In a recent article at Orthodox Christian Theology, Craig Truglia wrote that a strong case can be made for defeating the so-called heresy of apokatastasis by invoking the doctrine of conciliar fundamentalism. He had written the article in response to Fr. Kimel’s recent article over at Eclectic Orthodoxy. Truglia defines conciliar fundamentalism as the view that not just the canons and the formal definitiones (professions of faith by the whole council with their names undersigned) are dogmatically binding to all Orthodox, but also that all of the acta and minutes of the councils are dogmatically binding as well. Truglia then uses this doctrine for interpreting the ecumenical councils to make the case that because universalism in all of its forms is condemned by certain individuals in the minutes of the Second Council of Nicaea (787) (which itself is a dubious claim, but I will set that issue aside), then one is dogmatically obligated to condemn universalism as a heresy. For now, I will mostly set aside the issue of apokatastasis or universalism (which Truglia himself shows very little patience, charity, or interest in understanding as one can tell from his horrid and confused review of David Bentley Hart’s book – for example not once does he mention divine transcendence in his review) and focus mostly on conciliar fundamentalism. Let me say, in no uncertain terms, conciliar fundamentalism is self-defeating and undoes the Orthodox faith. It also breeds schism and heresy, and is documented as having accomplished just that.
I will start with three interconnected examples – the Council of Chalcedon (451), the Second Council of Constantinople (553), and St. Columbanus of Bobbio (d. 615). The Council of Chalcedon defined Christ as both fully human and fully God – one person with two natures. During this council, three men were upheld as having a correct faith – Theodore of Mopsuestia, who died in communion with the Church, Theodoret of Cyrus, and Ibas of Edessa. Theodoret and Ibas were both rehabilitated into the Church at Chalcedon. These three men would later become known as the Three Chapters. Fast-forward to Constantinople (553) and all three of these men were condemned as heretics (the person of Theodore and select writings of both Theodoret and Ibas to be precise), essentially undoing parts of what had been done at Chalcedon. This denouncement of these three men precipitated the Three Chapters Controversy, which resulted in numerous churches in Italy, such as the Patriarchate of Aquileia, going into schism from the Orthodox Church. The Aquileian schismatics’ primary objection to II Constantinople was that by accepting it, Chalcedon was therefore rejected in toto, including its doctrinal definition and its condemnations. They believed that condemning a dead man who died in communion with the church for heresy, namely Theodore, was unheard of. But the major rub lay in the condemnations of Theodoret and Ibas, whom Chalcedon rehabilitated (Meyendorff, pp. 310-315). In short, these critics were conciliar fundamentalists. According to the schismatics, by undoing some of the procedural work done in the minutes of Chalcedon at II Constantinople, the bishops at Constantinople condemned the whole council of Chalcedon. In short, minutes or acta, definitiones, and canons all held the same status for these schismatics, whereas obviously those who upheld the truth of the Fifth Ecumenical Council did not hold to this doctrine of conciliar fundamentalism.
St. Columbanus of Bobbio enters into this controversy in 612, having recently left the Kingdom of the Franks for Italy. Columbanus was an Irish monk who had already accused St. Gregory of Rome earlier of heresy. When he arrived at Italy, he got caught up in the Aquileian Schism fairly quickly, although probably did not enter into schism himself. He then wrote a letter to Pope Boniface IV of Rome accusing him of undermining Chalcedon with his condemnation of the aforementioned three men (Epistle 5). In short, by casting doubt on some of the proceedings or rulings of Chalcedon, Rome had effectively renounced all of the council and its dogmatic content. It is useful to quote the historian Tommaso Leso here:
It has been convincingly suggested that in order to prove that somebody had rejected the authority of a council, it was customary to state that the individual in question approved what the council had condemned. It has been persuasively argued that Columbanus employed this very polemical tool in his fifth letter, as Nicetius of Trier had done, on the same question, some decades earlier. Nicetius was accusing the pope and the council of being unfaithful to Chalcedon. This had been the main accusation thrown by the schismatics at the pope through the decades: the Holy See, by condemning the Three Chapters which had been approved at the Council of Chalcedon, had betrayed the council.
– Tommaso Leso, “Columbanus in Europe,” pp. 380
Needless to say, the calls for a new synod that Columbanus asks for in that same letter are left unheeded. Both men soon died, and the schism would only be resolved at the end of the century.
The lessons of this history are notable in the context of Truglia’s arguments. Conciliar fundamentalists used the doctrine of conciliar fundamentalism to reject the Fifth Ecumenical Council – that SAME COUNCIL that Truglia wants to bolster and clarify through his quotations of the minutes from the Second Council of Nicaea. The irony should not be lost on anyone. Furthermore, this doctrine of conciliar fundamentalism then led to schism with the Orthodox Church! How can a doctrine be good and true if it leads people to leave Orthodoxy? It is madness! There is more I could say at length or even rhetorically ask, like, “Where are the minutes of the First Council of Nicaea? If acta are just as dogmatically binding as canons and definitiones, then surely they would have been better preserved!” In any case, conciliar fundamentalism leads to schism and Orthodox would do well to avoid it.
Truglia has recently doubled down on his position. It is not an impressive rebuttal, as he does not address the historical problem of the Aquileian Schism. And just for the record, the Barlaamites protested reading the minutes of the council. The position I and others have advocated is quite different. The acts are informative, but are not binding like canons or definitiones. Fr. Matthew Kirby in the comments of Eclectic Orthodoxy summarizes some other problems with the idea:
I have no further interest in the matter. This is my final word on it.
Bibliography & Further Reading
Tommaso Leso, “Columbanus in Europe: The Evidence from the Epistulae,” Early Medieval Europe 21, no. 4 (2013): pp. 358-389
John Meyendorf, Imperial Unity & Christian Divisions: The Church 450 – 680 AD (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989)
GSM Walker, Sancti Columbani opera (Dublin: The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1957)