Anglicans And The Seventh Council

In this article, we examine two questions: What role is given by the Anglican Communion to the Seven Ecumenical Councils and what authority does the Anglican Communion give the Seventh Ecumenical Council in particular?

In 1886, the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, in speaking to Christian Reunion, declared:

“(W)e do hereby affirm that the Christian unity can be restored only by the return of all Christian Communions to the principles of unity exemplified by the undivided Catholic Church during the first ages of its existence; which principles we believe to be the substantial deposit of Christian Faith and Order committed by Christ and his Apostles to the Church unto the end of the world, and therefore incapable of compromise or surrender.”

The “undivided Catholic Church” is the Church of the first one thousand years. During this time before the division of the Church, seven Ecumenical Councils were held and accepted by the whole Church, East and West, including the Church of England.

The Episcopal Dictionary of the Church says this concerning the Seven Councils:

“Seven councils are recognized as ecumenical by both eastern and western Churches: Nicea (325), which dealt centrally with the divinity of the Logos; Constantinople (381), which established the formula for expressing the Trinity and dealt with the divinity of the Holy Spirit; Ephesus (431), which decided against Nestorianism and promulgated a definition of the person of Christ.” (In another place, the Dictionary names the fourth Council, convened at Chalcedon in 451 as defining the union of the divine and human natures of Christ as ‘the touchstone of orthodox Christology.’) Speaking of the last three Councils, the Dictionary continues: “Constantinople 11 (553); Constantinople III (680-681); and Nicea II (787). These last three councils refined previous work on the person of Christ and defined the role of images in worship.

“Because of their crucial role in defining the doctrine of the Trinity and Incarnation, Anglicans often regard the first four councils as the most important.”

The most definitive authority on Anglican canon law is The Ecclesiastical Law of the Church of England, by Sir Robert Phillimore. In Volume 11 of this work, we read the role given by the Church of England to the first four Councils specifically, and reference to the authority of the other Councils:

“According to our English statute, I Eliz. c. 1, s. 17 (s. 36 in one edition) (o), heresy is to be determined ‘by the authority of the canonical Scriptures, or by the first four general councils, or any of them, or by any other general council wherein the same was declared heresie by the express and plain words of the said Canonical Scriptures...’"

Having recognized the specific authority of the four Councils of Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon, Phillimore goes on to declare recognition of Constantinople II and III and Nicea II. He points out that although Constantinople II and III were composed of Bishops of the Eastern Church, they were ratified by the Bishops of the Western Church, including the Pope. However he comments, “the Gallican as well as the Anglican Church has combatted the doctrine that the ratification of the Pope was necessary for the validity of canons enacted by general councils.”

The Second Book of Homilies of the Church of England specifically enjoined on the Church by Article XXXV of the Articles of Religion, also specifically recognizes the first six Councils.

Additionally, Francis J. Hall, in his ten volume classic work, Dogmatic Theology, Vol. 2, declares (concerning the Councils):

“Seven Councils have been generally received in the Church, and are to be reckoned as Ecumenical.”

In a footnote, Hall refers to the Elizabethan statute embracing the first four, the Second Book of Homilies as recognizing six Councils, and referring to those who dislike the seventh, but nonetheless acknowledge its authority. Concerning it, Hall goes on to say:

“The acceptance of this Council was delayed in the West, the Council of Frankfort rejecting it, apparently because of imperfect translations of its decrees. But during the Middle Ages it gained acceptance everywhere, including England, nor have the Anglican Churches taken any negative action since.”

The only General Council about which there is any question is the seventh. What is its status?

As noted above, in the Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, the fifth, sixth and seventh General Councils “did refining work on the person of Christ and defined the role of images in worship.”

It must be stated quite clearly, as both Phillimore and Hall have pointed out, that the Anglican Communion has never officially rejected the Seventh Council. To the contrary, as to its role in defining the person of Christ, the Anglican Church in North America declares in its Constitution, Article I:

“As the Anglican Church in North America (the Province), being a part of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of Christ, we believe and confess Jesus Christ to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life: no one comes to the Father but by Him. Therefore, we identify the following seven elements as characteristic of the Anglican Way, and essential for membership:
“5. Concerning the seven Councils of the undivided Church, we affirm the teaching of the first four Councils and the Christological clarifications of the fifth, sixth and seventh Councils, in so far as they are agreeable to the Holy Scriptures.”

What about the role of images in worship? In 1977, the Anglican Communion, in dialog with the Eastern Orthodox Church, in the Moscow Agreement, agreed with the Orthodox use of icons, as promulgated by the Seventh Ecumenical Council.

Thus, the work of the Seventh Council in “refining work on the person of Christ and (defining) the role of images in worship” is clearly approved by the Anglican Church.

Unfortunately, some persons, claiming to be Anglican, think that any use of images, whether they be icons, pictures, statues or even stained glass windows, is somehow worship of these images as idols, and a violation of the Ten Commandments, and of the Articles of Religion, especially Article XXII.

Clearly, idolatry is condemned by God in the Second Commandment. Worship is only to be given to God. We must not worship anything else; not a person, not a thing, not any image. However, the Seventh Ecumenical Council is very clear that while we may honor heroes of the Church (saints), and show respect to the cross and other images, we must not, under any circumstance, confuse honor and worship.

The problem is that in English (and Latin), the word “worship” can include “honor”, thus confusing the two. In Greek however, (the language of the Seventh Council) a clear distinction is made. The worship intended for God only is called latria and latria can only rightly be given to God. It would be idolatry to give latria to any other person or thing. “Respect”, or “honor”, on the other hand, can be given to a person, or a symbol. As Americans, we give honor and respect to the “Father of our Country”, George Washington. We show honor and respect to the American flag. Likewise, as Christians, we show honor and respect to the saints and to the cross on the altar. This is called dulia in Greek. With this clear distinction, Anglicans conform to the spirit of Nicea II, and also abide by Article XXII.

The claim that the Seventh Council is condemned by Article XXII is simply not true. As Francis J. Hall says in Vol. 2 of his Dogmatic Theology, concerning the worship of images and the Seventh Council:

“The worship of images that it sanctioned... is not adoration, but a purely relative honour, not differing in essential significance from that which is paid everywhere to pictures of eminent and holy men.”

Further, one is specifically referred to E. J. Bicknell’s The Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England.

Bicknell reviews the Greek distinction between dulia and latria, and points out that Article XXII does not condemn all use of images, but only the “Romish” practice. It is not at all clear, he points out, what that “Romish doctrine” refers to, but it is not a condemnation of the Greek practice proclaimed by Nicea 11, and affirmed by the Moscow Agreement.

Clearly then, we can say that the Anglican Churches, with the whole Catholic Church, East and West, accept the Seven Ecumenical Councils, and specifically recognize the Christological and iconical teaching of the Seventh Council.

Bishop William Wantland is the retired Bishop of Eau Claire. He assists in the Diocese of Fort Worth.

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