The first church council in history
was held in the apostolic church to decide the conditions
under which the gentiles, that is, the non-Jews, could enter
the Christian Church. (See Acts 15.) From that time on, all
through history councils were held on every level of church
life to make important decisions. Bishops met regularly with
their priests, also called presbyters or elders, and people.
It became the practice, and even the law, very early in church
history that bishops in given regions should meet in councils
held on a regular basis.
At times in church history councils of all
of the bishops in the church were called. All the bishops were
not able to attend these councils, of course, and not all such
councils were automatically approved and accepted by the Church
in its Holy Tradition. In the Orthodox Church only such councils,
some of which were actually quite small in terms of numbers
of bishops attending, having received the universal approval
of the entire Church in all times and places. These councils
have been termed the Seven Ecumenical Councils. (see chart)
The dogmatic definitions (dogma means official
teaching) and the canon laws of the ecumenical councils are
understood to be inspired by God and to be expressive of His
will for men. Thus, they are essential sources of Orthodox Christian
Besides the seven ecumenical councils, there
are other local church councils whose decisions have also received
the approval of all Orthodox Churches in the world, and so are
considered to be genuine expressions of the Orthodox faith and
life. The decisions of these councils are mostly of a moral
or structural character. Nevertheless, they too reveal the teaching
of the Orthodox Church.
The Seven Ecumenical Councils
Nicea I:325 AD: Formulated the First Part
of the Creed, defining the divinity of the Son of God.
Constantinople I: 381 AD: Formulated the Second
Part of the Creed, defining the divinity of the Holy Spirit.
Ephesus:431 AD: Defined Christ as the
Incarnate Word of God and Mary as Theotokos.(God Bearer)
Chalcedon: 451 AD: Defined Christ as Perfect
God and Perfect Man in One Person.
Constantinople II: 553 AD: Reconfirmed the
Doctrines of the Trinity and of Christ.
Constantinople III: 680 AD: Affirmed the True
Humanity of Jesus by insisting upon the reality
of His human will
Nicea II: 787 AD: Affirmed the propriety of
icons as genuine expressions of the Christian Faith.
Father Thomas Hopko, internationally
recognized Orthodox theologian and scholar is Dean of St. Vladimir’s
Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York. His published
works include The Orthodox Faith: An Elementary Handbook on
the Orthodox Church. The Handbook has been translated into several
foreign languages including Russian, French, Arabic, Serbian,
Spanish, Finnish, Swedish, Dutch and Japanese, and is used as
a major resource on the foundations of the Orthodox faith. Other
works include Christian Spirituality: East and West,
The Spirit of God, All the Fullness of God,
The Lenten Spring, Women and the Priesthood,
The Winter Pascha, Speaking of Silence: Christian
and Buddhists on the Contemplative Way (St. Vladimir’s
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