The Seven Ecumenical Councils

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The Greek word oikoumene means “the whole world,” and is the origin of the English word ecumenical. The seven ecumenical councils under discussion were assemblies consisting of bishops from all round the world. Their decisions at these councils on doctrine, cults and discipline were considered binding on all Christians. Let's learn some more about the Seven Ecumenical Councils.


The First Ecumenical Council: Nicea, 325 A.D.

Condemned the teaching of Arius, who taught that the Son and Holy Spirit were created and inferior to the Father.

From this council we have the words of the Nicean Creed which state:

I believe in one... Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father... Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, one in essence with the Father.

The Second Ecumenical Council: Constantinople, 381 A.D.

Confirmed and completed the Nicean Creed, and addressed the heresy of Apollinarianism.

(Heresy of Apollinarianism: according to which Christ had a human body and soul but no human rational mind, the Divine Logos taking the place of this.)

The Nicean Creed reached its current form at this Council, the words concerning belief in the Holy Spirit were added at this point. Also, it was declared that the Bishop of Constantinople should have the primacy of honour after the Bishop of Rome, because Constantinople was known as New Rome.

The Third Ecumenical Council: Ephesus, 431 A.D.

Addressed the teachings of Nestorius: he rejected the term Theotokos because he opposed the doctrine that taught that Christ was a single person, at once God and man.

This teaching was anathematised. Also at this Council the title for the Virgin Mary of Theotokos (Birthgiver of God) is confirmed for use by the whole Church.

The Fourth Ecumenical Council: Chalcedon, 451 A.D.

Addressed the teachings of Eutyches, a form of Monophysitism.

(Monophysitism is a doctrine teaching that Christ had a single divine nature as against the orthodox teaching of a double nature, divine and human.)

The teachings of the previous councils were confirmed and the teachings of Nestorius and Eutyches, and other Monophysites condemned.

The Fifth Ecumenical Council: Constantinople, 553 A.D.

To further condemned the Monophysite heresy.

The doctrine of the Trinity was set out and also the two births (in eternity and in time) of the Divine Word and Jesus Christ, one person, God and man at the same time; it was the one same person who both wrought the miracles and suffered death.

The Sixth Ecumenical Council: Constantinople, 680 A.D.

To address the heresy of Monothelism saying that Christ did not have a human will.

This council stated that in our Lord Jesus Christ there are two natural wills, and two natural operations, indivisibly, inconvertibly, inseparably, without any fusion as the holy fathers have taught, and that these two natural wills are not contrary.

The Seventh Ecumenical Council: Nicea, 787 A.D.

To address the Iconoclast controversy.

Hostility to the veneration of icons had led to destruction and persecution, and this was the Council which decreed their restoration. The following statement was made to express this:

As with the priceless, life-giving cross, so with the venerable and holy images, they may be set up in their various forms in the churches, on the sacred vessels and vestments, on the walls, likewise in private houses, and along the wayside... The more often we look upon them, the more vividly are our minds turned to the memory of those whom they represent... to give to them, the images, an adoration of honour, but not however the true latria, which, as our faith teaches, is to be given only to the divine nature... so that, like the holy cross, the gospels, and the relics of the saints, to these images offerings of incense and lights may be made, as was the custom of our ancestors. For the honour rendered to the image passes to that which the image represents, and whosoever adores an image adores the person it depicts. For in this way, is the teaching of the holy Fathers strengthened, that is to say, the tradition of the holy catholic church, receiving the gospel, from one end of the world to the other... 


The Authority of the Councils

We know from Acts 15 that the calling of a Council to determine controversial matters was established by the Apostles themselves. In the Council of Jerusalem in 48-49 A.D., chaired by St. James, the Brother of Christ, the problems of keeping the Jewish Law were discussed, and it was established that circumcision and the dietary laws were not required of Christians.

Writing to the Patriarch of Constantinople in the 6th century, St. Gregory the Great refers to the significance of the Councils, and their defining of doctrine, which he equates with scripture. We believe that the decisions made by the Bishops at the Ecumenical Councils were made under divine inspiration. They stand at the centre of Tradition, along with Divine Scripture and the writings of the Fathers, to proclaim what the Church believes.


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Learn more about the Ecumenical Councils and the Early Church.