The Church’s relationship with the state was always complex. How could Christians, whose “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20), have an uncomplicated attitude toward rulers who Paul claimed were “appointed by God” (Rom 13:4)? This dynamic tension between Church and state is not some post-Constantinian compromise that sullied the spotless bride. Later history simply made these early crosscurrents more prominent. Jesus’ words—“Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription does it have?” (Lk 20:24)—became quite a bit trickier to understand when coins looked like this:
This interplay between Church and state makes the historian’s task difficult. We cannot use anachronistic standards to interpret the events of the past, yet events seldom make sense apart from later history. In the remainder of this post, we’ll look at a pair of parallel timelines, and attempt to distinguish which series of events came to be seen as normative and which came to be seen as aberrant. How do we distinguish the two?
Timeline 1—A theological controversy arose, so a council was called in the eighth century, which affirmed the first six ecumenical councils. The council’s decisions were then questioned and the controversy reignited. Finally, approximately sixty years later, the eighth century council was re-affirmed as the seventh ecumenical council.
(Spoiler alert: Timeline 2 is word-for-word identical.)
Timeline 2—A theological controversy arose, so a council was called in the eighth century, which affirmed the first six ecumenical councils. The council’s decisions were then questioned and the controversy reignited. Finally, about sixty years later, the eighth century council was re-affirmed as the seventh ecumenical council.
They are uncannily similar, yet these two series of events represent opposite views. The first represents iconoclast activities (the council of Hieria in 754 and its affirmation in 815), and the second, the Orthodox iconodule response to them (the second Council of Nicaea in 787 and its affirmation in 843). These doppelganger timelines call into question our ability to recognize the Church in history. We rely on familiar criteria (e.g. the imperial Church, the conciliar Church, the Church which claims continuity with the past, etc), yet none are adequate. What makes Nicaea II an ecumenical council, as opposed to Hieria?
Our answer to this question sounds weak. But from either a historical or an ecclesiological perspective, we call “ecumenical” the council that everyone remembers as ecumenical. From the historian’s perspective, the platitude proves true: “History is written by the victors.” But this should not trouble us theologically, either. After all, the scriptures hold that “a tree is known by its fruit” (Mt 12:33) and “wisdom is justified by her children” (Lk 7:35). The entire dynamic of the Gospel is one of hindsight—“When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken” (Jn 2:22). The task of recounting Church history straddles the boundary between theology and history, but in this case both enterprises share a backward-glancing methodology.
This may not be welcome news for those planning a Great Council in the near future. Nevertheless, if we are asked whether the council is “ecumenical” or not, the only safe answer is: “Ask my great-great-grandchildren.” In some matters, only time will tell.