Dedicated to J
In its essence, the term “Magisterium” simply means teaching authority in the Church. As such, I do not divorce the concept of “Magisterium” from Holy Tradition, but rather I view these terms as essentially synonymous within the Orthodox paradigm. And so my goal in this short article is to try and formulate all of the “organs of infallibility” that exist within the Orthodox Church, which constitute our Holy Tradition. What I write here is not absolute or definitive, as I am a mere layman with no teaching authority of my own, but I nonetheless will try my best to faithfully represent the Orthodox Faith on this very important matter.
Extraordinary Conciliar Magisterium
The first organ of infallibility/source of Tradition that we must consider within Orthodoxy is what I’ve called (borrowing from Roman Catholic terminology) the extraordinary conciliar magisterium. This magisterium would include all of the official decrees, canons, and creeds of Ecumenical and Pan-Orthodox Synods that explicitly touch on the apostolic deposit of faith. The list of Synods that this would include is the following:
- First Council of Nicaea +325
- First Council of Constantinople +381
- Council of Ephesus +430
- Council of Chalcedon +451
- Second Council of Constantinople +553
- Third Council of Constantinople +678
- Second Council of Nicaea +787
- Fourth Council of Constantinople +879
- Council of Blachernae +1285
- Fifth Council of Constantinople +1341
- Council of Moldova +1642
- Council of Jerusalem +1672
Examples of this teaching magisterium in practice would be things like the Nicene Creed, the Creed of Chalcedon, and generally any part of these Councils that have “anathemas” attached to them. It is through these Councils that the Orthodox Church has defined her most important dogmas concerning the Trinity, the Incarnation, Iconodulism, the procession of the Holy Spirit, and the sacraments.
[See my defense of the authoritative nature of post-Schism pan-Orthodox Synods here.]
Ordinary Conciliar Magisterium
What I’ve called the ordinary conciliar magisterium would include all of the acta of the Ecumenical and Pan-Orthodox Synods that addressed matters pertaining to the apostolic deposit of faith. Examples of this would include the acta of Chalcedon that spoke of “Christ as having suffered in the flesh, and not in the nature of his ineffable godhead” (Session II), the acta of II Constantinople that, while condemning Pope Vigilius, declared that “the only way in which truth can be made manifest” is through a Council of bishops (The Sentence of the Synod), and the acta of II Nicaea that affirmed universalism in general as a heresy (Response to Definition 18).
That these acta are infallible was essentially the unanimous position of Christian saints and theologians throughout the centuries (see here for more on that), to the point where the Council of Constantinople +1351 declared that “it [is] necessary to bring in the Acts of the council and to read them, and from these to proclaim the true faith,” and the Council went on to declare those who refused to recognize the binding nature of the acta “men… [with that] evil futile opinion and twisted attitude.”
[To see why “conciliar fundamentalism” is not refuted by the Council of Chalcedon’s dealings with Ibas’ Letter to Maris, see Craig Truglia’s article “A Comprehensive Treatment of the Letter of Ibas to Maris.”]
Put quite simply, the entirety of the Church’s inherited liturgical tradition (most especially her hymnography and martyrologies) is viewed as infallible and divinely inspired, per the maxim “lex orandi, lex credendi,” the rule of prayer is the rule of faith. This is seen throughout the writings of the saints, wherein they will cite excerpts from the spiritual practice of the Church (prayers, liturgies, etc.) as dogmatic. This was even one of the main tactics used by the Nicene Fathers against Arianism, proving Christ’s divinity by appealing to the prayers of the Church, as well as the II Nicene Fathers against iconoclasm, appealing to the fact that all Christian churches were adorned with icons since the very beginning. St. Augustine also witnesses to this tradition by defending the practices of infant baptism and prayers for the dead as divinely inspired.
Examples of this magisterium in action would be things like the belief that Prophet Elijah will return before the Second Coming of Christ (Apolytikion of Prophet Elijah, Fourth Tone), that the Jews will apostatize during the reign of Antichrist (who himself will come from the tribe of Dan) and rebuild a temple in Jerusalem (Synaxarion for Meat-Fair Sunday), and of course other general beliefs such as prayers for the dead, the reality of the Eucharist, and so on.
[For an in-depth biblical perspective on the liturgical transmission of tradition, see Seraphim Hamilton’s article “The Liturgical Transmission of Tradition in the Church.”]
Whenever the Fathers of the Church are unanimous on a theological matter pertaining to the apostolic deposit of faith, we hold this to be infallible. This belief, commonly known as the “consensus patrum,” typically goes back to the teachings of St. Vincent of Lerins, who put forth his famous Commonitorium that spoke about the true faith being that which “has been believed everywhere, always, by all,” adding that to discern this faith, we must “interrogate the opinions of the ancients, of those, namely, who, though living in various times and places, yet continuing in the communion and faith of the one Catholic Church, stand forth acknowledged and approved authorities: and whatsoever he shall ascertain to have been held, written, taught, not by one or two of these only, but by all, equally, with one consent, openly, frequently, persistently, that he must understand that he himself also is to believe without any doubt or hesitation.”
Now, the belief that there actually is a consensus patrum (and that this isn’t just a fantasy) does not mean that the Fathers agreed about absolutely everything, even those matters touching faith and morals. This fact is witnessed to by Fathers such as St. John of Damascus (who wrote against St. Epiphanius’ iconoclasm) and Sts. Photius and Mark of Ephesus (who wrote against errors found in some Latin Fathers). Even St. Vincent himself recognized this by addressing the question of what to do if “in antiquity itself there be found error on the part of two or three men, or at any rate of a city or even of a province,” in which case St. Vincent points us to the Councils, after which point we are to “interrogate the opinions of the ancients” with wisdom and discernment.
Examples of this magisterium in action would be things such as the belief in the apostolic succession of bishops (witnessed to by early Fathers like Sts. Irenaeus and Ignatius, and all the Fathers after them), the sacramental nature of the Church, that there is no salvation outside of the Church, that hell is eternal, that the earth is young, and so on.
[For more on this see Fr. George Maximov’s article “The Principle of Consensus Patrum and Modern Attacks Against It,” as well as Seraphim Hamilton’s “Scripture and Tradition According to St. Vincent of Lerins.”]