Is every ecclesiastic synod (council) infallible?
Is the Holy Spirit "obliged" to descend upon the participants, simply because they who convened it are Bishops?
Just because a Synod strives to be called and be recognized as "Ecumenical", does that mean the Holy Spirit is necessarily "obliged" to validate its decisions?
Are the decisions of an ecclesiastic Synod binding for Christians - like the commands of a general to his subordinates - if those decisions conflict with the Faith and the doctrine of the Church up until that time?
These are just a few of the questions that are raised in the conscience of many Christians, when specific events bring them in conflict with the views of the Church's administration and Her conciliar decisions.
Judging by Her history so far, the experience of the Church gives us a clear-cut reply to the above questions: «NΟ»!
Before referring to specific examples, we would first of all like to quote the words of an acclaimed Professor of Theology on the matter: "The age-old history of the Church alone is undeniable testimony that not every synod of bishops is a guarantee of the truth or is exempt of all fallacy. The fact that holy and great men of the Church such as Athanasius the Great and the divine Chrysostom were removed from episcopal synods fully justifies the grievance of Gregory the Theologian. [...] It is a historical fact that has been often witnessed, that neither the number of participant Bishops or their originating from every corner of the world and the Churches that exist in every place, nor the participation of all the central thrones and Archbishops are enough for the convening of an Ecumenical Synod. Hence, in the rightly called "robber synod of Ephesus" (in 449 A.D.), its participants were 135 bishops, among whom were Dioscorus [Patriarch] of Alexandria, Juvenal of Jerusalem and Thalassius [Archbishop] of Caesaria and Cappadocia .
In fact, let's take a look at a few more historical facts regarding synods:
The «twin synods» of Arminium (Rimini, Italy) and Seleucis of Isauria, convened (in 359 A.D.) by the heretic (Arian-minded) Emperor Constantius for the resolution of the Arian quarrels - in which respectively Bishops of the West and the East had participated - were comprised respectively of 300 Bishops in the first one (80 of whom were Arian-minded) and of 160 bishops in the second one (15 of whom were Orthodox). Eventually, in 359 A.D., they accepted the Arian creed of Niki - a city of Thrace - because it had been imposed by the Emperor despite the contrary decisions that had been reached by them.
- The "robber synod" of Ephesus (August 449 A.D.) had been convened by the Emperor Theodosius II (408-450) with its chairman the (rather moderate) Monophysite Patriarch of Alexandria Dioscorus, for the purpose of acquitting the extreme Monophysite heresiarch, Archmandrite Eutychus, who was supervisor of the Monks of Constantinople. This synod dethroned Saint Flavian, the Patriarch of Constantinople  and Eusebius, the Bishop of Dorylaion, e.a.. Saint Flavian slept in the Lord shortly after having succumbed to the injuries he sustained from Dioscorus' followers.
- The iconomachy synods of Hieria (754 A.D.) and Frankfurt (794 A.D.): The former was convened under the protection of the iconomach Emperor Constantine V (741-775) with the participation of 338 iconomach bishops; during this Synod, anathemas against Saint Herman I the Patriarch of Constantinople were also recited (715-730 A.D.), but especially against Saint John of Damascus (ca. 680-749 A.D.), on account of his huge contribution to the theological debunking of the iconomachy; he was anathematized as an "ill-reputed name" and "Saracen-minded" and "scheming against the kingdom". The synod of Frankfurt was convened by the Frankish king Charlemagne and had essentially rejected the honouring of holy icons in the West, having regarded them only as a decorative element (and not appropriate for veneration).
- The unitive (pseudo-)synod of Ferrara-Florence (1438-1439 A.D.) in Italy. The advantage for Pope Eugene IV of Rome (1431-1447) and the Roman Emperor John VIII Paleologos (1425-1448) in unifying Western Christianity with the Orthodox Church so that the Pope might prevail opposite the reformative Synod of Basle (1431-1449) and the Emperor succeed in securing papal help in the face of the Turks' advance, are the things that led to this synod. After long months of negotiations and unbearable pressure exerted on the Orthodox Hierarchs by the papists and the Emperor John, the synod ended up signing the "Oros" (condition) that favoured the papal claims and heresies. Only Saint Mark of Ephesus (the Noble) - the tallest theological stature among the Orthodox - along with five other representatives and the representatives of Iberia (Georgia) did not sign the Oros and departed from the Synod's proceedings. The ecclesiastic conscience of the Orthodox did not finally allow the pseudo union with the East to prevail, in spite of the machinations of the Emperor; Saint Mark the Noble proved himself to be another "Atlas", of Orthodoxy, who alone bore the entire weight of the conflict and the victory over the papists and "Orthodox" Latinizers (whom he called "Greco-Latins").
And of course there are many other heretical and robber Synods.
We should remind you that when these Synods were being convened, they were not characterized as "heretical", nor did they present any other official signs of being heterodox; in fact, most of them were organized by the "official Church" of the State, with the protection of the local (royal or imperial) authorities, and with the pretext of striving for ecclesiastic and social peace. Only pursuant Orthodox Synods could stigmatize and condemn the preceding heretical ones.
The very important theologian fr. Georges Florovsky, when formulating the historical reality of whether the truth is always found with the crowd or not, writes as follows:
«Quite often, the measure of the truth is the witness of a minority. It is possible, for a small flock to be a Catholic Church (Luke 12:32). There may be more heterodox than Orthodox. It is possible for heretics to become widespread, ubique, and the Church end up in the margins of History or withdraw to the desert. This has occurred repeatedly in History and it is quite possible that it will occur again [...] The duty of obedience ceases when the bishop deviates from the catholic (universal) canon, and the People have the right to accuse him - and to also even dethrone him.»
But then, when is a Synod recognized as Ecumenical, or as generally acceptable?
What is the significance of Holy mens' participation in them?
What is the significance behind the opinion of the corpus of the Church (locally and perennially), with regard to the validity of a Synod's decisions?
How much of a determining factor is the preservation of the Catholic Church's Tradition intact, with regard to the acceptance or the condemnation of a Synod's rulings by the Orthodox faithful People?
In the end, the validity of a Synod is judged by its alignment with the Truth that is revealed to the SaintsPatriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Fathers).
The Orthodox Patriarchs of the East in their response to Pope Pius IX in 1948 had announced - in compliance with ecclesiastic Tradition - that "for us, neither Patriarchs nor Synods were ever able to introduce innovations (dogmas and customs), because the defender of the Faith is the corpus of the Church - in other words, the people themselves, who want their religion eternally unvarying and identical to that of their fathers».
That is why, in the Minutes of the 7th Ecumenical Synod (787 A.D.) during the time of the Iconomachy, the following words of the Holy Fathers were repeated:
«This is the Faith of the Apostles; this is the Faith of the Fathers; this is the Faith of the Orthodox; this is the Faith that sustained the world. [...] We uphold the ancient institutions of the Catholic (Orthodox) Church; whosoever adds or removes something from the Catholic Church, we anathematize.»
- 1. P.N.Trembelas, Dogmatics, vol.B, "Soter" publications, Athens 2003, pages 403-404.
- 2. His memory celebrated on the 16th February.
- 3. Protopresbyter G. FFlorovsky, Holy Bible, Church, Tradition, P.Pournaras publications, Thessaloniki 1976, pages 71-75.
- 4. (§17), in the book by J. Karmiris, Τhe Dogmatic and Symbolic Monuments of the Orthodox Catholic Church, vol.B, Athens 1953, page 920.
- 5. Mansi 13, 416.