THE CONSENSUS PATRUM: WHAT IS IT? by Yulia Rozumna and Mina Soliman

This article inaugurates our new Dialogical Series. Each respondent submits his or her essay without knowing in advance what the other has written. 

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~ Yulia Rozumna ~

The principle of consensus patrum was expressed by St. Vincent of Lérins, but was applied during all seven Ecumenical Councils as a criterion for distinguishing true teaching from heretical understandings. It has been later on used for defining the right scriptural interpretation in the Catholic Church. It is also used for defining the teaching of the Fathers on a specific theological question.

This principle does not mean that all Church Fathers agreed on all theological questions. This is impossible, since truth is multi-dimensional and human beings are limited in their cognitive capacities. What it does mean is that most Fathers, who were known for their holy life and, consequently, for deeper theological insights, agreed on the most important theological questions which were crucial for salvation. It resulted in the dogmas and Acts of the seven Ecumenical Councils. Importantly, the Church is led by the Holy Spirit, and the doctrines are expounded by holy people through inspiration of the Spirit of God.

Some wonder who the Church Fathers are. When we want to find an answer on a challenging theological issue, outside the doctrinal sphere, the Fathers of which historical periods and geographical areas should we consult? Whether these are only the Fathers of the seven Ecumenical Councils? Or key figures of later centuries, like St. Gregory Palamas, or non-Greek saints and theologians? Is there a canon of Fathers which should be cited on all questions? Some respond that these should be the Fathers whose authority is approved by the Acts of the Ecumenical Councils. 

Another question is what the most important theological questions are. It is generally agreed that the mind of the Church is expressed in the dogmatic definitions and in the canon of Scripture. However, not all important questions are defined as dogmas, and there is no unanimous opinion for their solution. There are secondary questions which are still very important: in cosmology (appearance of the human being, of death), anthropology (what is the image of God, dichotomous or trichotomous model of human nature, time of creation of the human soul), ecclesiology (borders of the Church), in sacramentology (validity of the sacraments outside of the Church), eschatology (the second coming of Christ, eternity of punishment), christology (whether human nature of Christ was damaged), biblical criticism, etc.

The principle of consensus patrum does not seem to work in solving these questions. Some respond that they do not directly influence our salvation. The consensus patrum concerns mainly those questions which influence salvation. If we deny this principle we will put in doubt not only the Tradition of the Fathers and the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, but also the status of Scripture itself.

Some say that an alternative is new Ecumenical Councils which will define dogmas and react to new questions.

Some deny that the quantitative criterion should be applied to solving theological questions (agreement of a majority of the Church Fathers). The majority can be wrong. Truth is truth, no matter who expresses it—one person or many. Others say that the Holy Spirit who brings unity in the Body of Christ lets the truth be known to many believers.

The principle of consensus patrum is seen as essential because one individual Holy Father may express his thoughts imprecisely, imperfectly, and mistakenly, whereas a unanimous witness of the Fathers is an expression of the common faith of the Church. Church Fathers expressed mistaken views, since nobody is infallible, but the Church accepted only those thoughts which were in line with the thoughts of other saints. Only a symphony of the voices of the Fathers expresses the voice of the Church, its teaching and Tradition.

The consensus patrum was one of the procedures of the Ecumenical Councils, and was used to define the canon of scriptural books. It is not a dogma, but the means for defining the dogmatic teaching. However, one should not dogmatise the opinions and teachings of the Fathers, since they are not infallible and legally binding. The teaching of the Church is partly contained in one Father and partly in another. If the Fathers made mistakes, it does not refute the validity of consensus patrum as a principle.  Astonishing evidence of a religious truth is visible in the unity of spiritual experience and the unity of teaching based on this experience.

Some express the opinion that we should not regard theology as a sphere of human creativity, because it solves too serious questions to allow any place to human arbitrariness. This process is directed by God but with human participation. Doctrines are not accidental human views but an articulation of the Tradition of the Holy Spirit.

Instead of the seemingly contradictory views of the Fathers we can talk about the “symphony” of their voices, or one melody with different notes, or one staircase directed upwards with each Father being an individual, distinct “step,” and being useless without other steps. Father John Behr beautifully says that heretics separated themselves because they found the Church unwilling to silence the symphony of voices and listen only to their monotones. As Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) explains, one and the same truth may be expressed differently by different Fathers in different times, languages, contexts. One truth may have several aspects, each of which may be articulated or left unexplained. When the principle of consensus patrum is interpreted in a dialectical manner, there is space for private theological opinions and distinct terminological  expressions of the same teaching and truth. 

Thus, the principle of consensus patrum served as a method for distinguishing truth from heresy during the Ecumenical Councils. It helped to clarify the truth concerning the salvation of humankind. The teaching of the Fathers on other, non-dogmatic and non-soteriological questions can be described as a “symphony” of voices.

Divine truth is multi-dimensional and cannot be grasped by the limited human mind, but is revealed at proper times and circumstances by the Holy Spirit.  

~ Mina Soliman ~

It is going to be difficult to define what consensus patrum means for the Oriental Orthodox Church. I do not doubt that how we define it is different from the Chalcedonian Orthodox tradition. The Oriental Orthodox Church is a very diverse group of churches united by a common faith rooted in opposition to the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451).  We may have a common patristic corpus before Chalcedon, but after Chalcedon we have a diversity of fathers with regard to our localities. 

The Coptic Church (to which I belong) is still in a period of neo-patristic renaissance and rediscovery.  Many of the fathers whom we hold dear to our hearts, like St. Athanasius, St. Cyril, or St. Gregory the Theologian, are only beginning to be reread in this generation. We only had what survived in Arabic, which was not much. The Coptic Church went through a period of decimating persecution from the 14th to the 18th centuries, to the point where all that was left was what we orally chanted and read in the liturgy. Many things were burnt, along with the heavy destruction of our Coptic language and heritage, being slowly replaced by Arabic.  There was a period when all the Arabic churches, Chalcedon, non-Chalcedonian, or Assyrian, seemed to have interchanged with one another canonical and patristic writings translated into Arabic—and we even have a common veneration of St. Isaac the Syrian. 

Today, a Coptic scholar who was perhaps a pioneer in his approach to quoting the Church fathers in his commentaries and theological works was Father Tadros Yacoub Malaty. He has acquired such a level of respect throughout the Coptic Church that it seems he became a sort of model for us today on what the consensus patrum would be. 

However, this does not answer the question what the consensus patrum is.  Malaty even uses Origen as a viable source for his commentaries and theology, something that is controversial in Coptic circles.  In other words, we do not have a consensus on “patrum,” let alone figure out what the fathers’ consensus might be. 

There is however an ancient precedent in this approach.  To quote the fathers in such bulk to further a particular interpretation or dogmatic principle actually began to be popularized by an important father of the anti-Chalcedonian tradition, Severus of Antioch. Yonatan Moss recently published a book, Incorruptible Bodies, regarding a very intriguing christological controversy that originated within the anti-Chalcedonian circle, but spread even to the Chalcedonian side. This is the controversy of Julianism, named after an anti-Chalcedonian bishop of Halicarnassus. 

Julian believed that the body of Christ was from the moment of conception by nature “incorruptible.” Therefore, the sufferings and death of Christ happened as not something that naturally happens to His flesh like anyone of us. Severus vehemently opposed this doctrine as a form of docetism, accusing Julian of teaching that Christ faked His suffering and death.

For a while, scholars have only concentrated on the discussion of Christ’s very own body between Severus and Julian. Moss uniquely extends this discussion further into the body of Christ in the Church and in the Eucharist. Severus, despite being very strongly anti-Chalcedonian, did not exclude Chalcedonian clergy and the empire from the Church, and even believed that by economia, their sacraments were valid. Severus never intended to create a separate church with separate clergy, and even allowed some Chalcedonian bishops to be in the diptychs. Julian on the other hand was a purist, believing that a Chalcedonian must be baptized and chrismated if one was to convert into the anti-Chalcedonian Church. So Severus believed in “corruptible” members of the Church and Julian believed in “incorruptible” members of the Church.  

When it comes to the “patristic body” of Christ, however, the reverse becomes evident.  Julian saw a “corruptible” patristic body as going through a process of historical development that required a rewording of their writings for a better theological expression today (an approach, Moss claims, not different from Athanasius, Basil, and Cyril, called the “rhetorical historical approach”). Severus saw the patristic body as “incorruptible.” He opposed rewording them and saw them as equally inspired as the Scriptures in an ahistorical manner, a so-called “casuistic method,” a legalistic terminology.  It should also be mentioned there were six names that were the basis of most of Severus’ theology:  Athanasius, the three Cappadocian fathers, John Chrysostom, and Cyril of Alexandria. 

However, Severus was not always this stringent about the patristic body. A younger Severus did imply to have used the rhetorical historical approach. We do not know what brought about this change in him. Moss postulates that since Severus lost political power as bishop, he had to regain patristic exegetical power within his sphere against Julian, placing himself as the “infallible” interpreter of the fathers.

This still does not answer the question of consensus patrum, but it does give us an interesting historical idea of how this consensus was being built up. Even Chalcedonians would eventually go on to adopt this “casuistic” method in the veneration of their councils and fathers.  

I once told Father Tadros Malaty that I could talk to him for hours about patristics. He smiled and responded kindly, “Talking is fine, but it is nothing without doing. I am looking for people who are in the business of doing, not talking.” Whenever he translated the fathers into Arabic, it was for the benefit of the people to get a spiritually edifying understanding of theological principles and the text of the Scriptures. 

An ideal Copt embodied in Malaty, whether one takes the historical rhetorical approach or the “casuistic” approach, simply trusts in the Holy Spirit to guide the body of Christ, the Church, in the infallible and incorruptible direction that He sees fit despite the hurdles and controversies of the corruptible members of the Church. You must do your part in service to the Church based on the gifts bestowed upon you. 

This is the best “consensus” that I think we can at least agree to build upon the legacy of the Fathers.

Yulia Rozumna is an Orthodox Christian and a  PhD student in theology at Nottingham University, UK. Her main interests lie in the fields of monasticism, patristic exegesis, anthropology, and various aspects of patristic thought in general. Her dissertation will focus on the interconnectedness of St. Basil the Great’s doctrinal and ascetical teachings on the divinity of the Holy Spirit. 

Mina Soliman is a Coptic Orthodox Christian who holds an MD from Ross University School of Medicine in Portsmouth, Dominica. He is pursuing an MA in Public Health at George Washington University. His interests include ancient history, theology, mission, and philosophy. A member of the Coptic Medical Association of North America, he has participated in medical and spiritual missions to Ethiopia and Namibia.

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