Review of Bishop Hilarion on The Reception of the Ecumenical Councils in the Early Church

I’d like to review Eastern Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s article “The Reception of the Ecumenical councils in the Early Church” which was published by St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly in 2003.

Purpose of the Paper

The purpose of Bishop Hilarion’s paper is to explain how Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox could possibly reunite without either communion abandoning their traditions. This is a necessary problem to engage since the Eastern Orthodox accept the first Seven Ecumenical Councils and the Oriental Orthodox only accept the first three. In order to do this, he has to discuss what constitutes an Ecumenical Council and then how Ecumenical Councils may be reinterpreted without abandoning them altogether.

What is an Ecumenical Council?

Bishop Hilarion first asks what is an Ecumenical Council? He is quick to say what it is not the highest authority in the church. Rather, the highest authority for each local church in Orthodoxy is the local head and its synod acting in symphony. Consequently, Ecumenical Councils were not to be over local churches as an authoritative institution but were simply “inter-Orthodox forum[s] to coordinate activities of the autocephalous Churches.”

He then argues that Ecumenical Councils did not have an inherent authority but were only binding on a local church when the synod of that same church approved the decisions of the council. The lack of reception of Chalcedon is addressed later in the paper but there is no explanation on how his claim about reception and the lack of Chalcedon’s reception agrees with Fr. Florovsky, and many other Orthodox, who believed all local churches must receive an ecumenical council before it can be considered ecumenical.

He also notes how Ecumenical Councils are a “cooperation between the Holy Spirit and humans” and interestingly notes there is no way to know what was the work of the Holy Spirit and what was merely the work of man. He is careful to note the dogmatic formulas of the Seven Ecumenical Councils are wrapped in human language, so there is a certain inadequacy to them. He doesn’t elaborate much further on this difficulty or provide clear ways to distinguish between the essence of a dogma and the human language in which it is expressed, which means the bishop left open a major gap many liberal theologians could drive an entire truck through!

Bishop Hilarion then explains how there were seemingly contradictory differences in expressing the dogmas of Christ’s two natures and one hypostasis between Ephesus and Chalcedon. He provides this information because it will be essential to his later assertion that the Oriental Orthodox could maintain a seemingly contradictory expression of the two natures of Christ, while still not rejecting Chalcedon. More on that later.

Reception of Ecumenical Councils in the Early Church

His eminence turns his attention towards reception of Ecumenical Councils in the early church. He explains that the “whole community” must accept a council for it to be properly received. He defines this community as “church authorities” and “theologians, monks and lay persons” but does not explain if this is merely in reference to the reception of a local church or the universal church. In light of his previous comments about reception mentioned above, it would seem he is referring to the entire community of a local church.

He mentions key factors that affected the reception of Ecumenical Councils by local churches and notes theological trends in that church could have been such a factor. This is important because it is implied that the Oriental Orthodox did not receive Chalcedon due to theological trends in their local churches. Bishop Hilarion proceeds to explain how there were also linguistic factors that were involved in Chalcedon’s lack of reception by the Oriental Orthodox. He also notes personal factors that impeded unity, such as those between Cyril of Alexandria and John of Antioch. As a consequence to these impediments, the reception of Ecumenical Councils is said to be something that requires time. How much time is not specifically defined, however.

Historical Examples

His eminence addresses the reception of various councils with historical examples The first is the Council of Nicaea. He is careful to explain Nicaea was still being debated by the Church of the East at the Council of Seleucia in 410. It is implied that reception could be a long and drawn out process that could require many years.

He turns his attention to Ephesus 449 and its lack of reception to show that even some councils that were called “ecumenical” were not actually ecumenical. What is curious is his reason for why it was not receipted, which he says is due to the fact that Rome declared it invalid in 449 and the rest of the churches followed suit. This is a curious admission as it seems to undercut Orthodox arguments for the reception of future ecumenical councils without the Bishop of Rome.

Bishop Hilarion then addresses Chalcedon and says it has “never been accepted by the entire Christian oikumene.” Again, no explanation on how this matches with Fr. Florovky’s popular theory that all local churches must receive an Ecumenical Council for it to be considered Ecumenical. All that is really provided is a brief history of the controversy and a note that Chalcedon’s reception is still incomplete.

He then goes over the Council of Florence-Ferrara, where he says delegates form all churches were present. He explicitly says this council had “all the characteristic traits of an Ecumenical Council.” However, it was not an Ecumenical Council because each of the local Orthodox churches repudiated the union within ten years of accepting it. For example, he explains how Metropolitan Isidore of Moscow two years after the union commemorated the pope and read the Act of Union during the liturgy, with no voices of opposition to be heard by the other bishops present, but later repudiated the union under threat by the Prince of Moscow. Only after the prince arrested him and called him a heretic did the other Russian bishops follow suit. After this, the other local Orthodox churches began to repudiate the union. Sadly, he doesn’t explain how a repudiation that began by political pressure could be considered legitimate.

Theses on the Nature of Ecumenical Councils and their Significance Today

Bishop Hilarion gives nine theses on the nature of Ecumenical Councils and their significance today. I’ll summarize them as follows:

  1. Verbal alterations can be made to the dogmas of Ecumenical Councils.
  2. If a local church did not participate in an Ecumenical Council then it does not have to accept it as its own.
  3. Historical events can be reinterpreted provided there is new information that would warrant the change. For example, the acts of an Ecumenical Council can be reconsidered based on new material.
  4. The overturning of something, in a qualified sense, that was established by an Ecumenical Council is not contrary to the Holy Spirit’s work at an Ecumenical Council as even the 5th council overturned the reception of the Three Chapters.
  5. Condemned theologians at an Ecumenical Council can be rehabilitated.
  6. Ecumenical Councils can be reconsidered as Cyril and John’s reunion council was an overturning of the 3rd council, the Horos of the 5th council reinterpreted the 4th council and the 5th council reinterpreted the orthodoxy of Ibas and Theodoret.
  7. Ecumenical Councils can be read critically as the church develops.
  8. The heritage given by Ecumenical Councils can be appropriated to new historical periods.
  9. Communion and unity should be placed over dogmatic formulations as St. Basil shared communion with anyone who did not claim the Holy Spirit was a creature, even if they did not affirm a dogmatic formulation expressing his consubstantiality with the Father. This is because different churches may have different levels of theology, so as long as they affirm the substance of the faith, unity should be placed over theology.

Possible Objections

Bishop Hilarion then deals with possible objections and then argues “the same dogmatic truth could be formulated differently.” This will have important implications for Oriental Orthodoxy, as we will see shortly. He then deals with how Roman Catholicism defines the universal church and identifies Ecumenical Councils versus how Orthodoxy defines the universality and recognizes councils. For Catholics, unity is guaranteed by the papacy and Ecumenical Councils are identified by papal ratification. For Orthodox, universality revolves around local churches recognizing each other as one body and Ecumenical Councils are identified by reception theory. Again, there is no explanation on how his understanding of reception matches that of Fr. Florovsky or how an ecclesiology that maintains partial schisms in Orthodoxy does not do violence to the universality of Orthodoxy or how it matches the ecclesiology expressed in the first millennium. Lastly, he notes Orthodoxy does not have an administrative guarantee of orthodox doctrine as Catholicism, but instead has a non administrative structure that hinges on unanimity. However, as to be expected, he does not explain how this concept of unanimity accounts for the lack of reception and unanimity at Chalcedon.

Is It Necessary for the Oriental Orthodox to Accept the Seven Ecumenical Councils?

Towards the end of the paper, Bishop Hilarion ties together many of the points he made throughout the paper by applying them to union with Oriental Orthodoxy. He explains the Oriental Orthodoxy must as the theology of the seven councils but not their formula. He argues Oriental Orthodoxy must not say the dogmas of Eastern Orthodoxy contradict their own dogmas. His eminence states Eastern Orthodoxy must not require unconditional and absolute recognition of the seven councils and the Oriental Orthodox can continue to use their terminology, as it was accepted by the 3rd Ecumenical Council.


During the concluding paragraphs, Bishop Hilarion notes St. Isaac of Nineveh and St. Peter of Iberia are both saints in Eastern Orthodoxy, and yet both of these men rejected Ephesus, Chalcedon, or both. In other words, it is possible to be a saint and also reject an Ecumenical Council. Thus, Eastern Orthodox should be willing to allow Oriental Orthodox space to affirm Chalcedon without accepting the dogmatic formulations or condemnations of their fathers at Chalcedon.

Overall, I think Bishop Hilarion writes in an engaging style, provides interesting historical insights and offers thought provoking challenges. However, I do not believe he adequately defines what constitutes an Ecumenical Council or how it can be identified as having been properly received with any objective or consistent standards. This is probably why Fr. Florovsky, and many others, have admitted the Eastern Orthodoxy uses circular reasoning to identify Ecumenical Councils and that there are no objective guarantees of doctrine.

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