Over on Twitter, Dr George Demacopoulos has reported that the official Message of the Holy and Great Council now being held in Crete may declare the Synod of 879 and the Palamite Synods of the 1350s as “ecumenical.” If this happens, this might well be the most important action of the Council. Orthodoxy does not presently have a consensual understanding of what makes a council ecumenical and what does not. All it knows is that the great seven general councils of the first millennium are ecumenical and the 449 Robber Council and the 1439 Council of Florence are not. Beyond that there’s just lots and lots of opinion (see, e.g., Georges Florovsky’s essay “The Authority of the Ancient Councils“).
I’m not a historian, but I do not personally see how the 14th century Palamite synods can be accorded the same level of dogmatic authority as the great Ecumenical Councils. When did Orthodox bishops and theologians start thinking of the Palamite synods as being ecumenical? My impression is that this is a 20th century development, going hand in glove with the 20th century “rediscovery” of the essence/energies distinction, propelled in large part by the publication of Martin Jugie’s polemical critique of St Gregory Palamas in 1932 (someone please correct me if I’m wrong). At some point in the second half of the second millennium, the Palamite distinction ceased to be an important part of Orthodox theology and catechesis (again, someone please correct me if I’m wrong; but please don’t lecture me about the “Latin captivity” of the Orthodox Church, a 20th century polemical construct that should be discarded as unhelpful, misleading, and distorting). How can an infallible dogma of the Church be “forgotten” for four or five hundred years? “Forgotten” here is a relative term, of course. St Gregory Palamas has never been forgotten. Not only is he commemorated on the Second Sunday of Lent, but anathemas against his heretical opponents, Barlaam and Akyndynus, are proclaimed each year in the hierarchical recitation of the Synodikon on the Sunday of Orthodoxy. Yet it’s one thing to annually recite a collection of anathemas and quite another thing to internalize them in catechesis and theological reflection. If the essence/energies distinction expresses a genuine and decisive insight into the dogmatic structure of the apostolic faith, then it can never, I suggest, be forgotten—at least not once it has been explicitly formulated, formally promulgated, and consensually received by the Faithful. Forgetfulness, in such a case, does not mean that the proposed dogma is necessarily false; but it does mean that it has not yet been incorporated into the dogmatic consciousness of the Church.
When does theological consensus, which apparently now exists among Orthodox theologians regarding the Palamite distinction, become dogmatically binding doctrine?
When does a council, particularly a local council, become an ecumenical council?
I do not have a dog in the Palamite hunt, though I do fear that a conciliar declaration affirming the ecumenical status of the Palamite distinction will create a serious obstacle in ecumenical discussions with the Catholic Church. The historical fact is, there has long existed within Orthodoxy a diversity of interpretations of the divine essence and energies distinction, dating back to at least the 15th century (see the important essay “Palamas Transformed” by John Demetracopoulos). Is the distinction real, formal, or nominal? Theologians disagree. The Lossky/Romanides interpretation of the distinction has (apparently) become dominant in contemporary Orthodox theology, but that may well only be because contemporary theologians have yet to submit this interpretation to proper analysis and critique. If anyone is interested in exploring the matter further, I recommend the important collection of essays entitled Divine Essence and Divine Energies.
In my very provisional opinion, the Lossky/Romanides understanding of the Palamite distinction enjoys its present status primarily because of the continuing desire within Orthodoxy to ideologically distinguish itself from Roman Catholicism. At some point Orthodox theology simply must transcend the polemical need to define itself over against the cultural West.