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Second Ecumenical Council

Second Ecumenical Council - Constantinople 381 AD
by Timothy Kenney, PhD

In the year 380 the emperors Gratian and Theodosius I decided to convoke Second Ecumenical Council. This council opened in Constantinople in May of 381 and closed on July 9 of the same year. It is also known as the First Council of Constantinople. Approximately 150 representatives from the Eastern Church were in attendance. The West did not send even one representative, yet later agreed to the things that this council decreed. Meletius, who died shortly after the opening, Gregory of Nazaianzen and after his resignation, Nectarius of Constantinople successfully ruled over the council. At the request of the council fathers, the emperor Theodosius ratified its decrees by edict in the year 382.

The Council at Constantinople dealt with the following issues:

  • take up the work of the first Council, expanding and adapting the Nicaean Creed.
  • develop in particular the teachings concerning the Holy Spirit.
  • condemn the blasphemy of Macedius who declared that the Son created the Holy Spirit.
  • strike down the works of Apollinarius, the Eunomians, the Marcellians, the Photians, and every other heresy that had arisen under the rules of the emperors Constanius, of Julian, and of Valens.

Regarding the teaching of the Holy Spirit, the Council affirmed him to be God "even as the Father and Son are God: who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and together glorified." After about 381, Arianism ceased to be a relevant issue, save for a few remote parts of the empire.

The controversial aspect of this Council was Canon III, which gave Constantinople second place in honor among the Sees:

  • “III. Because it is new Rome, the bishop of Constantinople is to enjoy the privileges of honor after the bishop of Rome.”

They called it the New Rome. Rome and Alexandria both resented this, and feared that a power play might come into effect by Constantinople. In fact, Rome ignored this canon entirely until AD 1215, after the Great Schism, and even then there were political reasons for Rome's 'granting' of Constantinople second place in honor. Alexandria, formally second in honor among the sees, was first in honor in the Eastern sees. With the third canon, it became third in honor among the sees, and second in honor in the Eastern sees.

From 382 onwards, in the letter of the synod that met at Constantinople, the council was given the title of "ecumenical." The council of Constantinople was, however, criticized and censured by Gregory of Nazianzus. And, in subsequent years it was hardly ever mentioned. In the end it achieved its special status when the council of Chalcedon, at its second session and in its definition of the faith, linked the form of the creed read out at Constantinople with the Nicene form, as being a completely reliable witness of the authentic faith. The fathers of Chalcedon acknowledged the authority of the canons -- at least as far as the Eastern Church was concerned -- at their sixteenth session. The council's dogmatic authority in the western church was made clear by words of Pope Gregory I : "I confess that I accept and venerate the four councils (Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon) in the same way as I do the four books of the holy Gospel . . . " (The bishop of Rome's approval was not extended to the canons, because they were never brought "to the knowledge of the apostolic see'').

No copy of the council's doctrinal decisions, entitled "tomos kai anathematismos engraphos" (record of the tome and anathemas), has survived. Remaining however from this council is the syndonal letter addressed to Theodosius, the list of the members of the council, and the canons that were issued.

The Holy Fathers of the Second Ecumenical Council are commemorated on May 22nd and also on the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, with the Sunday of the Fathers of the First Six Councils.

We now turn to the Third Ecumenical Council, held at Ephesus during the year 431, in our next article.

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