The Ecumenical Councils - Part 1

November 21, 2008 Length: 39:19

In the first of a series, Dn. Michael introduces us to the Ecumenical Councils and their importance in Christian history and theology.





Dn. Michael: Good morning. Well, I’m excited about this class and if you read in the bulletin that we’re going to study the Seven Ecumenical Councils, I’m amazed that you’re here. Because that kind of sounds like a dusty, crusty topic, but I did that on purpose to scare off all but the really serious.

Maybe a better title for this series, this fall, would have been Keeping the Faith in a World of Religious Confusion, because that’s what it really is. We think we live in a world of religious confusion, and I think we’re going to discover that we don’t even come close to the world that existed in the first several centuries of the Church and the confusion that abounded.

And we’re going to meet up with every modern heresy. There’s nothing new under the sun. We’re going to see a lot of stuff that was there anciently that we confront today.

I first became a Christian when I was 18. I grew up in a non-Christian home, and I met Christ through a long series of events. Initially, I didn’t even really connect what had happened to me with anything in the Church. It just didn’t register. It wasn’t like I had this problem with the Church. It was just that I thought it was me and Jesus.

So I bumped into a high school friend of mine who started witnessing to me. And I was like, “I already did that. I prayed that prayer. I am a Christian.” And, understandably now, he looked at me a little bit askance, and said “Hmm, I’m not so sure about that.” And so, long story short, he came over to my home one night, and it was on a Friday night. I was living with a friend in an apartment. But he came over to my house on a Friday night. I was there with my roommate and a bunch of my friends. I had only been a Christian about two weeks.

So he knocks on the door, and there he is with his Southern Baptist pastor. And my friend was kind of my high school geek friend, and he was a nerd before that word was ever used. And the pastor was even worse. And I thought, “Oh no!” I’m sure the color drained from my face, and I kind of looked back at my friends in the living room and then back at this pastor and my friend, and I thought “What am I going to do?”

So I invited them in, and we sat down, and the room went strangely quiet. And finally this Southern Baptist pastor said, “Well Mike, Don tells me that you recently invited Jesus Christ into your heart. Tell me about that.” So that was kind of a moment of truth, a defining moment, for me as I began to share with him what had happened to me. And one by one, all my friends got up and walked out of the room and literally walked out of my life. That was the end of it.

And so this pastor took me under his wings and met with me every moment that summer to read the Scripture and to begin to memorize Scripture and to pray with him. He was discipling me. I didn’t know. I just thought all Christians did that.

As I began to read in the faith and read the Scriptures, I was really captivated by the early Church. And then I started to meet other people at college, and I had one friend who was Presbyterian. And he was very zealous, and he told me that everything I’d believed as a Baptist was wrong, and here’s where they’re wrong. And so I started reading some of the theology that he suggested, and I was really intrigued by it intellectually. It was very stimulating intellectually and so I thought that the Presbyterians were the ones who had it right.

So I helped start a Presbyterian church with a few other people back in my college town of Waco, Texas. And that lasted for a while, and I started reading more and more of this theology, and I thought, “If I could only live in the time of the Reformers. That was the Golden Age.” So I started reading, not just the second and third generation Reformers, but I went back and actually read Calvin and Luther. And I thought that was the Golden Age.

And all the people that I was reading with, we were reading all that literature. Our cadence of our language was taking on some of the stuff from the English Puritans. It was goofy. So I thought that was the Golden Age, but I kept reading and that was my downfall. Because as I read more and more and as I got more into the English Reformation, I thought “Wow! That Anglican Liturgy is incredible.” I still love it. And I thought, “This is phenomenal, and the ancient church, I think it was liturgical.”

And so I pressed it a little further. Well, then I started reading some of the people that Calvin, Luther, and some of the English Reformers and some of the Puritans quoted – some of the Ancient Fathers. And that was really my downfall, because I said, “Oh, I wonder what they believed back then.” And I had friends and you probably did too that just wanted to be the “New Testament Church” and get back to the Church of the New Testament, because that was the Golden Age of the Church. And other people, they wanted to get back to Wesley and the pristine Wesleyan Period, and that was the Golden Age of the Church.

Well what I figured out, after I got back to the Second Century and started reading the Post-Apostolic Fathers and all that they contended with, was that there’s never been a Golden Age of the Church ever, and there never will be. And really, the period of the Seven Ecumenical Councils was one of the most confusing, chaotic, and tumultuous times in the entire history of the Church. It was not a Golden Age.

And some of you may be thinking, if you’ve read some of the writings of the Orthodox theologians, that if we could just get back to Byzantium – that 1000 year period, when it was just a Christian civilization – then it would just be awesome. No, it was crazy and confusing. In fact, I would say to you that it was even more confusing then, than it is now, because there were fewer sign posts.

Think just for a minute about the Scripture. And I have a Thomas Nelson Bible with me, a little commercial there, or as we refer to it at the office, The Holy Bible. A Bible in this format, readily available to you and to me, is a very recent phenomenon – I mean like the last couple hundred years. The canon of the Scripture wasn’t really settled until the late Third Century.

And there was no printing press. That didn’t come along until Gutenberg. And lest you think that Gutenberg revolutionized everything and that suddenly Bibles were available everywhere, no. Because the printing press that Gutenberg came up with, was a very slow, movable-type thing, where you would print maybe a couple hundred Bibles a year. And those all went to the churches, and they were chained to the pulpits, and it was very hard to get your hands on the Scriptures.

And the Bible wasn’t available to lay people at a price they could afford, until Thomas Nelson and his sons invented the rotary press in the 19th Century, when. The Bible was available before that, and you could get your hands on it, but it wasn’t easy. So no Scriptures! Forget that! So now for the first several centuries, more than a millennium, you don’t have ready access to the Scriptures.

In the first few centuries, you don’t have the great Ecumenical Councils defining things, and you have all kinds of people out teaching all kinds of heresies. And some of them were bishops, and some of them were priests. And so it was very confusing to the people who lived at that time. And that’s part of what we want to talk about as we get into this.

And by the way, we are going to use Bibles and that will be a very helpful text to you. The other thing we’re going to use, and this is just background; you don’t have to buy this; this is like extra credit, The First Seven Ecumenical Councils: Their History and Theology by: Leo Donald Davis. He’s a Roman Catholic Scholar, but it’s available for sale in the bookstore. And it’s really pretty good, and it goes into a lot of detail and historical background about the Councils.

But I thought, I’d read today from 2 Corinthians 11, where St. Paul is talking about the authority he has as an Apostle. And he is talking to the Corinthians, for whom his authority was in question. And he says:

Oh, that you would bear with me in a little folly – and indeed you do bear with me. For I am jealous for you with Godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.

It’s real easy to think as we get into these Ecumenical Councils that we have to understand all of these theological nuances. And our faith can quickly become, if we’re not careful, the sort of intellectual exercise, and that’s not it. What the Councils were attempting to do was to preserve the simplicity of the Gospel. And every heresy was, to use a technical theological term, an attempt to gunk up the simplicity of the Gospel. That’s really what it was.

It was an attempt to make the Gospel somehow congruent with whatever the intellectual novelties or rationalism or the philosophy of the day. And what the Councils were was an attempt to protect the mystery and the simplicity of the Gospel. And more often they not, they did that by defining what the Gospel wasn’t and what the Doctrine of God and the Incarnation weren’t.

Even here in the New Testament, at the very beginning, St. Paul is concerned that they are going to gunk it up; that the Corinthians are making it more complicated than it needs to be; they’re getting away from the simplicity of the Gospel, and they’re turning it into something that it needs to be. Well it wasn’t just the Corinthians that had this problem, because just it happens again just one book later in the book of Galatians. Remember, this is just the First Century. Jesus had only been resurrected 20-30 years prior to this. So this is very, very early – not the Golden Age New Testament Church that is so often elevated as the icon of what we want to get back to. St. Paul says:

I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.

So there is this Satanic attack, this demonic attack, from the very beginning. And if you can’t stop the Gospel by killing Jesus, then distort it. Dial it up. Dial it down. Change it in some way so that it is not what it was intended to be. But then St. Paul says this in Galatians 1:8:

But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.

By the way, just an interesting footnote there in Galatians 1:9, the standard is what you have received. It’s the Gospel that was received that was preached everywhere and by all. That was the standard, and that was the standard that everything got measured against. What had God revealed? What had He given to the Church?

If you’ve got your Bible you can turn to Acts 15 and we’ll get to it in a minute – the first Council, the Prototypic Council. But every organization, every institution, needs a way to process conflict, and that’s also what the Councils are about.

My daughter Mary, who was here a moment ago and is teaching Sunday School for her mother downstairs, got married this summer. And I had barely healed from the wedding, and those of you who have paid for weddings know what I am talking about, when my daughter Megan (my oldest daughter) tells me that she’s in love with this guy and she wants to get married.

And I really like the guy. He’s a great kid. He lives in Colorado. That’s not too exciting to us, because this is like the first of our five children that is going to move away. So we’re not excited about that, but we’re really excited about the kid. Then I find out that they want to get married in December, so two weddings in one year. Unbelievable!

So I’m talking to my daughter, who is great. She’s very teachable. She’s 26, and she said, “Dad what advice would you give to me and to Andrew?” Rare moment. I don’t know about you, but it’s rare my kids ask me for advice. I give it all the time, but it’s rare for them to actually ask for advice. And I said, “The most important thing you can do for your marriage is learn how to fight. And I hope that you and Andrew have many fights between now and the time you get married, so that you can figure that out.”

And I remember publishing, probably about eight years ago, a book by a psychiatrist in Denver called Fighting for Your Marriage. It was a clinical psychiatrist, and in all the studies that he had done about marriage, he said that the most important determining factor in the longevity of marriage was the ability of a couple to manage conflict. If they could fight well, their marriage would survive. If they couldn’t fight well, then their marriage was as good as over.

Because here is reality, and it’s true also in the Church, conflict is inevitable. If you’re looking for a Church where there is no conflict, you’re at the wrong place. Even here at St. Ignatius, there’s conflict. And honestly now, I’ve been in this church for 22 years, and we’ve had conflict through the history of our church. And it’s relatively peaceful. This is one of the most peaceful churches I know of, and when I tell people that I’ve been in this church for 22 years it’s unbelievable to them.

Some of you I think have been here longer than that. Lisa has been here 30 years, an adolescent when she joined, but that is a long time. And I think a lot of that is that there’s peace in the church and there’s tremendously good things happening, but there’s still conflict. I hear about it. You hear about it. It’s inevitable. That’s not what’s important.

And if you’re not having conflict in your marriage, I don’t know what to say. I have conflict in my marriage, all the time. But Gail and I have figured out how to manage conflict. We have set forth for ourselves rules of engagement. In fact, a week ago Saturday, Andrew, this now fiancé of my oldest daughter Megan, flew into town, stayed with us Friday night, and he took me to breakfast at Merridee’s in downtown Franklin on Saturday morning. I’d been prepared. This was going to be “the talk.”

So we sat down, and we talked all about all kinds of theological stuff and his work. I wanted to make sure he was gainfully employed. And then I ask him to sign this release that would allow me to do the criminal background check – not really! But, he asked me the same question that Megan did. Actually he said, “Well, Megan said you said that the most important thing we can do is learn how to fight. So I just wanted to follow up, because that was unusual advice. What are the rules of engagement?”

And I thought that was a fair question on what the rules of engagement are. And as we’ll see shortly, the Ecumenical Councils had rules of engagement and how they managed conflict. And here’s what I told him.

Gail and I don’t have these written down anywhere but here’s what our rules of engagement are. First of all, we got committed to quick resolutions early. Ephesians 5:26 says, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” And we’ve tried, as much as we can. I can’t think of the last time we went to bed angry. We get it cleared up before we go to bed, or we stay up and we keep fighting. And I know that’s not always possible, but I think that’s a really important goal.

What a lot of people do is they don’t manage conflict. They suppress it and hope time will heal it. But what happens is you press it down like a beach ball underwater, and over time it just builds and builds, and then it explodes. And it erupts into divorces, terrible fights, and all kinds of things. So we tried to deal with conflict, incrementally as it occurred, so that it didn’t build up and take on a life of its own.

The second thing we’ve tried to work on is making sure that we understand the other person’s point of view. Have you ever been in a conflict where the other person talks constantly, and you’re just waiting for them to take a breath so you can interject your point of view. And the whole time they’re talking, you’re not listening to them. You’re framing your own argument. That’s not very productive. It really doesn’t do much to try to resolve the conflict. So we’ve truly tried to understand the other person’s point of view and to ask questions, instead of just making statements. We make sure that we’ve given the other person a chance to be heard. That’s very important to us as well.

And all this by the way is just a footnote to the Ecumenical Councils. Then, when we do talk, we try to avoid the words “always” and “never.” You can get in that thing where you say, “You always leave your underwear on the floor,” or “You never pick up after yourself,” or whatever it is. And so those are not very helpful words, and for starters are not usually true. So we avoid that. We try to focus on the behavior, not the person’s identity. You did this, not you are this.

So those were just a couple of things – some rules of engagement. And every organization, to survive, has to have rules of engagement. And that’s where I want us to turn to Acts 15, because here we have the very first council in the Church. Our form of government in the Orthodox Church is what we refer to as conciliar. Is it episcopal? Yes. Is it presbyterian? Yes. Is it congregational? Yes. But more than all that, it’s conciliar.

So in the Orthodox Church, we believe that there are four orders to the priesthood. There are bishops. There are priests or presbyters. There are deacons. And there are laypeople. And all four of those comprise the priesthood in the Orthodox Church. All of God’s people are priests. Do we believe in the priesthood of the believer? Absolutely. For an Ecumenical Council to be ecumenical, lay people had to be present. For an Orthodox Liturgy to be celebrated – you can find a few exceptions through the history of the Church – lay people have to be present. A priest can say a Mass by himself for it to be legitimate. There has to be the Amen of the people.

So here we have an example of a council, and I’m just going to read a little bit here from Acts 15. There was a huge controversy in the Early Church. And this always happens, and it continues to happen today, and it’s the Devil’s strategy of “If you can’t beat them, join them.” And if you can’t distort the Gospel and get people to forsake the Gospel, then just twist it. Get them to be more religious than is really required. Get them really zealous about all the external stuff so that they totally miss what’s at the center of that, what it points to. And so here in Acts 15:

And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question.

Okay, so here’s a process. We have a controversy. We’re teaching this. These guys are teaching that. How do we settle it? Well, let’s go up to Jerusalem and talk with the Apostles.

So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, describing the conversion of the Gentiles; and they caused great joy to all the brethren. And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders; and they reported all things that God had done with them. But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.”

Those guys keep showing up. They were there in the time of Jesus. They gave Him all kinds of grief. And it’s like the Terminator, they don’t die. They don’t go away. They just keep showing up. And by the way, they’re still alive today. And there are Pharisees in the Orthodox Church. I’m here to tell you. I’ve been one at times, but there are Pharisees in the Orthodox Church.

This a religious spirit, and I mean religious in the worst sense of that word – focusing on the externals without the life; as St. Paul says, “a form of Godliness, but that denies the power thereof. ” It’s not that they’re mutually exclusive – the symbols, the external things, all the rites. I’m Orthodox, I love the Liturgy. I love all of that. But if it doesn’t point us to Christ, it becomes an end in itself. It becomes demonic. Pure and simple, it becomes demonic. It becomes religion – the very thing Jesus came to war against. So some of the sect of Pharisees are teaching that they have to be circumcised.

Verse 6: “Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter.” This is conciliarity in action. There’s an assembly that’s gathered together. It’s the Apostles. Today it would be the Bishops.

And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: “Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us”

So he refers to their collective experience. Here’s what God has done in our midst. St. Peter continues in Verse 9:

“and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?”

Basically what he says here is who are we kidding? We couldn’t bear this. You can’t bear it. So why all this religious pretense? That’s another feature of Phariseeism is that so often the very people advocating it can’t keep the standard they’re advocating. Verse 11:

“But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.” Then all the multitude kept silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul declaring how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles.

So they have a process of hearing. What’s God been doing in our midst? Paul and Barnabas, who had been on the cutting edge of this movement to the Gentiles, report back. Here’s what God has been doing. God has been doing the same things He did among the Jews in Jerusalem, He did among the Gentiles.

Verse 13: “And after they had become silent, James,” who is the presiding Apostle of this council, whose job it is, as every presider at a council’s job is, is to try and forget consensus and articulate what is the consensus. And so he says:

“Men and brethren, listen to me: Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written”

And he goes on to quote a text out of the Old Testament. Verse 19: “Therefore I judge,” or I discern in the Greek. Sometimes we get the idea in Roman Catholicism that the Pope speaks ex cathedra, on his own and makes a pronouncement. But he’s not like that. He’s discerning the consensus. He says:

“I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”

Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas who was also named Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren.

And then they wrote this letter, and then they carried out to the churches. So they get together; they deliberate; they argue; they have this dispute. The word dispute is used in the text – nothing wrong with that. And we’re going to see huge disputes in the Ecumenical Councils, and these go on for years sometimes. It’s great if you can settle a small, interpersonal dispute before the sun goes down. But some of these theological things have such incredible gravity and such theological weight that it takes a long time to solve.

But they have a process. They gather people together. Different points of view are represented. The presider keeps order. He sets the agenda. He tries to forge a consensus, and when he does, it’s committed to a written document that’s disseminated out among the Church. And that’s how today, we got the Nicene Creed. The first two-thirds of it came out of the Council of Nicaea, and the last part of it, the part about the Holy Spirit, came out of the Second Ecumenical Council. And we say that to this day.

And it’s not just the Creed that was the only thing that came out of the Council. If you have that volume of the Nicene Fathers, where you can get a whole collection about what came out of the different councils, there were all kinds of canons and administrative procedures. The date of Easter was a hotly debated topic; it was a bit of an administrative thing. When are we going to celebrate Easter? Well, that came out of the First Ecumenical Council as well.

So a lot of really basic stuff, that we take for granted, was settled in a conciliar process with the Church meeting together. But they weren’t afraid to call heretics, heretics. And we’ll see as we get into this, there was a lot of controversy, a lot of heresy, a lot of stuff that will look very familiar to us because of what we experience today. Questions? Comments?

Question #1: In the period leading up to the First Ecumenical Council, the Church was illegal.

Dn. Michael: There were incredible waves of persecution happening. So it wasn’t just that Satan launched this string of heresies, but it was also the physical persecution. So it was a full-out blitz, a full-out assault, to try and snuff out the Early Church. And thank God that today in America, we don’t have that. I do think we do have a full-on spiritual assault today, but at least right now we don’t have a physical assault. So that even complicated it more. Good point.

Question #1b: One of my heroes is Constantine. And so when he comes on the scene, he makes a big change in the world. And he also brings together that First Council that tries to tidy up all those years, which I guess you’re going to deal with first before we actually get to the First Council. These heresies develop over time in the Church.

Deacon Michael Yes, I will deal with that when we get to the First Ecumenical Council. That is the historical context to the First Ecumenical Council. And it wasn’t just that there was one heresy. There was a whole raft of heresies that the First Council dealt with that developed, as you said Robert, over a couple of centuries. And they had been dealt with, some in local councils and some by various apologists of the faith, but Constantine really changed the whole thing, because he legalized Christianity essentially and convened that First Council.

Question #2: You talked about how these Early Church heresies and how they were put down by this Council, and that seems kind of contrary to what we do today where we just live and let live. At the same time, whereas a Christian, you’re supposed to be happy and loving to other people, is it not contradictory to yell and scream at them and tell them they’re going to Hell?

Dn. Michael: Well yes, I think we certainly live in a different context today than they lived in then. But I think the thing we can take out of the First Seven Ecumenical Councils is that first of all, truth matters. It matters supremely. Today, you hear people often say things like, “Just me and Jesus,” or “No creed but Christ,” and “My relationship with Christ is important. I don’t care about all these denominations.”

Well, that is a particular post-modern viewpoint that certainly in the first several centuries of the Church was not the spirit. These things really mattered, because when somebody says, “All that is important to me is Jesus,” the very next question ought to be “Well, tell me about Jesus,” because there’s all kinds of different versions or beliefs about Jesus. And people have all kinds of heretical things they can believe about Jesus, and all the Councils were trying to do was to define what that is.

But today, we don’t have that same sort of historical context. One of those is with Constantine, he had to force the empire behind him, which could legitimize the Orthodox faith in a way that we can’t do today.

Question #3: I still think it’s important that we today are living with the Scripture that is so readily available to us. So that when we do claim to have a relationship with Jesus, a lot of times we’re reading our Bibles, whereas the Ecumenical Councils and the Early Church had to meet together and had to encourage one another. And that was the Spirit. And I think that’s what God intends today to – for us to meet together and to encourage one another. But I think we tend to get away from it.

Dn. Michael: Absolutely. I think that’s true. I think that, in some ways, individual Bibles have fostered an individualism that didn’t exist in the Early Church. And we have to be careful. I’m the CEO of the largest Bible company in the world. I believe the Bible is very important. I believe that the Scriptures are inspired by God, God-breathed, all that stuff. But this book is meant to be understood in a community. It came out of a community, and it’s meant to be interpreted in the context of a community. And it was never just meant to be you and your Bible and Jesus. And unfortunately, that’s what a lot of people believe today.

Question #4: Most people talk about Tradition as a bad thing, but that would be the same people that read that Tradition every day. And your Scripture is Tradition.

Dn. Michael: Yeah, and we could look at that at another time, but this is part of the Tradition that was once for all delivered for us.

Question #5: Just to follow up on what Henry said, I think if I understood him right, I really share that confusion, because that overwhelming message that you get is to live and let live. And we have no right to judge, and that somehow makes us less Christian if we’re judging other people. And people will even quote you Scripture to back that up. “Until you perfect yourself, don’t judge anyone.”

And I think for me the challenge is that to understand what we may judge, what we should judge, and what we have no business judging. And what I tell my children, and I don’t know if this is right or not, and I hope that I’ll learn more from this, and that is we never judge the state of another person’s soul.

Dn. Michael: Absolutely! That’s right. And I would say too that the challenge to us is what St. Paul said in Ephesians 4, to speak the truth in love. These are not mutually exclusive, and you all have heard the truth spoken in hatred and you’ve heard it spoken in anger. And that doesn’t really bring people to the truth. Maybe precipitated crisis and by the grace of God, somebody comes to the truth that way.

But I think that the essence of real truth is Incarnational. It’s not intellectual. It’s not cerebral. It’s not theoretical. It’s Incarnational. And so the truth has to grip us in a way that changes our lives and that is the most compelling thing to someone else, not all the theory. So that doesn’t mean that we can have, as somebody said “sloppy agape” and never be clear on the truth. We need to be clear on the truth. We have to be both of these things together, and it really takes the grace of God to do that.