Today I am completing 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 have taken a brief look at each of the seven councils. For each one we have considered the setting and purpose, the major characters, the nature of the conflict, and then the results and lasting significance. We close the series today with the final council: the Second Council of Nicaea.
Setting & Purpose
The Second Council of Nicaea opened on September 24, 787, some 452 years after the first ecumenical council met in that same city. Between 258 and 335 bishops were present, presided over by Tarasius, who was Patriarch of Constantinople. The council had been convened by Empress Irene in order to discuss the use of icons, a practice which had been condemned by the Council of Hieria in 754.
Major Characters & Conflict
Constantine V (718 – 775) had led a campaign against icons that had begun with his father, Emperor Leo III. The campaign culminated in the Council of Hieria in 754. This council claimed to be ecumenical and succeeded in establishing iconoclasm (the rejection and destruction of religious icons) as the orthodox teaching of the church.
When Constantine V died, his son Leo IV took over the throne. He maintained his father’s iconoclasm, though he was less forceful against those who remained in favor of using them, perhaps because his wife, Irene, was an iconophile. When Leo IV died in 780, just five years after taking the throne, Irene succeeded him.
In 784 the outgoing patriarch of Constantinople, Paul IV, urged Irene to call a council to help mend some of the divisions between the Eastern and Western church and to examine the use of icons. She agreed, and soon after appointed a new patriarch of Constantinople, Tarasius, to help her. She also wrote to Pope Hadrian in Rome, asking him to prepare for a council. He agreed, and expressed his support for the use of icons based on his understand of Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers. Though he did not travel to Nicaea, he did send two representatives.