This post is a preview of a forthcoming online Davenant Hall class, “The Seven Ecumenical Councils”, running in the Winter 2022 Term (January – March), and convened by Dr. Matthew Hoskin.
Nestled in the Troodos Mountains of Cyprus in a tiny little village sits one of the island’s UNESCO heritage sites, the Church of St Sozomenos.
St Sozomenos’ is a remarkable little church, for not only is covered in frescoes on the inside (as is common with many Cypriot churches of the late Venetian/early Ottoman period), but on the outside as well. In full colour, occasionally defaced (literally), a visitor to St Sozomenos’ Church can view fifteenth-century depictions of the seven ecumenical councils – events so important to the identity of the Orthodox and to the progress of patristic theology that they were given the unusual privilege of being displayed on the outside of the building. I visited this church as a young evangelical amidst the Cypriot Orthodox, and Fathers Ioannis and Andreas were keen to discuss with me the significance of these councils (and the filioque) over a delicious lunch of souvla in another mountain village. My interest has never waned, and I hope to impart wisdom I have gained over the years to Davenant students this Hilary Term.
What’s this class about?
From 325 to 787 AD, major church councils were convened by Roman emperors and attended by as many bishops as possible from the known inhabited world, the oikoumene (usually those from the eastern half of the Roman Empire). Seven of these were recognised as being truly representative of the universal (or at least imperial) church. Each council was convened to deal with a potentially church-splitting theological crisis, but each also dealt with various administrative matters of the church in Late Antiquity. This course will consider each council in turn, considering the series of events leading up to the council, its decrees, a major theologian who represents its dogmatic definitions, and the aftermath of each.
These seven councils and their main dogmas are:
- The First Council of Nicaea (325, called by Constantine): Jesus is fully God, consubstantial with the Father
- The First Council of Constantinople (381, called by Theodosius I): reaffirms Nicaea and pushes the divinity of the Holy Spirit
- The Council of Ephesus (431, called by Theodosius II): rejects the unity-splitting teachings of Nestorius, affirming the full unity of the hypostasis or person of Christ
- The Council of Chalcedon (451, called by Marcian): Christ exists in two natures
- The Second Council of Constantinople (553, called by Justinian): to stave off accusations of Nestorianism, the teaching of the hypostatic union is fully and formally embraced
- The Third Council of Constantinople (680-681, called by Constantine IV): as good and necessary consequences of Chalcedon, argues for Christ to have two wills and two energeiai.
- The Second Council of Nicaea (787, called by Constantine VI and Empress Irene): the creation and veneration of images of Christ and the saints is allowable.
These seven councils are the only ones recognised by the Eastern Orthodox Church as ecumenical. The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, recognises one further eastern council of 869 and the Latin councils from Lateran I (1123) to Vatican II (1962-1965), while the Oriental Orthodox only recognise the first three up to Ephesus in 431, and the Church of the East does not formally accept any of them, although they do officially embrace the theological content of the first two. Protestants, on the other hand, have a varied relationship with the councils. Any church that accepts the Nicene Creed, for example, embraces the first two councils. And many informally embrace the first four while remaining silent on the rest, and others, by virtue of iconoclast statements in their confessions, reject the seventh.
Each of these councils had a major theologian or two who championed its teaching, and this course will examine relevant works by these figures. The seven theological works students will read are:
- Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation
- Gregory of Nazianzus, Four Theological Orations
- Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ
- Leo the Great, two “Tomes” and Nativity sermons
- Emperor Justinian, Edict on the Orthodox Faith and Leontius of Byzantium, Against the Nestorians and Eutychians
- Maximus the Confessor, selections
- John of Damascus, three treatises on the holy images
Alongside these theological texts, the canons and theological decrees of the councils will be read and discussed. As a result of this multifaceted approach to the councils, students will come away with a knowledge of each council, the theological issue(s) it addressed, its causes and aftermath, and why this theology matters. The focus on primary sources will teach students the skills in historical investigation necessary to the study of the history of Christianity.
Why should you care?
Given the varied and ambivalent relationship of Protestant bodies to the seven ecumenical councils, why should you care? I would like to offer two main reasons why understanding the councils is useful for today’s Protestants. First, the councils are formative and foundational for everything that follows. Second, Protestants agree with the positive content of the first six councils’ doctrinal rulings.
Regardless of how one answers the question of whether he or she agrees with the ecumenical councils, the fact of the matter is, they established the boundaries of orthodoxy and dogmatic theology until the modern age. Statements that are conclusions from these councils (e.g. we believe that God is one essence in three hypostases/persons) work at times as starting points for us. The historic, classic Protestant faith affirms the doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity and the absolute unity of the one person of Christ as balanced by his possession of two natures, fully human and fully divine, and therefore two wills—in some cases, even allowing images of Christ on the grounds of his full humanity in real, human history.
The framework for all subsequent theology is established in these seven councils—Anselm, Bernard, Peter Lombard, Thomas Aquinas, and the medieval scholastics, and then the Reformers embrace their teaching as well (with the exception of the seventh). How and why do we articulate the content of the Christian mysteries of faith in this way, that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are consubstantial? Or that Christ exists in two natures not two persons? What even is the hypostatic union? The communicatio idiomatum? Why did the medieval and Byzantine and eastern Christians not think images broke the Second Commandment?
Finally (with the exception of icons), Protestants agree with these dogmas! Our confessions may make room for general councils to err, and the famous statement from Lancelot Andrewes about what makes Anglicans catholic only takes in the first four, but the dogmatic statements of the first six councils provide boundaries for the contemplation of the mystery of God and his acts in saving us in the person of Christ that all Protestants embrace.
How we embrace them is different from how Orthodox and Roman Catholics might—for example, the anathemas of the Third Council of Constantinople refer to Mary as “Ever-Virgin”. Most contemporary Protestants today reject the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. However, we agree with the statement of the anathema that he who was born of Mary was fully God already when born—and that’s the theological point being made. The phrase “ever-virgin”, in this context, is essentially an obiter dictum, said in passing and with no binding precedent for later doctrine and canon law. Moreover, we do not embrace them because the tradition has passed them down to us as having universal jurisdiction in matters of doctrine and canon law. Rather, we embrace them because, as I like to put it, they provide the most philosophically coherent and biblically faithful account of these doctrines that exists.
If you are interested in what and how we believe the truths of the faith, and how the character of Christian teaching was established in the ancient church, this course will help lay a foundation for understanding everything that follows.
Dr. Matthew Hoskin received his Ph.D. in the History of Christianity from the University of Edinburgh in 2015. His expertise is in the field of ancient Christianity (Patristics) with a focus on Leo the Great, Christology, and canon law in the fifth century, and he has a background in Classics and research that extends across the Middle Ages. He lives in Thunder Bay, Ontario, with his wife and children where he is Coordinator of Liturgy and Education at The Urban Abbey (www.urbanabbey.ca) and blogs semi-regularly at http://thepocketscroll.wordpress.com.