Sunday of the Commemoration of the First Ecumenical Council (2016)
“How do the perfect speak,” asked St. Silouan. Answering his own question, he says, “The perfect never say anything of themselves…They only say what the Spirit inspires them to say.”
THE COUNCIL OF NICAEA
Today is the Seventh Sunday after Pascha on which we commemorate the First Ecumenical Council. This Council is called the first Synod of Nicaea and lasted from May 20 until August 25 in the year 325. The Council was summoned by Emperor Constantine to address the teachings of Arius that were causing considerable disturbance in the Empire. Arius taught that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was created by the Father and therefore had not existed alongside the Father from all eternity.
The decisions of the Council concluded with:
- The condemnation of Arius and his teachings;
- the formulation of the Nicaean Creed (which begins with, “I believe, in one God…”);
- how to deal with schismatics, how various types of heretics are to be received back into the Church; and
- the proper dating of Pascha so that the whole Church will be celebrating it on the same day.
THE UNIQUENESS OF THE COUNCIL
The Council of Nicaea is unique in that it became the first of the Ecumenical Councils and therefore had no precedence before it to guide its deliberations.
At the time that the Council of Nicaea was called, there was previously no established canonical regulations for when and how a Council was to be convened. Many synods were already called to adjudicate on matters of urgency that were of mutual concern but only as the need arose.
Unity within the Church was evidenced during these times by adherence to Tradition and the Faith, more than on any institutional pattern. When the Empire became unified under Constantine, the unity of the Church became more visible.
How was this unity revealed? Ultimately, it would be through adherence to the Scriptures as revealed through the Apostolic Tradition. As Fr. Georges Florovsky writes,
Those Councils… were actually recognized as “Ecumenical,” … not because of their formal canonical competence, but because of their charismatic character: under the guidance of the Holy Spirit they have witnessed to the truth, in conformity with the Scripture as handed down in Apostolic Tradition.
SCRIPTURE AND TRADITION
For the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council and all Christians previous to the Council, the understanding of the Scriptures was not in the reading of those Scriptures but in their proper interpretation. The Ethiopian Eunuch exemplifies this when he asked the Apostle Paul while reading the Scriptures in his chariot, “How can I [understand], except some man should guide me” (Acts 8:31). St. Hilary of Poitiers, echoes the same when he writes, “For Scripture is not in the reading, but in the understanding,”
The understanding of the Scriptures is taken up into this “Tradition” and is a part of it, as Fr. Georges Florovsky further writes,
Tradition was in the Early Church, first of all, a hermeneutical principle and method. Scripture could be rightly and fully assessed and understood only in the light and in the context of the living Apostolic Tradition, which was an integral factor of Christian existence. It was so, of course, not because Tradition could add anything to what has been manifested in the Scripture, but because it provided that living context, the comprehensive perspective, in which only the true “intention” and the total “design” of the Holy Writ, itself of Divine Revelation, could be detected and grasped.
Therefore, only within this “living context” can the divinely revealed Scriptures be understood because “Tradition” is not “a transmission of inherited doctrines” as though a text of theology is handed over from one generation to the next. No, it is a “continuous life in the truth” and an “insight into the meaning and impact of the revelatory events.” In this sense, how you live and what you do will affect how you understand God and the world around you. The longer you live in Christ, in the Tradition, the more you will understand.
This “Tradition” is the whole life that the Fathers lived in within the Church and the life that we are brought into through Baptism.
It is in this atmosphere, in this whole world of “Tradition,” that we become united to God. It is not as though we are only pardoned of our sins but, what is more than this, God unites himself to us, as when Christ says, “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us…” (cf. John 17: 21). St. Athanasius of Alexandria (who was at the First Ecumenical Council) repeated what St. Irenaeus wrote, approximately one hundred and fifty years earlier, when St. Irenaeus said, “[God] became what we are in order to make us what he is himself.”
The term for this “life united to God” is called “deification” and each of us, as baptized Christians, participate in this life, this experience of and union with God, in varying degrees.
Those whom the Church considers “Fathers of the Church” are described by Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) who said of them: they had personal experience of God, had excellent intellectual gifts and they had also acquired the education of their day. “They were, therefore, able, on the one hand, to record this experience and, on the other, to confront the various heretics of their era.”
We could say that these Fathers of the Church are “mature” Christians, or “experienced.” But, more to the point, they have experienced the dogmas. Not only does living within the Tradition of the Church reveal the truth of God through the Scriptures, but this truth is revealed experientially. In their experience, wherein they are illumined by Divine Grace or have visions, they see God, as the Apostle Matthew writes, “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8). This is true, not only of the fathers at the time of the Ecumenical Councils but in every age.
EXPERIENCE AND DOGMA
Up to the time of the First Ecumenical Council, we find two instances where a standard is referred to when dealing with heretics. Firstly, we see this in St. Irenaeus. He describes the dogmas of the Faith as an image of a king made with costly jewels. The heretics, he says, rearrange the stones to make the image of a fox. St. Athanasius, refers to the “total perspective of faith” and says that the heretics lack this and that is why they quote verses from Scripture out of context. These are both examples of theological constructions used to explain the experience of the Saints, to put into words the experience of God from whence comes the dogmas of the faith. Only the pure in heart who have seen God know what the image of the king looks like and know the total perspective of the faith.
Two Saints and the First Ecumenical Council
Therefore, when we look at who attended the First Ecumenical Council we see St. Anthony the Great who cast out demons, worked miracles, was clairvoyant and even saw souls of the departed being borne to heaven. It was him who was called on by his friend St. Athanasius to refute the Arians even though he was unlettered.
We also see St. Spyridon, whom St. Nikolai (Velimirovich) writes about saying that apart from performing many miracles, St. Spyridon also saw and heard the angels of God, foresaw future events and discerned the secrets of men’s heart. At the First Ecumenical Council, he displayed the unity of the Holy Trinity in a remarkable way:
He took a brick in his hand and squeezed it. At that instant fire shot up from it, water dripped on the ground, and only dust remained in the hands of the wonderworker. “There was only one brick,” St Spyridon said, “but it was composed of three elements. In the Holy Trinity there are three Persons, but only one God.”
These holy men, these Saints, lived in the Tradition of the Church and we live in that same Tradition. They were baptised with the same Baptism as us. They struggled and fought the good fight taking the Kingdom of Heaven by force and were united to God. They received Divine revelations and were used by God in these Councils to defend the Faith and through their lives show us the narrow way that leads to Christ, our deification. They were not ordinary men; they were Saints, who spoke as the Holy Spirit directed them.
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on us!
 Archimandrite Sophrony, St. Silouan the Athonite (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood, 1991), 57.
 Florovsky, Fr. Georges, “The Authority of the Ancient Councils and the Tradition of the Fathers,” in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky: Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View (Vaduz, Europa: Buchervertriebsantalt, 1987), 1:94.
 Ibid, 96.
 Ibid., 75.
 Ibid., 79.
 Ibid., 80.
 Against Heresies. Bk. 5, preface.
 Hierotheos, Metropolitan of Nafpaktos. “I Know a Man in Christ”: Elder Sophrony the Hesychast and Theologian (Levadia: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 2015), 28-29.
 Patristic Theology (China: UncutMounain Press, 2008), 193-194.
 “The Authority of the Ancient Councils”, 81.
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