Christian Councils | 2. Early Ecumenical Councils


2. Early Ecumenical Councils

The first attempt to gather a body of bishops representing the whole Christian world was the Council called by the emperor Constantine I at Nicaea, in northwest Asia Minor, in the summer of 325 (June 18-August 25).

The Council of Nicaea is still recognized as the first ecumenical Christian council and as the model for later authoritative gatherings.

With the style and procedure of the Roman Senate likely in mind, Constantine commissioned the 318 bishops who had assembled near his residence in Nicaea, including several representatives from the Latin Church of the West, to settle the controversy raised by Arius’s denial of the eternity and full divinity of Jesus.

In asserting that Jesus, as Son of God, is “begotten, not made” and “of the same substance as the Father,”

the council’s creedal formula laid the groundwork for the classical development of Christian Trinitarian theology in the half century that followed.

The Nicene Council also excommunicated Arius and his followers, determined a unified way of reckoning the date of Easter, and issued 20 disciplinary decrees or canons, mainly regulating the appointment and jurisdiction of bishops.

Although the Emperor’s influence was strongly felt at Nicaea, it was the bishops themselves - under the leadership of Constantine’s adviser, Bishop Hosius of Cordova (c. 256–359), and of the young Alexandrian priest Athanasius (296-373) - who formulated common theological and practical decisions.

The bishops of the whole Christian world were now publicly recognized as the Senate of the Church.

After more than 50 years of sharp controversy over the reception and interpretation of the Nicene formula, a period that saw the proliferation of local synods and the production of many new creeds,

the Emperor Theodosius I convoked a meeting of some 150 Greek-speaking bishops at Constantinople in 381 (May-July) for what later was recognized as the 2nd ecumenical council (Constantinople I).

In addition to confirming Nicaea’s insistence on the full divinity of Jesus as Son, this council condemned those who denied that the Holy Spirit is a distinct individual within the Trinitarian mystery of God.

An expanded version of the Nicene Creed, probably professed by the patriarch-elect Nectarius (d 17 September 397) during the council before his installation in the See of Constantinople, was taken by the Council of Chalcedon (451) to be the official creed of the whole gathering and is still used as the standard profession of faith in many Christian liturgies (the “Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed”).

This council also enacted 4 disciplinary canons, including one that accorded second place in ecclesiastical honour, after that of “old Rome,” to the new imperial capital, Constantinople. That provision was to become a cause of contention between the Eastern and Western churches.

As a result of a bitter dispute between Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, and Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, over the proper way of conceiving the relationship of the divine and human aspects of Jesus,

the emperor Theodosius II summoned a meeting of bishops at Ephesus on the coast of Asia Minor, in the summer of 431,

to resolve the issue, and more particularly to judge the propriety of calling MaryMother of God” (Theotokos), as Cyril insisted on doing.

Representatives of the opposing groups could not agree to meet, and the would-be council ended abortively in mutual excommunication.

Later (April 433) Cyril came to an agreement with the more moderate of Nestorius’s supporters to excommunicate Nestorius and to accept the title Theotokos as valid,

but also to recognize that in Jesus 2 distinct natures - the human and the divine - are united without confusion in a single individual.

On the basis of this agreement, the meeting of Cyril’s party at Ephesus in 431 later came to be regarded as the 3rd ecumenical council, and the dossier assembled there by Cyril’s supporters was used as a classical anthology of Christological documents.

The fullest articulation of the early church’s understanding of the person of Christ was made at a council held at Chalcedon, across the Bosporus from Constantinople, in the fall of 451 (October-November).

In response to continuing controversy over whether the humanity of Jesus constituted a distinct and operative reality or “nature” after the incarnation of the Word,

the emperor Marcian (392 – 457) convoked this meeting of over 350 bishops (including 3 legates from Pope Leo I and 2 North African bishops)

- and forced it to formulate a doctrinal statement on Christ that accommodated a variety of theological traditions.

The chief inspiration of the document, however, was the balanced “2-nature” Christology articulated by Leo in his letter to Bishop Flavian of Constantinople in 449.

The council also enacted 28 disciplinary canons, the last of which confirmed the second rank of the See of Constantinople and awarded it jurisdictional primacy in Asia Minor and north-eastern Greece.

This meeting, regarded as the 4th ecumenical council, is the first for which we possess detailed minutes as well as final documents.

Chalcedon’s formulation of the Christian understanding of Christ proved to be only a new beginning for controversy.

After more than a century of recriminations, especially in the East, the emperor Justinian I convoked another meeting at Constantinople (Constantinople II) in the year 553 (May 5-June 2)

and persuaded the 168 bishops present to reformulate the Christology of Chalcedon in terms that more clearly emphasized the centrality of Jesus’ divine identity.

They also condemned the speculative theology of Origen (3rd century) and his followers, as well as that of the chief opponents of Cyril of Alexandria from the previous century.

The Roman Pope, Vigilius I (500-555), was present in Constantinople during the council but refused to attend, suspecting - along with most Western bishops - that it was being forced to weaken the stated faith of Chalcedon in the interests of political unity.

In February 554, however, he agreed to accept the decisions of Constantinople II, a step that resulted in decades of controversy in Italy and Africa.

This synod has generally been accepted since then as the 5th ecumenical council.

In the century that followed, Greek theologians continued to look for ways of reconciling the monophysites, Christians who had broken from the official church after Chalcedon by emphasizing the dynamic unity of the 2-natured Christ as a divine person.

One such attempt, favoured by several 7th century Byzantine patriarchs and emperors, was the ascription to Christ of a single divine will and “activity,” or range of behaviour.

Led by the exiled Greek monk Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662), a local Roman synod of October 649 rejected this new Christology as a subtle weakening of the integral affirmation of Jesus’ humanity.

This condemnation was confirmed by a small gathering of mainly Eastern bishops in the rotunda of the imperial palace in Constantinople between November 7, 680, and September 16, 681, a synod subsequently recognized as the 6th ecumenical council (Constantinople III). 

10 years later, the emperor Justinian II summoned another gathering of bishops in the same rotunda to discuss disciplinary issues and formulate practical canons that would supplement the authoritative theological decisions of Constantinople II and III.

Hence its customary titles, the “Quini-sext” (5-6th) synod or the synod “in the rotunda”, also known as the Trullan Synod. The membership of this meeting was also entirely Greek, and a number of its canons explicitly rejected Western practices.

Although this gathering is not regarded as ecumenical, its legislation became one of the main sources of Orthodox canon law and was also frequently cited by Western medieval canonists.

The main theological controversy in the 8-9th century in Eastern Church was no longer directly over the person of Christ, but over the related issue of the legitimacy of using and venerating images in the context of worshiping a transcendent God:

In 726, Emperor Leo III began the policy of removing and destroying the images in churches (iconoclasm),

and his successor, Constantine V, convoked a synod of 338 bishops in Constantinople in 754 to ratify this practice, excommunicating those who defended the use of images, including the theologian and monk John of Damascus (c. 675-749).

In 787 (September 24-October 7), however, the empress Irene convoked another synod at Nicaea (Nicaea II), attended by some 350 Greek bishops and 2 papal representatives:

This synod reversed the decision of the year 754 and affirmed the legitimacy of venerating images and of asking for the intercession of the Saints, while insisting also that worship, in the strict sense, is due to God alone.

A resurgence of iconoclastic influence in the early 9th century delayed full acceptance of this council’s decrees in the East,

while the rivalry of the emperor Charlemagne and the poor Latin translation of the acts of Nicaea II that reached his court led to resistance in the West

- and even to condemnation of the council’s decisions at a synod of 350 bishops at Frankfurt in June 794.

However, Nicaea II was recognized as the 7th ecumenical council at the Council of Constantinople (869-870), a recognition that was endorsed for the West by Pope John VIII in 880.

It is the last of the ancient councils recognized as authoritative by virtually all Christian churches.