The word Orthodox basically means “right belief”. In other words, what the church teaches is true. However, Roman Catholics and Protestants also claim to have right belief. So what is the ultimate criterion of truth? Who or what has the final authority for deciding what we should believe?
For many, if not most Protestants, the final authority is the Bible or the Bible alone (sola scriptura). At the Protestant Reformation, Protestant leaders rejected tradition and the authority of the church as necessary to understand the Bible. There are two basic Protestant approaches to the Bible. In the pietistic approach, individuals read the Bible, meditate upon it and pray to understand it. The other approach, the academic approach, uses all the tools of academic research to understand the Bible.
However, there is a problem with these two approaches. That is that there are so many Protestant understandings of the Bible, all differing from one another. It is clear from this that the Bible is not self-interpreting. It needs an authoritative interpretation.
For Roman Catholics the ultimate authority is the Pope. Generally the Pope teaches, together with the other bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. Sometimes the Pope gives his approval to the meeting of an ecumenical council and that becomes doctrine (this is very different from the Orthodox approach to councils). Finally, on rare occasions the Pope declares a doctrine on his own authority. The Roman Catholic approach has a clarity which others might envy, but this emphasis on papal authority actually breaks down in practice. First of all, Popes have taught error in the past, as even Roman Catholics admit. However, they say that their errors were taught by the Pope acting as private theologians and not as the supreme pontiff. Moreover, historically the church did not accept the decisions of an ecumenical council simply because the Pope had ratified them.
So what is the criterion of truth for Orthodox Christians? One is tempted to answer “the ecumenical councils” and generally speaking, this is true. However, there have been many councils convoked by the emperor, with many bishops attending but were ultimately rejected by the church. So how do we know that a council teaching is correct?
We see the first church council in the Book of Acts, called by the apostles to decide how non-Jews could enter the church. During the first centuries of the church, despite Roman persecution, bishops met with their clergy and people. Also, the bishops of the same region would meet each other. So we see that the church was conciliar from the very beginning. Therefore, in the early 4th century AD, when a priest named Arius was teaching that Jesus was not truly God, the emperor called a council of bishop in 325 AD to settle the issue which was not only tearing the church, but also the empire apart. This council condemned Arius and formulated the first part of the Creed which we recite at the Liturgy which states that Jesus Christ is “true God of true God”.
This council of Nicea is considered the first ecumenical council. Six more were to follow which were called to articulate the church’s understanding of how Jesus Christ as true God and also true man. The last council met again in Nicea in 787 AD, and so we say that all together there were seven ecumenical, or general, councils of the church. In addition to these seven, there are have also been several local councils, which have authority in the church.
But in addition to these ecumenical councils, there were many other councils which claimed to be ecumenical but were rejected by the church. So what is the criterion of the truth? We can say that it was the acceptance of a council by the whole church which makes it an ecumenical council. In other words, bishops would bring the decision of the council back to their dioceses which then had to receive them. This does not mean that the clergy and the laity of a diocese voted to determine what teaching of the church to accept or reject. The church does not function the way a modern democracy does. Rather the decision of the council would be discussed and debated and gradually work its way into the mind of the church. This was a process that went on throughout the whole Christian world. When the decisions of a council gradually became part of the church’s teaching and liturgy, it was understood that this council truly was ecumenical and authoritative.
The way of doing this may seem complicated and messy compared to the Roman Catholic papal system, but in fact, this was the way the church functioned in the era of the councils (352-787 AD).
The church continues to be conciliar today. Bishops meet with the clergy and laity in their diocese and bishops meet with other bishops. These meetings may be local or international in scope. There, just as we believe the Holy Spirit guides the church in the era of the seven ecumenical councils, He does so today, maintaining the church in truth.