How many church councils were there, besides Vatican I and II?

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Only two are known as Vatican Councils because the rest were held elsewhere than the Vatican Basilica in Rome.

Altogether, 21 ecumenical councils are recognized by the church. These gatherings have moved the church forward in an evolution of self-understanding that is by no means complete today.

Only two are known as Vatican Councils because the rest were held elsewhere than the Vatican Basilica in Rome. Five gathered in the Lateran Basilica, also in Rome. Four convened in Constantinople. Two took place in Nicaea, and two in Lyons. The longest and certainly one of the most fateful councils was held in Trent. Other locations include Ephesus, Chalcedon, Vienne, and Constance. One curious council is known by the names of four cities it migrated through: Basel-Ferrara-Florence-Rome. 

And of course, though it doesn't make the official count, a very significant council was called in Jerusalem by Peter, James, and John not long after the time of Jesus. It was there that Paul was granted special permission to bring non-Jews into the church without circumcising them first.

What did the rest of the councils decide? The first seven (from 325 to 787) condemned a lot of divergent theologies: Arianism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, the Three Chapters of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Monothelitism, and iconoclasm. These teachings mostly involved divergences in the way Jesus is perceived: whether in relationship to God, or to his own humanity or divinity. The last one, iconoclasm, was a movement to destroy icons used in veneration. Those of us who love our holy images might be grateful that one got condemned.

The eighth council, the fourth held in Constantinople (869-70), broke the church apart into East (Constantinople) and West (Rome). The Eastern Church doesn't recognize any of the councils that followed. After that, the council agendas become largely, well, churchy: determining relationships between popes and kings, dealing with the phenomenon of anti-popes, reining in misbehaving clergy, ruling on how popes should be elected. 

The very important Fourth Lateran Council (1215) defined Eucharistic transubstantiation and ruled that Catholics should go to confession annually. It also made the infamous decision to require Jews and Muslims to wear distinctive dress. Several later councils attempted to bring the Eastern and Western halves of the church back together again—without success. The Council of Trent (1545-63, with several interruptions) dealt with the significant challenges of the Protestant Reformation. Vatican I (1869-70) declared papal infallibility. Which brings us to the still-recent reforms of Vatican II (1962-65), with its agenda opening onto an engagement with the broader world. Which makes you ask: what should the next church council do?

Scripture: Matthew 18:20; Acts 15:1-35

Books: The Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church: A History, by Joseph F. Kelly (Michael Glazier, 2009)

21 Ecumenical Councils that Shaped Catholic History and Beliefs (Audiobook), by John W. O'Malley (Now You Know Media/Learn 25, 2017)

Reprinted with permission from ©TrueQuest Communications.

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