THE BYZANTINE CHURCHES commemorate liturgically each of the seven Ecumenical Councils of the first millennium. Both Catholic and Orthodox Churches have held important councils since then, but none of those councils are celebrated with liturgical feasts in either the East or the West. Why are only the seven Councils which we commemorate so set apart?
An answer may be found in the title of a recent book on these councils, edited by Sergey Trostyanskiy. Its title, Seven Icons of Christ, indicated the unique character of these gatherings. They articulated the heart of the Church’s faith in Christ, expressed in the first two councils by the Creed. The five councils which followed nuanced this faith by insisting that to say that the incarnate Word was “fully God and fully man” meant that He was one person in two natures (Chalcedon), that, as one person, His Mother could be called Theotokos (Ephesus), that He had both a divine and a human will (3 Constantinople) and that as truly man He could legitimately be depicted in icons (2 Nicaea).
While all these councils were accepted by the Greek and Latin Churches in the first millennium, the Church of the East and the Oriental Orthodox Churches (Armenians, Copts, etc.) only accepted some of them. Beginning in 1988 all these Churches signed agreed statements of faith with both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Thus, while using contrasting terms and upholding different councils, all the historic Churches share a common faith in Christ as truly God and man.
Was There an Eighth Council?
In the ninth century we find the first signs that the Greeks and Latins had seemingly irreconcilable differences. Two councils were held in Constantinople to resolve the question of who was the rightful patriarch of Constantinople. At that time the patriarchs were closely tied to the imperial court and their fortunes rose or fell depending on who ruled the empire. The situation was intricate; the following timeline may help clarify it.
847 — Ignatius, of royal stock and an anti-iconoclast, became patriarch shortly after the Triumph of Orthodoxy (restoration of icons).
857 — With a regime change, Ignatius loses imperial support and is deposed. He is replaced as patriarch by Photios. The new patriarch quarreled with the Pope of Rome over which of them had jurisdiction in Bulgaria.
867 — A new emperor, seeking an alliance with the West, deposed Photios and recalled Ignatius. Contrary to expectations, Ignatius would not cede Bulgaria to the pope.
869-870 — A council met in Constantinople to decide the status of clerics ordained by Photios. The pope sent three legates who presided. The other patriarchs were represented as well. Photios was condemned for rousing “continuous turmoil and storms for all the Churches of Christ our Savior, in a multiplicity of ways” and his supporters were deposed.
This council also challenged the imperial practice of deposing patriarchs, decreeing: “We declare that no secular powers should treat with disrespect any of those who hold the office of patriarch or seek to move them from their high positions, but rather they should esteem them as worthy of all honor and reverence …. If, then, any ruler or secular authority tries to expel the aforesaid pope of the apostolic see, or any of the other patriarchs, let him be anathema.” This canon would be invoked in later centuries as the Pope of Rome struggled for independence from various rulers.
877 — Ignatius dies and Photios is restored as patriarch with no significant opposition.
879-880 — Another council is called, again with representatives of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. The Roman legate presented Photios with a pallium sent by the pope. The council fathers abrogated the council of 869-870 and sealed the union of Rome and Constantinople, disrupted by the Photian affair.
This council became important later because it had implicitly rejected the addition of the Filioque to the Creed, an addition which was not yet used in Rome at that time. The fathers condemned those who would “impose on it [the Creed] their own invented phrases … and display the audacity to falsify completely the antiquity of this sacred and venerable rule with illegitimate words, or additions, or subtractions.” It was not until the eleventh century that Rome would accept the Filioque.
After the eleventh century, when the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople had excommunicated one another, Western canonists began to designate the Council of 869-870 as the Eighth Ecumenical Council. Acts of this council are not found in any Byzantine canonical collections, however.
In the fourteenth century, when the controversy between hesychast and scholastic theologians was raging, some Greeks began referring to the Council of 879-880 as the Eighth Ecumenical Council. This designation is generally not followed by all Orthodox. In the words of Metropolitan Onufry of Kiev, “Since the seven ecumenical councils represent the fullness of the Church’s teaching, an eighth council is not only superfluous, but also quite dangerous.”
Several other councils have had enough of an impact upon the Churches of East and West that they have been deemed by some to be Ecumenical Councils. In the Greek Church the Hesychast Councils of Constantinople, held between 1341 and 1351 are sometimes referred to as the Ninth Ecumenical Council. This council endorsed the theology of St Gregory Palamas, upholding the distinction between the essence and the energies of God as well as man’s ability to commune with these energies.
Some Orthodox have proposed that the Council of Jassy (1642), which countered some trends from Roman Catholic and Protestant theology, and the Council of Jerusalem (1672), which refuted Calvinism, should also be considered as ecumenical. The encyclical of the 2016 Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Churches simply described them as “later councils of universal authority.”
There have been thirteen other councils which Roman Catholics generally consider to have been ecumenical:
- Five Lateran Councils (1123, 1139, 1179, 1215, 1512-1517) — chiefly concerned with Western Church discipline and reform;
- Two Councils of Lyons (1245, 1274) — The first was concerned with the Crusade led by King Louis IX of France. The second unsuccessfully sought a reunion with the Greek Church.
- Council of Vienne (1311-1313) and the Council of Constance (1414-1418) — dealing with local schisms and heretical movements.
- Council of Basle-Ferrara-Florence (1431-1439) — concerned with Church reforms and another unsuccessful attempt at reunion with the Greek Church.
- Council of Trent (1545-1563) — The Roman Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation.
- First Vatican Council (1869-1870) — Decreed papal infallibility.
- Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) — Concerned with expressing Church teaching and practice in the contemporary world.
While Catholics usually refer to all these councils as ecumenical, many prefer to call the last thirteen “General Councils of the Catholic Church,” more accurately distinguishing them from those which preceded them.