Development Of Doctrine And Praxis At The First Six Ecumenical Councils

Development Of Doctrine And Praxis At The First Six Ecumenical Councils July 16, 2023

Dosseman: Saint Nicolas Church Fresco Of An  Ecumenical Council / Wikimedia Commons

The first six ecumenical councils, from Nicea to III Constantinople, show Christians slowly developing a way for them to best express the basic elements of their faith. It was not an easy process. There were many who took elements of revelation and over-extended them in a way to ignore or reject other elements of revelation, leading to some sort of heresy. There were terms established by the councils, like homousios, which became normative, while there were other expressions of Christian doctrine used in particular councils which would later become repudiated, often because the term would take on a different meaning than it was initially given (perhaps the most famous example of this is the way the original creed of Nicea suggested there was one hypostasis in the Trinity; Nicea was not denying the Trinity, but rather, the understanding off the term hypostasis at the time was more along the lines of ousia than prosopon).

It is impossible for those who examines the councils to deny there was a development of Christian doctrine, but it would be wrong to suggest such development meant there was not a core belief which was being consistently presented throughout Christian history.  Doctrinal formulations and understandings of the Christian faith were able to develop because there was one great, mysterious, transcendent truth which lay behind all their expositions, one which can never be fully comprehended by human speech. There was always more which can be said. The early councils were called, not for the sake of developing Christian doctrine, but as a way to make sure popular Christian expressions of the faith continued to properly point to and represent the transcendent truth revealed in the incarnation. The councils, therefore, helped refine the way Christians spoke of the Trinity and the incarnation, hoping, as a process, to counter some basic errors, but they never wanted us to take the councils themselves as definitive, final, and absolute, so that there could be no further development. For then, that would end up turning the conventions into absolutes, which ultimately, is what creates for some heresy.

Similar to doctrinal development, the councils also demonstrate to us the development of Christian praxis. That is, when Christians from different cultural backgrounds were doing things differently, the councils saw the need to find some sort of standard which could create some kind of unity behind that diversity. The councils created a code of norms, a code of expectations, which was put in place to help present that unity. Those norms, to be sure, developed over time, as they dealt with issues and concerns which sometimes caused division among Christians (such as when Easter was to be celebrated, or whether or not one should kneel on Sundays).  Some of them dealt with the way Christian unity could be restored once it had been lost, especially in relation to the way the institutional church could and should welcome back those who either cut themselves off from the institution by some sort of formal schism, or those who at one time believed in heresy but later repudiated it and wanted to have their communal relationship with the institutional church restored. By their circumstantial nature, it is clear that the canons which were established were not absolutes to be followed at all times and in all places, for they had not always been followed. The church has flexibility in the development and in the application of its canons. They are not written with a legalistic mindset, which is why, even after they were written, we can find them being routinely violated (such as we see in the ongoing development of liturgical practices, such as when the West developed a practice of kneeling on Sundays). We must understand the canons were products of their time, and while some of them have a more universal value than others, they must all be interpreted and understood in light of the cultural situations and concerns which prompted their development.

In both, the dogmatic and practical matters discussed at the councils, it is clear that the six councils served as responses to particular conflicts and concerns of their times. This should encourage us to continue to do so. We should not look to the past and think everything should stand just as it was presented in the past. We should not remain idle as the world does not remain idle. Christian doctrine continues to develop. Christian praxis, likewise, continues to develop. We need to get beyond a fundamentalistic approach to both, even as we should not fall for the error of absolute relativism which denies any objective truth or morality. Rather, Christianity serves a transcendent truth, one which promotes love at the core of its praxis. That transcendent truth is going to be approximated and presented in a variety of ways, even as the praxis which flows from it will need to be flexible, so that it can deal with the challenges of Christians in their lives and not just the challenges Christians from previous times and places. Adaptation leads to survival.

When reflecting upon the councils, and the canons which they established, it imperative we realize they fathers of the councils understood the limitations imparted upon them. They did not want us to take their word choices in the wrong sense, to absolutize conventions, but rather to understand the meaning which was intended by them. They also did not want us to think their particular approach to praxis could not be refined, as they often refined them themselves. This is why a legalistic engagement of the faith gets it wrong. Doctrine and canons are meant to help Christians, not hinder them. Those who would try to use doctrines and canons as bludgeons do understand them. Canons are to be used as established norms for the benefit of the community, but if and when they are not helpful, they can be dispensed or entirely rescinded. That is, they are not meant to be seen as harsh laws which allow for no exceptions, but rather as guidelines to help Christians engage the Christian faith, to put into practice their love for God and for their neighbor. We are to bear with each other, instead of finding more and more rules to impose upon each other. We are to lift each other up, especially those who find it difficult to follow the faith: “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves;  let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him” (Rom. 15:1-2 RSV).

Thus, if we use canons, or even doctrines, to further hurt the wounded, we have not understood them because we fail to understand the intent which led to their establishment. We are to do what we can to help those who are troubled instead of showing off how strong our faith and then saying those who appear to be weak in faith should be just like us. We are to see and understand how Christ came as the new lawgiver: he showed the way of the law is the way of love, which is not the way of the letter of the law. Christ came to heal the wounded, not to cause them more pain and sorrow. We, should be like Christ. As he came to serve, not to be served, we should not use the faith to fulfil our every whim. Instead, it teaches us to look after the concerns and needs of others:

For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached thee fell on me.” For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope (Rom. 15:3-4 RSV).

This, then is also how we are to understand the councils. They are meant to instruct, to help us understand who Christ is (in the incarnation but also in relation to the Godhead, that is, within the Trinity). We should see the connection between who he is and what he did for us, and use that to find the right way for us to interact with him so that we can receive all the blessings he wants for us. This is why the six councils were concerned about Christology. They were not interested in promoting idle theological speculation by those who seek glory for themselves. Indeed, they saw such speculation tended to be the source of theological error, the kind which needed conciliar refutation. But because of such distortions found in the past, the councils could and did develop responses, and in that way, developed an authentic, but open-ended approach to Christ, one which acknowledge that no formulation in and of itself can and will comprehend the mystery while likewise acknowledging it is that mystery, and not us, which ultimately serves as the guide and foundation of the Christian faith.


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