What is an Ecumenical Council?

by Hilarion Alfeyev

the-fifth-ecumenical-councilFirst of all it must be made clear that the Ecumenical Council should not be regarded as the highest authority in the Church. During the three centuries which preceded the first Ecumenical Council (325) the Church did not have Ecumenical Councils. Furthermore, since the seventh Ecumenical Council (787) the Church has existed without Ecumenical Councils. The highest legislative and executive authority in each local Church belongs to the local Council of that Church in the time period between such Councils this authority is held by the official head of the Church (Patriarch, Metropolitan or Archbishop) and its Synod. Each local Church is independent and self-governed. The Ecumenical Council can therefore become an inter-Orthodox forum to coordinate activities of the autocephalous Churches, but at the present time such an institution does not exist and Churches make their decisions independently: heads of Churches inform each other about decisions taken, and the coordination of Church activity on the inter-Orthodox level generally takes place through an exchange of letters.

Secondly, at no time did Ecumenical Councils constitute the highest authority of the Church. Their main role in the fourth to eighth centuries was to refute heresies that disturbed orthodox oikoumene (universe) from time to time. Some Ecumenical Councils also produced canonical (disciplinary) rules that where necessary at that particular time. But it is quite misleading to say that the Orthodox Church of the fourth to eighth centuries lived from Council to Council. Each local Church settled its own day-to-day agenda at the local level. The decisions of Ecumenical Councils were not binding to the Churches until approved by their own local Councils. Thus very often the local Council of an individual Church and not an Ecumenical Council became the highest authority in addressing the main questions of the Church’s life and theology. Of course, positions and opinions of the other Churches were taken into account, but insofar as they did not contradict the position of that individual Church.

Thirdly, Ecumenical Councils were not “ecumenical” in the literal sense of that word. In those days the term oikoumene generally referred to the Byzantine empire; Churches outside of the Byzantine world did not normally take part in Ecumenical Councils, and those Councils did not have much impact on them. A Church that did not take part in an Ecumenical Council could, however, express its own attitude to it at its own local Council, and affirm or reject the decisions taken on the ecumenical level. Therefore, although Ecumenical Councils had an inter-Orthodox character, not all local Churches accepted them immediately. The definitions of the Ecumenical Councils began with the formula “It was pleasing to the Holy Spirit and to us” (cf. Acts 15:28), pointing to the cooperation (synergia) between the Holy Spirit and humans in producing dogmatic definitions. In no case is it really possible to determine where the activity of the Holy Spirit ends and that of human reason begins. However, one thing is obvious: the dogmatic definitions were composed by humans and with the help of human language. Theologians made certain proposals and then participants of the Ecumenical Council agreed or disagreed with them. It is also obvious that the dogmatic formulations dealt with mysteries that could not be easily expressed in human words. The essence of the dogmas belongs to the realm of the divine while it is humans who have to search for adequate expressions. The same dogma can therefore be expressed in different words.

For example, the dogma of Christ as both God and Man was expressed differently at the third and fourth Ecumenical Councils. The third Ecumenical Council spoke of “one nature” of God the Logos after God s nature was united with human nature in the person of Christ, while the fourth Council spoke of “two natures,” which retained their main characteristics in the person of Christ.

As Sebastian Brock puts it:

For both these poles of the Christological spectrum, Christ was fully God and fully Man, of one substance with the Father and with mankind. But because of different conceptual models of Christ s saving mankind, they inevitably brought forth two different Christological formulas which at first glance appear to contradict each other but in fact seek to explain the same inexpressible mystery from different points of view.


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