Miniblog #174: Waco, TX as an Analogy for Why the Ecumenical Councils Need Renumbering
I’ve long thought there was something eschew about the way the Church’s ecumenical councils are numbered, but only recently came up with a helpful analogy. Where I grew up in Oklahoma and Minnesota the road systems are largely laid out according to the cardinal directions, making it’s ridiculously easy to navigate. If you’re in Cokato and you want to go to Minneapolis, you take Highway 12 going east. It works because Minneapolis is straight east of Cokato and east means, ya know, east. The denizens of Waco, TX where I presently live are directionally challenged, though.11.Please refrain from cracking the unoriginal and rather annoying Waco joke.
The town was originally built along the Brazos River, which as a landmark came to define all else. The trouble is, the Brazos more or less runs northwest to southeast. A local idiosyncrasy, then, is that directions are given in relation to the river. Look at the map above. Clearly “North Waco”, “East Waco”, “South Waco”, and “West Waco” are actually west Waco, north Waco, east Waco, and south Waco, respectively.22.Which I find somewhat maddening in trying to get places. There’s nothing quite like being told to go east in order to drive north. Endlessly discombobulating. It seems to me the ecumenical councils are much the same way. While I’ve done the research and, much as I did with Waco’s history and geography, have come to understand why people number them as they do, it seems equally evident they too started at the wrong place. In my opinion, the Council of Jerusalem is, in fact, the first ecumenical council some 275 years years before Nicaea.33.To offer a clarifying nuance, I’m more than happy to distinguish Jerusalem among the ecumenical councils as the only apostolic council and something of a precursor to subsequent episcopal councils. To my mind that much is obvious. Yet it remains the case that Jerusalem was the first universal and authoritative council in church history and its goal was to unite the Church in spirit, doctrine, and practice. If that’s not an ecumenical council, I don’t know what is. In my opinion, people tend to exclude it because they’re focusing on the Jerusalem Council’s uniqueness and discontinuity rather while downplaying its precedent and continuity. This has three obvious results. First, it fosters a greater sense of continuity from the New Testament era into the Patristic period. We see more clearly the unity within the Church because there’s not this radical break with the close of the biblical canon that we often project upon the historical realities. Second, it means I affirm eight rather than the traditional seven councils. That’s bound to throw off some of my Anglican peers. Third, it realigns the ordering of the councils. For example, Chalcedon is the fifth rather than fourth ecumenical council. I realize that’s going to be the source of much confusion, but I’m OK with that. Just as it’s not my fault Wacoans have tried to alter the cardinal directions, so it’s not my fault the Church didn’t start counting in the right place. That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.