The Seven Ecumenical Councils
The Defense of the Faith through the Holy Tradition
THE BODY OF CHRIST
The Church is the Sacramental, or Mystical, Body of Christ, established as such by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit abides constantly within the Church sustaining its existence as the Body of Christ. Although the Church on earth exists in many separate places, it is the one and same Church in each location, because, by the Spirit, the one Lord Jesus Christ is sacramentally and fully present in each local Church without distinction. If this were not so, no member of the Church could receive the fullness of salvation in Christ because Christ himself would be divided.
THE LOCAL CHURCH
A local Church is the gathering of believers in a particular area presided over by a Bishop who is its focus of unity and identity. The bishop presides at the Mass (Eucharist) either himself in person or through a priest to whom he delegates the responsibility. The bishop is called, therefore, to represent, in his ministry, the Faith, Discipline, and Worship not only of the Local Church but also of the whole Body of Christ everywhere.
AUTHORITY OVER THE CHURCH
Because the Church is truly the Body of Christ - Christ himself in his sacramental manifestation - it is not possible for someone or something to exercise authority over the Church, whether understood as universal or as local. It is not possible because such authority would be exercised over Christ himself. (Neither Pope nor Bible, therefore, can be held up as an authority over the Church.)
AUTHORITY FROM WITHIN THE CHURCH
There is, however, an authority exercised within and throughout the Church, it is the abiding authority of the Holy Spirit himself. As the Church exists in a sacramental mode in this world, taking earthly things and filling and transforming them by the grace of the Holy Trinity, so the ministry of the Apostles (which now devolves upon the bishops of the Church) is fundamentally one of witness in the power of the Spirit.
THE WITNESS AS HOLY TRADITION
This is a witness to the truth of Christ sustained by the Holy Spirit in the Church. To this witness is given the name of the Holy Tradition. To maintain the Church in the Truth is the same as to maintain the Holy Tradition. This duty of preserving a true witness, of upholding the Holy Tradition, is the purpose for which all Councils, especially the Ecumenical Councils, have been called.
A CONFUSION OF NAMES
From the very beginning the Church has had to discern the authentic Holy Tradition from among many false accounts of the one true Faith. To these false accounts we give the general name heresy, but each false account or trend has its own particular name. Until one makes a thorough study of the early history of the Church, the names of the various heresies contribute confusion rather than light. These heresies, if they had been adopted by the Church, would have destroyed the Faith in much the same way as a modern weedkiller destroys a plant by disrupting progressively its vital functions. In this tract the Seven Councils, which provided the antidote to such poisons, are listed with a bare reference to the name under which the various heresies are known. If the actions of the Councils appear negative, it is because they were called to eradicate false doctrines, not to invent new ones, nor to expound the whole content of the Faith.
THE UNDERLYING TRADITION
It is important to realise that the Fathers (the assembled bishops) of the Councils were concerned to preserve and defend the Holy Tradition. Each Father knew, and was responsible for maintaining the Faith as it had been preserved in his own Local Church from its foundation. Against such knowledge the heresies stood out for the innovations they were. The Holy Tradition itself provides the underlying theme which links all seven Councils. It is the same theme which we find in the Holy Scriptures rightly interpreted.
THE RIGHT INTERPRETATION
One of the problems faced by the Fathers was that heretics used the Scriptures as a source of texts to support their views. It is important to recognise that the Holy Tradition is not some kind of supplement to the Scriptures (as was often supposed at the time of the Reformation) but that, together, the Tradition and Scripture provide the authentic account of the Truth of God in Christ. The Old Testament must be interpreted in the light of Tradition, while the New Testament is Tradition committed to writing.
THE SEVEN ECUMENICAL COUNCILS
THE FIRST COUNCIL (Nicaea I) 325AD
Rejected the teaching that Christ is divine but is distinct from and inferior in essence to God the Father (Arianisim) - this was paganism dressed up as Christianity.
THE SECOND COUNCIL (Constantinople I) 381AD
Reaffirmed the decisions of Nicea I, opposed any teaching that the Holy Spirit was less than truly God (Macedonianism) and set out the 'Nicene' Creed in the form we now use.
THE THIRD COUNCIL (Ephesus) 431AD
Rejected the teaching that Jesus was two 'persons', one divine the other human, linked together (Nestorianism). It confirmed the teaching that Christ is one divine Person who has also taken to himself a complete human nature from the Virgin Mary - her title 'Mother of God' (Theotokos) supports this.
THE FOURTH COUNCIL (Chalcedon) 451AD
Opposed the teaching that the divine nature in Christ had absorbed the human nature (Eutychianism or Monophysitism).
THE FIFTH COUNCIL (Constantinople II) 553AD
Condemned attempts to reintroduce Nestorianism in disguise.
THE SIXTH COUNCIL (Constantinople III) 680AD
(Repudiated a form of Eutchychianism which claimed that Christ had only one 'will' - thus destroying the completeness and reality of his two natures.
THE SEVENTH COUNCIL (Nicaea II) 787AD
Rejected the claim that the honouring of the Holy Icons was idolatrous (Iconoclasm).
THE KEY PRINCIPLE
The key principle defended by the Seven Councils is the Incarnation - the belief that the True God has become True Man, that his divine nature and the human nature he has taken to himself are united inseparably with each other - but in a way that preserves the completeness of both natures. The Seventh Council carries this principle further by insisting that the divine grace of salvation does indeed work effectively through material things. This latter insistence reaffirms the grace received through the Sacraments, it also defends the honouring of images for the same reason.
A GOLDEN CHAIN
We may see the Seven Councils as a golden chain of doctrine stretching out through the history of the Church. If one link breaks the chain fails. These Councils protect by excluding error the Truth of our salvation - New Life in Christ. They show why the Church must be understood as being truly the Body of Christ.
Like the many local Councils of Bishops called to deal with the care of the Church in a smaller area, the Ecumenical Councils also passed Canons, or regulations, for the conduct of the faithful - the practical outworking of the Faith. The Canon Law of the Church is never a set of rules independent of the nature of the Church as the Body of Christ - that would make it a power over the Church and over Christ. The Canons regulate the conduct of the faithful so that it may be a witness to life in the Holy Spirit which is also New Life in Christ.
The Ecumenical Councils are an example, at the highest level, of the way in which the life of the Church in this world is regulated. Most ancient Councils were held on a more modest scale, and dealt with local concerns. Because the principle of witness in and through the Holy Spirit remains the same, the decisions taken at such Council can sometimes be of universal importance. A number of such Councils, their Decisions and Canons, have been recognised by the Ecumenical Councils. The Holy Catholic Church Anglican Rite recognises the status of all such Councils.
AFTER THE SEVENTH COUNCIL
Since the holding of the Seventh Council no major gathering of bishops can be called ecumenical in the true sense of the description. The Roman Catholic Church has continued to call some of the later Councils held in the West 'ecumenical' but they have never achieved acceptance by all the Churches. The truth is that it is the quality of faithfulness to the Holy Tradition rather than conditions of size and place which is of fundamental importance. There are Churches (the Oriental Churches, for example) which have refused to accept the some of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. The reason for this refusal is because such Churches consider that certain conciliar statements did not set out the Holy Tradition with sufficient accuracy - the Faith is the same but the expression of it causes them problems.
THE FAITH COMES BEFORE THE DECREES
The HCC-AR subscribes and submits itself to the doctrinal decrees of the Seven Councils. The totality of the Tradition of Faith, however, is always larger than the doctrine protected by concilar decree. For the fullness of the Faith we look to Christ, made known to us by the Holy Spirit through the Holy Tradition. The Seven Councils ensure that our vision of the Faith is not obscured by the false opinions of men.