ecumenical council

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ecumenical council:

see council, ecumenicalcouncil, ecumenical
[Gr.,=universal], in Christendom, council of church leaders, the decisions of which are accepted by some segment of the church as authoritative, also called general council.
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council, ecumenical

(ĕk'yo͞omĕn`ĭkəl) [Gr.,=universal], in Christendom, council of church leaders, the decisions of which are accepted by some segment of the church as authoritative, also called general council. Although councils can declare themselves ecumenical, this designation has often been applied retrospectively; even the Roman Catholic Church has no formal decree on the number of ecumenical councils. As with all councils, its canons usually begin with a detailed statement of the common faith. The acceptance of the canons is unequal; thus, Roman Catholics regard them as binding (canonical) only when a pope has subsequently ratified them, and many canons of several councils have never been accepted.

Recognized Councils

The following is the list of the general councils recognized by Roman Catholics (the numbering is the customary one, and the opening year is given): (1) 1 Nicaea, 325; (2) 1 Constantinople, 381; (3) Ephesus, 431; (4) Chalcedon, 451; (5) 2 Constantinople, 553; (6) 3 Constantinople, 680; (7) 2 Nicaea, 787; (8) 4 Constantinople, 869; (9) 1 Lateran, 1123; (10) 2 Lateran, 1139; (11) 3 Lateran, 1179; (12) 4 Lateran, 1215; (13) 1 Lyons, 1245; (14) 2 Lyons, 1274; (15) Vienne, 1311; (16) Constance, 1414; (17) Basel and Ferrara-Florence, 1431, 1438; (18) 5 Lateran, 1512; (19) Trent, 1545; (20) 1 Vatican, 1869; (21) 2 Vatican, 1962 (see separate articles on each council; e.g., Nicaea, First Council ofNicaea, First Council of,
325, 1st ecumenical council, convened by Roman Emperor Constantine the Great to solve the problems raised by Arianism. It has been said that 318 persons attended, but a more likely number is 225, including every Eastern bishop of importance, four
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). The Orthodox Eastern Church recognizes the first seven and counts the Trullan Synod of 692 as an ecumenical extension of the Third Council of Constantinople. The first council was the model for the rest.

Purposes of the Councils

The common purpose of the first eight councils was to determine whether specific theological novelties were orthodox or heretical (not orthodox). The rest of the councils, all held in Western Europe, have dealt chiefly with church discipline and morals. Two of them, the Second Council of Lyons and the Council of Ferrara-Florence, were occupied with abortive attempts at reconciliation between East and West. Conciliar theory, which held that an ecumenical council is superior to the pope, played a central role in attempts to heal the Great Schism. Conciliar theory was in its heyday at the Council of Constance (see Schism, GreatSchism, Great,
or Schism of the West,
division in the Roman Catholic Church from 1378 to 1417. There was no question of faith or practice involved; the schism was a matter of persons and politics.
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). The Council of Trent, convened to deal with the Protestant ReformationReformation,
religious revolution that took place in Western Europe in the 16th cent. It arose from objections to doctrines and practices in the medieval church (see Roman Catholic Church) and ultimately led to the freedom of dissent (see Protestantism).
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, was probably the most far-reaching in its effects. Pope John XXIII established as one of the principal themes of the Second Vatican Council the reunion of all Christians with the Church of Rome.

Authority of the Councils

The traditional opinion is that when the bishops of the world unite to define belief in the light of what they have received from their predecessors, God will protect them from error. This is a manifestation of the infallibility of the teaching church, and papal infallibility is compared to it in the definition published by the First Vatican Council (see infallibilityinfallibility
, in Christian thought, exemption from the possibility of error, bestowed on the church as a teaching authority, as a gift of the Holy Spirit. It has been believed since the earliest times to be guaranteed in such scriptural passages as John 14.16,17.
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). Two famous councils that claimed in vain to be ecumenical are the Robber Council of Ephesus (see EutychesEutyches
, c.378–c.452, archimandrite in Constantinople, sponsor of Eutychianism, the first phase of Monophysitism. He was the leader in Constantinople of the most violent opponents of Nestorianism, among whom was Dioscurus, successor to St. Cyril (d.
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) and the Council of Pisa during the Great Schism.

Protestants recognize the authority of the first four ecumenical councils, but, as first expressed by Martin Luther, do not regard ecumenical councils and their canons as binding on the conscience. Only when council decisions follow scripture do Protestants consider them authoritative. Nevertheless Protestant observers have officially attended the last two councils. The ecumenical movementecumenical movement
, name given to the movement aimed at the unification of the Protestant churches of the world and ultimately of all Christians.

During and after the Reformation Protestantism separated into numerous independent sects.
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 among Protestants is not to be confused with an ecumenical council, although they share a similar aim.


See studies by L. Jaeger (tr. 1961), P. Hughes (1961), F. Dvornik (1961), and E. F. Jacobs (rev. ed. 1963).

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Not all church councils have been able to achieve a satisfactory consensus, of course.