Perhaps the greatest influence of the ecumenical councils on our understanding of Christ has been how they helped determine what was considered the cannon of the New Testament. The very meaning of an ecumenical council is “synod the decrees of which have found acceptance by the Church in the whole world.2 It is not necessary to make a council ecumenical that the number of bishops present should be large, there were but 325 at Nice, and 150 at I. Constantinople” (Schaff, n.d. 8). Thus, these councils helped shape the cannon of the New Testament, which means the councils were used to decide which books were included as the official books of the New Testament. This established the text as the word of God and teachings of Jesus. Of course, what gets included in the cannon effects how we understand both the overall New Testament and the teachings of Jesus Christ.
A second important concept concerning the ancient ecumenical council is the Catholic Church’s affirmation of the infallibility of the councils. In Catholic doctrine, the Holy Spirit was invoked and present at the ancient councils, which was a factor that gave them their spiritual authority to make changes to the cannon of the New Testament and to the teachings of Christ. According to the Catholic Church, “The Council looked upon itself, not as revealing any new truth, but as setting forth the faith once for all delivered to the Saints, its decisions therefore were in themselves ecumenical, as being an expression of the mind of the whole body of the faithful both clerical and lay, the sensus communis of the Church” (Schaff, n.d., p. 9).
Viewing these councils as guided by the holy spirit means that the councils were seen as part of the living tradition of the gospels and the word of god, and thus any changes they made were changes that God and Jesus wanted, as expressed to the council via the holy spirit. Thus, our understanding of the presence and action of Jesus in the world, as well as our understanding of what Christ actually said was impacted by what occurred at the ancient councils.
Another important element of the early ecumenical councils was that they helped shape the Latin/Roman or Greek/Orthodox interpretation of the New Testament. In the early church the split between the east and west branches of the church was not as sever as it is now, and a review of the early councils shows the unity of orthodox Christianity in the west and east. For example “Rome was reckoned the first, but not the chief, of Sees, as the Council of Nicæa declared; and because Byzantium had become “New Rome,” therefore it is made second on the list, but equal in dignity. Rome was the sole Apostolic See of the West” (Roberts, Donaldson, 1885, p.3). The unity of the early church compared to the Catholic-Orthodox split of later years had a great impact on the teaching of our understanding of Christ. For example, in the earlies councils, the mass and the Bible could appear in Greek as well as Latin, which would have impacted the reception of the sermons and instructions about the teachings of Christ.
While the split between the Catholic and Orthodox churches might seem beyond the scope of a study of the ecumenical councils, the development of early Christianity, and thus of the understanding of Christ, reveals how important they were. They were based in the early Christian practice of communion, or community, which was a local, close group of early Christians, guided by one or a handful of bishops, each of which had a slightly different, localized, version of Christianity (Davis, 1983, p.20-22). Indeed, the practice of the councils grew out of the practice of the meetings of these community bishops to find a unified doctrine, and to debate what was accepted and what was heresy, as “a meeting of bishops to resolve theological and disciplinary disputes among the faithful had a long history before the Council of Nicæa” (Davis, 1983, p. 23). Thus, from the very origin of Christianity, the practice of councils have been used to help determine what would and would not be taught as the doctrines of Christianity.
The first Council of Nicæa demonstrates how important these doctrinal decisions are. The earliest of the councils deal with one of the central concepts of Christianity, the divinity of Christ and Christ’s form of unity with God the Father. The issue of the unity of a monotheistic god and the divinity of Christ was a paradox for thinkers at the time, and many doctrines and alternative teachings about the nature of Christ’s divinity needed to be sorted out, and accepted or rejected. The actions of this first council established the first doctrine of the unity of god and the divinity of Christ, but, demonstrating how complex this process was, the work of the First Council of Nicæa led to the growth of various forms of Gnosticism, which eventually caused other councils to debate the validity of those ideas (Davis, 1983, p. 38). Thus, as its most fundamental, we can see that the councils established the very tenants of the Christian faith, and what could be taught and what could not be taught in the early communities.
In addition, it is not just doctrine and heresy which gets decided on at the early ecumenical councils. Church practices, and the methods of conducting service, were also debated, discussed, and decided upon at the councils. In addition to discussions about the unity of God, the first Council of Nicæa also established some of the fundamental practices of the Christian and Catholic faiths. Robert Kraft examined the documentary history of the First Council of Nicæa and found that the practice of establishing the Sabbath on Sunday was decided upon at this council (Kraft, 1965, p. 18).
Kraft’s research also shows how important the split of the Latin and Greek communities was for the Church, as each community developed ritual practices out of their understanding of Christ’s instructions and their local cultural context (Kraft, 1965, p.21). Thus we can see that not only how we intellectually understand the teachings of Jesus Christ was impacted by the ecumenical councils, but also the ritual practice of mass and worship. The ritual processes influence the way people experience Christ, and thus also had a major impact on the development of Christianity.
While in official Catholic history there were actually 21 councils, the first seven are generally considered the most important, not just because of the theological questions they decided upon, but because the first seven ecumenical councils laid the groundwork for the split of the early Christian Church into the Greek Orthodox and the Latin Catholic churches (Tanner, 2001, p. 37). The schism between the Greek and Latin churches is one of the biggest events in the history of Christianity, and as a result, the councils which lead to this schism completely changed the way two huge communities of Christians experienced and practice the religion of Christ.
However, it is just as important to note that although the seeds of the splits the church would undergo were planted during the first seven ecumenical councils, they still maintain a special place for most of Christianity because the doctrine and heresies established in them are still for the most part doctrinal Christian teaching. As Tanner reminds us, “the first seven of them…are recognized as ecumenical councils, that is to say councils of the whole church…by both Orthodox, Catholic, and usually the Anglican churches” (Tanner, 2001, p. 37). Perhaps no other fact so demonstrated the power of the ecumenical councils to create the shape of the religion, and the doctrinal theology of Christianity. The decisions about what was accepted as official doctrine and theology at the first seven ancient ecumenical councils established the meaning of Christianity for hundreds of millions of followers.
Another ritual practice that the early ecumenical councils allowed to develop was the sense, and belief, of worshippers in the Catholic and Greek Orthodox church that the line of Bishops of each church dates back to at least the days of the council, if not the legendary founding of the see of Rome by Peter. Through things like the Apostle’s creed, or the sense of apostolic lineage of bishops, originate in the early ecumenical councils, These historical linkages with the origins of the church both influence the way people understand Christianity, and put their beliefs into practice. These elements allow modern worshippers to believe that the doctrines they learn and practice are as old as the church themselves, and links them with the time of Christ actually walking, teaching, and being redeemed in the holy land.
One reason all 7 of the ancient ecumenical councils are accepted by so many branches of Christianity today is because of the nature of the doctrinal questions decided there, and how fundamental they are for a valid, traditional understanding of Christ and his teachings. AS we have already seen, the First Council of Nicaea was preoccupied with questions about the unity and nature of God the Father and Jesus Christ. A look at the operations of the Council of Nicaea is equally instructive as how the teachings of Christ were interpreted and accepted or rejected. The the First Council of Nicaea, the bishops split into three groups. The first, or orthodox group believed in God the Father and the Son as the same divine substance; the second group which sought to teach that Christ was fully god, but that Jesus and Father were simply similar substance, while the third group saw Christ and the Father as separate substances (White, 2012, p.2). Thus, we can see that the foundational belief in Christ as the Son of God and the Trinity was decided at this council.
This decision would have far reaching implications. First, it meant that all communities of Christians must now teach this early form of the doctrine of the Trinity. Second it lead those who didn’t agree, or who saw room for theological speculation, to posit new heresies about the nature of God and Jesus, and the trinity. One of these secondary beliefs would erupt into a very serious gnostic heresy which threatened the co-existence of the communities of Christ, and which required additional ecumenical councils to be called. Thus we can see there is always a dialectic outcome to many of these early councils, as while doctrine gets settled at one, but at the same time other bishops see the new doctrine as sprouting new beliefs or practices, which often got labelled heresies. The First Council of Nicaea is generally considered the most important for establishing the range of questions about Christ’s divinity and unity and about the power of Rome and Constantinople. And “there was one reason the Nicaean definition prevailed; its fidelity to the testimony of the scriptures” (White, 2012, p. 4).
This is why the presence of the holy spirit at the Council was invoked to give the council true authority. As one scholar notes, “It was found that Councils were the best device for witnessing, articulating, and proclaiming the common mind of the Church and the accord and unanimity of local churches” (Florovsky, 1987, p. 95). Thus, the early councils helped set the cannon, rituals, and doctrines of the Church, and were used as a means of preserving ‘real’ Christian communities in the face of the explosion of Christian cults and heresies. They were viewed as a defense of the faith.
Davis, L. D. (1983). The first seven ecumenical councils (325-787): Their history and theology (Vol. 21). Liturgical Press.
Florovsky, G. (1987). The Authority of the Ancient Councils and the Tradition of the Fathers. Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader, ed. Daniel B. Clendenin, 115-124.
Kraft, R. A. (1965). Some notes on Sabbath observance in early Christianity. Andrews University Seminary Studies (AUSS), 3(1), 18-33.
Roberts, A, & Donaldson, J. (1885). ANTE-NICENE FATHERS VOLUME 6. Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdman Publishing Company
Schaff, P (n.d.) A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. The Seven Ecumenical Councils. Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdman Publishing Company.
Tanner, N. (2001). The Eucharist in the Ecumenical Councils. Gregorianum 82(1), 37-49
White, J. R. (2012). What Really Happened at Nicea?. The Christian Research Institute, Retrieved from http://www. equip. org/articles/what-really-happened-at-nicea.