The Five Influential Councils
Say what you want about Constantine and the conversion of the Roman Empire to a form of Christianity, but one thing we should be grateful for is the May 20, 325 Council of Nicaea. This was the first of five Ecumenical councils that involved bishops from all over the Roman Empire. Each council was assembled to help provide greater clarity on the biblical approach to the person and nature of Christ. Now that was not the only reason each council met, but it was a significant one.
As decades went by following a council’s decision, new and heretical views concerning the nature(s) of Christ arose. A distinct pattern developed as a bishop in a particular portion of the empire would begin to teach/preach a contrary identification of Christ’s nature. This would generally insight concerns from other local bishops or even a regional bishop. Eventually, when the issue escalated, a higher bishop or even the Emperor would call a council to make a determination concerning the new thought. Generally speaking, the council would hear varying sides and then pronounce a decision, deeming one individual heretical and therefore his teachings banished.
Council of Nicaea – 325 – 300 Bishops came to Nicaea at the request of Constantine. The council was called for a variety of reasons, but the crux of the matter was the new teaching by a man named Arius. Arius was a presbyter in Alexandria, Egypt. He was educated in Antioch, but looked to expand Origin’s teachings. To his credit, Origin sought to reconcile the co-eternal yet begotten person of Christ. Arius took the conflicting statements of Origin and put forward the full thought of Jesus’ subordinate nature to the Father. He taught, “there was a time, when the Son was not.” Jesus was different than common humanity, but He was not co-eternal with the Father. Therefore, Jesus was subordinate in function and essence. This created a problem for Alexander, the bishop in Alexandria, and a disagreement ensued. The problem escalated to higher bishops and eventually to Constantine. Constantine’s motive for calling the council could be debated, but he called it nonetheless. As a result of the council, Arianism was rejected and the Nicene Creed began. The original form is quite scant, but it met the immediate issue head on. Athanasius, a deacon in Alexander’s church is given credit for writing the Nicene Creed. While Arianism would continue to raise its head over the centuries, the Nicene Creed was birthed, and a movement toward a creedal statement surveying the biblical doctrine of the church was in play. Also, the standard for future councils took shape.
Council of Constantinople – 381 – This was an Eastern controversy concerning the humanity of Christ. This council was called by Emperor Theodosius to wage a decision concerning the new teaching of Apollinarius. Apollinarius was a presbyter in Laodicea, and he was an opponent to Arianism. He taught that the union of the two natures emphasized the divinity of Christ at the expense of His full manhood. In the incarnation, the “Divine Logos” displaced the human soul of Jesus; therefore, Jesus was essentially only physically human. Jesus did not have a human mind or soul. A man by the name of Gregory of Nazianus, Archbishop of Constantinople, began to use the argument of the earthly mother of Jesus to show His full humanity. The bishop of Rome condemned the teachings of Apollinarius, and the full council agreed to expand the Nicene Creed. Jesus’ humanity was protected. The first council questioned the substance of Jesus; now in question was the division between the natures.
Council of Ephesus – 431 – This was another Eastern controversy discussing whether Jesus’ two natures were separate. Was His humanity separate from His divine nature? Before we fly off the handle at these early patristic men, we must remember the lack of resources that existed in their day. We have the luxury of studying centuries of brilliant God-ordained theologians who gave clarity and direction to these doctrines. The counter man who came to the forefront this time was Nestorius. He was a presbyter in Antioch, and he rejected the direction of Gregory Nazianus in the use of Mary in the discussion of Jesus’ nature. He wanted to completely separate the two natures of Christ. He would argue that the divine could not have been involved in the basic things of life like birth and sufferings, therefore no essential union between the natures existed. Cyril of Alexandria and Celestine of Rome were two prominent men at this council. Eventually Nestorianism was condemned, and the council decided that unity existed between the two natures of Christ. Nestorius was deposed to Persia where he founded the Nestorian church.
“Robbers” Council – 449 – This council held in Ephesus was centered on the issue of Christ possessing one nature or two. A monk from Constantinople began promoting that Jesus only had one nature. The divinity and humanity of Jesus converged to form one new unique nature. That monk’s name was Eutychius, and the council exonerated him without the presence of the bishop of Rome, Leo I. A year before, in 448, Eutychius was denounced at a synod in Constantinople. This later became known to birth a group called monophysites, or the denial of the duality to Christ’s natures.
Council of Chalcedon – 451 – This is the fifth and final major church council in the patristic era. The council was held May 23, 451 and was summoned by Emperor Marcian. It took place in Chalcedon, which was located just across from Constantinople. This council features 520 bishops, mostly from the eastern portion of the empire, but some from North Africa and Rome also came. As a result of Leo I’s denial of the validity of the council of 449, this council put forward and affirmed the reality yet mystery of the two co-existing natures of Jesus. There were those who would not accept this decision, and they became known as the monophysites, mentioned above. They eventually made their way to Egypt and Ethiopia and portions of Syria.
Anyone could sit and show disdain for the church councils. You might even think you have a biblical exegetical rationale for deposing them. However, I think on the contrary. I see Constantine as God’s instrument to bring about a united front to attack and denounce heretical teachings throughout the first centuries. I also see the Jerusalem council as the blueprint for said councils, and am thankful that they happened. With the councils we see the preservation of sound biblical doctrine concerning the person and nature of Christ. We have the unique privilege to look back and see the mighty hand of God direct and fulfill His ordained purposes!