The Development of Core Christian Teachings:
Ecumenical Councils
by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.

Who is Jesus? How can one describe his relationship with God? What is the role of the Holy Spirit? What do Christians believe about Mary, and the saints? What about life and the after-life? What is the relationship of Christianity to Judaism? What books belong in the Bible? What is the Church and how should it be organized? What is the role of the bishops, esp. the bishop of Rome (the Pope)?

Such questions and many others have occupied Christians from the earliest generations. For the first few centuries after the life and death of Jesus, as Christianity slowly grew and spread throughout the Roman Empire, Christian teachings were developed and passed on by wandering preachers and local community leaders. Sometimes the leaders would hold local or regional meetings to discuss problems and debate issues, but large-scale meetings were rarely if ever possible in the first 300 years, due to the great distances, traveling difficulties, and sporadic persecutions of Christians by the Roman Empire.

The First Eight Ecumenical Councils:

After Christianity became a legal religion within the Roman Empire under Emperor Constantine (AD 312), the leaders (bishops) of the Christian communities throughout the Mediterranean world could more easily meet to discuss important issues, debate current questions, reject heterodox opinions, and more clearly define their faith. These large meetings of bishops, called "Ecumenical Councils," also produced some of the earliest and most concise statements of belief (called "Creeds"), which are still foundational for the Christian religion. The first eight councils are recognized by most Christians throughout the world today.

# Council Name 
/ Location
Dates Teachers and Teachings Rejected Orthodox Doctrines Decreed

# Attend

Influential Leaders
 1  Nicea
Arians: Jesus was divine, but slightly inferior to the Father; Jesus was the first being created in time by God; slogan: "there was a time when he was not." Jesus is divine, "of the same substance" (homo-ousios) as the Father, and was with the Father from the very first moment of creation. Sunday was fixed as the date for celebration of Easter. The "Nicene Creed" was written and adopted.
Emperor Constantine,
Athanasius of Alexandria
2 Constantinople I
Apollinarians: divided human & divine parts of Jesus; Arianism also still prominent; and followers of Macedonius said the Holy Spirit was a divine messenger, but not fully God. The teachings of Nicea were confirmed and expanded; the Holy Spirit is also fully divine; thus the Trinity has one divine "nature," but three distinct "persons."
Emperor Theodosius,
Pope Damasus,
Cappadocian Fathers
3 Ephesus
Nestorians: Mary is the "Mother of Christ," but should not be called the "Mother of God," so that Jesus' humanity is not neglected. Mary is traditionally and properly called the "Mother of God"; Jesus has both a divine and human nature, but united in his one person.
Cyril of Alexandria
4 Chalcedon
Monophysites: Jesus was both human and divine, but he had only "one nature"; his divinity totally replaced his human nature. The earthly Jesus was both fully human and fully divine; his two natures and two wills were perfectly united in his one person.
Pope Leo the Great
5 Constantinople II
Various errors of Origen, Theodoret, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Ibas of Edessa. The teachings of the first four Councils, esp. Chalcedon, are reconfirmed
6 Constantinople III
Monotheletism: Christ has only one divine "will." Christ has both a human and a divine will.
7 Nicea II
Iconoclasm: all images should be destroyed The veneration of icons and images is permitted.
8 Constantinople IV
Photian Schism: defenders vs. detractors of Bishop Photius This council was ultimately unsuccessful; no further councils were held in the East.
Pope Adrian II

The Rest of the 21 Ecumenical Councils:

After tensions had been building for centuries, the "Great Schism" of 1054 led to the separation of Eastern and Western Christians. Orthodox Christians of the East do not accept the legitimacy of any further councils, believing that the Christian faith was sufficiently defined through the decisions and documents of the first eight councils. After a gap of several centuries, however, the bishops of the Western Church continued holding periodic councils to debate new issues, address contemporary problems, promulgate new reforms, and define Christian teachings more precisely:

# Council Name / Location Dates Main Topics / Results # Attend Presiding Pope(s)
9 Lateran I
Ended the practice of Lay Investiture; implemented other reforms; called a crusade.
Callistus II
10 Lateran II
Condemned the errors of Arnold of Brescia.
Innocent II
11 Lateran III
Condemned the Albigensians and Waldensians; issued other decrees for moral reforms.
Alexander III
12 Lateran IV
Again condemned errors of Albigensians and others; issued over 70 decrees for wide-ranging reforms.
Innocent III
13 Lyons I
Excommunicated and deposed Emperor Frederick II; called a new crusade.
Innocent IV
14 Lyons II
Temporarily reunited the Greek and Roman Churches; set rules for papal elections.
Gregory X
15 Vienne
Addressed problems of the Knights Templar, Beguines, other groups;
planned for another crusade and instituted more clerical and educational reforms.
Clement V
16 Constance
Ended the Western Schism; elected Pope Martin V; issued decrees against John Wycliffe & Johan Hus.
Gregory XI
17 Basel (& Ferrara& Florence)
Addressed problems in Bohemia; attempted reunion with the Eastern Church.
Eugene IV
18 Lateran V
Issued minor disciplinary decrees; planned another crusade against the Turks.
Julius II
& Leo X
19 Trent
Addressed the challenges of Luther and other Reformers;
issued many decrees to define Church doctrine and reform Church discipline.
Paul III, Julius III,
Pius IV
20 Vatican I
Three sessions were planned, but only the first was held, due to wars in Europe;
formally defined the infallibility of the Pope when he teaches "ex cathedra."
Pius IX
21 Vatican II
Updated the Church for the 20th Century, by rediscovering our roots in Early Christianity;
finished and expanded the agenda of Vatican I, focusing not only on the Pope but on all Christians;
issued 16 documents (4"Constitutions," 9 "Decrees," 3 "Declarations")
up to
& Paul IV
22 Vatican III ? or Nairobi I?
20xx ?
Updating the world-wide Church for the 21st Century?

The Documents of Vatican II:



Electronic New Testament Educational Resources

Return to my collection of Catholic Church Documents related to Biblical Studies

Return to the HOME PAGE of Felix Just, S.J.
This page was last updated on September 23, 2012

Copyright © 2007--2012