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The Sixth Ecumenical Council

Sixth Ecumenical Council - Constantinople (III) 680 AD
by Timothy Kenney, PhD

The Sixth Ecumenical Council met in Constantinople (it is also known as the Third Council of Constantinople) in 680 AD and was convened by Emperor Constantine IV (Pogonatos) and was attended by 170 bishops. Monothelitism (one will), in spite of the decisions of the Fifth Ecumenical Council and in spite of the strict laws and other repressive measures against it by subsequent emperors, continued to be a serious disturbance to both Church and State.

On 10 September 680 the emperor issued an edict to Patriarch George of Constantinople, ordering a council of bishops to be convoked. Constantine summoned all the Metropolitans and bishops of the jurisdiction of Constantinople, as well as those under the Archbishop of Antioch, with no intentions of declaring this an ecumenical council. When the synod assembled in the domed hall in the imperial palace (Trullo) on November 7th however, it assumed at its first session the title "Ecumenical," as all the five patriarchs were represented with Alexandria and Jerusalem having sent deputies. The synod was opened on November 7, 680 and closed after eighteen sessions on September 16, 681. The Emperor presided over the council, but he followed the tradition established at the Fourth Ecumenical Council. He attended to external matters, the administration of the synod etc. He left the decisions to the Synod alone. It is believed that three hundred bishops attended, although only 174 bishops signed the decree at its close. The numbers varied as bishops and theologians came and left the council.

By 680 AD, Arianism had become largely marginalized and many Arians were accepted back into the Church. But a new attack on the Person of Christ emerged in the form of the Monothelites. The greater part of the eighteen sessions was devoted to an examination of the Scriptural and patristic passages bearing on the question of one or two wills, one or two operations, in Christ. The Monothelites argued that Christ has only one will, for He is one person albeit with two natures. The Council felt that this "impaired the fullness of Christ's humanity," and that human nature without human will would be incomplete. That affirmed that since Christ was true man and true God, He must have two wills: a human will and a divine will. Monothelitism was condemned as heresy.

Patriarch Macarius of Antioch resisted to the end. In the 8th session, on 7 March 681, the council adopted the teaching of Pope Agatho in condemnation of Monothelitism. Macarius of Antioch was deposed in the 12th session. Both the Patriarch of Constantinople Sergios and Pope Honorius accepted the Emperor's formula by which there were two natures in Christ but only one mode of "activity." But in a statement of doctrine, the Pope used the unfortunate expression "of one will" in Christ which from that point on replaced the expedient "one energy" agreed upon by both parties.

In the thirteenth session (28 March, 681) after anathematizing the chief Monothelitic heretics mentioned in the letter of Pope Agatho, i.e. Sergius of Constantinople, Cyrus of Alexandria, Pyrrhus, Paul, Peter of Constantinople, and Theodore of Pharan, the council added:

"And in addition to these we decide that Honorius also, who was Pope of Elder Rome, be with them cast out of the Holy Church of God, and be anathematized with them, because we have found by his letter to Sergius that he followed his opinion in all things and confirmed his wicked dogmas."

A similar condemnation of Pope Honorius occurs in the dogmatic decree of the final session (16 Sept., 681), which was signed by the legates and the emperor. The doctrinal conclusions of the council were defined in the 17th session and promulgated in the 18th and last session on 16 September 681. The acts of the council were signed by the 174 fathers and by the emperor himself. Constantine IV sent the decrees of the council to all regions of the empire by imperial edict. The decrees were also sent to Pope Leo II the successor of Agatho, who ordered them to be translated into Latin and to be signed by all the bishops of the west. The council did not debate church discipline and did not establish any disciplinary cannons.

The Holy Fathers of the Sixth Ecumenical Council are commemorated on January 23rd, and also on the 9th Sunday after Pentecost the Sunday of the Fathers of the First Six Councils.

This Council was followed by another Council in the year 691, called the Council of Trullo. It is the subject of the next article in our series.

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