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The Ecumenical Councils


THE GREAT COUNCILS OF THE CHURCH (A.D. 325 - 787)

Throughout its history the Church has seen it necessary to clarify its teachings on the central matters of the Christian Faith. Its goal has been to preserve the the witness of the holy apostles regarding Jesus Christ as it has been handed down through the churches that they founded. The chief means for accomplishing this task has been the summoning of the Great Ecumenical Councils. In these councils, bishops from all over the world gathered and debated the controversies of their day. What emerged from these councils were statements of doctrine that reflected the "mind of the Church" on these matters.

Each of these councils sought only to clarify and defend the ones before them. And ultimately, they became the bulwark that preserved the Christian Faith as expressed in the Creed of Nicea-Constantinople, which nearly all Christians today profess. These Seven Great Ecumenical Councils were accepted by all of the Churches that today make up the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Old Catholic Churches and they are the normative statements of belief for all Christians today seeking to follow historic Christian orthodoxy. Truly they are a gift from the Holy Spirit, who promised to lead the Church into all truth.


The Teachings of the Councils:

FIRST AND SECOND ECUMENICAL COUNCILS--The Orthodox Doctrine of the Church regarding God and Salvation History are summed up in the joint creed of the Councils of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381), it states:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.

THIRD THROUGH SIXTH ECUMENICAL COUNCILS--The Orthodox Doctrine of the Church regarding Jesus Christ is summed up in the following statements:

The Formula of Union (From the Third Ecumenical Council, held at Ephesus in 431 A.D.)

We confess, then, our Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, perfect God and perfect man of a rational soul and a body, begotten before all ages from the Father in his godhead, the same in the last days, for us and for our salvation, born of Mary the virgin, according to his humanity, one and the same consubstantial with the Father in godhead and consubstantial with us in humanity, for a union of two natures took place. Therefore we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord. According to this understanding of the unconfused union, we confess the holy virgin to be the mother of God because God the Word took flesh and became man and from his very conception united to himself the temple he took from her. As to the evangelical and apostolic expressions about the Lord, we know that theologians treat some in common as of one person and distinguish others as of two natures, and interpret the god-befitting ones in connection with the godhead of Christ and the lowly ones with his humanity. (From "Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils" Vol. 1, by Norman P. Tanner)

The Chalcedonian Declaration (from the Fourth Ecumenical Council, held at Chalcedon in 451 A.D., Act V)

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.


Declaration (from the Sixth Ecumenical Council, held at Constantinople in 680-1 A.D.)

Following the five holy and universal synods and the holy and accepted fathers, and defining in unison, it professes our lord Jesus Christ our true God, one of the holy Trinity, which is of one same being and is the source of life, to be perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and a body: consubstantial with the Father as regards his divinity, the same consubstantial with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects except for sin; begotten before the ages from the Father as regards his divinity, and in the last days the same for us and for our salvation from the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, who is properly and truly called mother of God, as regards his humanity; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change no separation, no division; at no point was the difference between the the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together in a single subsistent being; he is not parted or divided into two persons, but is one and the same only begotten Son, Word of God, lord Jesus Christ, just as the prophets taught from the beginning about him, and as Jesus the Christ himself instructed us, and as the creed of the holy fathers handed it down to us.

And we proclaim equally two natural volitions or wills in him and two natural principles of action which undergo no division, no change, no partition, no confusion, in accordance with the teaching of the holy fathers. And the two natural wills not in opposition, as the impious heretics said, far from it, but his human will following, and not resisting or struggling, rather in fact subject to his divine and all powerful will. For the will of the flesh had to be moved, and yet to be subjected to the divine will, according to the most wise Athanasius. For just as his flesh is said to be the flesh of the Word of God, so too the natural will of his flesh is said to and does belong to the Word of God, just as he says himself: I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of the Father who sent me, calling his own will that of his flesh, since his flesh too became his own. For in the same way that his all holy and blameless and animate flesh was not destroyed in being made divine but remained in its own limit and category, so his human will as well was not destroyed in being made divine, but rather was preserved, according to the theologian Gregory, who says: "For his willing,when he is considered as savior, is not in opposition to God, being made divine in its entirety." And we hold there to be two natural principles of action [Gk. two natural energies] in the same Jesus Christ our lord and true God, which undergo no division, no change, no partition, no confusion, that is, a divine principle of action and a human principle of action, according to the godly speaking Leo, who says most clearly: "For each form does in a communion with the other that activity which it possesses as its own, the Word working that which is the Word's and the body accomplishing the things that are the body's". For of course we will not grant the existence of only a single natural principle of action of both God and creature, lest we raise what is made to the level of divine being, or indeed reduce what is most specifically proper to the divine nature to a level befitting creatures; for we acknowledge that the miracles and the sufferings are of one and the same, according to one or the other of the two natures out of which he is and in which he has his being as the admirable Cyril said. Therefore protecting on all sides the "no confusion" and "no division", we announce the whole in these brief words: Believing our lord Jesus Christ, even after his incarnation, to be one of the the holy Trinity and our true God, we say that he has two natures shining forth in his one subsistence in which he demonstrated the miracles and the sufferings throughout his entire providential dwelling here, not in appearance but in truth, the difference of the natures being made known in the same one subsistence in that each nature wills and performs the things that are proper to it in a communion with the other; then in accord with this reasoning we hold two natural wills and principles of action meet in correspondence for the salvation of the human race. (From "Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils" Vol.1, by Norman P. Tanner)

SEVENTH ECUMENICAL COUNCIL--The Orthodox Doctrine of the Church regarding Images is expressed in the following decree from the Council of Nicea II (787). It states:

To summarize, we declare that we defend free from any innovations all written and unwritten ecclesiastical traditions that have been entrusted to us. One of these is the production of representational art; this is quite in harmony with the with the history of the spread of the gospel, as it provides confirmation that the becoming man of the Word of God was real and not just imaginary, and it brings us a similar benefit. For things that mutually; illustrate one another undoubtedly possess one another's message.

Given this state of affairs and stepping out as though on the royal highway, following as we are the God-spoken teaching of our holy fathers and the tradition of the catholic church-for we recognize that this teaching comes from the holy Spirit who dwells in her-we decree with full precision and care that, like the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, the revered and holy images whether painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material, are to be exposed in the holy churches of God, on sacred instruments and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by public ways; these are the images of our Lord, God, and savior, Jesus Christ, and of our Lady without blemish, the holy God-bearer, and of the reverend angels and of any of the saintly holy men. The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration. Certainly this is not the full adoration in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but resembles that given to the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred cult objects. Further, people are drawn to honor these images with the offering of incense and lights, as was piously established by ancient custom. Indeed the honour paid to an image transverses it reaching the model; and he who venerates the image, venerates the person represented in that image. (From "Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils" Vol.1, by Norman P. Tanner)

 

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