In Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, an ecumenical council (Greek, Oikumene, "World-wide" or "General") is a meeting of the whole church convened to discuss and settle matters of Church doctrine. More local meetings are sometimes called "synods", but the distinction between a synod and a council is not hard and fast.
Church councils were, from the beginning, bureaucratic exercises. Written documents were circulated, speeches made and responded to, votes taken, and final documents published and distributed. A large part of what we know about the beliefs of heresies comes from the documents quoted in councils in order to be refuted, or indeed only from the deductions based on the refutations. For all councils Canons (Greek kanon, "rule" or "ruling") were published and survive. In some cases other documentation survives as well. Study of the canons of church councils is the foundation of the development of Canon Law, especially the reconciling of seemingly contradictory canons or the determination of priority between them. Canons consist of doctrinal statements and disciplinary measures -- most Church councils and local synods dealt with immediate disciplinary concerns as well as major difficulties of doctrine.
Acceptance of the Councils
Both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches recognize seven councils in the early years of the church, but Catholics also recognize several councils called in later years by the Pope, whose authority the Eastern Orthodox do not accept. Since the seventh ecumenical council, the Eastern Orthodox have had what they call Pan-Orthodox councils with representatives of all Eastern Orthodox churches, but they have not claimed that these councils were ecumenical. That would require including the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church does not recognize the Pan-Orthodox councils either.
Many Protestants (especially those belonging to the magisterial traditions, such as Lutheranism and Anglicanism) accept the teachings of the first seven councils, but do not ascribe to the councils themselves the same authority as Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox do.
The Oriental Orthodox only accept the teachings of some of the councils: the Nestorians only accept the First Council of Nicaea and the First Council of Constantinople, while the Monophysites only accept Nicaea I, Constantinople I and the Council of Ephesus. Their differences in understanding of the nature and relationship of the Son and the Spirit to the Trinity were worked out and defined at those councils, and so they broke away from union with the larger body.
The first seven councils were called by the emperor (first the Christian Roman Emperors and later the Byzantine Emperors). The relationship of the Papacy to the validity of these councils is the ground of much controversy between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Churches and to historians.
List of councils:
the Seven Councils called by Emperors and accepted by Roman Catholic and Eastern orthodox Churches as Ecumenical
- First Council of Nicaea, (325); adoption of the Nicene Creed.
- First Council of Constantinople, (381); revision of the Nicene Creed into present form used in the Eastern orthodox churches. Sometimes referred to as a Synod, because it was only local, but its decrees were accepted in the west.
- Council of Ephesus, (431); proclamation of Mary as the Mother of God (Greek, Theotokos).
- Council of Chalcedon, (451); described and delineated the two natures of Christ, human and divine; adoption of the Chalcedonian Creed.
- Second Council of Constantinople, (553).
- Third Council of Constantinople, (680-81)
- Second Council of Nicaea, (787); restoration of the veneration of Icons and end of the first Iconoclasm
Councils called by the Popes, rejected by the Eastern Orthodox Churches as Ecumenical
- Fourth Council of Constantinople, (869-70) -- called to deal with the patriarch Photius, who was deposed. He was afterwards reinstalled.
- First Council of the Lateran, 1123
- Second Council of the Lateran, 1139
- Third Council of the Lateran, 1179
- Fourth Council of the Lateran, (1215)
- First Council of Lyons, 1245
- Second Council of Lyons, (1274)
- Council of Vienne, (1311-12)
- Council of Constance, (1414-18)
- Council of Basel, (1431-45) - also met at Ferrara and Florence - nomenclature is difficult
- Fifth Council of the Lateran, (1512-17)
- Council of Trent, (1545-1563, discontinuously)
- First Vatican Council, 1870; clarification of the doctrine of papal infallibility
- Second Vatican Council, (1962-1965); modernization of church doctrine, end of requirement that Mass be said in Latin, etc.