Ecumenical Council

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In Christianity, an ecumenical council or general 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 the Greek Οικουμένη (Oikoumene), which literally means "inhabited", and was originally a figure of speech referring to the territory of the Roman Empire since the earliest councils were all convoked by Roman Emperors. In later usage it was applied in a more general way to mean all places that are inhabited by human 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 or the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches. While a few Orthodox would see a council as fully ecumenical only if it included all the ancient patriarchates, including Rome, this is not mainstream Orthodox opinion. Similarly, Catholics take the whole church to mean "only" those in full communion with the Catholic church. Again, some Catholics would see it necessary to include the Eastern Churches in an ecumenical council, in the full and proper sense. More local meetings are sometimes called "synods", but the distinction between a synod and a council is not hard and fast. However, both churches, and many Protestants, do recognize the validity of the "Seven Ecumenical Councils", with the exception of the Quinisext Council which is rejected by Catholics but considered part of the 6th council by the Orthodox.

The Greek word "synod" (σύνοδος) derives from "syn" (in Greek: σύν; in English: together) and "odos" (in Greek οδος; in English: road, way), therefore a synod is the coming together of several people sharing a common element, in this case the Christian bishops.

The Acts of the Apostles records the Council of Jerusalem, which addressed the tension between maintaining Jewish practices in the early Christian community with Gentile converts. Although its decisions are accepted by all Christians and it appears to conform to some later definions of an ecumenical council, no Christian church includes it in their number.

Council documents

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", i.e. "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

The Seven Ecumenical Councils

  • 1. First Council of Nicaea, (325); repudiated Arianism, adopted the Nicene Creed. This and all subsequent councils are not recognized by nontrinitarian churches— e.g. Arians, Unitarians, Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses.
  • 2. First Council of Constantinople, (381); revised the Nicene Creed into present form used in the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches and prohibited any further alteration of the Creed without the assent of an Ecumenical Council.
  • 3. Council of Ephesus, (431); repudiated Nestorianism, proclaimed the Virgin Mary as the Theotokos (Greek Η Θεοτόκος, "One who gave birth to God"). This and all following councils are not recognized by the Assyrian Church of the East.
  • 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 the 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, (680681); 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 the Third Council of Constantinople, but is rejected by Catholics.
  • 7. Second Council of Nicaea, (787); restoration of the veneration of icons and end of the first iconoclasm. It is rejected by many Protestant denominations, who instead prefer the Council of Constantinople of 754, which condemned the veneration of icons.

Councils #8 and #9

#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. They have nevertheless received universal acceptance by all Orthodox Churches even where their ecumenicity is not recognized.

Acceptance of the councils

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."

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