There have been some councils, the decisions of which were later reversed by some latter councils. Thus, if your position on a particular matter that was being considered at those councils was too strong, you could easily be excommunicated from the Church as a heretic between those two councils, while you would be just fine after the second one, or the other way around.

Here is an example: the council of Hieria in 754 a.d. and the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 a.d., both of which appropriated their titles as Seventh Ecumenical Council. The first council forbade the use of icons, and the second one reversed that decree. I know that one could say here that the Synod of Hieria was not an Ecumenical Council (it was called and chaired by the imperial family and no patriarchs were present, plus, its status is implicit in the Second Council of Nicaea declaring itself to be the actual Seventh Ecumenical Council), however, it doesn't really matter. What matters is that at the time when it took place it was announced as an Ecumenical Council, which means that ordinary folks - at least during the time between those two councils - had to follow the decrees of the council of Hiernia, otherwise, they would definitely fall into the category of heretics according to the decree of that council.

So, the question is: How can common believers in the Eastern Orthodox Church be sure that the Church's decisions are correct and not erroneous?

  • 4
    It seems to me that this question presents a false dilemma. Obviously, we'd like all of the decisions made by our particular brand of Christianity to be correct and not erroneous, but that's not what we can expect of any human institution. Jul 5, 2012 at 21:59
  • @JonEricson - The question is not at all asserting that all the decisions of EOC are correct. In fact, the very reason why this question is asked is because some of the EOC's decisions were, as the time has shown, definitely wrong.
    – brilliant
    Dec 2, 2015 at 1:26
  • The bishop's purpose at a council is to testify to the way in which his own diocese has traditionally and historically understood the topic under consideration.
    – user46876
    Nov 4, 2019 at 4:21

5 Answers 5


My simple answer: the Holy Spirit promised to guide the Church into all truth. The Orthodox believe that He has fulfilled His promise. Now for my lengthier response:

There is somewhat of an implied dichotomy in Western thought that must be called out right off the bat: the distinction between Scripture and Tradition. In Eastern thought, there is no distinction, as the Church and its apostolic tradition existed before the New Testament was written. Scripture is part of tradition, indeed it plays the preeminent role in Tradition. Tradition is not opposed to Scripture nor does it contradict it any point, rather it explains Scripture. But I do not have time to address this fully, nor is it exactly the question at hand. Suffice it to say that in Eastern thought (and increasingly also in modern scholastic Western thought), sola scriptura is a myth—a logical fallacy. Everyone appeals to tradition when interpreting scripture - we just don't agree on which tradition, and many deny that they have any such tradition (and this ignorance is even more dangerous). Hence the 23,000+ denominations in Western Christianity.

In John 16:12-13, Jesus said, "I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth." It should be noted that in both instances, the word "you" is plural. This promise was not made to individuals, but to the disciples, they that would become the Church and form the apostolic tradition that was to be guarded and passed on (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6). Keep in mind that many churches were planted before the New Testament was written.

When early heresies threatened to corrupt the gospel, early Christians turned to the apostolic tradition to defend the faith (such as when Christians appealed to apostolic succession to refute the Gnostics' claim that Jesus had secret teachings and that there were alternate gospels. Note that no official canon of scripture was adopted until the 16th century in the West, and no official canon has ever been declared in the East). When heresies threatened to divide the unity of the entire church, the church came together with bishops (episkopoi) representing the Church in various geographic regions, including both East and West for the first seven "ecumenical" (church-wide) councils.

When considering this question which was directed to the East, a broader one comes to mind: how can anyone in Christianity-whether Eastern or Western-be sure that the Church's decisions are correct and not erroneous? For instance, the Church preserved certain texts which were eventually accepted as the canon which we today call the bible, and they chose to repudiate other texts. Even still, not everyone was unanimous on the 66 books included in the modern Protestant bible (cf. antilegomena), not to mention the deuterocanonical books found in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bibles. The reality is that everything we have in the Christian faith, including our bible, comes from tradition. Studying history helps make sense of it (I highly recommend Jaroslav's five-volume set on The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, and his concise book Vindication of Tradition. Pelikan is a renowned ecclesiastical historian).

The East has critically evaluated the Church's many theologians, such as the Cappadocian fathers repudiating how Origen and Irenaeus integrated Platonic and Neo-Platonic thought into their theology. Also note that with the exception of Martin Luther and some recent scholars, most Western Christians have never considered how Aristotelian thought and scholasticism has impacted Protestant theology. Western Christianity's ignorance of history prior to the 16th century has lead them to unquestionably adopt many heretical and worldly philosophical viewpoints, and this can be seen clearly in the rampant division and individualistic soteriology that has marked Western Christianity.

A close examination of history shows a remarkable unity in the history of the Church for over 1000 years before the bishop of Rome excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople in 1054. Prior to that event the Church had always decided issues via ecumenical councils, but the bishop of Rome wished to have sole authority over the entire Church, which was an innovation and was not the apostolic tradition (contrary to Roman Catholic teaching that Peter was the head over all the apostles-we can see already in the New Testament that Paul corrected Peter and that James appears to preside in some way as a leader over the Jerusalem council in Acts 15). Suffice it to say that while there are anomalous events such as the council of Hiera, history shows that these decisions were local and thus not widely accepted and passed on in the Church. Despite many challenges to the faith and Church unity, She maintained remarkable unity throughout history, especially in the East.

In summary, the East trusts that the Holy Spirit has continued to guide the Church into all truth. Eastern theologians are generally very knowledgeable about Church history and they "give their ancestors a vote" when interpreting scripture. Most Protestants do also, they simply aren't honest about it in most cases and don't look much further in the past than the 16th century for theological guidance, except to occasionally use the content of early conciliar creeds.

I do not have time to write a history lesson about the many interconnected issues that are requisite knowledge for a more in depth discussion of the trustworthiness and value of tradition, I have merely hinted at some of the notable data. I hope that I have given a basic response and good resource recommendations to learn more. I hope that this response has not come off as demeaning. I frequently hear Western Christians critiquing Eastern Christians for being uncritical towards Christian history, when the exact opposite is generally the case.

  • 2
    I think your criticism of Rome is not entirely on-topic for the question (and weak besides, there are plenty of times when a Cardinal will speak for the Pope and there are plenty of other times when a sub-ordinate has spoken harshly (and correctly) to the Holy See) Jul 6, 2012 at 1:45
  • "Suffice it to say that while there are anomalous events such as the council of Hiera, history shows that these decisions were local and thus not widely accepted and passed on in the Church" - My question is not about what the "history shows", but rather about how to know if the new decision is correct or wrong right in that time when this decision has just been made. Let's say I am a poor peasant living in Ephesus in 754. My bishop is coming back from the council of Hiera and announces to me its decisions. How can I be sure AT THAT TIME that the decisions are correct?
    – brilliant
    Dec 2, 2015 at 1:46
  • 2
    If the Church is an ark navigating tumultuous waters, sometimes it may get a little off course, but for divine reasons, you know it won't sink and will reach its final destination. The important part is that you're in the ark.
    – Dan
    Dec 2, 2015 at 2:51
  • If I were to rewrite this today, almost 4 years later, it'd be much less snarky.
    – Dan
    Feb 1, 2017 at 21:00

The best answer to your question can DIRECTLY be answered by Maximas the Confessor.

In short its who calls the council and who backs it up.

The 1st Council you refered to was called by an Emperor and the decision only went the way the emperor wanted because he put a great deal of presure on the the Bishops (its been firmly established that when Bishops in a Council make a decision under direst the decision is not binding) of the East. Iconaclasm was always very unpopular among EVERYONE except the military and the Emperor. So yes the Council of Hieria was recognized as the 7th Ecumenical Council in the life of that Emperor due to his presure but as soon as the Bishops of the world could get away with it they revoked the Councils 7th Ecumenical statis, its not even recognized as a valid Council.

In fact the Bishop of Rome and the other Bishops of the west never recognized and refused to go along with the Council of Hieria. And those ordinary folks you were talking about never recognized the Council of Hieria because frankly they recognized it to be heretical when they were told they would have to destroy Icons an already ancient Christian tradition.

Maximas says it best when he is being told to go along with a heretical document because its the will of the Emperor. He says to accept the Monophysite heresy because its the Emperors will is what counts you have to go back to to the false Councils called by the Emperors durring the Arian heresy and accept those councils accepting Arianism (at that point he was spit on, beat, had his hands cut off and tongue cut out so he could never speak against the Monophysites again).

As far as Councils go, yes Emperors have at times called councils but then (and this goes back to Constantine himself) the Bishops must endorse it and the Emperor may even attend but he stays out of it and abides by the decisions made not the other way around.

Regarding East and West

It's not that the West decided their Canon of Scripture in the 16thc and the East never has, these things were established in the early Church. Its a matter of something being challenged that a Council then corrects.

Example: Martin Luther takes 5 books out of the Old Testiment so a Church Council in the West puts a restriction on not having these books in the Old Testement, then it lists all the books of the old testament.

Analogy: imagine that murder is not written in the law as a crime but everyone knows its wrong and nobody challenges it. Then in 1600 somebody starts killing people and says that murdering is ok. The lawmakers then get together and put it in law books. It's not that murder was ok in 1599, everyone recognized it was wrong prior to 1600, but it wasn't challenged until then. A rather crude analogy but also a sort of good one. I mean maybe people hadn't really thought why murder was wrong so they come up with the language to explain why murder is wrong and this could be an analogy for the terms like consubstantial.

Christians before that word had an understanding of the Trinity -- God the Father;p God the Son; God the Holy Spirit -- three persons one God. Then someone comes along and says something like Christ is a God to us cause he created us but really he is the 1st created being by God the Father. To explain the Orthodox position they come up with the word consubstantial to explain the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. This is the two ways doctrines come out in Church Councils.


I think the answer lies in that such councils must bear the test of time.

The Eastern Orthodox Church does not profess that its hierarchs are infallible. At the present moment, for example, the Patriarch of Constantinople has all but been accused of heresy by other Patriarchs for statements that were made during the abortive Council convened last year.

What the Church does maintain, however, is that there will always be a core of believers - not necessarily even hierarchs - who will guard true doctrine.

  • 1
    Welcome to Christianity.SE. For a quick overview, please take the Site Tour. Thanks for offering an answer here. Could you provide any links or references that give more information on the things you say here? If so, that would improve your answer. See: What makes a good supported answer? Feb 1, 2017 at 18:13

The answer is simple. If a decision goes against the faith of the Church - it is a heresy. Christians always used icons. So a council that was gathered only to enforce an imperial whim to remove them cannot be obeyed. No Ecumenical Council ever introduced any new truths.

  • "If a decision goes against the faith of the Church - it is a heresy" - Your answer sounds as if all the believers knew from the very beginning all their faith to the smallest detail and where able to judge all new teachings and decisions against that faith. If so, then what was the point of having those Councils in the first place?
    – brilliant
    May 4, 2012 at 4:24
  • 1
    The point is to protect the faith against people who try to contaminate it. These councils was always held as a response against some false teaching.
    – zefciu
    May 4, 2012 at 5:27
  • Why protect if the believers already knew their faith so well that they could easily tell which teaching went against the faith of the Church, and thus was false?
    – brilliant
    May 4, 2012 at 5:35
  • Some of them knew well. Some of them not so well. Some of them had simple faith which could be crooked by eloquent preaching of heretics.
    – zefciu
    May 4, 2012 at 7:42
  • 1
    "Some of them had simple faith which could be crooked by eloquent preaching of heretics" - Which means that the matter was not as simple as you have presented in your answer, right? I am sorry, I am not trying to argue just for the sake of arguing, but I do want to get to the core of the matter.
    – brilliant
    May 4, 2012 at 9:11

Common believers in the Eastern Orthodox Church, of these days, cannot distinct between truth and heresies. For this, is needed more than a common believe. The orthodoxy is not based on contemporary logic or understanding, neither based on science methods, or innovations. The orthodox criterion is always based on tradition made by saints, their teachings, their life examples, and their councils. The orthodox teachings are always inherited from and confirmed by the preceding saints, which are considered part of the Church, temples of Holy Spirit, guarantors of pure teaching of God tested in practice with their dedicated life, and without contain any mixture of profane wisdom or human understanding. Many saints are confirmed by God, through relics and miracles around them. So, distinction between truthful and heretics teachings are validated and accepted in time as official, along few generations.

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