I would like to express my apologies to my regular readers for the lack of content on this blog the past several months. Any number of factors have contributed to my hiatus, though suffice to say that sometimes a writer has to back away for a time and recharge the batteries. Hopefully, more regular content will appear in the future.
I have been throwing around the idea in my head for a while of writing about the Old Testament background to conciliarity in light of the ongoing Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church, which, as it has played out, has demonstrated both successes and failures of the conciliar spirit and process. If we look back to the sacred history as told within the Old Testament, these successes and failures are mirrored in ancient Israel and Judah at various points. In this post and in more to follow, I will discuss several major points of conciliarity and reflect on their meaning for us in our own context.
The Divine Council
The first chapter of the canonical Old Testament scriptures interpreted within the Orthodox Church feature conciliarity occurring within the life of the Holy Trinity in the eternal council of God to create the world and mankind according to His image and likeness. The specific use of the plural pronouns and verb forms in reference to God are unique in the Old Testament, though the plural form of the Hebrew “God” ɂǝlōhīm is regularly used though with singular pronouns, adjectives, and verb forms. Nevertheless, the striking statement “Let us make ɂādām in our image, according to our likeness” (Gen. 1:26) stands out as providing some clue to a divine council. Scholars will state that this is a relic of a prior polytheistic religion, where the divine council featuring the high god and other, lesser gods would meet upon the mountain of the high god. This is probably true, though it is immaterial for our theological interpretation of it.
Incidentally, we see a similar divine council of sorts in the first chapter of Job, where the Satan (a kind of prosecuting attorney) comes before the council of the “sons of God” (Job 1:6). Whether they be lesser gods or angels, again, is immaterial (they are essentially the same thing), for what matters is the image (icon) of the divine council. YHWH is featured as the primary focal point of the council, for the sons of God (or “sons of the gods”) come to “stand before YHWH.” In this council, God himself sits as the primate. It is important to note that the core dialogues of the Book of Job present the righteous Job as eventually calling God to present Himself to account for Job’s unjust suffering. Job desires to enter into the divine council, even to accuse God himself of unjustly causing his suffering. God obliges, though with a storm of his own sovereign right to do as he pleases. Eventually, however, God acquiesces to Job and admits that he had spoken “correctly” and restores to him all that he had lost and more (42:7). This is for modern readers one of the more curious episodes of the Bible, where God doesn’t act in ways we would normally expect, making backroom deals with Satan, being called to court, and eventually even admitting that Job was right all along.
What do we take from this puzzling scene? I believe it is a matter of the economy of salvation that God has provided for us, where we as individuals are able to act as real moral agents to take up or lay down righteousness in the face of evil. We do not live out our salvation merely by divine fiat, nor are we merely passive participants in the redemption of the world. Each member of the Body of Christ acts within the conciliarity of the economy of redemption through prayer and repentance to shape the course of history. Far from pelagianism, all is accomplished by the grace of God operating through the Holy Spirit in the unity of Christ. Conciliarity, therefore, is not just “going through the motions” of submitting to a primatial will. Rather, it is the real participation of its members in redeeming the world.
Moses and the Torah
Moses stands in the Old Testament as a towering figure, the great Lawgiver and Deliverer. It is Moses, even more than the ancestral patriarchs, who gives birth to the “Children of Israel” as he leads them out of Egypt to the doorsteps of the Promise Land. Aside from David, Moses is perhaps the greatest icon of Christ in the Old Testament, for he stands as a testator, one who receives the covenant of the Torah, binds Israel to it, and establishes them as a nation under its authority. (I should reiterate here that I am speaking from the perspective of the canonical Scriptures, not from a critical, historical view of the development of Torah and Deuteronomism in the exilic and post-exilic period.) Primacy, here as figured in Moses, is embodied as a christological and covenantal headship. But where is the conciliarity? The biblical text routinely presents Moses as meeting with the “Elders of Israel,” typically 70 of them, heads of family and tribal units who together represent the people of Israel. When Moses first meets them, we read,
Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the Israelites. Aaron spoke all the words that the LORD had spoken to Moses, and performed the signs in the sight of the people. The people believed; and when they heard that the LORD had given heed to the Israelites and that he had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped. (Ex. 4:29-31 NRSV)
Moses delivers the word of YHWH, the people respond with faith and worship (obeisance). This should perhaps underscore that conciliarity involves hearing clearly the word of God, i.e. the Gospel and responding to it in faith and worship. The Gospel, the Word of God, is proclaimed chiefly from the primate, who unifies the people in faith around the singular missional imperative of the Gospel. The Gospel should set the agenda for conciliar meetings, for it is only the word of deliverance, the word of exodus from bondage to sin and the world that can unify the people. We may speak of the “agenda items” and others may speak alternatively of an “agenda of the Holy Spirit,” but the real agenda underlying all of the conciliar work of the Great and Holy Council and others that follow should be the Word of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is in this context, then, this christological context, that the Spirit of Prophecy comes upon the elders.
So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. (Num. 11:24-25)
After hearing the word of YHWH, the elders, gathered in council, receive the same spirit belonging to the primate (Moses) and prophesied. So here, the pneumatological aspect of conciliarity means that the same prophetic (Gospel-proclaiming) charism given to the primate is then shared by all. Here we see the consubstantiality of all charisms in the Church (to borrow Fr. Loudovikos’ term) expressed both christologically in the prophetic proclamation of the Gospel in the primate and the pneumatological transfer of that charism to the whole body, as in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost, the Spirit came upon all who were present, and they all spoke with other tongues.
What to Take Away
In this first installment of our look at conciliarity in the Old Testament, several things emerge from our interpretation.
- Conciliarity is to be found (cataphatically) within the inner life of the Holy Trinity, therefore the conciliarity of the Church mimics the divine life.
- Conciliarity is not a passive but an active participation in the divine economy of redemption. This gives conciliarity consequence and import.
- Conciliarity derives its primacy from christology, with Christ at the head of the Church. Therefore, primacy is Evangelistic, i.e. it involves the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ as the source of all things within the Church.
- Conciliarity involves a shared charism of prophetic Gospel-proclamation through the unifying presence of the Holy Spirit.
May the council fathers be unified in this way, that the Word of YHWH may be heard in the Gospel and the Elders respond with faith and worship to the unity of all.