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Ecumenical Councils are extraordinary synods of bishops which primarily decide upon dogmatic formulations, especially in the face of heresy. Secondarily, they also issue canonical legislation which governs the administration of the Church.
An ecclesiological theory which has been popular since the time of the Slavophile philosopher Alexis Khomiakov first defined it is that ecumenicity—the idea that a particular council is of universal, infallible significance for the Church—is determined by the reception of the whole body of the Church. That is, while a particular council may declare itself to be ecumenical, it may later be regarded by the Church as being a Robber Council, that is, a council which did not declare the truth but rather heresy. Likewise, a council may properly teach the truth but not be of universal significance for the Church. Such councils are usually termed local. That a council must be "received" by the Church before it can be considered ecumenical is sometimes termed receptionism.
Receptionism was formed primarily in opposition to Roman Catholic viewpoints on the same question. For the Roman Catholic Church, a council's ecumenicity is primarily determined by its ratification by the Pope of Rome. Orthodoxy does not have the same ecclesiological structure as Rome, however, and so Khomiakov and others attempted to formulate another model by which the infallibility of Ecumenical Councils may be determined.
A form of receptionism (or, at least, language which is conducive to receptionist thought) may also be found in the 1848 Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs, which proclaims against papism that the guardian of the truth is not the office of the pope, but the whole people of God.
Theologians such as Fr. John S. Romanides have argued, however, that the councils universally regarded as ecumenical within the Orthodox Church seemed of themselves to have no sense of requiring a reception by the Church before they went into effect. Their texts do indeed include self-declarations of their ecumenicity, and in most cases, their decrees immediately were written into Roman imperial law. No condition of later reception is reflected in the councils' texts.
Further, the question of when exactly one may say that the Church has received or rejected a council is not answerable by receptionist theory. Another ecclesiological problem is also created by receptionism: Why is it that the Fourth Ecumenical Council may be said to have been "received by the whole Church" while significant numbers of Christians apparently within the Church rejected it, leading to the schism which even now persists? Such reasoning is circular, because whoever accepts a council is therefore inside the Church, but any who reject it are outside. In other words, such councils are ecumenical essentially because those who hold to their decrees declare themselves exclusively to be the Church.
The practical needs of the historical circumstances of the councils also bear out Romanides' analysis. Dogmatic decisions were needed right away when the councils met. The idea that one could wait for decades or even centuries to know whether a council was truly ecumenical would have radically changed the character of such a council. The councils' fathers regarded their decisions as immediately binding.
At the current time, the episcopacy of the Church has not as yet put forward a universal definition as to what precisely lends a council its ecumenicity. What is generally held is that councils may be regarded as ecumenical and infallible because they accurately teach the truth handed down in tradition from the Church Fathers.
The canons of the Ecumenical Councils are regarded within the Orthodox Church as universally authoritative, though not in a strictly constructionist sense. Their canons have often been repealed or revised by the decisions of local synods or even of later Ecumenical Councils. Nevertheless, their legislation is central to the Orthodox canonical tradition, and appeals to such canons are more frequently made than to any other source of canonical legislation.
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