Church Councils

Hi Pattimax,

There are seven councils recognised as 'ecumenical' by both the Eastern and Western churches, since they took place prior to the schism in the 11th century. 'Ecumenical' means 'of the whole church' and therefore the ruling of the council applied universally, in effect the decisions became statements of what the Church believed.

There were other councils, some local, which although 'legitimate' could only voice a local viewpoint, which would require the endorsement of all to become doctrinal, and some 'illegitimate' – usually called by the Emperor or the supporters of a particular party, in an effort to claim some 'authority' whilst not actually representing the whole Church.

The idea of an Ecumenical Council, a gathering of bishops from the four corners of the empire, faced many problems, notably the cost incurred in travel, and the fact that whilst the Church was tolerated, it was effectively 'outlawed', and the Roman authorities would have seen a gathering of all the heads as a distinct threat to national security. Not until the 'conversion' of the Roman Emperor Constantine (a pragmatic move on his part in an attempt to unite the empire) was such an idea possible, and when he offered to foot the bill, the idea become a real possibility.

The idea that Constantine led the council, told them what to do or say, wrote what was agreed, or ratified their decision, is a common piece of propaganda, but utterly false. It's probably safer to assume he would not have any meaningful understanding of what was discussed anyway, nor did he care. All he wanted was a decision to unify the empire.

What Constantine did want was to avoid a conflict within Christianity, which would destabilise the empire, as the teachings of Arius was threatening to do. In this he was only partially succcessful (the Arian crisis was used by many in the game of power-politics ... so much so that Arius himself declared (as would Luther after the Reformation) that what started it no longer mattered, it was nothing more than an excuse for machiavellian subterfuge).

The councils:
325 Nicea I
381 Constantinople I
431 Ephesus
451 Chalcedon
553 Constantinople II
680 Constantinople III
787 Nicea II

Of these seven, probably the ones of most interest are Nicea and Constantinople I, and Chalcedon, as these three in effect determined the Credo (Latin: 'I believe') and the resulting doctrine and dogma, so we'll cover these three first.


Nicea I

An argument developed when the Christians of Alexandria complained to their bishop about their presbyter (priest), Arius, particularly about his teachings. Arius claimed that Jesus was the Son of God, but that He was 'created' at the beginning of the world, and, as the famous line goes, "there was a time when he was not."

Arius taught that Jesus was a God like God, but not the same as God.
(Classically homoiousios 'of a similar substance' as opposed to homoosios 'of the same substance' ... that little 'i' in the middle of the word is all-important).

This is not what they understood. They thought the Son and the Father were miraculously and mysteriously One, and as such there had never been one, and not the other. In laymans's terms, how can God be 'Father' if He has no Son? And, if there was a time when He was not Father, then He is subject to change, and how can God be eternal, if He is diffferent from one moment to the next?

Cue to (imagine this bit) ...
A big row in Alexandria. Riots in the street (really). Constantine said, "this has got to stop, is Arius right, or wrong?" The theologians replied, "Well, he's almost right, but that bit's wrong." Constantine said, "Is it? Why?" The theologians shrugged, "Well, it's obvious." Constantine frowned, "Maybe to a philosopher, but not to me." They looked, "well, we thought everyone understood that." Constantine listened to a riotous mob charging down the street, "Well, it's not obvious to them, is it? We can't go on like this. You'd better make your mind up about just what it is we're supposed to believe."

And they did. What they did was take 'the confession of faith' that is made at baptism, and formalised it. They then added bits to counter Arius, and any other any misunderstanding of the 'simple statement'.

We believe in one God the Father Almighty,
Maker of all things visible and invisible;
and in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only begotten of the Father,
that is, of the substance [ek tes ousias] of the Father,
God of God, light of light, true God of true God,
begotten not made, of the same substance with the Father [homoousion to patri],

through whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth;
who for us men and our salvation descended, was incarnate, and was made man,
suffered and rose again the third day,
ascended into heaven and cometh to judge the living and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost.
Those who say: There was a time when He was not, and He was not before He was begotten; and that He was made our of nothing (ex ouk onton); or who maintain that He is of another hypostasis or another substance [than the Father], or that the Son of God is created, or mutable, or subject to change, [them] the Catholic Church anathematizes.
(Italics highlight the counter to Arianism.)

"There," they thought, "sorted." (Hmmmm...)

Is that the kind of thing you were after?