But why, it will be asked, have so
many councils contradicted each other? …Roman
Catholics now believe only in councils approved by the
Vatican; and the Greek Catholics believe only in those
approved in Constantinople. Protestants deride them
Voltaire (1694-1778), Philosophical
Mainstream Churches hold that ecumenical councils embody the
true doctrine of the whole Church. Unfortunately they do not
agree about which councils are ecumenical and therefore infallible.
The Anglican Church usually recognises six :
- Nicæa (AD 325)
- Constantinople I (AD 381)
- Ephesus (AD 431)
- Chalcedon (AD 451)
- Constantinople II (AD 553)
- Constantinople III (AD 680-1)
The Eastern Churches recognise in addition a second Council
of Nicæa held in 787. The Roman Church accepts these seven
councils along with 14 of its own.
with other sources of authority, there are big problems in determining
validity. How can we know which councils were truly ecumenical
and therefore infallible as all mainstream Churches believe?
It cannot be a question of who calls the council, for it is
not even clear who has the right to convoke a valid council.
They have been convoked by all sorts of people. The most important
one ever, Nicæa, was called by a Roman emperor. He sent
out the invitations. Participants travelled under his
orders, to his council, held at a place and time of
his choosing. Later, at least in theory, it was the
patriarchs* who acted together
to convoke councils. This is rather an embarrassment to the
Roman Church, which now claims that only the Pope may convoke
It cannot be a question of who attends. Valid councils have
been held without the representation of all the patriarchs.
The bishops of Rome played a small part in the councils listed
above. In fact the First Ecumenical Council of Constantinople
was convoked solely from the East. The Pope (Damasus I) was
not even invited. No bishop of the Western Church was present
at its meetings, even as an observer. Despite this, the Roman
Church now holds that its own college of bishops may form an
infallible ecumenical council (code of canon law 749.2).
The Second Council of Nicaea, 787, from
a 9th century Greek Testament miniature.
A number of iconoclast bishops were required to grovel
for forgiveness of their heresy.
It cannot be a question of whether or not the council was convened
as an ecumenical council. The councils of Ariminum and Seleucia
held in 359 were convoked as ecumenical councils, but their
rulings on the deity of Christ failed to find universal acceptance.
For this reason they ceased to be regarded as ecumenical. Often,
grounds are found for disregarding inconvenient councils, and
their rulings can then be ignored on the grounds that they were
not ecumenical after all. This happened to a council held at
Ephesus in 449. The Fourth Ecumenical Council ( Chalcedon) in
451 reversed almost all of the decisions made by the council
at Ephesus. Now the council held at Ephesus is dismissed as
an illegal sham and is called the Robber Council because of
the level of intimidation, violence, duress and bribery used
to secure its outcome. Yet in truth it was unremarkable compared
with other councils in its level of intimidation, violence,
duress and bribery. The previous council held in Ephesus in
431, for example, was at least as bad, yet it is still regarded
as ecumenical. As so often, the forces that determined which
councils prevailed were political. There is little doubt amongst
historians that if the Emperor, Theodosius II, had not died
in 450 then the Fourth Ecumenical Council, of Chalcedon, the
following year would never have taken place, and the council
held in Ephesus in 449 would have continued to be regarded as
It cannot be a question of universal acceptance. As we have
seen the Protestant, Roman and Eastern Churches all disagree
about which councils should be counted as ecumenical. And there
are further difficulties with each of the six that they do all
accept. Each of them was rejected by sizable groups of Christians
at the time it was held, in each case causing a schism.
Sometimes, infallible ecumenical councils contradicted previous
infallible ecumenical councils in an attempt to heal a schism.
For example the decrees of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, at
Chalcedon (451), were amended by the Fifth Ecumenical Council
at Constantinople (553), with the hope of reuniting the warring
schismatic factions. Specifically, a document known as the Three
Chapters was accepted in 451 but condemned in 553.
In summary there is no clear external criterion by which a
council may be judged to be ecumenical or not. This fact is
now accepted by at least some orthodox theologians1.
As so often the practice is the opposite of the theory. Instead
of doctrine being determined by valid councils, the validity
of a council is determined by the subsequent popularity of its
rulings. The assignment of authority is thus circular, and flexible,
allowing each Church to make its own selection.
is a further problem with the councils that are accepted as
ecumenical and thus infallible. This is that their solemn statements
and requirements are routinely ignored when they cease to suit
changing fashions. Thus for example the Ecumenical Council of
Nicæa prohibited kneeling on Sundays (canon 20). Other
infallible councils prohibited the practice of bishops translating
from one See to another, and dozens of other such practices
that are now accepted without demur.
Incidentally, many Christians imagine that councils successfully
settled disputes and fixed doctrine. In fact, they often exacerbated
matters. To take an example, the most important decision of
any council was the wording of the Nicene Creed used in all
mainstream Churches. The words used today were not agreed at
the Council of Nicea - they were agreed centuries later after
several major schisms. All the Council of Nicea did was stir
up controversy. This is what Hilary, the Bishop of Poictiers,
in a well-known passage written after the Nicene Council, says:
It is a thing equally deplorable and dangerous that there
are, as many creeds as opinions among men, as many doctrines
as inclinations, and as many sources of blasphemy as there
are faults among us, because we make creeds arbitrarily and
explain them as arbitrarily. And as there is but one faith
We renounce this one faith, when we make so many different
creeds; and that diversity is the reason why we have no true
faith among us. We cannot be ignorant, that since the Council
of Nicea; we have done nothing but make creeds. And while
we fight against words, litigate about new questions, dispute
about equivocal terms, complain of authors, that every one
may make his own party triumph; while we cannot agree, while
we anathematise one another, there is hardly one that adheres
to Jesus Christ. ... Every year, nay, every moon, we make
new creeds to describe invisible mysteries; we repent of what
we have done; we defend those who repent; we anathematize
those whom we defend; we condemn either the doctrines of others
in ourselves, or our own in that of others; and, reciprocally
tearing each other to pieces, we have been the cause of each
Hilary was talking specifically about the Creed agreed at Nicea,
but his words would be equally applicable to a dozen decisions
taken by Church Councils over centuries to come.