THE SEVEN ECUMENICAL COUNCILS
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 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 a 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 viewpoints 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 Fr. 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 councils’ texts.
Further, the question of when exactly one may say that the Church has received or rejected a council is not answerable by receptionist theory. Another ecclesiological problem is also created by receptionism: Why is it, for instance, that the Fourth Ecumenical Council may be said to have been “received by the whole Church” while significant numbers of Christians apparently within the Church rejected it, leading to the schism which even now persists? Such reasoning is circular, because whoever accepts a council is therefore inside the Church, but any who reject it are outside. In other words, such councils are ecumenical essentially because those who hold to their decrees declare themselves exclusively to be the Church.
The practical needs of the historical circumstances of the councils also bear out 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.
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 been repealed 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.
Arianism condemned; Nicene Creed created.
Nicene Creed revised into present form used by the Orthodox Church.
Nestorianism condemned; Mary proclaimed as “Mother of God.”
Monophysitism condemned; Chalcedonian creed created.
Previous Councils reaffirmed; Condemned new Arian, Nestorian, and Monophysite writings.
Monothelitism condemned; affirmed Christ had both a human and a Divine will.
Iconoclasm condemned; affirmed veneration of icons.