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David Bentley Hart on the 5th Ecumenical Council

A few months ago David Bentley Hart kicked up quite the online controversy over in the comments of this blog. The original topic was universalism, but then it turned into a discussion of the status of Origen of Alexandria within Eastern Orthodoxy, and that in turn became a discussion about the authority of church tradition and the ecumenical councils. Dr. Hart has now made an additional contribution to this discussion in what will surely be a controversial article in First Things. 

Equal parts cynical, hilarious, insightful, and explosive, this latest offering seeks to vindicate Origen and explain the circumstances which allowed so many, in both the Christian East and West, to consider him a heretic. One section is especially eyebrow-raising, however, and it raises some key questions about the viability of the ecumenical councils’ authority in these matters. Dr. Hart writes:

It is true that something remembered by tradition as “Origenism” was condemned by someone in the sixth century, and that Origen was maligned as a heretic in the process; and it is also true that for well more than a millennium both those decisions were associated with the Council of 553 by what was simply accepted as the official record. But, embarrassingly, we now know, and have known for quite some time, that the record was falsified. And this is a considerable problem not only for Orthodoxy, but for the Catholic Church as well, inasmuch as the authority of the ecumenical councils must in some way be intimately—if obscurely—bound to some notion of the indefectibility of the Church’s transmission of the faith.

Dr. Hart’s claim here is not that that the Council was wrong, though he allows for that hypothetical possibility later, but that it was shortly afterwards corrupted by the fraudulent addition of unclear and inaccurate canons which were subsequently interpreted as condemning Origen. But Dr. Hart does, in fact, highlight the problem that this causes with regards to “the indefectibility of the Church’s transmission of the faith.” In short, Dr. Hart believes that the Church has not correctly transmitted the faith on this matter, and he believes that this is a claim that is objectively proved by historical fact.

Dr. Hart does not believe that the council itself approved the condemnations of “Origenism,” but he is willing speak hypothetically–“Even if the anathemas had actually been approved by the council, they no more constitute a serious condemnation of Origen than they do a recipe for brioche.” That’s quite the statement, and it will be interesting to see what Orthodox and Catholic readers of First Things make of it. The matter is a disciplinary one, to be sure, but it also impacts doctrine insofar as it involves anathemas aimed at theological ideas. These anathemas were then later received and implemented in a more or less universal fashion, but they are now considered dubious. And so Dr. Hart is correct to point out that “the Church” (a term with a stipulated definition, of course) erroneously received these canons.

Dr. Hart also gives his view that the only doctrinal topics which can be considered binding are those limited to the Seven Councils. Everything else, he writes, “can possess at most the authority of accepted custom, licit conjecture, or fruitful practice.” The missing premise, however, is whether or not there is an ecclesiastical polity which has made this ruling and whether they continue to rule accordingly. As a Protestant I can read this essay and gain much from it, by way of historical investigation and as a case study in the inescapability of human politics in church affairs. Fallibility is our lot, and there’s no getting away from that.

And oh yes, I too think Origen got a bad rap and ought to be restored to a position of honor.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

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