Objective: Students should be able to give date and name to all seven councils, to name the major players in each and to understand the major debates and heresies, and to discuss the decisions reached and their importance.


The teacher can divide the councils into weeks as fits the schedule of the class, since this 3-week unit is really a single lesson. One method would be to have each student research a single council and report to the class. Another would be to present the material in class, with much drill and quizzing. This is “boring” material but absolutely essential to understand the Orthodox Church even today. And, while many of the details argued about seem "obvious" to us, many centuries later, in that day people really cared about the truth. Many people today don't even believe there is a truth! The Church has always been the source of truth, unchanging, sometimes having to be sought for, but solid rock instead of the shifting sand of public opinion.


 First review the two councils already studied: the Council of Jerusalem in the first century and the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Who presided over each? Who was present? What was decided? Do Christians always agree about everything? Even as early as the first century there was disagreement – but one Church. Look again at the decision-making process, a council of all bishops, protecting the Church from the thoughts of any one man.


Historical background: Each of these councils did not occur in a vacuum.  What was happening in the world and in the Church at the time of each council? Be sure to have maps handy for discussion of the various cities and nations.


1st Council: Constantine the Great had just united the Empire, made Christianity legal, and moved the capital to Constantinople. But he found the Church involved in a huge dispute caused by the teachings of a priest named Arius. The Emperor himself called the Council and presided over it in order to reunite His new Church. We've already discussed the Council of Nicea, or perhaps better called, the "first council of Nicea" when studying St. Athanasius and the Creed. 


2nd Council: After the death of Constantine, his son Constantius tried to bring back Arianism,and, after Constantius, Emperor Julian (the Apostate) tried actually to bring back paganism! He had studied with Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzus, but now ridiculed Christianity. Instead of killing Christians, Julian tried to tempt them away from their faith – offering favors and privileges to those who would denounce Christianity. He closed Christian Churches and schools, but died fighting the Persians after a short reign. Two brothers followed, Valens in the East and Valentinian in the West. Valens was an Arian, Valentinian Orthodox. They were succeeded by Theodosios. Emperor Theodosios declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Empire. He found the Church’s disputes dividing his empire. He called the 2nd Council to try to confirm the Nicene Creed in the face of the teachings of Macedonius, who was teaching that the Holy Spirit was inferior to the Father and the Son, a new heresy. He is known as Theodosios the Great. St. Gregory of Nazianzus had earlier discussed the audacity of men to try to tear apart the mystery of the Holy Trinity, one God in 3 Persons, saying, “The Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father. Because he proceeds from that source, he is no creature. And because he is not begotten, he is no son…What then is procession? Tell me what the unbegottenness of the Father is, and I will explain to you the physiology of the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit, and we shall both of us be frenzy-stricken for prying into the mystery of God!  And who are we to do these things, we who cannot even see what lies at our feet or number the sand of the sea, or the drops of rain, or the days of eternity, much less enter into the depths of God and supply an account of that nature that is so unspeakable and transcending all words?” With an end to the "frenzy" of Macedonius, this council finished the creed that we know today. 


3rd Council: In trying to stamp out Arian teachings, Bishop Apollinarius of Laodicea stated that Christ was really God and only needed a body to appear to men. Thus, Christ’s human nature was unimportant. This heresy was called Apollinarianism. One step further – Bishop Nestorius of Constantinople said that, in that case, Mary wasn’t the mother of His divine (and more important) nature, she was only the mother of His body – Christotokos instead of Theotokos. Bishop Cyril of Alexandria vehemently opposed this interpretation. Emperor Theodosius II called the 3rd Council to settle this issue. The heresies of both Apollinarius and Nestorius were condemned.



4th Council: Now the school of Alexandria, in a reaction to the Nestorians, decided that the divine nature of Christ was His only nature. The major proponent of this idea was a monk named Eutyches. This heresy was called Monophysitism (“mono” meaning “one” and “phys” meaning “nature”). The Bishop of Rome, Leo the Great, asked the Emperor Marcian to call yet another council. The council accepted the “Tome” of Pope Leo the Great of Rome which affirmed the belief that Jesus was one and the same son, perfect in Godhood and perfect in manhood, “truly God and truly man.” How was this great decision of the church made? The holy Great Martyr Euphemia (September 16) suffered martyrdom in the city of Chalcedon in the year 304, during the time of the persecution against Christians by the emperor Diocletian (284-305). One and a half centuries later, at a time when the Christian Church had become victorious within the Roman Empire, God deigned that Euphemia the All-Praised should again be a witness and confessor of the purity of the Orthodox teaching. Her relics rested in the city of Chalcedon. As the Council of Chalcedon met, after prolonged discussions the two sides could not come to a decisive agreement. The holy Patriarch Anatolius of Constantinople proposed that the Council submit the decision of the Church dispute to the Holy Spirit, through His undoubted bearer St Euphemia the All-Praised, whose wonderworking relics had been discovered during the Council's discussions. The Orthodox hierarchs and their opponents wrote down their confessions of faith on separate scrolls and sealed them with their seals. They opened the tomb of the holy Great Martyr Euphemia and placed both scrolls upon her bosom. Then, in the presence of the emperor Marcian, the participants of the Council sealed the tomb, putting on it the imperial seal and setting a guard to watch over it for three days. During these days both sides imposed upon themselves strict fast and made intense prayer. After three days the patriarch and the emperor in the presence of the Council opened the tomb with its relics: the scroll with the Orthodox confession was held by St Euphemia in her right hand, and the scroll of the heretics lay at her feet. St Euphemia, as though alive, raised her hand and gave the scroll to the patriarch. After this miracle many of the hesitant accepted the Orthodox confession.

But, even after the council at Chalcedon condemned Monophysitism, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria continued to support the one nature of Christ. The emperor Zeno attempted a compromise in an Act of Union called the “Henoticon” but it was rejected by both sides. To this day, the Armenian, Coptic (Egyptian), and several smaller Churches remain Monophysite. And, the Patriarch of Rome, angry over his role in the Henoticon, excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople; in retaliation, the Patriarch of Constantinople refused to mention Rome in his prayers. This further division between East and West lasted until the reign of Justinian.


5th Council: A series of weak emperors followed and Rome fell to the barbarians. Finally, in 527 AD Justinian took the throne. He is known as Justinian the Great and succeeded in conquering back large areas of the Western Empire and uniting the Church. He called the 5th Council in hopes of ending once and for all the Monophysite and Nestorian controversies. The Council condemned the teachings of three Nestorian bishops – Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrus and Ibas if Edessa. It confirmed the decision of the preceding councils on Monophysitism. But, as noted above, a few churches, the largest of which was Alexandria in Egypt, refused to give up their cherished beliefs. To this day, the Coptic Church in Egypt, the Armenian Orthodox Church, and the Jacobite Churches in Syria remain Monophysite.


6th Council: After Justinian came a series of weak Emperors, leading to a dangerous situation with the Persians on the East. They saw a potential target in the weakened empire with small army, bankrupt treasury, and poor government. They captured Antioch and Jerusalem; even the cross found by Helen was taken back to Persia. Then they took Alexandria and Egypt. They were at the doors of Constantinople itself. Emperor Heraclius took the throne; he was popular and a strong ruler and general. He defeated the Persians near the old city of Ninevah (Remember Ninevah, capital of Assyria, from the story of Jonah?) and all lands were given back. The cross made a triumphal reentry into Jerusalem in 630 AD. The 6th Council was held to decide on the fate of a heresy called “Monothelitism”, an offshoot of Monophysitism, which was condemned and disappeared.


7th Council: While God forbade the Jewish people from making images to worship, God in the person of our Lord Jesus humbled Himself to appear in human form. So, from its earliest days, Christians made pictures of Jesus, Mary, and important events in Christian history. They drew them on the walls of their tombs, deep in the catacombs under the city of Rome. They drew on the walls of their churches and monasteries. Most people could not read in those days. They did not worship these pictures but used them as “windows to heaven” – to remember the life of Jesus, His teachings, and the lives and teachings of His holy ones, the saints. St. Luke even painted a picture of the Virgin Mary and gave it to her; this icon was passed down in the church and resided in Constantinople. The monks were especially devoted to the veneration of icons. But, in 730 AD, Emperor Leo prohibited the use of icons and ordered them taken down. He, and later his son, another Constantine, burned the monasteries and killed the monks and looted the churches, trying to destroy all the icons. Icons were hidden to keep them safe.

At this time, there lived in Damascus, a city under the rule of an Arab caliph (or king), a man named John; we know him now as John of Damascus. John was wise and charming; soon he was the caliph’s second-in-command. The caliph was a Moslem, but John was a Christian. John taught and wrote about his love of icons. Emperor Leo did not like this and tried to have John killed. He told lies to the caliph, saying John was going to betray him to the Greeks, and the caliph believed Leo. He had John’s hand cut off. John prayed and his hand was healed! Then John left the palace and went to live in a monastery. There he wrote many hymns and prayers and even invented the series of eight tones for singing we use today in church.

Finally, in 787 AD, the Empress Irene called for a council of the bishops. This was the seventh and last church council. It was held in the city of Nicea. 375 bishops attended. The church stood firmly for bringing the icons back! But, the emperors were still opposed. On Palm Sunday in 815, a procession of monks for the famous Studion Monastery carried icons through the streets of Constantinople; persecution of monks and destruction of icons was back again. Finally, in 843, the Empress Theodosia brought the icons back into the churches. A bishop who had been imprisoned and exiled during the persecution became Patriarch. On the first Sunday of Lent, 843, the veneration of icons was officially proclaimed at the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Constantinople. And, to this day, we celebrate the return of the icons with a great procession of icons on the “Sunday of Orthodoxy”.

            To this day, Orthodox Christians continue to venerate icons, and to remember the godly men and women throughout history. Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh suggests further: “By doing this we must not forget that it is not the icons of wood and of paint, but God who reveals Himself in the world. Each of us, all men, was created in the image of God. We are all living icons, and this lays upon us a great responsibility because an icon may be defaced, an icon may be turned into a caricature and into a blasphemy. And we must think of ourselves and ask ourselves: are we worthy, are we capable of being called icons, images of God?”



A synopsis of the absolutely critical data about each council:






Major Decisions



St. Athanasius

St. Nicholas

Emperor Constantine


Condemned the Arian heresy, which 

      taught that Christ was not truly God.

Proclaimed first part of Creed.

Established the date of Pascha.



Emperor Theodosios

St.Gregory Theologian

St. Gregory of Nyssa

Defined the teaching on the Holy Trinity,

      against the heresy of Macedonius,

      who said the Holy Spirit was inferior

      to the Father and the Son

Completed the Creed.

Declared the Bishop of Constantinople

      second only to the Bishop of Rome

      because Constantinople is New Rome




Emp. Theodosius II

St. Cyril of Alexandria


Defined the doctrine about the Theotokos

      against the heresy of Nestorius who

      said she was only “Christotokos”,

      splitting Jesus into two separate


Declared text of Creed finished and

      Forbade any future changes in it!




Emperor Marcian

Leo the Great of Rome

Condemned heresy of the Monophysites,

      led by a monk named Eutyches,

      who said Christ was only God and

      not Man, also.



Emperor Justinian

Stated again teaching about 2 natures of

      Christ and condemned both the 

      Monophysites and the Nestorian

      teachings of Bishops Theodore of

      Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrus, and

      Ibas of Edessa.







Condemned the teachings of  “Monothe-

      litism, which said Jesus’s divine nature

      made all the decisions and His human

      nature carried them out – another form

      of Monophysitism.



Empress Irene

“Icons are to be venerated; God alone is     to be served in faith.”



Quiz Questions:


Where was the First Ecumenical Council held?                                     Nicea

Who called the First Ecumenical Council?                                   Constantine

Whose teachings were condemned at the 1st Council?                 Arius

Which Council set the date of Pascha?                                        First

Who tried to lead the Empire back to paganism?                         Julian the Apostate

Who made Christianity the official religion of the Empire?         Theodosios the Great

Who said the Holy Spirit was inferior to the Father and Son?     Macedonius

Who called the Second Ecumenical Council?                              Theodosios the Great

Where was the Second Council held?                                          Constantinople

What was the New Rome?                                                           Constantinople

Which Council proclaimed the Patriarch of Constantinople        Second

      second only to Rome in importance?

Who called Mary “Christotokos”?                                                Nestorius

Which Bishop opposed Nestorius at the 3rd Council?                  Cyril of Alexandria

Where was the Third Ecumenical Council held?                          Ephesus

Who did the 3rd Council proclaim that Mary is?                           Theotokos

Which heresy taught that Jesus was only divine?                         Monophysitism

Which city was the center of the Monophysite heresy?               Alexandria, Egypt

Where was the 4th Council held?                                                  Chalcedon

What heresy was condemned by the 4th Council?                        Monophysitism

Who called the 5th Ecumenical Council?                                      Justinian the Great

Where was the 5th Council held?                                                  Constantinople

Which two heresies were condemned by the 5th Council?         Nestorian/Monophysite

Name two national churches that are Monophysite?                    Egypt, Armenia

Who stole the Holy Cross from Jerusalem?                                  Persians

What Emperor defeated the Persians?                                          Heraclius

What heresy states that Jesus’s divine nature makes all the         Monothelitism

     decisions and his human nature just carries them out?

Where was the 6th Ecumenical Council held?                               Constantinople

What heresy was condemned by the 6th Council?                        Monothelitism

Who called the 7th Ecumenical Council?                                      Empress Irene

Where was the 7th Council held?                                                  Nicea

What veneration was upheld by the 7th Council?                         Icons

Who defended icons to the Arab caliph?                                     John of Damascus

Which emperor began the destruction of icons?                           Leo

Which Empress led the Triumph of Orthodoxy?                          Empress Theodosia



Songs to help in learning:




Sung by 'Constantine' to the tune of “Maria”


I just had brilliant idea!

The bishops I'll invite

And maybe they will write

A creed.



A council I'll call at Nicea.

By means of politics

I'll make those heretics




Different doctrines they've been promoting;

Now at last we can solve it by voting.

Nicea! They'll never stop quoting Nicea!



The crown of my brilliant care-er

Because I'm Emperor,

They've all got to defer

To me!



I'll gather the whole ecclesia,

And suddenly they'll find

They all are of one mind.

You'll see!



I can hear theologians saying:

Let's all go, since the Emperor's paying!


For unity they will be praying...Nicea!




To the tune of "Supercalafragalisticexpialadocius" ...


Um diddle diddle um diddle ay  Um diddle diddle um diddle ay


Superchristological and Homoousiosis

Even though the sound of them is something quite atrocious

You can always count on them to anathemize your Gnosis

Superchristological and Homoousiosis


Um diddle diddle um diddle ay  Um diddle diddle um diddle ay


Now Origen and Arius were quite a clever pair.

Immutable divinity make Logos out of air.

But then one day Saint Nicholas gave Arius a slap--

and told them if they can't recant, they ought to shut their trap!


[chorus] Oh, Superchristological and Homoousiosis...


One Prosopon, two Ousia are in one Hypostasis.

At Chalcedon this formula gave our faith its basis.

You can argue that you don't know what this means,

But don't you go and try to say there's a "Physis" in between!


[chorus] Oh, Superchristological and Homoousiosis...


Um diddle diddle um diddle ay Um diddle diddle um diddle ay


Now freedom and autonomy are something to be praised,

But when it comes to human sin, these words must be rephrased,

For Pelagius was too confident that we could work it out--

And Augustine said *massa damnata* is what it's all about.


[chorus] Oh, Superchristological and Homoousiosis...


Heresies are arguments that you might find attractive,

But just remember in this case the Church is quite reactive.

So play it safe and memorize these words we sing together,

'Cause in the end you'll find, my friend, that we may live forever.


[chorus] Oh, Superchristological and Homoousiosis…


Lyrics by Dan Idzikowski