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The Church of England and the Seventh Council By Claude Beaufort Moss

January 31, 2017

mossThe early councils of the Church were convened by various Byzantine Roman Emperors in order that disputed questions of doctrine be settled to the advancement of true religion, intending that the decrees of the councils be binding throughout the entire Empire.  Thus the First Council (Nicea, 325) addressed Arianism and decreed that Father and the Son were of ‘one substance’ as the Creed associated with the council states; the Second Council (Constantinople, 381) addressed Arianism and Macedonianism, decreed the eternal Sonship of Christ, the full, equal divinity of the Holy Ghost with the Father and the Son, and revised the Creed of 325 to reflect this; the Third Council (Ephesus, 431) addressed Nestorianism and Pelagianism, reaffirmed the creedal statements of the first two councils, and decreed the Virgin Mary to be the Mother of God/Theotokos; the Fourth Council (Chalcedon, 451) addressed Eutychianism (monophysitism) and decreed that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man; the Fifth Council (Constantinople II, 553) addressed lingering Nestorianism on the basis of the decrees of the Third and Fourth Councils in an attempt to reconcile those churches who had not agreed to the decrees of the Fourth Council; the Sixth Council (Constantinople III, 680-681) addressed Monothelitism and Monoenergism on the basis of the decrees of the Fourth Council, and again was an attempt to reconcile the ‘Non-Chalcedonian’ churches; the Seventh Council (Nicea II, 787) reiterated the decrees of the earlier Councils and addressed the Iconoclastic Controversy, decreeing that that the veneration of holy images (amongst other practices) was not only theologically justifiable, but necessary.

Notwithstanding the fact that the Seventh Council for political reasons, lack of understanding of the Greek language and the absence of a culture of iconography was discountenanced in the Latin West,  all later generations have come to respect its teaching on the nature of icons as sound: Though Christ in his Godhead is uncircumscribed or incomprehensible (to use the term of the Quicumque Vult) yet as incarnate and as a man, he was seen and handled by men[7], and his manhood, entirely circumscribed or comprehensible, therefore could be piously represented in images.  And that these images are to be venerated with an honor (proskunesis) entirely distinct from that worship due only to God (latreia) is recognized by all as a sound teaching against idolatry. The teaching is that the wanton destruction of images meant to give glory to God through His Church is prohibited, the use of such for teaching and devotional purposes is permitted, and the temptation to idolatry is to be guarded against. The actual theology of the Seventh Council has never been questioned. Controversy arises however from the wording of the Council’s decree: the veneration of images, as well as the Cross and the Gospel book is not simply permitted but necessary.

In a now oft-quoted passage and one of the first references by an Anglican divine on the Seventh Council, Richard Field (1561-1616), Dean of Gloucester and close associate of Richard Hooker wrote: For the Seventh, which is Nicea II, was not called about any question of faith, but of manners; in which our adversaries confess that there may be something inconveniently prescribed, and so as to be the occasion of great and grievous evils; and surely that is our conceit of the Seventh General Council, Nicea II; for howsoever it condemn the religious adoration and worshipping of pictures and seem to allow no other use of them but that which is historical, yet in permitting men by outward signs of reverence and respect towards the pictures of saints to express their love towards them, and the desire they have of enjoying their happy society, and in condemning so bitterly such as upon dislike of abuses wished there might be no pictures in the Church at all, it may seem to have given some occasion and have opened up the way unto that grow idolatry which afterwards entered into the Church.

Moss asks: But why should we accept the definitions of Councils at all? Some people argue that Holy Scripture is sufficient. But most of the controversies in the Church have turned on the interpretation of Scripture. The purpose of the Councils was to warn members of the Church that a particular interpretation of Scripture was mistaken because it was one-sided. They were signposts, telling us that this or that road led nowhere.


There are seven General Councils accepted both by the Greeks and by the Latins.

The first six of these are accepted by the Church of England. The seventh is the subject of this book.

That the Church of England accepts the first four General Councils has never been disputed.

But who is to decide whether the definition of a particular Council is a necessary conclusion from Scripture rightly interpreted?  The English Church has no doubt at all about this. ‘The Church hat authority in controversies of faith’ (Article 20). The Church has no right to enforce what cannot be proved by Scripture, but it has the right ot give judgment on the interpretation of Scripture, and to require its members to accept its judgment. ‘No prophecy of Scripture is of private interpretation’ (2 Peter 1.20). For the Church is not an academic society for theological research; it is an army marching to win the human race for Christ.  There are some questions which, once they have been asked, must be answered, and answered finally. Is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, a created being as Arius taught?  If He is, we out not to worship Him as God. Was His Manhood swalowed up in His Godhead ‘like a drop of vinegar in the ocean,’ as Eutyches taught? Then it is not true that a man like us is on the throne of God, and knows what our sufferings are because he has felt them.  Such questions must be settled, and only the Church can settle them.  If local councils cannot, a General Council must be held.  But its decisions require to be accepted by the Universal Church, which is the final judge.  Councils can be misled: no assembly of men is immune from the possibility of error, as history abundantly shows.  When the decrees of a Council have been accepted by the whole Church, or practically the whole Church, the question is settled.  It ought not to be opened again unless new knowledge turns up, which in the nature of the case, if the subject is the revealed truth of the Incarnation, is unlikely.

But in what sense does the Church of England accept these Councils? It accepts their decisions on matters of faith, matters necessary to salvation, that is to spiritual health and right understanding of the Gospel: not necessarily their anathemas (though it accepts the principle of anathema, Articles 18 and 33), no r their Canons, which may not be suitable for the very different conditions in which we live now. The Church of England and presumably all the other Anglican Churches accept these dogmas, freely and not under compulsion, because they believe that they  are  proved by Holy Scripture, and are necessary to the right understanding of it.

By the eighth century the tradition of pictures in churches, the books of the unlearned as they were called, was nearly 400 years old: as long a period as separates us from the Reformation. Few people, if any, knew that they had not always been there. When S. Augustine of Canterbury landed in England in 597 he had a sacred picture carried before him in procession. The ancient Irish crosses are covered with carved figures of our Lord and the saints. In the West there seems to have been no dispute about the use of pictures and sculpture in the Church: but there was no such excessive devotion to sacred pictures as that which Leo III found at Constantinople

The word προσκυνησις has no exact equivalent in English or Latin because the thing denoted does not exist in the West. It is the custom, common throughout the East from Constantinople to Japan, of prostration on the ground before a superior. This is what Abraham did before Ephron the Hittite (Gen. 2312), and the young Amalekite before David (2 Sam. 12).

Προσκυνησις is the word used in both cases in the Greek translation used by the Church.On the other hand, S. Peter refuses it from Cornelius, Acts 1025, because he feared that Cornelius was treating him as a god: besides, Cornelius was a Roman centurion, not an Oriental, and this gesture was not offered to men by the Romans of that period. Likewise it was refused by the angel to S. John, Rev. 1910; 229. At Constantinople, however, it was the usual gesture of respect to the Emperor and his officers; and S. John of Damascus says that it may be offered either to man or to God, and gives seven different degrees of what may be called ‘respect,’ or in some cases ‘veneration.’

The Iconoclasts were really Monophysite though they could not say so. They did not think of our Lord as Man at all, but only as God. If they had succeeded in abolishing the icons men would soon have come to believe in our Lord as a phantasy, a theological concept, not as a living human Person.

THE Iconoclastic controversy did not interest the Latin churches. Apart from the Pope’s legates, the bishops and deputies of bishops who went to Nicæa from Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia were all subjects of the Byzantine Empire. The Latin churches had never had either a cult of sacred pictures, or a reaction against them: nor had they ever known Monophysitism, which was the foundation of Iconoclasm.

Besides, there was the misleading translation. In the Latin translation of the definition of  the Second Council of Nicæa, προσκυνησις was represented by adoratio. It is not surprising that the Latins rejected the Council; they thought it had directed that Divine worship should be offered to the pictures, and accused it of the very idolatry which it had carefully excluded. S. John of Damascus had distinguished seven kinds of veneration, but Charles the Great would not, perhaps could not, recognize any such differences.

Thomas says that the Cross also is to be adored with latria: giving as an illustration that the robes of a King are honoured with the same honour as the King himself. But the Second Council of Nicæa had laid down that neither the Cross nor the sacred

pictures are to receive Latria but only τιμητικην προσκυνησις, the veneration that is given to created beings, not the adoration that is given to God. S. Thomas disobeyed the Second Council of Nicæa, though it had been recognized as a General Council by the Pope 450 years earlier.

Clearly he did not know the decree of the Council, and as he did not understand Greek, probably would not have interpreted it rightly if he had known it, as it had not been accurately translated. But we may go farther. S. Thomas directs latria to be directed to a visible form, which the Greeks call ειδωλον. an idol: to do this is idolatry, so often forbidden in Scripture.

‘The faith of the whole Church before the division of East and West’ implies the Second Council of Nicæa; and probably Bishop Ken realized this. The rejection of Puritan innovations implies the rejection of Iconoclasm.

But it is quite certain, beyond the possibility of doubt, that there can be no union with the Orthodox Eastern Churches, except on the basis of the Seven General Councils. In 1895 Pope Leo XIII issued an Encyclical inviting all non-Romanists to submit to the Papacy. In reply, the Patriarch of Constantinople invited the Pope, and all non-Orthodox Christians, to return to the faith of the Seven General Councils.

We are not Iconoclasts. No important school of thought in the Anglican Communion objects to the presence of pictures and statues in churches. It is said that a group of Russian bishops, visiting Oxford, wished to see an Evangelical Anglican Church. They were taken to see one; and they came back full of enthusiasm about the ‘beautiful icons’ which they had seen there. These turned out to be stained glass windows.It’s online here

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