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Seven Ecumenical Councils

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Seven Ecumenical Councils

In the history of Christianity, the first seven ecumenical councils, from the First Council of Nicaea (325) to the Second Council of Nicaea (787), represented an attempt to reach an orthodox consensus and to establish a unified Christendom as the state church of the Roman Empire. The East-West Schism, formally dated to 1054, was still almost three centuries off from the last of these councils, but already by 787 the major western sees, although still in communion with the state church of the Byzantine Empire, were all outside the empire, and the Pope was to crown Charlemagne as emperor 13 years later.

Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican churches all claim to trace their clergy by apostolic succession back to this period and beyond, to the earlier period referred to as Early Christianity. However, breaks of unity that still persist today had occurred even during this period.

The Church of the East accepted the first two of these seven councils, but rejected the third, the First Council of Ephesus (431). The Quinisext Council (692), which attempted to establish the Pentarchy and which is not generally considered one of the first seven ecumenical councils,[1] is not accepted by the Roman Catholic Church,[2] which also considers that there have been many more ecumenical councils after the first seven, see Roman Catholic Ecumenical councils 8-21.

This era begins with the First Council of Nicaea, which enunciated the Nicene Creed that in its original form and as modified by the First Council of Constantinople of 381 was seen as the touchstone of orthodoxy on the doctrine of the Trinity. At this point, though the emperors had already ceased to reside habitually at Rome, the church in that city was seen as the first church among churches[3] In 330 Constantine built his "New Rome", which became known as Constantinople, in the East. All of the seven councils were held in the East, specifically in Anatolia and the neighboring city of Constantinople.

The first scholar to consider this time period as a whole was schisms.

The Councils

The First Seven Ecumenical Councils, as commonly understood, are:

  1. First Council of Nicaea (325)
  2. First Council of Constantinople (381)
  3. Council of Ephesus (431)
  4. Council of Chalcedon (451)
  5. Second Council of Constantinople (553)
  6. Third Council of Constantinople (680)
  7. Second Council of Nicaea (787)

However, not all of these Councils have been universally recognised as ecumenical. As indicated above, the Church of the East accepts only the first two, and Oriental Orthodoxy only three. Nontrinitarians, such as Oneness Pentecostals, Unitarians, Latter Day Saints, Quakers, Christadelphians and Jehovah's Witnesses, reject the teachings of all seven.

First Council of Nicaea (325)


Emperor Constantine convened this council to settle a controversial issue, the relation between Jesus Christ and God the Father. The Emperor wanted to establish universal agreement on it. Representatives came from across the Empire, subsidized by the Emperor. Previous to this council, the bishops would hold local councils, such as the Council of Jerusalem, but there had been no universal, or ecumenical, council.

The council drew up a creed, the original Nicene Creed, which received nearly unanimous support. The council's description of "God's only-begotten Son", Jesus Christ, as of the same substance with God the Father became a touchstone of Christian Trinitarianism. The council also addressed the issue of dating Easter (see Quartodecimanism and Easter controversy), recognised the right of the see of Alexandria to jurisdiction outside of its own province (by analogy with the jurisdiction exercised by Rome) and the prerogatives of the churches in Antioch and the other provinces[4] and approved the custom by which Jerusalem was honoured, but without the metropolitan dignity.[5]

The Council was opposed by the Arians, and Constantine tried to reconcile Arius, after whom Arianism is named, with the Church. Even when Arius died in 336, one year before the death of Constantine, the controversy continued, with various separate groups espousing Arian sympathies in one way or another.[6] In 359, a double council of Eastern and Western bishops affirmed a formula stating that the Father and the Son were similar in accord with the scriptures, the crowning victory for Arianism.[6] The opponents of Arianism rallied, and the First Council of Constantinople in 381 marked the final victory of Nicene orthodoxy within the Empire, though Arianism had by then spread to the Germanic tribes, among whom it gradually disappeared after the conversion of the Franks to Catholicism in 496.[6]

Constantine commissions Bibles

In 331, Constantine I commissioned Eusebius to deliver fifty Bibles for the Church of Constantinople. Athanasius (Apol. Const. 4) recorded Alexandrian scribes around 340 preparing Bibles for Constans. Little else is known, though there is plenty of speculation. For example, it is speculated that this may have provided motivation for canon lists, and that Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus are examples of these Bibles. Together with the Peshitta and Codex Alexandrinus, these are the earliest extant Christian Bibles.[7]

First Council of Constantinople (381)

The council approved what is the current form of the Nicene Creed as used in most Oriental Orthodox churches. The Eastern Orthodox Church uses the council's text but with the verbs expressing belief in the singular: Πιστεύω (I believe) instead of Πιστεύομεν (We believe). The Latin Rite of the Catholic Church also uses the singular and, except in Greek,[8] adds two phrases, Deum de Deo (God from God) and Filioque (and the Son). The form used by the Armenian Apostolic Church, which is part of Oriental Orthodoxy, has many more additions.[9] This fuller creed may have existed before the Council and probably originated from the baptismal creed of Constantinople.[10]

The council also condemned Apollinarism,[11] the teaching that there was no human mind or soul in Christ.[12] It also granted Constantinople honorary precedence over all churches save Rome.[11]

The council did not include Western bishops or Roman legates, but it was later accepted as ecumenical in the West.[11]

First Council of Ephesus (431)

Main article: First Council of Ephesus

Theodosius II called the council to settle the Nestorian controversy. Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, opposed use of the term Theotokos (Greek Η Θεοτόκος, "God-Bearer").[13] This term had long been used by orthodox writers, and it was gaining popularity along with devotion to Mary as Mother of God.[13] He reportedly taught that there were two separate persons in the incarnate Christ, though whether he actually taught this is disputed.[13]

The council deposed Nestorius, repudiated Nestorianism, proclaimed the Virgin Mary as the Theotokos.

After quoting the Nicene Creed in its original form, as at the First Council of Nicaea, without the alterations and additions made at the First Council of Constantinople, it declared it "unlawful for any man to bring forward, or to write, or to compose a different (ἑτέραν) Faith as a rival to that established by the holy Fathers assembled with the Holy Ghost in Nicæa."[14]

Council of Chalcedon (451)

Main article: Council of Chalcedon

The council repudiated the Eutychian doctrine of monophysitism, described and delineated the "Hypostatic Union" and two natures of Christ, human and divine; adopted the Chalcedonian Creed. For those who accept it (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, most liturgical Protestants), it is the Fourth Ecumenical Council (calling the Second Council of Ephesus, which was rejected by this council, the "Robber Synod" or "Robber Council").

Before the council

In November 448, a synod at Constantinople condemned Eutyches for unorthodoxy.[15] Eutyches, archimandrite (abbot) of a large Constantinopolitan monastery,[16] taught that Christ was not consubstantial with humanity.[17]

In 449, Theodosius II summoned a council at Ephesus, where Eutyches was exonerated and returned to his monastery.[18] This council was later overturned by the Council of Chalcedon and labeled "Latrocinium" (i.e., "Robber Council").[19]

Second Council of Constantinople (553)

This council condemned certain Nestorian writings and authors. This move was instigated by Emperor Justinian in an effort to conciliate the monophysite Christians, it was opposed in the West, and the Popes' acceptance of the council caused a major schism.[20]

Three Chapters

Prior to the Second Council of Constantinople was a prolonged controversy over the treatment of three subjects, all considered sympathetic to Nestorianism, the heresy that there are two separate persons in the Incarnation of Christ.[21] Emperor Justinian condemned the Three Chapters, hoping to appeal to monophysite Christians with his anti-Nestorian zeal.[22] Monophysites believe that in the Incarnate Christ there is one nature, not two.[23]

Eastern Patriarchs supported the Emperor, but in the West his interference was resented, and Pope Vigilius resisted his edict on the grounds that it opposed the Chalcedonian decrees. [24] Justinian's policy was in fact an attack on Antiochene theology and the decisions of Chalcedon.[25] The pope assented and condemned the Three Chapters, but protests in the West caused him to retract his condemnation.[26] The emperor called the Second Council of Constantinople to resolve the controversy.[27]

Council proceedings

The council, attended mostly by Eastern bishops, condemned the Three Chapters and, indirectly, the Pope Vigilius.[28] It also affirmed Constantinople's intention to remain in communion with Rome.[29]

After the council

Vigilius declared his submission to the council, as did his successor, Pope Pelagius I.[30] The council was not immediately recognized as ecumenical in the West, and Milan and Aquileia even broke off communion with Rome over this issue.[31] The schism was not repaired until the late 6th century for Milan and the late 7th century for Aquileia.[32]

Emperor Justinian's policy failed to reconcile the Monophysites.[33]

Third Council of Constantinople

Third Council of Constantinople (680–681): repudiated monothelitism, a doctrine that won widespread support when formulated in 638; the Council affirmed that Christ had both human and divine wills.

Quinisext Council

Quinisext Council (= Fifth-Sixth Council) or Council in Trullo (692) has not been accepted by the Roman Catholic Church. Since it was mostly an administrative council for raising some local canons to ecumenical status, establishing principles of clerical discipline, addressing the Biblical canon, without determining matters of doctrine, the Eastern Orthodox Church does not consider it to be a full-fledged council in its own right, viewing it instead as an extension of the fifth and sixth councils. It gave ecclesiastical sanction to the Pentarchy as the government of the state church of the Roman Empire.[34]

Second Council of Nicaea

Second Council of Nicaea (787). In 753, Emperor Constantine V convened the Synod of Hieria, which declared that images of Jesus misrepresented him and that images of Mary and the saints were idols.[35] The Second Council of Nicaea restored the veneration of icons and ended the first iconoclasm.

Subsequent events

Main article: Photian schism

In the 9th century, Emperor Michael III deposed Patriarch Ignatius of Constantinople and Photius was appointed in his place. Pope Nicholas I declared the deposition of Ignatius invalid. After Michael was murdered, Ignatius was reinstated as patriarch without challenge and in 869-70 a council in Constantinople, considered ecumenical in the West, anathematized Photius. With Ignatius' death in 877, Photius became patriarch, and in 879-80 another council in Constantinople, which many Easterners consider ecumenical, annulled the decision of the previous council.[36]

See also

General:

References

External links

  • The Seven Ecumenical Councils
  • Fourth-Century Christianity

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