a list, with comments

Nicaea I (19 June 325 - ).
Constantinople I (May 381).
Ephesus (22 June 431 - ).
Chalcedon (8 October 451 - ).

Constantinople II (5 May 553 - ).
Constantinople III (7 November 680 - 16 September 681).
Nicaea II (24 September 787 - ).

Constantinople IV (5 October 869 - 28 February 870).

Lateran I (18 March - about 27 March 1123).
Lateran II (2 - 17 April 1139).
Lateran III (March 1179).
Lateran IV (11 - 30 November 1215).

Lyons I (26 June - about 25 August 1245).
Lyons II (7 May - 17 July 1274).
Vienne (16 October 1311 - 6 May 1312).
Constance (5 November 1414 - 1418).
Basel (25 July 1431) -- Ferrara (8 January 1438) -- Florence (10 January 1439) -- Rome (24 February 1443 - 1445).
Lateran V (10 May 1512 - 1517).

Trent (13 December 1545 - 4 December 1563).

Vatican I (8 December 1869 - 18 July 1870).

Vatican II (1962 - 1965).

"Ecumenical councils" are "worldwide meetings" of Christians, usually to respond to a particular set of problems in the Church. The "original" ecumenical council is God's own triune communion. The first human council is usually thought to be the meeting of Christians in Jerusalem narrated in Acts 15. This was a Spirit-inspired meeting to shape how the new community of Jews and Gentiles was to be genuinely new (admitting Gentiles) while maintaining continuity with its Jewish roots -- although it is now commonly thought that the account of this meeting in Acts 15 conflates several such meetings (see Galatians 2:1 - 12). More by custom than by official teaching, Roman Catholics hold that there have been twenty ecumenical councils;. There is wide disagreement over which elements of which councils are important today. Greek and Russian Orthodox give ecumenical status only to the first seven councils. Some Protestant Churches give ecumenical status to the first four, while others give little or no authority to any of these councils.

Next to each council below is the year when it met, along with a characterization of its main theological importance. But this characterization should not be confused with its sole importance, theological or otherwise. When the bishops and others gathered, they conducted all sorts of business, some of which had little to do with (or seemed to have little to do with) the theological business at hand. A complete understanding of a council requires not only the theological issues summarized below but also other theological and non-theological matters. Reading these councils can be inspiring. But reading about conciliar teachings on Jews, heretics, and the crusades should also be a warning about the limits of councils, and a call to repentance.

Nicaea I (19 June 325 - ). The key accomplishment of the two or three hundred bishops who gathered was approval of a creed (usually called "Nicene") that provides the basic framework for the creed still professed by Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and many Protestants today at the Eucharist. Jesus, the creed says against Arius and his many followers, is homoousion (of the same substance) with the Father. But the council also issued "canons" on various topics (e.g., what to do with those who castrated themselves for the sake of the kingdom or who denied the faith during persecution but have returned to the church or who practiced usury). Also tried to settle the question of the date of Easter. Click here for texts.

Constantinople I (May 381). Continued the argument against the Arians. A canon on how the bishop of Constantinople "comes second to the bishop of Rome" was important in later disputes between Greek and Latin Christians. This Council became important when Chalcedon later proclaimed that the creed of Constantinople represented the authentic faith; it is this "Nicene-constantinopolitan Creed" that is actually prayed today at Catholic eucharists. Click here for texts.

Ephesus (22 June 431 -). Cyril rather than Nestorius agree with the Nicene Creed because Nestorius (it was thought) divides Jesus into two natures, divine and human. Mary is mother of God, not only mother of Jesus (as Nestorius contended). Also passed a "definition against the impious Messalians or Euchites [whose name derived from the Syriac or Greek word for 'prayer']", who were thought to insist on "pure mystical prayer" or "praying always" in contrast to the many other sacramental and non-sacramental activities in which Christians engage. Click here for texts.

Chalcedon (8 October 451 - ). The classic traditional definition of Jesus' identity: Jesus is "in two natures . . . one person and hypostasis [prosopon kai hypostasis]". Also passed a number of canons, including one that forbids a woman under the age of forty from becoming a deacon. Click here for texts.

Constantinople II (5 May 553 -). Reaffirmed Chalcedon, and condemned "The Three Chapters" of Theodore of Mopsuestia. Some say this council also condemned "Originism", but this seems to have been another gathering (see Tanner Volume 1, p. 106). Click here for texts.

Constantinople III (7 November 680 - 16 September 681). Jesus has two wills, divine and human (against the Monothelites). Pope Honorius condemned for being (or supposedly being) a Monothelite. Click here for texts.

Nicaea II (24 September 787 -). Artistic representations of Jesus and other icons are images of God, not idols (against the Iconoclasts who were and are out to destroy all such artistic representations). A crucial application of earlier conciliar decisions about Jesus to theological art. Click here for texts.

Constantinople IV (5 October 869 - 28 February 870). Restores Ignatius as bishop of Constantinople and condemns Bishop Photius for engineering the expulsion of Ignatius of Constantinople (who was supported by "old Rome"). But Photius was restored to Constantinople by an 879 synod. Constantinople IV is perhaps most important theologically because of the way the battle between Rome and Constantinople would later be a cause of the Greek-Latin schism. Included on lists of councils only after the eleventh century. Ignored by Eastern Christians. Click here for texts.

Lateran I (18 March - about 27 March 1123). The first of several Western councils at the Lateran in Rome. Dealt with questions surrounding "the freedom of the church" from princes as well as abuses in the church (simony, clerical concuginage, lay investiture). Blesses crusaders. Probably most important theologically as the victory of "the Gregorian Reform". Click here for texts.

Lateran II (2 - 17 April 1139). Similar to Lateran I. Also condemns "that murderous art of crossbowmen and archers". Click here for texts.

Lateran III (March 1179). Gathered to end a schism, during which there were at least three "anti-popes". (Antipopes were an infrequent occurrence in the history of the papacy, but became more frequent from the early middle ages until the fifteenth century.) This Council required that popes be elected by two thirds ballot. Also condemned Cathars, continuing problems with simony, concubinage, usury. Required churches to school the poor -- as well as churches for lepers. Some documents call this "Lateran I" because it resembles earlier councils more than Lateran I and II. Click here for texts.

Lateran IV (11 - 30 November 1215). A council called for general reform of the Church, including continuing the crusades (called "Jesus Christ's business"). The result was seventy "constitutions" dealing with a new creed, a condemnation of abbot Joachim, church disciple, reform of clerical morals, episcopal elections and administration, taxes, canonical suits, marriage, tithes, simony and the sale of relics and indulgences, and Jews. Click here for texts.

Lyons I (26 June - about 25 August 1245). Deposed the emperor Frederick II for not keeping his coronation oath, breaking the peace between church and empire, arresting cardinals and other bishops, and being suspect of heresy. Still further statements on usury and the crusades. Click here for texts.

Lyons II (7 May - 17 July 1274). An effort to unite Greeks and Latins, further the crusades, and continue reform of the church. Thomas Aquinas died on the way to this council. Click here for texts.

Vienne (16 October 1311 - 6 May 1312). Suppression of the Knights Templar of Jerusalem (special appointees to the holy land who had gone corrupt). Also dealt with various problems in the reform of the Church, the errors of the Beghards and Beguines, and problems with Franciscan poverty. Click here for texts.

Constance (5 November 1414 - 1418). Ended "the Great Western Schism" (3 popes!!). Condemned the heresies of John Wyclif (Britain) and John Hus (Bohemia), and corrupt practices of the church. Also condemned communion under both kinds. Click here for texts.

Basel (25 July 1431) -- Ferrara (8 January 1438) -- Florence (10 January 1439) -- Rome (24 February 1443 - 1445). A set of classic battles between popes and bishops (papalism versus conciliarism). The Council of Florence is most noteworthy for decrees of union with the Greek, Armenian, Coptic, and several other churches -- unions which never came about despite the decrees. Click here for texts.

Lateran V (10 May 1512 - 1517). A counter-council to one that had assembled at Pisa. Tried to reform the Roman curia. Also battled the French church. Issued a relatively lengthy treatise on "how to preach" (Tanner, Volume 1, pp. 634 -38). Click here for texts.

Trent (13 December 1545 - 4 December 1563). This council of Catholic Reform as well as a counter to the Protestant Reformation met in three sessions over almost twenty years. Important statements on Scripture and tradition, justification, and sacraments (especially the eucharist and penance). Also issued various "decrees on reform" calling for changes in residential practices of bishops, the training of priests (the creation of seminaries, "the sons of poor people particularly to be chosen"),. Condemned "the detestable practice of duelling". Click here for texts.

Vatican I (8 December 1869 - 18 July 1870). Defined the Catholic faith over against modernity in two "dogmatic constitutions". The first is a statement on the Catholic faith, most noteworthy for teaching that natural reason and divine faith are "a twofold order of knowledge" and nonetheless "mutually support each other". The second was intended to be a dogmatic constitution on the church. But the Council had to adjourn after proclaiming the infallible magisterium of the Roman pontiff. Some German Catholics ("Old Catholics") withdrew from the Church. Click here for texts.

Vatican II (1962 - 1965). Probably the most important reform of the Church since the Gregorian Reform, perhaps since Constantine called the first council -- indeed, some enthusiasts have said the most important reform since the Council of Jerusalem! 2300 bishops plus thousands of theological advisors and dozens of observers from non-Catholic churches and communions attended sessions for about ten weeks each Fall for four years. The result was sixteen major documents: on liturgy, mass media, the church, eastern churches, ecumenism (all approved 4 December 1963), bishops, religious life, priestly formation, education, non-Christian religions (all approved 28 October 1965), revelation, laity (each approved 18 November 1965), religious freedom, missionary activity, priests, the church in the world of today (all approved 7 December 1965). Click here for texts.

For more information on councils, the indispensable source in English is Norman Tanner, S.J., ed., Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils (London: Sheed & Ward and Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1990), two volumes. [The original text was first established by G. Alberigo, J.A. Dossetti, P.-P. Joannou, C. Leonardi, and P. Prodi, in consultation with H. Jedin and published in 1972]. These volumes contain the original languages (initially Greek but later Latin, with some Armenian) and English translations, along with brief introductions and essential bibliography.

Convenient introductions to the councils before Vatican II in English are H. Jedin Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church. An Historical Outline trans. E. Graf (Edinburgh and London, 1960); F. Dvornik, The General Councils of the Church (London, 1961).

James Buckley