Ecumenical councils are conferences where theologians gather around and discuss up-to-date Christian topics. Most of the religious doctrines were established right there. The Catholic Church recognized 27 Ecumenical Councils, while the Orthodox Church approved only 7. However, the Protestant world recognizes any Ecumenical Council. Both the Eastern and Western Churches have the first seven councils the same. The first two same Ecumenical Councils are the First Ecumenical Council was convened in 325, in the city of Nicaea, during the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great. The Second Ecumenical Council was convened in 381, in the city of Constantinople, during the reign of Emperor Theodosius the Great.

The First Ecumenical council

The First Council of Nicaea (May 20-June 30, 325), also the first church ecumenical council, was held in Nicaea in Bithynia (today’s Turkey). Roman emperor Constantine I (the Great) wanted to resolve the issue of disagreement in the Church of Alexandria. The main question was whether Jesus has the same or a similar essence with God the Father. The results of this council were establishments of the Nicene symbol of faith and the Christian dogma. The emperor’s support and the support of the people of the committee influenced the determination of the doctrine. Also, there was an announcement about replacing the bishops and expelling them if they oppose Constantine’s opinion.

Thus, only a few decades after it was recognized as the state religion, Christianity stepped on the path of intolerance and persecution of different beliefs. The emperor gathered a council at Nicaea and invited all 1,800 bishops from the entire Christian Church. About a thousand from the East and eight hundred from the West. However, between 250 and 320 fathers arrived at the convention, mostly from the East, since the most passionate debates took place in the East. We don’t know the exact numbers of the people who attended. Along with few representatives of the Western Church, Pope Sylvester first of Rome sent his representatives (two priests).

Besides Pope’s representatives, there were: Hozia from Cordoba from Iberia, Marco Calabria from Italy, Cecilian of Carthage from North Africa, Nicasia Dijon from Gaul. With the numerous representatives of the Eastern Church, the most prominent was Archbishops Alexander of Alexandria, Eustathius of Antioch, and Macarius of Jerusalem, Paphnucius of Thebes, Potamon of Heraclea, and Paul of Neocaesarea. They still bore scars on their bodies from the last persecutions of Christians.

The main points

The council began on May 20, 325, in the presence of Emperor Constantine in the central part of the imperial court. Hozia from Cordoba chaired the work of the council. He was possibly also the Pope’s representative, as well as two priests. Eusebius of Nicomedia was the one who most likely gave the speech.

The main points of discussion were:

• The question of Arianism;

• Date of Easter (Passover) celebration;

• The unity of the Father and the Son;

• Baptism of heretics;

The council worked behind closed doors, but the people wanted to know everything and commented on everything at every step. After June 19, the discussion began on the date of the Christian Passover, Easter. The West church celebrated Easter on Sunday after the Jewish Passover. On the other hand, the East church celebrated East on Nisan 14 (Jewish calendar). People in Rome and Alexandria, however, didn’t want to celebrate Easter on the same day. The final decision that every year the Bishop of Alexandria would announce the date of Easter to the Pope of Rome. The first week after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

The twentieth anniversary of Constantine’s reign was on July 25, 325. On the same day, the congress ended the work, and the present fathers celebrated. In his concluding speech, the emperor reiterated his intention to maintain peace and unity in the Church. His word was spread to the kingdom the following Easter when he announced the achievement of unity of the entire Church.

The Second ecumenical council

The Second Ecumenical Council was held May-July 381 in Constantinople, also called the First Council of Constantinople. Emperor Theodosius first was the one summoning this conference. One of the results was establishing Orthodox teachings; the Holy Spirit is only of the Father. Therefore, the Holy Spirit from the Father and Son or the Son is proclaimed for a heresy. Besides, the bishop of New Rome was now the bishop of Constantinople. The Pope was the most important title, and after him, it was the bishop of New Rome. Although until then, it was the Bishop of Alexandria.

The result was the so-called pentarchy, five central episcopal chairs (local Churches) of the Christian world: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Meletius of Antioch presided over the Council. He died during the Council, Gregory of Nyssa had to replace him. The final result of the Council was the Symbol of Faith (Nicene-Constantinople). The celebration of the memorial of the Fathers of the Second Ecumenical Council is on May 22 (June 4). Alexandria was the first Church until the Second Ecumenical Council in the East. Therefore, in addition to the First Church, there were added: Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem.

As Constantinople became the residence of the emperor and the capital, the reputation of the Archbishop of Constantinople grew, and Rule 3 of the Second Ecumenical Council elevated Constantinople to second place in part, immediately after Rome. Although only Eastern bishops were present at the Council, the Greeks declared it Ecumenical. The Roman Pope didn’t recognize this rule of the Second Ecumenical Council. Pope Damasus first received the Creed in Rome, but not the canons, at least not the canon on the eldership of Constantinople after Rome. It was the beginning of the church debate and the great schism between East and West.

ecumenical councils

Hagia Sophia- The Greek Orthodox church in Constantinople. Today Muslim mosque. Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

The first four canons

1) Dogmatic condemnation of all kinds of Arianism and condemnation of Macedonianism and Apollinarianism.

2) Prohibition of exercising episcopal authority outside the boundaries of one’s diocese.

3) The decision that the patriarch of Constantinople, as the patriarch of New Rome, has a place immediately after the bishop of “ancient Rome.” This canon was accepted by the Western Church only at the Fourth Council of Constantinople, and confirmed by the Fourth Lateran Council for Latin Florence for the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople.

4) The decision on the invalidity of the episcopal ordination of Maximus, Patriarch of Constantinople

The Third Ecumenical Council

The Third Ecumenical Council was convened in 431, in the city of Ephesus, during the reign of Theodosius II Younger. Around 200 bishops gathered around the council. The purpose of this gathering was the false teaching of the Archbishop of Constantinople, Nestorius. He dishonorably taught that the Virgin Mary (Jesus’ mother) gave birth to an ordinary man, with whom God, then united morally, dwelt in Him as in a temple. Something similar to what we had before Moses and other prophets. Nestorius was teaching people that Jesus Christ was just a man. Then he called the Lord Jesus Christ a God-bearer, not a God-man, he called the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of Christ, not Mother of God.

The Council condemned and rejected the heresy of Nestorius. After that, the council decided to recognize the united two natures in Jesus Christ, from the moment of incarnation: Divine and human. Also, to confess Jesus Christ as a perfect God and a perfect man, and the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Mother of God. The Council also established the Nicene Creed and strictly forbade any changes or additions to it. The Archbishop of Alexandria, Cyril, was of noble origin. He fought three battles, with the heretics Novaciani, with the heretic Nestorius and with the Jews in Alexandria.

His fight against Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, was decided by the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus. Cyril chaired that Council himself, representing at the same time Pope Celestine of Rome, at the request of this one, who could not come to the Council due to his age. Nestorius is condemned and banished by the emperor to the eastern border of the empire, where he died a horrible death (because the worms ate his tongue, with which he blasphemed the Most Holy Mother of God, calling her the Mother of Christ).

Highly Recommended:

Book The Seven Ecumenical Councils Of The Undivided Church by Henry R Percival.

Book: The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology (Theology and Life Series 21)

Both books have a good narrative and are well-written. The ecumenical councils are a huge part of Christian history, and without an understanding of them, we can’t grasp how doctrine developed. Both books deserve five stars. A thorough and easy to understand the study of the first 7 Ecumenical Councils recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

The fourth Ecumenical council

The Fourth Ecumenical Council was convened in 451, in the city of Chalcedon, during the reign of Emperor Marcian. Around 650 bishops attended. The subject of this gathering was a protest against the false teaching of the archimandrite of a monastery in Constantinople – Eutychius, who denied human nature in the Lord Jesus Christ. Rejecting heresy and protecting the Divine dignity of Jesus Christ, he went to extremes. He even taught that Jesus Christ’s human nature was absorbed by the Deity and that only one thing should be in Him – the Divine nature.

This false teaching is called Monophysitism, and its followers are called Monophysites (naturalists). The Council condemned and rejected the false teaching of Eutychius and established the right teaching of the Church. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the true God and the true man: by Divinity, He is eternally born of the Father, and as a human, He was born of the Blessed Virgin Mary and in all things similar to us, except sin. At the incarnation (birth of the Virgin Mary), Deity and humanity were united in Him, as one Person, unmerged and unchangeable (as opposed to Eutychius), inseparable and inseparable (as opposed to Nestorius).

The fifth Ecumenical council

The Fifth Ecumenical Council was convened in 553 in the city of Constantinople, during the time of the famous Emperor Justinian I. Around 165 bishops attended the gathering. This meeting was summoned due to disputes between the followers of Nestorius and Eutychius. The main subject of the dispute was the fabrications of three teachers of the Syrian church, who enjoyed popularity in their time, namely Theodore of Mopsuet, Theodoret of Cyrus, and Ivo of Edessa, who clearly showed the Nestorian delusion, and nothing was mentioned at the Fourth Ecumenical Council.

The Nestorians in the dispute with the Eutychians (Monophysites) persecuted these fabrications, and the Eutychians found in this an excuse to reject the 4th Ecumenical Council itself and to slander the Orthodox Ecumenical Church, that it adhered to Nestorianism. The Council condemned all three fabrications and Theodore Mopsuetski himself, as unrepentant, and the condemnation of the other two was limited only to their Nestorian fabrications, and they were pardoned they renounced their false opinions and jumped in peace with the Church. The Council reiterated its condemnation of the heresies of Nestorius and Eutychius.

The sixth ecumenical council 

The Sixth Ecumenical Council was convened in 680, in Constantinople, during the reign of Emperor Constantine Pogonata, and consisted of 170 bishops. The topic was the false teaching of the monotheistic heretics, who, although they acknowledged in Jesus Christ two natures, the Divine and the human, acknowledged only one Divine. The emperor Heraclius, wanting reconciliation, decided to persuade the Orthodox to yield to the Monothelites and by the force of his power, he ordered that one will and two natures be recognized in Jesus Christ. Sophronius, the patriarch of Jerusalem and the monknof Constantinople, Maximus the Confessor, appeared to be the protector and interpreter of the teaching of the Church.

The Sixth Council condemned and rejected the heresy of the Monothelites, and decided to recognize in Jesus Christ two natures – Divine and human – according to those two natures – two wills, but so that the human will in Christ is not contrary, but submissive to His Divine will. The decisions of the council were also signed by the Roman legates: Presbyters Theodore and George, and Deacon John. It indicates that the highest authority in the Church belongs to the Ecumenical Council and not to the Pope. The Council established the rules, which the Church is obliged to manage, as follows: 85 rules of St. Apostles, rules 6 of the Ecumenical and 7 local Councils, and 13 Church Fathers.

The seventh ecumenical council 

The Seventh Ecumenical Council was convened in 787, in Nicaea, during the reign of Empress Irina (widow of the Emperor Leo Khazar), and consisted of 367 bishops. The Council was convened against the iconoclast heresy, which appeared 60 years before the Council, during the time of the Greek emperor Leo, who, wanting to convert Mohammedans to Christianity, considered it necessary to abolish the veneration of icons.

The Council condemned and rejected the iconoclast heresy and decided to place and lay in St. temples, together with the image of the Holy and Life-giving Cross of the Lord, and the holy icon, to be revered and worshiped, raising the mind and heart to the Lord God, the Mother of God and the Saints, who are depicted on them.

After the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the persecution of holy icons rose again during the next three emperors: Leo the Armenian, Michael Balboa, and Theophilus. And for about 25 years, he stirred up the Church. Respect for St. The icon was finally established and established at the Local Council of Constantinople in 842, during the reign of Empress Theodora.

Ecumenical councils – Summary

The text above was a brief overview of the seven shared Ecumenical Councils. The Roman Catholic Church, instead of seven, recognizes more than 20 Ecumenical Councils, adding to that number the councils that were in the Western Church after the division of the Church. Protestants do not acknowledge any Ecumenical Council. The reform that continued in 1519 with the teachings of Martin Luther, goes back to the example of the Apostle and the recognition of one Church of Christ, the First Church before the council and before the division.