What were the ecumenical councils of the early church? Today, Stephen Nichols explains what these church councils were, why they assembled, and how they relate to us as Protestants.
NATHAN W. BINGHAM: This week on the podcast, I’m with one of Ligonier’s Teaching Fellows, Dr. Stephen Nichols. Dr. Nichols, what does it mean that the first seven church councils were ecumenical?
DR. STEPHEN NICHOLS: So, these seven councils in the early church had representation from literally hundreds of bishops. Two hundred, three hundred, four hundred bishops attended these councils, and they represented the whole church. So, when we say “ecumenical councils,” we’re talking about a council that reflects the church, and there were seven of these that are recognized as ecumenical councils. The first one was a very important one. It was in 325 and was the Council of Nicaea. And out of that, of course, comes that very important church document, the Nicene Creed. Another of these ecumenical councils in 451, the fourth council, was the Council of Chalcedon, and that also was very important. And out of that comes the definition of Chalcedon as it is. Sometimes it’s called the Chalcedonian Creed.
And when you go back and you look at those first six of those councils, they dealt with mostly Christology and the different heresies and the different false views that were circulating in the church related to either the humanity of Christ or the deity of Christ or how those two natures came together. And so, the church would meet, and in the plurality of bishops and studying the Scriptures, would then hand down a ruling, definitions or rulings or creeds, to speak into these situations.
Now, the seventh of these ecumenical councils moved off of the subject of Christology and actually endorsed icons and made it not just icons of God or of Christ, but including icons of Mary and icons of angels and of the saints. And it went so far as to say the church should have these, not they could have these, but they should have these in the church. So, it dealt with icons. But from the eighth century on, there was a rift between this Roman Catholic Church, and the rift had two centers, two epicenters. One was Rome, and the other was Constantinople. And so, from the 800s on, Constantinople did not have as much representation, and sometimes none at all, in these councils. So that’s why we stopped calling them the ecumenical councils. It’s not quite the split yet between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, but that’s coming. And so, from the Roman Catholic Church perspective, there are twenty-one councils that started in Nicaea and go right up into the 1960s with Vatican II, and prior to that, Vatican I in 1870. So, the Roman Catholic Church represents those twenty-one councils.
A very important council for our understanding of our identity as Reformed and as Protestants is the Council of Trent. This was the Roman Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation. And one of the rulings that came down from Trent was that the Roman Catholic Church, its authority, would be both Scripture and tradition. Not that tradition is useful, not that tradition is helpful, not that tradition is the Holy Spirit working through gifted teachers and godly people and teaching us how to be faithful disciples. No, this crosses the threshold to say that tradition is a co-equal authority to Scripture.
I mentioned that because this is helpful for us as to how we should understand these councils. Let’s take the first six. They’re very helpful for Christology. I love the Nicene Creed. We love the Chalcedonian Creed. Those are such helpful documents. Those creeds are not our authority. Those creeds represent our authority and the teaching of our authority, which is Scripture. So, in the end, we Protestants think very different from the Roman Catholics, who in turn think different from the Eastern Orthodox Church, as we’re looking back over the last two millennia of church history and these ecumenical councils. For us as Protestants, we do not have a co-equal authority. We have one authority, and that’s that beloved teaching of the Reformers, that bedrock foundational doctrine of sola Scriptura, that Scripture alone is our authority.
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