Ecumenical Councils – Not An Institution of Christ or the Apostles


One of Monsignor Pierre Battifol’s great essays on the Roman primacy was written in response to a Russian Orthodox historian M. Glubokovsky and his article in the London Review entitled “Papal Rome and the Orthodox East“, and Fr. Battifol brings up the subject of Ecumenical Councils. Battifol has the following to say, and it merits a discussion.

M. Glubokovsky would seem to think that Ecumenical Councils belong to the divine constitution of the Church — as a fact, they belong only to Ecclesiastical law (kirchencrecht). They were not, in reality, instituted either by Christ or by the Apostles. Their magisterium is the collective magisterium of the universal episcopate, which includes the bishop of Rome. The assistance of that which was promised to this universal episcopate.” (Catholic and Papacy: Some Anglican and Russian Difficulties, page 88)

This is a thought worth pondering. Ecumenical Councils were truly something of Ecclesiastical institution, and was not something even known as part of the pre-Constantinian Apostolic tradition. I understand many Orthodox would call the Council of Jerusalem 49 the paradigm of Ecumenical Councils, but I think we should be careful here. No one to my knowledge has ever called this the 1st Ecumenical Council. And the dictum “It seems good to us and the Holy Spirit” seems hardly applicable only to the 7 Councils of the 1st millennium that are numbered as “Ecumenical”. Many councils gathered together in this spirit. So I don’t think Jerusalem 49 is either the 1st Ecumenical Council, nor is a strict paradigm for the 7 Councils that became Ecumenical. And if this is true, than we cannot speak of Ecumenical Councils as a divine authority *in itself* which holds authority over the Episcopate, as an entity all on its own.

So it leaves us to question if Ecumenical Councils are not of divine and apostolic institution, but are rather a creation of the Church, and that, together with the Imperial government I will add, than what is the magisterium of the Church as created by Christ? Fr. Battifol rightly points us to the Episcopate as created by Christ in the Apostles, with Peter as the head and principle of unity.

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