A Church of the Three Councils

What do we mean when we say we are a Church of the Three Councils? The Jacobite Church and Oriental Christianity in general came into being when the Council of Chalcedon was held, in 451. The Oriental or "non-Chalcedonian" Churches (currently these include the Armenian, Coptic, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Jacobite Malankaran and Jacobite Syrian) were unable to agree with the Byzantine and Latin Churches at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 on the dogmatic definitions of Christ. In particular, they objected to the phrase in Greek that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully human. Translated into Aramaic, this reads as if Christ were two separate people living in one body - a significant error according to the Oriental churches. They share the idea of the God-man Jesus, but using different language to express it. Like a rope made up of inextricably bound threads which are still different, they considered his Godhood and his humanity to be bound together. Theologically there is little difference, but at the time there were many political forces involved and both the Byzantine and the Latin were still "Roman" in the minds of the Oriental Churches.

There is a great deal of freedom in being counted among the Oriental Churches. Many of the problematic beliefs and practices of Roman and Eastern Orthodox (Byzantine and Byzantine-derived) Christianity are based on Councils including the Council of Chalcedon (and those that follow it) and do not apply to the Oriental jurisdictions.

So what did the First Three Councils agree upon?

Nicaea (325) repudiated Arianism and adopted the original Nicene Creed, fixed Easter's date; recognized primacy of the sees of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch and granted the See of Jerusalem a position of honor.

Constantinople (381) repudiated Arianism and Macedonianism, revised the Nicene Creed in regard to the Holy Spirit.

Ephesus (431) repudiated Nestorianism, proclaimed the Virgin Mary as the Theotokos ("Birth-giver to God", "God-bearer", "Mother of God"), repudiated Pelagianism, and reaffirmed the Nicene Creed.

The remaining four councils, plus one, that are often considered ecumenical among the Orthodox churches, and are taken as the basis of the "orthodox faith," in fact added little to these central truths of the Christian tradition. They did, however, bring in a number of unfortunate developments that the orthodox churches today still struggle to reconcile with contemporary social and ethical norms. By remaining faithful to the first three councils only, the Orthodox-Catholic Church of America maintains the Trinitarian faith as expressed in the Creed of Nicea as modified at Constantinople, omitting of course the phrase "and the Son" (the so-called "filioque") to describe the nature of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, we are free from a number of outmoded beliefs and customs that limit or even run counter to the purity of the Apostles' teaching and practice. Many of them issued canons that explicitly countenance anti-Semitism and later formed the grounds for persecution of Jews in both Latin and Byzantine Christendom. Others limited theological debate by condemning, posthumously, some of the most important biblical interpreters of the early church. Yet others introduced limitations on clerical marriage, forbade clergy to wear secular clothing or take up certain secular occupations, and condemned what we now regard as innocent pleasures such as theater and sporting events.

In short, by remaining true to our lineage as a non-Chalcedonian Church of Three Councils, we permit ourselves to respond to the very real needs of today without being hemmed in by outmoded forms of religiosity.