The Ecumenical Councils - Part 2
Dn. Michael Hyatt · November 30, 2008
Dn. Michael continues his introduction to the Ecumenical Councils and asks the question "Why does truth matter?"
Last week we began a study on the Seven Ecumenical Councils, which I entitled Keeping the Faith in a World of Religious Confusion. And one of the points I made last week, and I think bears repeating and I think you’ll really get a sense of it this week, is that there really has never been a Golden Age of the Church. Satan has warred against the Church since its inception and created confusion and pandemonium. And the faithful have had to fight to hold onto the truth and to maintain it.
As many of you know, I work at Thomas Nelson Publishers, and in July 2000 I became the publisher of Nelson Books, which is one of our divisions. And I started getting reports that one of our authors was teaching a heresy about the doctrine of the Trinity. In fact, I heard it here at church in the coffee hour. And so first I just tried to dismiss it, because the person that was supposedly teaching this wasn’t a theologian.
This particular author was supposedly teaching this, and I let it go for a couple of weeks until the chorus of people that were saying this to me continued to mount. And finally I get a call from Christianity Today, and they want my comment on this. And I think maybe I’d better look into this a little bit further. So this person happened to reside in Nashville, so along with one of my colleagues from Thomas Nelson, I went to this person’s office and sat down. And I said:
Look what I’ve heard is that you’re teaching that the Son of God is not equal to the Father and was in fact created. And I can’t imagine somebody teaching such a thing, but I wanted to give you a chance to clear this up because I’ve got Christianity Today calling me, and I think you’ve got, in my professional estimation, 24 hours before you’re nuked. If you don’t get this cleared up, you’re going to be in deep trouble, and we are too as your publisher.
And so that was about as much as I said in the two hour meeting. And she whipped out her Bible and started to prove to me that that was in fact true – that Jesus always had subordinated Himself to the Father and was therefore inferior to the Father and was created by the Father. And of course I’m thinking to myself that this is classic Arianism and what the First Ecumenical Council dealt with.
And she went on and on, and I tried to voice an objection at one point that this is what Arius taught. This was a heresy that had been put to rest centuries ago, millennia ago. And she just went on saying that this is what the Bible teaches. The Bible is our ultimate authority. It was amazing.
So I went back to my office really distraught, because I’d only been the publisher for less than a month when this happened. And so we got a book, her next book which had just been shipped to the printer for manufacturing and I was literally 24 hours away from either stopping the presses or turning them on. Christianity Today is calling, and I have this conundrum. So the first thing I did was I asked the editor. I said, “Is there anything in the manuscript that is Arian?” He replied, “No, it’s totally clean.” Okay, good.
So then I had a theology professor, an Evangelical theology professor whom I respected, I said, “I want to get your opinion. I want you to review the manuscript. I need it in less than 24 hours.” I emailed it to him. He went through it, and he said that it was okay, but that the other emails that she’s been sending out, I reviewed those, it’s classic Arianism and she’s a heretic.
So I go into my boss, and I say that we have to pull this next book. And so he says to me, “Well is the manuscript clean? Is there heresy in it?” I said, “No the manuscript is fine, to which he replied, “Well, why can’t we just publish it?” We had an enormous investment in it, like a one million dollar investment between the royalty advance and what the manufacturing was going to cost us. And we had the investment of the prior book, which we’d also have to pull if we didn’t manufacture the new book.
So I said, “Yes the book is fine, but she’s out there actively teaching an Arian view of Christ.” And he said, “Well, the manuscript is clean. I don’t see why we have to vouch for everything she teaches.” And I said that I understood that, but there’s a sense that we’re stepping up to the mic with her every time she opens her mouth, endorsing her, and giving her a platform.
He said, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I want to pull the book?” “Well how much do we have invested? We can’t pull it.” And I said, as I watched my career dissipate in the mist, “Well then, I’m going to have to resign. I’m not trying to grandstand, just for conscience’s sake, I can’t be part of this.”
And so he said, “Whoa! Are you going to grandstand over every doctrinal issue that comes along?” This is the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation. I don’t think this is some peripheral thing that Christians can disagree over. This is what makes you Christian. If you don’t believe this stuff, and if this isn’t important, then nothing is important. And so he said that he had to think about it.
Meanwhile I go back to my office; I was downtrodden; thought probably that was the end of my career, and I’d only been doing this job for 30 days. I was hoping to have a little more longevity than that. So Sam Moore, who was the CEO of the company at the time, calls me on the phone and says, “I heard about this controversy. What do you want to do?” And I said, “I want to pull the book.” Sam replied, “What is it going to cost us?” I said, “A little over a million dollars.” He said, “Do it with my blessing,” and hangs up. That was the end of it.
So I did. And it was not easy. It was expensive, but I think it was one of those times where you just have to put all the chips in the middle of the table and say that we’re going to do the right thing and take our lumps. And I really do believe that God blessed us as a result of that. But the point is that this stuff about the Seven Ecumenical Councils, you could regard it as some old, dusty history that’s irrelevant but kind of interesting, but I’m here to tell you that it really is relevant.
These heresies are like a giant game of Whack-the-Mole, like at the fair. And I read through the history of the Seven Ecumenical Councils again this week, and it’s like every time they hit one of these moles on the head, boom it pops up over here with a slight variation. And so for eight long centuries, they’re whacking on these moles, trying to hammer out the doctrine of the Trinity, and not to invent the doctrine of the Trinity or the Incarnation, but to understand what God had revealed in Christ and to grapple with the meaning of it and particularly to define what it wasn’t. But it was like Whack-the-Mole.
So what I want to do today is I want to talk about some definitions of some key terms. And then I want to give you a quick, panoramic overview of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. I want to show you the forest before we start looking at the trees, because I think that there’s a particular perspective that you see when you see the whole thing at once. Lastly, I want to give some insights and observations that I’m going to make at the end of the class about what I think that means to us who are now living in the 21st Century, trying to be Orthodox Christians.
So just a few definitions relative to the Seven Ecumenical Councils that we’ll come across again and again as we move forward. The first term I want to define is synod. It’s not always used this way in the history of Orthodox theology, but it will help us to differentiate from council, which is a broader and general thing. A synod comes from the Greek word synodos, which means assembly or meeting. It refers to a local meeting of bishops. It can be a standing meeting that occurs annually or at some other interval. It could also be something that is called irregularly to decide an issue of doctrine, administration, or application. But more often than not, the synod refers to the standing meeting that occurs or the body of bishops as they’re gathered together in that meeting. So that is a synod.
Another term is council. This is more the irregular or a called meeting of bishops, and it’s usually broader in tenets and scope than a synod. And it’s usually called to address specific issues. So the Ecumenical Councils were councils for the purpose of resolving doctrinal conflict or administrative conflict. The reason they became an Ecumenical Council was because they were embraced by the whole Church. So at the time they were convened, the people that were participants didn’t necessarily know that they were ecumenical. That can only happen over time, as the Church embraces it.
The word ecumenical is from a Greek word that literally means inhabited. In fact, the etymology comes even more from the word house. But it was a figure of speech referring to the whole inhabited world or the Roman Empire. The Ecumenical Councils or the ones that we regard as Ecumenical, the first seven, were called by the Roman Emperor or as we’ll see in the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the Empress. They were convened from bishops all over the Roman Empire.
At the time of the First Ecumenical Council, to give this some perspective, historians estimate that there were probably 2000 bishops at least. Depending on whose count you use, Athanasius said 318 bishops attended the First Ecumenical Council. Not everybody could get there. It’s not like they could buy a ticket on Southwest and get there tomorrow. It was a major deal to have to convene in the city where the assembly was held.
But the decrees and the canons from the Ecumenical Councils were binding on the whole Church. And it’s important to understand that the Council meeting and issuing the decrees and canons, in and of itself didn’t make it ecumenical. There were many false councils in the history of the Church that claim to be ecumenical but were not in fact ecumenical.
For example, there was a council in Florence that happened I believe in the 15th or 16th Century that’s often referred to, by the Orthodox, as the False Council of Florence, which was an attempt to knit together the East and the West after the split over the Filioque. But it wasn’t embraced by the Orthodox Church, and therefore by us it was not regarded as ecumenical.
So the mere assertion of it being ecumenical has not necessarily made it ecumenical. It had to be embraced by the Church. And this is an important concept that you’ll see occur again and again in the history of the Orthodox Church is that it has to have the Amen of the people. That’s why in the Liturgy when we say Amen at the end of the priest’s exclamations, that’s not a mere formality. It’s not a just an interesting liturgical device. It’s not there just for aesthetic purposes, but it’s there for theological purposes. Because without the assent of the people, without the Amen of the people, what has been said isn’t complete. It’s not full. It’s not legitimate. And so the people have to be there to say Amen and that’s true in fact for the councils.
Another term is creed. A creed is simply a succinct statement of faith. Every word is carefully chosen; usually debated for days, but it reflects (hopefully in the legitimate creeds) the mind of the Church. And it reflects the perspective of that particular council. Probably the earliest creed, many historians believe, is the one found in 1 Corinthians 15:1-9.
Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you – unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.
For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
So that was just an affirmation of the Resurrection. There are some others in Scripture as well. Most historians agree that the Apostles’ Creed is probably the earliest written creed that we have. It was probably a baptismal creed. It was probably taught to the early catechumens. We don’t really recite that, at least to my knowledge, in the Orthodox Church. But we certainly regard it as authoritative, and it really reflects what the Church teaches. It’s just a more succinct form of the Nicene Creed, and most historians agree that the Nicene Creed really grew out of that Apostles’ Creed.
The Nicene Creed is what we as Orthodox refer to as The Creed. We don’t usually refer to it as the Nicene Creed, but just The Creed or the Symbol of Faith. The first two-thirds of that creed were written at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea. The last third pertaining to the Holy Spirit was written in Constantinople at the Second Ecumenical Council.
Has anybody ever heard of the Athanasian Creed? It really wasn’t written by Athanasius, and it’s not used in the Eastern Church. It was probably written in Gaul around 500 AD. It actually has some wonderful statements in it, but one that is not so wonderful, from our perspective, is that it has the Filioque in it. It is really one of the first places the Filioque appears in written form.
And then another creed, which I’ll quote a little bit later, was the creed that was put together at Chalcedon, the Chalcedonian Creed, at the Fourth Ecumenical Council and pertaining to the two natures of Christ and the personhood of Christ. So that’s just the term creed just to give us some perspective there.
The second to last term I want to discuss is canon. This is from the Greek word which means rule or sometimes it’s translated measure. But it’s like a rule. If you want to know that this is seven inches long you use a tape measure or a ruler to measure it. Well, that’s how a canon is in the sense of how the Early Fathers used it. It was a way of measuring whether or not something conformed to the truth.
It could mean a body of authoritative literature, for example the Canon of Scripture. This Book is the Canon. It’s that by which we measure everything else. Also have you ever noticed that when you attend Orthros that there’s always the canon and that that rotates from season to season. We have some huge books back behind the altar that have canons for every feast and every season of the Church.
And it’s a canon because it really encapsulates the meaning of the feast or the meaning of the season. And so you can listen to that. Today is the Afterfeast of the Elevation of the Cross. The hymns last night at Vespers and the hymns this morning at Orthros and the canon this morning in Orthros will relate to the Elevation of the Cross. It will give the meaning or the authoritative perspective on what that feast means.
A canon can also mean an administrative rule in the Church. There’s the Canon like of Scripture or the canon at Orthros like the meaning of the feast, but then there’s all these little canons that deal with all kinds of policies and procedures and administrative details related to the Church, like the dating of Easter.
One of the biggest things the First Ecumenical Council figured out was when was Easter going to be celebrated, because there were all kinds of things floating around. And all over the world, Christians were celebrating it at different times. Other administrative canons are who presides at a council, who should fast, when weddings should be held in the church, and all kinds of things like that.
But one distinction with the Orthodox as compared to their western counterparts, the Roman Catholics, canons for us are more guidelines not legalistic rules. You have in the Western Church canon law and canon lawyers and courts and all that stuff. You really don’t have that in the East, not to that extent.
And the final word I want to talk about by way of definition is the word heresy. It comes from the Greek word hairesis from the Greek verb which means to choose. It’s really interesting when you think about it, because you really have a choice as a Christian. You can either try to figure out everything on your own, which puts you in a position of choosing, like in a cafeteria, which teachings you’re going to embrace and which ones you’re not going to embrace.
And so the canon isn’t what the whole Church is taught – believed everywhere and by all. The canon becomes kind of what you understand. Every heresy in the history of the Church is somebody’s private opinion. It is something that somebody chose to believe, contrary to what the whole Church was teaching. And it was their opinion; their choice.
I remember when I first became Orthodox, one of the biggest doctrines that I struggled with was the doctrine of the Theotokos. There was much about it that I had a hard time embracing. And I finally got to the place where I said that I can either try and figure this out and try to understand it and wait to embrace it until I do, or I can just say that this is what the Church has taught from the beginning.
And by the way, this was explicitly embraced by the Third Ecumenical Council and referred to by Martin Luther, if you need that justification. The early Reformers even believed it, because it protected a very important truth about the nature of Christ. Was He just the son of Mary? Was He just the Christ? Or was He this child in her womb, very God of very God, so that she could said to be the God-bearer. She didn’t give birth to God in an eternal sense, but she gave birth to God in the flesh. She was truly Theotokos.
So I remember coming to this point, I could either figure it out myself with my own pea-brain, which has led me astray before (There are certain things I used to believe that I no longer believe.), so I did know that that was probably not the best canon to use. And so in my own mind, I did an adjustment of that bumper sticker, “The Church teaches it. That settles it, whether I believe it or not.” That’s the position I got to. The Church teaches it. I’m going to embrace it, and believe that I’m going to come to an understanding.
That’s kind of a Hebrew notion of truth as opposed to this rationalistic Greek notion of truth, where I’m going to figure it all out and then I’m going to embrace it. What David says in the Psalms is, “A good understanding have all those who believe.” You believe, and then you know in an Orthodox sense. I may have read this last week, but this is an important verse for us who are in the Orthodox tradition. St. Peter says this in 2 Peter 1:20-21:
Knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.
The Scriptures came out of the Church as men were moved by the Holy Spirit. The Word of God was a product of the Holy Spirit impregnating the Virgin Mary, and we had Jesus the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity. Well in much the same way, the Holy Spirit moved in these prophets of old; impregnated them and out of that came the Word of God. And that Word is intended to be interpreted and to be understood in a community. It was given in the context of a community and it’s to be understood in the context of a community.
So there’s not this American traditionalism or individualism in the history of the Church, where it’s just me, the Holy Spirit, and my Bible and I’ll figure it out. Actually, that is a recipe for disaster. If you want to end up in heresy, just do that. Just get alone with the Bible and the Holy Spirit and never refer what you’re thinking to any larger body of Christians.
Now that doesn’t mean that getting alone with God is a bad thing or that we should be afraid to read the Bible or interpret it. I’m not saying that at all. Reading the Scriptures should be the daily practice of Orthodox Christians. This book came out of our Church and we ought to embrace it first among Christians, read it, make it a part of our lives, and attempt to live it. But it should always be referred to the larger body of the Church. If we think we understand something, then we should take that to the Church and submit it to what the Church has taught.
So there are many layers of authority in the Church. There is certainly the Scripture. But to understand the Scripture, we have the Ecumenical Councils that can keep us from going astray. We have the Liturgy and the Hymnography of the Church, which can further help to elucidate the Scriptures and understand. In fact, usually when I’m trying to understand the Scriptures, one of the first things that I ask is “Where is this text used in the Liturgical life of the Church, if it’s used at all?” Because that sometimes will help us to understand what it’s meaning is? Then, you also have the canons and the writings of the Fathers. All these things can be a protective cloud of witnesses that help us to understand the Scriptures.
Let’s do a quick overview of the Councils. And this isn’t to be exhaustive, it’s just, if you want to go on a trip then you want to look at a map, that’s kind of what this is. It’s to help you see the forest before we start looking at the trees. To put it in historical context, the Edict of Milan, where Christianity was legalized by decree of the Emperor Constantine, was in 313.
The First Council was convened by Constantine in 325, so twelve years later, and it was convened in Nicaea. It was attended by 318 bishops, about 1500 to 2000 priests and deacons, and a bunch of assorted lay people. So it was a fairly large assembly. And the fascinating thing is to read the account of these guys arriving, because there were those that had legs that had been cut off in the persecutions, tongues cut out, eyes poked out, and hobbling to get to this First Ecumenical Council. But we’ll get into more of that next week as we get into this Council.
The primary reason that it was convened was to deal with the teaching of Arius, who taught that there was a time when the Son of God was not, so that the Son of God was created. This Council wrote the first two-thirds of the Creed that we will recite later this morning. They also set the date of Easter, because there were all kinds of dates being used in celebration of Easter, and it was creating a lot of confusion in the Church. And so the First Ecumenical Council decided that it would be important to settle on the date of Easter, which we still follow to this day.
It also discussed the status of lapsed Christians and those who had been baptized by heretics. These were real practical issues. If you had people that had been baptized by those that are now considered heretics, like Arius after the Council made its decree, what happens to those people? Is the baptism legitimate or not legitimate? Do they have to be re-baptized or not?
What about the people that fell away during the persecution and denied Christ? Do they have to be re-baptized? Do they have to be chrismated? Can they be accepted after making confession to a priest? These were really practical, nuts and bolts, issues, so that the Church could speak with one voice on these matters. There’s a lot more to it, but again we’re just hitting the treetops here. That was the First Ecumenical Council.
The Second Ecumenical Council was called in 381 by Theodosius I, and it was convened in Constantinople. It confirmed the Nicene Creed, and it added the last third of the Creed, which begins, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life.” And it condemned a particular teaching that denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. The guys that were teaching this, if you want the technical term, were called Pneumatomachians, which I think means “the fighters against the Holy Spirit.”
But these guys believed the Holy Spirit was just an influence of the Father, just the invisible presence of the Father. They were anti-Trinitarian in that sense. By the way, this teacher that I told you about when I began the class, the Thomas Nelson author that I had to confront, this is what she believed was that the Holy Spirit wasn’t really a person. It was just another way of personifying the Father.
This Council also condemned a heresy called Apollinarianism, which said that Jesus had a human body, but He had a divine soul. So that’s how they got into the Incarnation. He wasn’t fully God and fully man. He just had a human body, kind of like a capsule in which He carried the Divine mind. So you’ll see that reoccurring in the history of the Church. And it also prohibited the changing of the Creed without another Great Council. So that was the Second Council.
The Third Council, the Council of Ephesus, was convened by the Emperor Theodosius II in 431. And this condemned another distortion of the doctrine of Christ called Nestorianism. And what this view said basically was that Jesus existed in two persons. There was the man Jesus, and then there was the divine Son of God. So you’ve got these two persons rattling around in one entity.
This Council also affirmed the title Theotokos that Mary was not merely the Mother of Jesus; she was the Mother of God. Do you all understand that? Some well-meaning theologians, who are usually railing against Roman Catholicism, will say, “Well if you say Mother of God, it’s as if Mary created God.” Well, that’s not what we’re saying at all. It’s stupid. Obviously, we don’t believe that. Mary didn’t give birth to God eternally. What she did was give birth to very God, the Son of God, in time.
And you’ll find this distinction in the history of Orthodox theology, where there is the ontological Trinity and the economical Trinity. The Trinity as it exists in and to itself, the Three Persons of the Trinity, consubstantial, coequal, coeternal, all those things we say in the Liturgy. The Son in the Ontological Trinity is not subordinate to the Father. He is eternally begotten of the Father, but He is not subordinate to the Father.
But as the Trinity manifests itself in time in this world, there’s a certain economy to it; a certain order to it. For example, Jesus is subordinate, in time, to the Father. He came to do the will of the Father. And you find all that language particularly in the Gospel of John. But what is not true is that you can’t throw that back in time and say that He was always subordinate to the Father and that He was a created being of the Father. This is what Arius did, and this is not true.
So Theotokos, right there in the Third Ecumenical Council, when we say that in the Liturgy, it’s not something that came out of medieval Christianity. It’s not a result of Mary worship. It has nothing to do with that. It has to do with giving honor to the person who gave birth to very God of very God. It really was a title that was designed to protect the true understanding of the Incarnation.
The other thing the Council of Ephesus did was it condemned Pelagianism. Pelagius was a teacher that believed that original sin did not pass from Adam and Eve; didn’t taint human nature. And really because of that, we’re free of the effects of sin and so we can essentially save ourselves, making Jesus optional. And the Third Council condemned that. Christ came to save us.
And we do understand original sin differently from the West. We understand it as original pollution, but not original guilt. In other words, I don’t have liability and culpability for Adam’s sin that I have to account for. But I have the effect of it, that’s transmitted to me, so that I am born into the world in sin. And I have to contend with all the effects of sin. But that whole guilt passing thing was a particular notion in the Western Church that the East never contemplated, and most of that came from Augustine. So that’s the Third Ecumenical Council.
The Fourth Council of Chalcedon was a critically important council, which whacked the big mole, to use the metaphor, and really stated the Orthodox understanding of the Incarnation once and for all. I’m going to read a part of it to you in a second. It was convened by the Emperor Marcian in 451.
It condemned the teachings of a man named Eutyches. It was a belief that said Jesus only had one nature, and here’s what it taught: Jesus was born as a man, and as his human nature fully developed, then added to it at a particular time was the divine nature. And then they were fused into a separate nature that was superhuman. It was like Jesus was the original X-Man who had all these special powers and wasn’t really human. He was more than human. He didn’t have a fully human nature. And so the human nature was essentially obliterated.
This council wrote the Chalcedonian Creed, and I want to quote part of it to you.
Following the holy Fathers, we unanimously teach and confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Divinity and perfect in humanity; the same truly God and truly man, composed of rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father as to his Divinity, consubstantial with us in our humanity.
That last part was the key part, given the teachings of the Eutychians. So when we speak of the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father, He’s also in His human nature, consubstantial with us, “like us in all things but sin.”
He was begotten from the Father before all ages as to his Divinity, and in these last days, for us and for our salvation, was born as to his humanity of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. We confess that one and the same Christ, Lord, and only-begotten Son, is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation. The distinction between natures was never abolished by their union, but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person and one hypostasis.
So they’re trying to articulate the faith, in a certain philosophical and historical context, against these heresies, which are always trying to rationalize them and make this great mystery of the Incarnation more palatable to the human mind. And so rationalism would say, “Pick one. He can’t be fully God and fully man. He can be one or the other or a combination of the two, but He can’t be one and at the same time be fully God and fully man.” That’s a mystery which the human mind has a hard time with.
And part of why God reveals Himself in mystery, I think, and part of what we have to acknowledge in humility is that our human brains can’t comprehend all of this stuff. We can circumscribe the mystery, and we can protect it, but we have to embrace it as revealed without alteration.
So much of the work of the Ecumenical Councils was not an attempt to reformulate or to take the revelation further than it was given, but to protect it from the rationalizing effect of humans who wanted one without the other. It’s like the doctrine of the Trinity. Pick one. Is the Trinity three or is it one? And in a sense, as Orthodox Christians, we say that it’s one and three at the same time. One God as to His essence or His nature and three Persons eternally coexistent. And we can embrace one of those and have people say that it’s not rationally consistent, it’s okay. It’s what it was revealed to be. It’s in a sense super-rational. It transcends our ability to understand it, and that’s part of the mystery.
And whenever you try to go with rationalism, you’re going to end up falling off the ditch on one side or the other. You’ll be like the heretics that want to protect his divinity and don’t let Christ become fully human or protect His humanity and don’t acknowledge He’s fully God. And either one of those our error, and we have to hold both at the same time.
And you’ll notice that in the Church, liturgically, everything just about supports or reinforces the doctrine of the Trinity or the doctrine of the Incarnation. Even the way we hold our hands when we cross ourselves reinforces the doctrine of the Trinity or the Incarnation. Everything is three or two and refers back to that again and again. So that was the Fourth Ecumenical Council.
These last ones go pretty quickly, because they are just the moles that popped up because of Chalcedon. The Fifth Ecumenical Council, convened by the Emperor Justinian in 553, condemned Monophysitism, which was kind of the resurgence of Apollinarianism and Eutychianism that had appeared previously. But the idea is that He has one nature, not two. And so it was an attempt again to be logically consistent, and they whacked it in the Fifth Ecumenical Council.
The Sixth Ecumenical Council, the heretics said that He had two natures but He didn’t have two will but one will. Those guys were called the Monothelites, mono meaning one and the Greek word for will. The Fathers of the Sixth Ecumenical Council said whatever is not assumed, speaking of our human nature, is not healed. So if Christ didn’t have a real human will, then our human will is not healed. It can’t be redeemed. And I don’t know about yours, but mine needs redemption. My will needs help. It needs saved.
And then the Seventh Ecumenical Council. And I don’t want this to be a polemic against Protestants, and if I’m doing this, it’s only for the purpose of illustration. But it’s amazing to me how many Protestants say they believe in the Seven Ecumenical Councils, but when you start unpacking the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which dealt with iconoclasm and the use of images in the Church, they go nuclear. They have a hard time with that, or they’re certain symbols that they will accept but others that they won’t.
They don’t mind having an image of the cross, and they certainly don’t mind having the image of the pastor up on JumboTrons, but anybody that lived before is not eligible for that. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
There is a great Creed that we recite that comes out of the Seventh Ecumenical Council that I love. It’s an affirmation, but we recite it at the Sunday of Orthodoxy at Vespers. But they also were very careful to distinguish between worship and veneration. And St. John of Damascus wrote that great little booklet called On the Divine Images, which if you’re having any trouble struggling with the use of images in worship; he differentiates between worship and veneration, proves the point Biblically, and relates it all to the Incarnation.
That was the whole issue. If Christ had come in the flesh, if he was really truly human, then He could be depicted. And so the Council said:
As the sacred and life-giving cross is everywhere set up as a symbol, so also should the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the holy angels, as well as those of the saints and other pious and holy men be embodied in the manufacture of sacred vessels, tapestries, vestments, etc., and exhibited on the walls of churches, in the homes, and in all conspicuous places, by the roadside and everywhere, to be revered by all who might see them.
Wow! Just several quick observations. I said earlier there was no Golden Age in the history of the Church, and I think you can see this. And if you really read the history behind these, you’ll see that for sure. But the first observation I want to make about all these is that truth matters. We live in an age where truth doesn’t really matter; where how you feel about something is the important thing; whether you’re sincere or passionate.
But there is not any objective standard of truth. And I would say that traditionally for most of the history of the Church, there was this truth that truth was both objective, (it exists apart from our perception of it) but it’s also personal. It’s not just out there in some sort of static form that has nothing to do with us, but the truth, supremely revealed in Jesus Christ, is very personal. And it was meant to be embraced by us personally.
Then, we got to the modern view of truth, Post-Renaissance, where it was just some objective thing out there. And then in the post-Modern view, it’s something personal but not objective. If it’s true for you or works for you, great, but there’s not this sense of an all-encompassing objective truth that’s true whether or not I perceive it to be true. So truth matters; that’s the first thing I think we can see in the history of the Councils. And words matter and beliefs matter. These Fathers fought with the heretics, sometimes over a single word. And it really did matter.
The second observation I’d like to make is that spiritual warfare is real. It’s intense. It’s protracted. And it’s very significant. It’s not this trivial stuff, but it’s like Satan goes on an all out warfare against the Church. And if he can’t snuff it out through persecution, he will snuff it out through confusion. It matters everywhere; happens everywhere, and there’s no way to explain what’s happening in the Church.
You’ve got emperors who sat in on Ecumenical Councils who reversed themselves. Even Constantine, after he had convened the First Council, starts to waffle a little bit later on the doctrine of Arianism. So this is hard-fought, hard-won, tough stuff that has to do with spiritual influences and forces.
And the third thing that I would say is that the thing that we can get from all this when we read the history of the Church and our role is probably more significant than you think. The decisions that you and I make in the warp and woof of life about doctrinal issues and what we’re going to believe and stand for will affect people for succeeding generations – people who have yet to come into the Church, our family members, and others.
And the thing that I got again and again as I was reading back through the Seven Ecumenical Councils this week was that truth often hangs by a thread. It often looks like all is about to be lost. Have you ever heard the phrase Athanasius contra mundum, Athanasius against the world? At one point, it looked like he was standing against the whole world, which had gone Arian.
Truth hangs by a thread, and it usually comes down to a handful of people who are willing to trust God, do the right thing, and let the chips fall where they may. Have any of you ever heard of David Wilcox the singer and songwriter? He’s one of my favorites. He’s got a song called Show the Way, and I’m just going to finish with this, because I think he gets a sense of this big story. He’s not talking about the Ecumenical Councils, obviously, but it’s still poignant. He says:
You say you see no hope, you say you see no reason
We should dream that the world would ever change
You’re saying love is foolish to believe
‘Cause there’ll always be some crazy with an Army or a Knife
To wake you from your day dream, put the fear back in your life…
Look, if someone wrote a play just to glorify
What’s stronger than hate, would they not arrange the stage
To look as if the hero came too late he’s almost in defeat
It’s looking like the Evil side will win, so on the Edge
Of every seat, from the moment that the whole thing begins
Love who makes the mortar
And it’s love who stacked these stones
And it’s love who made the stage here
Although it looks like we’re alone
That’s it. God sets the stage. He creates all of this, because there’s this cosmic battle going on. But God is continually in control, and we’ll see that good ends up winning out.