Always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience (1 Peter 3:15b-16a ESV)
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Nobody will ever write a history of Europe that will make any sort of sense, until he does justice to the Councils of the Church ...
The first two centuries after the death of Christ were marked by periods of intense persecution of the church. The early Christians had little time to concern themselves with systematizing their beliefs -- their primary concern was to preach the Gospel of Christ, to make converts. Some early Christians were able to pass along teachings that they had learned from others, but there was some unity in these teachings, as they all came from a common source. As the apostles and their students began to die, however, the church was faced with a problem.
Teachers arose whose doctrine was not considered true. Controversy arose between followers of different teachers, some of whom claimed to have a "new revelation" of truth from God. The early church quickly established a canon of Scripture, so that everyone knew which books were authoritative and could be used in discerning what true doctrine was. Of course, not everyone agreed even on this point. And so Councils were called.
The idea of a council of church leaders was not new to the fourth century. The early church based their councils on the model set in Acts 15, when the apostles gathered to discuss the conditions under which Gentiles would be welcomed into the new faith. A council was called in 175 to address growing concerns about Montanism, and in 190 to reconcile Eastern and Western methods of determining the date of the Easter celebration (which was really never fully resolved). Cyprian of Carthage called one in 256 to discuss problems relating to persecution of believers in North Africa. Councils were widely used by the early Christians to attenpt to resolve disputes among believers. In this series, though, I will focus specifically on seven councils which are commonly called the Seven Ecumenical Councils because thier rulings were considered to be binding on all of Christianity, and the subjects delt with affected Christians all over the world.
Today, many Christians are ignorant of the councils -- especially Protestant Christians, who tend to regard tradition as something to be ignored and avoided in favor of Scripture. This is unfortunate, because much of our theology is based on these councils, who based their decisions on Scripture. Tradition and Scripture can exist side-by-side -- we simply must be sure that tradition never trumps Scripture. Scripture must be our principle guide, and when tradition and Scripture conflict, it is tradition that is wrong.
Church history is one of my passions. I love looking at the development of Christian theology, and seeing how early Christians looked at the Bible. I think that there is value in exploring where we have come from -- the more we know about our past, the better we can deal with our present, and look forward to the future. Controversies that the Church has delt with in the past can also be a help to us today, and that's what I am hoping to bring out in this series.
In this series, I am going to take a look at each Council individually, the reasons it was convened, it's decisions, and the fallout from it. Then, I am going to look at the Council's statements in light of Scripture, and see where tradition has taken over from the Bible as our guide in faith. I'm going to try to leave preconceptions at the door when I do this, but to an extent that is not possible. I am a conservative Protestant Chrisitan, with all the baggage that comes along with it. And I hope to have some comments from people who disagree with me -- I hope that we can learn from each other.
The series is going to be a little more scholarly than other things that I do here. The wisecracks and sarcasm I tend to inject in many posts won't be there. But I hope I won't make this study too dry, because there is value in it.
My principle source for this is going to be Leo Donald Davis' book The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (327-787): Their History and Heritage. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1983. This should combat my own preconceptions and prejudices, since the book is written from a Roman Cathollic perspective. I'll note any additional sources at the bottom of each post, so that you can do your own study, and see if I'm getting it right!