The 7 Ecumenical Councils

As the Church progressed through history it was faced with many difficult decisions. The Church always settled difficulties and made decisions by reaching a consensus of opinion among all the believers inspired by God who were led by their appointed leaders, first specifically the apostles who were given authority by Jesus Christ and then to the bishops, so forth and so on.

Acts 15 (The Council of Jerusalem) was the first church council in history. From that time on, all through history councils were held on every level of church life to make important decisions. In the Orthodox Church only seven such councils have received the universal approval of the entire Church in all times and places. These councils have been termed The Seven Ecumenical Councils.

Nicea 1 325 Formulated the First Part of the Creed, defining the divinity of the Son of God
Constantinople I 381 Formulated the Second Part of the Creed, defining the divinity of the Holy Spirit
Ephesus 431 Defined Christ as the Incarnate Word of God and Mary as Theotokos
Chalcedon 451 Defined Christ as Perfect God and Perfect Man in One Person
Constantinople II 553 Reconfirmed the Doctrines of the Trinity and of Christ
Constantinople III 680 Affirmed the True Humanity of Jesus by insisting upon the reality of His human will and action
Nicea II 787 Affirmed the propriety of icons as genuine expressions of the Christian Faith

1. The 1st Council: most well known for establishing the framework of the Nicene Creed,

We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of all things, visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one essence with the Father, through Whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, Who because of us men and because of our salvation came down and became incarnate, becoming man, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended to the heavens, and will come again to judge the living and the dead; And in the Holy Spirit.

It affirms the Holy Trinity from the Son perspective, and refutes the notion of Arianism which holds that Jesus is subordinate or inferior to God, the Father. Orthodox holds that Jesus Christ is one in essence or “co-substantial” (homoousios) with God the Father. In other words, Christ is equal to the Father for He is God in the same way that the Father is God. And yet they are not two Gods, but one. God the trinity is therefore to be described as “three persons in one essence.”

Other things on the agenda were determining the celebration of Pascha/Easter, the Meletian Schism, and various matters of church discipline.

2. The Second Council: like the 1st council affirmed the Holy Trinity from The Son perspective and defining His divinity, this council focused on the divinity of The Holy Spirit. This largely in part to the Macedonians, who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. This was also known as Pneumatomachianism. This council dealt with many heresies of the time and also has caused some of the most controversy.

The controversial aspect of this Council was Canon III, which gave Constantinople second place in honor among the Sees. They called it the ‘New Rome.’ Rome and Alexandria both resented this, and feared that a power play might come into effect by Constantinople. Leo of Rome rejected this canon, the East has long recognized it’s validity. I’ll leave the dispute at that.

3. The Third Council: stated the Virgin Mary is Theotokos, or ‘Mother of God.’ The Virgin is a mother, not of a human person united to the divine person of the Logos, but of a single, undivided person who is both God and man at once.

Like the other councils it dealt with the heresy of Nestorianism, which says Jesus was two separate persons. The Council decreed that Christ was one person, not two separate “people”: fully God and fully man, with a rational soul and body. The Virgin Mary is “The Mother of God” because she gave birth not to a mere man but to God as a man. The union of the two natures of Christ took place in such a fashion that one did not disturb the other.

4. The Fourth Council: proclaimed that there are two natures in Jesus Christ, one divine and one human. According to His divine nature he is “one in essence” with God the Father, and according to His human nature he is “one in essence” with us as men. He is still one person, single and undivided, and not two persons existing in the same body as the false doctrine of Monophysitism would claim.

This council would mark the split of Oriental Orthodox away from Eastern Orthodox for they clung to the Monophysitic point of view, while EO does not.

5. The Fifth Council: was mainly focused on better explaining the two natures of Christ and how they form a single person. Just as it is legitimate to say that God was “born,” so it is as legitimate to say God “died” in the form of Jesus Christ. God in His transcendence is subject to neither birth or death, but these things were indeed undergone by the Logos incarnate, Jesus.

6. The Sixth Council: expanded even more, in that just as there are two natures in Jesus Christ, that means that Christ had a human will as well as a divine will. For if Christ did not have a human will like ours then he would not be truly man as we are. Yet these two wills are not contrary or opposed to each other, for the human will is at all times freely obedient to the divine.

This council focused on refuting the concept of Monothelitism, which asserts that Christ only has one will.

7. The Seventh Council: dealt with the use of icons and asserted that since Christ became true man, it is legitimate to depict His face on holy icons. And since Jesus Christ is one person and not two, these icons do not just show us His humanity in separation from His divinity, but they show us one person of the eternal Logos incarnate.

Concerning the charge of idolatry: Icons are not idols but symbols, therefore when an Orthodox venerates an icon, he is not guilty of idolatry. He is not worshiping the symbol, but merely venerating it. Such veneration is not directed toward wood, or paint or stone, but towards the person depicted. Therefore relative honor is shown to material objects, but worship is due to God alone.
We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross… When the two beams of the Cross are joined together I adore the figure because of Christ who was crucified on the Cross, but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them. —St. John of Damascus


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