The Ecumenical Councils of the Early Church, from time immemorial, have been esteemed very highly by the Church, and have even been perceived to be divinely inspired in their theological decisions. Saint Gregory the Great, for example, said of the first four Ecumenical Councils, that their authority is comparable to the value of the four Gospels. Luther had great veneration for them as well, especially in their christological pronouncements. What is perhaps more surprising is that the Church's general esteem for her councils is not limited to the Ecumenical Councils. Charles Joseph Hefele writes in his A History of The Christian Councils (Edinburgh, 1894) of the respect given to the councils of the second and third centuries. He offers a few examples of the general view of the Pneumatic guidance of the councils. For example:
Cyprian in his time wrote, in the name of the Council over which he presided, A.D. 252, to Pope Cornelius, "It seemed good to us, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit" (Placuit nobis, Sancto Spiritu suggerente). To the same effect the Synod of Arles, A.D. 314, expressed itself, "It seemed good, therefore, in the presence of the Holy Spirit and His angels" (Placuit ergo, praesente Spiritu Sancto et angelis ejus). And it was this conviction, which was so universal, that led the Emperor Constantine the Great to call the decree of the Synod of Arles a heavenly judgment (coeleste judicium); and he added, that the judgment of the priests ought to be so received as though the Lord Himself sat and judged (sacerdotum judicium ita debet haberi, ac si ipse DOMINUS residens judicet).
This might cause us some pause today, for one might reasonably ask, how can a council claim such authority? At this point I think it is crucial to bear in mind that church councils are gatherings of bishops. And the Bishop stands in the Office of Christ Himself. We might even say that the Bishop stands in Persona Christi Capitis (in the Person of Christ the Head). Even in the nonepiscopal world of the Missouri Synod, the local parish Pastor, who might not even have any presbyters or deacons with him, nevertheless fills an essentially episcopal office, so that we ought to say that the pastor stands in the stead of Christ.
As Saint Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the Smyrnaeans, "Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic Church."
In fact, we do confess this ritually when the Pastor absolves sin.
Take, this, for example, from The Lutheran Hymnal of 1941:
Upon this your confession, I, by virtue of my office, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God unto all of you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. R. Amen.
Similarly, in Luther's Order of Confession, which we use at Saint Stephen, we have this sweet exchange:
Priest. Dost thou believe that my forgiveness is God's forgiveness?
Response. Yes, I believe.
Priest. Be it done unto thee as thou believest. And I, by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, forgive thee thy sins in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(P. Num meam remissionem credis esse Dei remissionem?
R. Ita, dilecte domine.
P. Fiat tibi, sicut credis. Et ego ex mandato Domini nostri Iesu Christi, remitto tibi tua peccata in Nomine Patris, Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.
It is innate to the priestly office that through the man called into that office Christ Himself absolves sin. Likewise, through the priest He speaks the consecretory Words which announce the awful presence of His own Body and Blood, the mysterium tremendum. Besides these facets of Christ's work among us in the Church, however, there is another, one fulfilled by bishops, priests, and deacons, but which we might say is fulfilled in a special way in the episcopal office, namely, the work of teacher. The Bishop as teacher is the mouthpiece of the magisterial Christ, that is, Christ the Teacher. Our Lord Jesus Christ, the "chief catechist" of the Church, has a solemn duty, as defender of God's people, to stand up against heresy, both gross and subtle. He does this in manifold ways, in the pulpit, in the classroom, in the confessional, in the home, and even in print. Yet he also fulfills this role in the Church when he speaks on important matters with his brothers, gathered in synod.
I dare say that a Christian gathering of Missouri Synod pastors, faithfully confessing the evangelical and Catholic faith of our fathers, would have more authority, certainly in the eyes of the Church that has gone before us, than does the LCMS in Convention. Not that I have disrespect for the Missouri Synod per se, or the Synod Convention when it acts faithfully. The concept of the Missouri "Synod," however, ought to bring to our minds the sense of a faithful and brotherly Ministerium, which on occasion gathers together, on behalf of the Church, to tackle pertinent issues of doctrine and practice, to handle matters of church discipline and worship.
Robert Preus rightly argued, in one of the final works of his life, that the theologians, such as seminary professors, have a Call to teach theology not merely in one parish, or even classroom, but to the whole Church (toto ecclesia). In doing so, he was rightly advocating a longstanding Lutheran precedent. (And this calls into question, incidentally, the raison d'être of inventive creations like the Commission on Theology and Church Relations, which gives laymen equal say with Doctors of the Church.) Yet the testimonies we have from the Early Church, as the ones above, show us that there is an even more ancient mode of Church teaching than that of the professional theologian, one which predates seminaries and universities as we know them today, namely, that of the Bishop, both in the exercise of his teaching vocation in his own church and also when gathered with his brothers. My prayer is that the church in our country will begin to behave more and more in keeping with this ancient model.