I recently received a question from an old acquaintance, a question that keys off a video clip answer I gave about Eastern Orthodoxy. So here is the question:
“On what grounds do you reject the authority of the 7th Ecumenical Council? As Christians, we consider the JW’s (for example) outside the church, because they reject the teachings of other councils. They do so because they believe these teachings are contrary to Scripture. It seems the question is, ‘who decides what defines Christianity?'”
Let me set aside the JW question quickly. We have to make a distinction between the formal ground of appeal and whether or not such an appeal is sustained by the document appealed to. The fact that the JWs say that they care about Scripture more than subsequent creeds is fine. But it is not fine for them to say that, and then go on to twist the Scriptures out of all recognition (2 Pet. 3:16). If they appeal to Scriptures, to the Scriptures let us go. And they shall suddenly be confounded, and discover that they have another appointment they need to get to. We are not sure who it is with, but it is probably with someone who doesn’t know the Bible.
But behind this initial distraction, I think the central question posed is an important question, and there are three things I would want to note about it. Keep in mind that this would simply be the outline of my position — much more could be developed within this framework. Someday, after I am an archbishop and past grace, I will no doubt have the time to devote to it.
First, to set the stage (and not to poison the well, despite appearances) I would want to note that in Scripture, this is the devil’s question. When Jesus came to Israel, He did not fit with the expectations of the official religious handlers — a kind of person who has not gone away since that time, incidentally. They came to Him with what seemed to them the most obvious question in the world, which amounted to “where do you get off? Papers, please.”
“And when he was come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?” (Matt. 21:23; cf. Mark 11:28; Luke 20:2).
This observation doesn’t settle anything by itself, but it should make us go hmmmm.
But second, just because it is the devil’s question doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t answer it — but it does mean that we need to be careful when we do. So, typing like a ninja, I reject the authority of the Church as expressed in the Seventh Ecumenical Council because I accept the authority of the Church as expressed in the Bible’s Table of Contents. The Table of Contents found at the beginning of every edition of the Scriptures I have ever seen is the foundational Creed of the Church. It is no more inspired than the maps and concordance are, but it is much more authoritative. It outranks, by definition, every other creed.
I submit to the determination of the Church that “this” is the canon of Scripture, and I submit also to what follows from that. Scripture is full of revealed content, received by us as the intelligible Word of God. This is the universal testimony of the Church — Scripture is God speaking. As revealed content, the Bible was not meant to be put under glass in a museum. It was written so that we might read and understand it, and then act upon it. And one of the scenarios we find repeatedly within Scripture — the Scripture testified to by the Church, remember — is the phenomenon of officers to the Word trying to seize mastery and control over the Word. That is an important (and very clear) theme throughout the Scriptures.
Now these are the Scriptures that the universal Church has told me are the very words of God. The universal Church has not told me the same thing about her own words. There are Bibles in churches, but there are also churches in the Bible. The second narrative is normative and informs our understanding of the first one.
The Bible tells me that the Church is my mother (Gal. 4:26), and that I am to honor her (Ex. 20:12). But the Scriptures also tell me that I am not to follow what she says if she has been hitting the gin cabinet again (Acts 7:51), which in certain ages she has sometimes done.
Now many Protestants (in my opinion) do make a category mistake in their debates with Roman Catholics and the Orthodox on this point. On a practical level I have no problem answering a false tradition of men with Scripture, as Jesus did (Matt. 15:3), and as I did with my first point. The problem of a category mistake arises later, if we are working through the matter on the epistemological level. There the question should be Creed against Creed, Council against Council, and not (in the first instance) Council against Scripture.
This is what I mean. Because the Bible is the Word of God, we do not have to arrange our systematic theologies according to the verses that are entirely true, those that are mostly true, those that are partly true, and so forth. The Scriptures are the Word of God, refined seven-fold (Ps. 12:6). This is not true of creeds and councils. Everybody looking at church history has to pick which ones they will go with, and which ones they will snort at as self-evidentally spurious. When I do what I do, I believe it is fair for someone to ask me “by what standard?” My approach is dictated by my acceptance of the Church’s testimony of the canon of Scripture, and by the fact that somebody taught me to read.
Let me give one of many examples. Having been pointed to the Bible by the Church (godly parents, the ministerium of the church, and many sword drills in Southern Baptist Sunday School), I have gone on to read that I must not worship images (Ex. 20;4; cf. Council of Hieria, 754 A.D.). You say that Second Nicea (787) repudiated Hieria? Shoot! Who can tell anymore? I give up. Back to Exodus 20.
But thus exasperated, I do not retreat to a Bible as the Book that Fell From the Sky. I do receive it from the Church, and I accept the foundational creed of the Church, the Table of Contents. I accept, as a corollary, all that is contained in those books. To get anywhere with me on this point, you would have to persuade me that the universal Church has not testified that the Scriptures are the Word of God. And if they are, then let’s have a Bible study. So just as John the Baptist pointed to Jesus without outranking Him, so also the Church pointed to the Scriptures in the Canon without outranking the Canon.
My third and last point concerns the role of the Holy Spirit in all of this. My decision-making about “who has the authority” to speak to me about the condition of my soul revolves around the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the way to the Father (John 14:6), and He also describes Himself there as the truth and the life. Since He has ascended into Heaven, the way, the truth, and the life are found through the Holy Spirit. The “tells” of His presence are described fully in the Scriptures, so that we would make no mistake concerning it. He manifests His presence through love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. None of this is possible without full and free forgiveness, and this is not possible without a blood-true gospel.
So as I seek out a people to worship with, I am interested in the maximum amount of truth and the fullest expression of life. These two together in high harmony are the work of the Spirit, and it is a work that only He can do. Without Him, we separate them, and either veer off into a view of truth that treats doctrines like so many beetles pinned to corkboards, or life as an anarchistic laugh riot. In the end we lose the very thing we detached from the other in order to pursue it in a self-serving way.
With Cyprian, I believe that where the Spirit is, there is the Church. When we are told that Jesus taught with authority, and not like the scribes (Matt. 7:29), we were learning about the work of the Spirit. We are not being told that Jesus had His diploma with Him and the rabbis didn’t. Where the Spirit is, there is true authority. And it is always more than sufficient.