In the history of the early church we see that there were three important synods took place to discuss about the church matters. In ecclesiastical language the word synod refers to meeting at various levels to discuss matters concerning the church. The word synod comes from Greek word sun-dos which mean coming together. Followings are the three major synods, The council of Nicaea Council of Constantinople Council of Ephesus I. THE FIRST COUNCIL OF NICAEA (325) The First Council of Nicaea was convened by Emperor Constantine the Great upon the recommendations of a synod led by Hosius of Córdoba in the Eastertide of 325. This synod had been charged with investigation of the trouble brought about by the Arian controversy in the Greek-speaking east. To most bishops, the teachings of Arius were heretical and dangerous to the salvation of souls. In the summer of 325, the bishops of all provinces were summoned to Nicaea (now known as Turkey), a place easily accessible to the majority of delegates, particularly those of Asia Minor, Georgia, Armenia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Greece, and Thrace. This was the first general council in the history of the Church since the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem, the Apostolic council having established the conditions upon which Gentiles could join the Church. In the Council of Nicaea, “The Church had taken her first great step to define doctrine more precisely in response to a challenge from a heretical theology.” The First Council of Nicaea was a council of Christian bishops convened in Nicaea in Bithynia by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in AD 325. This first ecumenical council was the first effort to attain consensus in the church through an assembly representing all of Christendom. Its main accomplishments were settlement of the Christological issue of the nature of God the Son and his relationship to God the Father, the construction of the first part of the Creed of Nicaea, settling the calculation of the date of Easter, and promulgation of early canon law. The First Council of Nicaea was the first ecumenical council of the Church. Most significantly, it resulted in the first, uniform Christian doctrine, called the Creed of Nicaea. The council settled, to some degree, the debate within the Early Christian communities regarding the divinity of Christ. This idea of the divinity of Christ, along with the idea of Christ as a messenger from God (The Father), had long existed in various parts of the Roman empire. The divinity of Christ had also been widely endorsed by the Christian community in the otherwise pagan city of Rome. The council affirmed and defined what it believed to be the teachings of the Apostles regarding who Christ is: that Christ is the one true God in deity with the Father. Attendees Constantine had invited all 1800 bishops of the Christian church (about 1000 in the east and 800 in the west), but a smaller and unknown number attended. Eusebius of Caesarea counted 250, Athanasius of Alexandria counted 318, and Eustathius of Antioch estimated about 270 (all three were present at the council). Later, Socrates Scholasticus recorded more than 300, and Evagrius, Hilary of Poitiers, Jerome Dionysius Exiguus, and Rufinus recorded 318. The Agenda The agenda of the synod included: The Arian question regarding the relationship between God the Father and the Son (not only in his incarnate form as Jesus, but also in his nature before the creation of the world); i.e., are the Father and Son one in divine purpose only or also one in being? The date of celebration of the Paschal/Easter observation The Meletian schism The validity of baptism by heretics The status of the lapsed in the persecution under Licinius The council was formally opened May 20, in the central structure of the imperial palace at Nicaea, with preliminary discussions of the Arian question. The Arian Controversy The Arian controversy began in Alexandria between the followers of Arius (the Arians) and the followers of St. Alexander of Alexandria (now known as Homoousians). The issue of dispute focused on the precise relationship of the Father and the Son in the Trinity. Alexander and his followers believed that the Son was co-eternal with the Father, and divine in just the same sense that the Father is. The Arians believed that the Father’s divinity was greater than the Son’s that the Son had a beginning, that he shared neither the eternity nor the true divinity of the Father, but was rather the very first and the most perfect of God’s creatures. Alexander and the Nicene fathers countered the Arians’ argument, saying that the Father’s fatherhood, like all of his attributes, is eternal. Thus, the Father was always a father, and that the Son, therefore, always existed with him. The Nicene fathers believed that to follow the Arian view destroyed the unity of the Godhead, and made the Son unequal to the Father, in contravention of the Scriptures (“I and the Father are one”; John 10:30 Result of the debate The Council declared that the Son was true God, co-eternal with the Father and begotten from His same substance, arguing that such a doctrine best codified the Scriptural presentation of the Son as well as traditional Christian belief about him handed down from the Apostles. Under Constantine’s influence, this belief was expressed by the bishops in the Nicene Statement, which would form the basis of what has since been known as the Nicene Creed. Separation of Easter Computation from Jewish Calendar The feast of Easter is linked to the Jewish Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread, as Christians believe that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus occurred at the time of those observances. As early as Pope Sixtus I, some Christians had set Easter to a Sunday in the lunar month of Nisan. To determine which lunar month was to be designated as Nisan, Christians relied on the Jewish community. By the later 3rd century some Christians began to express dissatisfaction with what they took to be the disorderly state of the Jewish calendar. The controversy between those who argued for independent computations and those who argued for continued reliance on the Jewish calendar was formally resolved by the Council, which endorsed the independent procedure that had been in use for some time at Rome and Alexandria. Easter was henceforward to be a Sunday in a lunar month chosen according to Christian criteria—in effect, a Christian Nisan—not in the month of Nisan as defined by Jews. At the council we also considered the issue of our holiest day, Easter, and it was determined by common consent that everyone, everywhere should celebrate it on one and the same day. For what can be more appropriate, or what more solemn, than that this feast from which we have received the hope of immortality, should be kept by all without variation, using the same order and a clear arrangement. The suppression of the Meletian schism, an early breakaway sect, was another important matter that came before the Council of Nicaea. The Council & Twenty New Church Laws The council promulgated twenty new church laws, called canons, (though the exact number is subject to debate, that is, unchanging rules of discipline. The twenty as listed in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers are as follows: 1.Prohibition of self-castration 2. Establishment of a minimum term for catechumen (persons studying for baptism) 3. Prohibition of the presence in the house of a cleric of a younger woman who might bring him under suspicion (the so called virgines subintroductae) 4. Ordination of a bishop in the presence of at least three provincial bishops and confirmation by the Metropolitan bishop 5. Provision for two provincial synods to be held annually 6. Exceptional authority acknowledged for the patriarchs of Alexandria (pope), Antioch, and Rome (the Pope), for their respective regions 7. Recognition of the honorary rights of the see of Jerusalem 8. Provision for agreement with the Novatianists, an early sect 9–14. Provision for mild procedure against the lapsed during the persecution under Licinius 15–16. Prohibition of the removal of priests 17. Prohibition of usury among the clergy 18. Precedence of bishops and presbyters before deacons in receiving the Eucharist (Holy Communion) 19. Declaration of the invalidity of baptism by Paulian heretics 20. Prohibition of kneeling on Sundays and during the Pentecost (the fifty days commencing on Easter). Standing was the normative posture for prayer at this time, as it still is among the Eastern Christians. Kneeling was considered most appropriate to penitential prayer, as distinct from the festive nature of Eastertide and its remembrance every Sunday. The canon itself was designed only to ensure uniformity of practice at the designated times. On July 25, 325, in conclusion, the fathers of the council celebrated the Emperor’s twentieth anniversary. In his farewell address, Constantine informed the audience how averse he was to dogmatic controversy; he wanted the Church to live in harmony and peace. In a circular letter, he announced the accomplished unity of practice by the whole Church in the date of the celebration of Christian Passover (Easter). Effects of the Council The long-term effects of the Council of Nicaea were significant. For the first time, representatives of many of the bishops of the Church convened to agree on a doctrinal statement. Also for the first time, the Emperor played a role, by calling together the bishops under his authority, and using the power of the state to give the Council’s orders effect. In the short-term, however, the council did not completely solve the problems it was convened to discuss and a period of conflict and upheaval continued for some time. Constantine himself was succeeded by two Arian Emperors in the Eastern Empire: his son, Constantius II and Valens. Valens could not resolve the outstanding ecclesiastical issues, and unsuccessfully confronted St. Basil over the Nicene Creed. Pagan powers within the Empire sought to maintain and at times re-establish paganism into the seat of the Emperor. Arians and Meletians soon regained nearly all of the rights they had lost, and consequently, Arianism continued to spread and to cause division in the Church during the remainder of the fourth century. Almost immediately, Eusebius of Nicomedia, an Arian bishop and cousin to Constantine I, used his influence at court to sway Constantine’s favor from the orthodox Nicene bishops to the Arians. Eustathius of Antioch was deposed and exiled in 330. Athanasius, who had succeeded Alexander as Bishop of Alexandria, was deposed by the First Synod of Tyre in 335 and Marcellus of Ancyra followed him in 336. Arius himself returned to Constantinople to be readmitted into the Church, but died shortly before he could be received. Constantine died the next year, after finally receiving baptism from Arian Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, and “with his passing the first round in the battle after the Council of Nicaea was ended” II. COUNCIL OF CONSTANTINOPLE (381) The First Council of Constantinople is recognized as the Second Ecumenical Council by the Oriental Orthodox, the Church of the East, the Eastern Orthodox, the Roman Catholics, the Old Catholics, the Anglican Church, and a number of other Western Christian groups. It was the first Ecumenical Council held in Constantinople and was called by Theodosius I in 381. The council confirmed the Nicene Creed and dealt with other matters such as the Arian controversy as it met in the church of Hagia Irene from May to July 381. Pope Damasus I either was not invited or declined to attend, so this council is sometimes called the “unecumenical” council. However, it was affirmed as ecumenical at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Background When Theodosius ascended to the imperial throne in 380, he began on a campaign to bring the Eastern Church back to Nicene Christianity. Theodosius wanted to further unify the entire empire behind the orthodox position and decided to convene a church council to resolve matters of faith and discipline. Gregory Nazianzus was of similar mind, wishing to unify Christianity. In the spring of 381 they convened the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople. Theological context The Council of Nicaea in 325 had not ended the Arian controversy which it had been called to clarify. By 327, Emperor Constantine I had begun to regret the decisions that had been made at the Nicene Council. He granted amnesty to the Arian leaders and exiled Athanasius because of Eusebius of Nicomedia. Even during numerous exiles, Athanasius continued to be a vigorous defender of Nicene Christianity against Arianism. Athanasius famously said “Athanasius against the world.” The Cappadocian Fathers also took up the torch; their Trinitarian discourse was influential in the council at Constantinople. Up until about 360, theological debates mainly dealt with the divinity of the Son, the second person of the Trinity. However, because the Council of Nicaea had not clarified the divinity of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, it became a topic of debate. The Macedonians denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. This was also known as Pneumatomachianism. Canons Seven canons, four of these doctrinal canons and three disciplinary canons, are attributed to the Council and accepted by both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches; the Roman Catholic Church accepts only the first four. A comprehensive condemnation of the Aryan heresy and its sects The power of bishops within fixed areas It reflects an anti- Roman and anti- Alexandrian feeling gave a primacy to honor to Constantinople in the East as the new Rome. Maximus the Cyril and his followers were condemned The Bishop of Constantinople, however, shall have the prerogative of honour after the Bishop of Rome because Constantinople is New Rome. III. THE FIRST COUNCIL OF EPHESUS The First Council of Ephesus was the third ecumenical council of the early Christian Church, held in 431 at the Church of Mary in Ephesus, Asia Minor. The council was called amid a dispute over the teachings of Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople. Nestorius’ doctrine, Nestorianism, which emphasized the disunity between Christ’s human and divine natures, had brought him into conflict with other church leaders, most notably Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria. Nestorius himself had requested that the Emperor convene council, hoping to prove his orthodoxy, but in the end his teachings were condemned by the council as heresy. The council declared Mary as Theotokos (God-bearer). Contention over Nestorius’ teachings, which he developed during his studies at the School of Antioch, largely revolved around his rejection of the long-used title Theotokos (“Mother of God”) for the Virgin Mary. Shortly after his arrival in Constantinople, Nestorius became involved in the disputes of two theological factions, which differed in their Christology. Nestorius emphasized the dual natures of Christ, trying to find a middle ground between those that emphasized the fact that in Christ God had been born as a man, insisted on calling the Virgin Mary Theotokos (Greek: “God-bearer”). Nestorius suggested the title Christotokos (“Christ-bearer”), but this proposal did not gain acceptance on either side. Nestorius believed that no union between the human and divine was possible. If such a union of human and divine occurred, Nestorius believed that Christ could not truly be con-substantial with God and con-substantial with us because he would grow, mature, suffer and die (which Nestorius argued God cannot do) and also would possess the power of God that would separate him from being equal to humans. Nestorius’s opponents charged him with detaching Christ’s divinity and humanity into two persons existing in one body, thereby denying the reality of the Incarnation. Eusebius, a layman who later became the bishop of the neighbouring Dorylaeum was the first to accuse Nestorius of heresy but his most forceful opponent however was Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria. Cyril argued that Nestorianism split Jesus in half and denied that he was both human and divine. On 19 November, Nestorius, anticipating the ultimatum which was about to be delivered, convinced Emperor Theodosius II to summon a general council through which Nestorius hoped to convict Cyril of heresy and thereby vindicate his own teachings. The date set by the Emperor for the opening of the council was Pentecost (7 June) 431. The Council denounced Nestorius’ teaching as erroneous and decreed that Jesus was one person, not two separate people: complete God and complete man, with a rational soul and body. The Virgin Mary was to be called Theotokos a Greek word that means “God-bearer” (the one who gave birth to God). The Council declared it “unlawful for any man to bring forward, or to write, or to compose a different Faith as a rival to that established by the holy Fathers assembled with the Holy Ghost in Nicaea”. It quoted the Nicene Creed as adopted by the First Council of Nicaea in 325, not as added to and modified by the First Council of Constantinople in 381. In addition to its condemnation of Nestorianism, the council also condemned Pelagianism. Eight canons were passed: Canon 1-5 condemned Nestorius and Caelestius and their followers as heretics Canon 6 decreed deposition from clerical office or excommunication for those who did not accept the Council’s decrees Canon 7 condemned any departure from the creed established by the First Council of Nicaea (325), in particular an exposition by the priest Charisius. Canon 8 condemned interference by the Bishop of Antioch in affairs of the Church in Cyprus and decreed generally, that no bishop was to “assume control of any province which has not heretofore, from the very beginning, been under his own hand or that of his predecessors … lest the Canons of the Fathers be transgressed.” This council was accepted as an ecumenical one acted as follows, It decided that Cyril’ second letter to Nestorius and not the latter’s reply was in conformity with Nicaea. It confirmed the Nicene Creed and forbade the production of new creeds. It formulated a definition against the Messalians. It produced a circular letter informing clergy and laity about the condemnation of John of Antioch. It produced six canons against those associated with Nestorius and some other heretics. The John of Antioch and eastern bishops setup an alternative council and attempted to excommunicate Cyril. The Roman legate joined the cyrillian council. Later Cyril and John of Antioch were reconciled. About 436 Nestorius was sent into exile. The Christological work of Ephesus had to be complimented by Chalcedon. CONCLUSION As we know in ecclesiastical language the word synod refers to meeting at various levels to discuss matters concerning the church and these councils really brought so many relevant changes in our ecclesiastical dealings. The contributions of these councils are very important and fruitful for the holy mother church to withstand all the heresies and schisms. Bro. Jose K J BIBLOGRAPHY Catholic Encyclopedia, The First Council of Ephesus, Council of Nicaea. Catholic Encyclopedia, the Council of Ephesus. Catholic Encyclopedia, the council of Constantinople. http://www.dailycatholic.org/history/councils.htm http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Council_of_Ephesus Class notes of Rev. Fr. Peter Thomas on Church History (three Major Councils).
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