According to Orthodox Christians, the Church's infallibility resides not in any single person or group, but primarily in the great ecumenical councils (of which there were seven). These councils made final and infallible decisions regarding (what would come to be) the orthodox position on the doctrines of the Incarnation, Trinity, and others.
For the purposes of this post I will assume my own ignorance. I admit that I do not fully understand the Orthodox teaching on church infallibility, and so I invite my Orthodox brothers to help me by interacting with my musings and perhaps answering my questions.
I have three primary concerns I wish to address here. (1) The manner in which the first ecumenical council (Nicea) was called and conducted, (2) the duplicity of many of the leaders who attended, and (3) the fact that only a short time after the council made its decisions, the majority of the Christian world sided with Arius.
(1) The Council of Nicea was called by the Emperor; the secular power, not the church. This seems odd to me. In fact, it seems entirely likely that had not Constantine wished to keep his Empire whole and secure, we might have seen fracturing in the church not unlike modern Protestant denominationalism today. The bishops of Christendom were quite content to argue amongst themselves, and there doesn't seem any reason to think that such a council would ever have been called had Constantine not stepped in. Moreover, Constantine made it clear that the council's decisions would be enforced, again by secular power. This also seems odd. If there was a clear understanding of church infallibility from the days of the Apostles, and indeed if the bishops at Nicea were also well aware of it, would such enforcement be necessary? I suppose it could have been merely precautionary. In any event, the fact that the whole affair was conducted, from start to finish, in such a stately, secular manner, casts some doubt on what I take to be the Orthodox understanding of the nature of church infallibility.
(2) The wording of the Nicean Creed was such that many of the bishops (perhaps more than half) were able to sign it, while still remaining fully Arian in their thinking. They affirmed the words, but not their orthodox spirit. And in a short time they were again preaching their Arianism. This leads to another important question: if the majority of the bishops at the ecumenical council didn't even truly agree with what was (later to become) the orthodox position of the church (and supposedly the council), where is infallibility located? Again, I am mostly speaking from ignorance here and I'm open to correction, but my understanding of the Orthodox position is that infallibility resides in ecumenical consensus. And yet, it seems that the true consensus of Nicea, at least at the time, favored Arianism. And it seems very strange that many of the bishops present at an ecumenical council, and responsible for its decision, would be so blatantly (and sinfully?) duplicitous in their actions. God can use sinful men, to be sure, but when it comes to the infallible descisions of the church, I assume the presumption is that He is using holy men.
(3) Many times I have heard from an Orthodox brother that such-and-such was the "majority" position of the early church (this is often used as a defense against the Augustinian doctrine of predestination, for example). But just a short time after Nicea, and especially after the death of Constantine, the vast majority of Christendom became Arian. There were times when it seemed as though Athanasius alone was the voice of orthodoxy, which is where we get the phrase "Athanasius contra mundum." It won't do to argue that the church was simply falling away from orthodoxy, for "orthodoxy" was still being established. Nicea was the first council called to deal with questions regarding Christ's deity, and in a sense, Nicea lead to an Arian church. And when Athanasius so vigorously defended Christ's full deity, he did so primarily by making arguments from Scripture, not by arguing over the meaning of the words of the Nicean creed.
Obviously none of this constitutes any sort of proof or knock-down argument against the Orthodox understanding of church infallibility. My only wish here is to offer a few observations and questions, and any response is both welcome and appreciated.
If this is your first time visiting this blog, I also invite you to read the other posts here. Some of them are very good, and they address many issues, ranging from the inclusion of the apocryphal books in Scripture to the possibility of belief in the Word of God being properly basic. Please look around and leave comments!