By Fr. George Florovsky
In a certain sense the General Councils as inaugurated at Nicea may be described as “Imperial Councils,” die Reichskonzile, and this was probably the first and original meaning of the term “Ecumenical” as applied to the Councils. It would be out of place now to discuss at any length the vexed and controversial problem of the nature or character of that peculiar structure which was the new Christian Commonwealth, the theocratic Res publica Christiana, in which the Church was strangely wedded with the Empire. For our immediate purpose it is actually irrelevant. The Councils of the fourth century were still occasional meetings, or individual events, and their ultimate authority was still grounded in their conformity with the “Apostolic Tradition.”
It is significant that no attempt to develop a legal or canonical theory of “General Councils,” as a seat of ultimate authority, with specific competence and models of procedure, was made at that time, in the fourth century, or later, although they were de facto acknowledged as a proper instance to deal with the questions of faith and doctrine and as an authority on these matters. It will be no exaggeration to suggest that Councils were never regarded as a canonical institution, but rather as occasional charismatic events. Councils were not regarded as periodical gatherings which had to be convened at certain fixed dates. And no Council was accepted as valid in advance, and many Councils were actually disavowed, in spite of their formal regularity. It is enough to mention the notorious Robber Council of 449. Indeed, those Councils which were actually recognized as “Ecumenical,” in the sense of their binding and infallible authority, were recognized, immediately or after a delay, 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....
Church is ecclesia, an assembly, which is never adjourned. In other words, the ultimate authority and the ability to discern the truth in faith is vested in the Church which is indeed a “Divine institution,” in the proper and strict sense of the word, whereas no Council, and no “Conciliar institution,” is de jure Divino, except in so far as it happens to be a true image or manifestation of the Church herself. We may seem to be involved here in a vicious circle. We may be actually involved in it, if we insist on formal guarantees in doctrinal matters. But, obviously, such “guarantees” do not exist and cannot be produced, especially in advance. Certain “Councils” were actually failures, no more than conciliabula, and did err. And for that reason they were subsequently disavowed. The story of the Councils in the fourth century is, in this respect, very instructive. The claims of the Councils were accepted or rejected in the Church not on formal or “canonical” ground. And the verdict of the Church has been highly selective. The Council is not above the Church; this was the attitude of the Ancient Church. The Council is precisely a “representation.” This explains why the Ancient Church never appealed to“Conciliar authority” in general or in abstracto, but always to particular Councils, or rather to their “faith” and witness.
From "The Authority of the Ancient Councils and the Tradition of the Fathers" in Chapter VI of The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. I, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View (Vaduz, Europa: Buchervertriebsanstalt, 1987).