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No. 15: What About the “Seventh Ecumenical Council”?

Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 15
June 1991
Copyright (c) 1991 by Biblical Horizons

In Rite Reasons Nos. 9-12, I discussed the errors of Roman Catholicism, Anglo-Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. I have had several requests to comment further on the so-called Seventh Ecumenical Council, held at Nicaea in A.D. 787. That Council ordered the excommunication of anyone who rejects the veneration of icons. (See the "Decree of the Holy, Great, Ecumenical Synod, the Second of Nice," in Henry Percival, ed., The Seven Ecumenical Councils [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans], p. 550. This is volume 14 of the Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers). Let me set down my comments as numbered points.

1. The Protestant faith has never accepted this Seventh Ecumenical Council as true. Protestantism has accepted the first four Councils, and the fifth and sixth insofar as they refine the formulations of the first four. The Protestant faith corrects the errors of Rome and Orthodoxy on this point, and after nearly 500 years the tradition of the Protestant faith has as much weight as any of these other traditions.

2. The occasion of the 787 Council was to refute the decision of the "Iconoclastic Conciliabulum," held in Constantinople in 754. That earlier Council decreed that because Christ is God and man in one Person, it is not possible to make a true picture of Him, and thus that all pictures of Christ are idolatrous, whether venerated or not. On this point, the 754 Council erred, since clearly if we had had a camera in A.D. 26, we could have photographed Jesus. The second commandment does not forbid drawing pictures but worshipping them. In the Old Testament, the people were forbidden to make any picture of God because they had not seen Him. After the incarnation, however, it can be argued that things have changed. Pictures are now possible. Thus, to the extent that the 787 Council corrected the 754 Council, it was right to do so.

3. I have dealt already with the unbiblical character of venerating icons, and why it is at best unwise to do so, in Rite Reasons 9-12. I see no need to repeat myself here.

4. The 787 Council was indeed ecumenical, since representatives of both the Western and Eastern churches were present, but now we have to ask: What authority does that fact convey? What is the nature of Church Councils? How much authority do they have?

4.1. Christianity is indeed conciliar. The New Testament makes it plain that all believers are joined in the Council of the Holy Trinity as junior partners, and that God guides the deliberations of the Church.

4.2. This does not mean that "ecumenical" councils have necessarily any greater weight than the council of a local church. Just as a local church council can err, so can an ecumenical one. The World Council of Churches is ecumenical, in that every branch of the church has some kind of say in it. Shall we take their decisions as wise for this reason?

4.3. The Bible teaches a kind of infallibility of the Church, which is that the Church can never finally fail in her mission. In this sense, the infallibility of the Church is the same as the perseverance of the Church. The progression of councils in Church history is part of the perseverance, part of that infallibility.

4.4. The Bible does not teach a doctrine of the inerrancy of the Church. The Church, as she grows, approaches inerrancy as she learns to think God’s thoughts after Him better and better. Thus, we can expect that creeds and councils will sometimes err, and we must always be open to correcting them in the light of the inerrant Word. The question concerning councils is not whether or not they are ecumenical, but whether or not they are correct.

4.6. Since the basis of conciliar theology is that man is woven into partnership with the Divine Triune Council, an earthly council is only true and valid to the extent that it agrees with the Divine Council. The counsel of that Divine Council is found in the Bible. God certainly does lead the Church into new applications of the Bible, but no earthly council that contradicts the decrees of the Divine Council (the Bible) can be correct.

4.7. Since the 787 Council contradicted the Holy Bible, the original decrees of the Divine Council, by authorizing (yea, mandating) the veneration of icons, we can be certain that the 787 Council erred on this point.

5. It is clear that the 787 Council did not represent the whole Church. There were plenty of churchmen who disagreed, starting with those who had participated in the 754 Council. Let us assume, though, that by the year 900 the entire Church was agreed that the 787 Council was correct. In fact, let us assume that icon veneration was ecumenically practised in every single Church in Christendom in the year 900. What shall we say?

5.1. First, we would have to say that every single Church in Christendom was wrong in this practice. That is no surprise, since the Church is not inerrant. Just as individuals lapse into sin, as David did, so that whole Church can lapse into sin and error, and sometimes into serious wickedness as Israel did before she went into Babylonian exile.

5.2. Second, we say that the Church continued to be God’s Church and that she did not fail. David did not lose his salvation when he fell into sin and error, nor did the Church cease to be God’s instrument of the means of grace just because she fell into sin and error.

5.3. Third, we say that the Church repented of her sin and error at the Reformation. It is those who stand in the tradition of the Reformation who represent the "Truth-Tradition" of the Church.