ON THREE SUNDAYS EACH YEAR Byzantine Churches commemorate the fathers of the seven great councils of the first millennium. The first ecumenical council (Nicaea I) is remembered on the Sunday after the Feast of the Ascension and the seventh (Nicaea II) on the Sunday nearest to October 11. The first six councils are recalled together on the Sunday following July 13, the feast of the fourth council (Chalcedon).
The Importance of Councils
The council – whether a local or regional synod or an ecumenical assembly – reflects a basic understanding of Church in the Christian East. The Church is the “communion in the Holy Spirit,” a community infused with the life-giving presence of the Spirit of God. Councils reflect this image of the Church as a community. The council is a true image of the Church when it is imbued with and dependent on the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Councils function on every level of Church life in the East. In the local Church, the eparchy, the primary council is the presbyterate which shares in the sacramental ministry of the bishop. Community councils involving deacons and the laity administer the temporal concerns of the eparchy and its parishes. Wider synods govern the life of patriarchates or metropolias. With the establishment of Christianity as the dominant faith in the Roman Empire, the ecumenical council was created.
The first ecumenical council, Nicaea I (AD 325) was called by the Emperor Constantine the Great to assure religious unity in the empire (the “oecumene”). All the bishops of the empire were called to participate in this and subsequent councils as successors of the apostles, entrusted with the teaching ministry by Christ. Together the bishops speak to and for all the local Churches. The agreement of the bishops, ratified by the “Amen” of the faithful, expresses the voice of the Holy Spirit in the Church.
The seven councils we commemorate liturgically are particularly remembered for their role in clarifying the Church’s teaching on the Trinity and the incarnation, the basis of all other doctrines, in the face of numerous controversies in the now free Churches of the Roman Empire. The councils sought to render the teachings of these mysteries scattered through the New Testament in the precise terms of Greek philosophy current in the empire. They succeeded in doing so, but were not as successful in expressing these teachings in ways accessible to those Churches outside that culture. Thus the fifth-century Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon contributed to lasting divisions in the Churches of the East.
The Problem of Chalcedon
Like other councils, the Council of Chalcedon dealt with both theological and political issues. The main theological issue was how to express the mystery of Christ’s incarnation in the face of the Monophysitism taught by Eutyches, an influential priest in Constantinople and a disciple of St Cyril of Alexandria. At its second session the Council adopted the concept “two natures in one Person,” employed by Pope St. Leo the Great in a letter to Flavian, the archbishop of Constantinople. When the letter was read to the bishops, they replied, “This is the faith of the fathers! This is the faith of the Apostles! So we all believe! Thus the Orthodox believe! Anathema to him who does not thus believe! Peter has spoken thus through Leo!” Leo’s expression has been used in the Greek and Latin Churches ever since. Unfortunately this term was the opposite of that used by St Cyril of Alexandria a generation earlier, describing the “one nature of the incarnate Word.”
The theological problem was made even more complex by the political, however. The first Council at Nicaea has decreed that the foremost local Churches in the Empire would be Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. At Chalcedon the 500+ bishops present recalled that “the fathers [at an earlier council in Constantinople] rightly accorded prerogatives to the see of older Rome, since that is an imperial city; and moved by the same purpose the 150 most devout bishops apportioned equal prerogatives to the most holy see of New Rome, reasonably judging that the city which is honored by the imperial power and senate and enjoying privileges equaling older imperial Rome, should also be elevated to her level in ecclesiastical affairs and take second place after her.” Thus Constantinople (New Rome) was accorded the second place in the hierarchy previously held by Alexandria.
The Pope of Rome, St Leo the Great, at first objected to this realignment as contrary to the canons of Nicaea I but he later relented and it became law in the empire. The Churches of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and – because it was the site of the Lord’s death and resurrection – Jerusalem would be the foremost local Churches in the empire. This group of five sees would be known as the pentarchy and their ranking is recognized in the Byzantine Churches to this day.
Thus not only was Roman theological terminology deemed more precise than Alexandrian, the Byzantine see was given precedence over that of Alexandria. The Alexandrian bishops at first delayed and finally refused to accept the decrees of this council and the Egyptian Church was divided into Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian parts. Those who accepted Chalcedon were called “Melkites” or Royalists; those who did not called themselves “Copts,” i.e. true Egyptians.
The Copts would later be joined by the Armenians and many Syriac-speaking members of the patriarchate of Antioch. Along with their daughter Churches in Ethiopia and India, the non-Chalcedonians are today known as the “Oriental Orthodox Churches.”
A New Chapter
These divisions were hardened in the thousand years of Islamic rule in the Middle East. Each Christian group – Melkite, Nestorian and non-Chalcedonian – was designated a separate millet (nation), with its own laws, insuring that the Christians remained disunited.
It was only with the end of the Ottoman Empire in World War I that these Churches embarked on a new way of interacting. In 1988 the Coptic Orthodox and the Catholic Churches issued an Agreed Statement on the Incarnation. It said in part, “We believe that our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, the Incarnate-Logos, is perfect in His Divinity and perfect in His Humanity. He made His Humanity One with His Divinity without Mixture, nor Mingling, nor Confusion. His Divinity was not separated from His humanity even for a moment or twinkling of an eye.”
This was followed in 1990 by an Agreed Statement between the Oriental Orthodox and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. “The [Chalcedonian] Orthodox agree that the Oriental Orthodox will continue to maintain their traditional cyrillian terminology of ‘one nature of the incarnate Logos,’ since they acknowledge the double consubstantiality of the Logos which Eutyches denied. The Orthodox also use this terminology. The Oriental Orthodox agree that the Orthodox are justified in their use of the two-natures formula, since they acknowledge that the distinction is ‘in thought alone’.”
Finally, over 1500 years after Chalcedon, the Latin, Greek and Oriental Churches have come to recognize their common faith in the perfect humanity and divinity of Christ, despite the differing terminology they use to express it.