St Vincent of Lérins: Are Ecumenical Councils Infallible?

It is now time to get down to cases. How does St Vincent of Lérins envision the practical resolution of doctrinal disputes? How does the Church go about distinguishing between profectus and permutationes?

In the beginning of the Commonitorium, Vincent tells us that when a believer is confronted with two conflicting theological positions, he should “cleave to antiquity, which at this day cannot possibly be seduced by any fraud of novelty” (3.7). But immediately he acknowledges that the appeal to history may be insufficient and nonprobative, as both positions may be deeply embedded in the Church’s history. If this is the base, then the believer should “prefer the decrees, if such there be, of an ancient General Council to the rashness and ignorance of a few” (3.8). Writing in A.D. 434 Vincent could point to two such councils—Nicaea and Ephesus. Nicaea had taken place over a hundred years earlier and thus could be reasonably described as ancient; but Ephesus was only three years past, yet apparently it too qualified as an ancient council. That it does should alert us that antiquity does not necessarily exist in the distant past. Something more than chronology is going on here.

So what makes a council ecumenical? Unfortunately the Lérinian does not directly address this question. At the time of the composition of this work, the authority and ecumenicity of the Council of Nicaea was a given, overwhelmingly acknowledged by bishops and emperors. The history of its ecclesial reception was more complex than Vincent knew, but none of that really matters—the Nicene Creed had been incorporated into the dogmatic consciousness of the Church. Arianism may still have been alive and kicking in some quarters but its defeat was already a fait accompli.

The Council of Nicaea is felt on every page of the Commonitorium, even though Vincent discusses it only briefly. We see the presence of Nicene consubstantiality in his exposition of the Trinity in chapter 13. But Vincent’s principal concern is not Arianism but Nestorianism. Only three years earlier the worldwide Church had gathered in Ephesus, affirmed the legitimacy of the Marian title Theotokos, anathematized the Patriarch of Constantinople and expelled him from his see. Vincent appears to be well acquainted with the Ephesine council. The Commonitorium might even be considered as an apologia written on its behalf. If asked the question “What makes a council ecumenical?” Vincent might well have replied, “Look at the Council of Ephesus!” Attended by 200 bishops from the worldwide Church, invoking the testimonies of revered Fathers and doctors, including two bishops of Rome, the council confirmed the ancient teaching and definitively settled the christological rule of faith (28.75). Unlike the bishops who met at the blasphemous synod of Ariminum in 359 and approved an Arian creed, the Ephesine Fathers “decreed, under divine guidance, that nothing ought to be believed by posterity save what the sacred antiquity of the holy Fathers, consentient in Christ, had held” (33.86).

I stated above that Vincent does not discuss how we are to determine whether a given council qualifies as an ecumenical council, yet perhaps that is not quite accurate. His discussion of the Council of Ephesus reveals a critical characteristic that, in Vincent’s mind, distinguishes an ecumenical council from a less authoritative local or regional synod—universality. Ephesus was attended by bishops representing both the Western and Eastern parts of the one Church. Under the presidency of the blessed Cyril, these bishops faithfully invoked the testimony of the Fathers, ranging from Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzus, and Basil of Caesarea in the East to Felix, Julius, Ambrose, and Cyprian in the West. The Ephesine Fathers believed their witness and subjected themselves to their judgment (30.79-80). This note of universality demonstrates, says Vincent, that a council is teaching the ancient faith: “In the Church itself regard must be had to the consentient voice of universality equally with that of antiquity, lest we either be born from the integrity of unity and carried away to schism, or be precipitated from the religion of antiquity into heretical novelties” (29.77). When the Church speaks and acts as one body, in consensual unity and testimony, there is the faith of the Apostles, there is the Church of antiquity. Ephesus may have only adjourned yesterday, yet it is as ancient as Nicaea, ancient as the Apostles John and Paul.

Thomas G. Guarino summarizes the Lérinian’s understanding of the magisterial authority of ecumenical councils:

Vincent always exalts the preeminent authority of Scripture and certainly makes no claims for the authority of the church over or against the Word of God. Yet at least on major questions, he does see a circumincession (perikhōrēsis, reciprocal existence) between the Bible and ecumenical councils. Such councils, in their consentient agreement on the meaning of Scripture, are the living embodiment of Vincent’s criteria of always, everywhere, and by everyone. Indeed, the agreement evidenced by such councils—modeled on the apostle Paul’s call for unity in 1 Cor. 1:10—prevents idiosyncratic and maverick interpretations of Scripture, interpretations all too prevalent in the early church and still today. Consequently, when Vincent claims, on biblical grounds, that one must not “transgress the landmarks” or “break through the hedge,” he is actually arguing that definitive doctrinal markers authoritatively established by the universal church cannot be reversed. The solemn decreta of plenary councils—taught at Nicaea and Ephesus—are binding and cannot be contravened (Common. 3.6; 27.4; 33.6). In their definitive teachings, then, ecumenical councils represent the universal and ancient faith of the church and thus ensure the faithful interpretation of God’s Word. (Vincent of Lérins and the Development of Doctrine, p. 99)

In the teaching of Vincent we have the first sustained patristic discussion of the infallibility of conciliar dogmas. Vincent does not use this word, of course; but it seems clear that he envisions the dogmatic definitions of an ecumenical councils to be definitive and irreformable:

Authoritative conciliar teachings and creeds are, for Vincent, binding, irrevocable truths, unimpeachable interpretations of Scripture, sanctioned semper, ubique, et ab omnibus. Such solemn decrees cannot be understood, then, as prudential, pragmatic judgments that can later be erased or overturned, as if they offered only the provisional and reversible truth of a particular age or epoch. Understanding solemn doctrinal formulations as merely contingently true is precisely the position that the Lérinian rejects as betraying the depositum. Fundamental “landmarks” are irreversible and cannot be transgressed. One abandons the gospel if one seeks to contravene the solemn determinations of the church universal. (p. 118)

Reformation Christians will probably find Vincent’s reasoning unconvincing. The revisability of conciliar dogma appears to be built into the Protestant DNA. Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson is an exception, however:

Some but not all doctrines are dogmas. The distinction is perhaps most clearly marked by the notion of irreversibility. Every theological proposition states a historic choice: “To be speaking the gospel, let us henceforeward say ‘F’ rather than that other possibility ‘G.'” A dogmatic choice is one by which the church so decisively determines her own future that if the choice is wrongly made, the community determined by that choice is no longer in fact the community of the gospel; thus no church thereafter exists to reverse the decision.

Therefore, to believe that the entity which now calls itself the Christian church is the church of the apostles and to believe that the church’s past dogmatic decisions were adequate to their purposes—not necessarily in every way appropriate to them—comes to the same thing. If, for example, the decision of Nicea that Christ is “of one being with the Father” was false to the gospel, the gospel was thereby so perverted that there has been no church extant to undo the error. (Systematic Theology, I:17)

Protestantism has historically denied the infallibility of dogmatic decisions. Theoretically, the Church might at some point revisit the dogmas of Nicaea and Chalcedon and determine that they were incorrect interpretations of Holy Scripture. But the Catholic Church—and most certainly St Vincent of Lérins—has wanted to say more about her dogmas. Not only do the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches believe that the ecumenical dogmas are true and faithful expressions of the orthodox faith, but they also recognize in them a dimension of dogmatic definitiveness. Since the end of the fourth century, the Church has known and confessed with doctrinal clarity that Jesus Christ is “of one being” with the Father.  This insight now functions as an interpretive key to the reading of the Scriptures and the entire Tradition. If the Church is wrong about the Nicene dogma, then no Church of the Apostles now exists to correct the blunder. Given its dogmatic irreversibilty, the Church trusts that the Holy Spirit protected the Nicene Fathers from defining a dogma that would lead the people of God into irretrievable error. In this sense, a dogma is infallible and therefore trustworthy and irreformable. Once defined and received by the Church, dogmas are recognized as belonging to the deposit of revelation.

Jenson’s discussion of ecumenical councils is fairly limited. He clearly sees them as an expression of the teaching office of the Church. How do the dogmatic definitions of ecumenical councils achieve ecumenicity? By the assent of the Church, he declares. Jenson approvingly quotes Met Johannes of Helsinki: “The ecumenical councils … certainly on the one hand first become ecumenical councils when their decisions are accepted by the whole church; on the other hand we know that they did their work in the consciousness that they were making final decisions” (Systematic Theology, II:246, n. 89). There is a circularity here, and I suspect it’s unavoidable. After all, there have been councils that pronounced themselves as ecumenical, whose claims were subsequently rejected by the Church:

Can a council err? Obviously it can, in the sense that it is always possible for a gathering of bishops and other dignitaries to fall into conflict with Scripture or existing dogma, even when that gathering understands itself to be and claims to be a council of the church. But then it is not one. This will be discovered, if the Spirit guides the church, and the church’s assent “cannot fail” to be refused; just this happened in the case of the famous “Robber Council” at Ephesus, which in its mere formalities differed little from the ecumenical “Council of Ephesus.” (II:246)

Vincent didn’t wait very long at all to announce the ecumenicity of the Council of Ephesus. Fifteen years later Emperor Theodosius II summoned a second Council of Ephesus (the “Robber Council”) to address the excommunication of Eutyches. I wonder how Vincent would have viewed it. Unlike the synod of Ariminum, the decrees of II Ephesus did not obviously contradict the preceding ecumenical councils. He would probably have denied claims of ecumenicity based on (1) the lack of Western participation in the council, (2) the way Pope Dioscorus excluded dissenting views and manipulated the proceedings, and (3) Pope Leo’s subsequent rejection of the council.

(Go to “Consentient Council of the Doctors of the Church”)

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22 Responses to St Vincent of Lérins: Are Ecumenical Councils Infallible?

  1. Great post.

    “He would probably have denied claims of ecumenicity based on (1) the lack of Western participation in the council, (2) the way Pope Dioscorus excluded dissenting views and manipulated the proceedings, and (3) Pope Leo’s subsequent rejection of the council.”

    Couldn’t someone raise similar objections to the first council at Ephesus, though? I.e. (1) the lack of Antiochian and other Eastern participation in the council, (2) the way Pope Cyril excluded dissenting views (Nestorius) and manipulated the proceedings, and (3) the Church in Persia’s subsequent rejection of the council?

    I ask this as someone who wholeheartedly affirms Ephesus to be an ecumenical council, St. Cyril to be right and Nestorius to be wrong.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Yes. One might challenge Ephesus on those grounds. In fact, I suspect that if one tries hard enough, one can find grounds to challenge every accepted Ecumenical Council. Just a couple of weeks ago, for example, I came across a Roman Catholic scholar challenging the ecumenicity of the Fifth Ecumenical Council because of the intimidating presence of the Emperor Justinian.

      I personally do not believe that the ecumenicity of a council can be reduced to the fulfillment of formal criteria. Ultimately it is a work of the Holy Spirit—sort’ve like the canon of Holy Scripture.


      • “Ultimately it is a work of the Holy Spirit—sort’ve like the canon of Holy Scripture.”

        I’m sympathetic to this, but it also has similar problems, especially if one looks to the early Church but even today as well. While there were some listings of Scriptural canons, I do not see uniformity between, say the Syriac Peshita and the Latin Vulgate. The Peshita didn’t even include 2 Peter, Jude, 2&3 John, and Revelation for a long time.

        One reading that I’ve heard would be that “ecumenical” refers to the Church of the Roman oikoumeni. Thus these councils were universally accepted by the Church in Rome. This fits better with the messiness of history, but it has problems there too. The bigger problem would be that it seems to make them too contextually bound. Why should the Church in the Roman empire deserve a pride of place to that in the Persian empire or Ethiopia or Armenia, and so on?

        Anyway, all that is to say I’m not quite sure how to parse it out myself either, despite the fact that I affirm all seven.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I well understand the desire to find a formal justification for either the biblical canon or the seven great ecumenical councils. Why was the Letter to the Hebrews accepted into the NT? Because it was believed to have been authored by St Paul. Do we throw it out because no one today believes Paul is the author? No of course not. Ditto for several other books of the NT. The canon is mystery because it is a work of the Spirit. Formal criteria were invoked to justify the episcopal decisions to canonize specific book and to exclude others, yet there is also a working of the Spirit that does not limit itself to our formal criteria.

        Why the great seven Ecumenical Councils? The Oriental Orthodox only accept the first three. I Constantinople did not achieve ecumenical status until the Council of Chalcedon. Roman Catholicism insists that the formal acknowledgement of the bishop of Rome is necessary any council’s ecumenicity, which means that the RC Church is able to continue to convene councils that they confess as ecumenical. Most Eastern Orthodox recognize the great seven, though some Orthodox individuals insist that there are eight or more ecumenical councils; but recent pronouncements from the Church of Russia related to the upcoming Pan-Orthodox Synod indicates that it only recognizes the great seven as truly ecumenical.

        It’s all messy and will always be messy. If one wants everything to be neat and clean, then Roman Catholicism offers the best formal justification for canon and council. But just maybe the RC way of doing things comes at too high a price.


        • John Stamps says:

          Otto von Bismarck once remarked that “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”

          The same is no doubt true of ecumenical councils and, dare I say it, Holy Scripture. Out of dozens of councils, the Church picks seven as truly ecumenical, speaking the mind of the church. Many of the others are horror stories, e.g. Sirmium or the Robber Council. With councils, we can go behind the curtain and actually see the conciliar process (such as it is) at work. We can’t do that with Holy Scripture because we lack the evidence, but we can make some pretty good guesses (even if speculative) about the formation of the Gospels or the canonization of 2 Peter. (N.B. I am irritated about it, but I grudgingly concede it’s pseudonymous.)

          The entire process of writing “Scripture” is more convoluted, messier, and ultimately weirder than the most critical skeptic could imagine, given how the world operates. The problem with higher criticism of the Bible is that it lacks imagination! Think of the Bible more like God creating the aardvark and less like an orthodox conspiracy or power struggle.

          Unless you subscribe to some version of Verbal Inspiration, you have to imagine St Luke sorting out the Jesus story out of the midst of a bunch of other gospels, maybe St Mark and St Matthew, maybe not. But I don’t have any problem seeing God’s hand in the process, any more than I have problems seeing the hand of God in the infinite details of running the universe. After Creation ex nihilo, Evolution, the Red Sea, and the Resurrection of Jesus, just to name four of the most mind-boggling, the canon of Scripture is a piece of cake.


        • John M says:

          As much as i believe the Orthodox enjoy the fullness of the faith; Things being messy and things being a mess are 2 very different things … Just say’n!


  2. John burnett says:

    my understanding is that a council is not finally considered ecumenical until its acts are ratified by the *next* ecumenical synod. That’s why the ratification of the 7th must be first on the agenda of the (supposedly) forthcoming synod whose next preparation will be next year. Of course the 7th is considered ecumenical, but there is this formality, and it is real. Recall the Robber Synod for a case where the ratification was not granted.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I guess someone forgot to send St Vincent the memo. 🙂


      • John burnett says:

        cynicism aside, you’re pointing to a real question. When is a council ecumenical? Not when it calls itself ecumenical, but when the whole church accepts and ratifies it. I think the Robber Synod of Ephesus was a kind of watershed in that regard. People had to realize that ‘ecumenical’ has to mean more than self-proclamation and imperial support, and really, to be meaningful, must be a retrospective designation.


  3. John m says:

    … As Judaism has become about the Jews and not God, Christianity has become and is now about the church and not XC …(a statment simplistic perhaps ignorant sounding but containing much truth)


  4. John burnett says:

    There were only seven ecumenical councils (i.e., drawing bishops from the whole world and convened under imperial patronage), but there were also (nine, as i recall) local councils that have ‘ecumenical’ status because their enactments have been accepted by all. You’ll find their canons in the Pedalion, or Rudder.


  5. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Tom Guarino has pointed out to me that the plural of profectus is … profectus, not profecti. I know nothing about Latin and have therefore corrected the text. But I still wish I could use profecti for the plural. 🙂


  6. Mina says:

    I find it problematic to even use the word “ecumenical” to mean an authoritatively dogmatic council. To be quite honest, any imperially lead council is “ecumenical”. After all, isn’t this what the Patriarch of Constantinople argued he is called “ecumenical”? If you have to be terminologically consistent, and use “ecumenical council” in the sense that there’s only 7 (or 3) that defines dogma, then the “ecumenical patriarch” is the only patriarch that also defines dogma for the Church, which is a Constantinople version of Papal Infallibility.

    Gregory the Great of Rome seems to have in fact defined the word “ecumenical” as just that, which is why he was opposed to any bishop using on himself the word “ecumenical”. The argument the patriarch of Constantinople used was that the word “ecumenical” does not mean that, but merely is a descriptor of the capital of the “ecumene”, so to speak. So the barber of the emperor can also be called “ecumenical”. This I think more historically accurately describes the definition of what makes a council “ecumenical”. Remember that the ecumenical councils of Nicea and Constantinople were not even accepted by the Persian Churches until the year 411. And furthermore, we do not call the Apostolic council of Jerusalem “ecumenical” because there was no emperor convening it, even though it is just as dogmatic as the other 3 or 7 depending on who you talk to.

    To be quite honest, I think the Roman Catholic Church (RC) does deserve some sense of praise in the way she deals with councils, even though I may disagree with the end result of it. The RC’s have 21 “ecumenical councils”, but they are not interested in all traditions in communion with her to profess all 21. And neither are the calendar of saints necessarily consistent throughout. What matters to them, whether you’re a Coptic Catholic who has Severus of Antioch in the Church calendar, a Chaldean who has Theodore of Mopsuestia in their Church calendar, or a Greek Catholic who has Gregory Palamas in their Church calendar, so long as they are consonant with the faith of the 21 councils, there’s no need to venerate these councils by name (at least that’s the impression I’m getting). You can still be venerating only the first 3 councils, and then continue to confess “Miatheletism” (that agrees with Ditheletism) and Immaculate Conception, and Papal Infallibility, and that makes you part of the Church in the eyes of RCs. Granted, my major bone of contention is papal infallibility, but at the very least, I find their use of the councils much more consistent in history.

    A council, if Orthodox in faith, is not to be shot down as heretical. And that is why there are ecumenical (that is ecumenism as we know it today between dialoguing churches that are not in communion with each other) dialogues that needs to address this issue. And I think the Holy Spirit is guiding us in that direction, and hopefully bring in reconciliation those who have always held the same faith in communion together.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Mina. Your comment got me wondering what Latin word St Vincent used to speak of “ecumenical” councils. The translators typically render the Latin word (whatever it is) by the English words “universal” and “general.” I don’t read Latin and do not have access to the Latin texts, so I’m helpless at this point.

      Your argument about the meaning of “ecumenical” in the first millennium Church is interesting, but ultimately irrelevant, I think. Use determines meaning, and clearly users of the word no longer think of “ecumenical” as restricted to empire.

      But you raise two important questions (please correct me if I do not phrase them rightly). (1) How can councils be considered to be “ecumenical” and thus truly irrevocably authoritative if Churches if a number of Churches were not represented? (2) How may Churches that were not represented at the councils receive or re-receive them today?

      Fr Guarino discusses these questions briefly in the last chapter of his book. As you point out, since Vatican II Roman Catholic theologians have given a good deal of thought to these two questions. The first question is easy for Roman Catholicism, given her self-understanding as Church and the role of the Pope who must give his imprimatur for a council to become truly authoritative. But even still, some RC theologians acknowledge that her second millennium councils do not quite enjoy the ecumenicity of the big 7.

      The second question is even more interesting, isn’t it? Guarino suggests that when Churches are engaged in dialogue for the purpose of restoring unity, they must go through a process or rereception: “Churches must rereceive their own teachings, newly cognizant of the historical and cultural limitations that necessarily surround them. And churches are simultaneously called upon to rereceive the creeds and teachings of other churches, integrating them, to the extent possible, into their own understanding of Christian doctrine.” He quotes the oft-quoted words of Louis Bouyer: “All that the West can and must ask of the East is that the word of these [Western] councils should be accepted provisionally, with favorable prejudgment, as an essential, positive element for a broader and more profound common examination of the questions.”


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Fr Guarino tells me that Vincent uses the phrase “concilium universale.”


      • Mina says:

        There seems to be a divide in the East/West definitions of “ecumenical”. Even the word “Catholic” has now been adopted as having different definitions, as one can read from Fr. Laurent Cleenewerck’s book, “His Broken Body”. In the ancient world, the divide between East and West rested upon the bishop of Rome and the emperor respectively. St. Vincent seems to place an importance on Rome’s acceptance or rejection of a council. Would he have felt the same for Alexandria or Antioch (or Constantinople)? I’m not so sure, considering he’s under the jurisdiction of the Roman Pope, he seems to emphasize him more than others. But Ephesus 449 was in fact “ecumenical” for a short time. It took Emperor Theodosius’ tragic (and some would say suspicious) death just to reconvene for another council in Chalcedon. Ecumenicity in ancient Christianity before the Great Schism, in all practical terms, seems to be where both the Pope and the Eastern Emperor can ultimately help one another in giving conciliar authority. (a friend of mine who became Coptic Catholic shared with me that the Latin Martyrium does not have any emperors as saints, not even Constantine, which may indicate an ancient inimical attitude towards the Eastern emperors)

        For the Roman Catholics, “ecumenical” seems to equate “Catholic”, which are both translated as “universal”. The Eastern Orthodox have had different definitions over time on what “ecumenical” means, but it seems there is an agreement it’s certainly not the same as “Catholic”. One can notice this difference when the so-called “Quintisext” council in Trullo is considered. Given as a council that completes the fifth and sixth councils by drawing canons, it put some local councils (and canons of certain Church fathers) on par in authority of canon law with the “ecumenical councils”, which seems to validate the idea that those ancient Eastern Christian bishops of the late 7th century saw the definition of “ecumenical” differently than Rome (and Rome did in fact reject Trullo if I’m not mistaken).

        In Joint Commissions meeting in Geneva 1970 of the unofficial dialogue between the Eastern Orthodox (EOs) and Oriental Orthodox (OOs), they dealt with the contentious issue of councils, and reached this consensus:

        “As for the Councils and their authority for the tradition, we all agree that the Councils should be seen as charismatic events in the life of the Church rather than as an authority over the Church; where some Councils are acknowledged as true Councils, whether as ecumenical or as local, by the Church’s tradition, their authority is to be seen as coming from the Holy Spirit. Distinction is to be made not only between the doctrinal definitions and canonical legislations of a Council, but also between the true intention of the dogmatic definition of a Council and the particular terminology in which it is expressed, which latter has less authority than the intention.”

        In other words intention is more important than formulation of Orthodoxy. While this has yet to be agreed among all of Orthodoxy, between these particular theologians, they recognized this important distinction. This seems to allow, at least for me, the idea that some councils which were rejected in the past for certain political reasons may be recognized as Orthodox in its intentions. This also seems to indicate that true councils comprises of “ecumenical” and “local”, which means there might have been “false ecumenical” and “false local” councils. This still begs the question of what “ecumenical” means, which has not had a consistent definition in the Eastern Orthodox, but if this Geneva 1970 definition is validated, it becomes clear that it’s not necessarily as binding dogmatically as for example accepting the authority by name the four gospels, but the Orthodoxy that the councils profess is what matters (they in fact seemed to treat councils like saints; not all local churches have to venerate each other’s saints and councils). At that point, it would seem to get very close to Fr. Guarino’s leniency on the councils as well.


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          “St. Vincent seems to place an importance on Rome’s acceptance or rejection of a council.”

          Mina, where do you find this in the Commonitory? I think you are right that St Vincent believed that an ecumenical council could not be judged catholic and universal if it was rejected by the bishop of Rome, as that would demonstrate that the council was not truly universal. But I do not find in the Commonitory anything akin to universal papal primacy. Am I missing something?


        • Mina says:

          Well, he thus far praised the Popes of Rome as “Orthodox”. It goes without saying he also praised the patriarchs of Alexandria and the fathers of Cappadocia along, and it can be taken as more of a conciliar document than papalist, but take this quote for instance:

          “When then all men protested against the novelty, and the priesthood everywhere, each as his zeal prompted him, opposed it, Pope Stephen of blessed memory, Prelate of the Apostolic See, in conjunction indeed with his colleagues but yet himself the foremost, withstood it, thinking it right, I doubt not, that as he exceeded all others in the authority of his place, so he should also in the devotion of his faith.”

          I’m not saying St. Vincent explicitly taught papal infallibility. I simply am saying he stresses his local church’s authority more, being from the West. While all other bishops are “colleagues”, the Pope of the Apostolic See “exceeded all others”. In a way, it sounds like the Pope of Rome is a first among equals. And to make his view plain, when giving the example of the council of Ephesus in the end, while he admits the council alone is enough, and they used great giants of the faith from Alexandria (including St. Cyril), Cappadocia, and the Latin West (although he calls those of Rome “the Head”, presumably of that West, even though the “North” and the “South” was added), he also has to mention the twofold authority of Sts. Celestine and Sixtus. It was important for him to name them first as insulted if anyone “gainsays” the Apostolic faith.

          But as I said, it’s probably because he lives in the West that he favors them more; I didn’t imply because of Papal infallibility. I’m thinking it could be misconstrued as such. Would one think that he would pay attention to Ephesus 449, despite it being lead by a successor of Alexandrian doctors of the faith who wanted to reaffirm Ephesus 431, if it ignored the Tome of the Western Head and the colleague who exceeds all others in authority? This does not seem to be all that clear. The Egyptian bishops did not want to accept Chalcedon because to them, the Pope of Alexandria trumps authority as well. Every locale had their ultimate primate, even if an ecumenical council wished to overturn that in one area (except maybe Nestorius who didn’t seem well liked from the get go, who didn’t have that Chrysostom type of appeal).


          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            In the passage that you cite, Vincent is referring to a Latin dispute that was ultimately resolved by the patriarchal intervention of the bishop of Rome. I am hesitant to read much more than that into Vincent’s words about the Pope as “exceeding all others.” Perhaps you (and Guarino) are right, but I do not think that what he actually says about the bishop of Rome compels such a reading.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Mina, does the Coptic Church recognize any post-Ephesus councils as authoritative in the way that the General Councils are authoritative?


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          I forgot to thank you for the citation from the EO/OO dialogue on ecumenical councils.


          • Mina says:

            No problem Father! There’s a blog site out there that is dedicated to the EO/OO dialogue in an optimistic way. The author of that site seems to now have all the full minutes available for all to read as well of the unofficial consultations. I was going through Aarhus, which happened 50 years ago this month! Very interesting, and very telling of the much more professional and intelligent atmosphere of discussions than what you find among internet users. Quite ahead of our times in the mannerisms and comprehensions of the subject matters.

            I’ll speak for the Oriental Orthodox as a whole, and discuss the various councils. Ephesus 449 is obviously defended in our tradition, and particularly the Syriac and Coptic traditions are for the most part hand-in-hand in the veneration of post Cyrillian councils. The Armenian Church is in a unique situation. It’s been known that they adopted Chalcedon, then rejected it later for reasons within its own governmental area and experience, somewhat a bit removed from Roman imperial experiences. It’s why when I speak of Coptic veneration, it somewhat goes hand-in-hand with the Syrian Church as well.

            So Ephesus 449 is defended and venerated. There’s also a little known council in the year 475 AD, also in Ephesus, which is said to have held between 500 and 700 bishops (probably to counter the numerical idea of Chalcedon). In that council, Pope Timothy (known as Aelurus), successor of Dioscorus in the non-Chalcedonian party, was head of this council. In this council, Eutyches and his doctrines were condemned, Nestorius was condemned, Chalcedon and Pope Leo was condemned, and what was affirmed was the first three councils (Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus–and it could be said that this is the first time it could be officially said the non-Chalcedonians venerated Constantinople as the second true council), and defended Ephesus 449 as only a reaffirmation of Ephesus 431.

            After that, it was just letters of correspondence, mostly between the Coptic and Syriac patriarchs. Jerusalem and Constantinople teeter-tottered back and forth between the sides, but as one can see, they eventually became Chalcedonian.

            Then there was a Christological divide between those who followed Severus of Antioch and those who followed Julian of Halicarnassus. In Syria and Egypt, the majority view supported Severus of Antioch (in fact, in the diptychs of the Popes of Alexandria from St. Mark to the present, the Coptic Church added Severus of Antioch, despite the fact he was not the bishop of Alexandria, but his authority was highly revered and venerated as one of our own), but in Armenia, they seemed to have held to a Julianist view of Christology. So the local Syro-Armenian councils of Manazkert (aka Manzikert or Mantzikert) in the 720s decade, where they reached essential Christological dogmatic agreements (where it was probably ruled based on misunderstandings) without requirements of venerating anyone on either side, but that the dogma is important. There are still some misunderstandings on which Christology the dogmatic canons supported, but the Syrian Church stands by the idea that these canons agree with Severian teachings.

            Much earlier than this, the Armenian Church although by default would accept Roman councils, sensed some problems with Chalcedon, and in the council of Dvin I (506 AD), both Armenian and Georgian churches decided to get together and investigate them. In the year 551 AD, Dvin II officially decreed the rejection of Chalcedon. In the year 609 AD, the Georgian Church split from the Armenian Church in rejecting its previous rejection of Chalcedon, thereby accepting it. During this time, both the Armenian and Georgian churches had overlapping saints that may have venerated an opposing council (in other words, Armenians might venerate a few Chalcedonian saints and Georgians might venerate a few non-Chalcedonian saints).

            The Armenians kept a relatively good record of their local councils to give an idea of what they were dealing with, but overall, I think Manazkert and the Dvin councils seem most important in this regard.


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