5 February 2009

COUNCILS: CIRCULAR ARGUMENTS

We saw in an earlier post how the 'Conciliar' theory just doesn't deliver the goods. To prove otherwise, 'Conciliarists' are driven to desperate straights. Since there are a lot of councils littering the pages of the ecclesiastical histories, many of them contradicting each other, Conciliarists fall back on the notion of 'recepton'. A council is Ecumenical - genuine, Kosher, and to be obeyed - if 'The Whole Church' subsequently accepts it.

Let us suppose that Council A condemns Doctrine X. It excommunicates the adherents of X. They therefore go away, declare Council A to be spurious, and get on (for hundreds of years) living their ecclesial life out of communion with theose who accept Council A.

'Conciliarist' adherents of Council A then say 'The Xites are heretics and schismatics. Council A is a valid ecumenical council because the whole Church has accepted it'. The Xites demur: 'It hasn't been accepted by the whole Church. We haven't accepted it'. 'Ah', reply the adherents of Council A, 'you don't count because you aren't in the Church'.

For 'A', read Chalcedon. For Xites, read 'Monophysites'. Byzantine Orthodoxy has normatively held that Chalcedon is authentic and that the 'Monophysites' are schismatic because they reject it. Orthodox consider that Chalcedon is normative because the Orthodox Church has accepted it.

Now try it out reading, for 'A', 'Florence'. For Xites, read 'Anti-papal Orthodox'. The Latin West has normatively held that Florence is authentic and that the Anti-papal Orthodox are schismatics because they reject it.

Considering the line Orthodoxy has taken with the 'Monophysites', how has it got a leg to stand on with regard to its rejection of Florence? It can only get round the problem by saying "Ah, but we Orthodox are the Church"; and that means that a Council in itself is useless for telling anyone what truly is or is not true doctrine. It means that each party starts off with the unassailable conviction that "I am right" and accepts or rejects Councils on the basis of "Do they agree with me?" Councils can't hold themselves up to the wavering Christian as a way of deciding between conflicting truth-claims.

The argument goes like this:
Conciliarists: You're heretics because you don't accept the Council.
Their opponents: It isn't a true Council.
Yes it is.
How do you know that?
We know that because the whole Church has accepted it.
No it hasn't; we have rejected it.
You don't count because you're only schismatical heretics.
How do you know we're heretics?
Because you don't accept the Council.
It isn't a true Council.
Yes it is.
How do you know that?
We know that because the whole Church has accepted it.
No it hasn't; we have rejected it.
You don't count because you're only schismatical heretics.
How do you know we're heretics?
Because you don't accept the Council.
It isn't a true Council.
Yes it is.
How do you know that?
We know that because the whole Church has accepted it.
No it hasn't; wehave rejected it.
You don't count because you're only schismatical heretics.
How do you know we're heretics?
Because you don't accept the Council.
It isn't a true Council ...

That is what is called a circular argument. Circular arguments go nowhere and prove nothing. The question, as an American friend put it to me, is either "If Chalcedon, why not Florence?"; or, if you prefer, " If not Florence, why Chalcedon?"

8 comments:

William Tighe said...

Of course, we all know Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox who get around this by claiming that the dispute between the Os and the OOs was more "philosophical" than "theological," or that it was all a big "misunderstanding," or (as the late W. H. C. Frend argued) was driven by political and cultural conflicts -- and (this has been the refrain since the 1960s) that we will soon see a "reunion" or "reconciliation" of all those Os that will either relegate Chalcedon to the past or else demonstrate to an admiring world how the same church can "receive" and "not receive" Chalcedon at one and the same time, and likewise venerate Leo and Dioscoros, Flavian of Constantinople and Severus of Antioch, all as "Orthodox Fathers" (unless the Os agree to throw Pope Leo to the wolves as a "quasi-Nestorian," as a few Greek theologians have argued in recent decades; and anyone who peruses the wee bookies of catechetical material that the "other pope" [Shenouda of Alexandria] has produced over the decades of his pontificate will see that Pope Leo is still treated as a Very Bad Thing in them). There may be a good deal of truth to some aspects of the historical analysis underlying these sentiments -- but after 40 years the prospect of a happy denouement begins to seem as though it is "somewhere over the rainbow," and the hoped-for "reception process" between the separated Os appears to be as much of an ignis fatuus as the "reception process" for WO that has been under weigh in other ecclesiastical purlieux for over 35 years, and that for SS which the fabricators of the first Frankenstein have now set abroad as well. I will believe it when I see it happen. (Oh, and one more thing: the monks of Mount Athos have been as severe in their censures of their brethren and bishops who seek ways to dish Chalcedon, as they have been of those of them who make nice with the Pope of Rome, and, from the other side of the Blue Nile, so have been the monks of Ethiopia.)

By the way, I know that the conventional term for the OOs is "monophysite," but I have to admit that I do prefer the trendy but accurate "miaphysite," since the former really is an accurate characterization of the views of that "deliriosus senex" (in Leo the Great's phrase) Eutyches, whose views almost all anti-Chalcedonians later rejected, save for some Ethiopians.

Chris Jones said...

Well yes, the argument is circular. But whether or not that is a problem depends on what it is that one is trying to prove.

The whole argument is framed in Papalist terms, because the unspoken premise of the argument is that there must be an element of the Church's polity that serves as the ultimate criterion of orthodoxy and catholicity -- and those who deny that this element of polity is the Papacy must provide some substitute for it. Hence the need to prove that the institution of the ecumenical council is the Church's "highest authority."

But if the premise is bogus, then the circularity of the "argument" is meaningless. It seems to me that the more authentic Orthodox position is not that an ecumenical council fills the role that the Pope claims to fill, but that there is no need for such a role and that no person or institution of polity is needed to fill it. That is what Dr Lossky meant, I think, when he said that "there is no external criterion of the Truth."

If the Oriental Orthodox are not "in the Church," it is not because of their formal denial of Chalcedon, it is because they do not confess the Catholic faith in its fullness, of which Chalcedon was a witness. If their teaching and practice is in fact orthodox (as some claim -- a claim of which I have little knowledge and less opinion) then their denial of Chalcedon is a secondary matter. Important, and unfortunate, but nevertheless secondary.

If the Church can venerate the Nestorian Issac the Syrian as a saint, she could stand to have some in her midst who venerate Dioscorus. It would be messy, wierd, and contradictory, but I think we could get over it.

William Tighe said...

Well, but are the cases of St. Isaac the Syrian and Dioscoros all that similar, really? The latter was a "Nestorian" monk and bishop, but nothing that I've read about or by him gives any indication that he was "polemically" so, or that those Orthodox who first began to venerate him -- when? -- were aware of this.

Dioscoros, Severus and other OO saints like Jacob of Serugh and Philoxenus, rejected and denounced Chalcedon as heretical; those who upheld Chalcedon upheld it both because they held it for orthodox and because Rome regarded it as an inviolable touchstone of orthodoxy. And the Acacian Schism (484-519) indicates three things: first, that almost all the Easterners could happily have lived with a situation in which Chalcedon was "swept under the rug:" its definition neither affirmed nor denied, but its ecumenical standing tacitly repudiated (there was a Chalcedonian constituency in Constantinople that seems as much based on resentment of "Alexandrian hegemony" as on Chalcedonian orthodoxy, and another in Jerusalem, which owed its very standing as a patriarchate to Chalcedon, but that was about it); secondly, that there was sufficient support in the East for seeing communion with Rome as a necessary touchstone of orthodoxy that they were willing to disrupt a possible "Eastern consensus" to achieve it or to maintain it; and, thirdly, that the "there is no external criterion of the Truth" line of the diaspora Russian Orthodox is, viewed historically, a kind of Neo-Orthodoxy alien to Fifth Century ecclesiology, and more a rationale for anti-papalism than anything else.

I can hardly imagine an "Orthodox Church" that can tolerate veneration of Leo and Dioscoros in the same communion as I can one that would do the same for Athanasius and Eusebius of Nicomedia. There is a communion that does claim to reconcile opposites in its capacious bosom, but the current state of that communion (or "communion") does not serve as an encouragement of the Os and OOs to try to go and do likewise.

Chris Jones said...

Bill,

Well, but are the cases of St. Isaac the Syrian and Dioscoros all that similar, really?

Perhaps not. I don't claim to be an expert. The only reason I brought it up was to make the point that being outside the canonical boundaries of (that body which one regards as) the Church is no barrier to being publicly and officially venerated as a saint by that Church.

You may be quite right that, in a re-united EO/OO Church, the continued veneration of Dioscorus and other Monophysites by erstwhile OOs could not be tolerated. But the simple fact that they lived and died outside the communion of the (Byzantine) Orthodox Church is not sufficient to show that. That's all I was saying.

(A similar point could be made, BTW, about the veneration of St Gregory Palamas among Eastern Catholics. Technically, Palamas lived and died outside the communion of Rome. But Eastern Catholics continue to venerate him liturgically. At least, so I understand; correct me if I am wrong on that.)

All of that is ancillary to my main point, however, which is that an ecumenical council is not an "institution" of polity comparable to the Papacy. I will admit that Lossky's "no external criterion" is an extreme way of putting it, but the principle he is expressing is not unique to the "Paris Russians," but is a permanent feature of the Orthodox perspective.

orrologion said...

I'm not sure that all the bits and pieces re Orthodoxy's thoughts on all this are accurately represented, but I can see how it might be viewed in these ways.

I would note just a few things:

1) The explanation of a lot of jockeying for support, desires for unity with Rome, etc. are explained by conciliarity of the major Apostolic sees. Alexandria was 'wrong' and let go because the rest of the Church was in agreement that the position taken by their camp was wrong theologically and ecclesiologically. Alexandria set itself and the early writings of one of its bishops up as The touchstone of orthodoxy. The same happened earlier with the supporters of Nestorius, the same happened later (from an Orthodox perspective) with Rome holding itself up as The touchstone of orthodoxy - based primarily on its own tradition, seemingly unknown in this form elsewhere.

2) The arrogance of Romanity infected the Church - both its Latin and Greek wings. After spending time in a Greek parish, I can testify to the fact that as well-meaning, loving and orthodox they may be, they are ethnic narcissists and arrogant of their culture's superiority - and this after centuries of Ottoman humiliation - when dealing with outsiders, and they show the same level of tribalism and arrogance against other Greeks of the wrong 'camp' on internal matters. It does not surprise me that Ephesus and Chalcedon blew up the unity of the Church. I find the same Roman arrogance in the history and claims of the Roman Catholic church, and especially in her handling of those that not only disagreed with her but even dared to ask questions or offer better solutions. That is, culture has exacerbated a lot of these problems, which makes me tend toward asking for and offering forgiveness so as to start afresh in addressing the same questions, again. (This should in no way be construed as condoning the illicit intercommunion between EO and OO that often goes on without synodal and/or conciliar assent).

Timothy said...

In the end, ALL arguments about authority in ANY revealed religion are circular. It's the nature of the beast--get over it. The same logic used to accuse "conciliarists" of circularity can be employed against proponents of the papacy--dragging in the papacy doesn't straighten out the circle.

In the end, such arguments can only be resolved as has been attempted here, by reference to history and by a mutually accepted definition of truth. That even accepting such premises has not, either here or in the world, in fact resolved the dilemma posed by Fr Hunwicke is merely a testimony to the limitations of reason.

orrologion said...

Fr. Stephen Freeman had a wonderful post that gets at an Orthodox understanding of ecclesiology, which I think acknowledges the circularity and 'un-sureness' inherent in any of the supposed external 'guarantees' of unity, fidelity, orthodoxy, etc.

The most widely and often quoted piece is:

"The Orthodox Church has perhaps the weakest ecclesiology of all, because it depends, moment by moment, on the love and forgiveness of each by all and of all by each. Either the Bishops of the Church love and forgive each other or the whole thing falls apart. “Brethren, let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” These are the words that introduce the Creed each Sunday, and they are the words that are the bedrock of our ecclesiology."

The rest can be read here:

http://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/2008/01/31/the-ecclesiology-of-the-cross/

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