In this article, I have some necessary comments that were left out of a recent debate that Erick Ybarra and myself had on Papal Ratification of ecumenical councils. The debate was moderated by Michael Lofton from Reason and Theology.

Due to my cheapo audio-visual set up, my conclusion starts becoming incomprehensible when I start quoting Eusebius and other sources pertaining to the Easter and Rebaptism controversies, arguing that the earliest consensus of the Church was that the Pope was not needed to ratify/approve of councils or doctrinal decisions. I argued these events proved that he can in fact be overruled or ignored by the Church via conciliar action.

Here are the passages in question with their context:

In late-second century Turkey Melito of Sardis and Saint Sagaris (as attested to by Polycrates, the Bishop of Ephesus at the time) like Polycarp celebrated Easter on the date of the Jewish Passover (Eusebius’ Church History, Book 5, Chapter 24). Yet, these contemporaries were not men that personally had interactions with the Apostles as Polycarp was, so their testimony did not carry the same weight. Pope Victor I, apparently convinced that he had the truth on his side and the authority to do something about it, invalidated excommunicated Polycrates from his church over his Saturday-Easter observance.

We know this because according to the early fourth century church historian Eusebius, Pope Victor I when posed with Ephesus’ refusal to change their liturgical calendar “immediately attempted to cut off from the common unity the parishes of all Asia, with the churches that agreed with them, as heterodox; and he wrote letters [to other churches enlisting their support] and declared all the brethren there wholly excommunicate” (emphasis added, Ibid.).

The world’s churches, having received Victor’s letters seeking their approval of his unilateral action, responded in an uproar. Eusebius recounts that “this [the excommunication] did not please all the bishops and they besought him to consider the things of peace…Words of theirs are extant, sharply rebuking Victor” (emphasis added, Ibid.).

Irenaeus conferred by letter about this mooted question, not only with Victor, but also with most of the other rulers of the churches” as a way of resolving a thorny doctrinal issue in the Conciliar way which was customary to Christians up to this point in time (Ibid.).

Bishops from Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt, received Irenaeus’ letter and also wrote several copies of their own letters. The letters were circulated throughout the churches and they concurred that they also celebrated Easter on Sunday, not on Saturday (see Eusebius’ Church History, Book 5, Chapter 25). The churches of Greece caught wind of this and also concurred. Some of these letters probably represented the conclusions of local “synods and assemblies of bishops” which we know “were held on this account” (Eusebius’ Church History, Book 5, Chapter 23).

In the preceding, we can see that (according to Eusebius) Pope Victor I unsuccessfully attempted to excommunicate the churches in Asia Minor. The world’s churches, who agreed with Victor I on the date of Easter, rejected the excommunication and settled the question via conciliar action. The belief was, a Pope could not settle the question but a consensus had to be forged. This obviously mitigates against the idea that the Pope had the final say in determining this matter (which eventually was dealt with by the Council of Nicea, not by Victor I’s decree).

We have a similar situation as it pertains to the rebaptism controvery. Pope Stephen I believed that not only former-Novatianists, but also former-Gnostics (i.e. Christological heretics) can join the Catholic Church without being rebaptized as long as they were baptized before by the heretical sect (See See Dionysus of Alexandria, Letter III; Cyprian, Letter 73.2, 7, Cyprian, Letter 71.1-2; Cyprian [Firmilian], Letter 74.5.)Saint Stephen I was in obvious error and his stance on baptism was later rejected by the Council of Nicea (Canon 19) and the Council of Constantinople I (Canon 7)–due to this issue being a matter of “discipline” and not faith, it has no bearings on the infallibility of a Pope.  

When Cyprian publicly rejected Stephen’s position, Stephen apparently doubled down on his own position, writing in several “letters” that Cyprian was “condemned” (Preface of On the Baptism of Heretics). The world’s churches replied revealing a rejection of Stephen’s assertion of Papal prerogatives. 

Cyprian’s response that “neither does any of us [in North Africa] set himself up as a bishop of bishops” (On the Baptism of Heretics, Paragraph 2) implies that Stephen called himself a Bishop of Bishops. Saint Firmilian’s response to one of Stephen’s letters also carries with it the inference that Stephen asserted his supremacy, writing that “[t]hey who are at Rome…vainly pretend the authority of the apostles” (Cyprian, Letter 74, Paragraph 6). 

The ecclesiology the world’s churches preferred to Papal Supremacy was obviously conciliarist. Cyprian asserted that “by tyrannical terror,” akin to Stephen’s, no African Bishop “compel[s] his colleague to the necessity of obedience; since every bishop, according to the allowance of his liberty and power, has his own proper right of judgment, and can no more be judged by another than he himself can judge another” (On the Baptism of Heretics). Firmilian wrote that the Bishops of “the eastern churches” and “so many bishops throughout the world” disagreed with Stephen (Letter 74:25).

Saint Dionysus of Alexandria also weighed in, giving the opinion of the churches of Egypt and in diplomatic language rejecting Stephen’s demand that Gnostics be chrismated:

But if anyone despises the doctrine of the resurrection of the body [i.e. the Gnostics], let such an one be at once ranked with the dead. For these reasons, that we may be in accord, church with church and bishop with bishop and elder with elder, let us be careful in our utterances. Moreover in judging of and dealing with particular cases,—as to how it is proper to admit those who come to us from without, and how to supervise those who are within,—we give instructions to the local primates  who under divine imposition of hands were appointed to discharge these duties; for they shall give a summary account to the Lord of whatsoever they do (emphasis added, Letter to Stephen).

What were these instructions? We find out soon afterward in a letter Saint Dionysus of Alexandria wrote to Stephen’s successor, Sixtus II, that “it shall suffice only to lay hands on those who shall have made profession in baptism…but those over whom there has not been invoked the name either of Father or of Son or of the Holy Spirit, these we must baptise.” Hence, Dionysus allowed for the chrismation of Novationists, but not that of Gnostics. Similar to Cyprian’s council, the Alexandrian Patriarch did not view themselves as a “Bishop of Bishops” as they merely gave “instructions” and each individual Bishop was accountable to God alone, and no higher authority. This is akin to what Cyprian wrote, that each Bishop “has his own proper right of judgment, and can no more be judged by another than he himself can judge another.” Further, “that we may be in accord…let us be careful with our utterances” is an obvious rejection of Stephen’s excommunication.

I have some closing comments. I believe Erick Ybarra won the second debate. In short, I believe my main fault is I really did not adequately respond to Erick’s claim that Augustine allowed for Ecumenical Councils to be appealed by Popes. I did this because, quite frankly, I felt that the whole question and answer section would be bogged down by arguing over the Donatist controversy, which I could not recollect at the time how the North African church responded to Pope Zosimus.

Hence, I left unaswered some poor reasoning on Erick’s part. He reasoned, that because the North African Church appealed to an earlier Pope when rejecting Zosimus’ crypto-pelagianism (in a conciliar way, may I add), this proved Papal appeals of ecumenical councils. How I left such an assertion go unanswered is simple–my brain does not always work as it should. Nevertheless, my response to this is as follows:

Augustine claimed that if the Council of Arles (314 AD) (presided over by the Pope of the time) was in error, the Donatists had possible redress in a “plenary council.” Erick’s claim, that because Augustine appealed to the decision of an earlier Pope against Zosimus, proving that Augustine believed even plenary councils can be appealed is simply not sensible:

  1. Zosimus is a Pope and not a plenary council, so appealing his decision by citing an earlier Pope does not prove ecumenical councils can be appealed in Augustine’s ecclesiology.
  2. The fact that Zosimus was appealed by a local council in North Africa actually strengthens the view that Popes could be appealed.
  3. Appealing to a pre-existing Pope is not a proof of the retroactive “appellate power” of the Papacy, but rather the simple citing of an earlier precedent, as obviously the earlier doctrine should be the original and correct one.
  4. The fact that the Council of Ephesus finally solved the Pelagian controversy, and not Pope Zosimus relenting to the North African council, shows that an ecumenical council is the ultimate arbiter at that time.
  5. For Erick to claim that Augustine believed ecumenical councils could be appealed to a Pope, he would have to cite an example of when Augustine said this had or could occur–which he did not.

My closing comment on the debate as a whole is that by Erick’s own admission, Rome has epistemologically not settled what truly is ecumenical. There are plenty of Roman “ecumenical councils” that might later lose their ecumenicity, as well as those declared ecumenical by a Pope and that pertain to faith and morals, somehow are not ecumenical.

In my humble opinion, this makes Papal Ratification an impossible view to the Roman Catholic. Furthermore, the fact that it is never clear when a Pope is really teaching faith and morals ex cathedra and when he is not (as the examples of Liberius, Zosimus, Honorius, and even Martin I in his acceptance of an ecumenical council on a matter of dogma) means that we have no idea what is actually dogmatic in the end result, as nothing has really been settled and consensus is not the means in which we know something is 100 percent settled.

Lastly, being that a Pope is theoretically only infallible in matters of faith and morals, while the issue of councils is ecclesiastical, this means that Rome cannot ever give an infallible answer to what is an ecumenical council or how we can discern dogma by default. This is the key epistemological mega-problem that I was trying to point out during the debate, but due to my own spiritual blindness, failed to cite. Think about this for a moment: if who the Pope is and what he can do is an ecclesiastical question and not a matter of faith and morals, then if Rome “settles” the question that the Pope is infallible when teaching ex cathedra, this is by definition not an infallible conclusion! Rome, by self-definition, cannot settle doctrine infallibly.

I honestly think this leaves Roman Catholicism open to constant change and evolution, and while I don’t think Roman Catholics are as far off as some Orthodox think, it is only by the grace of God they are not. Their epistemology, in my honest opinion, is unworkable and contradictory for the reasons I stated above.

A Bishop who may be infallible in subjective circumstances where no one really knows if he acted infallibly, because they are fallible, solves nothing. This is only excacerbated by the fact that Rome has no infallible means to declare that they have a Bishop that could be infallible in specific circumstances!

I say in exasperation, at least appealing to the Scriptures and to consensus, when there is one, at least gives us certainty in something as Christians. While Orthodox are no strangers to some theological evolutions of their own, I think we are comfortable with more epistemological tension than the average Roman Catholic. And, if Roman Catholics are starting to revert back to a more Orthodox way of thinking, admitting they have not and cannot really solve a lot of these things by fiat as Erick has, then I see this as a positive development which will ultimately bring Roman Catholics back to Orthodoxy.