On March 10, 2014, Reuters News published an article entitled “Orthodox Churches Will Hold First Ecumenical Council In 1,200 Years In Istanbul.” The article announced that Patriarchs of the autonomous Orthodox churches, the twelve heads of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians which constitutes the second-largest family of Christian churches, ended a rare summit in Istanbul on Sunday, agreeing to hold a summit of bishops, or ecumenical council, in 2016, which will be the first in over 1,200 years.
The last Ecumenical Council (the seventh) officially recognized by world Orthodoxy took place in Nicea in 787 AD; it was also known as the Second Council of Nicaea and was convened to adjudicate the teaching on icons. At that council the Church resolved that venerating icons and having them in churches and homes are necessary and essential because they protect the full and proper doctrine of the Incarnation. While God cannot be represented in His eternal nature (“…no man has seen God”, John 1:18), He can be depicted simply because He “became human and took flesh.” Of Him who took a material body, material images can be made. In so taking a material body, God proved that matter can be redeemed. He deified matter, making it spirit-bearing, and so if flesh can be a medium for the Spirit, so can wood or paint, although in a different fashion. St. John of Damascus opined: “I do not worship matter, but the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation…” The seventh and last Ecumenical Council upheld the iconodules’ postion in AD 787, proclaiming: “Icons… are to be kept in churches and honored with the same relative veneration as is shown to other material symbols, such as the ‘precious and life-giving Cross’ and the Book of the Gospels. The ‘doctrine of icons’ is tied to the Orthodox teaching that all of God’s creation is to be redeemed and glorified, both spiritual and material.”
The Orthodox Church is desperately overdue and in dire need of an Ecumenical Council. Over the past 1,227 years, the Church has stagnated from lack of reformation of an antiquated literalistic theology toward an expansive and inclusive Faith. An Ecumenical Council affords the Church to proclaim its apostolic faithful authenticity to Holy Tradition and apostolic liturgical praxis while avowing a tenaciously nuanced scholarly and erudite exegetical revision of its teachings on human bioethics, morality, and social justice. There is no contradiction of Christian tradition and contemporary scientific understandings of the universe; otherwise, Orthodox Christian theism has lost credibility as a valid conception of Creator and the nature of creation. The essence of the timeless Christian message proclaims that Jesus Christ fully expressed the presence of a God of empathy, compassion, and selfless love.
The doctrinal/dogmatic theology of the Church articulated by the seven Ecumenical Councils and elucidated in the Nicene Creed need not be revisited nor reformulated. As Saint John Chrysostom writes, “The doctrine of incarnation, the historical truth of the crucifixion and resurrection, the Eucharist, the sign of the cross, the threefold immersion in the baptismal font, the honor and respect due to the Virgin Mary and to the saints of the Church, are all important for the Christian, who wants to find oneself in the ‘perimeter’ of salvation in Christ. This is what the Church has taught through the centuries. Therefore we must consider the Tradition (with capital “T” which encompasses the basic doctrines of revelation and our salvation in Christ) of the Church trustworthy. It is Tradition, seek no more” (Second Letter to Thessalonians: Homily).
However, obsolete traditions (with a small “t”) must find new expression and vision in harmony with modern scholarship. While basic Orthodox theology has not changed, scientific advances in biology, and our understanding of the created universe have grown by leaps and bounds. No one can know for sure what views the prominent and respected theologian would put forth for discussion today if he were still alive today; however, it is interesting to note that in a work concerning iconoclasm and the acceptance of the veneration of icons in the Byzantine Orthodox Church, Father Schmemann wrote the following: “But, as is almost always the case in the Church, acceptance and definition preceded ‘the path of understanding’, experience came before revelation in thought.’”
Acceptance comes before understanding, experience comes before revelation. The canons of the 3rd and 4th century fail to befittingly convey a cogent understanding of modern humanity and its consequential dynamics of relationship with a God of unconditional love. The great challenge for Orthodox Christianity is to remain loyally steadfast to its ancient Tradition, a continuity of faith founded by Christ and sustained by the Holy Spirit free from error and distortion from the time of the Apostles, while concurrently and synergistically evolving its traditions, which are constantly made manifest and contemporary in the life of the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit. The evolution of traditions is the dialogue between yesterday’s words and today’s knowledge. The delusion and idolatry of fundamentalist members of the Church is that we claim to have somehow captured eternal truth in provisional expressions and temporal principles construed by humans.
Let us humbly and fervently pray, by the grace of God, that the upcoming Orthodox Council will promote a prudent theological introspection and reconstituted moral tenets, reflecting the continuous metamorphosis and transfiguration of the Church as the people of God, through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Creator and the communion of the Holy Spirit, as experienced in the daily life of the Church, marking the end of its disengagement and isolation from scientific advancement and contemporary culture.