An Ecumenical Council is a conference of ecclesiastical dignitaries and theological experts convened to discuss and settle matters of Church doctrine and practice in which those entitled to vote are convoked from the whole world (oikoumene) and which secures the approbation of the whole Church.
The first seven Ecumenical Councils, recognized by both the eastern and western branches of Chalcedonian Christianity, were convoked by Christian Roman Emperors, who also enforced the decisions of those councils within the state church of the Roman Empire.
Traditionally, Christianity has defined itself, by defining the opposite, by out-lawing and excluding heresies.
The following table defines the first seven Ecumenical Councils, Council of Trent and the Second Vatican Council, at a glance and what they were excluding:
This table is not an exhaustive depiction of these Councils, only what was most important from the author’s perspective.
This article is lengthy and may be boring to some, but this lengthy two thousand year history is precisely the reason, why the message that Jesus, may peace be on him, delivered to the Israelites, is lost to the modern world, as the vision of the common man is entangled in centuries of political, religious and theological wrangling.
Additionally, my thesis may not be immediately obvious to the devout Christians, but, it is likely to make good sense to the Jews, the Muslims, the Unitarian Christians and those who grew up as Christians and now are unaffiliated, comprising up to half of Europe’s population and 20-25% of the population of Canada and USA.
What I can say for the Christian readers of the Muslim Times, read on and in the words of Sir Francis Bacon, “Read not to contradict … but to weigh and consider.”
Any reader who is not interested in the precise details, could skim through some of the Ecumenical Councils to my final heading of Epilogue.
I have collected the necessary details about the first seven Ecumenical Councils, Council of Trent and Second Vatican Council, from different encyclopedic sources.
The First Council of Nicaea was a council of Christian bishops convened in Nicaea in Bithynia by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in AD 325. This first ecumenical council was the first effort to attain consensus in the church through an assembly representing all of Christendom.
The first Nicene Council was probably held in what would become the now ruined mosque of Orchan.
The Nicene creed, defining the Triune understanding of God, was derived from the First Council and was forced into public consciousness by Law and Arius was labeled as heretic, an outcast, someone officially condemned.
Arius (Ancient Greek: Ἄρειος, AD 250 or 256–336) was an ascetic North African Christian presbyter and priest in Alexandria, Egypt, of the church of Baucalis, who was of Libyan origins. His teachings about the nature of the Godhead, which emphasized the Father’s divinity over the Son, and his opposition to Trinitarian Christology, made him a primary topic of the First Council of Nicea, convened by Roman Emperor Constantine in AD 325.
After Emperor Licinius and Emperor Constantine legalized and formalized the Christianity of the time in the Roman Empire, the newly recognized catholic Church sought to unify and clarify its theology. Trinitarian Christians, including Athanasius, used Arius and Arianism as epithets to describe those who disagreed with their doctrine of co-equal Trinitarianism, a Christology representing God the Father and Son (Jesus of Nazareth) as “of one essence” (consubstantial) and coeternal.
Although virtually all positive writings on Arius’ theology have been suppressed or destroyed, negative writings describe Arius’ theology as one in which there was a time before the Son of God, when only God the Father existed. Despite concerted opposition, ‘Arian’, or nontrinitarian Christian churches persisted throughout Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, and also in various Gothic and Germanic kingdoms, until suppressed by military conquest or voluntary royal conversion between the fifth and seventh centuries.
The Second Ecumenical Council also known as the First Council of Constantinople was a council of Christian bishops convened in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul in Turkey) in AD 381 by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I. This second ecumenical council, an effort to attain consensus in the church through an assembly representing all of Christendom, confirmed the Nicene Creed, expanding the doctrine thereof to produce the Niceno–Constantinopolitan Creed, and dealt with sundry other matters.
The Council of Nicaea in 325 had not ended the Arian controversy which it had been called to clarify. By 327, Emperor Constantine I had begun to regret the decisions that had been made at the Nicene Council. He granted amnesty to the Arian leaders and exiled Athanasius because of Eusebius of Nicomedia. Even during numerous exiles, Athanasius continued to be a vigorous defender of Nicene Christianity against Arianism. Athanasius famously said “Athanasius against the world”. The Cappadocian Fathers also took up the torch; their Trinitarian discourse was influential in the council at Constantinople.
The Trinity had been recognized at the Council of Nicea, but debate about exactly what it meant continued. A rival to the more common belief that Jesus Christ had two natures wasmonophysitism (“one nature”), the doctrine that Christ had only one nature. Apollinarism and Eutychianism were two forms of monophysitism. Apollinaris’ rejection of Christ having a human mind was considered an over-reaction to Arianism and its teaching that Christ was not God.
Theodoret charged Apollinaris with confounding the persons of the Godhead, and with giving into the heretical ways of Sabellius. Basil of Caesarea accused him of abandoning the literal sense of the scripture, and taking up wholly with the allegorical sense. His views were condemned in a Synod at Alexandria, under Athanasius of Alexandria, in 362, and later subdivided into several different heresies, the main ones of which were the Polemians and the Antidicomarianites.
Up until about 360, theological debates mainly dealt with the divinity of the Son, the second person of the Trinity. However, because the Council of Nicaea had not clarified the divinity of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, it became a topic of debate. The Macedonians denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. This was also known as Pneumatomachianism.
Thirty-six Pneumatomachians arrived but were denied admission to the council when they refused to accept the Nicene creed.
Not to talk about the non-Christians, these Ecumenical Councils did not even allow different shades of Christianity.
Seven canons, four of these doctrinal canons and three disciplinary canons, are attributed to the Second Council and accepted by both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches; the Roman Catholic Church accepts only the first four. The first canon is an important dogmatic condemnation of all shades of Arianism, and also of Macedonianism and Apollinarianism.
This third ecumenical council, an effort to attain consensus in the church through an assembly representing all of Christendom, confirmed the original Nicene Creed , and condemned the teachings of Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople that Virgin Mary may be called the Christotokos, “Birth Giver of Christ” but not the Theotokos, “Birth Giver of God”. It met in June and July 431 at the Church of Mary in Ephesus in Anatolia.
Nestorius’ doctrine, Nestorianism, which emphasized the disunity between Christ’s human and divine natures, had brought him into conflict with other church leaders, most notably Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria. Nestorius himself had requested that the Emperor convene council, hoping to prove his orthodoxy, but in the end his teachings were condemned by the council asheresy. The council declared Mary as Theotokos (God-bearer).
Nestorius’ dispute with Cyril had led the latter to seek validation from Pope Celestine I, who authorized Cyril to request that Nestorius recant his position or face excommunication. Nestorius pleaded with the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II to call a council in which all grievances could be aired, hoping that he would be vindicated and Cyril condemned.
Approximately 250 bishops were present. The proceedings were conducted in a heated atmosphere of confrontation and recriminations and created severe tensions between Cyril and Theodosius II. Nestorius was decisively outplayed by Cyril and removed from his see, and his teachings were officially anathematized. This precipitated the Nestorian Schism, by which churches supportive of Nestorius, especially in Persia, were severed from the rest of Christendom and became known as Nestorian Christianity, the Persian Church, or the Church of the East, whose present-day representatives are the Assyrian Church of the East, the Chaldean Syrian Church, the Ancient Church of the East, and the Chaldean Catholic Church. Nestorius himself retired to a monastery, always asserting his orthodoxy.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica:
The Catholic Church was never all inclusive, its politics were governed by power play of exclusion of the heretics and as a result of the Third Council, churches supportive of Nestorius, especially in Persia, were severed from the rest of Christendom and became known as Nestorian Christianity, the Persian Church, or the Church of the East.
This Council transcended what today we will call biology and declared a pious Israelite lady, mother Mary, to be “mother of God.” From now on human and divine could co-exist in the mind of Triniarian Christians. They would no longer be able to understand the simple logic that humans, rocks and apples are different things. An apple cannot be a rock at the same time.
To read more about mother Mary, Mary or Maria: Mother of a Jewish Prophet or Mother of God?
The Council of Chalcedon was a church council held from October 8 to November 1, AD 451, at Chalcedon (a city of Bithynia in Asia Minor), on the Asian side of the Bosporus, known in modern times as Kadıköy in Istanbul, although it was then separate from Constantinople.
It is referred to as the Fourth Ecumenical Council.
The council marked a significant turning point in the Christological debates that led to the separation of the church of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century. It is the last council which many Anglicans and most Protestants consider ecumenical.
The Council of Chalcedon was convened by Emperor Marcian, with the reluctant approval of Pope Leo the Great, to set aside the 449 Second Council of Ephesus which would become known as the “Latrocinium” or “Robber Council”. The Council of Chalcedon issued the ‘Chalcedonian Definition,’ which repudiated the notion of a single nature in Christ, and declared that he has two natures in one person and hypostasis; it also insisted on the completeness of his two natures: Godhead and manhood.
In essence, this Council was insisting, for Jesus, what in modern psychological parlor will be called multiple personalities.
The most well known Church which did not go along with the Council of Chalcedon is the Coptic Church in Egypt.
The Copts are one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East. Although integrated in the larger Egyptian nation, the Copts have survived as a distinct religious community forming around 10–20% of the population, though estimates vary. They pride themselves on the apostolicity of the Egyptian Church whose founder was the first in an unbroken chain of patriarchs. The main body for 16 centuries has been out of communion with both the Roman Catholic Church (in Rome) and the various Eastern orthodox churches.
Their understanding of Jesus is that he had only one single nature.
Monophysitism or Miaphysitism (Greek: monos meaning “only, single” and physis meaning “nature”), is the Christological position that, after the union of the divine and the human in the historical Incarnation, Jesus Christ, as the incarnation of the eternal Son or Word (Logos) of God, had only a single “nature” which was either divine or a synthesis of divine and human. Monophysitism is contrasted to dyophysitism (or dia-, dio-, or duophysitism) which maintains that Christ maintained two natures, one divine and one human, after the Incarnation.
The vast majority of Christians nowadays belong to the so-called “Chalcedonian” churches. i.e. the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and traditional Protestant churches (those that accept at least the first four Ecumenical Councils); these churches have always considered monophysitism to be heretical.
The Second Council of Constantinople is the fifth of the first seven ecumenical councils recognized as such by both West and East Orthodox, Catholics, and Old Catholics unanimously recognize it. Protestant opinions and recognition of it are varied. Traditional Protestants such as Reformed and Lutheran recognize the first four councils, whereas most High Church Anglicans accept all seven. Constantinople II was convoked by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I under the presidency of Patriarch Eutychius of Constantinople and was held from 5 May to 2 June 553. Participants were overwhelmingly Eastern bishops; sixteen Western bishops were present (including those from Illyricum).
The main work of the council was to confirm the condemnation issued by edict in 551 by the Emperor Justinian against the Three Chapters(cf. Three Chapters controversy and Three Chapters schism). The “Three Chapters” were, one, both the person and writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428), two, the attacks on Cyril of Alexandria and the First Council of Ephesus written by Theodoret of Cyrrhus (d. c. 466), and three, the attacks on Cyril and Ephesus by Ibas of Edessa (d. 457).
The purpose of the condemnation was to make plain that the Imperial, Chalcedonian (that is, recognizing the hypostatic union of Christ as two natures, one divine and one human, united in one person with neither confusion nor division) Church was firmly opposed to all those who had either inspired or assisted Nestorius, the eponymous heresiarch of Nestorianism—the proposition that the Christ and Jesus were two separate persons loosely conjoined, somewhat akin to adoptionism, and that the Virgin Mary could not be called the Mother of God (Gk.theotokos) but only the mother of Christ (Gk. Christotokos)—which was condemned at the earlier ecumenical council of Ephesus in 431.
Justinian hoped that this would contribute to a reunion between the Chalcedonians and monophysites in the eastern provinces of the Empire; various attempts at reconciliation between the monophysite and orthodox parties were made by many emperors over the four centuries following the Council of Ephesus, none of them succeeding, and some, attempts at reconciliation, such as this—the condemnation of the Three Chapters—causing further schisms and heresies to arise in the process, such as the aforementioned schism of the Three Chapters, and the heresies of monoenergism and monotheletism—the propositions, respectively, that Christ had only one function, operation, or energy (purposefully formulated in an equivocal and vague manner, and promulgated between 610 and 622 by the Emperor Heraclius under the advisement of Patriarch Sergius I of Constantinople) and that Christ only had one will (promulgated in 638 by the same).
According to Encyclopedia Britannica:
This Council also highlights that often the Emperors and Popes were at odds with each other and what the Christian doctrines today are what succeeded in the realm of politics over the centuries, rather than what was revealed by All-Knowing God to His prophets.
The Muslim readers would best remember this Council in relation to Emperor Heraclius. He was a contemporary of the Holy Prophet Muhammad and the Holy Quran actually prophesied his victory over the Persians in the Sura named Rome.
This Council could be understood as pertaining to his efforts to unify Christianity, which had become divided, since the Fourth Council or the Council of Chalcedon, in relation to nature of Jesus, may peace be on him.
The Third Council of Constantinople, counted as the Sixth Ecumenical Council by the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church and other Christian groups, met in 680/681 and condemned monoenergism and monothelitism as heretical and defined Jesus Christ as having two energies and two wills (divine and human).
Just like the Fourth Ecumenical Council, this Council was once again insisting, for Jesus, what in modern psychological parlor will be called multiple personalities.
The Council settled a set of theological controversies that go back to the sixth century but had intensified under the Emperors Heraclius (610–641) and Constans II (641–668). Heraclius had set out to recover much of the part of his Empire lost to the Persians and had attempted to bridge the controversy with Monophysitism, which was particularly strong in Syria and Egypt, by proposing a moderate theological position that had as good support in the tradition as any other. The result was first monoenergism, i.e. that Christ, though existing in two natures, had one energy (divine and human), the second was monothelitism, i.e. that Christ had one will (that is, that there was no opposition in Christ between his human and divine volition). This doctrine was accepted in most of the Byzantine world, but was opposed at Jerusalem and at Rome and started a controversy that persisted even after the loss of the reconquered provinces and the death of Heraclius. When Heraclius’ grandson Constans II took the throne, he saw the controversy as threatening the stability of the Empire and attempted to silence discussion, by outlawing speaking either in favor or against the doctrine.
Given all the centuries of trouble, the Christians have gone through, to understand the nature of Jesus, may I suggest that it is so much easier and rational, to understand him as a holy man, as a prophet of God, as so extensively described in the Holy Quran. For example: