Tracing the development of Christianity thousands of years ago demonstrates a journey that was as varied and as rife with controversy, confusion and integrity as developing democracy in America. In examining this multi-faceted and a times nebulous process, greater insight into modern-day Christianity can more easily be gained. The seven ecumenical councils of the early Church had clear positions regarding Jesus Christ within the evolving Trinitarian theology of the era. These seven councils occurred between the years of 325 and 787 in Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon (Need, xiii). These councils were made up of leaders and men of influence within the church, such as bishops that were summoned by the emperor of the time in order to help illuminate certain confusions within Christianity and the greater theology that shaped Christianity (Need, xiii). It was through these councils, emperors and other leaders of the time believed, that a greater sense of unity could be given to the Church. In this case, ecumenical refers to of the whole lived in world and even the term gives a sense to how so much of the Roman world had become emperors under Constantine: there was perhaps an overwhelming sense of primacy of the Christian religion and its dominance and its importance. One can truly trace the development of theology and of Christ through the decisions and conclusions made by these ecumenical councils. These councils helped to develop much of the vocabulary that has been harnessed when referring to Christ. Thus the greater knowledge a scholar has of the inner workings of these councils, the deeper understanding one will have of the intermingling of the human and divine nature of Christ.
The first council occurred in Nicaea in 325. This council was largely motivated by Constantine who desired to harness the power of the quickly growing religion as a means of fortifying the Roman Empire (usislam.org). Constantine essentially believed that the lack of unity within the church was a source of lack of stability for the greater kingdom as a whole. Constantine architected this council, assembling 318 bishops, a decision motivated by political and military means (Elsaie, 150). He claimed that he saw a vision of the Cross in the middle of the sun, his god before converting to Christianity in his last day. Even the bishops had no illusion about that, for not only did the Emperor preside over the Council, he also proclaimed that his will was a divine law (Elsaie, 150). This meant that the emperor was viewed as a Universal Bishop, even though he had no knowledge of Jesus teachings. During this council, only a minority of the Bishops believed Athanasius? perspective of Christ (usislam.org). However, Athanasius harnessed his powerful talents of argument to impact his theology on the bishops and get almost all of them to sign the following creed: “the Creator, God the father, and the Redeemer, Son of God, were of the same nature, and that Jesus is the only begotten of the father” (Elsaie, 150). This became a truly crucial tenet of later Christianity, and is something, which is credited as forcing the religion to the next level.
The second council occurred within Constantinople, and was able to use the findings of the first council as a springboard. The first council essentially asserted the overall duality of God (usislam.org). This foundation was ripe for expansion to the Holy Trinity that is sacred in Christianity today. It was the emperor Theodosius who was responsible for forcing this second council to convene. This emperor was a tyrant and caused a tremendous amount of suffering in his kingdom, despite the fact that he made Christianity the state religion. This leader ensured that the poor were kept in a state of intolerable poverty, and that all citizens were afflicted with . He was merciless and denied all of the inhabitants of his kingdom refuge. His oppressive regime knew no boundaries: In the year 390, he had seven thousand rebellious citizens murdered in a ; at the same time the “Halleluiah” came to be used in the Christian churches (Elsaie, 152). However, the notion of the holy trinity with God the father, the son and the holy spirit were introduced during this regime and accepted as part of the official church belief system. Hence via the acknowledgement of the Nicene Creed the council agreed to encompass the recognition and worship of the holy spirit, along side the father and son (Elsaie, 152). This Holy Spirit was viewed to be made of the same material as the other branches of God. This is part of the church dogma that still exists in a rather steadfast manner today.
This was so momentous because discord and disagreements about the trinity can sometimes seem to be as old as Christianity itself. We can easily see how disputes could arise about the Trinity, who persons appear in the opening verses of the earliest piece of Christian literature, Pauls first epistle to the Thessalonians (1:1-5) (Kelly, 19). Hence, the ability to finally reach a consensus about this and to be able to put this issue to rest represented firm and definite progress in this regard. It represents an ability of philosophical expansion.
As a result of the fact that this second council was able to establish a certain level of stability of belief via the Holy Trinity, this created the opportunity for the third council to more readily engage in expansion. The third council enabled the transition of the shift of attention from the holy trinity to the holy trinity to the character of Christ. The third council pondered the humanity of Christ and how his humanity could coexist with his divinity and how all the factors of the holy trinity actually could be one and the same. Hence, this created a range of difficult questions and overall conundrums about the issue. Thus, the Virgin Mary was brought into the equation. Via this council, the Virgin Mary was then viewed as the official bearer of God, or the mother of God. The council stated that what Mary bore, was not a human closely united with God, but a single and undivided entity who is God and man at the same time (Elsaie, 153). However, this definition caused much controversy within the church, as they felt it made a distinction between Jesus the divine and Jesus the human. This council caused a long-term division between Christianity in the east versus west, with the Christians living east of Syria and Mesopotamia feeling as though they were unable to sign off on that definition of Mary (usislam.org). Similarly in the West, they felt the Church of the East had created two separate beings out of Christ (Elsaie, 153).
The fourth council occurred in 452 in Chalcedon and was commenced by the Byzantine emperor Marcianus, though technically run by the maiden Pulcheria his wife, who was in better communication and understanding of what the bishops wanted (usislam.org). Pope Leo I initiated the dogmatic formula that Jesus had two natures. The council proclaimed the doctrine that divine and human nature are inseparably united in the person Jesus. This was an attempt to compromise and strike a balance between the Alexandrine and Antiochene approaches, allowing for both the diversity and the unity within the incarnate Christ (usislam.org). Essentially during this council it became next to impossible to reach an agreement regarding the dual nature of Christ. For example, in Alexandira they were willing to believe that Christ was evoked from two natures, but not that he was present within two natures: it was a slight distinction but it caused an enormous amount of controversy (Elsaie, 154). To this day, the Chalcedon creed believed in the two natures of Christ. However, the council gave the unity of the doctrine over to the authority of the Pope, who could assert his authority when he deemed (usislam.org). These roots demonstrate the overall religious power of Rome over so many for centuries to come (Elsaie, 154).
The East Roman emperor Justinian I commenced the fifth council. The bishops that made up this council did have the same level of authority or responsibility as others, as so much that came before this council had been put into place by imperial decrees and legislation (usislam.org). Hence some scholars refer to the fifth council as the council of acclamation as they were more for optics rather than for actual dogma shaping or legislation. This council also evolved during the time when there were harsh punishments for dissenters, as anyone who denied the teachings of the Christian doctrine was subject to savage punishment or murder (usislam.org). Roman law enforcement sought out to find all dissenters and they were all subjected to accept Christianity by force (usislam.org). Like all the councils that had come before it, this council expanded on the previous teachings and belief systems. Just as an earlier council assert the birth of God, this council asserted that Christ died, and received crucifixion when he was human (in flesh) (Elsaie, 155). While acceptance of these doctrines was strictly enforced, there was also a condemnation of all critical examinations of the Bible, as such critical analyses could invoked skepticism, which is what the church did not want and would not stand for.
The sixth council of Constantinople in 680 continued to explore the identity of Jesus and to further discuss the duality that was inherent in God the son. As one could imagine a host of questions were provoked from this discussion. For example, if Jesus had two natures, perhaps here were two wills? (usislam.org) If he was also human did he have ? (usislam.org). Expanding on the previous councils, the sixth council finally decided that Jesus had two wills: a divine will and a mortal will (Elsaie, 156). This consensus really did represent a level of compromise between the vigorously opposing viewpoints. It represented a level of agreement that helped move the dogma forward to further discussion, as both factions were able to agree that Christ was both absolutely otherworldly and divine as well as completely mortal (usislam.org).
The seventh council occurred in 787 in Nicaea and mainly dealt with the disagreements regarding the use and worship of idols and icons. Icons generally depict images from Christianity such as Jesus, Angels or the Virgin Mary, and can take a host of forms from paintings to tapestries to mosaics within Cathedrals. The first controversy surrounding icons occurred in 726 and lasted several decades and was concluded by Empress Irene who argued that it was theologically sound to depict all these Christian images in the form of icons (usislam.org). The mentality here is that one is worshiping not the icon, not the actual painting but the idea behind it. Later in 843 Empress Theodora ordered the restoration of all the icons (usislam.org). This seventh council finally transformed the monotheistic religion of Jesus Christ to a polytheistic and pagan religion (usislam.org). This council still designated that only God could receive adoration and worship (Schmeling, 9). Icons were because they just represent a tool for funneling ones sense of veneration. This icons were just meant as a means of transferring ones prayers through the picture or statue of the saint or angel, not to the picture of the angel or saint (Schmeling, 9).
Examining the evolution of Christian dogma through these councils can help illuminate the ways in which Christ and Christian philosophy and beliefs have developed over time. Studying the council both gives one a sense of how tyrannical and powerful the Church has been over time and how it has been able to wield so much influence over the history of mankind and of western civilization. So much of the perspectives of Christian dogma was interpreted by human beings, with all of their baggage, bias and agendas. When examining the councils in this manner, one sees very clearly how religion was indeed used as a means of ruling people by sculpting their belief systems. In a perfect world, Jesus would have spelled out exactly what he wanted and how he wanted Christianity shaped and to manifest, but unfortunately, Christianity was shaped by men in power who were often very tyrannical. Even so, examining the development of the councils helps to shed light on some of the more fundamental Christian beliefs such as the Holy Trinity and the role of the Virgin Mary within the Christian faith. Learning about how these ideas developed and were expanded from other ideas, gives one a more nuanced perspective about the religion and the influence of world history at the time.
Elsaie, Adel M. History of Truth: The Truth About God and Religions. USIM Publisher, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia, 2012.
Http://www.usislam.org/. “The Ecumenical Councils of Church. How Jesus Was Made God, History of Truth.” USISLAM.ORG – Search The Truth About Allah, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, www.usislam.org/69ecum.htm#The%20First%20Council%20in%20Nicaea%20I%20-%20325. Accessed 17 June 2018.
Kelly, Joseph F. The Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church: A History. Liturgical P, 2009.
Need, Stephen W. Truly Divine and Truly Human: The Story of Christ and the Seven Ecumenical Councils. SPCK, 2008.
Schmeling, Gaylin R. “The Christology of the Seven Ecumenical Councils.” Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary: Mankato, MN, www.blts.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/GRS-Christology.pdf. Accessed 17 June 2018.