The Ecumenical Councils
Key source: F. W. Mattox, The Eternal
Kingdom: A History of the Church of
Christ, Delight, Arkansas: Gospel Light
Publishing Company, 1961.
The Ecumenical Councils
• Ecumenical—
Universal or world
wide in extent
• It applies the first
seven church
councils to which
all bishops were
– Nicaea, 325
– Constantinople,
– Ephesus, 431
– Chalcedon, 451
– Constantinople,
– Constantinople,
– Nicaea, 787
Authority and the Councils
• Roman theologians maintain that the church
as an organization does have the right to
speak for God and that the bishops in council
cannot err.
– After the rise of the pope as universal head of
the church, there was conflict over whether the
pope or the council had the final authority.
– After the pope gained ascendancy over the
councils, councils were seldom called and their
decisions were only accepted if they pleased the
Nicaea, 325 and
Constantinople, 381
• Constantine called the council of Nicaea
June 19, 325.
• Emperor Theodosius convoked the
second general council in Constantinople
in May, 381.
– 150 bishops attended
– The first decision was that the position taken
by the 318 bishops of Nicaea was the truth
and that this doctrine “shall not be set aside
but shall remain dominant.”
Constantinople, 381
• Macdonius, a bishop of Constantinople
from 341-360, had taught the Holy Spirit
was subordinate to both the Father and
the Son and was on the level of angels.
• The council condemned this teaching and
stated its faith in the “Holy Spirit, the Lord
and the Life-giver, that proceedeth from
the Father and Son is worshipped together
and glorified together….”
Constantinople, 381
• The council decreed that Christ was human as
well as divine.
• Apollinaris, bishop of Laodicea, had strongly
opposed Arianism, but began to philosophize
as to how Jesus could be both human and
– He concluded Jesus was born with a natural body
and soul, but instead of having a human spirit He
had the divine logos.
– The logos dominated the body and the soul and
made Him divine.
– This view was condemned by the council because
it minimized the manhood of Christ.
Ephesus, 431
• Theologians began to call Mary the mother
of God (Theotokos) to emphasize the
divinity of her child.
• Nestorius denied the divine nature was
truly united with the body of Jesus.
• He taught that Mary gave birth only to the
human body, therefore she should not be
called the “mother of God.”
Ephesus, 431
• Confusion caused Emperor Theodosius to
call a council at Ephesus.
– The council decreed Christ had perfect unity in
His being and personality and that He was not of
two different parts joined together in some
mechanical way.
– From this time on, the statement “Mary, the
mother of God” was commonly used.
– The divinity of Christ became generally
– Emphasis in the statement was changed and
Mary began to be exalted as though she were
the source of Christ’s divine nature.
Chalcedon, 451
• Eutyches said Christ’s two natures were
fused into one following the incarnation.
• Emperor Marsian called the council of
• Leo, bishop of Rome, presented a paper
condemning Eutyches’ teaching.
– The council said “Peter has spoken through
Leo” and drew up its decision based on his
The Decree of the Council of
Chalcedon, 451
• “At once complete in Godhead and complete
in manhood, truly God and truly man,
consisting also of a reasonable soul and
body; as of one substance with the Father as
regards his Godhead, and at the same time
of one substance with us as regards his
manhood…begotten…of Mary the Virgin, the
God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son,
Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two
natures, without confusion, without change,
without division, without separation….”
Results of Chalcedon, 451
• Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus, Syria, was
required to say, “Anathema to all who do not
confess that the Virgin Mary is the mother of
• The council decreed that the bishop of
Constantinople was due all the rights and
powers bestowed upon the bishop of Rome.
– As Rome ruled the West, Constantinople ruled
the East.
– Leo was unsuccessful in his strong opposition.
Constantinople 553
• Note: It is impossible to change ideas
through legislation.
• Eutychus’ doctrine was called Monophysitism
(mono—one, physis—nature)
• Emperor Justinian called a council to
Constantinople because the theory so
disturbed the churches in the East.
• The bishops strongly condemned the theory.
– However, the bishop of Rome, the emperor and
other influential leaders changed opinions
several times.
Events Leading to the Council of
Constantinople, 680
• A companion theory, called Monotheletism
(mono—one; thelma—will), said Christ only
had a divine will.
– Although Christ had two natures, He had only one
personality and one will, according to this theory.
– If Christ only had a divine will, His human nature
would be repudiated and His overcoming human
weaknesses would be ascribed to a lack of real
• The emperor took the position of the
Monothelites and sent the leading opponents
into exile.
Constantinople, 680
• In 678, Constantine Poganatus, the new
emperor, entered into negotiations with
Domnus, bishop of Rome.
– They agreed a settlement should be reached by
a general council.
• The Emperor called a council to meet in
Constantinople in 680 and presided as
– The idea that Christ had two wills was sustained
by the council.
– Those who said Christ had only one will were
The Iconoclastic Controversy
• The Nicaean council of 787 was primarily
called to resolve the iconoclastic controversy.
– Icon—representation of a true historical person
– Constantia, Constantine’s sister, wrote Eusebius
asking him to send her an “image of Christ.”
– Eusebius said images were forbidden by the
Law, unknown in the churches and to have such
would be to follow pagan idolatry.
– Eusebius also said Christians have the living
Christ and have no need of artificial images.
The Iconoclastic Controversy
• Pictures and images came into use as
teaching aids from the fourth century.
• As Bible study declined, icons were relied
upon to a greater extent.
– Pictures and images were arranged to depict
Christ from His birth to ascension.
– The crucifix came into use as an aid to worship.
– As superstition developed, these images took on
special significance to the ignorant.
– People began to fondle and kiss them, as well as
bowing down to them.
Problems with Icons
• The emperors were alarmed, but the
bishops of the West, especially the pope,
favored the use of icons.
• In the East, the Mohammedans
reproached the Christians as idolaters.
• John, bishop of Damascus, said God was
in the images.
– He said they were actual representations of
the Invisible in much the same way as in the
Lord’s supper.
Problems with Icons
• In 730, Emperor Leo the Isaurian issued a
decree that all images and pictures must
be removed from the churches.
– This was opposed by the Patriarch of
Constantinople, so the emperor had him
removed from office.
• When word reached Pope Gregory III in
Rome (731), he excommunicated the
emperor and all church officials who would
not restore the images.
The Great Synod in the Palace of
Hieria, 754
• Emperor Constantine V summoned the
bishops of his Empire to a great synod in
the palace Hieria, which lay opposite to
– This has been called the seventh ecumenical
council or the mock synod.
– The number of those present amounted to
338 bishops, mostly iconoclasts.
• The synod condemned the use of images.
Nicaea, 787
• The pope rejected the conclusions of the
synod of Hieria.
• Emperor Constantine VI called a world
council to settle the issue.
• The council restored images to the
– It said worship could be given to God alone
and the images could receive no more than
– It was not long until worship was again being
offered to the images.
The End of Ecumenical Councils
• After 100 years, the pope and his
assistants persuaded the emperor to stop
opposing images.
• In 860, the Council of Constantinople
decreed that images should be
“worshipped with the same honor as the
books of the holy gospels.”
• From this point forward, the pope had
more power than the emperor and
decisions of councils would only be
meaningful if agreeable to him.
• Ecumenical councils were called by the
Roman Emperors primarily in the interest
of the unity of the empire.
– They also viewed themselves as theologians
and wanted to play a part in directing the
course of the church.
• These councils reflect the confusion which
arose when men tried to harmonize
human philosophy and Christianity.
• The writing of creeds was supposed to
bring unity.
• Instead, it forced open division and a
crystallization of positions.
• At times, the decision of a council came
from a small majority because of the
eloquence of a particular individual.