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The Fifth Ecumenical Council

The Fifth Ecumenical Council - Constantinople II 553 AD
by Timothy Kenney, PhD

The Fifth Great & Holy Council (Constantinople II) was convoked by the Emperor Justinian the Great in the year 553 in the capital city of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople. This synod was opened on May 5th in the Secretarium of the Cathedral Church of Agia Sophia. Among those present were the Patriarchs, Eutychius of Constantinople, who presided, Apollinaris of Alexandria, Domninus of Antioch, three bishops as representatives of the Patriarch Eustochius of Jerusalem, and 145 other metropolitans and bishops, of whom many came also in the place of absent colleagues (165 in total). This Council concluded its work on June 2nd after eight sessions.

The holy Emperor St Justinian called the council to determine the Orthodoxy of three dead bishops: Theodore of Mopsuetia, Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Ibas of Edessa, who had expressed Nestorian opinions in their writings in the time of the Third Ecumenical Council. These three bishops had not been condemned at the Fourth Ecumenical Council, which did condemn the Monophysites, and in turn had been accused by the Monophysites of Nestorianism. Therefore, to deprive the Monophysites of the possibility of accusing the Orthodox of sympathy for Nestorianism, and also to dispose the heretical party towards unity with the followers of the Council of Chalcedon, the emperor St Justinian issued an edict. In it "the Three Chapters" (the three deceased bishops) were condemned. But since the edict was issued on the emperor's initiative, and since it was not acknowledged by representatives of all the Church (particularly in the West, and in Africa), a dispute arose about the "Three Chapters." The Fifth Ecumenical Council was convened to resolve this dispute.

Although 165 bishops attended this Council, Pope Vigilius refused to participate in the Council. He was present in Constantinople at the time and had been asked on three different occasions to do so by official deputies in the name of the gathered bishops and the Emperor himself. Nonetheless, The Council opened without Pope Vigilius, and with St. Eutychius, Patriarch of Constantinople as presiding. In accordance with the imperial edict, the matter of the "Three Chapters" was carefully examined in eight prolonged sessions from May 4 to June 2, 553.

Anathema was pronounced against the person and teachings of Theodore of Mopsuetia. In the case of Theodore and Ibas, the condemnations were confined only to certain of their writings, while they personally had been cleared by the Council of Chalcedon, because of their repentance. Thus, they were spared from the anathema.

This measure was necessary because certain of the proscribed works contained expressions used by the Nestorians to interpret the definitions of the Council of Chalcedon for their own ends. But the leniency of the Fathers of the Fifth Ecumenical Council, in a spirit of moderate economy regarding the persons of Bishops Theodore and Ibas, instead embittered the Monophysites against the decisions of the Council. Besides which, the emperor had given the orders to promulgate the Conciliar decisions together with a decree of excommunication against Pope Vigilius, for being like-minded with the heretics. The Pope afterwards concurred with the mind of the Fathers, and signed the Conciliar definition. The bishops of Istria and all the region of the Aquilea metropolia, however, remained in schism for more than a century.

At the Council the Fathers likewise examined the errors of presbyter Origen, a renowned Church teacher of the third century. His teaching about the pre-existence of the human soul was condemned. Other heretics, who did not admit the universal resurrection of the dead, were also condemned.

On 14 May 553 Pope Vigilius issued his "Constitution," which was signed by 16 bishops (9 from Italy, 2 from Africa, 2 from Illyria and 3 from Asia Minor). This rejected sixty propositions of Theodore of Mopsuestia, but spared his personal memory and refused to condemn either Theodoret or Ibas since, on the testimony of the council of Chalcedon, all suspicion of heresy against them had been removed. Even so, the council condemned the "Three Chapters" : (1) the person and the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia; (2) the writings of Theodoret of Cyros; (3) the writings of Ibas of Edessa, in its eight session on June 2nd with a judgment that concludes with 14 anathemas. This council issued no canons as it did not debate ecclesiastical or disciplinary matters. Most importantly, the Council of Chalcedon was not discredited as the Monophysites had hoped.

After carefully considering the matter for six months, Vigilius, weighing up the persecutions of Justinian against his clergy and having sent a letter to Eutychius of Constantinople, approved the council, thus changing his mind. Furthermore he anathematized Theodore and condemned his writings and those of Theodoret and Ibas. On 23 February 554, in a second "Constitution," he tried to reconcile the recent condemnation with what had been decreed at the council of Chalcedon.

This council was not universally recognized for some time by western bishops, even after the vacillating Pope Vigilius gave in his assent to it. This event caused a temporary schism between upper Italy and the Roman See. As to its importance, it stands far below the four previous councils. However, it did further confirm the first four general councils, especially that of Chalcedon, whose authority was contested by some heretics.

The Holy Fathers of the Fifth Ecumenical Council are commemorated on July 25th and also on the 9th Sunday after Pentecost the Sunday of the Fathers of the First Six Councils.

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