If we can all (Orthodox, Anglican Catholic and others) agree that our understanding of the ‘faith once delivered’ can deepen and develop, then the question arises of who determines whether a particular understanding is in line with tradition or departs from it? The search for authority continues, wearisome though it may seem to some of you who already have your answers.
One of the most attractive aspects of the form of Protestantism I grew up with was that it was dynamic; it expected us to grow in the Lord. The idea that the faith was delivered once for all to the Apostles is directly from the Scriptures, but our history tells us that we (Christians) did not understand it all at once, or even over a few years. indeed, surely one of the points of Paul’s letters is that even those converted by him through the Spirit, did not ‘get it’, and even when they did, some of them fell away. That was why the letters were written; it was why they were kept; it is why we read them to this day.
Yet. St. Peter himself acknowledged that they were not always easy to understand, and warned us that some people, in their attempt to do so, had twisted his words. So, from the beginning, the Spirit guided Christians; indeed we might even say that that is why God inspired Scripture itself, so that we should have God’s word to hand. But Scripture does not verify itself or validate itself or explain itself. Anyone readng the story of the early church Councils will know that our faith was hammered out on the anvils of controversy,
It won’t do to say that what an ecumenical council says is so is so, not least because, no more than Scripture, does an ecumenical council verify itself. No one said before Nicaea or Ephesus that this was going to be an ecumenical council, and the Orthodox are right to say that only when it is accepted by the people and bishops as such is a Council ecumenical. But that is not quite right either – there are plenty of councils we call local whose decision were so approved, and yet they remain local.
Moreover, no more than the maxim of St. Vincent Lerins tells us what has been believed everywhere at all times by everyone, does the Orthodox idea of Councils becoming ecumenical when they are approved by the faithful quite work. 1600 years after the Chalcedonians accepted the proceedings of the Council of 451, there is a whole bunch of faithful Orthodox Christians who don’t; indeed, there are some Christians from the Church of the East who don’t accept Ephesus as ecumenical either.
So, for the Chalcedonian East to accept only the first Seven Councils as ecumenical, is to arrogate to themselves, and themselves alone, a decision on what is and is not ecumenical; and who gave them that right? As they criticise Catholics form having another 14 Councils, Copts criticise them for having three more than they recognise, and the Assyrians four more. Perhaps the true Fundamentalists only recognise the Council in Acts 15?
One of the disadvantages of having a somewhat idealised view of the church is that one gets disillusioned by the reality. Those scandalised by runours of plots and machinations at the current Synod in Rome had best not read anything about the earlier Councils, where Bishops used to punch other bishops, and where bribes were paid and bishops excommunicated other bishops, or indeed, where they accused each other of unspeakable crimes, not least because if they did, they might have to stop being alarmist and admit that, at worse, Synods and Councils have got no worse. God somehow builds straight with the crooked timber of humanity; he has done so from the beginning and will continue to do so.