Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council: the Apostolic, Conciliar and Concrete Church

Readings for Great Vespers and Divine Liturgy:
Genesis 14:14-20; Deut. 1:8-11, 15-17; Deut. 10:14-21; Matt. 5:14-19; Titus 3:8-15.

I write this blog for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council as I am flying to Fort Worth, Texas, to speak at an event for Catholic Anglicans, concerning the importance of conciliarity. There I will meet with old friends (and no doubt make new friendships) from the Anglican community, with whom I sojourned for 25 years as I made my pilgrimage from the Salvation Army to the Orthodox Church. It is a happy juxtaposition of times, as I have the opportunity to speak to them about the nature of the Church—apostolic, conciliar and concrete—on this, the week leading up to our commemoration of these holy fathers. The fourth ecumenical council, which took place in 451 in Chalcedon, was a crucial Council because it rescued the Church from the false deliberations of what has been called the “Council of Robbers, ” which took place two years earlier. That infamous council had every outward appearance of an authentic ecumenical meeting, but made its decisions in an irregular fashion, and also misconstrued the two natures of Jesus Christ, thus leaving a dangerous space for heresies in the early Church. So significant is the 451 Council of Chalcedon, that it is the last council recognized by almost the whole of the Christian world, including such sectarian Protestant bodies as my childhood community, the Salvation Army, whose doctrines include the following: “We believe that in Jesus Christ the divine and human natures are united, so that he is truly and properly God and truly and properly man.” (I was paid, at age 11, a quarter for memorizing this statement, alongside each one of the other twelve doctrines!)

This council, then, serves as a rallying point for creedal Christians, rescuing the Orthodox from heresy, while clarifying and ratifying the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed worked out in the century earlier. Moreover, our agreement with non-Orthodox over the first four councils and our appeal to the holy fathers who met in conciliar fashion at these significant events may serve as a catalyst for convincing them of the truth of the remaining three. For in the deliberations of the fourth council we find, in nuce, the arguments that were articulated some centuries later in in 553 (when more was said about the Trinity and Christ); in 680 (when Christ was described as having a human and divine will); and finally, in 787 (when theological reasons –especially the centrality of the incarnation—were adduced for the veneration of icons.)

The concentration of all of the ecumenical councils upon the nature of the Godhead and of Jesus the Christ leads us to recover a central truth about both God and God’s people: just as there is one true God, who lives eternally as three Persons, so there is one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. The actual incarnation of God the Son as a human being with identifiable characteristics, a specific sex (as each human person possesses), in a particular place and time, with a human body, human mind, human will, and human nature, leads us to understand the importance of concreteness over any form of docetism. That is, God really became Human, He did not simply “appear” or “seem” to be human in order to communicate with us from afar. One holy God has also brought forth one holy people—“holy things are for the holy.” And so the Church herself is concrete, visible, discernible, with a specific shape that includes both primacy (headship) and conciliarity.

The Old Testament readings for this week’s great Vespers illuminate the New Testament readings for Divine Liturgy, by stressing the unified and particular nature of God’s people, and the gift of leaders among them. Genesis 14:14-20 concerns the rescue of Lot and his family by his uncle the patriarch Abraham, when he had been kidnapped by the enemy of the Sodomites among whom Lot had been living. Abraham, on vanquishing this enemy, and rescuing his kins-people, is received gladly by the surrounding kings, and blessed by the mysterious priest Melchisedek, who brings forth bread and wine, and recognizes the true God of heaven. No doubt our holy fathers considered that this reading was relevant to our memorial of the holy fathers of the Fourth Council, because, in effect, the fathers did for us what Abraham did for his family: they rescued us from the hand of the enemy, from those robbers who would have taken the whole Church captive. They, too, sealed their Council (as became the custom) with the mysteries, and received the blessing of the God of heaven as they concluded the assembly.

The readings from Deuteronomy (1:8-11, 15-17 and 10:14-21) also stress the faithfulness of God in speaking to his people, and remind us of God’s instruction to Moses to set up godly leaders, wise and prudent men who are to rule at different levels, for the benefit of all people, whether small or great, whether well-placed on or on the margins of the community. The leaders are enjoined themselves to cling to the Lord their God and to witness faithfully to the things that their “eyes have seen,” for the sake of the whole community. These passages, from the beginning of the history of Israel, illumine our just and loving Father who cares for the welfare of all his people, and who arranges our life together by means of an orderly structure. It is also clear from these passages that leaders are not given a carte blanche by God: they are appointed by Moses at God’s command, but are themselves warned to be partial and to do all to the glory of the Lord, not for their own aggrandizement. (As we know, the corrective principle of prophets, and other holy charismatic leaders comes to play at times when the priestly or kingly figures do not listen to God’s instructions. Even in the Old Testament, then, we see the beginning of conciliarity and primacy in creative tension with each other, as God appoints and calls.) Such principles are further clarified in the new covenant, as we hear of the strength given to the church in bishops, presbyters and deacons. For example, in our NT reading, we see Titus being instructed by the apostle Paul, who quotes a solemn saying that helps the younger man to be an effective leader. Titus is given explicit instructions concerning factious men who fancy themselves as teachers, and he is also reminded to help out several key leaders of the church who are being supportive of the apostle Paul in his time of need. Moreover, Titus is enjoined to teach the whole church how to give strength to those who are in need. The picture we receive from Titus 3:8-15 is that of a Church learning how to live conciliarly together, heeding their apostle, Paul, and working together with local leaders for the fruitfulness of the entire body. Those who are with Paul also send greetings, reminding us of the catholic nature of the Church.

Our gospel reading Matthew 5:14-19, comes as a bit of a challenge to those of us who are tempted to think that we have put the Old Testament behind. Here Jesus speaks about the importance of heeding the WHOLE council of God, and not relaxing a single one of the commandments. Of course, we need to listen to this instruction in the context of the entire Scriptures, and by means of the light of the Church Fathers, whose interpretation, focused on Christ, is a lamp shining for us today (2 Peter 1:19). In following the apostles and the Fathers, we realize that this instruction cannot imply that we are to continue in the keeping of, for example, kosher laws (for this was settled by the first Council of the Church, Acts 15): it DOES mean that our entire lives must shine forth as “the light of the world,” and that what we believe must be matched by how we act, in every area of our lives, whether we consider the matter minor or major. As we grow in maturity, the lively pattern and in-depth council of our fathers (and mothers) in Christ become more significant to us; more and more is revealed as we grow in the likeness of Christ. These holy ones, whether still living or fallen asleep, are surely those whom Jesus salutes as the great believers who “do [these commandments] and teach them.” They are “great” in the kingdom, though they may (like St. Athanasius) have been in the minority during their own time of trial. These are the ones whom Christ has given as a witness to us, for our spiritual health, our protection in times of difficulty, and our theosis.

All of these readings from the Old and New Testaments demonstrate the knitty-gritty of living together with the people of God. Here we see the vital significance of leaders, whether patriarchs in the Old Testament, apostles at the time of Christ, or the episcopate in our day. Here we behold the life of the whole Church, living as catholic (“according to the whole”) and conciliarly—making decisions together, under God-given leadership, but with responsibility belonging to the whole Church. And here we see the fascination (and the complexity) of the concrete nature of God’s people—a people that can be taken captive but has been redeemed and will be protected, that rubs shoulders with those who are outside of her boundaries, that looks to leadership at different levels for the settling of various problems, that has within her awkward or troublesome members who require discipline. The arrangement is not an iron-clad hierarchy, but a living Body, whose members are called to give and take, agree or perhaps even dissent, support each other while giving and receiving instruction—all as the occasion demands and the Holy Spirit leads.

Thou, O Christ, art our God of exceeding praise, Who didst establish our Holy Fathers as luminous stars upon earth, and through them didst guide us unto the true Faith, O most merciful One, glory to Thee.

NOTE: Any who are interested in the video or full script (minus proper footnotes) of my talk given at the International Catholic Conference of Anglicans may see these at and

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