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Intro to The Creeds and the Seven Ecumenical Councils

By Jeff Spry . . .

Bookmark this page for some great theological resources. Thanks Jeff!

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The various creeds of Christendom have aided the Christian church in the formulation of our faith through the centuries. They are not the Bible and they have never been considered equal with Scripture in any way by any orthodox believer. They are systematic commentaries on biblical doctrines. They are not authoritative unless they truly represent the teachings of sacred Scripture.  Any teaching which is orthodox concerning the Sacred Scriptures should be heeded by all for all time.

It is often remarked that creeds should not be held to or heeded because they are not authoritative, and not inspired by God. However, the history of the church and the creedal formularies they have made were never thought to be inspired in the first place, but rather to define and express cogently what is inspired.  If the Bible teaches that all men must wear white shirts, then the creedal statement of faith which explains this succinctly is attempting to teach Christians that the Bible says this, and that any false teaching (such as all men must wear black shirts) is erroneous.  The Inspired Scriptures are commented on by every able and true minister of the Word each Lord’s Day, but that does not make their sermons inspired.  Christians read books defining certain theological concepts but that does not make the book inspired, just helpful to the edification of the Christian.

Some have said the creeds are man-made and hence should be ignored in favor of Scripture. Should we then dispose of all sermons, Bible study texts, commentaries, doctrinal outlines, books on theology, and devotionals? Certainly not! The creeds do not masquerade as Scripture and many specifically point out that it is the Scriptures themselves which are “the only infallible rule of faith and practice.”

Yet as Christians is it not valuable to consider how the Holy Spirit has spoken to our brothers and sisters over the millennia as they have struggled with various issues, poured over the Scriptures and often fasted and prayed heartily with their fellow Christians in the light of the inspired texts? Of course! To quote Charles H. Spurgeon to his students,

“You are not such wiseacres as to think or say that you can expound the

Scripture without the assistance from the works of divine and learned men

who have labored before you in the field of exposition . . . . It seems odd

that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to

themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.”

(Commenting and Commentaries)

Most of the creeds were born out of a time of turmoil fighting against heresies prevalent in the day. They helped define what was orthodox and true, and condemned what was heretical and false.  Even many of the early church hymns were written to teach Christians true doctrine; and I know of very few people who would throw away the hymns of worship, as they would a creed of the church. The Christian church has been, through church history, a creedal church. We continue to define what the Bible says in order to combat heresy and teach one another the truth set forth by God in the Bible.

A Church Council is an official ad hoc gathering of representatives to settle Church business. Such Councils are called rarely and are not the same as the regular gatherings of church leaders (synods, etc). An ecumenical council is one at which the whole Church is represented. The three major branches of the Church (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant) recognize seven ecumenical councils: Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (680), Nicea II (787). Further ecumenical councils were rendered impossible by the widening split between Eastern (Orthodox, Greek-speaking) and Western (Catholic, Latin-speaking) Churches, a split that was rendered official in 1054 and has not yet been healed.

In addition to these universally-acknowledged councils, the Roman Catholic Church recognizes a further fourteen ecumenical councils: Constantinople IV (869-70), Lateran I (1123), Lateran II (1139), Lateran III (1179), Lateran IV (1215), Lyons I (1245), Lyons II (1274), Vienne (1311-12), Constance (1414-18), Florence (1438-45), Lateran V (151217), Trent (1545-63), Vatican I (1869-70), Vatican II (1965). But these were councils of only the Roman Catholic Church, and are not recognized by the Orthodox or Protestant Churches.

The Council of Nicea, 325

In 324, Constantine became sole ruler of the Roman Empire, reuniting an empire that had been split among rival rulers since the retirement of Domitian in 305. Constantine reunified the empire but found the Church bitterly divided over the nature of Jesus Christ. He wanted to reunify the Church as he had reunified the Empire. The major dispute was over the teaching of Arius, but there were other doctrinal issues also.

Arianism: teaching of Arius of Alexandria (d. 335), who believed that Jesus Christ was created ex nihilo (out of nothing) by the Father to be the means of creation and redemption. Jesus was fully human, but not fully divine. He was elevated as a reward for his successful accomplishment of his mission. The Arian rallying cry was “There was time when the Son was not.”

Monarchianism: defended the unity (mono arche, “one source”) of God by denying that the Son and the Spirit were separate persons.

Sabellianism: a form of monarchianism taught by Sabellias, that God revealed himself in three successive modes, as Father (creator), as Son (redeemer), as Spirit (sustainer). Hence there is only one person in the Godhead.

Constantine summoned the bishops at imperial expense to Nicea, 30 miles from his imperial capital in Nicomedia. Here they were to settle their differences in a council over which he presided. The council rejected Arianism. The Council issued a creed based upon an existing baptismal creed from Syria and Palestine. This Nicene creed reads:

I 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 only begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord, and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spake by the Prophets.

And I believe one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church; I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

The Council also issued a set of canons, primarily dealing with church order.

The Council of Constantinople, 381

The second council met in Constantinople, the new imperial capital. The council issued a new creed, probably based upon another baptismal creed from Jerusalem or Antioch, which in turn was an expression of the faith expressed in the Nicene Creed adopted in 325. This Constantinopolitan Creed reads:

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 only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried, and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father. And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.

And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father [and the Son1] who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And we believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. And we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Later the Western Church unilaterally added a single word to the Creed, inserting Filioque “and the Son” to the statement about the Spirit, so as to read “the Spirit…proceeds from the Father and the Son.” In 867, the Patriarch of Constantinople declared Rome heretical for this clause. To this day the Western Church (Catholic and Protestant) accepts the filioque clause, while the Eastern Church (Orthodox) does not. With the exception of this clause, the Nicene Creed remains one of the eceumenical creeds, a creed recognized by all the Church. Any church that rejects the Nicene Creed is deemed heretical. During the Middle Ages, this creed became called the Nicene Creed, as it is known to this day.

The Council of Ephesus, 431

Condemned Nestorius and his teaching (Nestorianism) that Christ had two separable natures, human and divine. Declared Mary to be theotokos (lit. God-bearer, i.e. Mother of God) in order to strengthen the claim that Christ was fully divine against those who called her merely Christotokos (Christ-bearer).

The Council of Chalcedon, 451

Issued the Chalcedonian Formula, affirming that Christ is two natures in one person. This creed reads as follows:

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets

The Council of Constantinople II, 553

Condemned the Three Chapters, a compendium of the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrus, and Ibas of Edessa. These three were advocates of Antiochene theology, emphasizing Christ’s humanity at the expense of his deity. Their opponents held Alexandrian theology emphasizing Christ’s deity.

The Council of Constantinople III, 680

Condemned monothelitism (Christ has a single will), affirming that Christ had a human will and a divine will that functioned in perfect harmony.

The Council of Nicea II, 787

Declared that icons are acceptable aids to worship, rejecting the iconoclasts (icon-smashers). Consider much of our stained glass windows.

17 Responses to “Intro to The Creeds and the Seven Ecumenical Councils”

  1. Michael,

    I’m just curious; if “any church that rejects the Nicene Creed is deemed heretical,” what about the clause “one baptism for the remission of sins.” It seems to me Scripture teaches this, but most evangelical churches do not believe this. You yourself recently wrote something to the effect that the early church held a primitive view of baptism. Is this primitive view exhibited here in the creed? At any rate, I read you every day and appreciate your insights.

  2. C Michael Patton August 13, 2008 at 10:07 pm

    I would equate baptism with word like “calling,” “confession,” or “repentance.” None of these actually save, but they are natural outcomes of salvation. What if it said, “there is one confession” (i.e. that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord…”, what would you say?

    This is hard and I see what you are saying, but I don’t read all the later controversies into this creed. I can still confess that there is one baptism (i.e. confession) for the remission of sins.

  3. Michael,

    Why do you insist on twisting the meaning of words to fit into your theological world-view and avoid the uncomfortable implications of what the creed actually means?

    Baptism means exactly what everybody has always thought baptism means. It isn’t a “can also means” type of word where you can insert confession, calling or repentance. It seems a little disingenous to insist that no damage is done to the creed when you change baptims to also mean confession or calling or whatever you please.

    If accept the common meaning of baptism without assigning it other meanings like calling or confession can you still recite the creed or does it become heretical for you?

    ChadS

  4. The creed of AD 325 is not what you have quoted. Please see J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds (3rd ed.; London: Longman, 1972), 215-216, or John H. Leith, Creeds of the Churches (3rd ed.; Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 30-31, or http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214.vii.iii.html

    Here is Kelly’s translation:

    ———
    We believe in one God, the Father, almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible;

    And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through Whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, Who because of us men and because of our salvation came down and became incarnate, becoming man, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended to the heavens, will come to judge the living and the dead;

    And in the Holy Spirit.

    But as for those who say, There was when He was not, and, Before being born He was not, and that He came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance, or is subject to alteration or change–these the Catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes.
    —————

  5. Michael,

    Thank you for your response. I understand where you’re coming from, but I am going to have to go with ChadS and take the word more literally. Have you read DTS’s Bible commentary on the baptism references in Romans 6? It seems to me they really jump through some hoops again by not holding a more literal understanding.

  6. C Michael Patton August 14, 2008 at 11:20 am

    Guys, maybe I miscommunicated, but I did not say that baptism here does not mean water baptism and they did not mean it as such. Baptism was, in the first centrury a primary way of making a confession of faith and conversion. Do you doubt this? This is all I am saying. Baptism here is the one baptism of the Christian church. Don’t simply look toward the letter, but the spirit of the act. Otherwise the act is meaningless.

  7. C Michael Patton August 14, 2008 at 11:21 am

    Also, Romans 6 most certianly does refer to water baptism as well, but it is what it symbolizes that mattered to Paul as he so clearly illustrates.

  8. I think the point of contention is whether baptism is necessary for salvation, not just a symbol of conversion. Most modern evangelicals would deny this; Catholics and Orthodox affirm it.

    I think the writings of pre-Nicene and Nicene fathers clearly indicate that Baptism was almost universally seen as regenerative at the time. You may disagree, of course. Regardless, this discrepancy makes that clause of the Nicene Creed problematic for ecumenical use, yes? If we all say the same words but mean different things by them, then we cannot be said to all accept the same creed.

  9. Michael,

    I don’t think you miscommunicated anything. Your point was quite clear.

    By giving it a different meaning and saying baptism also means this and that it has lost its meaning. I’m not saying that beliefs aren’t important or that a confession of Christ isn’t also important, but baptism as understood and practiced by early Christians wasn’t just symbolic. Baptism had a real effect on the soul of person being baptized.

    ChadS

  10. C Michael Patton August 14, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    Well, now that is a bit of question begging, isn’t it?

    Baptism was, in the first century a primary way of making a confession of faith and conversion. Do you doubt this?

    You should not, all traditions can agree on this point. You would add to this that it also have regenerative power in and of itself. I would certainly disagree. But the point that I made earlier is that the creed does not have to be forced into a particular theological model. That is the beauty of many of the creeds, they say enough, without saying too much.

    You say:

    Baptism saves in that it has an actual regerative effect.

    I say:

    Baptism saves in that it is the first-fruit of salvation thereby evidencing salvation. Just like “calling on the name of the Lord.” It is not your voice or articulation of the word that actually save, but the voice and articulation of the words evidence a condition of the heart. Such is baptism.

    But again, the point is not whose interpretation of baptism is correct, but that the creeds don’t define it either way.

  11. “Baptism was, in the first centrury a primary way of making a confession of faith and conversion.”

    It seems to me that if you’re going to claim belief in a 4th century creed, then you need to sign up for the 4th century understanding. If you disagree with the 4th century folks, don’t disingenuously make their words mean something other than what they wrote them to mean. Make up your own creed in that case, and don’t hang off the shirt-tales of people you don’t even agree with.

    On the other hand, if you want to claim the 4th century folks believe like you do, well I’d like to see that backed up.

  12. C Michael Patton August 14, 2008 at 10:14 pm

    That is not what I am claiming at all. I have said many times that most of the early church believed in baptismal regeneration. Anyone who argues against this would have much trouble.

    What I am saying is that it was, in my perspective, a very simplistic understanding. The creed expressed the fact of the saving effects of baptism without explaining exactly what was meant. Later, as the church dealt with this more fully, it came to mean many other things depending on what tradition you follow. To some the saving effects mean that it removes original sin. To others it enters them into a covenant community. To others, still, it means that baptism, like confession, is a visible representation of their faith, and, in this, it saves.

    Are you saying that we should just go to its undeveloped form and not accept any of these interpretations? If so, that is ok, I guess. But then you just end up with where I was in the original comments.

  13. It looks like nobody cares that Spry’s Nicene Creed (325) is totally wrong. (See my post #4 above.)

    Regarding baptism, a couple of books that helped me appreciate different perspectives are:

    Understanding Four Views on Baptism (Zondervan, 2007)

    David F. Wright, What has Infant Baptism done to Baptism? (Paternoster, 2005)

    I hope that everyone finds time to read this one:

    Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church (Eerdmans, 2008), 912 pages!
    http://eerdmans.com/shop/product.asp?p_key=9780802827487

  14. The Creeds/Confessions hang on the hooks of Scripture(s).
    The C&C helps us understand history. A metal plate was found in
    Caesarea w/the inscription: Pontius Pilate.
    What percentage of those who practice Mormonism / Jeh. Witn. have
    carefully studied the C&C? This reason alone is why C&C should be
    taught in the Church today. But that is not the reaso alone.
    greg s.

  15. CMP wrote: The various creeds of Christendom have aided the Christian church in the formulation of our faith through the centuries. They are not the Bible and they have never been considered equal with Scripture in any way by any orthodox believer.

    If by “they” you mean the Creeds of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, and if you changed the initial “o” in “orthodox” to a capital “O” (as in the [Eastern] Orthodox Church), I don’t think you would be able to write “never” or “any.” ;-)

  16. IMO, most “Evangelical” Protestants that I know do not accept the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (Jaroslav Pelikan’s title for this – see his book Credo) on its own terms. I.e., they do not accept what the Bishops at the Councils who wrote the Creed(s) and accompanying Canons meant and understood by, e.g., “one baptism for the remission of sins”; “one holy, catholic and apostolic church.”

    If one does not accept what the writers of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed meant by it, can one be said to adhere to and affirm and believe
    and confess it?

    Also, if they don’t also accept the anathemas pronounced against those who reject the veneration of icons, can they be said to affirm the Seventh Ecumenical Council?

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