Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council

Augustine Sokolovski

On October 22, Churches that follow the Julian calendar honor the memory of the Holy Fathers of the VII Ecumenical Council. The Council took place in 787 and was intended to oppose the teaching and practice of iconoclasm, which then gripped the Eastern Church. Icon veneration was recognized not only as permissible, but also obligatory.

According to the conciliar decrees, holy icons are not just a “Bible for the illiterate,” as was previously thought, but also direct proof of the visibility and authenticity of the incarnation of the Son of God. The adjective “Holy” is not accidental here. The icon is not depicted but written; what is written on it is not arbitrary but follows strict canons. An icon should not convey elements of the iconographer’s fantasy, but convey a different, supernatural existence. The Council also spoke about this!

The memory of the Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils is not a personal remembrance of their holy participants, but a celebration of the Councils as key events in church history. The memory of each of them, the first six, as well as all of them together, is celebrated during divine services on strictly defined days throughout the year. Temples were consecrated in honor of the memory of the Fathers of the Seven Councils. This is an important special characteristic of Eastern Orthodoxy.

In the Orthodox Church, the VII Ecumenical Council was the last in history. The reason for this is that, by analogy with the First Ecumenical Council, initiated by Constantine the Great, all subsequent Councils were convened by the emperor. The nature of this practice, from a legal point of view, was case law, because it was not in canonical fixed in any decrees. In Western Christianity, Councils were perceived as meetings of representatives of the entire Church. Therefore, the tradition of convening ecumenical councils did not stop there.

Just 13 years after the VII Council, in 800 on the Nativity of Christ, in Rome, Charlemagne, contrary to the principled position of the heirs of the Roman Caesars in Constantinople, was crowned Emperor of the West. The idea that only one Christian Empire could exist on earth was undermined. In relation to the conciliar life of the Church, this meant that ecumenical councils could no longer be convened by the decision of the Eastern Emperor. Sometimes 13 is truly a fatal number!

However, in the minds of contemporaries of those events, the belief in the uniqueness of the Empire continued to exist. Representatives of both courts, hierarchs, and theologians, began to look for reasons to accuse each other of heresy. Connected with this desire to isolate oneself at the level of doctrine was the practice of reading in the Creed the addition about the procession of the Holy Spirit “and from the Son” (in Latin: filioque) in the West. Thus began the final demarcation between East and West.

The very term “Orthodoxy,” which became the definition of Eastern Christianity, meant a confession of faith that was officially approved by the authorities of the Roman Empire. Let us recall that the word “Byzantium” was introduced into use by Western researchers of modern times, and the “Byzantines” themselves perceived themselves and were perceived by others precisely as “Romans”.

By an amazing coincidence, the VII Ecumenical Council, which was destined to be the last in Orthodox history, just like the first, took place in the city of Nicaea. The Church of Hagia Sophia, in which it was held, has been preserved. It contained ancient frescoes, but in 2011 it was re-converted into a mosque. It is noteworthy that the “Byzantine” iconoclasm of the 8th century, to respond to which this “Last Council” was convened, was largely motivated by the influence of the rapidly spreading Islam of that time.

The significance of the Ecumenical Councils for Orthodoxy is colossal. The study of the Ecumenical Councils acquires new dimensions with each era; the richness of their heritage is inexhaustible. It is remarkable that in modern theology, Orthodoxy is often called the Church of the Seven Councils.