When I was first seriously considering becoming Orthodox, how the Orthodox understood church authority was an important area to map out. In discussing the matter with Catholics that I knew, they often objected that Orthodox ecclesiology falls prey to the same problems as Protestantism. There was no locus of authority in the offices of the church, but the source of normativity was ultimately to reside in the judgment of the people.
The cardinal example of this was the rejection of the council of Florence. Upon returning, delegates found that the overwhelming majority would not accept the terms of the union and choose death and slavery to theological compromise. This is true as far as it goes. The signatories were rebuked and the majority did not accept the decree of union. But a little more study brings to light the fact that not all of the Orthodox representatives signed. Mark of Ephesus did not. Other signatories’ assent borders on simony. The Pope provided all kinds of gifts and provisions for those he thought could be won over. For Mark, there was nothing. Mark’s decision was therefore free and clear. Lest it be thought that Mark’s refusal to sign is insignificant, the Pope upon learning that Mark refused to sign, exclaimed, “Then nothing has been accomplished.” And Mark’s rejection was before the majority rejection.
The second line of evidence that is proffered is that for the Orthodox an ecumenical council is either known to be such or becomes such when it has been accepted by the “whole church.” There is no shortage of Catholic apologetic materials that go down this path. (I suspect they do because they rely on pop-Orthodox works or some distinctly Russian theological works.)
The position usually isn’t stated very clearly. Usually it begins with a claim regarding what the sufficient conditions are for a council to be ecumenical, which is a metaphysical claim and then slides into a claim regarding how one can know that a council is ecumenical. This is apparent for example in the above cited source. I take the metaphysical claim to be the more significant. So the idea is that a council can only be ecumenical if the “whole church” assents to it. This is obviously problematic since no council could ever meet such conditions where every professing Christian agreed. There is no council that I know of, even the Apostolic council in Acts 15 that didn’t result in some measure of dissent. I think Catholics are right to object to this idea as untenable. But I don’t think it is Orthodox teaching as such either.
Something like this idea became popular in Russian philosophical/theological circles through the writings of a Russian of philosophical disposition, Aleksey Stepanovic Khomiakov (1804-1860). The model is usually denoted by the term Sobornost meaning “catholic.” Khomiakov like other Russian religious philosophers of his time was significantly influenced by the German Idealism that was running through Russian academic circles. Consequently, Khomiakov along with even more Idealistic Russian philosophers like Soloviev faced ecclesiastical discipline and denunciation. Protopresbyter Winogradow, one time professor at the Theological Academy of Moscow wrote,
“Their whole training was entirely philosophical and generally humanistic, certainly not theological. The strictly theological methods of theological research were foreign and unknown to them. In pre-bolshevic Russia they belonged to the educated circles of Russian society and stood in opposition to the official Church for purely political motives since the official Church was a stern defender of the autocratic-monarchic governing system which was acutely opposed to them.” In Orthodoxer Schau, (Muchen) 1958, p. 16.
Archbp. Harkianakis writes,
“The danger of Chomiakov’s sobornost theory was immediately detected by his contemporary theologians of the Russian Church, including primarily VF Pernickij, AV, Gorskij and PA Linickij who fiercely attacked him However, since Chomiakov’s spiritual movement, as we have said, was not irrelevant to the political interests of the day, it had a great impact on the Slavophiles. It was natural for the supporters of the sobornost theory, amongst whom, A Ivanov-Platonov and F Smirnov were worthy of mention to join this movement at the same time. B Plank characteristically observed that although the opponents of this theory came from the order of the official theologians of the Russian Church, its supporters were not from theological circles, but from philosophical and liberal intellectual circles.” Archbp. Stylianos Harkianakis, The Infallibility of the Church in Orthodox Theology, Athens, 1965, then St. Andrew’s Orthodox Press, Sydney, 2008, p. 239.
Even more to the point, Khomiakov was not permitted by the state and the church to publish his works which is why they were published in French or in English translations. And Khomiakov’s education also helps to show that his view did not represent the theological tradition of Orthodoxy in Russia, let alone anywhere else.
“This man, who held a strong pen and vivid imagination and had studied mainly mathematics, found himself entangled in the theological thought and problematics of his time by his own initiative, so to speak. Precisely because he had not studied theology, he dared to deal primarily with strictly ecclesiological themes, in the conviction that theology was merely a ‘charismatic’ matter. This, while he confessed, in his own words that his theological education was at most imperfect, nonetheless he felt compelled to tackle quite thorny problems of ecclesiology.” Archbp. Stylianos Harkianakis, p. 206.
Pinpointing some of the problematic matter of Khomiakov, Harkianakis following Romanides, that it was the Idealistic view of the church as an organism to the exclusion of the idea of the church as the bringer of salvation that served to motivate Khomiakov’s erroneous ecclesiological views. (It should be pondered how relevant this is to Cardinal Newman’s theory of doctrinal development.)
“Beyond this, however, we should remark that Chomiakov had taken as starting point, a one-sided image of the Church as ‘body” and ‘organism’ and not the notion of the Church as centre and instrument of salvation. Harkianakis, p. 239.
“Instead of basing their theology of the church on Patristic soteriology and Christology, they adapted themselves to a contemporary German philosophy of social life as an organism and imagined that Russian peasants were the Orthodox par excellance because of something inherent in the national character.” John Romanides, ‘Orthodox Ecclesiology according to Alexis Chomiakov’, in The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 2 (1956): 73.
Similar judgments of rejection can be found in the works of say Romanian Orthodox theologian Georg Racovenanu, or Greeks such as J. Karmiris, and Androutsos.
Now one might object that the Orthodox are not in a position to know which of these two groups is correctly and normatively representing Orthodox teaching since the Orthodox have no way of putting forth official teaching. Even if we assume that this is true, (it isn’t) the objector will have to pick between two positions since they are not compatible. On the one hand he will have to maintain and then demonstrate that the Orthodox have no way of putting forth official teaching and so there is no way to know which side is correct and normative. But if this route is taken, he will have to abandon the idea that Khomiakov’s views represent the official Orthodox ecclesiology. On the other hand, if he claims that Khomiakov’s views represent the Orthodox teaching he will have to demonstrate and not merely assume as much. (He will also need to show how and where the Orthodox officially put forward theological statements.) And I don’t think they can maintain that his views represent the official teaching of the Orthodox Church. Either way though, Catholic and now Protestant apologists are simply wrong to assume that his view is Orthodox teaching.
What I think this the near ubiquity of this objection to Orthodoxy shows is the pervasiveness of superficial study prior to making a choice to convert, one way or the other. I think far too many Orthodox converts who are able don’t do their homework and likewise Catholic and Protestant critics don’t either. The fact that I could discover this material without much effort shows that critics who routinely deploy this argument really haven’t gone beyond the superficial level of study. Moreover, trying to tar Orthodoxy with Protestantism, which is, as the esteemed Louis Bouyer argued, a distinctly Catholic phenomena is entirely out of place.
Now what I have not done is spell out in detail what conditions are necessary and sufficient for a council to be ecumenical and normative. That I am largely leaving for another post. But the answers to that question are not in the main that hard to discover and sort out. Take Henry Chadwick’s description of the judgments of 2nd Nicea in 787 for instance.
“The question of what constitutes a council as ecumenical rather than merely regional or local had been debated at the sixth session of the second Council of Nicea in 787, where it was urgent to rebut the claims made on behalf of the iconoclast Council of Hiereia in 754 at which the emperor himself had presided. In 787 the answer given was in terms of representation and assent by all the patriarchs of the pentarchy, each giving ratification on behalf of all churches under his jurisdiction.” East and West: The Making of a Rift in the Church, Oxford (2003), p. 143.
So an ecumenical council accepted by East and West teaches that what constitutes the ecumenical nature of the council is pentarchial ratification, rather than papal ratification. It would be interesting and useful to see how Catholic theologians attempt to harmonize the decision of 2nd Nicea as to what constitutes an ecumenical council with say Pastor Aeternus or other Catholic dogmatic statements. Is 2nd Nicea not accepted by Rome in this respect? Was 2nd Nicea wrong? And why didn’t they put forward the view as found in Catholic theology regarding the supremacy of the Pope over councils as of divine right?