Reception of the Ecumenical Councils in the Early Church

By Hiarion Alfeyev

The-Seven-Ecumenical-CouncilsThe question of the reception of the Ecumenical Councils has been widely discussed by theologians and church historians during recent decades. Following the Second Vatican Council, and because of the research on the topic of reception done through the World Council of Churches, reception has been the subject of many studies in the Western church press. These studies have revealed the following factors in the reception process:

1. Local Churches did not accept the Ecumenical Councils passively or automatically. On the contrary, the Churches had to decide on the destiny of each Council. Such questions as whether or not to accept it, whether to accept it as Ecumenical or as local, whether to accept all its decisions or only some, were left to the local Churches. The process of reception assumed an active discussion over each Council and its decisions in every local Church, and not a passive obedience to an Ecumenical Council. This is why the process of reception could sometimes be very painful, accompanied by heated disputes, disturbances, and the interference of civil authorities.

2. The reception of an Ecumenical Council presupposed not only the official promulgation of its teaching by Church authorities but also its acceptance by theologians, monks, and lay persons. The whole of the church community was involved in this process.

… As in the case of Nicea I, Chalcedon, and the rest of the so called Ecumenical Councils of the first millennium, reception takes places through a more or less complicated process. … These cases of reception of conciliar decisions by the Church were neither in fact, nor understood by the Churches to be, accomplished by a merely juridical act of acceptance by Church officials; rather, the juridical act was viewed as initiating a spiritual process of reception by the whole community.

3. In each specific case, the process of reception was twofold, involving both giving and receiving. Reception itself was in fact a consensus between the givers and receivers. A single local Church, a group of Churches, a Church party, or even a single person (such as an emperor, theologian, or bishop) could be “givers.” For example, at the first Ecumenical Council the Emperor Constantine and the party of “homoousians” became the “givers.” At the third Ecumenical Council the givers were St Cyril of Alexandria and his supporters, at the fourth Ecumenical Council Pope Leo the Great and a group of theologians that accepted his definition of faith, at the fifth Ecumenical Council Emperor Justinian. The local Churches, basing their decisions not on the authority of the “givers” but on their own theological analysis, became “receivers.”

4. The degree of each local Church’s own theological grounding influenced the process of reception of the Ecumenical Councils. Whether or not a local Church had theological movements that were in sympathy with the prevailing theology of the Council also played a significant role. And if a local Church was not familiar with a particular heresy and did not take part in combating it, the Councils decisions might have seemed irrelevant, or at least uninteresting to that Church.

5. Linguistic factors also influenced the process of reception in the local Churches. For example, not all dogmatic formulae of the Greek-speaking Churches could be translated adequately into Latin or the national languages of the East (Coptic, Ethiopian, Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, etc.). This was at the root of many misunderstandings. The difficulty in translating Greek terms hypostasis and physis into Syriac is a good example of this. The term hypostasis in Greek (particularly Cappadocian) theology came to mean the concrete person of Jesus Christ—God the Logos, while the termphysis referred to Christ s human or divine nature. But translated into Syriac this sense was lost because the Syriac term qnoma, which renders hypostasis, meant the individual realization of nature (kyana). That is why Syrian authors usually spoke of a nature and its qnoma. Thus the “monophysite” Severus of Antioch wrote that one qnoma necessarily meant one nature, while the extreme “dyophysites” proclaimed two natures having two qnome. The Chalcedonian formulation of “one qnoma—two natures” was rejected by the majority of Syrian Christians because in Syriac it sounded illogical.

6. Political factors also played an important role. Here reference can be made to the national movements against Byzantine ecclesiastical and political power in Egypt, Armenia, and Syria in the fourth to sixth centuries. “During those centuries Middle Eastern Christians who were not of Greek origin treated Chalcedonians as ‘melchites,’ ‘emperors men.’ Chalcedonian Orthodoxy tended to coincide with the cultural, liturgical and theological tradition of the Constantinopolitan Church, losing contact and communication with the ancient and respected traditions of Egypt and Syria,” says John Meyendorff.

7. Finally, there was the influence of personal factors. When the teaching of a Church hierarch became the teaching of an Ecumenical Council, theologians and bishops who were his personal enemies or disagreed with his activity tried to influence their Church’s opinion against the Councils reception. For example, the refusal of the Antiochene party to accept the decisions of the third Ecumenical Council arose primarily out of the personal disputes between Cyril of Alexandria and John of Antioch. Being dismayed by the way the Council was orchestrated by Cyril, John anathematized him and rejected the Council’s decisions. Yet after 433, when Cyril and John signed a conciliatory agreement, the Antiochenes accepted the Council. The reception of the Ecumenical Councils was thus a process that demanded time and was influenced by many different factors. The decisive point was not the Council itself but the inter-Orthodox consensus about its reception. Normally this consensus was reached after the Ecumenical Council and it was based on the decisions of local Councils.

It is also necessary to add that the reception of an Ecumenical Council itself means more than just the acceptance of its theological importance by a particular local Church. It means that the local Church must be prepared to treat this Council as its own, i.e., to include its Fathers in the dyptichs, to anathematize those whom the Council condemned as heretics, to incorporate the canonical formulations it has produced. Whether a local Church did or did not take part in the Council is not of great importance. What is important is that the local Church fully adopt and assimilate the legacy of the Ecumenical Council; only in this case can we say that reception has actually taken place.


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