The Commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the First Six Ecumenical Councils
Commemorated on the Sunday closest to July 16
In the Ninth
Section of the Nicea-Constantinople Symbol-Creed of Faith – worked out by the
holy fathers of the First and Second Ecumenical Councils, we confess our faith
in "One, Holy, Catholico-Conciliar ("Sobornyi") and Apostolic
Church". By virtue of the Catholico-Conciliar ("Sobornyi")
nature of the Church, the All-Churchly or Ecumenical Council is the Church's
supreme facility, and possessing the plenitude, to resolve the major questions
of religious life. An Ecumenical Council is comprised of archpastors and
pastors of the Church, and representatives of all the Local Churches, from
every land of the "oikumene" (i.e. from all the whole inhabited
world, the Ecumenical/ecumenical basis of the "Universality"
("Vselennost'") of the Church is implied in the Greek word
"kath'olon", from whence the word "catholic", which
encompasses the evangelisation of the whole world).
[Trans. note: The Church Slavonic word "Sobornyi" – in English usually translated merely as "Catholic", has actually a deeper and more profound meaning than commonly understood in the West, and it reflects linguistically the Greek word "katholikos" as interpreted by Holy Tradition for Saints Cyril and Methodios. The adjective form "Sobornyi" has its word-root in "Sobor" – meaning an "assembly" or "council". The erudite might also recognise similarity with the word "Sobornost'" – a term emphasised in ecclesiology by the Russian religious-philosopher A. S. Khomyakov in the 1800's. "Sobornost'" is translated sometimes as "Catholico-Conciliarity", but often also as "Communality". This latter nuance signifies the "Catholicity" of the Church, not as a formal external quality regarding the Church as worldly institution and outward authority, but rather existing as a spiritually inward and dynamic quality within each believer. It is the Gospel that defines the locus of the Church saying: "The Kingdom of God is within you". This however does not mean the fragmenting individualism of belief often seen in Protestantism. The Church as "ekklesia" (assembly of believers) is "One" in Christ in the Apostolicity and Holiness of its faith in Christ – our own oneness is with the one authentic faith of the Holy Apostles in the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ, preserved as Holy Tradition throughout all the generations of believers. The "Communality" or "Communion in Christ Jesus" is not merely with our fellow believers in the Church in the present time, but with all the generations of the "faithful" that have gone before us. All the Four Marks of the Church – One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic – are inter-connected. The Catholicity of the Church extends universally not merely through spatiality, but also back through time – it is the "Church Triumphant" as well as the "Church Militant".]
The Orthodox Church acknowledges Seven Holy Ecumenical Councils: The First Ecumenical Council (Nicea I) (Comm. 29 May, and also movably, on 7th Sunday after Pascha) was convened in the year 325 against the heresy of Arius, in the city of Nicea in Bithynia under the holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Constantine the Great.
The Second Ecumenical Council (Constantinople I) (Comm. 22 May) was convened in the year 381 against the heresy of Macedonias, by the emperor Theodosius the Great.
The Third Ecumenical Council (Ephesus) (Comm. 9 September) – was convened in the year 431 against the heresy of Nestorius, in the city of Ephesus by the emperor Theodosius the Younger.
The Fourth Ecumenical Council (Chalcedon) (Comm. 16 July) – was convened in the year 451, against the Monophysite heresy, in the city of Chalcedon under the emperor Marcian.
The Fifth Ecumenical Council (Constnatinople II) (Comm. 25 July) – "Concerning the Three Chapters", was convened in the year 553, under the emperor Justinian the Great.
The Sixth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople III) (Comm. 23 January) – during the years 680-681, was against the Monothelite heresy, under the emperor Constantine Pogonatos.
The Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicea II) (Comm. as moveable feastday on Sunday nearest 11 October) – was convened just like the First Council, at Nicea, but in the year 787 against the Iconoclast heresy, under the emperor Constantine and his mother Irene. (Accounts about the Councils are likewise located under the days of commemoration).
The significance of a special Church veneration of the Holy Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils consists in this, that the Ecumenical Councils, and only they, are of themselves in entirety expressive of the faith, will and mind of the Ecumenical Catholic Church – of an Orthodox Plenitude, by virtue of the immutable promises of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and by the Apostolicity inhering in the hierarchy, – they possess the wherewithal to bring forth infallible and "of benefit to all" definitions in the areas of Christian faith and Church piety.
The dogmatic conciliar definitions – "orosoi" in Greek, are employed in the Orthodox Church as having an inalienable and constant authority, and such definitions always begin with the Apostolic formula: "It hath pleased the Holy Spirit and us" (Acts 15: 28).
The Ecumenical Councils were convened in the Church each time regarding a special need, in connection with the appearance of divergent opinions and heresies, so as to seek out the Orthodox Church teaching of faith and tradition. But the Holy Spirit has thus seen fit, that the dogmas – the truths of faith, immutable in their content and scope, constantly and consequently are revealed by the conciliar mind-set of the Church, and are given precision by the holy fathers within theological concepts and terms in exactly such measure, as is needed by the Church itself for its economy of salvation. The Church, in expounding its dogmas, is dealing with the concerns of a given historical moment, "not revealing everything in haste and thoughtlessly, nor indeed, ultimately hiding something" (Saint Gregory the Theologian).
A brief summary of the dogmatic theology of the First Six Ecumenical Councils is formulated and contained in the First Canon-rule of the Council of Trullo (also known as Quinisext), held in the year 692. The 318 Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council are spoken of in this Canon I of Trullo as having: "with one-mindedness of faith revealed and declared to us the oneness of essence in the three Hypstaseis-Persons of the God-original nature and, ... instructing to be worshipped – with one worship – the Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit, they cast down and dispelled the false-teaching about unequal degrees of Divinity". The 150 Holy Fathers of the Second Ecumenical Council left their mark on the theology of the Church as regards the Holy Spirit, "repudiating the teaching of Macedonias, who wanted to chop apart the Undivided Unity, such that there should not perfectly be the mystery of our hope". The 200 God-bearing Fathers of the Third Ecumenical Council expounded the teaching about "the One Christ, the Son of God Incarnate" and they confessed that "truly the God-begetter [Theotokos, Bogoroditsa, i.e. Mother of God] without seed hath given birth to Him, whilst being the Immaculate and Ever-Virgin". The point of faith of the 630 God-chosen Holy Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council promulgated "One Christ, the Son of God... glorified in two natures". The 165 God-bearing Holy Fathers of the Fifth Ecumenical Council "collectively gave anathema and repudiated Theodore of Mopsuetia, the teacher of Nestorius, and Origen, and Didymas, and Euagrios, renovators of the Hellenic teaching about the transmigration of souls and the transmutation of bodies and the impieties raised against the resurrection of the dead". The faith-confession of the 170 Holy Fathers of the Sixth Ecumenical Council "explained, that we ought to confess two natural volitions, or two wills [trans. note: the one Divine, and the other human], and two natural operations (energies) in He That hath been incarnated for the sake of our salvation, our One Lord Jesus Christ, True God".
In decisive moments of Church history, the holy Ecumenical Councils promulgated their dogmatic definitions, as trustworthy delimitations in the spiritual militancy for the purity of Orthodoxy, which will last until such time, as "all shalt come into the oneness of faith in the knowledge of the Son of God" (Eph. 4: 13). In the struggle with new heresies, the Church does not abandon its former dogmatic concepts nor replace them with some sort of new formulations. The dogmatic formulae of the Holy Ecumenical Councils need never to be superseded, they remain always contemporary to the living Tradition of the Church. Wherefore the Church proclaims:
"The faith of all in the Church of God hath been glorified by men, which were luminaries in the world, cleaving to the Word of Life, so that it be observed firmly, and that it dwell unshakably until the end of the ages, conjointly with their God-bestown writings and dogmas. We reject and we anathematise all, whom they have rejected and anathematised, as being enemies of Truth. And if anyone doth not cleave to nor admit the aforementioned pious dogmas, and doth not so think nor preach, let that one be anathema" (from Canon I of the Council of Trullo, ascribed to the Sixth Ecumenical Council).
Besides the dogmatic activity, the Holy Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils exerted great efforts towards the strengthening of churchly discipline. Local Councils promulgated their disciplinary canon-rules, as is obvious, according to the circumstances of the times and place, frequently differing among themselves in various particulars. The universal unity of the Orthodox Church required unity also in canonical practise, i.e. a conciliar deliberation and affirmation of the most important canonical norms by the fathers of the Ecumenical Councils. Thus, according to conciliar judgement, there have been accepted by the Church: 20 Canons from the First, 7 Canons from the Second, 8 Canons from the Third, and 30 Canons from the Forth, Ecumenical Councils. The Fifth and the Sixth Ecumenical Councils concerned themselves with the resolving of exclusively dogmatic questions and did not leave behind any disciplinary canon-rules. The need to establish in codified form in the Church of the customary practises over the years 451-680, and ultimately to affirm the aggregate of a canonical codex for the Orthodox Church, occasioned the convening of a special Council, the activity of which was wholly devoted to the general application of churchly rules. This was convened in the year 692. The Council "in the Imperial Palace" or "Under the Arches" (in Greek "en trullo"), came to be called the Trullo Council. They also called it the "Qunisext" [meaning the "fifth and sixth"], considering it to have completed in canonical matters the activities of the Fifth and Sixth Councils, or rather moreso – that it was simply of the Sixth Council itself, i.e. a direct continuation of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, separated by but a few years.
The Trullo Council, with its 102 Canon-rules (more than of all the Ecumenical Councils combined), had a tremendous significance in the history of the canonical theology of the Orthodox Church. It might be said, that by the fathers of this Council there was a complete compilation of the basic codex from the relevant sources for the Orthodox Church's canons. Listing through in chronological order, and having been accepted by the Church – the Canons of the Holy Apostles, and the Canons of the Holy Ecumenical and the Local Councils and the holy fathers, the Trullo Council declared: "Let no one be permitted to alter or to annul the aforementioned canons, nor in place of these put forth, or to accept others, made of spurious inscription" (2nd Canon of Trullo Council, ascribed to the Sixth Ecumenical Council).
Church canons, sanctified by the authority of the first Six Ecumenical Councils (including the rules of the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787, and likewise the Constantinople Councils of 861 and 879, which were added on later under holy Patriarch Photios), form the basis of the books of "The Rudder" or "Kormchaya Kniga" (a law‑canon codex known as "Syntagma" or "Nomokanon" of 14 titles). In its repository of grace is expressed a canonical norm, a connection to every time-period for guidance in churchly practise for all the Local Orthodox Churches.
New historical conditions can lead to the change of this or that particular external aspect of the life of the Church, which causes for it the necessity of creative canonical activity in the conciliar reasoning of the Church, as regards the inclusion of external norms of churchly life in conformity with historical circumstances. The details of canonical regulation are not at all once fleshed out into life for the various eras of churchly organisation. But amidst every push to either forsake the literal-letter of a canon or fulfill and develope it, the Church again and again turns for reasoning and guidance to the eternal legacy of the Holy Ecumenical Councils – to the impoverishable treasury of dogmatic and canonical truths.
© 1996-2001 by translator Fr. S. Janos.