Where does authority lie in the Christian church? Who has the ultimate say on canons and doctrine? These questions have preoccupied Christianity pretty much from the beginning, and one traditional answer has been the “ecumenical council,” a collection of bishops from around the world who convene to consider disputes about theology and practice. The most famous such council was the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., which fixed the date for Easter and issued the historical Christian creed that bears its name. (The council was called by a pagan emperor, Constantine, a fact that itself opens the door to interesting questions about church-state relations). Human nature being what it is, Christians fairly quickly fell into debate about which councils were in fact ecumenical and binding. For Oriental Orthodox Christians, there have been three, the latest of which convened in the fifth century; for Eastern Orthodox, there have been seven, the latest of which convened in the eighth century; for Catholics, there have been 21, the latest of which, Vatican II, ended only in 1965. Protestant Christians, who have a much looser concept of the church, typically do not vest the councils with as much importance.
All of this is background for what looks to be an interesting new book by Butler Professor Paul Valliere, Conciliarism: A History of Decision-Making in the Church (Cambridge 2012). The publisher’s description follows:
Conciliarism is one of the oldest and most essential means of decision-making in the history of the Christian Church. Indeed, as a leading Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann states, ‘Before we understand the place and the function of the council in the Church, we must, therefore, see the Church herself as a council.’ Paul Valliere tells the story of councils and conciliar decision-making in the Christian Church from earliest times to the present. Drawing extensively upon the scholarship on conciliarism which has appeared in the last half-century, Valliere brings a broad ecumenical perspective to the study and shows how the conciliar tradition of the Christian past can serve as a resource for resolving conflicts in the Church today. The book presents a conciliarism which involves historical legacy, but which leads us forward, not backward, and which keeps the Church’s collective eyes on the prize – the eschatological kingdom of God.