First Seven Ecumenical Councils

The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology, by Leo Donald Davis ★★★★★

Growing up as a child, I was sternly taught that the word “ecumenical” was a bad word and that we just didn’t participate in that sort of thing. Thankfully, time and maturity have corrected that notion, while still acknowledging that “ecumenical” is not synonymous with “truth”.

Davis is a Roman Catholic theologian though he writes a book that may easily be accepted by both Protestants and Roman Catholics alike; the seven councils referred to in this text were well before the theological crises of the Reformation had occurred, and indeed, at least the first 4-6 councils were found to be acceptable to the Reformers, such as Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. Davis quotes heavily from the Protestants, and especially such scholars and JND Kelly.

This book starts off a little slow and stodgy, though Davis is highly successful at eventually drawing the reader into the spirit of the age. Better than any of the authors I’ve read on early church history, Davis provides the detailed historical context of each of the seven councils and includes a summary of council conclusions as well as the aftermath of those councils. I am not going to go into blow-by-blow accounts of the councils, as they are too detailed, and anything other than reading the book would do one a disservice.

I find a few details most interesting. First, all of the first councils were initiated by the state, and NOT the church. Politics and religion don’t mix well, a lesson that Luther should have learned and that today’s so-called conservative pundits that identify the USA (or any other country, for that matter, including Belize) as a Christian nation or in need of Christian nationalism surely get wrong. Second, oftentimes we allow the crisis of the moment to dictate our later opinions. A perfect example is the battle between Nestorius and Cyril. Both characters were slimy and despicable in many accounts. Yet, Nestorius is branded as the heretic and Cyril is not. A recently discovered document written by Nestorius and found in Armenia demonstrates that Nestorius mentioned that the Council of Calcedon precisely stated his view. Simultaneously, the entire “heresy” of Monophysitism was generated from the writing of Cyril. Go figure.

This is a wonderful book to read and I enjoyed it from cover to cover, but only after a rough start. If you have any interest in the church, please get a copy and read it!

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