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).
Because the Monophysites were opposed to Nestorianism, Justinian’s edict condemning these three items (which would come to be called the Three Chapters) was readily accepted in the east, where the Monophysite view was predominant. The edict was not so easily accepted in the west, however, because it appeared to cast doubt on the actions of the Council of Chalcedon.
Pope Vigilius of Rome relocated to Constantinople in 547 to escape the Ostrogoth invasion of Italy. While he initially resisted Justinian’s edict and encouraged other bishops in the west to do the same, over the next year, and after convening a number of bishops who also had resisted the edict, he came to accept Justinian’s Three Chapters, with reservations, in a document called the Judicatum. This document affirmed his confidence in the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon; nevertheless, the pope’s agreement to the Three Chapters came with much opposition from the west.
To prevent further rifts in the church, the Emperor encouraged Vigilius to visibly retract the Judicatum and call for a council that would examine the reasoning of the east and, hopefully, lead to universal agreement.
As plans were coming together for a council, Justinian and Vigilius could not agree on who should participate or where it should be held. Vigilius did not want it to be held in the east and also wanted more western bishops invited. This is the reason for his hesitation about it and why, during the council, he repeatedly refused to appear up until the third week of assembly.
In the end, the council accepted the decisions of the first four ecclesiastical councils. On May 24, Vigilius showed up with a new document, his Constitutum I, in which he refused to condemn the Three Chapters wholesale because he said each of the men had died while in communion with the church, and that the letter of Ibas had already been declared orthodox at Chalcedon. He did, however, outrightly condemn some particular propositions of Theodore of Mopsuestia and of Nestorius. The pope himself and several of the attending bishops and clerics signed the Constitutum I, but the emperor rejected its validity, saying that the council had already condemned the Three Chapters.
The Emperor responded by presenting evidence of pope Vigilius’ previous decision to condemn the Three Chapters (expressed in his Judicatum) and his agreement to attend the council (expressed in his personal correspondences with Justinian). This demonstrated Vigilius’ lack of integrity and his unwillingness to work with the council to come to a consensus, which in turn resulted in a decision by the council to break communion with him, without at the same time breaking communion with the Holy See of Rome.
In the eighth and final session, the council laid out their sentence, which summarized their condemnation of the Three Chapters. As regards the letter of Ibas, they concluded that the Council of Chalcedon must have reviewed and approved a different letter, supposedly also by Ibas, since they said the one they had revisited at this council was clearly in opposition to the doctrine of Chalcedon and could not have been approved by them.
The council issued a sentence on the Three Chapters, which can be found here while also issuing fourteen anathemas which served to lay out the rule of faith regarding Christ’s nature that had been established and agreed upon in previous councils. A further fifteen anathemas concerning the doctrines of Origen have come to be associated with this council, but there is debate over whether they were part of the official proceedings and whether they are actually attributable to Origen. The council also named and condemned the teachings of all the heretics to date.
Pope Vigilius was asked to return to Rome, but Justinian would not allow him to do so until he submitted to the rulings of the council. Vigilius finally surrendered six months later, making the excuse that he had been misled by his advisers. He died before he reached Rome.
Schaff says, “Pelagius I, who succeeded [Vigilius] in the See of Rome, likewise confirmed the Acts of the Fifth Synod. The council however was not received in all parts of the West, although it had obtained the approval of the Pope. It was bitterly opposed in the whole of the north of Italy, in England, France, and Spain, and also in Africa and Asia.” However, by 700, “the Second Council of Constantinople was received all the world over as the Fifth Ecumenical Council; and was fully recognized as such by the Sixth Council in 680”—the Third Council of Constantinople.