MANY CHRISTIAN CHURCHES in America were founded by a pastor who had a Bible, a microphone and a conviction that God wanted him to preach. So he gathered a few followers (often his own relatives), rented space and scheduled services. Americans see nothing unusual in this – after all freedom of speech and individual initiative are hallmarks of the American way of doing things. Why not in the Church?
The historic Churches (those of the first centuries) saw things differently. Many of these Churches had, in fact, been founded by one of the apostles or their co-workers. They emphasized that the Church is the Body of Christ, an organic unity of Head and members. Like St Paul, these Churches saw unity as a chief mark of the Church and an important part of their mission “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Ephesians 4:3-6).
Still, the first centuries saw a number of teachers with competing doctrines arise in the Church. When they were not accepted by the leaders of a local Church, these teachers or their followers formed there own rival groups. In some places these groups became more popular than the historic Church. Arians, for example, were prominent in Constantinople through much of the fourth century and in much of the West through the fifth.
When Emperor Constantine accepted Christ and recognized the Church as an important structure in his empire, he faced the rivalry between these groups. In his quest for a strong and united Church, he called the first Ecumenical Council as a vehicle for unifying the teaching and practices of the empire. There had been councils before, of course, but always on regional levels. This council involved bishops from the entire empire (the ecumene) under Constantine’s rule. He set a precedent which would be repeated several times during the first millennium. These councils are:
- First Council of Nicaea (325) – Arians held that Christ was like the Father, but was no of the same essence. They believed Him to be the first of God’s creatures. This council rejected Arianism and, in the Creed which it drafted, proclaimed Him as being “one in essence” with the Father. The council also recognized as first sees Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. It unified the celebration of Pascha and issued other canons regulating Church life.
- First Council of Constantinople (381) – Macedonius was one of the rival bishops in Constantinople during the Arian controversy. His followers denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. In response this Council proclaimed the second part of the Creed (“and in the Holy Spirit…”).
- Council of Ephesus (431) – The question “How could Jesus be both God and Man?” was much debated in these centuries. Nestorius taught that Jesus was a man in whom the Logos dwelt and therefore Mary could not be called “Theotokos.” His chief opponent, Cyril of Alexandria, saw that, if Christ were not truly divine, He could not have united that divinity to our humanity. This council endorsed Cyril’s teaching and forbade the development of any further Creed.
- Council of Chalcedon (451) – As Nestorius had lessened the reality of the incarnation by emphasizing Christ’s humanity, Eutyches, a disciple of Cyril, seemed to be minimizing His humanity. After several rival councils endorsed first one then the other approach, a new emperor, Marcian, summoned this council which endorsed the teaching of Leo, Pope of Rome, finding it compatible with the teaching of Cyril and Ephesus. The Fathers of this Council confessed that Christ was “unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably one in two natures.” The Council also added the sees of Constantinople and Jerusalem to the principal sees recognized at Nicaea, constituting the “pentarchy” (Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem).
- Second Council of Constantinople (553) – Many felt that in his “Three Chapters,” Theodore of Mopsuestia had paved the way for Nestorius’ teachings. To assure the opponents of Chalcedon that the Greek and Latin Churches were firmly behind the Council of Ephesus, this Council condemned his and others’ writings as having inspired Nestorius.
- Third Council of Constantinople (680-681) – Attempts at reconciling the teachings of Cyril and Leo sought to stress the unity of God and man in Christ had given rise to two new theological trends. Monoenergism taught that Christ had but one energy. Monothelitism taught that He had only one will. This Council condemned both propositions as minimizing the fullness of Christ’s humanity and divinity.
- Second Council of Nicaea (787) – This Council justified the veneration of icons, based on the true humanity of Christ. If the Word truly became flesh, the Council Fathers reasoned, He could be painted.
The (Assyrian) Church of the East did not explicitly accept the Council of Ephesus and the Oriental Orthodox Churches have not recognized the Council of Chalcedon, resulting in schisms between these Churches and the Eastern Orthodox (Byzantine) and Roman Catholic Churches. Twentieth- century Agreed Statements between these Churches succeeded in expressing their teachings in a harmonious way, thereby eliminating the theological bases for their divisions.
Two different gatherings have been called the Fourth Council of Constantinople. The first (869-870) confirmed the Seventh Council, requiring that the icon of Christ be venerated like the Gospel Book. Since it also deposed St Photios the Great as patriarch of Constantinople, the Greek Churches did not accept it. They give the title to a second council (879-880) which reinstated Photios (with the pope’s blessing). They affirmed the Creed without the filioque and condemned those who “impose on it their own invented phrases.” Since the decrees of this Council were promulgated as Roman Law by the Emperor after its minutes had been signed by the Five Patriarchs, some Orthodox consider this an Ecumenical Council.
The West continued to call its general synods Ecumenical Councils long after the fall of the Empire. The Orthodox Churches, although they recognize several important “Great and Holy Councils” as normative for the entire Church, do not call them Ecumenical Councils.
The Councils in Our Liturgy
Our Church today celebrates the seven councils of the first millennium with special commemorations every year on the following Sundays:
- The First Council (Nicaea I) – the Sunday following Ascension Thursday
- The first six Councils – the Sunday following July 13
- The Seventh Council (Nicaea II) – the Sunday following October 10
- Each Council is also commemorated individually on the following dates:
- January 23 – Constantinople III
- May 22 – Constantinople I
- May 29 – Nicaea I
- July 16 – Chalcedon
- July 25 – Constantinople II
- September 9 – Ephesus
- October 13 – Nicaea II