Written by Vladimir Moss



     The Lord said: “I am the Truth” (John 14.6), and all Christians agree that the criterion of truth is agreement with the words of Christ. However, as we all know, agreement about what is in fact in agreement with Christ’s words  is something that is more easily talked about than attained in practice; almost from the very beginning, Christians have been bedeviled by disagreements over the truth of Christ. It helps only a little to assert, following St. Paul, that “the pillar and ground of the Truth” is the Church (I Timothy 3.15), which is founded on the rock of the true confession of the faith in Christ (Matthew 16.18); for there is almost as much disagreement about where the Church is and what it preaches.

     Perhaps the most important difference between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics is the Orthodox belief that the Church is conciliar and that Church truth is only to be found in conciliarity, in the convening of councils of bishops (especially – but lower ranks in the church are also admitted to many church councils), whereas the Roman Catholics believe that truth is to be found in the Pope alone – councils of bishops can help him in his deliberations but the final decision is his and his alone. Some would argue that this is an over-simplification of the Catholic position, and that in the last fifty years, since the Second Vatican Council, Roman Catholic theology has made definite moves towards a more conciliar understanding of the Church. Nevertheless, at the risk of over-simplification, we may say that if we want to know the truth according to the Catholics we should go to one man, the Pope, whereas if we want to know the truth according to the Orthodox we must go to the decisions of various Church councils down the centuries.

     Let us look briefly at some of these councils and what they tell us about the nature of Church conciliarity. 

     After the Holy Spirit descended on the Church at Pentecost, the believers were “of one heart and one mind” and we do not read of any serious disagreements among them. The first major disagreement occurred over whether Gentile converts were obliged to follow the Mosaic law or not; and in order to resolve this question the first Church Council was convened in Jerusalem under the presidency of St. James, the Brother of the Lord and first Bishop of Jerusalem. Full consensus was achieved; and in its belief that this consensus reflected the truth of God, the Council declared that they had come to its decision because “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15.28).

     In other words, the Holy Spirit inspired us to make this decision, which is why it can be trusted without question. If there had been any disagreement between us, there might have been grounds for doubt about which side of the argument the Holy Spirit – Who is the Spirit of truth – was on. But the consensus was complete; the Council has revealed it.

     However, fallen human nature being what it is, future Councils of the Church did not always reveal a complete consensus. Even the First Ecumenical Council of 325, which has been taken as a model for all Church Councils because of the holiness of its participants and the importance of its decision on Arianism, did not achieve full consensus; two bishops refused to sign. Moreover, in the 56 years that followed until the Second Ecumenical Council of 381, the numbers of “dissidents”, of those bishops who disagreed with the First Council’s decision on Arianism, multiplied. These bishops gathered in other councils that achieved their own consensus or near-consensus; and this chaos of competing and contradictory synods continued well into the next century. Thus the “robber council” of Ephesus in 449 achieved its own, heterodox consensus, only to be overthrow two years later by the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, which achieved a still larger – but still not complete - consensus.

     The question then arises: if complete consensus throughout the Church on the model of the first Council in Jerusalem is unattainable because of the sinfulness of men, how do we know what and where the truth is? Can we ever again say: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” as opposed to simply: “It seemed good to us (and we hope also to the Holy Spirit)”? Is conciliarism enough to guarantee truth?

     There are essentially two possible modes of response. One is to introduce a non-conciliar principle that will “correct” the supposed inadequacies of conciliarism, giving a guarantee of certainty that conciliarism on its own cannot give. This is essentially what we mean by papism. The second is to go deeper into the nature of conciliarism, and into how real conciliarism relates to other properties of the Church such as oneness and holiness. This is the path of Orthodoxy.

     Papism restores a kind of quasi-certainty to hearts disturbed by the divisions between Christians by declaring: “Don’t worry. Just follow the Pope. He is always right. He is Peter, the Vicar of Christ, and cannot make mistakes insofar as he is acting as Peter. If a council is approved by the Pope, it is true. If it not, it is false.”

     This papist dogma was never discussed at any Ecumenical Council because in that period it was not forward by anybody – including the Popes themselves. The proof of that is the acceptance by the papacy itself that certain of the Popes had made dogmatic errors, as when Pope Zosimas acquitted the herestic Pelagius, or had been heretics themselves – notably the Monothelite Honorius, who was condemned by the Sixth Ecumenical Council. The first truly “papist Pope” was Nicholas I, who was condemned – together with his innovation, the Filioque – by St. Photius the Great, Patriarch of Constantinople. This sentence was confirmed unanimously at a large Council of over 400 bishops, including the delegates of Pope John VIII, in 879-80.

     Because of its importance, and its acceptance by both the Old and the New Romes, this Council is sometimes called the Eighth Ecumenical by Orthodox theologians. But it was rejected by later Popes after the fall of the Western Church in the eleventh century. And in the later Middle Ages, while the Orthodox East remained faithful to the conciliarist principle, the West departed further and further away from it.

     A critical point – for both East and West – occurred in the decade 1430-1439. On the one hand, this was the period of the Western Council of Basle, at which Western churchmen insisted on the principle of conciliarism, and that general councils were higher authorities than popes. Predictably, Pope Eugenius IV refused to participate in this council, and condemned it in strong language. On the other hand, the Orthodox hierarchs bent the knee before Pope Eugenius at the Council of Florence in 1439, surrendering Orthodoxy to heretical papism and disdaining to go to the Council of Basle. In this way, the Orthodox repudiated conciliarism and accepted the authority of the anti-conciliar Pope above that of the Western conciliarists.

     Fortunately, this was a temporary fall, the Greek Church rejected the Council of Florence in 1484, and the Orthodox Church remained faithful to her conciliarist nature in the centuries to come. There were no more Ecumenical Councils, but there were Pan-Orthodox Councils, like those of 1583, 1587 and 1593 which condemned papism and the new calendar, as well as several local Councils, such as the various seventeenth-century Councils that condemned Calvinism. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, conciliarism suffered heavy blows both in the Greek and Russian Churches, as secular rulers interfered more and more in Church life. Paradoxically, it was only after the coming to power of the most anti-Orthodox regime in history, Soviet power, in 1917 that the Russian Church was able to convene its first full-scale Local Council since 1666-67. But after that the God-hating authorities made it impossible for the Orthodox to convene any regular Council.

     However, even in conditions of extreme persecution, the conciliar spirit of the Orthodox Church could not be suppressed. Thus in the late 1920s a “Nomadic Council” elicited the opinions of different bishops in different places, so that the Council was like a “nomad” travelling from one place to another. Again, since no conventional Council could be convened to elect a new Patriarch, signatures had to be obtained for this or that candidate by couriers travelling in secret from one bishop to another. Again, in 1937 a group of True Orthodox bishops who were being exiled to Eastern Siberia found themselves together “by chance” in a room at the remote railway junction of Ust-Kut, and decided to conduct a Council there and then; they issued a series of canons which was seen to be good “to the Holy Spirit and to us”. The historicity of some of these Catacomb Councils has been disputed by some, but the fact is that in those conditions of persecution the conciliar nature of the Church could be expressed only in such unconventional forms.

     In 1984 a subtle, but highly damaging “heresy about Councils” appeared. It was called “Cyprianism” after its founder, Metropolitan Cyprian of Orope, and in essence attempted to limit – essentially, to invalidate – the decision of a Local Council of the Russian Church Abroad in the previous year that anathematized all the Orthodox Churches that confessed the “pan-heresy” of ecumenism and took part in the World Council of Churches. Local Councils, according to Cyprian, did not have the authority to expel heretics from the Church, who remained “uncondemned” before they could be tried at such Ecumenical or Pan-Orthodox “unifying” Councils.

     Cyprian himself was defrocked, and his teaching condemned, by the True Orthodox Church of Greece under Archbishop Chrysostomos of Athens in 1986. But he was rehabilitated (for no good reason) by Chrysostomos’ successor, Archbishop Kallinikos of Athens, in 2014. It was therefore left to a series of Councils of True Orthodox Russian bishops – in 1999 in Suzdal, in 2001 in Canada, and in 2016 in Omsk – to spell out why Cyprianism was indeed a heresy, a heresy against the conciliar nature of the Church. 

     Thus in 2016 the Holy Synod of the Russian True Orthodox Church declared: “Cyprianism is a new theory of the relationship between the Church and heresy. The essence of this theory can be expressed in three points:

1.     Local Councils are not competent to drive heretics out of the Church. This is an extreme innovation. It is false because many Local Councils drove heretics out of the Church. For example: (1) The Local Councils of the Early Church that drove out Sabellius and Marcian; (2) The Local Councils of the Greek Church that expelled the Roman Catholics in 1054 and in the fourteenth century; (3) The Local Councils of the Russian Church that anathematized the communists and their co-workers in 1918 and the renovationists in 1923.

2.     Only so-called «Unifying Councils» - that is, Ecumenical or Pan-Orthodox Councils at which the heretics themselves are present – can expel heretics from the Church. However, even certain Ecumenical and Pan-Orthodox Councils – for example, the Councils that anathematized the new calendar in 1583, 1587 and 1593 – were not unifying, and the heretics that they condemned were not present at them.

3.     He who confesses heresy openly remains a member of the Church – albeit a «sick» member, until he has been expelled by an Ecumenical or Pan-Orthodox Council. If this were true, however, then if there were no Eighth Ecumenical or Pan-Orthodox Council before the end of the world, the Church would be powerless to expel any heretics. Theoretically, then, if the Antichrist will be Orthodox and declares himself to be god, he will remain a member of the Church in spite of the fact that a countless number of Local Councils of the Orthodox Church are anathematizing him! And if he will be a priest or patriarch, he can still dispense true sacraments!”

     At the time of writing, another “heresy about Councils” is being proclaimed by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. In Crete he has convened a “Holy and Great Pan-Orthodox Council” of all the Churches of World Orthodoxy (i.e. those anathematized by the Russian Church Abroad in 1983). By careful preparation, Bartholomew has tried to guarantee that there would be unanimity at this Council with all “dissidents” excluded beforehand. But in spite of his best efforts unanimity has been precluded by the refusal of certain Local Churches to attend at the last moment. Again, by calling the Council “Holy and Great” even before it is convened, he has tempted God, attempting to guarantee that its decisions will be true and holy, although no Council can be declared to be true and holy before it has actually convened.

     The “conciliar heresies” of Cyprian and Bartholomew have this in common: that they try to lay down false rules that will enable us to determine whether a given Council is true and holy. Cyprian declares (negatively) that we cannot accept a Council’s decisions as God-inspired and therefore binding on all Christians unless it is Ecumenical or Pan-Orthodox, and Bartholomew adds (positively) that if the Ecumenical Patriarch convenes the Council in accordance with his criteria of timing, agenda and membership, then we can sure that it is “holy and great”, God-inspired and binding on all. For he is the “first among unequals”, the Pope of Eastern Orthodoxy. 

     In contradiction to both heresies, however, it must be remembered that the Holy Spirit of truth “blows where He wills” and “you cannot tell where He comes from or where He is going” (John 3.8). He may choose to stay away from a very large and representative gathering of bishops, but descend on a tiny group of exiled bishops sitting in a railway siding and surrounded by atheist guards and savage dogs in the depths of Siberia! There are no rules about how, where, by whom or in what numbers the bishops must be assembled in order to qualify as “valid” organs of the Holy Spirit of truth and faithful interpreters of Apostolic Tradition, the criterion of Orthodoxy, that Christ has given to His Church 

      The only indication of “rules” that we have – although they are not “rules” so much as spiritual conditions or exhortations – are contained in two passages in the Gospel. The first, from the Gospel of John, relates how Christ entered in among His disciples on the evening of the Resurrection, breathed on them and said: “Receive ye the Holy Spirit: Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them, and whosoever sins ye retain, they are retained” (20.22-23). According to the interpretation of St. Gregory the Great, this first descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples, differed from the later, fuller Descent in that it created the unity in love of the Apostles, without which they could not receive the further gifts of the Holy Spirit, including the full revelation of the Holy Trinity that they received at Pentecost. But although not the fullness of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, this gift still enabled them to discern who was worthy of forgiveness of his sins and who was not. And this gift of knowledge, made possible through the unity in love of the college of all true bishops, is essential to the government of the Church on earth.

     The second passage, from the Gospel of Matthew (18.10-20), is appointed to be read on the Second Day of Pentecost, the Day of the Descent of the Holy Spirit. In it the Lord lays down the procedure to be followed in the event of disputes in the Church, which involves making every attempt at reconciliation before bringing the matter before the highest authorities in the Church. And then the Lord repeats the promise first given to Peter, but now to all the apostles: “Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” So those apostles and their successors who have acted in love, and not out of ambition, revenge or any such evil passion, will be given the gift to know who is worthy to remain in the Church and who is to be cast out.

     Finally, the Lord indicates that this unity in love, which alone guarantees truth, does not have to encompass vast numbers of people: “Again verily I say unto, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of My Father Who is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them”. These words are of great comfort to us who live in such terrible times, when “the love of many has grown cold”, and consequently it is impossible to find any large, Ecumenical or Pan-Orthodox Synod of bishops that agree with each other and with the Holy Spirit. All that is required is “two or three” true bishops who come together to express the conciliar principle of the Church, its true Catholicity, in the spirit of love. For then if they ask the Holy Spirit of truth to reveal the truth to them, it is here promised that their request will unfailingly be answered.


June 4/17, 2016.

Apodosis of the Ascension.



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