The first three centuries of Church history were filled with great signs and wonders, missionary travels, and frequent bouts of fierce persecution – followed by periods of relative peace. We need to remind ourselves that in the early centuries the followers of Jesus were often considered just a harmless “sect”of Judaism, but as time unfolded, periods of oppressive and bloody persecution occurred under the rule of various leaders of the Roman Empire. Countless thousands of Christ followers earned the “crown of martyrdom” witnessing the faith unto the shedding of their blood. The Church, in a sense, was small in size, although they lived in a very large urban and metropolitan world. They were known at first as followers of “The Way“, and the early disciples of Christ were often compelled to an “underground” existance – meeting in safe places like catacombs, homes, and gathering at hours when they could worship freely without being noticed. The spread of Christianity followed the pattern given to them by Christ Himself: ‘…from Judea, to Samaria, to the ends of the world..” And by325 AD in fact, Sts. Peter & Paul and the apostles did carry the Good News as far West as Rome, Spain, and to the upper reaches of the England – indeed the ends of the earth had heard the Gospel.
The challenge to the Church now, didn’t come from evil Roman Caesar’s, or “puppet” Governors, or Jewish antagonists, who killed and maimed their bodies, but beginning in the second century, the attacks came from within the church via heretics and heresies who attacked the very “heart and soul” of the Church – it’s Doctrine. In 312 AD a roman General, Constantine, saw a vision, a dream if you will, of a victory for his army at the battle of Milvian Bridge. In the vision he saw a cross in the sky, and heard the words: “In hoc signo vinces…” “In this sign you will conquer”, and that he did, becoming the sole Emperor of a unified Roman Empire. With the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, Christianity gained the protection of the Emperor, and the empire, as a legitimate religion, ending (somewhat) the bloody persecution of previous centuries. In fact, Theodosius, a later Emperor made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, so within the swing of two centuries Christianity went from martyrs dying and bleeding – to the adulation and acceptance of the State. It is in this time period that many of the heresies directed at Christ and the Trinity were unleashed. Heresies from within the church, from leaders such as Arius, Nestorius, Montanus and Sabellius… the list went on.
The Church and its very foundation of faith was being challenged, and following the precedent of the Bishop of Jerusalem, James in Acts 15, the Church did what it has always done when confronted with attacks on doctrine and theology – She convenes councils; and in this case an Ecumenical (all encompassing) council – bringing bishops from all over the empire to define and defend the Orthodox faith. It’s here, in the heat of spiritual attack against the very teachings of Christ, against the very nature of His Divinity that countless thousands of bishops, priests, deacons and laity fought and suffered to defend the one Divine essence and two natures of Jesus Christ – and the central and vital role of the nature of the Holy Trinity – One God – in Three distinct and eternal Persons.
But through all of this turmoil and attack – the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic church did not divide, she did not split, she did not cease to exist. But many heretics separated themselves from the Church, they and their teaching broke away, but the Church remained one, and whole.
Here are the dates for the seven Ecumenical Councils embraced by the Orthodox Church:
4. Council of Chalcedon, (451); repudiated the Eutychian doctrine of Monophysitism, described and delineated the two natures of Christ, human and divine; adopted the Chalcedonian Creed. This and all following councils are not recognized by Oriental Orthodox Communion.
- Quinisext/Penthekte Council(= Fifth and Sixth) or Council in Trullo, (692); mostly an administrative council that raised some local canons to ecumenical status and established principles of clerical discipline. It is not considered to be a full-fledged council in its own right because it did not determine matters of doctrine. This council is accepted by the Orthodox Church as a part of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, but that is rejected by Roman Catholics.