The Role of Ecumenical Councils in the History of Christianity
The first seven Ecumenical Councils were attempts of church leaders to come to agreements on orthodoxy. The first seven Ecumenical Councils, specifically the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon, shaped the basic beliefs of Christianity and act as long-standing examples of theological discussions that promote unity. They were called in response to false teachings that were prevalent at the time, addressed issues of doctrine, and worked toward developing a unified Christian Church.
Twenty-one Ecumenical Councils have occurred; however, not all are accepted by every form of Christianity. The first seven Ecumenical Councils are accepted by Catholic, Orthodox, and most Protestant Christians. Each council resulted in important doctrinal definitions, but “the Ecumenical Councils should not be regarded as the highest authority in the Church.”
The first of these events that impacted Christian doctrine was the Council of Nicaea which took place in 325 A.D. 230 Bishops gathered at the first worldwide meeting of the church called by Roman Emperor Constantine I to deal with the complicated questions concerning Christ’s divinity. The controversy over this theological issue was made especially prominent with teachings of Arius. Arius thought it was important to focus on the unified nature of the Father, but “since only the Father had been created, the Son must be a creation ‘begotten’ from God like all other forms of existence” (Noll, 45). This stance was concerning to many Christians because Christ’s divinity plays a fundamental role in his death and resurrection and ultimately our salvation. The council determined that the teachings of Arianism were heretical because they downplayed Christ’s status and made him subordinate to the Father. The teaching that Christ is true God from true God, begotten not made and the doctrine of homoousios were the primary outcomes of the council. (Noll, 48). These were incorporated into the Nicene Creed and affirmed the teaching that God the Son and God the Father are of the same substance.
In addition to contributing to the development of the Nicene Creed, the Council of Nicaea also demonstrated how Scripture can be interpreted differently. Arius studied and referenced Scripture in his defense of his beliefs, and this was concerning to a number of people in the Church (Noll, 46). Later in Christian history, Martin Luther was advocating for the importance of doctrine that was rooted in Scripture. The Council of Nicaea demonstrates how difficult this can be when proponents of opposing arguments interpret Scripture differently. By coming to an agreement on differing opinions, the Council established precedents for the exercise of power in the church and procedures for making decisions.
The first Ecumenical Council dealt with issues caused by Arianism, but it did not fully resolve them; and the effort to unify the church continued at the second Ecumenical Council. This council took place in Constantinople after it was convened by Roman Emperor Theodosius I in 381 A.D. Like Constantine, he hoped to unify the Roman Empire in its religious orthodox. This First Council of Constantinople was a response to false teachings promoted by Macedonius who misinterpreted the Church’s doctrine regarding the Holy Spirit. He believed that God was one entity and the Holy Spirit was simply a power of God, rather than a distinct person. The Council condemned Macedonius and his teachings that the Holy Spirit was not a separate person of God. A major result of the second Ecumenical Council was the definition of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, that there is one God in three persons. The teaching that God is one essence, but three hypostases consisting of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, was included in the Nicene Creed after it was adapted by the council. It affirmed that the Holy Spirit is God “even as the Father and Son are God” and “proceeds from the Father” especially because of the influence of John 15:26. After 381 A.D., Arianism was a less prevalent issue in the Church because of the defined doctrine of the Trinity.
While the First Council of Constantinople addressed and refuted Arianism, the third Ecumenical Council condemned the teachings of Nestorianism. The Council of Ephesus was held under Roman Emperor Theodosius II, the grandson of Theodosius I, in Ephesus in 431 A.D. Nestorius, the Bishop of Constantinople, emphasized the human nature of Jesus and argued that Christ was born of the Virgin Mary as man, not God. According to Nestorianism, the Logos only dwelled in Jesus Christ and Mary should simply be called Christokos, mother of Christ, and not theotokos, mother of God. Another analogy of the two natures of Christ is the marriage of a man and woman. Nestorianism argued that the union of Christ’s divine and human nature was similar to a man and woman becoming one body in marriage, but they remain two separate persons.
The Council of Ephesus declared that these teachings were incorrect and affirmed that Christ is truly one person rather than a Man that is separate from the Son of God. The council recognized Jesus Christ as true God and true Man with a rational soul and body. The union of the two natures was not at the expense of the divine nature of Christ, and it elevated the human nature of Christ. Because of this characteristic, Mary is theotokos since she gave birth to God who became man. The Council of Ephesus added the doctrine concerning the nature of Jesus Christ in the Nicene Creed and declared that the Nicene Creed adapted at the first two Ecumenical Councils was complete and prohibited any changes to it.
Like the third Ecumenical Council, the fourth Ecumenical Council dealt with the nature of Jesus Christ. It took place in Chalcedon in 451 A.D. after Emperor Marcian called it in response to the extreme differences between monophysitism and dyophysitism. Nestorius had already argued for the dyophysite doctrine that Christ possess two separate natures. Monophysitism teaches that Christ’s human nature was dissolved into his divine nature, which means that Christ would have only possessed a divine natural. Athanasius was a proponent of monophysitism who stressed the fully divine nature of Christ because Christ needed to be fully God to deliver salvation. However, his point of view also caused concerns because Christ’s humanity also played a major role in salvation. The council proclaimed that Christ has two natures that are not divided or separate and do no undergo any kind of change. It emphasized the “integrity of Christ’s person” while keeping in mind Christ’s full humanity and full divinity (Noll, 70). In addition to reaching significant theological conclusions, the Council of Chalcedon “showed that such necessary theological work can succeed despite an environment of brutal ecclesiastical strife and despite the reality of cultural division within the church itself (Noll, 61).
Emperor Justinian the Great called for the fifth Ecumenical Council in 553 A.D. in Constantinople 228 years after the First Council of Constantinople. After the fourth Ecumenical Council, Emperor Justinian was successful in “reuniting for a moment the Mediterranean world in a single religion and civilization” as well as easing religious, political and social tensions. The Council was called with hopes of ending disputes regarding the Nestorianism and Monophysitism that the previous two councils addressed. It continued working toward a doctrine that explained how Christ was one person with both human and divine natures.
As with the previous three councils, the Sixth Ecumenical Council was the Church’s continued attempt to compromise with monophysitism. The council was held in Constantinople again in 680 A.D. under Emperor Constantine IV. The Council reaffirmed that Jesus Christ had two natures and added that each nature had its own free will. Both Christ’s divine nature and His human nature had specific activities to perform. As God, Christ worked miracles and rose from the dead and ascended into heaven; and as man, He performed ordinary activities of everyday life and acted as a substitute. Each of the natures did not change or oppose the nature during Christ’s life.
While the previous six Ecumenical Councils focused on doctrine concerning the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ, the Seventh Ecumenical Council was centered around the use of icons in the Church. It was called by Empress Irene in 787 A.D. and held in Nicaea. The iconoclasts were a group that demanded that all religious art should be destroyed or broken. This was a form of Monophysitism that undervalued human nature. On the other hand, the iconophiles believed that icons preserved the doctrinal teachings of the Church. The council announced that icons should be in churches because they acted as vehicles of devotions.
The First Seven Ecumenical Councils occurred over a span of 462 years in response to several doctrinal issues in the Church. Many individuals and movements contributed to the discussions at the Ecumenical Councils which demonstrates the “ebb and flow in the influence of various regions of the world in the history of Christianity.” The first Ecumenical Council affirmed the teaching that the Son of God is true God and of one essence with God the Father. The second Ecumenical Council led to the composition of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed which contained five Articles concerning teachings about the Holy Spirit, the Church, the Mysteries, the resurrection of the dead, and the life in the world to come, which still serves as a guide for the Church. The third Ecumenical Council decreed that Jesus Christ is one person who possesses both divine and human natures; it also articulated that the Nicene Creed was complete and could not be revised. The fourth, fifth, and sixth Ecumenical Councils refuted Monophysitism, another teaching that challenged the teaching that Christ has both a divine and human nature and proposed that Christ’s human nature was fully absorbed into the divine nature. These councils continued to explain how God is both fully man and fully God in one being. The Seventh Ecumenical Council addressed the Iconoclast Controversy and established that churches should be able to have religious art, especially that which reminded people of Jesus Christ along with revered angels and other saints.
Each of the Seven Ecumenical Councils were meetings of Church leaders and defenders of the faith. They focused on several issues and established the foundation of several core Christian beliefs, including the doctrine of the Trinity and the teaching that Jesus Christ is true man and true God. It is remarkable how these doctrine have withstood the test of time because even Martin Luther expressed the difficulty of establishing doctrine and he “expressed his reluctance to legislate for Christians even in other parts of Europe or Germany, much less for Christians of all time.” Yet, the first seven Ecumenical Councils shaped the basic beliefs of Christianity and act as long-standing examples of theological discussions that promoted Christian unity. While several individuals and movements have been mentioned, the complicated history of Christianity cannot be reduced to these few individuals and disputes. As Noll points out, “Yet even simplified accounts are helpful, for they provide a flavor of the intense exchanges” (61). Those who argued for the doctrines supported by the Ecumenical Councils were not hesitant to promote religious teachings that they knew to be true. These defenders of faith demonstrated the importance of being united in Christian beliefs.
- Alfeyev, Hilarion. “The reception of the Ecumenical Councils in the early church.” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 47, no. 3-4 (2003): 413-430.
- Barnard, Leslie W. “Monophysite movement: a review article.” Modern Churchman 16, no. 4 (1973): 253-256.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Homoousious.” https://www.britannica.com/topic/homoousios.
- Ettlinger, Gerard H. “The Holy Spirit in the Theology of the Second Ecumenical Synod and in the Undivided Church.” The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 27, no. 4 (1982): 431-440.
- Geanakoplos, Deno John. “An Orthodox view of the Councils of Basel (1431-49) and of Florence (1438-39) as paradigm for the study of modern ecumenical councils.” The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 30, no. 3 (1985): 311-334.
- Klug, Eugene F. A. “Luther’s understanding of ‘church’ in his treatise On the councils and the church of 1539.” Concordia Theological Quarterly 44, no. 1 (1980): 27-38.
- Krikorian, Mesrob K. “First three ecumenical councils and their significance for the Armenian church.” The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 16, no. 1-2 (1971): 193-209.
- Robinson, Paul W. “History and Freedom in Luther’s On the Councils and the Church.” Concordia Journal 43, no. 1-2 (2017): 75-87.
- Tanner, Norman P. “The African Church and the First Five Ecumenical Councils.” AFER. 33, no. 4 (1991): 201-213.
 Hilarion Alfeyev, “The reception of the Ecumenical Councils in the early church,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 47, no. 3-4 (2003): 413.
 Gerard H. Ettlinger, “The Holy Spirit in the Theology of the Second Ecumenical Synod and in the Undivided Church,” The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 27, no. 4 (1982): 437.
 Mesrob K. Krikorian, “First three ecumenical councils and their significance for the Armenian church,” The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 16, no. 1-2 (1971): 197.
 Leslie W. Barnard, “Monophysite movement: a review article,” Modern Churchman 16, no. 4 (1973): 253.
 Norman P. Tanner, “The African Church and the First Five Ecumenical Councils,” AFER. 33, no. 4 (1991): 209.
 Paul W. Robinson, “History and Freedom in Luther’s On the Councils and the Church,” Concordia Journal 43, no. 1-2 (2017): 85.