« Prev List of the Ecumenical Councils of the Ancient… Next »

§ 66. List of the Ecumenical Councils of the Ancient Church,

We only add, by way of a general view, a list of all the ecumenical councils of the Graeco-Roman church, with a brief account of their character and work.

1. The Concilium Nicaenum I., a.d. 325; held at Nicaea in Bithynia, a lively commercial town near the imperial residence of Nicomedia, and easily accessible by land and sea. It consisted of three hundred and eighteen bishops,639639   This is the usual estimate, resting on the authority of Athanasius, Basil (Ep. 114; Opera, t. iii. p 207, ed. Bened.), Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret; whence the council is sometimes called the Assembly of the Three Hundred and Eighteen. Other data reduce the number to three hundred, or to two hundred and seventy, or two hundred and fifty, or two hundred and eighteen; while later tradition swells it to two thousand or more. besides a large number of priests, deacons, and acolytes, mostly from the East, and was called by Constantine the Great, for the settlement of the Arian controversy. Having become, by decisive victories in 323, master of the whole Roman empire, he desired to complete the restoration of unity and peace with the help of the dignitaries of the church. The result of this council was the establishment (by anticipation) of the doctrine of the true divinity of Christ, the identity of essence between the Son and the Father. The fundamental importance of this dogma, the number, learning, piety and wisdom of the bishops, many of whom still bore the marks of the Diocletian persecution, the personal presence of the first Christian emperor, of Eusebius, “the father of church history,” and of Athanasius, “the father of orthodoxy” (though at that time only archdeacon), as well as the remarkable character of this epoch, combined in giving to this first general synod a peculiar weight and authority. It is styled emphatically “the great and holy council,” holds the highest place among all the councils, especially with the Greeks,640640   For some time the Egyptian and Syrian churches commemorated the council of Nicaea by an annual festival. and still lives in the Nicene Creed, which is second in authority only to the ever venerable Apostles’ Creed. This symbol was, however, not finally settled and completed in its present form (excepting the still later Latin insertion of filioque), until the second general council. Besides this the fathers assembled at Nicaea issued a number of canons, usually reckoned twenty on various questions of discipline; the most important being those on the rights of metropolitans, the time of Easter, and the validity of heretical baptism.

2. The Concilium Constantinopolitanum I., a.d. 381 summoned by Theodosius the Great, and held at the imperial city, which had not even name in history till five years after the former council. This council, however, was exclusively oriental, and comprised only a hundred and fifty bishops, as the emperor had summoned none but the adherents of the Nicene party, which had become very much reduced under the previous reign. The emperor did not attend it. Meletius of Antioch was president till his death; then Gregory Nazianzen; and, after his resignation, the newly elected patriarch Nectarius of Constantinople. The council enlarged the Nicene confession by an article on the divinity and personality of the Holy Ghost, in opposition to the Macedonians or Pneumatomachists (hence the title Symbolum Nicaeno-Constantinopolitanum), and issued seven more canons, of which the Latin versions, however, give only the first four, leaving the genuineness of the other three, as many think, in doubt.

3. The Concilium Ephesinum, a.d. 431; called by Theodosius II., in connection with the Western co-emperor Valentinian III., and held under the direction of the ambitious and violent Cyril of Alexandria. This council consisted of, at first, a hundred and sixty bishops, afterward a hundred and ninety-eight,641641   The opposition council, which John of Antioch, on his subsequent arrival, held in the same city in the cause of Nestorius and under the protection of the imperial commissioner Candidian, numbered forty-three members, and excommunicated Cyril, as Cyril had excommunicated Nestorius. including, for the first time, papal delegates from Rome, who were instructed not to mix in the debates, but to sit as judges over the opinions of the rest. It condemned the error of Nestorius on the relation of the two natures in Christ, without, stating clearly the correct doctrine. It produced, therefore, but a negative result, and is the least important of the first four councils, as it stands lowest also in moral character. It is entirely rejected by the Nestorian or Chaldaic Christians. Its six canons relate exclusively to Nestorian and Pelagian affairs, and are wholly omitted by Dionysius Exiguus in his collection.

4. The Concilium Chalcedonense, a.d. 451; summoned by the emperor Marcian, at the instance of the Roman bishop Leo; held at Chalcedon in Bithynia, opposite Constantinople; and composed of five hundred and twenty (some say six hundred and thirty) bishops.642642   The synod itself, in a letter to Leo, states the number as only five hundred and twenty; Leo, on the contrary (Ep. 102), speaks of about six hundred members; and the usual opinion (Tillemont, Memoires, t. xv. p. 641) raises the whole number of members, including deputies, to six hundred and thirty. Among these were three delegates of the bishop of Rome, two bishops of Africa, and the rest all Greeks and Orientals. The fourth general council fixed the orthodox doctrine of the person of Christ in opposition to Eutychianism and Nestorianism, and enacted thirty canons (according to some manuscripts only twenty-seven or twenty-eight), of which the twenty-eighth was resisted by the Roman legates and Leo I. This was the most numerous, and next to the Nicene, the most important of all the general councils, but is repudiated by all the Monophysite sects of the Eastern church.

5. The Concilium Constantinopolitanum II. was assembled a full century later, by the emperor Tustinian, a.d. 553, without consent of the pope, for the adjustment of the tedious Monophysite controversy. It was presided over by the patriarch Eutychius of Constantinople, consisted of only one hundred and sixty-four bishops, and issued fourteen anathemas against the three chapters,643643   Tria capitula, Κεφάλεια. so called, or the christological views of three departed bishops and divines, Theodore of Mopsueste, Theodoret of Cyros, and Ibas of Edessa, who were charged with leaning toward the Nestorian heresy. The fifth council was not recognized, however, by many Western bishops, even after the vacillating Pope Vigilius gave in his assent to it, and it induced a temporary schism between Upper Italy and the Roman see. As to importance, it stands far below the four previous councils. Its Acts, in Greek, with the exception of the fourteen anathemas, are lost.

Besides these, there are two later councils, which have attained among the Greeks and Latins an undisputed ecumenical authority: the Third Council of Constantinople, under Constantine Progonatus, a.d. 680, which condemned Monothelitism (and Pope Honorius, † 638),644644   The condemnation of a departed pope as a heretic by an ecumenical council is so inconsistent with the claims of papal infallibility, that Romish historians have tried their utmost to dispute the fact, or to weaken its force by sophistical pleading. and consummated the old Catholic christology; and the Second Council of Nicaea, under the empress Irene, a.d. 787, which sanctioned the image-worship of the Catholic church, but has no dogmatical importance.

Thus Nicaea—now the miserable Turkish hamlet Is-nik645645   Εἰς Νίκαιαν. Nice and Nicene are properly misnomers, but sanctioned by the use of Gibbon and other great English writers.—has the honor of both opening and closing the succession of acknowledged ecumenical councils.

From this time forth the Greeks and Latins part, and ecumenical councils are no longer to be named. The Greeks considered the second Trullan646646   Trullum was a saloon with a cupola in the imperial palace of Constantinople. (or the fourth Constantinopolitan) council of 692, which enacted no symbol of faith, but canons only, not an independent eighth council, but an appendix to the fifth and sixth ecumenical councils (hence, called the Quinisexta sc. synodus); against which view the Latin church has always protested. The Latin church, on the other hand, elevates the fourth council of Constantinople, a.d. 869,647647   The Latins call it the fourth because they reject the fourth Constantinopolitan (the second Trullan) council of 692, because of its canons, and the fifth of 754 because it condemned the worship of images, which was subsequently sanctioned by the second council of Nicaea in 787. which deposed the patriarch Photius, the champion of the Greek church in her contest with the Latin, to the dignity of an eighth ecumenical council; but this council was annulled for the Greek church by the subsequent restoration of Photius. The Roman church also, in pursuance of her claims to exclusive catholicity, adds to the seven or eight Greek councils twelve or more Latin general councils, down to the Vatican (1870); but to all these the Greek and Protestant churches can concede only a sectional character. Three hundred and thirty-six years elapsed between the last undisputed Graeco-Latin ecumenical council of the ancient church (a.d. 787), and the first Latin ecumenical council of the mediaeval church (1123). The authority of the papal see had to be established in the intervening centuries.648648   On the number of the ecumenical councils till that of Trent the Roman divines themselves are not agreed. The Gallicans reckon twenty-one, Bellarmine eighteen, Hefele only sixteen. The undisputed ones, besides the eight already mentioned Graeco-Latin councils, are these eight Latin: the first Lateran (Roman) council, a.d.1123; the second Lateran, a.d.1139; the third Lateran, a.d.1179; the fourth Lateran, a.d.1215); the first of Lyons, a.d.1245; the second of Lyons, a.d.1274; that of Florence, a.d.1439; (the fifth Lateran, 1512-1517, is disputed;) and that of Trent, a.d.1545-1563. The ecumenical character of the three reformatory councils of Pisa, Constance, and Basle, in the beginning of the fifteenth century, and of the fifth Lateran council, a.d.1512-1517, is questioned among the Roman divines, and is differently viewed upon ultramontane and upon Gallican principles. Hefele considers them partially ecumenical; that is, so far as they were ratified by the pope. [But in the Revised edition of his Conciliengeschichte, 1873 sqq., he reckons twenty ecumenical councils, including the Vatican, 1870. See Appendix, p. 1032.]

« Prev List of the Ecumenical Councils of the Ancient… Next »
Please login or register to save highlights and make annotations
Corrections disabled for this book
Proofing disabled for this book
Printer-friendly version


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |