The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History, Doctrine and Spiritual Culture (Part V)

Venerable Cornealius the Abbot of Paleostrov

Venerable Cornealius the Abbot of Paleostrov

My beloved spiritual children in Our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,

By Father John Anthony McGuckin

Creeds and Councils (Synods)

After Nicaea in 325 AD, there was a series of great councils that received ecumenical status in retrospect. A council can often be called together, intending to be of ecumenical significance, but may be rejected by the general sentiment of the faithful over the course of time. In such cases the Orthodox regard those councils as never having had the spiritual charism to assume the role of authoritatively binding the Church at large and, as such, not deserving the title 'ecumenical'. One clear example of that failure was the attempt at Church reunion initiated by the Byzantine emperors in the 15th century. The Council of Florence (1438-9) is regarded by the Latins as having ecumenical significance; but when the Orthodox delegates returned home to Byzantium the general sentiment of the Orthodox Christians rejected their proclamation of union with Rome, and so this council is not listed as authentic in the annals of Orthodoxy. What is at issue here is the very important concept of the conscience of the Church at large; what is known in the West as sensus fidelium. There is no doubt that it is the Council (Synod) of Nicaea and its creedal exposition of Orthodox faith that holds pride of place in Orthodoxy. The council declared for the full and coequal deity of the Logos/Word of God, personally incarnate in the Lord Jesus. It stood against the arch-heretic Arius, who had argued that Jesus was a creature, and the Logos/Word of God merely an elevated Angelic being, not possessed of deity except in a nominal way. Nicene faith is the affirmation that, in Christ, God Himself came to save us. It is the pillar that holds up the roof of the holy Orthodox Tradition.

Nicaea was followed by the Second Ecumenical Council, which took place at Constantinople in 381 AD, and which served as a 'capstone' to the council of 325 AD. It brought an end to a long period of Arian ascendancy, coinciding with the death of the last emperor (Valens) who had protected and advanced Arian theologians in the court. With the removal of state patronage the Arian movement soon lost ground (though some have called it a perennial Christian heresy). The Council of Constantinople declared the full deity of the Holy Spirit, and thus set out a more explicit theology of the Holy Trinity. Its doctrine is enshrined in the Creed which is today recited at all Orthodox Eucharistic liturgies. This Creed is often called the 'Nicene,' but it is in fact the Constantinopolitan. They are synonymous in all respects, except that the clauses on the Holy Spirit are more extensive in the latter. The Spirit of God is Divine, the Creed teaches, and His worship alongside the Father and the Son, which has always been part of the ancient faith of Christians, demonstrates this truth sufficiently.

The Third Ecumenical Council was gathered at Ephesus in 431 AD under the presidency of Saint Cyril of Alexandria. It taught the necessity of recognizing the inner unity of Christ the Lord, despite the recognition of His two natures (Divine and human). The Divine Logos/Word of God was not mediated to the world through a man called Jesus of Nazareth. On the contrary, Jesus was the Eternal Logos/Word of God, now made manifest incarnate within history. The Incarnation is the great and life-giving paradox of the Logos/Word made flesh. To fix this in the common imagination in the simplest way possible, the conciliar Fathers at Ephesus insisted that the blessed Virgin Mary should rightly be celebrated and call the 'Mother of God' (Theotokos).

The Fourth and Fifth Ecumenical Councils were more precise elaborations of the Christology set out at the Third, making a clear exposition of its terms. The Fourth was held at Chalcedon (a suburb of Constantinople) in 451 AD at the capital itself in 553 AD. Both meetings were held in the cause of unity because of extensive arguments over the Person and work of the Savior. In the aftermath of the Council of Chalcedon, which declared the rightfulness of asserting two natures (Divine and human), inhabited by the single divine person (hypostasis) of the Logos/Word, and Lord, Jesus, the Divine Son of God, several sections of the Eastern Church left the unity of the Greek and Latin communion of the Church. These communities endure to this day and are commonly known as the Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox. Among them are the Coptic (Egyptian), Ethiopian, Armenian and Assyrian Churches. Their tradition of life and spirituality is both immensely venerable and very close to the Orthodox, but because of the theological divisions, and the difference in admitting the decrees of the Councils after Ephesus 431 AD, they do not share in the eucharistic communion of the Orthodox.

The Sixth Ecumenical Council was held in Constantinople in 681 AD. Its immediate cause was another Christological heresy of the period, teaching that Christ only had one will, and that a Divine one. In each instance of Christological dissent, the conciliar Fathers from Ephesus 431 AD to Constantinople (III) 681 AD doctrinally insisted that Christ was at one and the same moment fully and authentically human, and wholly divine: God from God, and man among us. All attempts to fudge the issue of Jesus' person, or to blur the impact of His real humanity in the cause of diminishing it in the face of His deity, were consistently rejected by the Orthodox Councils of the Church. In 692 AD another Synod was held in Constantinople, and is now known as the Quinisext Council. It was designed to serve as reformist synod, tightening the discipline of the Church with extensive canons, or rules, for good behavior. It added these canons retrospectively to the Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils, but did not want to stand independently from them, and so has been 'included in' numbering of Seven Councils.

The latest, Seventh Ecumenical Council was held in Nicaea in 787 AD, to teach the importance for correct faith of the veneration of Icons. Many non-Orthodox have regarded this as a decline in the significance of the matter dealt with by the general councils, but the Orthodox Tradition has insisted that the discernible trend in parts of the wider Christian experience, to turn away from imagery and concreteness in the spiritual life, or to resist the principle of God's encounter with His people through sacramental mater forms, is a perennial heresy that weakens the spiritual life. Those in the medieval Greek Church who argued that images and icons and relics ought to be destroyed violently, on the pretext that they separated believers from Christ rather than drawing people nearer to the Lord in devotion and piety, were resisted by the conciliar Fathers. Their iconoclasm was exposed as a form of Platonism, or abstract spiritualism that resisted the path of Incarnation that God took towards His people. Many Orthodox thinkers have since argued that iconoclasm, in the many forms in which it still exists within western Christianity (the rejection of a full range of sacraments, or a distaste for the veneration of the saints, or a refusal to honor the icons of the Lord, the Virgin, or the saints) signals a serious matter of theological divergence, a different conception of what the communion of Christ is, and is not something that is peripheral or an incidental difference in the faith.

The whole teaching of the Seven Ecumenical Councils is a very significant and substantial part of the Orthodox Tradition of faith. Orthodoxy clings to the Bible, the writings of the Fathers, and the decrees of the Councils as some of its foundational and most important articulations of Christian truth. It regards the doctrine of the seven Councils as an organic whole: a coherent mindset that is in harmony with the scriptural revelation, and with the living springs of spiritual life today. The harmony of the Councils is one example (and a major one at that) of the harmony of the Orthodox Tradition as a whole. Orthodox saints who have taught after the age of the Councils, such as St. Photios (810-95) or the Hesychast Fathers such as Saint Gregory of Sinai or Saint Gregory Palamas, in the 14the century, have been very careful to guide all their writings and reflections on the Apostolic standards of the scriptures, the patristic consensus, and the conciliar tradition. In this way they have secured their orthodoxy in line that of the Saints from times past. It remains a mark of authentic Orthodox theologization.

(To be continued)



With sincere agape in Our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George