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At an Ecumenical Council, the bishops of the entire Church recognize what the truth is and proclaim it. The proclamation is then verified by the agreement of the whole Christian people. Both the bishop's recognition and the people's verification, is believed to be inspired by God.
Not all councils are ecumenical. Most are just local councils dealing with local administration. Also, councils of bishops can err or be deceived. Even when a council is called to be an ecumenical council, that does not make it so. A council is said to be ecumenical if it bears witness to the true faith of the entire (ecumenical) Church.
Infallibility of ecumenical councils
Infallibility belongs to the whole Church, not just to the episcopate in isolation. The whole people of God—bishops, clergy, and laity together—are the guardian of the faith. The bishop is the divinely appointed teacher of the faith. By this, bishops, clergy, or the laity can call and participate in a council, but only the bishops can, by their consensus, come up with the proclamation of the council.
The truth of the proclamation of the council is the only criterion of infallibility. The Spirit of Truth must be present at the council. To the Orthodox, the Church is the miracle of the presence of God among men. Infallibility is not materialized in the letter of Scripture, or in the person of a Pope, but in God, living mysteriously in the Church. If the Church does not see truth in the proclamation of a council, the council will not be called ecumenical by the Church.
Seven or Nine Ecumenical Councils?
As far as some 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 Fr. John S. Romanides and Fr. George Metallinos (both of whom refer repeatedly to the "Eighth and Ninth Ecumenical Councils"), Fr. George Dragas, Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos, 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."
List of Ecumenical Councils
- I. First Council of Nicea, (325); repudiated Arianism, adopted the Nicene Creed.
- II. First Council of Constantinople, (381); revised the Nicene Creed into the present form used in the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches.
- III. Council of Ephesus, (431); repudiated Nestorianism, proclaimed the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God (Greek, Θεοτόκος).
- IV. Council of Chalcedon, (451); repudiated the Eutychian doctrine of Monophysitism, described and delineated the two natures of Christ, human and divine; adopted the Chalcedonian Creed. This and all following councils are not recognized by Oriental Orthodox Communion.
- V. Second Council of Constantinople, (553); reaffirmed decisions and doctrines explicated by previous Councils, condemned new Arian, Nestorian, and Monophysite writings.
- VI. Third Council of Constantinople, (680-681); repudiated Monothelitism, affirmed that Christ had both human and Divine wills.
- Quinisext/Penthekte Council (= Fifth and Sixth) or Council in Trullo, (692); mostly an administrative council that raised some local canons to ecumenical status and established principles of clerical discipline. It is not considered to be a full-fledged council in its own right because it did not determine matters of doctrine. This council is accepted by the Orthodox Church as a part of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, but that is rejected by Roman Catholics.
- VII. Second Council of Nicaea, (787); restoration of the veneration of icons and end of the first iconoclasm.
The next two are regarded as ecumenical by some in the Orthodox Church but not by other Orthodox Christians, who instead consider them to be important local councils.
- VIII. Fourth Council of Constantinople, (879-880); restored St. Photius the Great to his see in Constantinople and anathematized any who altered the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, abrogating the decrees of the Robber Council of 869-870. This council was at first accepted as ecumenical by the West but later repudiated in favor of the robber council in 869-870 which had deposed Photius.
- IX. Fifth Council of Constantinople, (1341-1351); affirmed hesychastic theology according to St. Gregory Palamas and condemned the Westernized philosopher Barlaam of Calabria.
Although based strongly on the Ecumenical Councils Orthodox doctrine continues to be defined through the church. These include the mind of the church as expressed through Local Councils and letters or statements of faith put out by individual bishops. Those decisions/statements made in the past that bear particular importance today are:
- The Encyclical Letter of Saint Photius (867)
- The First Letter of Michael Cerularius to Peter of Antioch (1054)
- The decisions of ‘the Councils of Constantinople in 1341 and 1351 on the Hesychast Controversy
- The Encyclical Letter of Saint Mark of Ephesus (1440-1441).
- The Confession of Faith by Gennadius, Patriarch of Constantinople (1455-1456)
- The Replies of Jeremias the Second to the Lutherans (1573-1581)
- The Confession of Faith by Metrophanes Kritopoulos (1625)
- The Orthodox Confession by Peter of Moghila, in its revised form (ratified by the Council of Jassy, 1642)
- The Confession of Dositheus (ratified by the Council of Jerusalem, 1672)
- The Answers of the Orthodox Patriarchs to the Non-Jurors (1718, 1723)
- The Reply of the Orthodox Patriarchs to Pope Pius the Ninth (1848)
- The Reply of the Synod of Constantinople to Pope Leo the Thirteenth (1895)
- The Encyclical Letters by the Patriarchate of Constantinople on Christian unity and on the ‘Ecumenical Movement' (1920, 1952)
Documents 5-9 are sometimes called the Symbolical Books of the Orthodox Church