I just wanted to write this short post to expand on something I wrote in my reply to Steve Ray about Ecumenical Councils. In that post, I noted how Ecumenical Councils were only ever called by Emperors and so, in the absence of these Emperors, it makes sense that there would be an absence of these particular councils. While I don’t think there’s anything wrong with my argument there, I did just want to make note of the fact that this does not mean that the Church has had absolutely no authoritative decrees since the 7th Council.
Since the last Ecumenical Council, the Orthodox Church has held approximately three Synods that are considered dogmatically binding, and one that, while not really dogmatic in nature, nonetheless provides the definitive Orthodox view on a number of issues. The first post-Nicaea II Council that is dogmatically binding would be the reunion Synod of Constantinople +879, at which St. Photius the Great was rehabilitated and the addition of the Filioque to the Nicene Creed was condemned. This Synod, although not being given the status of Ecumenical, is recognized as the first definitive statement of the Orthodox Church against the Latin Filioque, and this is given credence by the fact that it was even approved by the reigning Pope at the time, John VIII, and all modern Orthodox Patriarchates accept its position on both St. Photius and the Filioque’s relation to the Creed.
The second post-schism Synod that is seen as authoritative in the Orthodox Church would be the 1285 Synod of Blachernae, at which the Unionist Patriarch John Bekkos was condemned as a heretic, and a more clear exposition of the Orthodox position on the Filioque was set forth. The Orthodox Church distinguished her teaching on the procession of the Spirit from the Latin teaching by stating that “the [Holy Spirit] shines from and is manifest eternally through the Son,” a doctrine that would go on to be developed by St. Gregory Palamas, and which today stands as the official Orthodox position on the subject.
This leads nicely into the third dogmatically binding Synod that was held after the era of Ecumenical Councils, and this Synod was actually a series of synods, held in Constantinople in 1341, 1347 and 1351. During these synods, the person and theology of St. Gregory Palamas were promulgated over against the heretic Barlaam of Calabria. Although this Synod didn’t receive the title of Ecumenical, it is nonetheless accepted by all of the Orthodox Patriarchates today as the definitive statement of the Orthodox Church on the question hesychasm, and the theological system of St. Gregory Palamas.
The last Synod I’ll mention is one that isn’t viewed as “dogmatic” in the sense that the previous two are, yet still holds some weight in the Orthodox world, and that is the 1672 Synod of Jerusalem. At this Synod, many Western Protestant heresies were condemned by the Church, and the official Orthodox position was put forward on questions regarding the sacraments, justification, tradition, etc. The reason this council isn’t seen as dogmatic is because it was really just affirming very basic things that were not controversial at all in the vast majority of the Orthodox world, and its conclusions quite frankly just seem like common sense to most Orthodox folk.
That none of these Synods are Ecumenical, and yet still carry authority in the Church is not an idea that is unknown to our Fathers. There were many disputes (even matters of faith) in the early Church that were definitively settled without Ecumenical councils, by either being condemned by highly respected saints or local Synods.
For example, the heresy of Gnosticism was never formally condemned by an Ecumenical or even significant local Synod, rather the Church has accepted the writings of St. Irenaeus of Lyons and St. Hippolytus of Rome as our definitive rejection of this belief system, on top of the fact that the New Testament Epistles even seem to address certain gnostic beliefs.
Furthermore, the heresy of Donatism was also condemned without reference to Ecumenical Councils. Donatus was condemned by the local Synod of Arles in 314, which was actually received as authoritative because of its promulgation by Emperor St. Constantine, despite never receiving the status of Ecumenical. In addition to this, the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo have served as the Church’s definitive response to Donatism, again, despite the fact that they have not received the same prestige as an Ecumenical Council. [The very similar heresy of Novationism also had a very similar fate to that of Donatism, i.e. it was never condemned by an Ecumenical Council, but only local ones.]
Moreover, the heresy of Pelagianism is also one that was condemned by a local Synod as well as the writings of St. Augustine. What’s interesting about this heresy is that the council at which it was condemned, the Council of Carthage +418/419, was later accepted as having Ecumenical authority by the 7th Ecumenical Council. What this shows is that, even if a council isn’t viewed as Ecumenical at a certain point in time, its authority can still be great enough, such that it’s later viewed as having been infallibly binding all along. This same scenario occurred with the Council of Trullo and the Council of Sardica, both of which were initially not given the status of Ecumenical, but were later received as such given their historic authority in the mind of the Church. [This is something that could very well happen to the above mentioned Synods in Orthodoxy that are seen as authoritative, despite not being Ecumenical, given all of these Synods are in essentially the same position as the Councils of Carthage, Trullo, and Sardica were in before their reception as Ecumencal.]
With all of these things considered, hopefully it’s clear that Ecumenical Councils are not the only way in which the Church can make Her voice heard in an authoritative manner, and so the post-schism Orthodox Church has not existed without dogmatic authority, but it is only the manner in which this authority is exercised that has changed since the downfall of the Byzantine Emperors.