A Church Council is an official ad hoc gathering of representatives to settle Church business. Such Councils are called rarely and are not the same as the regular gatherings of church leaders (synods, etc.). An ecumenical council is one at which the whole Church is represented. The three major branches of the Church (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant) recognize seven ecumenical councils: Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (680), Nicaea II (787). Further ecumenical councils were rendered impossible by the widening split between Eastern (Orthodox, Greek-speaking) and Western (Catholic, Latin-speaking) Churches, a split that was rendered official in AD 1054 and has not yet been healed.
Note: In addition to these universally-acknowledged councils, the Roman Catholic Church recognizes a further fourteen ecumenical councils: Constantinople IV (869-70), Lateran I (1123), Lateran II (1139), Lateran III (1179), Lateran IV (1215), Lyons I (1245), Lyons II (1274), Vienne (1311-12), Constance (1414-18), Florence (1438-45), Lateran V (1512-17), Trent (1545-63), Vatican I (1869-70), Vatican II (1965). But these were councils of only the Catholic Church, and are not recognized by the Orthodox or Protestant Churches.
The Council of Nicaea, 325
In 324 Constantine became sole ruler of the Roman Empire, reuniting an empire that had been split among rival rulers since the retirement of Domitian in 305. Constantine, the first Christian emperor, reunified the empire but found the Church bitterly divided over the nature of Jesus Christ. He wanted to reunify the Church as he had reunified the Empire. The major dispute was over the teaching of Arius, but there were other doctrinal issues also.
- Arianism: teaching of Arius of Alexandria (d. 335), who believed that Jesus Christ was created ex nihilo (out of nothing) by the Father to be the means of creation and redemption. Jesus was fully human, but not fully divine. He was elevated as a reward for his successful accomplishment of his mission. The Arian rallying cry was “There was a time when the Son was not.”
- Monarchianism: defended the unity (mono arche, “one source”) of God by denying that the Son and the Spirit were separate persons.
- Sabellianism: a form of monarchianism taught by Sabellias, that God revealed himself in three successive modes, as Father (creator), as Son (redeemer), as Spirit (sustainer). Hence there is only one person in the Godhead.
Constantine summoned the bishops at imperial expense to Nicea, 30 miles from his imperial capital in Nicomedia. Here they were to settle their differences in a council over which he presided. The council rejected Arianism. The Council issued a creed based upon an existing baptismal creed from Syria and Palestine. This creed became known as the Nicene Creed, or Confession of the Faith.
The Council also issued a set of canons, primarily dealing with church order.
The Council of Constantinople, 381
The second council met in Constantinople, the new imperial capital. The council issued a new creed, clarifying the understanding of the Holy Spirit as a co-equal Person of the Trinitarian Godhead as expressed in the Nicene Creed adopted in 325. This creed became known as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and remains the Confession of the Faith today in the Eastern Church.
Later, the Western Latin Church, under the influence of the Franks in the 8th century, unilaterally added a single word to the Creed, inserting Filioque “and the Son” to the statement about the Spirit, so as to read “the Spirit…proceeds from the Father and the Son.” In 867 the Patriarch of Constantinople declared Rome heretical for this clause. To this day the Western Church (Catholic and Protestant) accepts the filioque clause, while the Eastern Church (Orthodox) does not.
The Council of Ephesus, 431
Condemned Nestorius and his teaching (Nestorianism) that Christ had two separable natures, human and divine. Declared Mary to be theotokos (lit. God-bearer, i.e., Mother of God) in order to strengthen the claim that Christ was fully divine.
The Council of Chalcedon, 451
Issued the Chalcedonian Formula, affirming that Christ is two natures in one person.
The Council of Constantinople II, 553
Condemned the Three Chapters, which emphasized Christ’s humanity at the expense of his deity. Their opponents held Alexandrian theology emphasizing Christ’s deity.
The Council of Constantinople III, 680
Condemned monothelitism (Christ has a single will), affirming that Christ had a human will and a divine will that functioned in perfect harmony.
The Council of Nicea II, 787
Declared that icons are acceptable aids to worship, rejecting the iconoclasts (icon-smashers)