Early Church History, Part 4
THE 7 ECUMENICAL COUNCILS In attempting to gather historical facts about the Early Church, after Clement’s time, one will find, almost predominantly, that Catholicism swallowed up the “church” from a very early date. At least as
THE 7 ECUMENICAL COUNCILS
In attempting to gather historical facts about the Early Church, after Clement’s time, one will find, almost predominantly, that Catholicism swallowed up the “church” from a very early date. At least as far as the historical accounts of the early church are concerned. Regarding themselves as the One True Church, and all things being brought together to assure churchgoers that the Catholic Church has authority all the way back to the time of the Apostles, facts are often misconstrued or entirely made up. Admissions of these fictitious facts can be found, even in Catholic writing.
There were seven Ecumenical Councils, including the most well known, The Council of Nicea (also known as the Council of Nice and the Council of Nicaea) in 325 AD. They include:
- First Council of Nicea (325)
- First Council of Constantinople (381)
- First Council of Ephesus (431)
- First Council of Chalcedon (451)
- Second Council of Constantinople (553)
- Third Council of Constantinople (680-681)
- Second Council of Nicea (787)
First Council of Nicea
The primary reason for the calling of this council, which was done by Emperor Constantine I, was to address the topic of Whom, exactly, Jesus was, and what true His nature was. There were two main topics of belief at that time. One was followed by Arius, whose followers were known as Arians. They believed, and taught – since Arius was a bishop at the time – that Jesus had no beginning UNTIL he was “begotten”, by God, at the time of His birth. This line of thinking also teaches that He did not “become” divine in nature until His baptism by John at which time the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, descended upon him. It was at this time, the Arian notion goes on to tell, that Jesus became divine by adoption, which then gave way to the theory of adoptionism.
The other line of thinking was led by Athanasius, who taught that Jesus had always existed, though in the beginning, He was nothing more than a thought in God’s head. He likened Scriptures that referred to “we” and “us” during the Creation, to the way we might talk to ourselves, or reason with ourselves in our own minds. In other words, according to this specific mindset and belief, Jesus “was” in the beginning, but only as a figment of God’s imagination.
Athanasius also taught the ideal of the Holy Trinity, although he readily admitted that it was a hard concept to grasp. Many ways were explained, but all focused on the fact that there was truly one God, but He was able to manifest Himself into three distinctly separate entities, one in Himself, one in the Son, and one in the Holy Ghost. While God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost were not one and the same, or parts of each other, they were all parts of God.
Other topics that were covered during this council, which had created great divisions in the Catholic Church at that time, were:
- The celebration of Passover (Easter)
- The ordination of eunuchs
- The Prohibition of kneeling on Sundays and from Easter to Pentecost
- The Validity of Baptism by heretics (Here they dictated that people were not to be baptized in the NAME of Jesus, but rather by His titles, “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost)
- Lapsed Christians
- Various other smaller matters
First Council of Constantinople
Called into session by Emperor Theodosius I, this council covered the topic of Arianism once again. After being exiled with two like-minded individuals to Turkey, Arius had continued to teach his doctrine more aggressively than ever before. Because of this, his following had increased as well, spurring a whole new movement of Arianism. It had become such a problem for the Catholic Church, that it was declared a very serious offense to believe these teachings or to be in the possession of any of his writings. Those that did have written copies of Arius’ writings were to bring them out into the open and publicly burn them. Those that hid the writings or refused to burn them were executed.
Other topics that were covered during this Council included Apollinarism, Sabellianism, the Holy Spirit and finding a successor to Meletius.
Apollinarism was a view that had been made popular by Apollinaris of Laodicea. His teachings were that Jesus could not possibly have had a human mind. He conceded that Jesus was human in body and soul, in consideration of His emotions, but that His mind was completely divine, and the only part of Him that was.
While the Holy Trinity had been adopted by the Council of Nicea, there were still great debates about what that meant, exactly. While Apollinarism and Eutychianism were popular at that time, they had concluded that Jesus actually had two natures, one human and one divine. The Council declared this teaching to be heresy. Followers were then accused of trying to create something that was neither God nor man, also known as the “tertium quid”.
Sabellianism was adopted by the theologian and priest, Sabellius, who taught that there were three different aspects of One God, which was an anti-Trinitarian belief. He stated that there was not really any difference between the three, and that there was no separate identity for Jesus and another entirely for the Holy Ghost. In fact, one author attempted an explanation of Sebellius’ ideas by saying, “The true question, therefore, turns on this, what is it which constitutes what we name “person” in the Godhead? Is it original, substantial, essential to divinity itself? Or does it belong to and arise from the exhibitions and developments, which the divine Being has made of himself to his creatures? The former Sabellius denied; the latter he fully admitted”
Trinitarianism was chosen over Sabellianism, which was rejected by most churches in favor of the Trinity. Sebellius believed that the Father and Jesus were one person, essentially, but that they operated in different manifestations. This differed from Athanasius’ view that although God and Jesus were One Being, they were distinct from one another on a personal level and with respect to love.
The Council of Ephesus
With nearly as many attendees as the First Council of Nicea, and called by Emperor Theodosius II, this council took on the topics of Nestorianism, Theotokos, and Pelagianism.
By taking on Nestorianism, this Council was still dealing with the ideal of who Jesus actually was, and what His true nature consisted of, essentially. Nestorius, a Patriarch of Constantinople, taught that there was a definite distinction between the two natures of Jesus, one being human and one being divine. He also rejected the title of “Theotokos” or “Mother of God” being applied to Mary. They chose to call her, rather, the mother of Jesus, or “Christotokos” which means, “Bringer forth of Christ”. Since he and his followers did not believe that Jesus was in any way “God” at his birth, they could not bring themselves to call Mary the “Mother of God”. His teachings were later condemned as a heresy, which led to a break in the Christian churches of the day. Followers went on to settle in the Sasanian Empire and took on the name, Church of the East, which was later transformed into the Nestorian Church.
Pelagianism teaches that original sin never actually tainted the nature of man, because mortal will is still the force that allows people to choose to be good or bad, without the need for divine aid. It also rejected the idea of a need for infant baptism because of this reasoning.
The doctrine gets its name from Pelagius, who was a British Monk, even though he denied a great many of the doctrines associated with the movement. While his writings no longer exist, the corrections made to this belief system during the Council of Carthage testify to what some of those beliefs were. The corrections, which are opposite the teachings of Pelagius, are as follows:
- Death did not come to Adam from a physical necessity, but through sin.
- Newborn children must be baptized on account of original sin.
- Justifying grace not only avails for the forgiveness of past sins, but also gives assistance for the avoidance of future sins.
- The grace of Christ not only discloses the knowledge of God’s commandments, but also imparts strength to will and execute them.
- Without God’s grace it is not merely more difficult, but absolutely impossible to perform good works.
- Not out of humility, but in truth must we confess ourselves to be sinners.
- The saints refer the petition of “Our Father”, “Forgive us our trespasses”, not only to others, but also to themselves.
- The saints pronounce the same supplication not from mere humility, but from truthfulness.
Most will be able to readily identify these beliefs as Catholic in nature, and must wonder if some of the other ideals that were treated as heresies had some amount of underlying truth to them. Of course, while not all of them did, the errors that are often found in the Catholic line of thought and doctrines make one wonder if the Councils can truly be trusted as inspired by God. Perhaps it was the business of the Church itself, human in nature, that supposed these things to be true?
The Council of Chalcedon
This Council was called by Emperor Marcian and took on the judgments issued during the Council of Ephesus, the offenses of Bishop Dioscorus of Alexandria and many other disputes that involved a number of bishops. But, once again, and probably not by surprise, this council also considered what the true nature of the divinity and humanity of Jesus was. It seems it was a topic they could just not get all churches to agree on.
Although Pope Leo the Great was not completely happy to approve the Council, he did so anyway and later, the Chalcedonian Definition was issued. This stated that Jesus did not have a single nature, but rather two natures in a single body. They agreed that he was completely God, while at the same time being completely man. The Council also passed down 27 canons having to do with the authority and administration of the church.
The teachings of this council are in agreement with the Catholic Church as a collective, the Eastern Orthodox Church as well as other Christian groups, including most Protestants. The Protestants most agree on teaching that speaks to the nature of the Trinity as well as the Incarnation, as the Council of Nicea, held in 325, had agreed upon. In fact, a great deal of the Protestants and Anglicans tend to agree that this Council was the last one they consider to be authoritative.
The Second Council of Constantinople
This council, convened by Emperor Justinian I, once again tackled the idea of Nestorianism and the new “threat” or Origenism. As the fifth of seven councils, it is recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, Old Catholics and some Protestants.
The main purpose of the Council was to solidify the condemnation of Nestorianism as well as the teaching that Mary could not be called Theotokos, or, The Mother of God. The original acts, which were in Greek, are now lost, but we still have a Latin version which has been translated into English and is accompanied by commentary.
The Third Council of Constantinople
Emperor Constantine IV called this Council together to address Monothelitism, which dictates that Jesus has two complete natures, but one single will. This is in opposition to the teaching of Christology, which says that he has two natures, and a will for each of them, both being separate from one another. Monothelitism had garnered a great deal of popularity, and even a certain amount of support from the patriarchs. However, it was both denounced and rejected as heresy during this Council.
Not only was Monothelitism condemned, but so were those who supported it, including Pope Honorius I and four patriarchs of Constantinople. It is also interesting to note that during this Council’s proceedings, they were approached by a Monothelite priest who stated that he could bring the dead back to life. The priest said that by doing this, his faith would be proven as the supreme one, above all others. However, he could not revive the body after whispering prayers into the ears of the corpse.
The Second Council of Nicea
This Council was convened by Emperor Constantine IV and Empress Irene and primarily took on the issue of Iconoclasm. More specifically, it was a convergence to restore the use and worship of images such as pictures, paintings and statues. This act had been suppressed during the reign of Leo III, while his son, Constantine V, made that suppression an official decision.
You Must Agree!
There is very little to be found, outside of very ancient texts, that do not directly agree with the findings of the first seven ecumenical councils. This is primarily because, any thought not agreed upon by those in authority during these councils, were deemed heretical by the Catholic Church. Furthermore, following any of the ideals and teachings that had been condemned by these councils could result in banishment, persecution and even execution.
There are literally volumes that speak to the goings-on of these councils, their canons and decisions, the “Apostolic Fathers” and early church history. However, as stated earlier in this article, they took on a solely Catholic-based approach from very early on, calling many of those “Apostolic Fathers” such as Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp saints and bishops in title. Considering the ideology put forth in these Councils as a whole, one has to wonder how any church that is not Catholic could agree with their creeds. It seems, in reality, that a lot of “picking and choosing” has gone on over the years with regards to which Councils were considered viable, which ones were not, and furthermore, which topics within their creeds they would adhere to.
Words Mean Things
It is important to note, at this point, that in the beginning, the word “catholic” (with a lowercase c) was a Greek word that meant nothing more than “according to the whole” or “in general”. It did not mean a specific denomination, as if there is a difference between congregations, because certainly the Apostles taught no such thing.
The fact that the Councils, their decisions and their dealings with the “heresy” that followed are strictly Catholic (with an uppercase C) in nature should be taken into consideration when studying along these lines. While there certainly were thoughts and teachings that had crept in and had to be dealt with, it could be that the manner in which this was incorporated was a bit drastic.
There are certain protestants to this day, in fact, that can tell you that many arguments made in favor of the Trinity actually back up the idea of “Oneness” as it now viewed by the Apostolic Church. Even those who are fully convinced of the Trinitarian view will admit that it often does not make sense, the Oneness view can often make much more sense with less effort, according to Scripture.
Still, we know that people hold different views and we can only point people towards the Scripture for the truth, and the indwelling of the Holy Ghost to teach them what is correct and what is not. Because God always has the final say.
Not to us, O Lord, not to us,
But to Your name be the glory
Because of Your love and your faithfulness!