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Synods of the Orthodox Church


When is a Synod of the Church considered Ecumenical?

An Ecumenical Synod is one :

1.  that is convened with the permission of an Emperor of the Roman Empire, extending over an Ecumenical (pan-Roman) range, and of course a pan-Christian range. The participating Bishops were the representatives of worldwide Orthodoxy.

2.  whose rulings have been accepted by the entire, worldwide, Orthodox Church,  throughout History.

3.   whose rulings have been formulated by Divinely-inspired Fathers (Saints).

4.   Whose rulings bear the acceptance of the Roman Patriarchates as well as the ecclesiastic body.

5.   Which has dealt with crucial Theological issues.

We shall now set out only a brief overview of the Ecumenical Synods of the Church, leaving the more detailed descriptions for other, more specialized articles.

1st Ecumenical Synod:   325 A.D., in Nicea of Bithynia.

Convened by the Emperor Constantine the Great. 318 bishops participated. The issue dealt with was Arius’ blasphemous assertion that the Son and Logos of God is a creation and not of the same essence (Homo-usios) as the Father.  The same Synod ruled on the dates of celebration of Easter.   The Symbol of Faith (the Nicene Creed) also began to be drafted.

2nd Ecumenical Synod:  381 A.D., in Constantinople.

Convened by Theodosius the Great.  150 Orthodox and 36 Macedonian bishops participated. The Synod was presided over by Saint Gregory the Theologian, bishop of Constantinople.  Areios was once again condemned, as was the heresy of the Macedonios, who taught that the Holy Spirit is a creation of God, hence his being nicknamed Pneumatomachos  (the Spirit-battler). Also condemned Apollinarianism, Eunomians, Eudoxians, Sabellians, Marcellians, and Photinians (who taught that Jesus was a mere man, upon whom the Logos rested).  It drafted the Symbol of Faith, which is in use in Orthodoxy.

3rd Ecumenical Synod:  431 A.D., in Ephesus.

Convened by Theodosius II.  This Synod dogmatized against Nestorianism, in the Temple of the basilica of the Holy Mother, with 200 bishops participating. It condemned Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, and dogmatized that the Holy Mother can also be addressed as “Theotokos” (=who gave birth to God, ). Changes to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed were forbidden with punishment of deposition for clerics and excommunication for laity prescribed

4th Ecumenical Synod:   451 A.D., in Chalcedon of Asia Minor.

Convened by the Emperor Marcian and the Empress Pulcheria. 630 bishops participated. It annulled the  (Robber) Council of 449 which took place in Ephesus. The Eutychian doctrine of Monophysitism was condemned in this Synod.  The ‘Tome of Leo’ was affirmed. Simony was condemned. Condemned Nestorianism.

5th Ecumenical Synod:   5th May to 21st June of 553 A.D., in Constantinople.

Convened by the Emperor Justinian and the Empress Theodora.  165 Fathers participated. Condemned the (heretic) Monophysitic positions of Theodoretus of Kyros, Iwa of Edessa,and Theodore of Mopsuestia (Nestorius’ teacher). This Synod also confirmed the condemnation of Origenism (543).

6th Ecumenical Synod:   680 A.D., in Constantinople.

Convened by the Emperor Constantine Pogonatus. 150 – 289 bishops participated.  This Synod condemned the heresy of Monothelitism.   This Synod formulated that Christ has a Divine will, as well as a human will that is obeisant to the Divine will. Affirmed the teachings of Saint Maximus the Confessor. The following were condemned, amongst others: Sergius, Pyrrhus, Paul, and Peter (Patriarchs of Constantinople); Pope Honorius; Patriarch Cyrus of Alexandria.

Quinisext Ecumenical Synod:   691 A.D., in Constantinople.

Convened by Justinian II; took place in “the Trullo of the Palace”, hence its being named “The Synod of Trullo”.  This was not an independent Synod; it merely systematized and fulfilled the task of the preceding two Synods (the 5th and the 6th), hence, albeit Ecumenical, was also referred to as “Quinisext”, given that it was a segment of those two Synods and was not numbered as a separate Ecumenical Synod.

7th Ecumenical Synod:  787 A.D., in Nicea of Bithynia, in the temple of Hagia Sophia.

Convened by the Emperor Constantine and his mother Irene the Athenian.   367 fathers participated.  This Synod reinstated and protected the holy icons, by anathematizing iconoclasm (the opposition to the veneration of icons), also condemning the idea of depicting the invisible and incorporeal Holy Trinity. It annulled the false council of 754. Adoration of icons, was not accepted because it is for God alone. In this Synod, the theology pertaining to the depiction of Christ and the Saints as a depiction of visible personages was set out.

8th Ecumenical Synod:   879-880 A.D., in Constantinople.

Convened by the Emperor Basil the Macedon. Headed by the Patriarch of Constantinople-New Rome, Fotios the Great (858-867, 877-886) and with the participation of a representative of the (then Orthodox) Pope of Rome, John VIII (872-882).  This Synod validated the rulings of the 7th Ecumenical Synod by expelling those who did not recognise Nicæa II as Seventh Ecumenical Synod. It anathematized the “Filioque” addition to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which had just begun to be imposed, abrogating the decrees of the Robber Council of 869-870. It also condemned the heretic synods of Charlemagne in Frankfurt (794 A.D.) and in Aachen (809 A.D.). This council was later repudiated by the West in favor the robber council which had deposed Photius (869).

9th Ecumenical Synod:   1341-1351 A.D.

Three separate synods (1341, 1349 ,1351) are regarded as a whole because they dealt with the same issue.

This Synod dogmatized on the uncreated Essence and the uncreated Energy of God, as well as on Hesychasm, by condemning Varlaam the Calabrian.  Rejected teaching that the attributes (energies) of God are identical with the essence. Condemned those who think the light of Christ’s Transfiguration was a created apparition. Condemned those who deny the energy of God is uncreated.

This Synod therefore preoccupied itself with theological issues, it was convened by an emperor (Synodic Volume of 1341 A.D.) and a Divinely-inspired father participated therein (Saint Gregory Palamas), and its rulings were accepted by the entire Church.  Consequently, this Synod is of equal stature to an Ecumenical Synod.  The 9th Ecumenical Synod of 1341 condemned the Platonic mysticism of Varlaam the Calabrian, who had arrived from the West as a proselyte to Orthodoxy. Rejection of this Platonic type of mysticism was of course the traditional Patristic response.

General information on the Ecumenical Synods

The above nine Ecumenical Synods were published as roman laws validated by the Emperor, after having been previously signed by the respective five roman Patriarchs, Metropolitans and Bishops.  The Emperor would convene these Ecumenical Synods (but without actually also directing them), in collaboration with the Five Roman Patriarchates, of (a) Old Rome, (b) Constantinople-New Rome, (c) Alexandria, (d) Antioch, which was included in 451 A.D. and (e) Jerusalem.  The 9th Ecumenical Synod of 1341 A.D. was an exception, as its Minutes were validated by only four roman Patriarchs and signed by the roman Emperor.

The Patriarchate of Old Rome was now absent, as it had been violently seized by the Franks, the Longobards and the Germans, with the help of the Normans.  This onslaught began in 983 A.D. and was completed by 1009-1046 A.D..   After the year 1045 A.D., the Popes of Rome -with the exception of Pope Benedict X (1058-9 A.D.) – were no longer romans, but members of the Frankish-Latin aristocracy, which had subjugated the roman populations.  After the fall of the Roman Empire and its Emperor, in 1453 A.D. the four roman Patriarchates of Constantinople-New Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem continued to convene Synods, with which they continued the tradition of the Ecumenical Synods. The only reason that these Synods were not named “Ecumenical” is simply because this title signified “Imperial” and the rulings of such Synods became components of Roman Law.  In other words, after the year 1453 A.D., the rulings of the roman Synods were considered components of Ecclesiastic Law, and no longer of Imperial Law.  The Roman Empire no longer existed, nor a roman emperor who would issue roman Laws.  Thus, these nine Ecumenical Synods were understood to be both ecclesiastic Laws and roman Laws.  The Synods that were convened after 1453 A.D. comprise a part of Ecclesiastic Law, and have the same authority as the previous Ecumenical Synods (except in the imagination of some contemporary Orthodox, who have been misled by the Russian Orthodoxy of Peter the Great, and the so-called “neo-Greek” theology of certain Western-educated theologians.)

This is why nowadays we find Orthodox who call themselves The Church of the Seven Ecumenical Synods.  Many (uninformed) Orthodox are totally oblivious to the existence of the 8th and the 9th Ecumenical Synods.  The 8th Ecumenical Synod in 879 A.D. simply condemned those who “add” or “remove” anything from the Symbol of Faith (Creed), as well as those who do not accept the rulings pertaining to the worship of Icons, per the 7th Ecumenical Synod.

The reason that the Franks –who are being condemned- are not for the time being clearly denoted, is that they might hopefully revise their stance.

Evidence of the Ecumenical status of the 8th & 9th Ecumenical Synods

In a previous chapter, we outlined the required characteristics of a Synod acceptable by the Church, in order for it to be confirmed as an Ecumenical Synod.  These characteristics are found in all nine (plus the Quinisext) Synods that we mentioned above.  These characteristics, which are set out in this article, have been taken from the book of the Rev. Metropolitan of Nafpaktos, Hierotheos Vlachos, titled “Ecclesiastic Conviction”, (published by Genethlion of Theotokos). The Ecumenical status of the 9th Ecumenical Synod is also analyzed therein, extensively.

Naturally, the 8th Ecumenical Synod itself not only repeated that the 7th was Ecumenical (which, until that time, had not been acknowledged by some as the 7th Ecumenical Synod), but it also frequently refers to itself as “Ecumenical” in its Minutes, and in fact in its very canons -which have been fully accepted by the worldwide Ecclesiastic body of Orthodoxy!  (Rallis and Potlis, Constitution, 2, 705, etc.; Ecclesiastic History by Stephanides, pages 363-364.). So, how is it possible for a Synod (the 8th) which , for some , is allegedly not Ecumenical, to validate another Synod (the 7th) which is Ecumenical?   Based on this logic, we are indirectly doubting the Ecumenicity of the 7th, unbeknownst to us!

During his interpretation of these canons, Theodore of Balsamon (end 12th century) acknowledges it as being the 8th Ecumenical Synod, while Neilos of Rhodos (†1379) calls it the “Eighth Ecumenical”, as do others (J.Hergenröther, Photius II, page 539 onwards).

Of course, the most important Orthodox Theologian of the 20th century – father John Romanides – (Graduate of the Greek College of Brookline Massachusetts, the Yale University’s School of Theology, Doctor of the School of Theology of the Capodistrian University of Athens, the Philosophical School of Harvard University (School of Arts and Sciences. Professor Emeritus of the School of Theology of the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki and Visiting Professor of the Theological School of Saint John the Damasceneof the Balamand University of Lebanon since 1970. He has also studied with the Russian Seminar of Saint Vladimir of New York, and the also Russian Institute of Saint Serge in Paris and Munich, Germany) is in full agreement with the aforementioned positions.

Fr. John Romanides expounds on these two last Ecumenical Synods in extensive memoranda of his.  The title of one of his writings is characteristic: “The cure for the sickness of Religion: the Nine Ecumenical Synods and the other Ecclesiastic Synods until 1453”.  You can locate this article, in the related link below, among the other links pertaining to this article.

It is however imperative that we do not confine ourselves to the names of theologians, or even of bishops, but to seek an OFFICIAL acknowledgement of our positions, from the Universal Orthodox Church. A document such as this, which dispels every doubt that the Ecumenical Synods are NOT ONLY SEVEN, is a letter which had been sent to the Pope by ALL OF THE ROMAN PATRIARCHATES, in 1848.  This letter was signed, not only by the Patriarchs, but also by the (named) Bishops of their respective Holy Synods.

Very clearly mentioned in this letter is the wording “EIGHTH ECUMENICAL SYNOD”, where the all-familiar “Filioque” was condemned, and furthermore, the Pope himself had also participated (who at the time was still Orthodox).  This was not a just a private letter to Pius IX. It was addressed to “All the Bishops Everywhere, Beloved in the Holy Ghost, Our Venerable, Most Dear Brethren; and to their Most Pious Clergy; and to All the Genuine Orthodox Sons of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.”

Should we therefore assume here that neither the Patriarchs nor the members of their Holy Synods knew that the Ecumenical Synods were supposedly only seven?  If this were the case, it is highly improbable, that not a single one of them, who signed at the bottom of this document, would have questioned: “If the Synods are 7 in all, how can we be speaking of the 8th?”   Quite obviously, they were all fully aware that the Ecumenical Synods were more than 7!

This document can be found (in its English translation), by visiting the related links mentioned at the end of this article. Also in Greek (prototype) you can find it mentioned in Volume 2, pages 902-925 of the book by J. Karmiris, titled “THE DOGMATIC AND SYMBOLIC MONUMENTS OF THE ORTHODOX CATHOLIC CHURCH”.

Another interesting detail is also the following:  The Papist “Church”, published the so-called “Catholic Encyclopedia” in 1907, in which it mentions the Ecumenical Synod of 879-880, saying that:  “This is the “Psuedosynodus Photiana” (= the pseudo-synod of Photios),  which the Orthodox count as the Eighth General Council”

From this, it becomes obvious that even the Papists knew full well which the Orthodox Synods were, even at that time.  And while the Papists had every reason to withhold the information regarding the Ecumenical status of that Synod (in which the Filioque was condemned), by saying that not even we Orthodox considered it Ecumenical, they did not do this; instead, they merely slandered it.  They obviously refrained from this action, because it was something quite familiar to everyone at the time, and any concealment would have had no real repercussions.