Two paths of Divine revelation
Any person, having read at least a few of our theological books, knows that the Orthodox Church believes in Divine revelation, which has been handed on by two paths: through the Holy Scriptures and through Holy Tradition. The first includes the Biblical books, and the second is found in the decrees of the Ecumenical and local councils, and also the works of the holy fathers.
This faith is itself anchored in trust in the Savior’s promises that the Holy Spirit will lead you into all truth (Jn. 16:13). That this applies to not only the apostles is testified to by the words, The Church is the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). This guidance into the truth by the Holy Spirit promised to the Church is materialized through the councils at which was adopted what seemed good to the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28), and through those whom God placed as teachers in the Church (cf. 1 Cor. 12:28)—the holy fathers.
This faith, along with the certainty that Christ revealed to us all necessary truth for salvation, constitutes the principle that allows the Orthodox Church to remain true to itself throughout the course of many centuries.
As St. Vincent of Lerins wrote, “To avoid the snares of heretics as they rise, and to continue sound and complete in the Catholic faith, we must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways: first, by the authority of Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the Catholic Church… Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.”
The words of St. Vincent indicate that the truth of Divine revelation is given not to one person in the Church, even one very pious and wise, but to the whole Church, and therefore it’s not the witness of any one, but the common witness of the saints that express the truth.
From here ensues what is called the consensus of the fathers (Latin: consensus patrum)—a concept which signifies the doctrinal truth of Tradition, which we know from the common witness of all, or at least the majority of the saints who wrote about it. The patristic consensus, as on a whole the dogmatic authority of Church Tradition, places an insurmountable barrier on the path of those who would like to introduce some new teaching of their own into Orthodoxy. Even were you to convince the majority of modern men about it, it wouldn’t work out with the ancient saints who have already died and left their confession of faith without your innovation.
In this regard, probably, it’s not so surprising that we have recently begun to hear voices attacking the principle of consensus patrum and the authority of the Patristic Tradition as a whole. Those Orthodox Christians who consider it important to conform their faith and life with the teachings of the holy fathers are branded as “fundamentalists,” and their convictions are subjected to criticism and ridicule.
The article of the Greek theologian George Demacopoulos on so-called “Orthodox Fundamentalism” received some distribution, in which, in particular it says: “The key intellectual error in Orthodox fundamentalism lies in the presupposition that the Church fathers agreed on all theological and ethical matters.” Some even claim that the consensus of the fathers never existed, and that the concept itself is basically a “Catholic fetish.”
These arguments put forward against the principle of the consensus patrum can be summarized in two theses:
First—they point to mistaken, outdated views on nature and the structure of the world which you can find in the ancient saints. With a snide view they point out that here, so they say, St. Ephraim the Syrian believed that the sky is solid, that St. John Damascene wrote about dragons, holy hierarch Dimitry of Rostov mentioned centaurs, and so on; so either believe in all of this, if you really love your holy fathers so much, or, if you don’t want to believe in these things then pipe down and don’t come crawling to us with your holy fathers, when we preach theistic evolution, apokatastasis or other deep modern ideas, for which you’re simply not mature enough.
The second argument points to the thesis that the holy fathers also had imprecise or incorrect theological formulations or views. From this they make the global conclusion that, overall, no such thing as the consensus patrum can exist, and to receive the holy fathers as doctrinal authorities is impossible. For, as we already noted, in the mind of modernists, the consensus patrum is supposedly when every saint without exception says one and the same thing on every question. At times such authors deliver this argument in such a way as if they are tearing back a veil from a mystery, and the reader is overwhelmed with the scalding truth. As, for example, in the same article by Demacopoulos: “Indeed, a careful reading of Christian history and theology makes clear that some of the most influential saints of the Church disagreed with one another—at times quite bitterly.” However, the examples that Demacopoulos brings forth in defense of this are completely preposterous and inadequate, but there are authors who put forth adequate examples.
What can we say about this? Let’s examine everything in order.
Consensus patrum—is it about everything they wrote?
First of all, we must turn our attention to the fact that the idea that supposedly everything written by the holy fathers on any question is Divinely inspired and infallible, and there is nothing contradictory anywhere in them has never and nowhere been proclaimed in any authoritative exposition of the Orthodox faith. When modernists propose this strange idea as the belief of all traditionally-minded Orthodox, they demonstrate either a complete misunderstanding of their opponents, or the intention of reducing the traditionally-minded Orthodox faith to absurdity, turning it into some ridiculous caricature that is easier for them to refute.
If someone should believe that every saint who ever lived is in agreement on every question, then such a faith would mean that the councils, including those ecumenical, are simply not necessary—it would be enough to look at the writings of the fathers in order to determine where is Orthodoxy and where heresy. Moreover, this view divests the meaning and very concept of the consensus patrum—if they all speak one and the same thing, then there’s no need to compare their works and pinpoint their agreement on a given subject—it would be enough to take the first one you come across and be guided by it alone, knowing that all the others teach precisely the same thing.
There is not a single authoritative exposition of Church teaching in which we find the idea that what the saints wrote on issues not directly related to dogmatics—for example, on the structure of the world, social realities, etc.—constitutes a part of Holy Tradition. Remember that we are speaking about supernatural revelation, but Divine revelation doesn’t consider questions about how worms crawl along the earth, what is two plus two, how nuclear fusion works inside the sun, and the like. It relates to the dogmas of the faith necessary for our salvation.
Many saints have left a large literary heritage behind them, in which you can find their views on a wide range of topics, but when we speak about the consensus of the fathers, then we are speaking about their agreement in matters of the faith—dogmatic and moral teachings: as St. Vincent wrote—that which has been believed in the Church everywhere, always and by all. So, when I, for example, come across the utterance of some holy father about this or that historical person or about medicinal issues, political structures, pedagogy, geography, zoology, and so on, I give attention to his opinion, but I understand that it doesn’t have that binding authority for me which his sayings on doctrinal matters have.
Furthermore, even the holy fathers themselves clearly give to understand that this area of presentation doesn’t at all have the same significance and necessity as teachings in the dogmatic and moral spheres. I considered this question in detail in a series of articles in which I answer S. Khudiev and D. Tsorionov, who claim that all the fathers believed in the geo-centric model and therefore it should supposedly be included in the concepts of “Patristic Tradition” and the consensus patrum. Here I’ll provide just a brief outline of my answer.
The holy fathers knew the natural philosophical hypotheses of their times and did not fear to introduce their readers to them, but they did not mix them with Divinely-revealed truths. Sometimes they were able to use them to illustrate their thought or this or that natural science view of their times—including incorrect ones—but they never placed them at the foundation of their theological beliefs and never insisted upon them as absolute truth.
Let us cite as an example the words of St. Basil the Great: “In the same way, as concerns the earth, let us resolve not to torment ourselves by trying to find out its essence … not … seeking for the substance which it conceals … but let us admit that the earth rests upon itself, or let us say that it rides the waters, we must still remain faithful to the thought of true religion and recognize that all is sustained by the Creator’s power.”
And here the words of the venerable John Damascene:
The seat and foundation of the earth no man has been able to declare… But whether we grant that it is established on itself, or on air or on water, or on nothing, we must not turn aside from reverent thought, but must admit that all things are sustained and preserved by the power of the Creator… Further, some hold that the earth is in the form of a sphere, others that it is in that of a cone… Some supposed that all is encircled by heaven, and it, being spherical… is located at an equal distance from earth, as above, so from the sides and below… Others imagined the heaven as in the form of a hemisphere… Nevertheless, whether it is so or ortherwise, all occurred and was confirmed by Divine command.
And the saint concludes: “We ought not seek out the essence of the heaven, as we cannot know it.”
Can we speak of one picture of the world here? Does the earth swim in water or does it hang in the air? Is it round or conical? And the heavens—a sphere or a hemisphere? There are principle contradictions between these versions, but it doesn’t bother St. John even a bit, because questions of the structure of the universe have no dogmatic character. Therefore, the saints of a new time calmly accepted the change from a geo- to helio-centric model.
It’s the same with respect to the notion of the “firmament in the heavens.” St. John Chrysostom writes that it’s impossible to comprehend just what is mentioned in Scriptures as the “firmament,” and recommends that we not be curious about it: “Now, what would you say this means—the firmament is water that has congealed, or some air that has been compressed, or some other substance? No sensible person would be rash enough to make a decision on it. Instead, it is better to be quite grateful and ready to accept what is told us [in Scripture] and not reach beyond the limits of our own nature by meddling in matters beyond us.”
And here are the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa:
The firmament—whether it is a solid, stable body or consists of four elements, or if anything else encompasses it as pagan philosophy maintains—no idea as to its solidity exists… Scripture equates this attribute of solidity to what is eternal and incorporeal and that property which is unutterable … But everything above is not solid according to perceptible creation, nor is it dense and corporeal as the text's sequence allows us to understand; rather, as it is said, by a spiritual and immaterial comparison everything perceived by the principle of generation is solid if perception escapes it by its natural lightness.
It’s possible to bring forth more quotes, but these are enough to confirm that the holy fathers didn’t approach questions of the structure of the world and the like as to the sphere of Divine revelation. What Blessed Augustine wrote on this question about the Bible is quite applicable here:
Scripture examines questions of faith. For this reason, if someone does not understand the means of Divine eloquence, and he finds something on these matters [on the physical world] in our books … in such a way that it appears an inconsistent understanding with that of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these ancillary questions [about the physical world] are in no way necessary in the instructions, or expositions, or prophecies of Scripture. In short, I must say that our authors knew the truth of the nature of the heavens, but the intention of the Spirit of God, Who spoke through them, was not to teach people something that cannot be used for their salvation.
If our opponents continue to persevere in repeating this argument we’re discussing, then we can ask them to bring forth quotes from any authoritative exposition of the faith in which it would be said that an Orthodox Christian is obliged to receive absolutely everything written by the holy fathers on undogmatic questions as part of Divine revelation. If they cannot bring forth such witnesses, then it will be obvious that they are calling on us to prove what we do not believe, and to defend views we do not share; and it is, to put it lightly, absurd.
Inaccuracies in the teachings of the holy fathers
Now we will examine the second argument. They introduce it, as a rule, with fervor: “Look at what has been hidden from your for so many years! You fundamentalists have naively believed that none of the saints ever made a mistake in discoursing on dogmas, but we will open your eyes now.”
Meanwhile, the aforementioned St. Vincent of Lerins wrote, “In antiquity itself in like manner, to the temerity of one or of a very few they must prefer, first of all, the general decrees, if such there be, of a Universal Council, or if there be no such, then, what is next best, they must follow the consentient belief of many and great masters.” And he himself brings the example of disagreement between Sts. Agripinnus and Cyprian of Carthage on one side, and St. Stephen of Rome on the other side, on the question of recognizing the baptism of heretics.
Our opponents will say, “The saint was writing about just one thing, but we can bring many examples;” but in reality St. Vincent writes that this is not an isolated incident, and generally all who seek “to dress up a heresy under a name other than its own, often get hold of the works of some ancient writer, not very clearly expressed, which, owing to the very obscurity of their own doctrine, have the appearance of agreeing with it, so that they get the credit for being neither the first nor the only persons who have held it.”
Moreover, the saint describes the situation when even a whole region in antiquity could fall into error:
But what, if in antiquity itself there be found error on the part of two or three men, or at any rate of a city or even of a province? Then it will be his care by all means, to prefer the decrees, if such there be, of an ancient General Council to the rashness and ignorance of a few. But what, if some error should spring up on which no such decree is found to bear? Then he must collate and consult and interrogate the opinions of the ancients, of those, namely, who, though living in various times and places, yet continuing in the communion and faith of the one Catholic Church, stand forth acknowledged and approved authorities,
and follow their common teachings.
St. Vincent says that even local councils can err—for example, one decision of the Council of Carthage.
As we see, the truth that some holy fathers made errors of expression in matters of faith is in no way an Orthodox in-house secret—it is spoken about in the same essay which is most often referenced when discussing Holy Tradition and the principle of the consensus of the fathers.
The principle itself is necessary precisely because a particular saint can express himself imperfectly, imprecisely, or mistakenly, while their overall harmonious testimony on dogmatic questions is an expression not just of private thoughts, but of the common faith of the Church.
St. Vincent was not the only one to write about such errors.
For example, here are the words of St. Basil the Great about St. Dionysius of Alexandria:
I do not admire everything that is written; indeed of some things I totally disapprove. For it may be, that of the impiety of which we are now hearing so much, I mean the Anomœan, it is he, as far as I know, who first gave men the seeds. I do not trace his so doing to any mental depravity, but only to his earnest desire to resist Sabellius… While vehemently opposing the impiety of the Libyan, he is carried away unawares by his zeal into the opposite error.
St. Athanasius the Great also dedicated a small essay to this, explaining that “Dionysius not only wrote other letters also, but composed a defense of himself upon the suspicious points, and came out clearly as of right opinions. If then his writings are inconsistent, let them not draw him to their side, for on this assumption he is not worthy of credit.”
St. Basil pointed out that another great saint of antiquity—St. Gregory the Wonderworker—has in one of his essays a mistaken expression that the Sabellians reference in order to affirm their views. St. Basil explains that “in trying to persuade the pagans, Gregory did not think that it was necessary to be exact about his words, but that he should in a way make concessions to the custom of him who was being brought in, so that the latter might not offer resistance in matters of importance. Therefore, you might truly find many words there which furnish the greatest support to the heretics.” Therefore he calls us to “not interpret Gregory’s words incorrectly.”
In one of my articles I brought forth quotes from several saints who rejected the widely-known mistaken statements of St. Gregory of Nyssa on apokatastasis. St. Barsanuphius the Great said it’s not an isolated example and explained why it happens:
Having become teachers, the saints thrived exceedingly, surpassing their teachers, and, having received affirmation from on high, laid out a new doctrine, but along with that preserved what they received from their former teachers—that is, a wrong teaching. Subsequently succeeding and having become spiritual teachers, they didn’t pray to God for Him to reveal to them concerning their first teachers—whether the Holy Spirit inspired what they taught them, but esteeming them as supremely wise and reasonable, did not examine their words; in this way the opinions of their teachers were mingled with their own teachings, and these saints spoke sometimes what they learned from their teachers, sometimes what was sensibly perceived by their own minds; and then these and other words were attributed to them.
St. John Damascene wrote about St. Epiphanius of Cyprus whom the iconoclasts referenced:
If, again, you object that the great Epiphanius thoroughly rejected images, I would say in the first place the work in question is fictitious and inauthentic… Secondly … supposing that he really wrote this work, the great Epiphanius, wishing to correct [a bad custom in his region], ordered that images should not be used… Thirdly, the exception is not a law to the Church, neither does one swallow make summer… Neither can one expression overturn the Tradition of the whole Church which is spread throughout the world… Accept, therefore, the teaching of Scripture and spiritual writers.
Finally, St. Mark of Ephesus says much about this question in his two objections to the Catholics about Purgatory. They tried to present the case as if the consensus of the fathers teaches about Purgatory and the corresponding understanding (cf. 1 Cor. 3:15). Refuting this, St. Mark shows that the quotes from the Areopagite corpus, St. Epiphanius of Cyprus, and St. John Damascene provided in the Catholics’ collection “say nothing at all about a purifying fire, or better to say—dispute it,” and the utterance of Blessed Theodoret of Cyrus is counterfeit. He admits that quotations from a few western saints—Ambrose of Milan, Augustine and Gregory the Dialogist—really do speak about Purgatory. St. Mark brings many arguments as to why he thinks these saints were mistaken, and why in this case it’s impossible to accept their witness. In particular, he presents Biblical and theological arguments, references to councils, and contradictions to this teaching from the witness of a larger number of fathers.
But especially interesting for us is his argumentation:
There is a large difference between what is said in the canonical Scriptures and Church Tradition and what select teachers wrote in a private manner; thus, the first, as imparted by God, we must believe and harmonize one with another if it seems that something does not agree; but the second we don’t have to unquestioningly believe or accept without investigation. For it is possible that someone would be a teacher and yet not everything they say is perfectly correct. For what need would the fathers have of the Ecumenical Councils if every one of them was incapable of departing from the truth in anything?
Further, the saint brings the examples of saints who allowed mistakes and even the example of the Neocaesarean Council, the erroneous rule of which was then nullified by the Council of Trullo.
Then he continues:
That only the canonical Scriptures have infallibility is testified to by Blessed Augustine… In his letter to Fortunatus he writes: “Even though this man was Orthodox and of a high reputation, we nevertheless are not obliged to ascribe to human reasoning such authority as have the canonical Scriptures, so as to consider inadmissible for us, out of the respect due such people, to not approve and reject something in their writings, if we happened to find that they thought otherwise than what is expressed by Truth, which, with the help of God, is perceived by others or by us. Such is my attitude towards the writings of others, and I desire that my reader would have the same attitude towards my essays.”
As we can see, many saints have written about examples of mistakes. It’s not a secret. But for all of this, they neither rejected the authority of these saints on other questions (the same St. Mark invokes Blessed Augustine, etc.), nor, moreover, the authority of Patristic Tradition as such.
This gives a very interesting picture: From our opponents’ point of view, the fact of mistakes of this or that saint should convince us that it’s not worth it to trust this saint in anything; and generally, in the patristic witness, but for some reason not one of the saints who wrote about such mistakes ever arrived at such a conclusion nor was induced to have such doubts in the veracity of the consensus patrum.
Citing examples of genuine or alleged mistakes of the saints on dogmatic issues, modernists want to create for the reader such a picture as if all the saints contradicted one another in something, and therefore no such consensus truly existed between them, thus there’s no point in defining it and generally receiving it as a doctrinal authority.
To any person who is persuaded that there is no consensus of the fathers in faith, you can propose: Take two of the holy fathers out of those who have left us enough literary works who, in your view, most contradict one another. Make a table on the main dogmas of Christianity—how each of these two taught on this or that doctrinal issue. You can put a plus sign over those issues where they taught uniformly, and minus signs over those on which they fundamentally contradict one another. Then summarize it and say: What percentage of the issues have minuses? Are the minuses a majority, or at least half? Are they a third, or a quarter? I conjecture that modernists, at least those who have managed to read the holy fathers, will not bother themselves with this experiment, as they understand that the minuses will turn out to be an insignificant minority. And what about the pluses that are the majority? This is the very consensus patrum that they are trying to convince us does not exist and is impossible to identify. Add to these two saints a third, or even a dozen, do the comparison, and you will see that the patristic consensus on the central dogmatic issues is a reality, detectable and provable.
Why the errors of this or that saint do not refute the general principle of agreement in the faith and do not undermine the credibility of the common testimony of the fathers can be explained with the example of textual criticism of the New Testament. It’s well known that among the thousands of Greek manuscripts discovered there are many discrepancies. However, the vast majority of these discrepancies do not at all prevent the determination of the original version of the text, and not just in the eyes of the Orthodox, but in the eyes of the even the most skeptical secular Biblical scholars. This is because “95 percent of the discrepancies in the New Testament are found in an exceptionally small number of manuscripts.”
That is, if in manuscript A, not the oldest, there is a word missing in one verse, and all the other manuscripts have preserved this verse for us with the given word, then it’s not difficult to understand that the common testimony of the majority of manuscripts brings us the original form of the verse. At the same time, in manuscript B, two words are exchanged in in another verse in comparison with how it’s written in manuscript A and all the other manuscripts. There is also no difficulty in determining the original version. This is the situation when even a significant number of discrepancies in the manuscripts in no way refute the fact that their harmonious witness reliably conveys to us the original Biblical text.
It’s exactly the same with the holy fathers, among whom the number of basic differences in doctrinal issues is disproportionately smaller than the number of discrepancies in New Testament manuscripts. If some pinpoint the number of discrepancies in New Testament manuscripts at more than 100,000, then the number of examples of fundamental differences between the saints in matters of dogma amounts to a few dozen at most.
It’s worth it to add that the concept of consensus patrum concerns precisely those dogmatic questions that are of importance for our salvation. Obviously, in the doctrinal sphere you can encounter a private matter of which not a single holy father wrote, but there are some areas about which we can plainly say that the answers to them will not be revealed to us in this life. For example, there is the well-known story in the Paterikon about how St. Anthony the Great asked about the action of Divine providence in people’s lives and heard, “Give heed to yourself and do not subject God’s providence to your study, because it is spiritually harmful.”
Finally, on some particular issues in the doctrinal sphere, we can find a situation when, for example, out of four holy fathers that have spoken about them, two answered this way, and the other two otherwise. If we find such a picture, it’s a sign that the given question does not have dogmatic significance or any influence on salvation. St. Philaret of Moscow speaks directly on this: “I think that the reasoning of some… bishops, who said that the … the Church has not dogmatically resolved the question raised, but has left it for each to freely ponder without harm to their Orthodoxy and salvation, and that therefore some saints had an affirmative opinion about it, and some a negative, is well-stated.”
The principle of consensus patrum and the Ecumenical Councils
It is necessary now to consider those statements according to which the principle of consensus patrum, and the general doctrinal authority of Patristic Tradition, is not something characteristic of the Orthodox Church but a novelty previously unknown to us taken from the Catholic West.
Despite the fact that practically every modernist denies the authority of the holy fathers and Tradition as a whole, they nevertheless, as a rule, confess the supreme authority of the Ecumenical Councils. Therefore, it seems it would be useful to look at the acts of the Ecumenical Councils on the theme of the question of interest to us here. These acts include not only the dogmatic and canonical decisions of the councils, but also the transcripts of the meetings, and also some documents predating the councils. The fact that the subsequent Ecumenical Councils referred to the acts of the preceding ones, quoting from them, bears witness that the acts of the councils themselves, including the transcripts, are authoritative sources of Church Tradition.
The acts of the first two councils have not been preserved, but there is interesting testimony from an eyewitness of the First Ecumenical Council, St. Athanasius the Great. Describing the discussion between the fathers of the council and the Arians on the basis of Biblical quotations, he states that the victory over heretics and the finding of an exact expression in the Creed happened by turning to the ancient saints:
While they, like men sprung from a dunghill, verily “spoke of the earth,” the bishops, not having invented their phrases for themselves, but having testimony from their fathers, wrote as they did. For ancient bishops, of the Great Rome and of our city, some 130 years ago, wrote and censured those who said that the Son was a creature and not coessential with the Father. And Eusebius, who was bishop of Cæsarea, knew this … and wrote to his own people affirming as follows: “We know that certain eloquent and distinguished bishops and writers even of ancient date used the word ‘coessential’ with reference to the Godhead of the Father and the Son.”
So, reference to the authority of the ancient saints had a decisive significance already at the First Ecumenical Council. Let’s look now what can be found in the acts of the subsequent councils in this regard.
Turning to the acts of the Third Ecumenical Council, we find the words of St. Cyril of Alexandria: “And what great diligence and skill is needed when the multitude of those grieved is so great, so that we may administer the healing word of truth to them that seek it. But we shall accomplish this most excellently if we shall turn to the words of the holy fathers, and are zealous to obey their commands… and conform our thoughts to their upright and irreprehensible teaching.” It was precisely on the basis of this principle that St. Cyril proposed to determine where the truth is—in what he taught, or in what Nestorius taught.
It was precisely this principle that guided the fathers of the council, when after reading St. Cyril’s explanation of the Symbol of Faith, every bishop spoke about whether it corresponded with the faith of the saints. For example, as Acacius of Mitylene replied, “I confess that the Church from the very beginning believes exactly the same, and I know that it has the exact same belief on the basis of the works of the holy fathers, the Holy Scriptures, and the traditions of the faith.” And Palladius of Amasea said that he accepts it precisely “as consonant with the statement of faith of the holy fathers.” Thomas of Dervisia said, “I hold that which coincides with the faith of the holy fathers.” Sosipater Septimiaks: “I think and affirm as our holy fathers thought and affirmed,” and so on.
Then the fathers decided, “The next thing to be done is to read the letter of the most reverend Nestorius… so that we may understand whether or not it agrees with the exposition of the Nicene fathers.…” and then they rejected it on the basis that it was “in agreement neither with the Symbol of Faith of the fathers of Nicaea, nor with the Tradition of the Church,” “He has distorted the Divine Scripture, and overthrown the dogmas of the holy fathers.”
This was not done arbitrarily—the participants in the council specifically examined extracts from the ancient holy fathers in order to determine their harmony on the matter, for the sake of the examination of which they had gathered.
Now let us turn to the Fourth Ecumenical Council. Its acts begin with the epistle of St. Flavian of Constantinople, who writes, “We must contend for the true faith, for the exposition of the faith and the teachings of the holy fathers, to always and in all upheavals remain whole and unscathed.”
Of course, at this council, excerpts from the works of the holy fathers were also read out in order to see their harmony of teaching. Statements from the participants in the council on the importance of the Patristic testimony were quite eloquent: “The fathers have taught, and what was expounded by them has been preserved in writing, and more than this we cannot say.” “Permitting nothing new in the faith received by us from the fathers, with the help of the grace of God we have observed, we do observe, and we will observe it.”
And in the horos—the main document of the council—we read, “This we have done with one unanimous consent, driving away erroneous doctrines and renewing the unerring faith of the fathers,” and, “Following the holy fathers we teach with one voice that the Son [of God] and our Lord Jesus Christ is to be confessed as one and the same [Person].”
Turning to the acts of the Fifth Ecumenical Council, we see the same appeal to the consensus of the saints as to a source of the true faith: “In all things, we follow the holy fathers and teachers of God’s holy Church… and we receive everything written and elucidated by them on the right faith and in the condemnation of heretics;” “We maintain and preach that faith bestowed… by our Savior Jesus Christ to the holy apostles… which the holy fathers confessed, expounded upon, and conveyed to the churches… and we follow it entirely.” In this they specified great saints, but added that “we receive also the other holy fathers, who irreproachably taught the true faith to the ends of their lives.”
Obviously, they were working to elucidate the consensus of the holy fathers on that question for which the council was dedicated.
In the council’s horos, Patristic teaching is described as a necessary measure of faith: “Nothing written by anyone else ought to be received unless it had been proved to agree with the Orthodox faith of the holy fathers;” and, of course, the participants emphasized, “We have professed that which was transmitted to us by the Divine Scriptures and the teachings of the holy fathers.”
The Sixth Ecumenical Council devoted even more attention than the previous one to examining the witness of the holy fathers for establishing that which later became known as the consensus patrum.
The epistle of Pope Agathon of Rome, included in the acts of the council, speaks of the pope’s legates: “We also have given the witness of some of the holy fathers, whom this Apostolic Church of Christ receives, together with their books, so that… they might out of these endeavor to give satisfaction… as to what this Apostolic Church of Christ… believes and preaches.” “From the different approved fathers the truth of the Orthodox faith has become clear.”
The indictment of a heretic at the council consists in that “he reasons contrary to the teachings of the holy father; he is an enemy of the fathers.”Conversely, “the council delivered a precise definition, confirmed by the Holy Scriptures and consonant with the teachings of the holy fathers.”
This is also emphasized in the horos: “Wherefore, this, our holy and Ecumenical Synod… following closely the straight path of the holy and approved fathers, has piously given its full assent to the five holy and Ecumenical Synods.”
The acts of the Seventh Ecumenical Council begin with an epistle of Pope Gregory, which says, “Our light and our saving strength is our holy and God-bearing fathers and teachers, of which the Sixth Ecumenical Council bears witness.” This letter even has such words: “Violating or destroying the definition of the fathers is accursed.”
This thought is repeated even more strongly in the confession of St. Basil of Ancyra approved by the council: “To those who spurn the teachings of the holy fathers and the Tradition of the Catholic Church, taking as a pretext and making their own the arguments … that we should not follow the teachings of the holy fathers and of the holy Ecumenical Synods, and the tradition of the Catholic Church—anathema!”
Calling for the study of the words of the holy fathers on the question about which the council was called, St. Tarasios of Constantinople expresses the doctrine of the immutability of dogma: “That which the Church has by Tradition… remains unscathed and steadfast forever.”
After that, the council participants began to study the Patristic texts in depth, including those brought forth by the iconoclasts, in order to determine where the consensus of the saints was. And, having established this consensus, they exclaimed, “May the teachings of the God-inspired fathers correct us! Drawing from them, we are saturated with truth; following them, we have expelled falsehood… We keep the commandments of the fathers.” “In all things holding the doctrine of our God-bearing fathers, we profess this teaching… adding nothing and subtracting nothing of what has been given to us.”
And in the conciliar horos they stress that “following the Divine teaching of our holy fathers and the Tradition of the Catholic church… we define…”
As you can easily see, for the fathers of the Ecumenical Councils, the Patristic Tradition was an undoubted authority, and defining the consensus of the ancient fathers in faith not only seemed possible to them, but was one of the essential procedures of the councils. And when people ask, “What determines the truth or falsehood of this or that Ecumenical Council?” you can say that although they had the value and testimony of Scripture and theological arguments, the main sign for the fathers of the councils themselves was the conformity of their decrees to the consensus of the ancient fathers.
Anyone who doubts that there is such a common testimony of faith and that it is discernible can acquaint himself with the acts of the Ecumenical Councils and try to refute the Patristic consensus identified by them. For example, they can try to prove that “in fact” the evidence brought forth by the fathers of the Seventh Council in favor of iconolatry constitutes a small minority and that the overwhelming majority of ancient saints spoke out against iconolatry, and so on for each question of each Ecumenical Council. As far as I know, no one has done such work, and I highly doubt that anyone would be able, because the fathers of the councils were not deceived and did not deceive others, and the common harmony of the saints on the main dogmatic questions is a reality.
In conclusion, I will quote again the words from the acts of the Seventh Council: “To those who spurn the teachings of the holy fathers and the Tradition of the Catholic Church, taking as a pretext and making their own the arguments … that we should not follow the teachings of the holy fathers and of the holy Ecumenical Synods, and the tradition of the Catholic Church—anathema!”