FIFNA, Anglicanism, and the Seventh Ecumenical Council
By Robert S. Munday
August 2, 2013
David Virtue's website, VirtueOnline, www.virtueonline.org recently reprinted a blog post by Joel Wilhelm, entitled "FiFNA vs. Anglicanism." http://tinyurl.com/n5soffq Readers of Anglican blogs may remember that, in June, the Stand Firm website ran an article: "What is Going on With the ACNA and the Filioque?" which cited another post by Wilhelm, entitled, "ACNA Vs. the 39 Articles," in which he challenges the ACNA for considering returning to the original form of the Nicene Creed, which does not contain the Filioque. I don't know about you, but I am beginning to sense a theme with these "versus" articles: Take an organization that is part of the Anglican Realignment and try to make the assertion that some adopted position of theirs is un-Anglican, or even un-biblical and un-Christian.
What should we think of Mr. Wilhelm's latest assertion? Here's the background: Forward in Faith - North America (FIFNA) recently issued A Declaration of Common Faith and Purpose at their annual Assembly in Belleville, Illinois, which includes this statement for members to affirm:
I believe all Seven Councils are ecumenical and catholic on the basis of the received Tradition of the ancient Undivided Church of East and West.
Wilhelm then calls our attention to the Seventh Ecumenical Council, one of whose canons states:
Let relics of the Holy Martyrs be placed in such churches as have been consecrated without them, and this with the accustomed prayers. But whoever shall consecrate a church without these shall be deposed as a transgressor of the traditions of the Church.
Of course, the Seventh Ecumenical Council, also known as the Second Council of Nicaea (because it was held in that city), affirmed a great many things, including the character of Christ's human nature, the Christian view of matter, and a fuller understanding of Christian salvation and the redemption of the material universe. The Council also condemned the selling of ecclesiastical offices for money (simony) and declared ecclesiastical appointments by political rulers to be void. But the Council is chiefly known for affirming the use of icons and relics--chiefly known because of the controversy that attended these matters--a controversy that continues to divide low-church and high-church Anglicans.
It is the controversy concerning relics to which Wilhelm seeks to call our attention. Having quoted one of the canons from the Seventh Council (above), he goes on to assert:
This canon assumes that *every* church must contain 'relics' and that if it is not consecrated with relics, then whoever consecrated the church is a transgressor of tradition. How is this in any way Scriptural? It is an unnecessary binding of the conscience and makes most Anglican churches in the world illegitimate. Has your parish been consecrated without relics? If so, your priest should be deposed as a transgressor of the traditions of the Church according to FIFNA's logic.
Next, Wilhelm quotes the Council's anathemas against those who condemn icons or misstate the Church's position regarding their use:
We salute the venerable images. We place under anathema those who do not do this. Anathema to them who presume to apply to the venerable images the things said in Holy Scripture about idols. Anathema to those who do not salute the holy and venerable images. Anathema to those who call the sacred images idols. Anathema to those who say that Christians resort to the sacred images as to gods. Anathema to those who say that any other delivered us from idols except Christ our God. Anathema to those who dare to say that at any time the Catholic Church received idols.
Finally, Wilhelm asks, How does this match up with our Articles of Religion? For example:
General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture. [Article XXI]
The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God. [Article XXII]
And he concludes by saying:
The Seventh Council and the Anglican Reformation cannot coexist. FIFNA chooses the Seventh Council, so be it, then have the honesty to take the Articles on head on, rather than working your way into leadership positions and subverting Reformed Anglicanism from within.
What are we to make of Joel Wilhelm's assertions? Can the Seventh Council and the Anglican Reformation (as represented by the Articles of Religion) coexist in our understanding? And is FIFNA's position an attempt to subvert Reformed Anglicanism from within?
First a little background: In the centuries prior to the Reformation, there was a use of images (mostly statues in the West, not icons) along with saints' relics that, especially among poor and illiterate people, was the cause of superstition to the extent that it could be said to be idolatrous. Statues and relics that were intended to remind the faithful of their connection to great Christians of ages past were instead treated as though they were magic. The response of some in the Reformation was to destroy these images.
As in this photo, numerous statues in churches were smashed or beheaded. Imagine a hundred little alcoves like this one, with the statues within all beheaded, and you will have what the walls of the side chapel in Ely Cathedral look like following vandalism by those who considered themselves to be acting on the principles of the Reformation. This happened all over England.
The superstition that had arisen regarding images and relics is what Article XXII is referring to when it speaks of "the Romish Docrine...." To be fair, the term "Doctrine" could be applied more accurately to Purgatory, Pardons, and the Invocation of Saints, but the Article lumps all these items into one category.
But, "the Romish Doctrine" or idolatrous misuse of images and relics is not what the Seventh Council is endorsing in its canon. In fact, the Seventh Council is saying that images or icons should not be viewed or treated as idols. This canon applies as much to those who would be tempted to regard images and relics as idols as it does to those who would regard their proper use as idolatrous.
Consider the words of St. John of Damascus:
Concerning the charge of idolatry: Icons are not idols but symbols, therefore when an Orthodox venerates an icon, he is not guilty of idolatry. He is not worshiping the symbol, but merely venerating it. Such veneration is not directed toward wood, or paint or stone, but towards the person depicted. Therefore relative honor is shown to material objects, but worship is due to God alone. We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross... When the two beams of the Cross are joined together I adore the figure because of Christ who was crucified on the Cross, but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them.
How should we regard the Council's injunction about relics? The answer lies in the very Articles of Religion that Wilhelm cites:
[Councils] may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.
In addition to the many other matters covered by the Seventh Council, it commends the use of icons and relics, which should not present a problem, as long as they are not being made into idols--which the Seventh Council regards as being just as wrong as the Articles of Religion do. But when the Council goes on to say: "But whoever shall consecrate a church without these shall be deposed as a transgressor of the traditions of the Church," it is going beyond Holy Scripture, and we need to regard (or disregard) it accordingly.
This is a different matter than saying we reject the Seventh Council. Rather we affirm the Seventh Council, but we read its conclusions in light of Holy Scripture and other theological developments that refine our understanding--such as the Articles of Religion. This is the constructive way to do theology. It is synthetical rather than polemical. We read Scripture in light of other Scripture--and in light of the consensus of the faithful as to its meaning. We read theology, not taking one Church Father, Council, theologian, or theological movement in isolation, but in light of Holy Scripture and the same catholic consensus down through the ages.
The Seventh Council also forbade clergy from serving more than one parish simultaneously; it forbade women from serving as housekeepers in a bishop's residence or monastery; and it forbade the establishment of "double monasteries"--monasteries of both men and women. Do we follow these injunctions today? And if we do not, does it mean that we are rejecting the Seventh Council? The fact is that a number of the Seven Councils issued canons containing details that we do not follow today, but instead, temper in light of the other sources that contribute to our theological understanding. It does not mean that we are rejecting the Councils.
As a further example, many of those who object to the Seventh Council are Calvinists. Does that mean they adhere to Calvin's Regulative Principle of Worship? Do they use only Psalms, sung with no musical instruments, in their worship? After all, Calvin closely associated his opposition to icons with his opposition to musical instruments. And one of the things the Reformers (and the Puritans a century later) did after smashing images in churches was to board up or destroy the pipe organs. My guess is that these modern-day Calvinists do not sing Psalms exclusively in their worship or forbid the use of musical instruments. Yet they still consider themselves Calvinists. How is that? It is very simple: they adhere to Calvin, but they temper his words and apply them in the light of other theological influences. That is precisely how we read the Councils in the light of the Articles of Religion and other Anglican formularies, and, above all, Holy Scripture.
So can the Seventh Council and the Articles of Religion coexist? Yes, as we read and apply them both in the light of Scripture. Is FIFNA's position an attempt to subvert Reformed Anglicanism from within? Frankly, that is a dangerous and divisive assertion, and one that should not be recklessly thrown at our brothers and sisters who are coming together in the Anglican Realignment. Are there continuing differences between Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical Anglicans? Yes, and we will only resolve them for the glory of God if we stop listening to those who, it seems, only wish to sow division instead of working for genuine theological understanding and the unity of the Church for which our Lord prayed (John 17).
UPDATE: Three additional point I would like to mention.
1. It should be noted that the FIFNA declaration does not call for subscription to every canon and anathema from all Seven Councils, it merely calls on its members to acknowledge that "all Seven Councils are ecumenical and catholic on the basis of the received Tradition of the ancient Undivided Church of East and West." This is simply an accurate historical statement. The churches of the East and West have always acknowledged all Seven Councils to be "ecumenical and catholic," that is, to have been participated in and accepted by representatives of the universal church as it existed at that time. With regard to the Seventh Council, it was convened under the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople, two Roman legates representing the Pope, and representatives of the Patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Whatever else may be said about the Seventh Council, it was definitely ecumenical and catholic.
2. Regarding the canonical status and authority of the Seven Councils, consider this statement as to how the Councils are viewed by the Eastern Orthodox: The canons of the Ecumenical Councils are regarded within the Orthodox Church as universally authoritative, though not in a strictly constructionist sense. Their canons have often been repealed or revised by the decisions of local synods or even of later Ecumenical Councils. Nevertheless, their legislation is central to the Orthodox canonical tradition, and appeals to such canons are more frequently made than to any other source of canonical legislation. This statement as to how the canons of the Councils may be repealed, or modified in light of subsequent theological understandings comes very close to how I believe the Councils are viewed by FIFNA and other traditionalist Anglicans.
3. Regarding FIFNA's new Declaration of Common Faith and Purpose, in general, I highly recommend the article, "A Hasty, but Comprehensive Response to Critics of the New FiFNA Declaration" by the Rev. Nathaniel Kidd on the Sed Contra blog.
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