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Ecumenical councils

Ecumenical councils

Ecumenical councils – are a truly unique phenomenon in the history of the Holy Orthodox Ecumenical Church. Their decisions were and are considered till now as the final judgment of the whole Church according to the most important questions of the Orthodox beliefs and the canonical permit of the most various questions of church life. Just on the Ecumenical councils the truth, stored by the whole Catholic Church, was represented. The Church «gives a high priority to the legislative supreme authority, carries on it the whole set of its spiritual rights, as if it pours itself together with them (emphasis added– A.B.) » with interpretations, determinations and identifications «in a certain period of its life, though in a whole flow of its inexhaustible spiritual advanceit stands higher them, covers with its authority and approves of its acceptance».

At the same time, historically established, that the Cathedrals initially didn`t possess a kind of a certain competence. A range of problems, which could been resolved exceptionally at the Ecumenical council, had never been a secret and the final. How we’ll see, in quite a number of cases the Councils modified its competence. Quite often the other bodies of the ecclesiastical authorities accepted prerogatives, that earlier had been admitted to belong only tothe Councils (church dogmas, canons and disciplinary matters). There is neither a regulation of their action, nor a circle of invitees, nor a periodicity of convocation; even a procedure of their conduct hasn`t been definite.

It turned out, that the Ecumenical councils are higher than the canon law and situated beyond the sphere of the canonical regulation. And it is moreover surprising, that traditionally in the Byzantine Empirereigned a cult of privileges. It is extremely illogically: the Roman Empire, owning the highest technics of the development of the systematic, unified laws, admitted the existence of a phenomenon, incompatible with its legal traditions. No one effort of a legislative settlement of its practice was made for 400 years. But then – the period of the Law code of St. Theodosius the Younger, the Code of St. Justinian the Great, the Eclogue of Leo II and Constantine V, Isaurian Dynasty. Later, in the IX century, when nobody could still assume, that the epoch of the Ecumenical councils had been completed, The Epanagoge of the Patriarch of Constantinople St. Photios the Greatand Basil I, called the Macedonian,were elaborated, and then, a little bit later — the basilisk of the Emperor Leo IV the Wise. But these the most well-known legislative acts, by some unspoken tradition, from a legal point of view, didn`t regard the most important questions of the Council`s actions.

Is it whether a chance? What is the reason of the appearance of this phenomenon? What gave strength to the Council`s decisions? In connection with what, finally, stopped the practice of a worldwide discussion of the dogmatic questions, if during the following centuries there were a lot of reasons for calling another Ecumenical council? It`s amazing, but there are no decisive answers on these natural and evident questions in this way.

Bolotov V.V. The History of the Ancient Church Lecturesin 4 t. Т.3.М., 1994. P. 324, 321.

Sokolov N.K. From the lectures on canon lawin 2 editions.edition.1 М., 1874. P.78.


At first sight, a conclusion comes to mind, that an ecclesiastical custom, quite often having an equal and even a superior power in comparison with hand-written standards of an ecclesiastical law, may be recognized as an appropriate substitution for the canonical founding of the Ecumenical councils. But this supposition runs into an irresistible force of the historical facts, obviously, being not consistent with it. So, the convocation in 325 A.D., by the emperor St. Constantine I the Great (324-337),the first of such kind of the Ecumenical councils –the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea was, on its own account, an unprecedented case, which had been distant from the formed canonic tradition by that time. Even earlier, the large local councils were not a novelty for the Orthodox Church. But earlier the local councils had never gathered together, never the «oriental» fathers consulted with the Egyptian bishops. For this once, all the Church was gathered by the emperor`s call.

The decisions of the Local Councils gained acceptance (and they gain it even today) selectively in other Local Churches. And the received rules had (at least at that period of time), according to the issues, not so much a normative temper, as an importance of a leading start for the church clergy and primates, which were involved in the function of a concrete council. Moreover, some local councils were not recognized by other churches. For example,the Synod of Elvira (the beginning of the IV century) and the Synod of Arles (314 A.D.) were rejected in the East, the Synod of Ancyra (314A.D.) and the Synod of Neo-Caesarea (315 A.D.) were not admitted in the West for a long period of time.Being under the rule of the power of keys,the West Churchhad its owncouncils and regulations, more or less coordinated with those, that were accepted in the East. Generally, the regulations of the East church little effected in the West. On the contrary, in 325A.D. the Nicaea polls acquired a general ecclesiastical meaning not only of a dogmatic, but also of a canonic feature. They even got force of the imperial law. Their violators were threatened not only with the well-known church discipline (anathema, the overthrow of the rank and so on), but also the state. The first, who underwent negative aftereffects on itself of the new order of things, was the heresiarch Arius himself. He was banished into exile by the emperor.


Duchesne L.the History of the Ancient Church Lectures.In 2 volumes T.2. M.,  1914. P.95,96.

Lashkarev PA The right of the church at its core, the types and the sources. Of the readings in church law. Kiev — St., 1889. P.139,140.

Duchesne L. The History of the ancient Church.T.2. P.102, 103.

John (Sokolov), Archimandrite. Experience of the course of ecclesiastical jurisprudence. V.1. Sankt Petersburg, 1851. P. 115.

It`s also obvious, that the definition of the competence and the procedural order formation, regulating the Ecumenical councils` actions, took a considerable amount of time. And it is absolutely clear, that the Nicene Fathers in 325 A.D., couldn`t rely on a firmly established, ecumenical canonical custom. Even more, there is no way to admit the councils`privilegesas clearly defined. This is found out easily in the analysis of its competence, often acceptable for the Councils.

As a rule, they are delegatedby the following exceptional authorities:

1.  To determine byimplication of the (Holy) Scriptures and a general ecclesiastical tradition the article of faith and to state them for the whole Universal Church in the form of definitions.

2.  To research, check and assert the tradition of the Church itself and to separate a true, pure tradition from the damaged and the false one.

3.  To examine and judge definitely any teaching, again coming into existence in the Church.

4.  To examine and discuss the resolutions of the previous Councils, to assert or to change them.

5.   To io nge thevioudge fr the Coucnd dentify the manner of running of the separate Churches and for this purpose to expand or restrict their rights.

6.  To make a Supreme Court under the higher primates of autocephalous Churches and even under the whole set of Local Churches.

7.  To dictate for the whole Church the general rules of positive accomplishment of the church and its ecclesiastical discipline (canons).

However, the mentioned prerogatives are not quiet considered to be a desired value; they represent a well-known mechanical totality of that kind of competence, which demonstrated the certain Ecumenical councils at different times, but surely not everyone.

As it is said particularly, the rules of the Ecumenical councils are considered to be absolute for the whole Church (including the Roman one, even after its separation in 1054), but, in fact, there are serious exceptions here.

Initially Rome admitted and admit now only the first four rules of the Second Council (Constantinople, 381 A.D.), and because of the fact, that they met together in the actions of the late Cathedrals, adopting by the Roman tribune. The Western Church has never admitted the rule 28 of theCouncil of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) – the key one in the sphere of the Constantinople and the Roman throne authorization. In the proper time, by its reason, the whole authority of the Fourth Council was hardly prejudiced, where just the Roman Church and personally the Pope St. Leo I the Great (440-461), played a crucial role in the victory of the Orthodoxy over Monophysitism.

For the reason, that by that time the Roman church had formed its own canonical practice, in many ways different from the Eastern one, the West didn’t recognize the decisions of the Quinisext Council (or as the Council in Trullo, held in Constantinople in 691-692), which disputed or directly rejected it. After a continuous resistance the Supreme pontiff Constantine (708-715) officiallyagreed to accept canons, approved by the Quinisext Council, but very indefinitely:

«Insofar as it does not conflict with the Orthodoxy».But, in fact, Rome ignored them in public and preserved the rules and traditions, e.g. the priesthood`s celibacy, the fasting-Saturday and so on.

On the contrary, a variety of the most important canons was accepted not during the Ecumenical councils. Particularly, «The repeated council» (861A.D.) and «the Council in the Church of St. Sophia (879-880), which took place under St. Photios the Great(858-867 and 877-886), accepted them, according to the 17th and the 3rd rule, being recognized the canonical by the Orthodox Church. Due to the fact, that the other conciliation between the Eastern and the Western Churches took place at the last Council, nominally these rules have anecumenical and obligatory meaning, or, at least, they enjoyed the status until the moment of the final separation of the Roman church from the Ecumenical one.

In 920 after the death of the emperor Leo VI the Wise (886-912), during the Local Council of Constantinople, the final assertion was made and it was found impossible to get married for the fourth time, as well as some important canonical rules about the third marriage were accepted. These rules, officially, also had, until the XI century, an ecumenical meaning.

The canonists continually drew attention to the importance of the Quinisext Council. For instance, the 2nd rule of this Council, according to which the Church admitted being compulsory 625 rules, given by the Apostles, the Holy Fathers and a number of the Local Councils, is considered to be the most important, « This too has appeared best to the this holy Council, as well as most important».But, as it`s fairly noticed, even earlier «the rules had an ecumenical meaning themselves».

The Quinisext Council only recognized them in such quality. As it is said in the Council`s statements, his Fathers « as a matter of fact accepted and validated by the holy and blissful Fathers preceding us, be henceforth retained and left firm and secure for the care of souls and the cure of diseases». And here the Holy Fathers point out, that « the Canons handed down to us (emphasis added – A.B.)in the name of the holy and glorious Apostles».Here the border between the lawmaking and the implementation of an ancient duty is hardly discernible. In terms of the law,the Council – not a lawmaker of these actions; there`s rather a specific manner of an ecclesiasticalacceptance.

Nikodim Milašthe. Serbian Orthodox Church bishop in Dalmatia. The rules of the Orthodox Church.In 2 vols T.2.M., 2001. P. 315, 316.

Lebedev A.P. Essays on the internal history of the Byzantine Eastern Church in the IX, X and XI centuries.Sankt Petersburg., 2003. P.105, 106.

NikodimMilašthe.Serbian Orthodox Church bishop in Dalmatia. The rules of the Orthodox Church. V 2 t. T.1. M., 2001. P. 436.

In course of time the custom has consolidated in the ecclesiastical perception, according to which the Ecumenical councils surely issued the canonical acts. But it appears to happen in theVII century. At least, neither the Fifth Ecumenical council (Constantinople, 553 A.D.) under the emperor St. Justinian I the Great (527-565), nor the Sixth (Constantinople, 680-681) under the emperor Constantine IV the Pogonatos, «the Bearded» (668-685) issued some canonic definitions. This is the reasonof the calling the Trullan Council by the Emperor Justinian II theRhinotmetus (685 -695 and 705 — 711).

The Council, in his term, didn`t examine any dogmatic questions, and later it was qualified as the continuation of the Sixth Council, completing its and the Fifth Council`s flaws.  At least, it was valued in this way at the SeventhEcumenical council in 787 A.D. But here there`s a significant nuance  — V and VI Councils had been recognized by that time by the Church as a kind of ecumenical without any reservations on the subject of an incomplete realization of their exceptional competence.

And it`s impossible to suppose, as if the emperors St. Justinian the Great and Constantine IV the Pogonatoscould prejudice both its own authority and the status of the assembling Councils, having «forgotten» about the necessity of following an ancient tradition. For safeguarding the formal correspondence between these Councils, a certain «model» was needed to be given to some canonical definitions, that, certainly, wasn`t an unsolvable problem. In the meantime, neither the Holy Fathers, nor the emperors, didn`t consider their meetings to be a sin and an opposition to the canonical traditions.

Generally speaking, the Quinisext Council gives a lot of mysteries to those, who inclines to search for an ecumenical«model». It was called later as the Quinisext Council, which wasn`t of significance in its own right without the two previous Councils, but the Council didn`t look defective for the contemporaries, at least, in the East. It was immediately called as anecumenical, though no dogmatic questions were not supposed to be examined during its meetings. The Council had its own actions, connected in a fixed order by the king, the patriarch and all the present bishops. It was called by the emperor Justinian II the Rhinotmetus, specially for consolidation the church discipline and to issue the canonic definitions, concerning the church life.

So we can suppose for sure that as far back as in the VII century the Church conceded to call the Ecumenical Council on any important questions (canonical — in this case), even if there were no dogmatic causes for such an extraordinary event.

The dogmatic debates were also discussed not only at the Ecumenical councils. After the end of the great age many Local Councils examined the dogmatic disputes during its sessions. The Councils of Constantinople under the emperor Manuel I Komnenos(1143-1180) in1147 and 1156as a quick example of it. Under the emperor Alexios III Angelos(1195-1203), a new dispute about the Eucharist, which was resolved at another Local Council of Constantinople,arose. There`s no doubt, that the Hesychastsdispute with Barlaam of Seminara and Gregory Akindireferred to church in generalanda dogmatic character, it was examined at the Councils of Constantinople in 1341 and 1347, not putting into the category of Ecumenical by the Church.

«DVS». V.4. P.266, 267. See also: Ternovskii FA, Ternovskii SA Greek-Eastern Church during the period of the Ecumenical Councils. Read on the church history from the Byzantine emperor Constantine the Great to the Empress Theodora (312-842). P.393

It`s stands to reason as if Ecumenical council can be recognized on the assumption of being the whole Church in absolute legation.  But, as you know, the Second and the Fifth Ecumenical councils had neither the representatives of the Patriarch of Rome, nor him by his own at the meetings. The Pope wasn`t invited purposefully by the emperor St. Theodosius I(379-395) on the Second Council as well as the representatives of the Western diocese. In literal sense, it was the eastern Ecumenical council. But at the Fifth Council there were altogether 25 western bishops against 150 the Greek. True, the Pope Vigilius(537-555), not of his own free will was at that time in Constantinople, but he refused the emperor`s offer to visit the Council.

Bishops, the Antiochenes, which other participants decided not to wait as the obvious and undesirable opponents of  St. Cyril of Alexandriaat the Third Council (431 г.),Council of Ephesus, known for its disturbances and disorders. Having arrived in Ephesus in some days after the Council, which had already stopped its working, the Antiochenes set up a parallel «edition», bishop John was its chairman.

The later recognition by the Antiochenes of the Nestorius’s anathema under the pressure of the emperorTheodosius the Younger(408-450), has occurred as a weak forced argument to speak about the habitual form of participation the representatives of Church at the Council`s meetings. But the Council`s actions show that neither St. Cyril, nor the imperial couple, were not concerned about the fact of crossing the Council`s meeting process and incompleteness of the Council`s membership. Otherwise, as the most probable way, the emperor Theodosius the Youngercould reasonably refuse any written requests on the official grounds by the followers of St. Cyril on its own nameand to recognize decisions of the Council of Ephesus as non-canonical.

If the representation of all the Churches was an indispensable condition to admit the Council as an Ecumenical, then how can we explain that fact, the emperor Konstantin V (741-775),calling the «iconoclastic» ecumenical Council in 754, didn’t attach a large importance to the absence of all the patriarchs or their depositaries? How much this «light-mindedness» correlates with its attention to the subject matter? And though the present Council wasn`t adopted by the Church , but the main reason was concluded not in the quantity of its participants (there were 338 bishops at the Council), but, mainly, according to its substantial causes – the disparities of the main leading principles of the  iconoclasts to the Orthodox creed. Particularly, because of the fact that among the arguments, given by its participants, there were references to the efforts by some characters, which were fully justified in heresy, or because the giving arguments by the iconoclasts were false.

But the problems didn`t end. It`s usually believed, as if it needs to make a proper decision to recognize the Council as an Ecumenical at the following one. That is really true that the following Councils usually showed their recognition of the previous Ecumenical councils. It`senoughtopointattheFirstruleoftheSecondCouncil(«The holy Fathers assembled in Constantinople have decided not to set aside the faith of the three hundred and eighteen Fathers who met in Nicaea»),theSeventhrule of the Council of Ephesus (though it was composed separately from the council`s message, sending to bishops, presbyters, deacons and to all the people), the First rule of Chalcedon(«We have deemed it right that the canons hitherto issued by the saintly fathers at each and every synod should remain in force»)and the First rule of the Quinisext Council, the First rule of the Seventh. But the Seventh Ecumenical Councilitself (Nicaea, 787) was not adopted in this manner for quite explicable reasons: it was the last Ecumenical Council.

Moreover, if you consider this sign to be an obligatory for Ecumenical council, it`s easy to find out, that in its formal approach it requires to us no one, but, at least, two Ecumenical councils to accept the previous one in real quality. For instance, to admit the First Council of Nicaea as the ecumenical, it is necessary not only the Second Council, but also the Third, recognizing, by-turn, the competence of the Second, as an Ecumenical council, and so on. But recognition of the Seventh Council as ecumenical, happened at the Fifth council`s meeting «InHagia Sophia» in January 26, 880 by the Patriarch of ConstantinopleSt. Photios the Great, though «Hagia Sophia» itself isn`t admitted as ecumenical by the Greek Church.

On the basis of stating, we can only agree, that all outward signs of the Councils are false, but from the logic`s point view – «of quite a low-standard». The conclusion is also obvious, that Ecumenical Councils don`t have any earlier made system. Thus, at the heart of the church building lay the beginning of naturalness, free of preconceived theories. «Thus, at the heart of the church building lay the beginning of naturalness, free of preconceived theories».

NikodimMilaša  Serbian Orthodox Church bishop in Dalmatia. The rules of the Orthodox Church. T.1.P 303

Lebedev A.P. The history of the Councils of Constantinople of the IX century. Saint Petersburg2001. P 266-268

Bolotov V.V.  Lectures on the history of the ancient Church. T3 P. 320, 321

Ib. P.329



It`s not surprising in the appearance of a lot of theories regarding the Councils` status and their places in the hierarchyof ecclesiastical authorities. Sometimes it is said, that the Councils are the highest authorities of a church government. But, according to the orthodox view, they were the institutes of an extraordinary character. They were called in case of emergency about the affairs of causes, which were in need of solution in concrete time conditions. But if the Councils were not got together for more than one thousand years, their recognition in this quality was to the force of the church reception, and then the questions themselves come to mind. The main of them: can an authority of a church government be recognized as the highest, the powers of which are being admitted after a certain period of time, and it gets together only occasionally, and, eventually, fully stopped its activity? And if the statement is true, that with the lapse of time the necessity of calling Ecumenical Councils disappears, and «the church life itself hasn`t claimed for it, that produced a natural reason of stopping the Ecumenical Councils` practice», then how can such characteristic be implied in point of the highest authorities of a church government?

It`s often believed, as if Ecumenical Councils are the only authority of a canonical ecumenical legislation. But, how it has already been said earlier, not all the canonical acts are linked its appearance with their activity. And indeed, the Councils were called specially not for producing the body of canonical rules, but, in the first place, for solving dogmatic questions. As a result, the Councils didn`t give a syntactic, systemic and finished legislation to the Ecumenical Church. They simply solved a well-known quantity of the doubtful precedents, on which The Fathers Councils drew attention.

From another point of view, Ecumenical Councils are the highest ecclesiastical authority in the Church, though with known sayings. The author of this point of view believes that ecumenical episcopacy is the bearer of this highest ecclesiastical regiment. The Councils themselves correspond to the most perfect way of realization its authorities in the Church by the ecumenical episcopacy. However, the Councils had its own competence, differed from their composition, the method of accepting and kinds of decisions (dogmatic, canonical and disciplinary) and the way of introducing them in the activity. It`s enough to remember the fact, that the church interrogations after its emperors` approval signified the meaning of laws of the land. In addition to it, Ecumenical Councils assumed the measures of a disciplinary character to the particular people, that is absolutelyunusual to the «method». We can`t also notice, that, according to one correct remark, the name «ecumenical» doesn`t express the opinion about the presence of all bishops at the Councils or even the most of them.

It`s clear that if you go the way, suggesting by the author of this hypothesis, those absent bishops just couldn`t realize their authorities. At the same time, they didn`t differ from the other arch pastors canonically because of a whole range of accidents, having a part in the Council`s meetings. To such kind of «accidents» in the first place it can be referred to an independent and free definition by the emperors` in every specific case of a number of representatives from each of the Local churches and even metropolitanates. The Roman arch-see was the only exception, which usually without the emperor`s participation fixed the quantity of the (Papal) legate.

It`s affirmed, obeying a specified logic, as if all the others Councils` participants (the laity, ordinary clergymen, monks) had at best only the rule of adeliberative vote. However, in reality, the Councils had been never a closed meeting of bishops. The monks, ordinary clergymenand the laity were the customary eyewitnesses of  what was going on, frequently carrying into the process substantial amendments. As stated above, it regards in the first place such Councils as the First, the Third, the Sixth and the Seventh. For instance, many clergymen, the laity and even pagan philosophers, wishing to explain itself the basis of the Orthodox belief, participated at the First Council. St.Athanasius the Great, being the clerk, was conspicuous at its meetings. Definitely, he personally made a lot for disapproving Arianism at the Council. We can speak with confidence, that the attitudes of Ephesus citizens and the people, who arrived with St. Cyril of Alexandria, also the position of Saint Simeon Stylites were the decisive as for the content of the Council`s meetings, so for the formation of the emperor`s Theodosius the Younger point of view about the actions of this Council and «conciliabulum» of John of Antioch.

The voice of the monks («of a bishop, or of a presbyter, or of a deacon») at the Seventh Council, especially of Father superior of the Sava Stoudios, sounded with the voices of gathered at the bishops` meeting. How had been already mentioned in the proper chapter, an equal right to vote on the Council`s questions was recognized, though not as an exception of the rule, but as a direct request of the Church tradition. The monks (there were 131 them at the Council) made a lot for fighting against iconoclasm, passed its weighty opinions of adoration of saint icons. But the chairman and Holy Fathers inquired them of the canonical questions, for example, about accepting in the communication of the penitent bishop-iconoclasts, that wasn`t keep within any bishop theories.

Pavlov A.S. The course of the faculty. P.204

The minutes of the councils` meetings, on a par with bishops` signatures, bear, particularly, the sigs of: the monk of Sava the Stoudios, the monk of the cloister St. Sergei Gregory, John, the Paguriysky monk, Eustathius, the Maksiminsky monk, Simeon, the Khor monk, and many others, including the ordinary iconoclasts` signatures, the quantity of whom was enough.

And how could change the church tradition and its practice, suddenly and decisively, if the active role of a secular element and the voice of the ordinary clergymen had been an appropriate for them before the age of Ecumenical Councils, and much later? The Christian Councils of the first and the second century usually consisted of the bishops and people – the members of community. For instance, at the Synod of Elvira in AD305 and 313 there were 26 presbyters, which sat near bishops and voted on a par with them. At the Third Latin Council in 196 there were more presbyters and together with the bishops they wrote about the events, happened at the Council. At the Ephesus Council in 196 there were generally all the presbyters, who settled the matter.

The bishops themselves were elected by their flock even when the Church became the state, the bishops` and patriarchs’ appointment became a state prerogative. And though with the lapse of time the bishops` authority more and more has been accepting a single-handed administrative character, but for a long period of time the bishops couldn’t decide to try any attempts without the community`s approval.

Moreover, the Forth Rule of the Council of Nicaeain AD 325(«It is by all means desirable that a bishop should be appointed by all the bishops of the province. But if this is difficult because of some pressing necessity or the length of the journey involved, let at least three come together and perform the ordination, but only after the absent bishops have taken part in the vote and given their written consent. But in each province the right of confirming the proceedings belongs to the metropolitan bishop») doesn`t except the ancient practice of the participation of the laity when choosing the bishop. It only underlies the dominant role of the church hierarchy in this process. After increase of the members of Christian communities, a deliberative way of making decisions becomes hardly possible, but the practice of attraction the members of representatives to the decisions of church questions has never fully disappeared from the life of Church.

DWS T.4.P342, 349, 350, 351, 354, 366.

DWS T.4 P. 395, 396.

PomortsevAleksei, the monk. The historic review of the Councils,  that had been in the first three centuries of Christianity.

Ternovskii F.A., Ternovskii S.A. The Greco-east Church in the period of Ecumenical Councils.The readings on the church history of the Byzantine Empire from the emperor Constantine the Great to the empress Theodora (312-842).P.228, 229.

Peter Lyuile, archbishop. The rules of the first four Councils.М., 2005. P. 89, 90.


Gidulyanov P.V. From the history of developing the Church governmental power. The eastern

Patriarchs in the period of the first four Ecumenical Councils.Yaroslavl, 1908.P. 58, 59, 70.


Even in the Western Church, where the idea about exceptional church in general and even the highest secular authorities of the pontiff consolidated quite early, the local councils had never been the closed meetings of the episcopacy. So, particularly, in the early merovinsky meetings the main participants, besides the bishops, were the abbots, ordinary priests and deacons. Even at the «purely» synodal Councils, as at the Ossersky council in 578 A.D. there were 1(!) bishop, 7 abbots, 34 priests and 3 deacons. But at the Agdsky council in 506 A.D. – 8 priests, 2 deacons and they had the authorities of the «deputies’ bishops». Still the border between episcopacy and the other participants at the so-called «mixed» councils, where a whole range of questions was discussed, is less noticed. At the Saint-Maurice Council in 515 A.D., which was called by the Frankish kingSigismund, there were 4 bishops and 8 counts. At the Orange Council in 529 A.D.- 14 bishops and 8 aristocrats. At the Parish Council in 638 A.D. – 9 bishops and 3 nobles. Can we imagine, that in that time, when Ecumenical Councils were called, and the idea of the unity in general of the Catholic Church wasn`t undermined by the struggle for power between the departments, this so contradictory practice was possible?

According to another versions, the Councils correspond to the highest ecclesiastical authority in the Church. But  the God-inspired Holy Fathers not only expressed the absolute dogmatic assertions on the questions of creed, but accepted the canons, and also made decisions concerning the particular people. It’s, of course, the striking illustration of the fact, that the Councils directly implemented the powers of authority in the Church, but not only demonstrated the highest spiritual authority.



Solodovnilov V. The early Councils. Gaul VI-VIII C. M., 2004 P.17, 18, 20

Ib. P.31-39

Ecumenical Councils. The Edition of the Holy DormitionPochayivLavra, P. 7, 8


Из этого источника взяты отрывки/выписки из актов.



Thus we should look for the answers to these questions in other area and resort to historical facts. As we know, after the churching of the Roman Empire, the Church replaced pagan priesthood and accepted all the authority and prerogatives that its predecessor had under the Roman law. A magnificent “symphonic” unity of Church and Empire arose, where public and personal life activity were devoted to the sole purpose – spreading and maintenance of Orthodoxy for the sake of people salvation and “the life in the world to come”.

Inherently that organic unity couldn’t exist under “parallelism” of two unions – political and spiritual. The Universal Roman Empire became a Church, and the Catholic Church identified itself with the Roman government in order to spread the Orthodoxy around the world and change the corrupted man, recall him to God. The majestic figure of universal autocrat, the emperor of Rome, stayed in the centre of that “symphony”. He solely united two naturally different unions, revealing visually by himself the highest sacred divinely instituted power in the whole Universe. Emperor became a supreme guarantor and main defender of Orthodoxy as a holder of the highest power – political and spiritual, and a common absolute source of lawmaking for Church and government. In other words, emperor became a heart of “symphony”, inconceivable without him.

This way of life was the only possible for those majestic historical times, when Christianity was only arising. Of course, the “symphony” of Church and government at times of Byzantine Empire, as any earthly creation, had its splendid times and negative instances for the simple reason, that nowhere worldly power — after the image and likeness of God’s power, will be higher than ideal or be ideal. It applies to imperfection of any kind of worldly power as to churchdom power, implemented by the same people with the same faults that we have. But may we estimate an event exclusively on the basis of negative instances?

A well-known Russian canonist fairly noted, that the relationship between Church and Empire since St. Constantine I the Great is usually designated as “union”. With all benefits of such terminological designation of that specific relationship one cannot but mention that this concept was unknown at that ancient time. The term has never been used in any imperial edict or in any rule of canonical legislation. There is the only reference to the use of this word in the famous VI novel of Emperor St. Justinian the Great, which is referred to conditions of “symphony” of reign and priesthood, but not in the context we have got used to. Neither St. Justinian I, nor his numerous predecessors and successors divided Church and Empire. They are the unity for them, various emanations of one church-political body.

It is justly observed further, that concept “union” usually connected with idea of mutual agreement, evident or secret, “but, anyway, accompanied with the fact, that each side waives a certain part of it’s independence for more successful achievements of specific purpose with joint forces”34.

It is evident, that there was no agreement between temporal and spiritual power, and it could not exist during the reign of St. Constantine the Great, as no churchdom to enter into an agreement or “union” with existed then. In addition, such renunciation of theocratic principles, those were indisputable for all ancient countries, was utterly inconceivable when the world lived only by religion.

Meanwhile, unfortunately, our historians and canonists in their proceedings wish hardly reasonable to provide the Church independence from government “post factum” for that ancient times. Holy Father, councils and the Church itself do not need this.

In pure theory we certainly may wish the Church to be isolated from the government and all earthly. But the Savior came to the world to accept and change it. A suggestion of “independent” Church not only reduces it to a status of a certain exclusive circle of “selected” (that is inconceivable for Orthodoxy), but, as a consequence, to a renunciation of Christ’s highest goal – to give the God back to the man, to give him a course and power to struggle against the sin.

A.V. Kartashev wrote about this well and properly (1875-1960). He wrote: “We often judge the Church “in European way”, proceeding from the imaginary undoubted axiom of “separation of Church and government”, whereas it is a Nestorian heresy for Orthodox views. It is — alas! – acceptable for all us in the absence of something better in actuality. It is as well as not our Orthodox norm (we do not mention the ideal anyway), is an evidence of our powerlessness, our submissive shrinking into a corner of “tolerance”. We have practically betrayed the ideal and principle of theocracy, accepted its abolishment and got the right to criticize arrogantly the Byzantine theocracy. It is easy to see an ancient rudeness, human passions and heaps of sinfulness in it. But that was, though mutilated by sin, standing on the ground of mystic-dogmatic Christological-Orthodox, binatural, theanthropic, theocratic wholeness.35

“Secular” initially critical approach makes a lot of difficulties, sharply narrows the subject of actually scientific investigation, and, as a result, robs us of our ability to comprehend the essence of church custom that the Councils followed. The hypotheses arise that cannot secure the necessary historical material, and, furthermore, contravenes it.

For example, it is impossible to disprove the fact of emperors’ participation in ecumenical councils. But publicists make sometimes grandiose efforts to prove, that emperors participated only nominally in Councils’ deeds, and their signature was formal, in order to prove “independence” of the Church. Other theoretical constructs say that emperors convened a Council exclusively at the instance or order of the clergy, and did not have any independent right, supported by the Church, to decide the issue. But Councils’ documents, the only indisputable evidence of history, directly shows that only basileuses convened, fixed a composition of participants and the point at issue, affirmed the ecumenical decisions attached them the status of  church and imperial law. What reasons do we have then to suppose that the emperors needed somebody’s compulsory advice or consent to convene all Holy Fathers from all the countries of populated universe?

“Wishing to heal this evil with my assistance, I have immediately convened all you here” — Constantine I the Great said it in his oration to Holy Fathers36. An attempt of St. Cyril, Archbp. of Alexandria to take over this initiative provoked immediate (and negative) reaction of other emperor — Theodosius II Junior: “Why did you without us, who, you know, are concerned about piety very much, and without holy persons from all places, whose meeting could solve  bewilderment conveniently, caused disarray and separation in the churches by yourself?”37. These examples are typical for all without exception Ecumenical Councils.

Emperor’s competence to defend the faith (so it was his legal duty to intervene in the disagreements, connected with religion or Church affair) was not brought into question by contemporaries. In whole limits of authority seemed so clear for episcopate and emperor, that they did not need special legal regulation. Some western and African cathedrals (Ariminum 359, Carthaginian 399) in the earliest centuries of established Church were exceptions – they were not accepted by basileuses. Emperor Honorius (395-423) reminded Fathers of Carthaginian cathedral that discourses on issues of legal procedures of clergymen, abolition of pagan holidays and so forth are out of bishop competence38.

Therefore emperors, feeling deeply their responsibility to the God for purity of Beliefs, considered it to be his duty (before the right) to interfere in dogmatic controversies as they arise39. Not nominally though, but substantively. We have given numerous examples on it earlier in respective chapters. Of course we cannot say that authority limits of hierarchs and emperors were static.

Empire and its external living conditions changed, what influenced the tendencies that appeared periodically in relations between church hierarchy and imperial power. Various statuses of the Church in Byzantine society, nature of relations between bishops and emperors, authority and influence of individuals on one or another socio-political events depended on real state of the affairs, problematic of foreign and internal life and emperors’ and patriarchs’ personality.

However, in spite of all changes the main thing was immutable – the Church and its control elements for emperor were the same part of empire as all others. And the ecumenical councils were, first of all, emperor’s authority, public institution40, bent to monarch’s will. The emperors influenced the Church and protected its unity through them41.

Of course, emperors’ deification, unlike in the case with pagan rulers, did not exist. The most powerful emperor is the servant of God for the Church, the child, who became a Christian through the sacrament of baptism, was absolved through the sacrament of confession and whom the Church laid to rest. The emperor, as autocratic anointed of the Lord and the earthly head of the Church never dared to administer a sacrament of Eucharist, even aspiring to Episcopal title. The last barrier always prevented extremes. On the one part emperors could not have a claim on “divine right” and apostolic prerogatives, even if they are recognized as equal to the apostles. On the other part the emperor was recognized as God’s vicar in accordance with legal and governmental traditions. The God administers justice, protects the faith and rules the Empire with help of him.


External legal “mess” in Ecumenical Council activity is explained by this rooting into Roman Empire, this “symphonic” unity. But it is also relieved by this circumstance. After the Church had entered into Roman Empire, it apprehended its life and filled gradually pagan legal and political forms and institutions with new light of Christian ideal. It is understandable in the context of law that, otherwise, two competitive legal systems would have arisen: imperial legislation, rejected by the Church and rather weak, hardly systematic, but self-isolated canon law. Would be such “unity” good for the world? The answer is evident.

In the beginning of established Church rise, when pagan Roman law was in force almost everywhere, clergy and authority, having one goal – Christian renovation of the world, naturally used the forms that were recognized in political life. Canons that Church had before IV century were not opposed to approved legal and political traditions of Empire. They merged with them, acquiring the necessary legal form for future development, originating new Rome-Byzantine law that became the base of European law.

Consecutive consolidation of Orthodoxy in the capacity of state religion of Byzantine Empire gave rise to many new legal institutions that combined ancient Roman forms and conceptions with qualitatively new content. For example, gods by ancient pagan tradition were recognized as owners of church. Ancient Christians considered it not to be bad to accept “old bottles”. Under the emperor St. Justinian I the Great all the temples come under institution res sacrae, and the Lord Jesus Christ is recognized as the subject of church right of property. Of course, this had far-reaching consequences in the field of legislative securing of patrimony. An idea about things owner, emerging again, did not annul the deep ethical-juristic idea, manifesting itself in the institution of divine property. Principle “juris sacri” existed before and after Justinian and gradually became a stable standard of jurisprudence42.

A new law on the basis of Roman ideas regulated all the most significant aspects of divine service: objects of patrimony, sacrosanct places, church construction and so forth. The Church, as equal subject of civil legal relations, acquired a right to buy property, dealing with third party or have testamentary succession43.

The institution of independent parish property status, known for many centuries, also comes from civil law of Byzantine Empire. The Ancient Church before IV century did not the conception of “parish church”, the only parish was diocese. But the tendency to property isolation of small common vestries takes shape under the emperor Theodosius I the Great.

So far as dependence of parish church hardly conformed to Roman civil law principles, under the emperor Zeno (474-491, except for the period 475-476), some local churches got rights of a legal entity, derivative of Episcopal church though. Bishop still had church estate administration rights, but he lost parish church property rights. This tendency was finally embodied in the legislation of the emperor St. Justinian I the Great, and, of course, it was caused by Roman views about legal entities and by convenience of church estate administration44.

It is interesting, that the grand invention of the holy relics comes from ancient Christian law on veneration of the saints and Roman burial law. Roman laws, confirmed by Christian emperors, guaranteed absolute inviolability of graves. So any exception, connected with the translation of holy relics, required the administrative decision at highest level. The biggest number of exceptions had occurred in Constantinople that initially did not have its own saints. A complex legal procedure was developed, by which holy relicts were translated and the name of saint was inserted in metropolitan martyrology. This practice of “translation”, as a famous historian of the Church notes, caused the development of canonization.

It is no wonder that Roman law had a critical influence on procedural institutions that were assumed as a basis for activity of Ecumenical Councils. The main moral principles of Christian legal procedure were constant: the idea of pastoral care of the accused, triple brotherly exhortation to them and so forth. And with it the Church willingly accepts the legal procedural forms and institutions of the Roman Empire45. This closer relation of ancient church practice and state law was natural, as no other alternative existed then. Hebrew law that ancient Church judges (bishops) primarily used did not have accurate and complete judicial procedure. Only Roman law and its profoundly elaborate institutions were sufficient for church to have the necessary forms of action. It was the most natural for the Church to use the forms of actions, which the government practiced and which were statutory, because church members were the same nationals46.

The most important procedural institutions that were applied during Ecumenical Councils and coming not from Roman law hardly can be remembered. For example, Roman law demanded from an accuser to continue an accused charge against a defendant and released him from this obligation only in statutory cases. If the accuser avoided the obligations by his own decision, i.e. arbitrarily, he was subjected to a serious mulctary punishment, and the defendant was exonerated from all accusations, and his name was struck off minutes of a trial47. This norm was reproduced in 19th (28th) canon from the council of Carthage in the year 419, introduced in canonical books: “But his accuser, if he has not missed any of the days for pleading the cause…but if he has missed some of them, withdrawing himself, then the bishop (i.e. in this case defendant. –A.V.) shall be restored to communion and the accuser shall be removed from communion; so, nevertheless, that the possibility of going on with the case be not taken from him, if he shall prove that his absence was caused by lack of power and not by lack of will”.

If an accuser made a false charge against somebody, then according to Roman law considered him as a calumniator and punished him as was provided for the charge he brought against a defendant. This institution (poena talionis) has also got to canonical acts body, regulating the activity of Councils. The 6th canon of the Second Ecumenical Council stipulates that the accusers, bringing a charge before the Episcopal council and they “shall not produce their allegations before they have promised in writing to undergo an equal penalty to be exacted from themselves, if, in the course of the examination, they shall be proved to have slandered the accused bishop”. The well-known canonist fairly notes that the identity of the requirements of church and secular laws is available in this case48.

Even these few examples (their number can be increased manifold) are enough for understanding: canonical practice of Ecumenical Councils, developed in the course of several centuries, was strongly influenced by state-legal institutions of Byzantium, and gradually became a law of Empire itself. In one fair remark, Ecumenical Councils represent not only all the Church itself, but, the main thing, its unity (i.e. symphony) with a state49. The first codifier of ecclesiastical law St. John Scholasticus (A.D. VI) estimated the significant of imperial laws: “they do not only meet a meaning of our orthodox father’s canons, but also give them great-power status by imperial authority, with legal and God-pleasing addition, taking into consideration, in imitation of the God, that every human being may be useful”50.



But, after these examples the answer is still actual: why did not the Holy fathers consolidate canonically the laws that had appeared by experience in the form of custom after the first Councils? The point was to make an authority that would interpret to the all the Universal Church the formulas of faith and establish obligatory laws, any evasion of which was punished the Church. If not the Council, then who could be concerned by the legal aspect of their activity? And why had not government legislation regulated all phases of Council activity, if their decisions subsequently became law of the all Church-Empire?

However it was unnecessary. Each Ecumenical Council was in the first place a Universal Court of Orthodox Church against concrete heresiarchs and heresy, spread by them. Essentially Holy Fathers defended the purity of religious doctrine that was commanded by the Savior and his apostles, and they were not academic thinker that reason about one or another dogmatic question “just in case”. Since procedure of Council conduct was based on procedural institutions of Roman law, the necessity of elaboration of qualitatively new laws looked nonsensical. In the “symphonic” unity of Church and Empire the emperor was the only and absolute legislator, whose authority covered also acceptance or rejection of conciliar decisions, regardless of who has made it: ecumenical council of Holy Fathers, local council of the Patriarchate of Constantinople or council of Eastern Church that was convened invariably in Constantinople after 105451.

At that time nobody would dare encroach upon competence of emperor, the highest legislative body in Roman Empire. This conclusion is even more evident at the time of the First Council, then it was impossible to imaging, that justice can be done in form that the Roman state of that period did not know. Obviously, such acts and such court could not be accepted by Roman sense of justice, as they run counter to basic procedural principles, traditions and practice of Roman legal procedure.

If a defendant was returned guilty and heretic at a Council, he was punished not only by a church, but also by government. Evidently, that there could not be two procedural legal systems within the scope of one legislation in Byzantium, on conditions that a church criminal was also a state criminal. It was impossible to imaging, that imperial laws and conciliar acts, equally legal only with emperor’s signature, could be rival. So the question, if Holy Fathers were “independent” from imperial power during convocations of Councils and sitting of the court. Obviously, a council, no matter how imposing it was, and its decisions never had a legal status if it was established under emperor’s protest. The unfortunate example is the Lateran council in 649, convened by the Patriarch of Rome St. Martin (649-653) against Monothelitism. But, since this Council begun without emperor’s Constantius II permission, it was not recognized, and its administrators appeared in court.

Of course, forms of ancient Roman law were not enough in further development of conciliar legal process. Church life set the problems that needed a proper legal framing. And emperors, usually responsive to church tradition, willingly corrected one or other institutions. This, however, did not bring to legislative consolidation of conciliar procedural forms and institutions for a number of reasons.

In the first place in our opinion, this demonstrated the highest status of Ecumenical Council as extraordinary, divine authority, inaccessibly high in comparison with any other authority of the Roman Empire. It was the authority of the Holy Ghost, the Son of God, as the emperor St. Constantine the Great expressed himself once after the Council of Nicaea: “For that which has commended itself to the judgment of three hundred bishops cannot be other than the doctrine of God; seeing that the Holy Spirit dwelling in the minds of so many dignified persons has effectually enlightened them respecting the Divine will”52.

The Councils with their authority increased manifold by emperor’s authority established once and for all the rules which the all Universal Church followed and did not admit even the thought that their canonical or dogmatic assertion would be at variance with emperor’s laws. They naturally supplemented church legislation of a state, believing that just ecumenical decisions, made in the presence of great number of Holy Father under the chairmanship of the emperor would have the necessary status, ensured their steadfast and universal implementation. The necessity to specificate additionally on the questions of procedure did not exist, as it was unclaimed and inconceivable for canonical and state sense of justice at the time of Ecumenical Councils.

In the second place, it was the supreme body of the emperor on the questions of religious doctrine. Unlike local councils, whose activity did not always attracted the attention of basileus, Ecumenical Councils were convened exclusively by them and on the questions that emperors considered to be urgent for all Universal Church. Any attempt of the emperor to regulate legislatively Councils’ procedures would directly or indirectly lead to a settlement (and, consequently, to a restriction) of the highest emperor’s prerogatives, that, of course, was inconceivable and illogically for a state, where the supreme legislature is emperor himself.

Finally, it was an extraordinary authority, convened if necessary and always obliged to take prudent measures in order to preserve Church unity and look for correct balance between acrybia and economy. It is clear that such nuances hardly can be legally regulated

As consequence, the only way out, suggested by the time, consisted in preserving a considerable discretion, basing, nevertheless, on the one hand, on the strict principles of Roman procedural laws, and, on the other hand, on laws of church life and canonical traditions.

That is why great Councils are so individual and unlike each other, preserving, nevertheless, those characteristic features, that were formed in Nicaea in 325. The authority of the first ecumenical council, in the aggregate with the authority of the emperor St. Constantine the Great, was so great that further Council practice always proceeded from this first precedent, as a brilliant analog. Of course, complete similarity was not always achieved, so every following Council adds to this practice its individual feature. At the same time the Church has not ever allowed to doubt about principles and forms that it has got in Nicaea in 325. The emperors in return did not dare to change what was recognized by Church.

As supreme legislator and main keeper of the Faith and piety, the emperor identified by himself the most acute dogmatic problems, disturbing the Church and circle of participants, proceeding from concrete needs and situation. And, undoubtedly, such “formal” circumstances as the number of present bishops were not prior. So it was unimportant for contemporaries of Councils, how many bishops attended each concrete Council, it was desirable though all the representatives of Local churches to be there. However, if this condition was not fulfilled, the authority of councils was not brought into question, if its acts were signed by emperor and they corresponded to general traditions of church life. Further church reception determined everything, i.e. the adoption of council decisions by church completeness, their verification for conformity for the spirit and the letter of Orthodoxy. Unlike the Western Church, Eastern Church always took the forms of ascertainment of the truth quite “easily”, allowing, as a rule, variability and even insignificant departure from established standards, if it seemed like compliance with them created additional difficulties. With regard to the history of Councils this practice proved its value, from procedural questions and determination of composition to the status of the highest conciliar body of the Church itself, when at the age of the East-West Schism the Eastern councils inherited the prerogatives of the Ecumenical Councils.

However there was a need for three conditions for this brilliant practice: the unity of the Catholic Church, preserving of the “symphonic” tradition of relations between church and state authorities and the presence of the emperor as the head of church government. The Ecumenical Councils should have disappeared when one of the bases of this system collapsed. And after IX century, when Roman church and all the Christian west recognized another emperor, besides Roman emperor, the Church was not unite.

At the East Byzantine emperor ruled, at the West – German. The difference between Roman and eastern practices, canonical and dogmatic traditions by that time was so obvious and so sharp, that the usual way of ensuring their unity – convocation of Ecumenical Councils, could hardly help. West and East were a burden for each other. Political rupture inevitably led to church rupture. Then as a result of mutual arrogance two column of the Great Orthodox Church-Empire were undermine – the unity of Universal Church and monocracy of its head – Byzantine emperor, West and East could not be together as one organic body. No Ecumenical Council could be possible in these conditions. The schism of 1054 just was a documentary registration of what had happened earlier.


34 Lashkaryov P.A. Ecclesiastical law with its bases, forms and sources. From lectures about ecclesiastical law. P.153, 154


35 Kartashev A.V. Ecumenical Councils 1994, p 360-361


36 “Oration of the Emperor Constantine to the holy council” “DVS” Vol.1. P.39

37 “The Letter of the Emperors Theodosius and Valentinus to St. Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria” “DVS” Vol.1. C.208.

38 Ibid. P.5, 8, 66, 67

39 Ibid. P.65, 66, 103-107.

40 Kulakovsky Y.A. The History of Byzantium Vol.1. 2003. P.139

41 Suvorov N.S. Roman papacy before the East-West Schism // chronicle of Demidov juridical lycée. Book 29, 1882. P.18.

42 Michail (Semenov), hieromonk. Legislation of Roman-Byzantine emperors about external rights and privileges of the Church (313-565). Kazan, 1901. P.35-37.

43 Sokolov P. Parish-property laws in Greek-Roman Empire. Experience of historical and juridical study. Novgorod, 1896. P.125, 137.

44 Michail (Semenov), hieromonk. Legislation of Roman-Byzantine emperors about external rights and privileges of the Church (313-565) P.40-42.

45 Prokoshev P. Church legal procedure at the period of Ecumenical councils (accusatio) and influence of Roman-Byzantine procedural law. Kazan, 1900. P. 52-56, 59, 61.

46 Ibid. P.63.

47 Ibid P.93, 94

48 Nikodim (Milash), Dalmatian-Istrian bishop. Laws of Orthodox Church. Vol.1. P.268

49 Skvortsov I.M. The transactions about church jurisprudence. Kiev, 1861. P.62.

50 Citation from: Lashkaryov P.A. Ecclesiastical law with its bases, forms and sources. From lectures about ecclesiastical law. P.95, 96.

51 Pavlov A.S. Course of  ecclesiastical law. P.330.

52 “The letter from the Emperor Constantine to the Patriarchate of Alexandria against Arius”// “DVS”. Vol.1. P.79.

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