The Seven Ecumenical Councils

When I first started this study I thought the these first seven councils were more or less the definition of orthodoxy. That may be true for Orthodoxy with a capital "O" but we see groups departing from the orthodox the line of councils all along the line. Even where the council pronouncement was widely received we see that the council did not end the controversy. (The Arian controversy predates the First Council at Nicaea and continued well into the 360s.)

The other thing that surprised me was that the Orthodox often refer to these as Imperial Councils as they were convened by the Emperor. The emperor had significant input because Christianity was the oficial state religion for much of this time. 

Date Council Location Main Controversy
325 The First Ecumenical Council Nicaea The Arian Controversy
381 The Second Ecumenical Council Constantinople The Macedonian Controversy
431 The Third Ecumenical Council Ephesus The Nestorian Controversy
451 The Fourth Ecumenical Council Chalcedon The Monophysite Controversies
553 The Fifth Ecumenical Council Constantinople The Nestorian and Eutychian Controversies
680 The Sixth Ecumenical Council Constantinople The Monothelite Controversy
787 The Seventh Ecumenical Council Nicaea The Iconoclast Controversy


 325 The First Ecumenical Council - Nicaea

Held in Nicaea, Asia Minor in 325. Under Emperor Constantine the Great. 318 Bishops were present.

The Arian Controversy

Arius denied the divinity of Christ. He taught that if Jesus was born, then there was time when He did not exist. It followed then that if there was a time when he did not exist then there was also a time when he was not God, he must have, then, become God at some point. The Council declared Arius' teaching a heresy, unacceptable to the Church and decreed that Christ is God. He is of the same essence "homoousios" with God the Father.

The Creed

The first part of the seven articles of the what we call today the Nicene Creed were ratified. The text reads as follows:

"We believe in one God. The Father Almighty. Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of Light; true God of true God; begotten not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man. And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried. And the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; whose Kingdom shall have no end."

 381 The Second Ecumenical Council - Constantinople

Held in Constantinople in 381. Under Emperor Theodosius the Great. 150 Bishops were present.

The Macedonian Controversy

Macedonius, somewhat like Arius, was misinterpreting Church's teaching on the Holy Spirit. He taught that the Holy Spirit was not a person ("hypostasis"), but simply a power ("dynamic") of God. Therefore the Spirit was inferior to the Father and the Son. The Council condemned Macedonius' teaching and defined the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The Council decreed that there was one God in three persons ("hypostases"): Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Creed

The holy fathers of the Council added five articles to the Creed. They read as follows:

"And (We believe) in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father: who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified: who spoke by the prophets. In one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen."

 431 The Third Ecumenical Council - The council of Ephesus

Held in Ephesus, Asia Minor in 431 under Emperor Theodosius II (grandson of Theodosius the Great). 200 Bishops were present.

The Nestorian Controversy

Nestorius taught that the Virgin Mary gave birth to a man, Jesus Christ, not God, the "Logos" ("The Word", Son of God). The Logos only dwelled in Christ, as in a Temple (Christ, therefore, was only Theophoros: The "Bearer of God". Consequently, Virgin Mary should be called "Christotokos," Mother of Christ and not" Theotokos, "Mother of God."

Nestorianism over emphasized the human nature of Christ at the expense of the divine. The Council denounced Nestorius' teaching as erroneous. Our Lord Jesus Christ is one person, not two separate "people": the Man, Jesus Christ and the Son of God, Logos. The Council decreed that Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Logos), is complete God and complete man, with a rational soul and body. The Virgin Mary is "Theotokos" because she gave birth not to man but to God who became man. The union of the two natures of Christ took place in such a fashion that one did not disturb the other.

The Nestorian church survives to this day and according to what I read they do not believe that Nestorius actually taught the Nestorian doctrine that was condemned by the council. Many protestants today have equal trouble with the notion of Theotokos. The Nestorians say they were not given a proper hearing at the council. They further state that there is not that great of a gulf between what Nestorius taught and what the Council of Chalcedon later declared.

The Theology of the Church of the East has been stated briefly and clearly in the following "Hymn of Praise (TESHBOKHTA)" Composed by Mar Babai the Great in the sixth century A.D., a noted theologian of the Church

One is Christ the Son of God,
Worshiped by all in two natures;
In His Godhead begotten of the Father,
Without beginning before all time;
In His humanity born of Mary,
In the fullness of time, in a body united;
Neither His Godhead is of the nature of the mother,
Nor His humanity of the nature of the Father;
The natures are preserved in their Qnumas*,
In one person of one Sonship.
And as the Godhead is three substances in one nature,
Likewise the Sonship of the Son is in two natures, one person.
So the Holy Church has taught.

* Qnuma, is an Aramaic word. The nearest equivalent is the Greek "hypostasis", in Latin "substantia" and in English "substance".

( 10/3/07)

 451 The Fourth Ecumenical Council - The Council of Chalcedon

Held in Chalcedon, near Constantinople, 451. Under Emperor Marcian. 630 Bishops were present.

The Monophysite Controversies

The Council was concerned, once again, with the nature of Jesus Christ. The teaching arose that Christ's human nature (less perfect) dissolved itself in His divine nature (more perfect): like a cube of sugar in a pot of water. Thus, in reality, Christ had only one nature, the Divine. Hence, the term: Monophysites ("mono", one and "physis", "nature".) Monophysitism overemphasized the divine nature of Christ, at the expense of the human.

Again the Monophysite Churches survive to this day although they prefer the term non-Chalcedonian because they do in fact recognize both natures in one Christ.

Proclamation of the Council:

The Council condemned Monophysitism and proclaimed that Christ has two complete natures: the divine and the human, as defined by previous Councils. These two natures function without confusion, are not divided nor separate (against Nestorius), and at no time did they undergo any change (against Eutyches).

 553 The Fifth Ecumenical Council

Held in Constantinople in 553. Under Emperor Justinian the Great. 165 Bishops were present.

Nestorian and Eutychian Controversies

The Council was called in hope of putting an end to the Nestorian and the Eutychian (Monophysite) controversies. The Council confirmed the Church's teaching regarding the two natures of Christ (human and divine) and condemned certain writings with Nestorian leanings. Emperor Justinian himself confessed his Orthodox faith in a form of the famous Church hymn "Only begotten Son and Word of God" which is sung during the Divine Liturgy (the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox and the Eastern Rite churches of the West).

O only begotten Son and Word of God,
Who, being immortal,
deigned for our salvation
to become incarnate
of the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary,
and became man without change;
You were also crucified,
O Christ our God,
and by death have trampled Death,
being One of the Holy Trinity,
glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit—
Save us!

 680 The Sixth Ecumenical Council

Held in Constantinople in 680. Under Emperor Constantine IV. 170 Bishops were present.

The Monothelite Controversy

It concerned the last attempt to compromise with the Monophysites. Although Christ did have two natures (divine and human) He nevertheless, acted as God only. In other words, His divine nature made all the decisions and His human nature only carried and acted them out. Hence, the name: "Monothelitism" ("mono" one and "thelesis" will.)

The Council's Pronouncement

"Christ had two natures with two activities: as God working miracles, rising from the dead and ascending into heaven; as Man, performing the ordinary acts of daily life. Each nature exercises its own free will." Christ's divine nature had a specific task to perform and so did His human nature. Each nature performed those tasks set forth without being confused, subjected to any change or working against each other. The two distinct natures and related to them activities were mystically united in the one Divine Person of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."

787 The Seventh Ecumenical Council

Held in Nicea, Asia Minor in 787. Under Empress Irene. 367 Bishops were present.

The Iconoclast Controversy

We have the word iconoclast in our vocabulary today, from we find:

iconoclast [ahy-kon-uh-klast] n. from Gk eikono- icono- + -klastés breaker

        1. One who attacks and seeks to overthrow traditional or popular ideas or institutions.
        2. One who destroys sacred religious images.

The second definition stems from what was happening during this time. The controversy was between the iconoclasts and iconophiles. The Iconoclasts were suspicious of religious art; they demanded that the Church rid itself of such art and that it be destroyed or broken (as the term "iconoclast" implies).

The iconophilles believed that icons served to preserve the doctrinal teachings of the Church; they considered icons to be man's dynamic way of expressing the divine through art and beauty.

The Council's Proclamation

"We define that the holy icons, whether in color, mosaic, or some other material, should be exhibited in the holy churches of God, on the sacred vessels and liturgical vestments, on the walls, furnishings, and in houses and along the roads, namely the icons of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, that of our Lady the Theotokos, those of the venerable angels and those of all saintly people. Whenever these representations are contemplated, they will cause those who look at them to commemorate and love their prototype. We define also that they should be kissed and that they are an object of veneration and honor (timitiki proskynisis), but not of real worship (latreia), which is reserved for Him Who is the subject of our faith and is proper for the divine nature, ... which is in effect transmitted to the prototype; he who venerates the icon, venerated in it the reality for which it stands."

based in large part on material from
with other references cited