Religion & Liberty Online

How to Have a Great and Holy Council

There’s been a lot of discussion leading up to the planned Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete this month. As is typical of councils in the history of the Church, so far it’s a mess, and it hasn’t even happened yet.

In what has been described as an act of self-marginalization by Bulgarian Orthodox scholar Smilen Markov, it looks like the Bulgarian Patriarchate has already backed out.

Antioch has a laundry list of grievances.

The OCA, which might not even technically be invited in the first place, has issued a statement.

And further statements from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Georgian Patriarchate, and others can be found.

No need to review the contents as the point is simply to note that, once again, the council is already a mess.

Officially, I should be calling it the “Great and Holy” council, but I’m not holding my breath on that one. That’s not out of cynicism (well, not entirely) but due to the record of history and the science of economics.

I find it extremely unlikely that we will get so lucky as to have the first such council this century turn out to be great and holy. We remember two councils from the fourth century as Holy and Ecumenical, and there are several others that made important decisions and contributed to Orthodox canon law. But there were many, many councils that did no such thing.

As J.N.D. Kelly noted in his classic (if now dated) work, Early Christian Creeds,

The secular historian Ammianus Marcellinus, a cold and detached observer of Christianity, commenting on the character of [the emperor] Constantius, drily noted that in his reign the efficiency of the imperial transport system was dislocated by bishops hurrying to and from ecclesiastical synods.

Many councils, probably many more than even those revered as only marginally holy today, ranged in quality from inconsequential to harmful to heretical.

This oddity wouldn’t scandalize an economist, however. It’s a feature, not a bug, of the fourth century Church (and the Church had a lot of bugs back then!).

As I wrote last September for the Library of Law & Liberty,

As counterintuitive as it may sound, failure is not a bad thing so long as there is a lot of it. Economically speaking, the more entrepreneurs an economy has, the fewer eggs it places in just a few (typically big) baskets. When something unexpected disrupts a big player, there is someone else ready to exploit the opportunity for gain and the economy endures and even benefits from the loss, making it not just robust but the opposite of fragile—that is, “antifragile.” In order for that “someone” to be likely to be there, however, it is imperative that as many people as possible be able to take risks and try to succeed, even if that means that most of them fail. The freer markets can be, the better.

Put in spiritual terms, we know that the path to sainthood is not instant perfection but a long and dedicated repentance. Like a healthy market economy, “Successes in life often come at the end of a long road of many failures.” So too with sainthood. If that is what it takes for individuals to be holy, why should Church councils be any different?

Now, I know what some readers are thinking: What about the Holy Spirit, whom Christ said would guide the Church “into all truth” (John 16:13)? How can I apply a secular analysis of human behavior to the work of the Spirit in the Church?

Well, I can because I’m Orthodox. First of all, I affirm with the Akathist of Thanksgiving, “The breath of Thy Holy Spirit inspires artists, poets, and scientists.” That includes economists. Second, I affirm with St. Gregory the Theologian that “that which [Christ] has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.”

We are not saved, as Apollinaris wrongly claimed, without some aspect of our humanity. Thus, the way in which we discover and create new things through trial and error can be sanctified too. That includes the way the desert fathers experimented to discover the best spiritual practices for a life of faithful repentance, and that includes the way the Church in the fourth century held many, many councils as part of the process by which, by God’s grace, we had one (actually two!) that could be called “Great and Holy” or “Ecumenical.”

The payoff here is twofold: (1) It ought to temper our expectations about a council that already is looking like it will be a disaster. Tempered expectations is an attribute of humility, arguably the central virtue of the ascetic life. (2) It ought to reassure us that this council, even if it is a disaster and not “Great and Holy” at all, can still be part of the Spirit’s work in the Church. Knowing this ahead of time can help to make our faith “antifragile” in the face of failure.

In the meantime, I’d recommend that we schedule a few dozen or more councils … just in case.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.