I am in the midst of a series of articles on the seven ecumenical councils of the early church. These councils commenced with the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and concluded with the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. Between these two events were five more, each of which attempted to understand and establish a unified Christian theology.
In this series we are taking a brief look at each of the seven councils. For each one we are considering the setting and purpose, the major characters, the nature of the conflict, and then the results and lasting significance. We continue today with the fifth council: the Second Council of Constantinople.
Setting & Purpose
Like the First Council of Constantinople, the Second Council of Constantinople was held in modern day Istanbul, Turkey. The council met from May 5 to June 2, 553 and was convened by Emperor Justinian I in an attempt to reconcile those who sided with the decisions of Chalcedon a hundred years prior and the Monophysites who had not.
Somewhere between 151 and 168 bishops attended the council, most of them from the eastern half of the church. Phillip Schaff says “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.” The two major players were Emperor Justinian I and Pope Vigilius while Eutychius, patriarch of Constantinople, presided.
Justinian I was a pious emperor who, in the interest of preserving his empire, saw the necessity of preserving the integrity of the Christian faith. This demanded at least attempting to heal the schism that had resulted between the Monophysites and those who submitted to the decisions of Chalcedon a hundred years prior.
In an attempt to do this, Justinian issued an edict in 543 condemning three things: the person and writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrusa’s writings against Cyril, and the letter of Ibas of Edessa to Maris the Persian. These were condemned because they were understood to support Nestorius and his view of Christ’s human and divine natures being distinct rather than united (see Council of Chalcedon).