This summer, I thought a solid hike through the history of Christian doctrine might be a better use of time than sunburning myself at the beach. However, not wanting to break my streak of summer sunburns, I somehow managed to do both. Having a brain so violently overheated as to become insensible to the desires of my readers, I thought you might want to see some snapshots of Christology I collected from the ecumenical councils.
A weedy, rather persistent heresy spread around the time Christianity was legalized. According to the heretic priest Arius, “There was a time the Son of Man was not.” In response to uproar among his subjects, Saint Constantine started the ball rolling on this first Ecumenical Council. Good and bad theologians travelled to meet in Nicaea, where the Council decreed that Christ had existed from eternity, “Begotten of the Father before all ages.”
The infinity symbol in this snapshot has three lines to it, signifying the eternal existence of the Trinity, including the heretic-maligned Son. The one line comes down from heaven, embraces creation, and places itself on the Earth, “X” marking the spot (that “x” is “chi” as in the Greek letter starting “Christ”). Additionally, the way it breaks off, there is no point at which the three-lined infinity symbol is broken.
A note on these snapshots: each picture shows four un-intrepreted pieces of information, and one heavily interpreted image drawn from the doctrinal statements. The objective data are the date, city, geographical location (indicated by a red key on the map), and the canons of that council (in the waters, more malleable than the theological doctrine written on land above). The chief affirmed doctrine of each Council shows up in white.
By and large, you’ll notice an important absence in the pictures: heresies. Though heresies are the major catalyst for Councils, they feature here symbolically rather than explicitly; they make up the darkness precisely around the edges of the truth. Heresies defined all of the places where truth was not; both the white of the paper and the truth of theology were there from the beginning, but until the heresy was drawn in around it, it may have been harder to see. (This also saved my unschooled hands from casually drawing holy things; I did not draw them. I just drew very, very precisely around them.)
2. Second Ecumenical Council: Constantinople, 381 A.D.
Having attempted to abolish Arianism and, finally (painstakingly!) succeeding, the church found itself soon enough troubled by new heresies. There were those who – opposite Arianism’s denial of Christ’s divinity – denied the full humanity of Christ. And, there were those who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. The council completed the creed we know today, fleshing out the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.
My image of this doctrine shows Pentecostal fire centering around a Theta, which is the first letter in the Greek word for God (always the theologian’s favorite short-hand for God). Within that image, see that the Holy Spirit “spoke through the prophets,” where the saint is writing on a scroll. Follow the prophet’s robe as it extends down to form the head and beak of a dove (whose wings and tail extend backward, outlined by the flames). The dove descends from the right hand side to the left, as the Holy Spirit comes down to the Christian on Pentecost.
3. Third Ecumenical Council: Ephesus, 431 A.D.
Before too long, Nestorius came along to tell Christians that Christ should not be referred to as “God” when speaking of the incarnation by the Virgin Mary. Rather than calling Mary “Theotokos” (the God-bearer), as was already the custom, Nestorius argued that she should be called “Christotokos” (the Christ-bearer). The council convened in 431 to affirm that Christ had two natures, being fully God and fully man. As St. Cyril said, things which could be said of the one person of Christ in His human nature could also be said of Him in His divine nature.
In my drawing of the doctrine, the center is Christ (symbolized by the Theta to indicate His divinity). The lines of the Theotokos mirror the infinity symbol used to establish the divinity of Christ in the first image above (325 AD), with Christ situated at the center of that infinity symbol. In the incarnation, Christ, the infinite God, is made incarnate through the Theotokos, who is inside time.
4. Fourth Ecumenical Council: Chalcedon, 451 A.D.
After Nestorianism was defeated, it didn’t take long for a new heresy to gain sway. Opposite Nestorianism, the pendulum swung to monophysitism, the belief that Christ’s human and divine natures merged together. Whereas Nestorius almost made two persons of Christ, the monophysites almost made one nature of Christ’s divinity and humanity. The council at Chalcedon articulated an elegant little confession: Christ was to be “acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation.” Learn that one – it will get you far.
In the image, behind the cross of Christ, see the light beams radiating out across these four things, striking them out. The top left is confusion: a spiral of blue (humanity) and red (divinity), fusing into purple. The top right, change: an ice cube melting into water. The bottom left is a division: a plain old division symbol. The bottom right, separation: an egg with yolk and white separated. Yes, a separated egg. Alright – it’s a bit of a stretch, but at least it’s memorable.
5. Fifth Ecumenical Council: Constantinople, 553 A.D.
If you’re looking for politics, this is your Council. The monophysites, having been condemned by the Chalcedonian confession, cried foul. They suggested that the Fourth Council’s failure to condemn a certain three Nestorian bishops proved that the Council members were heretics (supporting Nestorians would have been a failed to uphold fully the third Ecumenical Council). So, the Council met to reaffirm Chalcedon and to condemn the writings of those Nestorian bishops. It’s a bit messy: the ruler, Justinian, had already condemned the writings, though he didn’t have the ecclesiastical power to officially do so. Also, the Pope happened to be in Constantinople, but didn’t want to condemn people who had died in good standing with the church, so he wouldn’t attend the Council (which made Justinian angry). Anyway, the important doctrinal take-away is this: They affirmed the Chalcedonian confession. Once again – learn that, and it will get you far.
This image purposefully echoes the image from Chalcedon, since the main effect of this Council was reaffirming Chalcedon. However, to strike out the heresies (and to represent some the political nature of this Council) I’ve brought in a sword. The last thing the sword pierces is a letter containing a heresy. Also, see how there aren’t any words in the water? For some reason, there were no canons written in this council, as far as I can find.
6. Sixth Ecumenical Council: Constantinople, 680 A.D.
Well, the monophysites lost two rounds of Ecumenical Councils (you just can’t beat the Holy Spirit, guiding the church into all truth), but a little compromise sprang up some time later, and it sprang up powerfully. A new group, the monothelites, gained power by agreeing that Christ had two natures, but denying that He had two wills. It grew. In fact, at one point, the larger part of the eastern church believed the monothelite heresy. St. Maximus the Confessor, long before the Council in 680, argued against the monothelites. He argued that what is unassumed is unhealed, using St. Gregory’s articulation from the time of the Second Council. For the human will to be healed, Christ had to assume a human will. St. Maximus suffered for the truth, and after his death, was victorious. The Sixth Council agreed with him, and the monothelite heresy was condemned. Thank God the human will is redeemed!
The image shows Christ’s hands holding a cup. His right hand (on our left) grasps it willfully. Lower, as in submission, the left hand holds it the way it might be gently passed along, also mirroring a hand folded in prayer. This serves as a reminder of Christ’s Gethsamane prayer: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.” Note that the left hand’s fingers are not taut as though they were pushing away the cup. He isn’t resisting or willing opposition; both hands together support the cup. Notice also, the fingers meet in the center with the Chi, indicating the united effort of the two wills in the one person of Christ.
7. Seventh Ecumenical Council: Nicaea, 787 A.D.
The Seventh Ecumenical Council, resulting in the Triumph of Orthodoxy, centered around the use of images in Christian worship. When the Muslims were gaining territory in Christian areas, the Christian world began to worry that the those iconoclasts were onto something with their refusal to use images in worship. Soon, supposedly Christian rulers outlawed Christian images. However, St. John of Damascus and the theologians of the Seventh Ecumenical Council believed that there was more at stake here than art. At the heart of the controversy was the doctrine of the Incarnation. Christ had redeemed matter, they argued. They defended this form of worshipping God on the basis of the incarnation’s use of matter to reveal God and redeem man. (It goes without saying that this did not condone the worship of matter, itself.)
The image above is the Virgin Mary as the Theotokos; here, as above, the image represents the Incarnation of God in flesh. Behind her is the Earth, an emblem of matter. The center of the Earth (and the remaining infinity symbol) is Christ, being Incarnate.