Sources of Orthodox Tradition: The Councils

Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council

Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council

The life of the early Church was dominated by the seven Ecumenical Councils. These Councils defined once and for all the Church’s teaching upon the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith: the Trinity and the Incarnation. Although these are mysteries the Church recognized that certain teachings were false and met in Council to address these heresies.

The Councils has a very real purpose: the salvation of man. “Man, according to the scriptures, is separated from God by sin, and cannot through his own efforts break down the wall of separation which his sinfulness has created. God has therefore taken the initiative: He became man, was crucified, and rose from the dead, thereby delivering humanity from the bondage of sin and death. This is the central message of the Christian faith, and it is this message of redemption that the Councils were concerned to safeguard. Heresies were dangerous and required condemnation, because they impaired the teaching of the New Testament, setting up a barrier between man and God, and so making it impossible for man to attain full salvation.” Bishop KALLISTOS Ware

The first church council in history settled the New Testament Church’s debate on what was necessary for a Gentile to enter the Church (see Acts 15). From that time on, all through history councils were held on every level of church life to make important decisions. Bishops met regularly with their priests, also called presbyters or elders, and people. It became the practice, and even the law, very early in church history that bishops in given regions should meet in councils held on a regular basis.

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
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4 Comments

Filed under Sources of Orthodox Tradition: Series

4 responses to “Sources of Orthodox Tradition: The Councils

  1. Gabriel Emanuel Borlean

    Dear Fr. James Coles, regarding the councils (the Oecumenical ones), I belive the 7th one is the most contentious or disputed one. Being a student of history I have learned how prolongued the Iconoclastic controversy has been (7th and 8th centuries) and that according to one source close to 100,000 Christians died (iconoclasts and iconophiles) over 100 years of dispute. Considering that the emperor had called an earlier 8th century Council side with the iconoclasts, but in 787, the new Council sided with the iconophiles … what makes you choose one council over the other ?

    In other words, what standards to we adopt for what council we consider to be correct and which one we consider to be anathemized ?

    I am asking this with great respect, as a Lutheran Christian who has great appreciation for iconic art used in worship and personal life as inspiration to pray and follow the example of our ancestors.

    Sincerely your servent in God’s vineyard,

    Gabriel Emanuel Borlean

  2. s-p

    Hi Gabriel,
    If I may…the Church functions in an “organic” way. It sounds like a cop out, but we chose the iconophile council because in the end it reflected the mind of the Church in regard to the ramifications of the Incarnation. While iconophyletism was not “dogmatized”, iconoclasm was the “new thing” and was ultimately rejected. Just as in New Testament times controversies didn’t get instantly solved, Christological issues took often decades or centuries to work out. The Church functions in the real world with real people. That is why there are still iconoclasts today in most protestant Christian traditions… the Church does not wield “authority” in the sense of forcing everyone believe the same thing or demanding that everyone accept this or that council, its authority is to bear witness to the Truth and there will always be those who reject it, even within the Church. ALL heresies, including iconoclasm, arose from within the Church as St. Paul warned the Ephesian presbyters.

  3. Gabriel Emanuel Borlean

    S-P and others,

    Thank you for the concise and convincing argument.

    As a practicing Lutheran, I have a hard time reconciling the fact that the early Church (of the first 3 centuries) had little church art … most likely because of their Jewish heritage regarding the prohibition listed in Exodus 20 (“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, … Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them”; KJV) and the Orthodox Church does not exist apart from Ikons.

    While I appreciate the reasons for having icons (as so well listed by Orthodox author John Kosmas Skinas in “Pictures of God: A Child’s Guide to Understanding Icons” …
    a) Remind us to pray,
    b) Teach us how to be true followers of Christ,
    c) Keep our minds on God, and
    d) Give us humility)
    I believe the freedom we have in Christ does not allow us mandate or enforce the use of icons on any believers or local church.

    Let me explain this by an example: I asked a good Romanian Orthodox friend of mine what happened if a fellow Orthodox Christian approached him and told my friend that he no longer has icons in his house ? What would be my friend’s response?

    His response would be to tell his fellow Orthodox Christian brother that what he was doing was not good.

    While I find the use of Icons in my faith a great value (just like I find Church History, and the Lives of the Saints of the Church) I cannot mandate others Christians to share the same views … simply because our Lord did not command it, and neither did the Apostles (as far as we know in the written Revelation – aka the Holy Writ).

    Please feel free to respond.

    • Chris

      I believe the freedom we have in Christ does not allow us mandate or enforce the use of icons on any believers or local church.

      Gabriel – As Christians, I’m not sure anything is “mandated” or “enforced” upon us.

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