ecumenical council

ecumenical council

ecumenical council: see council, ecumenical.
council, ecumenical [Gr.,=universal], in Christendom, council of church leaders, the decisions of which are accepted by some segment of the church as authoritative, also called general council. Although councils can declare themselves ecumenical, this designation has often been applied retrospectively; even the Roman Catholic Church has no formal decree on the number of ecumenical councils. As with all councils, its canons usually begin with a detailed statement of the common faith. The acceptance of the canons is unequal; thus, Roman Catholics regard them as binding (canonical) only when a pope has subsequently ratified them, and many canons of several councils have never been accepted.

Recognized Councils

The following is the list of the general councils recognized by Roman Catholics (the numbering is the customary one, and the opening year is given): (1) 1 Nicaea, 325; (2) 1 Constantinople, 381; (3) Ephesus, 431; (4) Chalcedon, 451; (5) 2 Constantinople, 553; (6) 3 Constantinople, 680; (7) 2 Nicaea, 787; (8) 4 Constantinople, 869; (9) 1 Lateran, 1123; (10) 2 Lateran, 1139; (11) 3 Lateran, 1179; (12) 4 Lateran, 1215; (13) 1 Lyons, 1245; (14) 2 Lyons, 1274; (15) Vienne, 1311; (16) Constance, 1414; (17) Basel and Ferrara-Florence, 1431, 1438; (18) 5 Lateran, 1512; (19) Trent, 1545; (20) 1 Vatican, 1869; (21) 2 Vatican, 1962 (see separate articles on each council; e.g., Nicaea, First Council of). The Orthodox Eastern Church recognizes the first seven and counts the Trullan Synod of 692 as an ecumenical extension of the Third Council of Constantinople. The first council was the model for the rest.

Purposes of the Councils

The common purpose of the first eight councils was to determine whether specific theological novelties were orthodox or heretical (not orthodox). The rest of the councils, all held in Western Europe, have dealt chiefly with church discipline and morals. Two of them, the Second Council of Lyons and the Council of Ferrara-Florence, were occupied with abortive attempts at reconciliation between East and West. Conciliar theory, which held that an ecumenical council is superior to the pope, played a central role in attempts to heal the Great Schism. Conciliar theory was in its heyday at the Council of Constance (see Schism, Great). The Council of Trent, convened to deal with the Protestant Reformation, was probably the most far-reaching in its effects. Pope John XXIII established as one of the principal themes of the Second Vatican Council the reunion of all Christians with the Church of Rome.

Authority of the Councils

The traditional opinion is that when the bishops of the world unite to define belief in the light of what they have received from their predecessors, God will protect them from error. This is a manifestation of the infallibility of the teaching church, and papal infallibility is compared to it in the definition published by the First Vatican Council (see infallibility). Two famous councils that claimed in vain to be ecumenical are the Robber Council of Ephesus (see Eutyches) and the Council of Pisa during the Great Schism.

Protestants recognize the authority of the first four ecumenical councils, but, as first expressed by Martin Luther, do not regard ecumenical councils and their canons as binding on the conscience. Only when council decisions follow scripture do Protestants consider them authoritative. Nevertheless Protestant observers have officially attended the last two councils. The ecumenical movement among Protestants is not to be confused with an ecumenical council, although they share a similar aim.


See studies by L. Jaeger (tr. 1961), P. Hughes (1961), F. Dvornik (1961), and E. F. Jacobs (rev. ed. 1963).

This is a general introduction to ecumenical councils. For the Roman Catholic councils, see Catholic Ecumenical Councils.

An ecumenical council (or oecumenical council; also general council) is a conference of the bishops of the whole Church convened to discuss and settle matters of Church doctrine and practice. The word derives from the Greek language "Οικουμένη", which literally means "the inhabited world", which first referred to the Roman Empire and later was extended to apply to the world in general.

Due to schisms, the acceptance of these councils varies widely between different branches of Christianity. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches jointly held the first eight Ecumenical councils (meeting from the 4th to the 9th century). They accept as Ecumenical the first seven but differ on the identity of the eighth. While the Eastern Orthodox Church has not generally accepted any later synod as Ecumenical, the Roman Catholic Church continues to hold Ecumenical Councils of those bishops in full communion with the Pope.

Those churches that parted ways with the other over christological matters, only accept the first few councils, the Oriental Orthodoxy churches the first three, the Assyrian church the first two as Ecumenical.

Some Protestants, most commonly Lutherans and Anglicans, accept either the first seven or the first four as Ecumenical councils.

Council documents

Church councils were, from the beginning, bureaucratic exercises. Written documents were circulated, speeches made and responded to, votes taken, and final documents published and distributed. A large part of what we know about the beliefs of heresies comes from the documents quoted in councils in order to be refuted, or indeed only from the deductions based on the refutations.

Most councils dealt not only with doctrinal but also with disciplinary matters, which were decided in canons ("rules"). In some cases other documentation survives as well. Study of the canons of church councils is the foundation of the development of canon law, especially the reconciling of seemingly contradictory canons or the determination of priority between them. Canons consist of doctrinal statements and disciplinary measures — most Church councils and local synods dealt with immediate disciplinary concerns as well as major difficulties of doctrine. Eastern Orthodoxy typically views the purely doctrinal canons as dogmatic and applicable to the entire church at all times, while the disciplinary canons apply to a particular time and place and may or may not be applicable in other situations.

List of ecumenical councils

Council of Jerusalem

The Acts of the Apostles records the Council of Jerusalem, which addressed the tension between maintaining Jewish practices in the early Christian community with Gentile converts. Although its decisions are accepted by all Christians and later definitions of an ecumenical council appear to conform to this sole biblical Council, no Christian church includes it when numbering the ecumenical councils.

The first seven Ecumenical Councils

The Eighth Ecumenical Council

Ecumenical for some Eastern Orthodox

The next two are regarded as ecumenical by some in the Eastern Orthodox Church but not by others, who instead consider them to be important local councils. They have nevertheless received universal acceptance by all Eastern Orthodox Churches even where their ecumenicity is not recognized.

Roman Catholic Councils #9 to #21

Acceptance of the councils

Oriental Orthodoxy: accept #1, #2, #3

Oriental Orthodoxy only accepts Nicaea I, Constantinople I and Ephesus I. The formulation of the Chalcedonian Creed caused a schism in the Alexandrian and Syriac churches. Reconciliatory efforts between Oriental Orthodox with the Eastern Orthodox and the Catholic Church in the mid- and late-20th century have led to common Christological declarations. The Oriental and Eastern Churches have also been working toward reconciliation as a consequence of the ecumenical movement.

Eastern Orthodoxy: accept #1-#7; some also accept #8(EO), #9(EO) as ecumenical

As far as some Eastern Orthodox are concerned, since the Seventh Ecumenical Council there has been no synod or council of the same scope as any of the Ecumenical councils. Local meetings of hierarchs have been called "pan-Orthodox", but these have invariably been simply meetings of local hierarchs of whatever Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions are party to a specific local matter. From this point of view, there has been no fully "pan-Orthodox" (Ecumenical) council since 787. Unfortunately, the use of the term "pan-Orthodox" is confusing to those not within Eastern Orthodoxy, and it leads to mistaken impressions that these are ersatz ecumenical councils rather than purely local councils to which nearby Orthodox hierarchs, regardless of jurisdiction, are invited.

Others, including 20th century theologians Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Naupactus, Fr. John S. Romanides, and Fr. George Metallinos (all of whom refer repeatedly to the "Eighth and Ninth Ecumenical Councils"), Fr. George Dragas, and the 1848 Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs (which refers explicitly to the "Eighth Ecumenical Council" and was signed by the patriarchs of Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria as well as the Holy Synods of the first three), regard other synods beyond the Seventh Ecumenical Council as being ecumenical. Those who regard these councils as ecumenical often characterize the limitation of Ecumenical Councils to only seven to be the result of Jesuit influence in Russia, part of the so-called "Western captivity of Orthodoxy."

Before the 20th century, the council of 879 AD was recognized as the 8th ecumenical council by people like the famous expert on Canon Law, Theodore Valsamon (11th century), St. Neilos of Rodes, St. Mark Evgenicus (15th century), St. Symeon of Thessaloniki (15th century), and the Patriarch of Jerusalem Dositheus, in his Tome of Joy (17th century).

Roman Catholicism: accept #1-#7, #8(RC), #9(RC), #10-#21

Both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches recognize seven councils in the early years of the church, but Roman Catholics also recognize fourteen councils called in later years by the Pope. The status of these councils in the face of a Catholic-Orthodox reconciliation would depend upon whether one accepts Roman Catholic ecclesiology (papal primacy) or Orthodox ecclesiology (collegiality of autocephalous churches). In the former case, the additional councils would be granted Ecumenical status. In the latter case, they would be considered to be local synods with no authority among the other autocephalous churches.

The first seven councils were called by the Emperor. Most historians agree that the emperors called the councils to force the Christian bishops to resolve divisive issues and reach consensus. One motivation for convening councils was the hope that maintaining unity in the Church would help maintain unity in the Empire. The relationship of the Papacy to the validity of these councils is the ground of much controversy between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Churches and to historians.

The Roman Catholic Church holds that these ecumenical councils are infallible.

Anglicanism and Protestantism: accept #1-#6 with reservations

Many Protestants (especially those belonging to the magisterial traditions, such as Anglicans and Lutherans, or those, such as Methodists, that flow out of the Anglican tradition) accept the teachings of the first seven councils, but do not ascribe to the councils themselves the same authority as Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox do. The Thirty-Nine Articles show an example of this attitude: "General Councils ... when they be gathered together, forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and word of God, they may err and sometime have erred, even in things pertaining to God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of Holy Scripture." The Lutheran World Federation, in ecumenical dialogues with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople has affirmed all of the first seven councils as ecumenical and authoritative. Many Protestants do not accept Nicea II, which allows for the veneration of Icons. This includes the historical Lutheran position as evidenced by the effacing of statues throughout Germany during the time of Luther.

Some Protestants, including some fundamentalist and nontrinitarian churches, condemn the ecumenical councils for other reasons. Independency or congregationalist polity among Protestants involves the rejection of any governmental structure or binding authority above local congregations; conformity to the decisions of these councils is therefore considered purely voluntary and the councils are to be considered binding only insofar as those doctrines are derived from the Scriptures. Many of these churches reject the idea that anyone other than the authors of Scripture can directly lead other Christians by original divine authority; after the New Testament, they assert, the doors of revelation were closed and councils can only give advice or guidance, but have no authority. They consider new doctrines not derived from the sealed canon of Scripture to be both impossible and unnecessary, whether proposed by church councils or by more recent prophets.

Supporters of the councils contend that the councils did not create new doctrines but merely elucidated doctrines already in Scripture that had gone unrecognized. Proponents often argue that the early councils serve as a good benchmark or tool for scriptural interpretation to guard against the individualistic or idiosyncratic interpretations of Bible that ultimately leads to schism. The thinking is that an ecumenical council representing the whole church is much less likely to misunderstand the voice of the Holy Spirit in expounding the Scriptures than is a handful of zealous believers.

The Assyrian Church: accept #1, and #2

The Assyrian Church of the East only accepts the First Council of Nicaea and the First Council of Constantinople. It was the formulation of Mary as the Theotokos which caused a schism with the Assyrian church. The Unia in the 16th century of the Catholic Church led to the Chaldeans being reconciled into full communion with Rome. Meetings between Pope John Paul II and the Assyrian Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV led to common Christological declarations in the 1990s stating that the differences between the Western and Eastern were primarily linguistic and historical rather than theological (owing to the difficulty of translating precise theological terms from Greek and/or Latin to Aramaic language.) Aramaic language is believed to have been the native language of Jesus.

Nontrinitarian churches: accept none

The first and subsequent councils are not recognized by nontrinitarian churches: Unitarians, Latter-day Saints and other Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc. The leadership of some groups—such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Mormon denominations—lays claim to a divine authority to lead the church today and sees the ecumenical councils as misguided human attempts to establish doctrine, as though true beliefs were to be decided by debate rather than by revelation.

Relations between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy

In the past few decades, many Roman Catholic theologians and even Popes have spoken of the first seven councils as ecumenical in some sort of "full and proper sense", enjoying the acceptance of both East and West. Pope Paul VI held meetings with the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople in order to repeal anathemas and give over relics as a gesture of good will and reconciliation with Eastern believers. The mutual excommunications of 1054 between the Pope Leo IX and the Patriarch Michael I Cerularius were lifted in the Catholic-Orthodox joint declaration of 1965.

Moreover, Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint ("That they may be one"), invited other Christians to discuss how the primacy of the Bishop of Rome should be appropriately exercised from now on; he says that the future may be a better guide than the past. In this way, the Bishop of Rome is allowing for the development of an ecclesiology that would be acceptable to both East and West, would allow for reconciliation of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, and would provide a common understanding of the authority of councils called ecumenical.

Similarly, on November 11, 1994 at meeting of Mar Dinkha IV, Patriarch of Babylon, Selucia-Ctesiphon and all of the East, leader of the Assyrian and Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, a Common Christological Declaration was signed, bridging a schism dating from the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus. The separation of the Oriental believers from the one holy catholic and apostolic Church after the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon was addressed in a "Common Declaration of Pope Paul VI and of Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria" at the Vatican on May 10, 1973 and in an "Agreed Statement" prepared by the "Joint Commission of the Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches" at the Monastery of Saint Pishoy in Wadi El Natrun, Egypt on June 24, 1989.


See also

Further reading

  • Tanner, Norman P. The Councils of the Church, ISBN 0824519043.
  • Tanner, Norman P. Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, ISBN 0878404902.
  • Michalopoulos, Dimitris, " The First Council of Nicaea: The end of a conflict or beginning of a struggle?", Uluslarasi Iznik Semposyumu, Iznik (Turkey), 2005, pp.47-56. ISBN: 975-7988-30-8.

External links

Search another word or see ecumenical councilon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature