The 21 Ecumenical Councils

The Roman Catholic church recognizes 21 Ecumenical Councils and these are summarized here, with much of the material lifted from the references below.  Most Protestants accept the teachings of the first seven councils but differ in the authority of Church Councils generally. Those belonging to the magisterial traditions, such as Lutherans and Anglicans have a higher regard for the church councils (and even the Pope).  For many from the more radical reformed traditions, the church councils and creeds are unfamiliar at best.  It is clear that if the councils were born out of a drive for unity they produced quite the opposite effect.  That is likely why many Protestants think of creeds as divisive rather than a unifying statement of orthodoxy.

The major issue in all of this is whether the church creates doctrine or discovers it. In Catholic tradition the Church is the source of revelation and is, in some measure at least, revelation itself. This leads to the causation that Catholics put the Church above scripture and make the church the author of doctrine.  For the protestant scripture is above the church and the church discovers doctrine in the pages of scripture.

Modern skeptics attack the councils as innovators and say that much of what we call Christianity today was invented by these councils.  Supporters of the councils contend that they did not create new doctrines but merely elucidated doctrines already in Scripture and the Apostolic tradition that were being misinterpreted by heretics. 

Many of the issues "settled" by the councils remain unsettled to this day so in some sense they did not settle anything.  The bold headings that break up the summaries of the councils with a bit of historical perspective.  This outline may be more helpful.

  1. Christological Debates (Council I - VII)
    1. Teachings of the first two councils (generally accepted by those calling themselves Christian).
    2. COUNCIL OF EPHESUS - Nestorian Schissm. 
    3. COUNCIL OF CHALCEDONOriential Orthodox Schism.
  2. The Authority of Rome (The Pope).  (Council VII - XIX)
    1. Beginning of problems between East and West.
    2. East-West Schism 1054.
    3. The Reformation (What Rome calls Luther's Rebellion) 1517.

 The first seven councils were about the churches understanding of the nature of the incarnation. The rest that are recognized by the Roman Church had something to say about theology but more to say about the definition of the church as an institution.  


Teachings of the first three councils (generally accepted by all those calling themselves Christian). 


Year: 325

Summary: The Council of Nicaea lasted two months and twelve days. Three hundred and eighteen bishops were present. According to tradition Hosius, Bishop of Cordova presided. The Emperor Constantine was also present. To this council we owe the beginning of what became the Nicene Creed. The issue was the true Divinity of the Son of God.  In English the creed says something like "being of one substance with the Father" to translate the Greek homoousios which emphasizes the divinity of the Son.

Additionally there was a controversy as to the date of Easter (although Easter is not the term that they would have used).  The council fixed of the date for keeping Easter (against the Quartodecimans).  Quartodeciman refers to the 14th day of the month specifically the Jewish month of Nisan, which is the Jewish Passover.  After this council Constantine decreed Easter would be on a Sunday.  This date was on the Julian calendar and is what is used by many Orthodox to this day.  It is the first Sunday following the full moon after March 21 (the vernal equinox). In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII decreed the Gregorian calendar that bears his name to correct a problem in leap years and thus keep Easter from drifting out of the spring.  Because this calendar revision changed the calculation of leap years it changed the position of March 21.  The Gregorian calendar is used by most of the world today and Easter as specified by it is observed by the Christian West.

Scripture: Many say that this council selected the Biblical Canon.  Many others say that there is no record of such discussions from this council which actually seems most likely to me.  Many churches who were part of this council have a wider canon than does Rome.

Further Reading: 12/27/13 12/27/13 12/27/13 


Year: 381

Summary: The First General Council of Constantinople, under Pope Damasus and the Emperor Theodosius I, was attended by 150 bishops. It was directed against the followers of Macedonius, who were also called pneumatomachi or spirit fighters.  They did not believe in the divinity of the Holy Spirit. To the Nicene Creed the council added the clauses referring to the Holy Spirit. 


Nestorian Schissm


Year: 431

Summary: The Council of Ephesus, of more than 200 bishops, presided over by St. Cyril of Alexandria, clarified the churches position on the personal unity of Christ. What we now call the Nestorian heresy is said to divide Christ into two persons rather than natures. The council also renewed the condemnation of Pelagius.


Oriential Orthodox Schism


Year: 451

Summary: The Council of Chalcedon -- 150 bishops under Pope Leo the Great and the Emperor Marcian -- clerified the two natures (Divine and human) in Christ against Eutyches, who was excommunicated.



Year: 553

Summary: The Second General Council of Constantinople, of 165 bishops under Pope Vigilius and Emperor Justinian I, condemned the errors of Origen and certain writings (The Three Chapters) of Theodoret, of Theodore, Bishop of Mopsuestia and of Ibas, Bishop of Edessa; it further confirmed the first four general councils, especially that of Chalcedon whose authority was contested by some heretics.



Years: 680-681

Summary: The Third General Council of Constantinople, under Pope Agatho and the Emperor Constantine Pogonatus, was attended by the Patriarchs of Constantinople and of Antioch, 174 bishops, and the emperor. It put an end to Monothelitism by defining two wills in Christ, the Divine and the human, as two distinct principles of operation. It anathematized Sergius, Pyrrhus, Paul, Macarius, and all their followers.



Year: 787

Summary: The Second Council of Nicaea was convoked by Emperor Constantine VI and his mother Irene, under Pope Adrian I, and was presided over by the legates of Pope Adrian; it regulated the veneration of holy images. Between 300 and 367 bishops assisted. 


Beginning of problems between East and West


Year: 869

Summary: The Fourth General Council of Constantinople, under Pope Adrian II and Emperor Basil numbering 102 bishops, 3 papal legates, and 4 patriarchs, consigned to the flames the Acts of an irregular council (conciliabulum) brought together by Photius against Pope Nicholas and Ignatius the legitimate Patriarch of Constantinople; it condemned Photius who had unlawfully seized the patriarchal dignity. The Photian Schism, however, triumphed in the Greek Church, and no other general council took place in the East.


East-West Schism 1054


Year: 1123

Summary:  The main issues had to do with the division of secular and spiritual power.

Conveened by Pope Callixtus II in December, 1122, immediately after the Concordat of Worms. The Council sought to:

(a) bring an end to the practice of the conferring of ecclesiastical benefices by people who were laymen;
(b) free the election of bishops and abbots from secular influence;
(c) clarify the separation of spiritual and temporal affairs;
(d) re-establish the principle that spiritual authority resides solely in the Church;
(e) abolish the claim of the emperors to influence papal elections.

All of this was meant to be the end of the Investiture Controversy but there continued to be uneasy relations between secular powers and the church in many places.

It also delt with church discipline and the recovery of the Holy Land from the infidels.  8/27/11

Further Reading:


Year: 1139


It was held by Pope Innocent II with an attendance of about 1000 prelates and the Emperor Conrad.  Its object was to put an end to the errors of Arnold of Brescia.

It also attempted the schism that occured on the death of Pope Honorius II in February 1130.  Petris Leonis, a Jewish convert, became the antipope Anacletus II. Anacletus II was succeeded by Gregorio Conti one of two antipopes called Victor IV.

Important canons:

Canon 4: Injunction to bishops and ecclesiastics not to cause scandal by wearing ostentatious clothes but to dress modestly.
Canons 6, 7, 11: Repeated the First Lateran Council's condemnation of marriage and concubinage among priests, deacons,subdeacons, monks, and nuns.
Canon 10: Excommunicated laity who failed to pay the tithes due the bishops,
Canon 14: Prohibition, under pain of deprivation of Christian burial, of jousts and tournaments which endangered life.
Canon 20: Kings and princes were ordered to dispense justice in consultation with the bishops.
Canon 27: Nuns were prohibited from singing the Divine Office in the same choir with monks.  8/27/11



Year: 1179

Summary: The Third Lateran Council took place under Pope Alexander III, Frederick I being emperor. There were 302 bishops present. It condemned the Albigenses and Waldenses and issued numerous decrees for the reformation of morals.



Year: 1215

Summary: The Fourth Lateran Council was held under Innocent III. There were present the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Jerusalem, 71 archbishops, 412 bishops, and 800 abbots the Primate of the Maronites, and St. Dominic. It issued an enlarged creed (symbol) against the Albigenses (Firmiter credimus), condemned the Trinitarian errors of Abbot Joachim, and published 70 important reformatory decrees. This is the most important council of the Middle Ages, and it marks the culminating point of ecclesiastical life and papal power.



Year: 1245

Summary: The First General Council of Lyons was presided over by Innocent IV; the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch, and Aquileia (Venice), 140 bishops, Baldwin II, Emperor of the East, and St. Louis, King of France, assisted. It excommunicated and deposed Emperor Frederick II and directed a new crusade, under the command of St. Louis, against the Saracens and Mongols.



Year: 1274

Summary: The Second General Council of Lyons was held by Pope Gregory X, the Patriarchs of Antioch and Constantinople, 15 cardinals, 500 bishops, and more than 1000 other dignitaries. It effected a temporary reunion of the Greek Church with Rome. The word filioque was added to the symbol of Constantinople and means were sought for recovering Palestine from the Turks. It also laid down the rules for papal elections.



Years: 1311-1313

Summary: The Council of Vienne was held in that town in France by order of Clement V, the first of the Avignon popes. The Patriarchs of Antioch and Alexandria, 300 bishops (114 according to some authorities), and 3 kings -- Philip IV of France, Edward II of England, and James II of Aragon -- were present. The synod dealt with the crimes and errors imputed to the Knights Templars, the Fraticelli, the Beghards, and the Beguines, with projects of a new crusade, the reformation of the clergy, and the teaching of Oriental languages in the universities.



Years: 1414-1418

Summary: The Council of Constance was held during the great Schism of the West, with the object of ending the divisions in the Church. It became legitimate only when Gregory XI had formally convoked it. Owing to this circumstance it succeeded in putting an end to the schism by the election of Pope Martin V, which the Council of Pisa (1403) had failed to accomplish on account of its illegality. The rightful pope confirmed the former decrees of the synod against Wyclif and Hus. This council is thus ecumenical only in its last sessions (42-45 inclusive) and with respect to the decrees of earlier sessions approved by Martin V.



Years: 1431-1439

Summary: The Council of Basle met first in that town, Eugene IV being pope, and Sigismund Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Its object was the religious pacification of Bohemia. Quarrels with the pope having arisen, the council was transferred first to Ferrara (1438), then to Florence (1439), where a short-lived union with the Greek Church was effected, the Greeks accepting the council's definition of controverted points. The Council of Basle is only ecumenical till the end of the twenty-fifth session, and of its decrees Eugene IV approved only such as dealt with the extirpation of heresy, the peace of Christendom, and the reform of the Church, and which at the same time did not derogate from the rights of the Holy See.



Years: 1512-1517

Summary: The Fifth Lateran Council sat from 1512 to 1517 under Popes Julius II and Leo X, the emperor being Maximilian I. Fifteen cardinals and about eighty archbishops and bishops took part in it. Its decrees are chiefly disciplinary. A new crusade against the Turks was also planned, but came to naught, owing to the religious upheaval in Germany caused by Luther.


The Reformation (What Rome calls Luther's Rebellion) 1517


Years: 1545-1563

Summary: The Council of Trent lasted eighteen years (1545-1563) under five popes: Paul III, Julius III, Marcellus II, Paul IV and Pius IV, and under the Emperors Charles V and Ferdinand. There were present 5 cardinal legates of the Holy See, 3 patriarchs, 33 archbishops, 235 bishops, 7 abbots, 7 generals of monastic orders, and 160 doctors of divinity. It was convoked to examine and condemn the errors promulgated by Luther and other Reformers, and to reform the discipline of the Church. Of all councils it lasted longest, issued the largest number of dogmatic and reformatory decrees, and produced the most beneficial results.



Years: 1869-1870

Summary: The Vatican Council was summoned by Pius IX. It met 8 December, 1869, and lasted till 18 July, 1870, when it was adjourned; it is still (1908) unfinished. There were present 6 archbishop-princes, 49 cardinals, 11 patriarchs, 680 archbishops and bishops, 28 abbots, 29 generals of orders, in all 803. Besides important canons relating to the Faith and the constitution of the Church, the council decreed the infallibility of the pope when speaking ex cathedra, i.e. when as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.


XXI. SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL Years: 1962-1965 9/16/13 9/16/13