In what way are the early church councils "authoritative" for Eastern Orthodox Christians? Do the decisions of these councils have the same status as Scripture? Would the Eastern Orthodox reject the Protestant idea of Sola Scriptura?
First of all, the Eastern Orthodox Church does not give all church councils equal status. The church does, however, give special prominence to the seven Ecumenical Councils that took place between 325 and 787, representing Christians throughout the Roman Empire. These councils addressed central issues related to the meaning of salvation through the union of the divine and human natures of Christ, and gave us such definitions of Christian faith as the Nicene Creed.
But we make a distinction between a council's decisions and the whole church's reception, or acceptance, of a council's decision. Just because a church council has spoken does not mean it has authority to determine truth. How do we know if a council is genuinely voicing the will of God? There are various external criteria that can indicate the potential presence of the Holy Spirit—such as the number of bishops present from various geographical regions—but none of these criteria is conclusive on its own. No council's decision carries binding force on Orthodox Christians until the communities of faith and their bishops in communion with each other receive/accept that decision. At a true Ecumenical Council, the bishops witness to the apostolic truth, and that witness is subsequently welcomed by the assent of the whole people of God.
Historically, this process took place at various times and in various ways. For example, the conclusions of the Council of Constantinople (381) show that the earlier Council of Nicaea (325) had more or less by that time been accepted by the churches. But Rome did not count the Council of 381 among the Ecumenical Councils until 517. And the seventh Ecumenical Council (787) was not generally received in the West before the eleventh century. Even the criterion of "reception by the faithful" can be very complicated and difficult to determine. The Council of Chalcedon (451) was rejected by the majority of Christians in Alexandria and by about half of those in Antioch.
Orthodox Christians do not believe the seven Ecumenical Councils are authoritative because church officials at some point formally put their stamp of approval on these councils, but because we see that over time, in the lived reality of the worshiping communities, these councils' decisions were widely accepted by Christians. And this gradual historic process, we believe, happened under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. A council's decisions, therefore, are not true because they have been accepted by the church; they have been accepted by the church because they are true—that is, they faithfully represent and protect the teachings of the apostles given in Scripture and lived out in Christian community. Thus the authority of the Ecumenical Councils is the authority of the living truth, Jesus Christ, who is the Lord of the church, acting among us and in us by the Holy Spirit.
What about sola Scriptura? While Scripture itself is the main criterion of the church's faith, "Holy Tradition completes Holy Scripture in the sense that it safeguards the integrity of the biblical message" (Common Declaration of the Anglican-Orthodox Doctrinal Commission, Moscow, 1976). Tradition isn't a separate kind of authority for the Orthodox; it is the continuing process of the church interpreting Scripture and faithfully passing on the apostles' teachings to the next generation. This does not forbid individuals from making personal judgments about the meaning of the Bible. It does mean that private opinions, as learned as they might be, do not have the same weight as the common faith of the whole church, as defined by the Ecumenical Councils and the church's tradition. The church, the Bible, and tradition form an unbreakable unity of checks and balances wherein Scripture is given the most authoritative voice on matters of faith and practice.
Bradley Nassif is a member of the Antiochian Orthodox Church and professor of biblical and theological studies at North Park University (Chicago).
For further reading:
George Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View (Nordland,1972)
Anglican-Orthodox Dialogue: The Dublin Agreed Statement 1984 (St. Vladimir's Press, 1985, pp. 50-1)
Bradley Nassif, "Authority in the Eastern Orthodox Church," in By What Authority? The Vital Place of Authority in Christianity, ed. Robert Millet (Mercer University Press, forthcoming 2009)
Bradley Nassif, "The Evangelical Theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church," in Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, ed. James Stamoolis (Zondervan, 2004)
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