This Sunday we commemorate the Fathers of the First Six Oecumenical Councils. Together with these notes, we’ve included an overview of these Councils. This has been published before, but newer readers may not have seen it. Those of you who have seen it before might welcome the opportunity to refresh the memory, because it can be difficult to remember the numerous theological and historical details.
Today, the Calendar of Saints gives us the Great Martyr Marina. It is curious that many Christian names are universal, yet are variously rendered in different countries. The Great Martyr is known in the Greek world as Marina, but, in the West, the more usual rendering is Margaret. There was a widespread and popular devotion her in former centuries as is evidenced by the numerous church dedications to St Margaret of Antioch, who suffered in the early 4th Century. Unsurprisingly, the infamous Emperor Diocletian features in the narrative. All too often, the only written Life of a Saint that we have, is the work of a later Medieval hagiographer, and this is the case with the Great Martyr Marina. The traditional Life is replete with many signs and wonders, including being swallowed by a dragon. Unfortunately, this leads historians and others to mock and dismiss the traditional story as mere fiction, even dismissing the saint as a fictitious character. The tradition states that Marina was the daughter of Aedidios, a pagan priest, at Antioch, in Pisidia, and that her mother died in childbirth, or soon after. The baby was nursed by a Christian woman, who taught Marina about our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Marina was so inspired that she became a Christian and resolved to give her virginity and her life to Christ her Lord. For this reason, her earthly father rejected and disowned her. She came to the attention of Olybrius, the Governor of Antioch, who wanted to possess her, but Marina rejected his advances, holding fast to her Christian convictions. In his fury, the governor had her tortured, trying to force her compliance. Thus, ultimately, Marina was beheaded, surrendering her soul to Christ the Saviour. In the Prologue from Ochrid, St Nikolai Velimirovic records that relics of St Marina are preserved in Vatopedi Monastery, MountAthos and the Monastery of St Marina in the Langa Montains overlooking Lake Ochrid. Of the latter monastery, he writes that numerous miracles have been witnessed, not only by Christians but also by Moslems.
AN OVERVIEW OF THE FIRST SIX OECUMENICAL COUNCILS
On this Sunday the Church remembers the first six Oecumenical Councils. Thousands of pages and huge books have been written about the Faith. The whole of theology has its foundations in the doctrinal formulations of the Seven Oecumenical Councils. It is a virtually impossible task to summarise this on two A4 sheets of paper, never-the-less this is an attempt to give you an overview of the theological issues that each Council was called to resolve.
In AD325 the 1st Council (in Nicaea) was called to resolve the Arian heresy. This Council defined the incarnate Son of God as consubstantial with the Father. The bishops gathered at Nicaea began setting down a precis of doctrinal definitions which became known as the Creed. They also settled the question of the date of Easter. A fuller explanation was given in the notes for the Sunday after Ascension Day (31 May).
In AD381 the 2nd Oecumenical Council was held in Constantinople. Unhappily the Arian heresy had continued to trouble the Church in the years since the 1st Council. The Archbishop of Constantinople, Macedonius I (who had two periods of office 342-349 and again from 351-360 and who surrounded himself with Arians and fellow travellers), was a key figure in the problem. He promulgated a heresy which denied the equality of the three Persons of the Trinity, calling the Holy Spirit “a creation of the Son and the servant of the Father and the Son”. The Council refuted this erroneous doctrine and included the following statement in the Creed to confirm the Church’s teaching; “And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son is equally worshipped and glorified……..” This Council completed and authorised the Creed. If anyone asks you, “What does the Orthodox Church believe?” and you doubt your ability to give a concise answer, simply give them a copy of the Nicaean Creed. This is sung or recited at every Liturgy and at other services (Compline) too. The Creed is an absolute; any alteration or addition is totally forbidden.
In AD431 the 3rd Oecumenical Council was held in the city of Ephesus. At that time, the Church was being unsettled by Archbishop Nestorius of Constantinople who taught that God the Son and Jesus Christ were two persons. Thus he denied that in Christ, the incarnate God, divinity and humanity were united in one person (the hypostatic union). Nestorius was challenged to address the Holy Virgin as “Theotokos” (Mother of God) and he refused. The most he would do was to address her as “Christotokos” (Mother of Christ). Thus he confirmed his heresy. Consequently, the Council deposed Nestorius and condemned him as a heretic.
In AD451 the 4th Oecumenical Council assembled in Chalcedon. At this time the Church had to address the opposite problem. There arose in Alexandria, a school of thought that accepted God Incarnate, Jesus Christ, as one Person but then confused Person with Nature. These people are identified as Monophysites (mono “one” – physis “nature”). Fr Michael Pomazansky, in his book “Orthodox Dogmatic Theology” states: The Monophysites considered that in Jesus Christ the principle of the flesh had been swallowed up by the spiritual principle, the human by the divine, and therefore they acknowledged in Christ only one nature. The Council affirmed the two natures of Christ and condemned the Monophysite heresy which was mostly believed by non-Greeks (Copts, Ethiopians and Armenians) who subsequently founded their own schismatic churches.
In AD553 the 5th Oecumenical Council was convened in Constantinople. At the time, Emperor Justinian hoped that the split with those rejected Chalcedon could be healed. This was not achieved.
In AD680 the 6th Oecumenical Council, also held in Constantinople, had to address Monothelitism, (thelesis – “will”), a variant of Monophysitism. This introduces the question of Christ’s will to act. The heresy argues that, although Christ has two natures, He is one person and therefore must have one will. The Council affirmed that Christ must have two wills, since He has two natures. To deny this impairs Christ’s humanity, since a human nature without a human will would be incomplete.
These are the Councils we are remembering today. The 7th Oecumenical Council, which ended the ikonoclast controversy, has a separate commemoration. Once more we find a theme. In the Gospel commentary Blessed Theophylact reminds us that the demons seek to separate us from God. We know that heresy also separates us from God. Now we see the purpose of the Councils. In each one, the principle purpose was the eradication of heresy.