The theology of the Orthodox Church is grounded in the dogmatic definitions of the seven Ecumenical Councils. We all honor those Councils and uncritically accept the tenets of faith of the Holy Fathers, proclaimed and established by the Holy Church. Do we really know what those creeds are about? Have we heard them? A dogma isn’t merely a formula: it is the prayer of the Church and her experience in living with the Holy Spirit. It is a doctrinal hymn. We’d like to quote the dogmatic definitions of the seven Ecumenical Councils, which every Orthodox Christian should know so as to be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear (1 Peter 3:15).
1. Creed of the First Ecumenical Council (Nicaea, 325): We believe in one God. The Father Almighty. Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of Light; true God of true God; begotten not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man. And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried. And the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; whose Kingdom; and in the Holy Spirit.
The Nicene Council is the cornerstone of our faith. Is Jesus God or not? If He isn’t, how can we worship him and believe in him? How can we then believe in the Gospel and in Jesus’s own claim that He and his Father are one? If Jesus isn’t God, his claims about his being the Bread of Life, the Truth, and the Way are false, in which case we have to revert to the Mosaic Law, and if we don’t like Judaism, we’d have to convert to Islam to keep within the limits of traditional monotheism. However, the Church, based on the Holy Scripture and the Apostolic tradition, teaches us that all the words that Christ said are true. That prophet from Nazareth is God, one of the Persons of the Trinity. It wasn’t a holy man of the Old Testament who suffered on the Cross; it was the Creator of the world who died for our sins.
2. Creed of the Second Ecumenical Council (Constantinople, 381):
This Council added five clauses to the Nicene Creed, underpinning the Christian doctrine of the divinity and equal status of the Holy Spirit.
And (We believe) in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father: who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified: who spoke by the prophets. In one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
This dogmatic definition became known as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which has been sung at the Liturgy even today. The Council complemented the teaching of the First Ecumenical Council and professed the divinity of the Holy Spirit as equal to the Father and the Son. We believe in the Holy Trinity: the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, One God in three Persons of one nature. We can say that God is love only if we believe in the Holy Trinity, according to St John the Theologian. If God is one Person, whom did He love prior to the creation of the world? Did He love himself? Is it really love? If there were two Persons in Godhead, their love would be incapacitated, confined to the two Persons and not letting anyone else in. However, as St. Gregory the Theologian puts it, “The One went to the Two and stopped at the Three”. Thus, God’s Love is love of the Trinitarian being.
3. Dogmatic definition of the Third Ecumenical Council (Ephesus, 431):
The Council of Ephesus did not add anything to the Nicene Creed but the Fathers of the Council rejected Nestorius and his heresy. The Council based its dogmatic insight on the teachings of St. Cyril of Alexandria. Here are several of his anathemas that convey the essence of the Alexandrian bishop’s theology.
- If anyone will not confess that the Emmanuel is very God, and that therefore the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God, inasmuch as in the flesh she bore the Word of God made flesh [as it is written, “The Word was made flesh”] let him be anathema.
- If anyone shall not confess that the Word of God the Father is united hypostatically to flesh, and that with that flesh of his own, he is one only Christ both God and man at the same time: let him be anathema.
- If anyone shall after the [hypostatic] union divide the hypostases in the one Christ, joining them by that connexion alone, which happens according to worthiness, or even authority and power, and not rather by a coming together, which is made by natural union: let him be anathema.
Jesus Christ is not two persons in one body. Jesus is one Person, the Divine Logos that unites two natures: the human and the divine. It must be stressed that Mary isn’t a goddess. She is a human being like us. When we venerate Virgin Mary and call her Theotokos, we simply acknowledge the fact that She gave birth to Jesus. Given that Jesus is God, Mary is the Mother of God who had the honor to be the Creator’s Mother thanks to her holiness and humility. The Fathers of the Council didn’t hesitate to call Mary the Mother of God, in spite of the fact that there wasn’t such a title in the Scripture. Likewise, we shouldn’t hesitate to talk about our faith and express it in modern terms.
4. Dogmatic definition of the Fourth Ecumenical Council (Chalcedon, 451):
Following the holy fathers, we teach with one voice that the Son [of God] and our Lord Jesus Christ is to be confessed as one and the same [Person], that He is perfect in Godhead and perfect in manhood, true God and true man, of a reasonable soul and [human] body consisting, consubstantial with the Father as touching His Godhead, and consubstantial with us as touching His manhood; having become like us in all things save sin only; begotten of His Father before the ages according to His Godhead; but in these last days, for us men and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to His manhood. This one and the same Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son [of God] must be confessed to be in two natures, unconfusedly, immutably, indivisibly, inseparably [united], and that without the distinction of natures being taken away by such union, but rather the peculiar property of each nature being preserved and being united in one Person and subsistence, not separated or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son and only-begotten, God the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets of old have spoken concerning Him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ hath taught us, and as the Creed of the fathers has delivered unto us.
It was the greatest Council in the entire Church history. It established the great mysterious union of two natures in one Person of Christ and confirmed the fullness of both the divine and the human nature in Jesus. Many Orthodox Christians have a Monophysite bend. We are inclined to regard Christ solely as God under the guise of flesh. We tend to disregard the courage of the Chalcedon Council, with its powerful affirmation of Jesus’s full humanhood. Jesus is a man like us. He had the same body and the same soul, the only difference being that He was sinless.
5. Fifth Ecumenical Council (Second Council of Constantinople, 553).
The Council aimed at bringing the Monophysites back into the fold of Orthodox faith as expressed at the Council of Chalcedon. To that end, the Council explored the issue of “three heresiarchs” and rebuked Nestorian misconceptions, as well as Origen’s errors.
6. Dogmatic definition of the Sixth Ecumenical Council (Third Council of Constantinople, 680):
Following the five holy Ecumenical Councils and the holy and approved Fathers, with one voice defining that our Lord Jesus Christ must be confessed to be very God and very man, one of the holy and consubstantial and life-giving Trinity, perfect in Deity and perfect in humanity, very God and very man, of a reasonable soul and human body subsisting; consubstantial with the Father as touching his Godhead and consubstantial with us as touching his manhood; in all things like us, sin only excepted; begotten of his Father before all ages according to his Godhead, but in these last days for us men and for our salvation made man of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary, strictly and properly the Mother of God according to the flesh; one and the same Christ our Lord the only-begotten Son of two natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, inseparably indivisibly to be recognized, the peculiarities of neither nature being lost by the union but rather the proprieties of each nature being preserved, concurring in one Person and in one subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons but one and the same only-begotten Son of God, the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, according as the Prophets of old have taught us and as our Lord Jesus Christ himself has instructed us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has delivered to us; defining all this we likewise declare that in him are two natural wills and two natural operations indivisibly, inconvertibly, inseparably, inconfusedly, according to the teaching of the holy Fathers. And these two natural wills are not contrary the one to the other (God forbid!) as the impious heretics assert, but his human will follows and that not as resisting and reluctant, but rather as subject to his divine and omnipotent will. For it was right that the flesh should be moved but subject to the divine will, according to the most wise Athanasius.
This Council continued the Christological argument and provided further development of the doctrines promulgated by the Third, the Fourth, and the Fifth Ecumenical Councils. Jesus has two wills: the divine and the human. His human will is fully subject to his divine will. The doctrine of natures and corresponding wills was elaborated by the great theologian and a simple monk Saint Maximus the Confessor. His teaching on two wills is essential for a contemporary Christian. We often think that our desires are sinful in themselves. In fact, it isn’t the case. Craving for food or sexual desires aren’t sinful: what is sinful is how, when and with whom we realize those desires. The Sixth Ecumenical Council opens our eyes on what we’re composed of and provides correct guidelines to master our nature.
7. Dogmatic definition of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Second Council of Nicaea, 787):
We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Catholic Church (for, as we all know, the Holy Spirit indwells her), define with all certitude and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honourable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people. For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them; and to these should be given due salutation and honourable reverence (ἀσπασμὸν καὶ τιμητικὴν προσκύνησιν), not indeed that true worship of faith (λατρείαν) which pertains alone to the divine nature; but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For the honour which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented.
The Second Council of Nicaea brought Christological controversy to the end. By defending images of Christ, the Orthodox Church reinstates the truth of the Incarnation of the Logos and therefore his depictability. The fact that we’re surrounded by icons and live under the cover of the Face of Christ is a source of great joy and comfort for the faithful. Our faith is the faith of sacred materialism, as Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh once said. We don’t think it’s enough to believe in Christ. We want to look at his Face, and the fact that God became human allows us to do so. The icon is a constant reminder that the Kingdom of God is in our midst. It is an ongoing test of our conscience that testifies against us.
The age of Ecumenical Councils was eventful and challenging, sometimes even tragic. The greatest joy for us Christians is that we had the chance to see Jesus’s words come true. Christ didn’t leave his disciples alone, indeed. He dwells among us with the Holy Spirit. No matter how many heresies or persecutions wage war against the Church, the catholic mind of the Church have always found and will always find answers to all challenges of this world while remaining true to Divine Revelation. Our joy no man taketh away from us (Cf. John 16:22).