To Honor The Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils

To Honor The Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils July 14, 2019

Pvasiliadis: Fresco of the Council of Nicea in the Sistine Salon at the Vatican / Wikimedia Commons

The great Robert Taft, commenting upon the spirituality of the East, explained that a major component of it is the realization of tradition through liturgical worship: “An attachment to tradition, to the ways handed down from time immemorial by their fathers in the faith, is evident in every aspect of church life in the East, but above all in worship.”[1] While this could be used to suggest that the East tends to be conservative in liturgy, this must not imply some sort of liturgical stasis as being the best manifestation of tradition. Rather, even in its liturgical celebrations, the East remains a living tradition which changes according to the needs of the living. It is malleable, because the faithful preserves tradition by recontextualizing it to fit their own particular needs. Different times, different places, different languages, different cultures, will bring out the content of that tradition in different ways, and yet there remains a continuity underlying the change, a continuity which demonstrates the unity of tradition despite the various ways it can be made manifest.

Perhaps no greater example of this lived out tradition can be found than in the way doctrine developed through the early ecumenical councils of the church. Each ecumenical council dealt with particular challenges to the Christian faith, both doctrinal and disciplinary, and each did so with a willingness to adapt the presentation of the faith to deal challenges which had yet to arise at earlier times. That is,  although the ecumenical councils themselves preached the same faith, they could and did use different terminology and theological foundations to do so:  the Council of Nicea decreed only one hypostasis within the Godhead, but it did so because the understanding of the word hypostasis was, at that time, equivocal to the meaning behind the word ousia: it would only be later when hypostasis and ousia were sufficiently differentiated that the Trinity would be described as being three hypostases and one ousia.

Each of the first six ecumenical councils, that is, Nicea (325), I Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), II Constantinople (553), and III Constantinople (680-1) were called so that the faithful could properly pass down the Christian faith to subsequent generations. Since the questions surrounding the Trinity and the Incarnation transcended human understanding, the councils had to carefully establish the means by which these two mysteries could be theologically rendered in a way which would work against any impulse towards false (heretical) understandings. It was not an easy task, especially when Christians did not speak a common language, but rather, many different languages (Greek, Latin, Syriac, et. al). Sometimes, confusion came as a result of vocabulary choice, sometimes, cultural differences threatened to divide Christians from each other as they did not always practice the faith the same way. The council of Nicea was called, in part, to deal with these problems: the intention, as Archbishop Peter L’Huillier stated, was not to introduce a new teaching or discipline, but to find a way to organize the church and resolve whatever issues which threatened to divide the church:

The fathers of Nicea took advantage of their meeting to discuss a number of points concerning church discipline. Their intention was not at all to introduce a new law but to recall rules sometimes neglected, indeed contested, to resolve problems rising out of concrete situations. They also confirmed rather than created a form of coordination in the organization of the Church by sanctioning the metropolitan system.[2]

In some ways, Nicea was successful, in other ways, it was not. But it would take years before its success could be seen. The Arian crisis, which more than anything else, had led Constantine and his ecclesial advisor Ossius of Cordova to see the need for a great and common council of the believers so as to overcome the various divisions which had developed within Christianity. Despite their best attempts, the crisis continued long after Nicea had convened. And yet, years later, it would be evident that what was started at Nicea indeed helped the church come together and find a way for it to present its teachings in common. This is why other crises, other divisions, led the church to have other ecumenical councils, following the example of Nicea, hoping to find a way for the church to pass down its tradition to future generations.

In talking about the various ecumenical councils, Vladimir Lossky understood the living quality of tradition was important to them, because it manifested their spiritual or pneumatological character, where there was a spiritual life to what was presented beyond the external letter (or doctrinal assertions). And yet, this did not render the debates superfluous, because they were also necessary, making sure the Christian faith continued to be tied to the truth revealed to it by Christ:

Although the councils bear witness to tradition by their binding and objective decisions, the truth itself which they declare is never subjected to canonical forms. Tradition, in fact, has a pneumatological character: it is the life of the Church in the Holy Spirit. Truth can have no external criterion for it is manifest of itself and made inwardly plain; it is given in greater or lesser degree to all members of the Church; for all are called to know, to preserve and to defend the truths of the faith. Here the Christological and pneumatological aspects are in accord in the catholic character of the Church. By the power which it holds from Christ the Church proclaims that which the Spirit reveals. But the function of defining, of stating, of causing mysteries which are unfathomable to human understanding to be contained in exact dogmas, this belongs to the Christological aspect of the Church, that aspect which is grounded upon the Incarnation of the Word. [3]

As the East ties together tradition with its worship, one of the ways it does this is by remembering those who were involved in the transmission of that tradition. This is why, throughout the year, the East honors the great figures of the earliest eras of Christian history within its worship. It should not be surprising: Scripture suggested this was a way in which the truth of the faith could be preserved:

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings; for it is well that the heart be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited their adherents (Heb. 13:7-9 RSV).

The Sunday of the Fathers of the First Six Ecumenical Councils is a way in which the Byzantine tradition commemorates those who were involved in the long, difficult process by which the church worked out the core details as to how Christianity would best explain the truth which had been handed to it. They continued the work of the apostles, helping to share the truths of the faith throughout the world:

The Apostles’ preaching and the Fathers’ doctrines, have established one faith for the Church. Adorned with the robe of truth, woven from heavenly theology, it defines and glorifies the great mystery of Orthodoxy! (Kontakion for the Sunday of the Fathers of the First Six Ecumenical Councils).

The theological debates at the councils were important, and yet we must realize what is even more important is the tradition which is being handed down by them: that is, the meaning of the councils and their decrees are what we must hold to and follow. That meaning is what connects the councils together, even if the distinct qualities of the councils themselves can sometimes make them appear to be in conflict with each other (Nicea with later councils which talk about three hypostases; Ephesus with Chalcedon; et. al). Part of the problem for many Christians is not that they disagree with each other, but they cannot properly communicate with each other to find out that they are in agreement. The success of the councils was that they did indeed present ways in which the tradition could be and was preserved, but this did not come with complete success, for through them, divisions did occur, some because there was no common agreement (like the Arians with the Nicenes) or because such agreement was hard to discern because of the cultural-linguistic differences between various disputants at the councils (which is likely the case with many non-Chalcedonians with the fathers of Chalcedon). The councils are worthy to be commemorated for what they were able to do successfully, and the celebration of those councils must be understood as doing that, but to properly honor them and their intent, we must continue to engage the tradition handed down through them and find ways in which the church can bring its various divided parts together and become one. This, after all, is what Christ would have for the church: “And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to thee. Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11 RSV).


[1] Robert Taft, SJ, “The Spirit of Eastern Christian Worship” in Beyond East and West: Problems in Liturgical Understanding (Rome: Pontificio Istituto Orientale, 2001), 148.

[2] Archbishop Peter L’Huillier, The Church of the Ancient Councils (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000), 30.

[3] Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Trans. Members of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 188-89.


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