I recently received three sets of books that I had imagined since seminary seeing on my shelves one day: the Ante-Nicene, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (I & II). I couldn’t wait to begin dipping into Chrysostom’s homilies and selections from Augustine that I had never read. To my surprise, however, I have been most intrigued by the very last of these 38 volumes: The Seven Ecumenical Councils.
I loved the study of Patristics in seminary. I filled in every empty class slot with something that took me back to the early Church. I had a good sketch in my mind about what each council was about, with my memory getting fuzzier with each one beyond Chalcedon. But what I had never looked at, let alone studied, were the contents of the canons of these gatherings.
Around the same time that I began thumbing through Post-Nicene Fathers II.14, I stumbled upon a wonderful podcast on Ancient Faith Radio called “Speaking the truth in love” hosted by Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary. The particular series that caught my attention was on the subject of bishops – currently up to 42 episodes, with the first one available here. Fr. Hopko’s Orthodox perspective on the episcopate very often aligns with what has been the Catholic vision of Anglicanism for many of us (and our forebears) for generations. Fr. Hopko moves almost whimsically through the centuries, addressing the role of bishops in light of pertinent historical and theological circumstances. I have learned an enormous amount and would highly recommend the first few episodes in particular.
In episode 14, Fr. Hopko begins talking about the Quinisext Canons of 692 A.D., purported to be the legal output of both the fifth and sixth ecumenical councils. These are the so-called “Trullo” canons, named for the palace in Constantinople where the bishops met to create them. Fr. Hopko accepts this designation and the canons’ authority without question and moves on to discuss the contents. In the introductory note to these canons by the Anglican priest Henry R. Percival, however, there is a great deal of skepticism about how one ought to consider them:
“From the fact that the canons of the Council in Trullo are included in this volume of the Decrees and Canons of the Seven Ecumenical Councils it must not for an instant be supposed that it is intended thereby to affirm that these canons have any ecumenical authority, or that the council by which they were adopted can lay any claim to being ecumenical either in view of its constitution or of the subsequent treatment by the Church of its enactments.”
The fifth and sixth councils of 553 A.D. and 681 A.D. did not produce any canons at the time the bishops originally met. It is disingenuous, Percival argues, to accept the work of a later gathering called by the emperor as if it represented the mind of the Church in the same way as the work of the original councils had. In any case, the contents of these Trullo canons are fascinating. In his podcasts, Fr. Hopko takes what might otherwise be a boring trudge through minutia and, in no less than 9 podcasts, walks his listeners with joy and wit through each one of these 102 rules which, in some way or another, are still in force. One of the most popular topics is the function and comportment of clergy, and the canons’ expectations are almost inconceivably high.
The point of my current enthusiasm for the ancient canons and for Fr. Hopko’s teachings is that I wonder how many Episcopalians outside of the most remote part of the academy have any use for anything from the ecumenical councils other than the broadest theological definitions (and can we even count on that?). And while we may ultimately side with Percival and ask tough questions of the Trullo canons, does that mean we relegate them to the scrap heap? For all that we wring our hands in our own tradition about the sources of authority, trading one imperfect analogy for another (the three-legged stool may finally have been put out to pasture, but others have crept in), perhaps it’s time to remember how the Catholic church organized herself on the ground for the first several centuries of her existence. For Fr. Hopko, the concerns of the bishops in 692 are, at least as far as the spirit of the laws are concerned, in full effect today. The canons of Nicaea, Chalcedon, Constantinople, and perhaps even Trullo (not to mention the “Apostolic” canons, also printed in the Post-Nicene Fathers volume) may provide a road map for the living Church today.
Dig out that 38th book and see what it has to say to you. Make a gift of it to that canonically ignorant friend in your life!