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Ecclesiastical Council

The Council of Nicaea: fresco at the Soumela Monastery (Turkey). Photo Marco Prins.
The Council of Nicaea: fresco at the Soumela Monastery (Turkey)
Council (or synod): meeting of the bishops of the church to discuss theological and organizational matters.

In every organization, differences of opinion are bound to arise, and the church is no exception. On many occasions, leading Christians have come together to discuss their differences. The first of these meetings is the debate that took place in 49/50 in Jerusalem; those who were present discussed whether non-Jewish Christians should be circumcised. The apostle Paul thought that this was not necessary, and appears to have convinced the others who were present.

This meeting is the model of later councils. First, there is a question that is so important that local leaders can not solve it; then, a meeting is organized; those who are present discuss the matter; and in the end, a decision is made, and an aspect of orthodox teaching is written down. It is important to see that there is no equivalent for this practice in the religions of the pagans, who were more or less free to choose their beliefs.

Three types of Council can be discerned:

  1. Particular Councils: organized by the bishops of one province to discuss local affairs (e.g. Edessa 197, Arles 313, Orange 529)
  2. General or Ecumenical Councils: organized by an emperor to establish orthodox belief; once the bishop of Rome had recognized the decisions, they were accepted as binding and enforced as if they were imperial laws; only seven are generally recognized (below)
  3. Councils that were meant as Ecumenical Councils but failed and are, therefore, not recognized (e.g., 343/344 Serdicca and 359 Rimini)

At the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, the bishops received instructions to organize particular councils as often as possible. In several provinces, like Asia and Africa, this had already become a common practice. In the centuries after the fall of the Roman empire, the frequently held particular councils were important events in which the Germanic kings were able to create consensus in their territories. For example, in the Kingdom of Toledo, ruled by kings of Visigothic descent, at least seventeen councils took place, in which all kind of religious and secular problems were discussed.

The seven Ecumenical Councils are:

325 Nicaea I

  • Organized by the emperor Constantine I the Great;
  • recognized by pope Sylvester I;
  • discussion of the teachings of Arius, who maintained that Christ was created by God;
  • dogma that Christ is indeed God and equal to the Father;
  • the Nicene Creed established;
  • rules for the computation of the Easter date.

381 Constantinople I

431 Ephesus

  • Organized by the emperor Theodosius II;
  • discussion of the teachings of bishop of Nestorius of Constantinople, who belonged to the Antiochene school of theology; Nestorius recognized that in Christ man and God were united, but he saw this as a psychological unity, whereas the Alexandrine and Roman theologians, led by Cyril of Alexandria, argued for a more physical unity;
  • the council started before the Antiochenes could arrive and condemned Nestorianism;
  • the Antiochenes organized a council of their own, which accepted Nestorius' teachings;
  • the emperor recognized the first council as orthodox, and this decision was confirmed by pope Coelestinus I;
  • as a result, the theologians of Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome recognized the dogma that Mary was mother of God, not mother of Jesus Christ;
  • the Antiochene theologians never accepted this outcome; they settled in the Sasanian Empire, where their christology was established in the Councils of Bet-Lapat (484) and Seleucia (486) ("Nestorian" or "Assyrian Church");
  • although it was by now agreed by many theologians that in Christ two natures were united, it was not precisely clear how.

451 Chalcedon

  • Organized, on behalf of his wife Pulcheria, by the emperor Marcianus, who was to succeed to the throne and wanted an end to the theological debate inaugurated at Ephesus;
  • recognized by pope Leo I the Great;
  • Jerusalem recognized as fifth patriarchate;
  • discussion of the teachings of the archimandrite Eutyches;
  • it is agreed that Christ's two natures are/were never fused, changed, divided, or separated;
  • dogma that Jesus is and has always been fully human and fully divine;
  • condemnation of Nestorius and Eutyches;
  • the results are unacceptable to the theologicians from Alexandria, and this results in the creation of the Oriental Orthodox Churches (e.g., the Coptic Christianity in Egypt and the Armenian Church).

553 Constantinople II

  • Organized by the emperor Justinian;
  • recognized by pope Virgilius;
  • in the Hagia Sophia church;
  • the Three Chapters, which had been designed to win the Monophysites for the church, condemned.

680 Constantinople III

  • Organized by the emperor Constantine IV;
  • recognized by pope Agatho;
  • condemned Monotheletism, which had sought to unite several branches of Christianity by stressing that at least everyone could agree that Christ had one single will;

787 Nicaea II

  • Organized by the emperor Constantine VI;
  • recognized by pope Adrianus I;
  • condemnation of iconoclasticism.
Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2005
Revision: 12 Jan. 2012
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