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Part 5: Catholic Europe. Lesson 2 of 8
Lesson 27. Church Councils

Through today’s lesson, we hope you will see that Christianity always had to express itself in terms of the thought forms of its culture, will see that the precision with which the early church explained the nature of God was a precision demanded by the logic of Greek philosophy, will see that Christianity, without letting go of the insights from past encounters with culture, must continue to seek to express itself in answers to the challenges and questions of its surrounding cultures.

1.Difficult questions. Already in the early church, there were Christian intellectuals who knew a lot about Greek philosophy.  As they used the methods of logic to understand the Bible, they would ask questions like “how could we explain the way that God is three and one at the same time?”  As they compared the Greek philosophers’ ideas about God with Bible teachings, they would ask “how could Jesus really be God, because according to philosophy, God cannot suffer, but obviously Jesus suffered.”

2.Solving the problems. The believers had different opinions about how to solve these problems, so the church held several meetings to make decisions. These meetings are called the Ecumenical Councils.  (Ecumenical is defined as “including everyone.”)  This name shows that the meetings took place before the church divided into its three branches and dissimilar denominations.  Church representatives (called bishops) from all regions of the Roman Empire came together to discuss the problems and apply Biblical truths to answer them. In 325 the first ecumenical council met in a city called Nicea in Turkey to discuss the best way to explain the relationship between God the Father and God the Son.  The representatives agreed that the Bible teaches that the Father and the son are of the same substance, that is, they are both equally God.  A creed was composed to summarize the decisions of the council, and the creed was named “the Nicene Creed,” based on the name of the city where the meeting was held   In 381, at the second ecumenical council, the Nicene Creed was adopted, affirming that Father, Son and Spirit are all equally God.   The Nicene Creed also uses the word “begotten” to apply to the Son. This word is used in Psalm 2:7. Here God tells the Messiah “you are my Son, this day have I begotten you.”  The word “begotten” therefore means that the Messiah comes from God, but not in the sense of a physical birth. Nicene Creed.

3.Church Councils  .In total, there were seven ecumenical councils; the last one met in 787. The decisions reached at these councils are accepted by all in the universal church. To this day in our churches we recite the Nicene Creed, thereby signifying that our beliefs are in harmony with those of the Universal Church. The first four meetings have had the most lasting influence on Christianity around the world. Here are the dates of the meetings and the names of the cities.  All these cities are in today’s Turkey:

Number Date City Biblical statement that solved problem
1 325 Nicea Jesus is equal with God the Father
2 381 Constantinople The Holy Spirit is equal with father and son
3 431 Ephesus Jesus is God and man together in one person
4 451 Chalcedon The God and man in Jesus are two separate natures

4.Jesus equal with God. The problem discussed at the first council was that a church leader named Arius had been teaching that Jesus was not equal with God the Father, while other believers insisted that Jesus and God were equal with one another.  As a result of the meeting, based on the clear teaching of the Bible, Arius’ opinion was declared wrong.  A document was written to state the official results of the meeting clearly.  After some refinements and additions at the second council, this document received the name Nicene Creed.  The name reflects the fact that the main content was agreed upon at the city of Nicea.  The Nicene Creed uses two words, substance and person, to declare the relation between Jesus and God the Father.  The Creed says that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three “persons” who all have the same “substance.”  In short form, we now describe God as “three-in-one.”  Since the time of that council, any church that teaches that Jesus is less than God the Father has been called a “cult.”

5.Always three in one. Many people continued to defend the views of Arius, so in 381 the second ecumenical council met, and again said that Arius was wrong.  This council also refined the creed by using words which made it clear that Father, Son and Holy Spirit all exist at the same time: they do not take turns.  Since that time, any church that teaches that the Father became the Son, or that there is only one God who appears alternately as Father, Son, and Spirit, has not been accepted by the majority of Christians.

6.Using the creeds.The Nicene Creed. Many churches around the world recite the Nicene creed on Sunday mornings.  (In many protestant churches, the Apostles Creed is recited if there is no communion, and the Nicene Creed is recited if there is communion. The Nicene Creed is said at every Catholic Mass. The Apostles creed is used at baptisms.)  The creed is a reminder of the decisions made by all Christians together at those early councils.  These are beliefs that all Christians hold in common.  Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and the churches derived from Luther and Calvin acknowledge these creeds.  Independent churches and those derived from the Anabaptist tradition do not disagree with these teachings, but do not recite the creeds because they want to make clear that their beliefs are based only on the Bible, not on any human documents.  Details on Apostles Creed.  Details on Nicene Creed

7.God-nature and man-nature. In 431, the third ecumenical council was held.  The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the relationship between the God-nature and the man-nature in Jesus.  Some had said that Jesus was only God, and that his human nature was not real.  Others said that Jesus was only a man when he was born, but that later the Christ part was added.  Some Christians believed that Jesus was God and man from the moment he was conceived.  A monk named Nestorius said Christ was not the “Son of God” but rather was God living in a man named Jesus.  He felt it was wrong to call Mary the “mother of God.”  His idea makes it harder to help people have assurance of forgiveness.  Only if we believe that Jesus is God, so that we can say “God died for me on the cross,” can we have the confidence of knowing that perfect sacrifice has been made, so that our sins are completely forgiven.

8.Nestorians. The third council rejected the teachings of Nestorius.  Based on the Bible, the delegates agreed that Jesus is completely God and completely man, united so closely in one person, that it would be permissible to say “Mary is the mother of God.”  All three of the large branches accept this concept. Since the Roman emperor declared that everyone must accept the results of the meeting, the followers of Nestorius fled to Syria and Persia, so the Roman Empire would not be able to force them to accept the decision of the council.  God-nature mixed with man-nature. In 451  the fourth ecumenical council rejected another idea about Jesus.  Some were teaching that the God and man parts of Jesus were mixed together, and that in fact the man-nature was dominated by the god-nature .  The council did not agree, and promoted the use of the phrase “two natures in one person.”   In order to stop all further misunderstandings about Christ, this council made the following four points, which are called the “Four fences of Chalcedon” because they explain the limits of how to explain Christ properly.  Christ has two full and complete natures in one person.  This means that Christ’s nature “Are not mixed together; Do not change; Do not divide; Are not separated.”

9.Outside the Empire.Those that could not accept this wording fled from the Roman Empire so they could not be forced to accept the decision of the council.  These groups are called “non-Chalcedonian,” and some of them are also called “monophysites” (which means “one-nature-people). Examples of these groups are  believers in Armenia, Ethiopia, and Egypt, where they are called the “Copts.” (that is simply an older Greek way to say the word Egypt).The non-Chalcedonian groups are sometimes called “the church of the east” because they were located east of the roman Empire, in Syria.  Sometimes the word Nestorian is used about all the churches of the east. That is why the group that later entered China during the Tang dynasty around 635, called Jing Jiao in Chinese, is also called Nestorian.

10.Facing questions. These councils are an example of the fact that Christianity has always tried to answer the questions of the culture around it. If the early Christians had not studied Greek philosophy, they might never have asked questions about how to explain the faith logically, and we might never have had the creeds, which state the beliefs so clearly and firmly.  Christians have gone through this same process in other countries.  In Africa, Christians need to answer questions about shamans and spirits, and produce documents that the European Christians would never have thought of.  These documents then become useful when missionaries go into other countries that have spirit-worship.  All of us can cherish the documents from the past and take on the challenge of answering the questions of the present.

11.The Germanic tribes. Arius began to promote the idea that Jesus is less than God starting in 317; the idea was rejected by councils in 325 and 381.  However, missionaries with the false teaching had been the first to reach some of the German tribes outside the Roman empire.  The tribes adopted the false view because they thought Christianity was an improvement on their former religion, in which they worshipped many gods.  Another reason for the popularity of Arius’ ideas was that they were spread through lively songs.  This motivated church song-writers to use lively, contemporary music to spread the true teachings.  Because these Germanic tribes over-ran the European part of the Roman Empire starting in 410, a challenge for the church was to reach them and bring them to the official church position.  This breakthrough happened when in 486 the king in the area of France accepted the church’s teaching that God is 3 in 1, all equal. In 586 Spain became the last European country to accept the position that Jesus is equal with God.

12.Jehovah’s Witnesses.¹ The idea that Jesus is less than God arose again in the 19th century. In 1870 the Jehovah’s Witnesses was founded.  They teach that Jesus is less than God, similar to a very powerful angel.  They teach that Jesus was created by God, whereas the three branches of the church teach that Jesus and God the Father were not created, but have always existed.  They use their own translation of the Bible, which translates John 1:1 in a way that removes the original thought that Jesus is God.  Sometimes we do not know what to say when someone asks us “The Bible says that Jesus is God’s son; therefore Jesus is not God.”  In lesson 18, John 5:17-18 showed that when Jesus called God his father, the Jews knew he was making himself equal withGod.  According to the Hebrew language, when Jesus is called the Son of God, it is the same as saying that Jesus is God.  In the back of this book are additional verses that make clear that Jesus is God.  From the Christian standpoint, salvation by faith depends upon the fact that God has died for our sins, and so the Jehovah’s Witnesses lack assurance of salvation and are therefore very vigorous in doing good deeds to earn salvation.

13.Unitarians. The teaching that God is 3 in 1 was confirmed in 325, but at the time of the Reformation, in the 1500’s, some denied this idea. In 1553 the city government where Calvin was church-leader killed a man for teaching against the idea that God is 3 in 1.  Starting in 1579, another man had great success promoting this teaching in Poland, and set up organizations there that accepted God as one, but not as 3 in 1.  These ideas spread later to England and then to America, where a number of Congregational churches adopted this teaching in the 18thcentury.  These organizations were called “Unitarian.”  In 1825 the Unitarians formed a formal association in America, and in 1901 they combined with a group that taught that all will be saved no matter what they believe.  Together they are called the “Unitarian/Universalist Association.”

14.Jesus-only. After 1900, some church groups began to say that God is not three-in-one.  Rather, they say that only Jesus is God, that God the Father is just another name for Jesus, and that the Holy Spirit is not equal with Jesus, but simply describes the power of Jesus.  Some churches that use this “Jesus only” teaching call themselves “apostolic” churches, even though their teaching is not what the first apostles taught.  Note that all three parts of the Trinity are found in John 14:16.  Jesus, who is speaking, says, “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Counselor to be with you forever – the Spirit of Truth.”  This verse makes clear that all three parts of the Triune God are different and exist at the same time.  See details on all the councils.

15.There were three more councils held before the church split into its branches and denominations. Here are the highlights:

Number Date City Main action
5 553 Constantinople condemned Nestorius again
6 680 Constantinople condemned the idea that Jesus had two wills
7 787 Nicea declared that pictures can be respected and used in prayer, but not worshiped like God.
  1.  East/west split. Lesson one explained that the disagreements between the European church and churches in the Eastern Roman Empire led to their mutual excommunication called the “Great Schism” in 1054 . Another of those disagreements had to do with the Creed.  At the time of the schism, the two groups were still discussing a possible change in the Nicene Creed.One sentence in the creed talks about the Holy Spirit, and teaches that He “proceeds from the Father”. This creed was authorized in 381, but starting in 598 some in the west later wanted to add the words “and the Son,” in order to combat a false teaching arising in Spain that diminished the role of the Son. A leader² in the east in 864 called this idea wrong, saying that the wording of the creed should not be changed. Some leaders in the east were later willing to go along with the west on this to get help against the Ottoman Turks, but the majority in the east did not want to change the wording. This disagreement was never solved by an ecumenical council.  After the Great Schism, the west (Roman Catholics) kept the added words, and the east (Eastern Orthodox churches) kept the original version that was approved in 381. Since the Protestant Churches began by leaving the Catholic Church, they also do use the words “and the son.”
  2.  Beliefs held in common. The first seven councils are called  “the seven ecumenical councils,”  since ecumenical means “in common,” and they were the only councils held with representatives of both east and west.   At the time of the Reformation, Luther and Calvin made clear that they accepted the teachings about God and Jesus as determined by the seven ecumenical councils. They use the European version of the Nicene Creed,  and that is the version that was translated into Chinese and used in Chinese churches.  These beliefs held in common by all are today sometimes called “the great tradition.” Protestants do not however engage in the devotion toward pictures that approved at the seventh council, as is common in the orthodox church, nor do they pray to saints and Mary, as is common in Orthodox and Catholic churches.
  3. Other Councils. While the first 7 councils are accepted by all three main branches of Christianity, these 13 additional councils are accepted only by the Roman Catholic Church. The Eastern Orthodox and Protestant churches developed separately through their own meetings. Here are the highlights of some of the Roman Catholic councils:
Number Date Name Main action
10 1139 Second Lateran (in Rome) Clergy may not marry.  Confession may be made only to a priest.
12 1215 Fourth Lateran

 

 

 

In holy communion, the mechanism by which the bread changes into Christ’s body was declared to be “transsubstantiation.”.   Besides confessing sins, the long-held position that a person must also do good works to pay their “earthly penalty”  was reemphasized. All must believe that God created the world out of nothing.
16 1414-18 Constance (in Switzerland) To solve the problem of 3 popes at the same time.  To condemn early reformers (Hus and Wycliffe, explained in lesson 33.
17 1439 Florence (in Italy) Made the doctrine of purgatory official: that those who die must have further punishments for cleansing before they are admitted into heaven.  Set the number of sacraments at seven (Calvin and Luther said that only 2 sacraments. Baptism and communion, fit the definition of being instituted by Christ).
19 1545-1563 Trent
(in Italy}
The Roman Catholic church stated its differences from the Protestant churches.  For example, one sentence from this council says “if anyone says that people can be saved by grace alone,³ without good works, he is wrong.”  (This teaching was of course a primary emphasis of the Protestant Reformation.)
20 1869-1870, First Vatican Council (in Rome). This meeting declared that the pope could not make a mistake when he pronounced an official teaching on faith and morals. Some Catholics did not accept this, and formed a church called the “Old Catholic Church.”
21 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council Catholics may have wine as well as bread at communion.  Worship services must use the language that the people of a region can understand, rather than Latin.  (some Catholics could not accept this decision, and formed an independent church that still uses Latin.)  Mary proclaimed as a mediator, along with Christ. 5

See details on these 21 councils

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Footnotes: 1) originally called the Watchtower Tract and Bible Society.
2) Photius, patriarch in Constantinople in 864. Reference: Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church. This controversy can be found in reference books under the word “filioque” and under the term “double procession.”

3) The Catholics objected to the word “alone” because they feel it is more correct to say “faith working through love.”

4) The technical term is “infallibility.” The Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church explains it this way: “the pope is infallible when he defined that a doctrine concerning faith or morals was part of the deposit of Divine revelation handed down from apostolic tradition.” A key phrase is “part of the deposit.” This means that when the pope declares something that seems new to Protestants, such as that Mary was born without sin, Roman Catholics believe that this idea is not new but was given to the church right from the start, and when the pope declared them it means they were “confirmed” or “elevated to dogma.”  The  term for the  idea that Mary was kept free from the stain of original sin is called the “immaculate conception.” The Oxford dictionary says “it was a matter of dispute throughout the Middle Ages, but was generally accepted by Roman Catholics from the 16th century. It was defined (made official)  by pope Pius IX in 1854. Another declaration, that Mary ascended directly into heaven, was defined in 1950 by pope Pius XII. The technical term is “Assumption.” It had been believed by many starting in 594 AD. In the Eastern Orthodox church, the term used is “dormition。“

5) The Catechism of the Catholic Church (Dubuque:Brown-ROA 1994) begins its section about Mary on page 251. Paragraph 964 says that Mary is in union with Christ in the work of salvation and this is what her role flows from. The example given is of the suffering she felt when her Son was on the cross. Paragraph 966 says she was “exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things.”  and also that she will deliver us from death by her prayers. Paragraph 970 says that all this draws its power from Christ. In the words of the document by the pope called lumen gentium,  the titles of Mary such as mediatrix are “to be so understood that it takes nothing away from the … efficacy of Christ the on mediator. For no creature can ever be put on the same level with the incarnate Word and Redeemer.”  Mary’s influence is from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, depends entirely upon int and draws from it. As far as asking Mary to pray for us, it was explained to me by a Roman Catholic friend that we are all commanded to pray for one another, to thus be mediators for one another, not on the level of Christ but on a person’s level.      A searchable version of the entire Roman Catholic catechism is found here at the searchable catechism site.

Word List:  Begotten. In Psalm 2:7, speaking to someone who is already an adult, God says,Psalm 2:7   你 是 我 的 儿 子 , 我 今 日 生 你 。  Ecumenical Councils 大公会议 (會議)  Universal church 大公教会

 

On to next lesson               Return to church History English Menu

Footnotes: 1) originally called the Watchtower Tract and Bible Society.  21) Photius, patriarch in Constantinople in 864. Reference: Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church. This controversy can be found in reference books under the word “filioque” and under the term “double procession.”

3) The Catholics objected to the word “alone” because they feel it is more correct to say “faith working through love.”

11) The technical term is “infallibility.” The Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church explains it this way: “the pope is infallible when he defined that a doctrine concerning faith or morals was part of the deposit of Divine revelation handed down from apostolic tradition.” A key phrase is “part of the deposit.” This means that when the pope declares something that seems new to Protestants, such as that Mary was born without sin, Roman Catholics believe that this idea is not new but was given to the church right from the start, and when the pope declared them it means they were “confirmed” or “elevated to dogma.”  The  term for the  idea that Mary was kept free from the stain of original sin is called the “immaculate conception.” The Oxford dictionary says “it was a matter of dispute throughout the Middle Ages, but was generally accepted by Roman Catholics from the 16th century. It was defined (made official)  by pope Pius IX in 1854. Another declaration, that Mary ascended directly into heaven, was defined in 1950 by pope Pius XII. The technical term is “Assumption.” It had been believed by many starting in 594 AD. In the Eastern Orthodox church, the term used is “dormition。“

12) The Catechism of the Catholic Church (Dubuque:Brown-ROA 1994) begins its section about Mary on page 251. Paragraph 964 says that Mary is in union with Christ in the work of salvation and this is what her role flows from. The example given is of the suffering she felt when her Son was on the cross. Paragraph 966 says she was “exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things.”  and also that she will deliver us from death by her prayers. Paragraph 970 says that all this draws its power from Christ. In the words of the document by the pope called lumen gentium,  the titles of Mary such as mediatrix are “to be so understood that it takes nothing away from the … efficacy of Christ the on mediator. For no creature can ever be put on the same level with the incarnate Word and Redeemer.”  Mary’s influence is from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, depends entirely upon int and draws from it. As far as asking Mary to pray for us, it was explained to me by a Roman Catholic friend that we are all commanded to pray for one another, to thus be mediators for one another, not on the level of Christ but on a person’s level.      A searchable version of the entire Roman Catholic catechism is found here at the searchable catechism site.

Word List:  Begotten. In Psalm 2:7, speaking to someone who is already an adult, God says,Psalm 2:7   你 是 我 的 儿 子 , 我 今 日 生 你 。  Ecumenical Councils 大公会议 (會議)  Universal church 大公教会