie, but neither did he fall into hagiography. He presented the players as they were- warts and all. The situation was plain messy, and convening a council before your major opposition arrives is similar to some of the under-handed political maneuverings that go on today.

    I simply mentioned this because of the way the original post presented Russell’s quote. The “unanimity” was pretty much faked, as the Antiochene party was left out- and they were the very people that needed to be there to have true unity.

    Ephesus was adopted over the years to be sure, but it took a lot of work and even some compromise by the Cyrillines. It wasn’t the case that the Holy Spirit simply poured Himself out and everyone took notice. No, these councils were fierce times with lots of strategic and political posturing. The phrases and terms had to be delicately parsed so as to allow some breadth yet still keep others out.

    To AH’s question, it is interesting to think about these things. Nicea was certainly not so simple either, though it had more success than did Ephesus, in my opinion. Of course, if Lewis Ayres is correct, then the very idea of ecumenical councils was part of genuine doctrinal development.

  7. Steve,

    Can you cite me a page where he says as much?

  8. AH says:

    WOW! Tis true that Russell states the “council had failed” but that only begs the questions *why* Russell said this. Did Russell say this because he concluded that the council was a *fallible” pronouncement? Certainly not for in light of the statement above by Perry and comments such as this “But Cyril proceeded at all times according to the ecclesiastical canons and imperial regulations that governed such councils” (pg. 47) and the future exceptance of the decisions by Antioch and Theodosius seems to vitiate this. It seems obvious that Russell explicitely predicates failure because immediate *unity* was not evident. (Notice that statement follows under the heading that says “The Search for Unity”.) Steve, I am not sure if you are just giving some historical data about the council or you mean to imply more. *IF* you mean to imply more than Russell insinuates by the comment, I wonder how many of the Dogmatic councils of the church do you think were a success? Was *Unity* immediately recognizable after say Nicea?

  9. David Richards says:

    I haven’t read Russell’s book and so am not in a position to dispute Wedgeworth’s point, but I can say that whether or not Russell himself concludes that the council (I assume this is Ephesus?) failed, he recognizes the Fathers’ stipulation on valid councils and that they were indeed considered infallible and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and I think that is just Perry’s point.

  10. I believe that Russell’s conclusion is that the council did indeed fail.

  11. AH says:

    I can only wonder about the criteria that is marshalled against the infallibility of such a council and whether such criteria would annul what today is considered the canon?

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