Councils of the Church

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"In another world it may be otherwise, but in this world, to grow is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often" (John Henry Newman, Essay on the Development of Doctrine, 40).

Classical Age

  • Greek and Roman Empires, roughly from 6th BC to 5th AD. Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) conquered the Mediterranean world, which made Greek the common language for all the nations. This led the Jews to translate their Scriptures (TNK) from Hebrew into Greek (Septuagint, LXX).

Apostolic Era

  • From death of Jesus to the death of the last Apostle. Composition of the books of the New Testament takes place between ~49 AD to ~100 AD, all apparently in Greek; there is a legend of an Aramaic version of Matthew, but no manuscript has been found. The Deposit of Faith was closed with the death of the last apostle (no known year; probably John, "the beloved disciple," perhaps as late as 90-100 AD).

[#0] ~49 AD — Council of Jerusalem

  • Acts 15: against the Judaizers.
  • Must converts become Jews in order to become Christians? NO! This is the Christian "deliteralization" of the Old Testament.
  • Pattern set for all councils: "It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us. . . " (Acts 15:28).

Patristic Era

  • 1st to 6th or 7th century AD. All were in GREEK because Constantinople [!] had become the capital of the Roman Empire and Greek was the common language of Mediterranean civilization).
  • 64-305 Ten great cycles of persecution of Christians by Romans. Things went back and forth in the fourth century with more periods of intolerance and persecution.

[#1] 325 AD — Nicaea

  • Against the Arian heresy that Jesus is only a creature.
  • Jesus is NOT a super-creature; He is homoousios with the Father (Constantinople later clarifies that the Father and the Son are also one-in-being with the Spirit).

[#2] 381 AD — Constantinople

  • Against the Apollinarian heresy that Jesus is only God.
  • Jesus is NOT inhuman; He is fully human.
  • The Holy Spirit is God as the Father is God and as the Son is God.

[#3] 431 AD — Ephesus

  • Against Nestorian heresy that there are two persons in Jesus.
  • There is only one person (hypostasis) in Christ.
    • That single person has two natures (hypostatic union of God and man in Jesus).
    • Because that single person is God, Mary is the Mother of God (theotokos).

[#4] 451 AD — Chalcedon

  • Against the Monophysite heresy that Jesus has only one nature.
  • The Hypostatic Union of God and human in Jesus does NOT blend divine nature with human nature. The two natures are "unconfused, unchangeable, undivided, and inseparable."

Trinity and Incarnation

The outcome of 400 years of intense debate about the correct interpretation (exegesis) of the Scriptures may be summarized in the two bedrock doctrines (dogmas) of classical Christianity:

  • Trinity: three persons in one God.
  • Incarnation (Christology): one person in two natures. Jesus is both true God and true man, fully divine and fully human.

Dark Ages (or early Middle Ages)

  • From the "fall of Rome" in 476 AD until around 1000 AD.
  • Constantinople, not Rome, was the capital of the Roman empire in 476 AD.The fall of Rome did NOT destroy the Roman empire — Constantinople was untouched by the barbarians.

[#5] 553 AD — Constantinople II

  • Continuing problems with monophysites who taught that there is only one (mono) nature (physis) in Jesus.
AD event
610 "Night of Power" when Mohammed became the "Seal of the Prophets."
622 Hegira: flight from Mecca to Medina; by his death in 632, Muhammad ruled most of Arabia.

[#6] 680 AD — Constantinople III

  • Rejected Monothelitism, which taught that there is only one (mono) will (thelos) in Jesus." Jesus has a Divine will in His divine nature and a human will in His human nature. He is "like us in all things except sin" (Heb).
AD event
732 Muslims repelled at Battle of Tours — their empire extended from Spain to India.

[#7] 787 AD — Nicaea II

  • Against the Iconoclasts, who thought that images (icons) were evil; "iconoclast" means "image breaker."

[#8] 870 AD — Constantinople IV

The legates were asked to exhibit their commission, which they did; then they presented to the members of the council the famous formula (libellus) of Pope Hormisdas (514-23), binding its signatories "to follow in everything the Apostolic See of Rome and teach all its laws . . . in which communion is the whole, real, and perfect solidity of the Christian religion". The Fathers of the council were required to sign this document, which had originally been drawn up to close the Acacian schism.[1]
The Pope is the Vicar (representative) of Christ. That makes him the CEO of the Church on earth and gives him power to rule over all other bishops. He is, for those who have eyes to see, "the servant who was left in charge of the Master's possessions" (synoptic parables).
  • Because there is an identifiable human being who acts as Jesus' authoritative representative on earth, the Church can speak with one voice.
  • The doctrine of papal primacy ("The pope is the visible head of the Church on earth") is not the same things as the doctrine of papal infallibility. See Vatican I (1870) for that doctrine.
AD event
1054 Final schism between Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics.The Orthodox accept the authority of the first seven councils of the Church.They reject the primacy of the Pope and the later definition of papal infallibility (cf. Vatican I, 1870).The Roman Catholic Church accepts the validity of all seven sacraments in the Orthodox churches.

Middle Ages

  • 11th to 14th centuries (1000-1399): Scholasticism; LATIN councils.
  • The big question: How do faith and reason work together?
  • Series of crusades (Christian holy wars) in response to 500 years of "jihad" (Muslim holy wars).

[#9] 1123 AD — Lateran I

  • About investiture: who names bishops?

[#10] 1139 AD — Lateran II

  • Sinful priests CAN administer valid sacraments (the sacraments work "ex opere operato").This is an acknowledgment that the Church admits that priests can sin.

[#11] 1179 AD — Lateran III

  • Reform in method of papal elections.

[#12] 1215 AD — Lateran IV

  • Defined Eucharist & transubstantiation — "what was bread and wine is now Jesus, whole and entire"; also taught that "God is always greater than that to which we compare Him" (canon 2):
"Fourth Lateran Council (1215)."
We, however, with the approval of this sacred and universal council, believe and confess with Peter Lombard that there exists a certain supreme reality, incomprehensible and ineffable, which truly is the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit, the three persons together and each one of them separately. Therefore in God there is only a Trinity, not a quaternity, since each of the three persons is that reality — that is to say substance, essence or divine nature — which alone is the principle of all things, besides which no other principle can be found. This reality neither begets nor is begotten nor proceeds; the Father begets, the Son is begotten and the Holy Spirit proceeds. Thus there is a distinction of persons but a unity of nature. Although therefore the Father is one person, the Son another person and the holy Spirit another person, they are not different realities, but rather that which is the Father is the Son and the Holy Spirit, altogether the same; thus according to the orthodox and catholic faith they are believed to be consubstantial. For the Father, in begetting the Son from eternity, gave him his substance, as he himself testifies: What the Father gave me is greater than all. It cannot be said that the Father gave him part of his substance and kept part for himself since the Father's substance is indivisible, inasmuch as it is altogether simple. Nor can it be said that the Father transferred his substance to the Son, in the act of begetting, as if he gave it to the Son in such a way that he did not retain it for himself; for otherwise he would have ceased to be substance. It is therefore clear that in being begotten the Son received the Father's substance without it being diminished in any way, and thus the Father and the Son have the same substance. Thus the Father and the Son and also the Holy Spirit proceeding from both are the same reality.
When, therefore, the Truth prays to the Father for those faithful to him, saying I wish that they may be one in us just as we are one, this word one means for the faithful a union of love in grace, and for the divine persons a unity of identity in nature, as the Truth says elsewhere, You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect {2}, as if he were to say more plainly, You must be perfect in the perfection of grace, just as your Father is perfect in the perfection that is his by nature, each in his own way. For between creator and creature there can be noted no similarity so great that a greater dissimilarity cannot be seen between them. If anyone therefore ventures to defend or approve the opinion or doctrine of the aforesaid Joachim on this matter, let him be refuted by all as a heretic.

[#13] 1245 AD — Lyons I

  • Council deposed Emperor.

[#14] 1274 AD — Lyons II

  • Thomas Aquinas died en route to the council.
  • Bonaventure played a major role as a consultant.
Wikipedia, "Second Council of Lyons."
By the end of the council, thirty-one constitutions were promulgated. In the second session, the fathers approved the decree Zelus fidei, which contained no juridical statutes but rather summed up constitutions about
  • the perils of the Holy Land,
  • the means for paying for a proposed crusade,
  • the excommunication of pirates and corsairs and those who protected them or traded with them,
  • a declaration of peace among Christians,
  • a grant of an indulgence for those willing to go on crusade,
  • restoration of communion with the Greeks, and
  • the definition of the order and procedure to be observed in the council.
The Greeks conceded on the issue of the Filioque (two words added to the Nicene creed), and union was proclaimed, but the union was later repudiated by Andronicus II, heir to Michael VIII.

[#15] 1311 AD — Vienne

AD event
1309-1377 Avignon Papacy: the "Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy." The pope moved from Rome to Avignon in France.
1378-1418 "The Great Western Schism." When Pope Gregory XI returned to Rome from Avignon in 1378, the French cardinals rebelled and elected an anti-pope. Eventually, there were three different sets of cardinals and popes, all claiming to be authentic. It was a mess! Forty years of fear, uncertainty, and doubt.


  • 15th and 16th centuries (1400-1599;Reformation).
  • Basic stance: Look back to the golden age of Greece and Rome to see how to be a fully developed human being. In the view of those who coined the term, Greco-Roman culture is "born again" after being all-but-dead.

[#16] 1414-1418 Constance

  • Deposed all three 'popes' (one was the authentic heir of Peter; the other two were antipopes, one of whom was the antipope, John XIII) and elected Pope Martin V. The problem of antipopes was solved and has remained solved to the present day — 600 years of undisputed papal elections.
  • Pope Martin V accepted the council's action in deposing the three preceding claimants to the chair of Peter, but rejected the council's decree, "Frequens," which called for ecumenical councils to convene every five years, acting as a legislature which would have authority over the pope.

[#17] 1431-1445 AD — Florence

  • Basil [1431] -->Ferrara [1438] -->Florence [1445]
  • Attempted reunion with Greek Orthodox (again).
  • Therefore discussed "filioque": the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.
  • "Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus": no salvation outside the Church.
AD event
1492 Moors (Spanish Muslims) driven out of Spain by our good friends, Ferdinand and Isabella.

[#18] 1512-17 AD — Lateran V

  • oddly ineffective "reform" council. Good legislation, poor results.
AD event
October 31, 1517 Martin Luther launches Protestant "Reformation"

[#19] 1545-63 AD — Trent

  • dealt with Protestant Reformation
  • defined seven sacraments
  • defined the canon (list) of the Sacred Scriptures (Septuagint plus NT)
  • defined the nature of salvation
  • opened up the topic of Tradition as vehicle of revelation
  • commissioned revision of liturgy ("Tridentine Mass")
Luther Trent
sola fide: "by faith alone" Faith requires good works.
sola scriptura: "by the Scriptures alone" Scripture is part of Tradition.
sola gratia: "by grace alone" Grace co-operates with nature.
Human nature is corrupted by Original Sin. We are in an evil condition, but our nature is good.
ex opere operantis: The effect of the sacraments is limited by the goodness of "the one working the work." ex opere operato: The grace of the sacraments is given by Jesus when the "work is worked." The sins of the ministers of the sacraments do not undo Jesus' work.


17th to 18th (Deism; "critical reason").People of the Enlightenment tend to be forward-looking; they pin their hopes on future developments based on the success of critical reason ("science").

Age of Revolutions

1776 - 1917: American Revolution to Russian Revolution; Industrial Revolution; in literature, the Romantic rebellion against Classicism.

[#20] 1870 AD — Vatican I

  • lasted two months; interrupted by war
  • declared pope to be infallible when speaking ex cathedra ("from the chair")
  • held that God can be known by reason alone


World War I - 1960's or so.Some other name will be invented for this period eventually.

AD event
1939-45 The Holocaust: 6 million Jews (and many millions of other races) slaughtered by Hitler.
1947-8 Modern state of Israel founded.Palestinians flee during 1948 war (launched by Arab nations).In the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel occupies "the West Bank" and Old Jerusalem.No happy campers anywhere in Middle East ever since.

[#21] 1962-1965 AD — Vatican II

  • called to renovate the Church
  • revised the Liturgy — the Mass is now said in local languages
  • attempted to address the problems and concerns of the modern world in a form that would be true to tradition and intelligible to modern people.
  • saw union of Scripture and Tradition as the source of Revelation
  • balanced teaching about the infallibility of the pope with new emphasis on the teaching authority of bishops
  • balanced teaching about the roles of the ordained with the roles of the laity
  • balanced teaching about the infallibility of the one, true Church with recognition of the grace of God that is active in the hearts of all good people (ecumenism among Christians, respect for other religious and philosophical traditions)


  • late 20th("post-critical reason"). There are many varieties of post-modernism. Some seem to have lost faith in reason altogether — "No one knows anything for certain."
AD event
1991 The United States goes to war with Babylon. Many dead babies.
1996 Last possible candidate for the authentic end/beginning of the new millenium. If Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BC, then Jesus had to have been born at least four years Before Christ.
2000 The world hasn't ended yet. There is still hope! We even survived the Y2K bug!
2001 The first year of the new millenium for mathematicians.
2026 Next Big Deal in Millenium Madness: the 2000th anniversary of our salvation. I was wrong. People are getting torqued up now about 21 December 2012, "the end of the Mayan calendar"(the 13th baktun since 3114 BC, about 5125 years ago). Our calendars end every December 31 and restart on January 1; why people think the Mayan calendar can't restart is beyond me. "The end of the calendar" does not logically mean "the end of the world."

[#22] Vatican Council III?

The heresy of conciliarism holds that "some future council will endorse unorthodox teachings" and therefore that it is fair for believers to anticipate the findings of the future council by affirming the unorthodox teachings at the present time. So, for example, some feminists (men and women alike) hold that Vatican III will overturn the Church's tradition of ordaining only men or that it will endorse same-sex marriage.

The Age of Revolutions, Modernity, and Post-Modernity are all mingled together. In our global village, there are many cultures and sub-cultures competing for dominance. More than at any time in history, people have a choice about what kind of culture they will support and participate in. Heaven only knows what label future historians will paste on the era we live in.