The Christian Broadcasting Network

The Councils that Saved Christianity

By Father Thomas Hopko

Orthodox Church in America--O.C.A. -

The first Church Council is recorded in the pages of scripture as found in The Acts of the Apostles. From that time on, all through history, councils were held on every level of church life to make important decisions. The universally accepted councils are at the foundation of the Orthodox Church. Discover the process by which the Church was led by the Holy Spirit to formulate foundational Christian Theology and Doctrine.

As the Church progressed through history it was faced with many difficult decisions. The Church always settled difficulties and made decisions by reaching a consensus of opinion among all the believers inspired by God who were led their appointed leaders, first the apostles and then the bishops.

The first church council in history was held in the apostolic church to decide the conditions under which the gentiles, that is, the non-Jews, could enter the Christian Church. (See Acts 15.) From that time on, all through history councils were held on every level of church life to make important decisions. Bishops met regularly with their priests, also called presbyters or elders, and people. It became the practice, and even the law, very early in church history that bishops in given regions should meet in councils held on a regular basis.

At times in church history councils of all of the bishops in the church were called. All the bishops were not able to attend these councils, of course, and not all such councils were automatically approved and accepted by the Church in its Holy Tradition. In the Orthodox Church only such councils, some of which were actually quite small in terms of numbers of bishops attending, having received the universal approval of the entire Church in all times and places. These councils have been termed the Seven Ecumenical Councils. (see chart)

The dogmatic definitions (dogma means official teaching) and the canon laws of the ecumenical councils are understood to be inspired by God and to be expressive of His will for men. Thus, they are essential sources of Orthodox Christian doctrine.

Besides the seven ecumenical councils, there are other local church councils whose decisions have also received the approval of all Orthodox Churches in the world, and so are considered to be genuine expressions of the Orthodox faith and life. The decisions of these councils are mostly of a moral or structural character. Nevertheless, they too reveal the teaching of the Orthodox Church.

The Seven Ecumenical Councils

Nicea I:325 AD: Formulated the First Part of the Creed, defining the divinity of the Son of God.

Constantinople I: 381 AD: Formulated the Second Part of the Creed, defining the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

Ephesus:431 AD: Defined Christ as the Incarnate Word of God and Mary as Theotokos.(God Bearer)

Chalcedon: 451 AD: Defined Christ as Perfect God and Perfect Man in One Person.

Constantinople II: 553 AD: Reconfirmed the Doctrines of the Trinity and of Christ.

Constantinople III: 680 AD: Affirmed the True Humanity of Jesus by insisting upon the reality

of His human will and action.

Nicea II: 787 AD: Affirmed the propriety of icons as genuine expressions of the Christian Faith.

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