I have seen an erroneous sentiment regarding the Ecumenical Councils expressed among a small number of Orthodox Christians. It goes something like this, “What was proclaimed in the Councils is dogma of the Church; all other ideas fall into the category of theologoumenon (non-doctrinal theological opinion).” In other words, nearly anything in the writings of the Fathers of the Church is merely opinion unless it has been confirmed by one of the seven Ecumenical Councils.
I believe this falls into the trap of “Orthodox Fundamentalism” or “Mere Orthodoxy.” Here is what I mean by that:
In the 1800’s, Christianity in the West was being hijacked by liberals who were heavily influenced by the Age of “Enlightenment.” They attempted to create a Christianity that was more appealing to the modern, “enlightened” man, and in doing so taught against various doctrines including the Virgin birth of Christ, our Lord’s miracles, and the bodily resurrection, claiming these to be the mere fables of ancient, ignorant men.
A reaction came from the more conservative Christians who asked, “What are the fundamental values of Christianity that are non-negotiable?” They came up with a bare-minimum approach to Christianity that later became known as Fundamentalism. Today, that term is usually pejorative, but it originally meant those who believed in certain non-negotiable fundamentals of the faith.
CS Lewis, for the purpose of dialogue with other Christians, developed the idea of “Mere Christianity.” In this he sought a faith that was more generous and traditional than the Fundamentalist offering since he was well-read in the fathers, but it would also be sort of a “common denominator” among all major Christian denominations. Mere Christianity would be a place for dialogue to begin, and for unity to increase.
In Orthodoxy today, there seems to be a small movement to distill the faith to only the scriptures and the Ecumenical Councils. Everything else falls in the realm of theologoumenon. In this effort, people are subconsciously creating a Mere Orthodoxy or Orthodox Fundamentalism.
Such an approach to the faith is alien to Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is the fullness of the Christian faith, and not the barebones.
Nowhere in the writings of the fathers do we see the Ecumenical Councils being held as the only rule in existence. There is no cry of “Solo Councilio!” The Councils were exceedingly important in drawing the lines between Orthodoxy and heresy, and they addressed controversies of their day in ways that were clearly inspired by God, but they did little to anticipate new heresies or erroneous beliefs that could arise.
If all ideas not addressed by the Councils are mere theological opinions, then worship of the Holy Trinity would have been a theologoumenon until the First Ecumenical Council; venerating icons would also have been nothing more than a well-established (but dispensable) practice until the Seventh Council.
The Councils did not create dogma or doctrine, rather they emphasized correct doctrine when it was being challenged by heresy. What authority did the councils appeal to? The teachings and consensus of the Fathers of our Church.
We would do well to not lock ourselves into the Councils only, saying “This is all that really matters.” New ideas, opinions, and heresies continue to arise (often recycled versions of old ones). We must be well read in the Fathers and moving toward purification, illumination, and theosis so that we can face these new challenges.
Of course, there do exist theologoumenon in the writings of the Fathers. What falls into that category is not always readily apparent though; it takes a certain amount of study and discernment to divide theologoumenon and consensus. Not everyone is readily equipped for that task, which is why we practice this faith in community.
Let us avoid the oversimplification, the intellectual laziness of stripping the fullness of the faith down to an Orthodox Fundamentalism of the Ecumenical Councils only. Rather, let us celebrate the faith in its fullness, diving into the depths and mystery of our theology.