Table of contents
THE FIRST SIX COUNCILS (325-681)
Fighting against the heresies
The life of the Church in the earlier Byzantine period is dominated by the seven general councils. These councils fulfilled a double task. First, they clarified and articulated the visible organization of the Church, crystallizing the position of the five great sees or Patriarchates, as they came to be known. Secondly, and more important, the councils defined once and for all the Church's teaching upon the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith - the Trinity and the Incarnation. All Christians agree in regarding these things as 'mysteries' which lie beyond human understanding and language. The bishops, when they drew up definitions at the councils, did not imagine that they had explained the mystery; they merely sought to exclude certain false ways of speaking and thinking about it. To prevent people from deviating into error and heresy, they drew a fence around the mystery; that was all.
The discussions at the councils at times sound abstract and remote, yet they were inspired by a very practical purpose: human salvation. Humanity, so the New Testament teaches, is separated from God by sin, and cannot through its own efforts break down the wall of separation which its sinfulness has created. God has therefore taken the initiative: He has become man, has been crucified, and has risen again from the dead, thereby delivering humanity from the bondage of sin and death. This is the central message of the Christian faith, and it is this message of redemption that the councils were concerned to safeguard. Heresies were dangerous and required condemnation, because they impaired the teaching of the New Testament, setting up a barrier between humans and God, and so making it impossible for humans to attain full salvation.
Saint Paul expressed this message of redemption in terms of sharing. Christ shared our poverty that we might share the riches of His divinity: 'Our Lord Jesus Christ, though He was rich, yet for your sake became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich' (2 Corinthians viii, 9). In St John's Gospel the same idea is found in a slightly different form. Christ states that He has given His disciples a share in the divine glory, and He prays that they may achieve union with God: 'The glory which You, Father, gave Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them, and You in Me that they may be perfectly one' (John xvii, 22-3 The Greek Fathers took these and similar texts in their literal sense, and dared to speak of humanity's 'deification' (in Greek, theosis). If humans are to share in God's glory, they argued, if they are to be 'perfectly one' with God, this means in effect that humans must be 'deified': they are called to become by grace what God is by nature. Accordingly St Athanasius summed up the purpose of the Incarnation by saying, 'God became human that we might be made god."
Now if this 'being made god', this theosis, is to be possible, Christ the Saviour must be both fully human and fully God. No one less than God can save humanity; therefore if Christ is to save, He must be God. But only if He is truly human, as we are, can we humans participate in what He has done for us. A bridge is formed between God and humanity by the Incarnate Christ who is divine and human at once. 'Hereafter you shall see the heaven open,' our Lord promised, 'and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man' (John i, 51). Not only angels use that ladder, but the human race.
Christ must be fully God and fully human. Each heresy in turn undermined some part of this vital affirmation. Either Christ was made less than God (Arianism); or His humanity was so divided from His Godhead that He became two persons instead of one (Nestorianism); or He w as not presented as truly human (Monophysitism, Monothelitism). Each council defended this affirmation. The first two, held in the fourth century, concentrated upon the earlier part (that Christ must be fully God) and formulated the doctrine of the Trinity. The next four, during the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries, turned to the second part (the fullness of Christ's humanity) and also sought to explain how humanity and Godhead could be united in a single person. The seventh council, in defence of the Holy Icons, seems at first to stand somewhat apart, but like the first six it was ultimately concerned with the Incarnation and with human salvation.