In early church history, an ecumenical council was a meeting of the bishops of the whole church convened to discuss and settle matters of Church doctrine and practice.

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 (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 the first seven ecumenical councils

Only the first seven councils are summarized here as these have the most relevance to Protestant Christianity. Other subsequent councils are of particular interest only to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

  1. First Council of Nicaea, (325): affirmed that Jesus is truly God and equal to the Father; repudiated Arianism, adopted the Nicene Creed.
  2. First Council of Constantinople, (381): affirmed that Jesus was perfectly man against the Apollinarians; revised the Nicene Creed into its present form which is used in the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches; prohibited any further alteration of the Creed without the assent of an Ecumenical Council.
  3. Council of Ephesus, (431): affirmed that Jesus is one person against Nestorianism; proclaimed the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God, and also condemned Pelagianism.
  4. Council of Chalcedon, (451): affirmed that in Jesus there are two distinct natures in one person that are hypostatically united "without confusion, change, division or separation"; repudiated the Eutychianism and Monophysitism; adopted the Chalcedonian Creed.
  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, (680–681): asserted that Jesus had both a divine and human will; repudiated Monothelitism.
  7. Second Council of Nicaea, (787); restoration of the veneration of icons and end of the first iconoclasm. It is rejected by some Protestant denominations, who instead prefer the Council of Hieria (754), which had also described itself as the Seventh Ecumenical Council and had condemned the veneration of icons.

Protestantism and the seven ecumenical councils

Many Protestants (especially those belonging to the magisterial traditions, such as Lutheranism and Anglicanism) accept the teachings of the first seven councils, but do not ascribe to the councils themselves the same authority as Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox do. Supporters of the councils contend that they did not create new doctrines but merely elucidated doctrines already in Scripture that had been misinterpreted by heretics. The primary value of these early ecumenical councils is their documentation of the early consensus of doctrines regarding the nature of Christ and the Godhead.

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