Ecumenical Councils in the Orthodox Church

Commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council

Commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,


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 Orthodox 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 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 viewpoint 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 Father 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 council's texts.

The practical needs of the historical circumstances of the councils also bear out Fr. 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..

Canonical Status

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 repeated 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.

List of the Seven Ecumenical Councils

  1. First Council of Nicea, (325 A.D.); repudiated Arianism, adopted the Nicene Creed (recited in every Divine Liturgy by Orthodox Christians).
  2. First Council of Constantinople, (381 A.D.); revised the Nicene Creed into the present form used in the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches.
  3. Council of Ephesus, (431 A.D.); repudiated Nestorianism, proclaimed the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God (Greek, Theotokos or Θεοτόκος).
  4. Council of Chalcedon, (451 A.D.); repudiated the Euthychian 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.
  5. Second Council of Constantinople, (553 A.D.) reaffirmed decisions and doctrines explicated by previous Councils, condemned new Arian, Nestorian and Monophysite writings.
  6. Third Council of Constantinople, (680-681 A.D.); repudiated Monothelitism, affirmed that Christ had both human and Divine wills.
  7. Quinisext/Penthekte Council (Fifth and Sixth) or Council in Trullo, (692 A.D.); 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. The council is accepted by the Orthodox Church as a part of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, but that is rejected by Roman Catholics.
  8. Second Council of Nicea, (787 A.D.); Restoration of the veneration of Holy Icons and end of the first Iconoclasm.

On October 11th we honor the 367 Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council: Held in Nicea, Asia Minor in 787 A.D. Under Empress Irene, 367 Bishops were present.

On the Sunday that falls on or immediately after the 11th of October, we chant the Service to the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which gathered in Nicaea in 787 A.D. under the Holy Patriarch Tarasius and during the reign of the Empress Irene and her son, Constantine Porphyrogenitos, to refute the Iconoclast heresy, which had received imperial support beginning with the Edict issued in 726 A.D. by Emperor Leo the Isaurian. Many of the Holy Fathers who condemned Iconoclasm at this holy Council later died as Confessors and Martyrs for the holy Icons during the second assault of Iconoclasm in the 9th century, especially during the reigns of Leo the Armenian and Theophilos.

The Iconoclast Controversy

It centered around the use of icons in the Church and the controversy between the iconoclasts and iconophiles. The Iconoclasts were suspicious of religious art; they demanded that the Church rid itself of such art and that it be destroyed or broken (as the term "iconoclast" implies).

The Council's Proclamation

"We define that the holy icons, whether in color, mosaic, or some other material, should be exhibited in the holy churches of God, on the sacred vessels and liturgical vestments, on the walls, furnishings, and in houses and along the roads, namely the icons of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, that of our Lady the Theotokos, those of the venerable Angels and those of all saintly people. Whenever these representations are contemplated, they will cause those who look at them to commemorate and love there prototype. We define also that they should be kissed and that they are an object of veneration and honor (timitiki proskynisis), but not of real worship (latreia), which is reserved for Him Who is the subject of our faith and is proper for the Divine Nature...which is in effect transmitted to the prototype; he who venerates the icon, venerates in it the reality for which it stands."


The Orthodox System of Councils Follow the Example of the Holy Apostles who Convened the First Council in Jerusalem

(Acts 15:1-35)

The first major dispute in the Church: Must Gentile converts keep the Law of Moses particularly the rite of circumcision? This controversy would be settled not in Antioch (14:26), but by the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem. Some Jewish Christians never accepted the decision, but opposed Saint Paul and Saint Barnabas for the rest of their days.

Some view the early Church as ideal, perfect, yet in this controversy there is no small dissension. However, the Christian community has a way to resolve doctrinal disputes: in Council. This has always been and still is the practice of the Orthodox Christian Church.

The Church's deputation; the message to Gentile Christians:

"Then it pleased the Apostles and elders, with the whole Church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas who was also named Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren. They wrote this letter by them:

The Apostles, the elders, and the brethren, To the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:
Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, "you must be circumcised and keep the law" --to whom we gave no such commandment--it seemed good to us, being assembled as one accord to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore send Judas and Silas, who will also report the same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you with do well." (Acts 15:22-29)



The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.


Glory Be To GOD For All Things!


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George