In Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, an ecumenical council is a meeting of the bishops of the whole church convened to discuss and settle matters of Church doctrine and practice. The word is from Greek Οικουμένη (oikumene), which literally means "inhabited", i.e. all places that are being inhabited by live beings, therefore "World-wide" or "General". "The whole church" is construed by most Eastern Orthodox Christians as including all Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions in full communion with each other. This does not include the Catholic Church. While a few Orthodox would see a council as fully ecumenical only if it included all the ancient partriarchates, including Rome, this is not mainstream Orthodox opinion. Catholics, on the other hand, take the whole church to mean "only" those in full communion with the (Roman) Catholic church. Again, some Catholics would see it necessary to include the Eastern Churches in an ecumenical council, in the full and proper sense. As Pope John Paul II often put it, the Church needs to breathe "with two lungs." More local meetings are sometimes called "synods", but the distinction between a synod and a council is not hard and fast. However, both churches do recognize the validity of all of the early councils before the Great Schism, with the exception of the Fourth Council of Constantinople (which occurred in either 869-870 or 879-880, depending on whether one is Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, respectively).
The Greek word "synod" (σύνοδος) derives from "syn" (together) and "odos" (road, way), therefore a synod is the coming together of several people sharing a common element, in this case the Christian bishops.
Church councils were, from the beginning, bureaucratic exercises. Written documents were circulated, speeches made and responded to, votes taken, and final documents published and distributed. A large part of what we know about the beliefs of heresies comes from the documents quoted in councils in order to be refuted, or indeed only from the deductions based on the refutations. For all councils Canons (Greek κανονες (kanones), "rules" or "rulings") were published and survive. In some cases other documentation survives as well. Study of the canons of church councils is the foundation of the development of canon law, especially the reconciling of seemingly contradictory canons or the determination of priority between them. Canons consist of doctrinal statements and disciplinary measures -- most Church councils and local synods dealt with immediate disciplinary concerns as well as major difficulties of doctrine. Eastern Orthodoxy typically views the purely doctrinal canons as dogmatic and applicable to the entire church at all times, while the disciplinary canons are the application of those dogmas in a particular time and place; these canons may or may not be applicable in other situations.
List of ecumenical councils
Councils #1 to #7
- 1. First Council of Nicaea, (325); repudiated Arianism, adopted the Nicene Creed. This and all subsequent councils are not recognized by nontrinitarian churches: Arians, Unitarians, and Jehovah's Witnesses et al.
- 2. First Council of Constantinople, (381); revised the Nicene Creed into present form used in the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches.
- 3. Council of Ephesus, (431); repudiated Nestorianism, proclaimed the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God (Greek, Η Θεοτόκος;). This and all following councils are not recognized by Assyrian Church.
- 4. 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.
- 5. Second Council of Constantinople, (553); reaffirmed decisions and doctrines explicated by previous Councils, condemned new Arian, Nestorian, and Monophysite writings.
- 6. Third Council of Constantinople, (680-681); repudiated Monothelitism, affirmed that Christ had both human and Divine wills.
- Quinisext 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 Eastern Orthodox Church as a part of VI ecumenical council, but that is rejected by Roman Catholics.
- 7. Second Council of Nicaea, (787); restoration of the veneration of Icons and end of the first Iconoclasm
Councils #8 and #9 (both versions)
#8 and #9 for Catholics
#8 and #9 for some Eastern Orthodox
The next two are regarded as ecumenical by some in the Orthodox Church but not by other Eastern Orthodox Christians, who instead consider them to be important local councils.
Councils #10 to #21 (Councils of Rome)
- 10. Second Council of the Lateran, (1139) - mostly repeated First Lateran Council. Clerical marriages declared invalid, clerical dress regulated, attacks on clerics punished by excommunication
- 11. Third Council of the Lateran, (1179) - limited papal electees to the cardinals alone, condemned simony, forbade the promotion of anyone to the episcopate before the age of thirty.
- 12. Fourth Council of the Lateran, (1215) - dealt with transubstantiation, papal primacy and conduct of clergy. Also said Jews and Muslims should wear a special dress to enable them to be distinguished from Christians.
- 13. First Council of Lyons, (1245) - set a red hat for cardinals, and a levy for the Holy Land
- 14. Second Council of Lyons, (1274)
- 15. Council of Vienne, (1311-1312) - Disbanded Knights Templar
- 16. Council of Constance, (1414-1418)
- 17. Council of Basel, Ferrara and Florence, (1431-1445); reconciliation with the Orthodox Church, which, however, was not accepted in following years by the Christian East. In this council, other unions were achieved with various Eastern Churches as well.
- 18. Fifth Council of the Lateran, (1512-1517); attempted reform of the Church.
- 19. Council of Trent, (1545-1563, discontinuously); response to the challenges of Calvinism and Lutheranism; imposition of uniformity in liturgy in the Roman Rite (the "Tridentine Mass").
- 20. First Vatican Council, 1870; clarification of the doctrine of papal infallibility
- 21. Second Vatican Council, (1962-1965); renewal of the Roman liturgy "according to the pristine norm of the Fathers"; pastoral decrees on the nature of the Church and its relation to the modern world; restoration of a theology of communion; promotion of Scripture and biblical studies; ecumenical progress towards reconciliation with other Churches.
Acceptance of the councils
Mormonism: accept none
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rejects the early ecumenical councils for what they see as misguided human attempts without divine assistance to decide matters of doctrine as though doctrine were to be handed down by democratic debate or politics rather than by revelation. That convening such councils was even considered is evidence enough to them that the original Christian church had fallen into apostasy and was no longer directly led by divine authority. They see the calling of such councils, for example, by an unbaptized (let alone unordained) Roman Emperor as preposterous and assert that the emperors used the councils to exercise their influence to shape and institute Christianity to their liking.
Nontrinitarian churches: accept none
The first and subsequent councils are not recognized by nontrinitarian churches: Arians, Unitarians, and Jehovah's Witnesses et al.
The Assyrian Church: accept #1, and #2
The Assyrian Church of the East only accepts the First Council of Nicaea and the First Council of Constantinople.
Oriental Orthodoxy: accept #1, #2, and #3
The Oriental Orthodox Communion only accepts Nicaea I, Constantinople I and the Council of Ephesus.
Protestantism: accept #1-#7 with reservations
Many Protestants (especially those belonging to the magisterial traditions, such as Lutheranism and Anglicanism) accept the teachings of the first seven councils, but do not ascribe to the councils themselves the same authority as Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox do.
Some Protestants, including some fundamentalist and nontrintitarian churches, condemn the ecumenical councils for other reasons. Independency or congregationalism among Protestants involves the rejection of any governmental structure or binding authority above local congregations; conformity to the decisions of these councils is therefore considered purely voluntary and the councils are to be considered binding only insofar as those doctrines are derived from the Scriptures. Many of these churches reject the idea that anyone other than the authors of Scripture can directly lead other Christians by original divine authority; after the New Testament, they assert, the doors of revelation were closed. They consider new doctrines not derived from the sealed canon of Scripture to be both impossible and unnecessary, whether proposed by church councils or by more recent prophets. Supporters of the councils contend that the councils did not create new doctrines but merely elucidated doctrines already in Scripture that had been misinterpreted by heretics.
Eastern Orthodoxy: Accept #1-#7; some also accept #8(eo), #9(eo)
As far as some Eastern 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 Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos, Fr. John S. Romanides, and Fr. George Metallinos (all of whom refer repeatedly to the "Eighth and Ninth Ecumenical Councils"), Fr. George Dragas , 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."
Roman Catholicism: Accept #1-#7, #8(cor), #9(cor), #10-#21
Both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches recognize seven councils in the early years of the church, but Catholics also recognize fourteen councils called in later years by the Pope, whose authority the Eastern Orthodox utterly repudiate as they consider Rome to currently be in schism. The status of these councils in the face of a Catholic-Orthodox reconciliation would depend upon whether one accepts Roman Catholic ecclesiology (papal primacy) or Orthodox ecclesiology (collegiality of autocephalous churches). In the former case, the additional councils would be granted the status of Ecumenical. In the latter case, they would be considered to be local synodal decisions with no authority among the other autocephalous churches.
The first seven councils were called by the emperor (first the Christian Roman Emperors and later the so-called Byzantine Emperors, i.e., the Roman Emperors with the capital in the East). Most historians agree that the emperors called the councils to force the Christian bishops to resolve divisive issues and reach consensus. They hoped that maintaining unity in the Church would help maintain unity in the Empire. The relationship of the Papacy to the validity of these councils is the ground of much controversy between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Churches and to historians.
Relations between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy
In the past few decades, many Roman Catholic theologians and even the Bishops of Rome have spoken of the first seven councils as ecumenical in some sort of "full and proper sense", enjoying the acceptance of both East and West. Moreover, Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint ("That they may be one"), invited other Christians to discuss how the primacy of the Bishop of Rome should be appropriately exercised from now on; he says that the future may be a better guide than the past. In this way, the Bishop of Rome is allowing for the development of an ecclesiology that would be acceptable to both East and West, would allow for reconciliation of Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and would provide a common understanding of the authority of councils called ecumenical.
The mutual excommunications of 1054 between the Bishops of Rome (i.e. the Popes) and Constantinople were lifted in 1965 by their successors at that time. Moreover, the 1054 "Great Schism" took place when the Bishop of Rome was dead; Orthodox and Catholics in many places continued to recognize each other as members of the universal Church, for generations. In fact, the Churches drifted apart over time, becoming clearly separated only after the looting of Constantinople by Crusaders, the deposition of the Patriarch of Constantinople, and the creation of a "Latin Patriarchate" in hostile opposition to the Orthodox Patriarch in the thirteenth century. As these Churches today work towards reconciliation, the restoration of full communion will also take time. A generally accepted Orthodox perspective on the ecumenical councils will be complimented by some equally agreed upon understanding of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, as the successor of Peter.