Church Councils on the Word of God, Part 5
by Fred T. Di Lella

The First General Council 

In the 4th Century the Biblical doctrine of the Deity of Christ came under attack.  Arius, a very handsome and affable elder from Alexandria, began to set forth blasphemous teachings, saying that the Son of God was a created being.  Arius promulgated this wicked doctrine both in the pulpit and in sweet sounding hymns of his own invention.[1] 

This pernicious propagation of Arianism prompted the Church to call a general Council at Nicea in A.D. 325.  During this Council, the 1st General Council, the church strove to preserve the truth and to refute and reject Arianism by enunciating accurately, expressly, and precisely the Scriptural and historical teaching on the Deity of Christ.  In the Council’s creedal definition attention was carefully given to set forth the Biblical doctrines as they had been truthfully and faithfully taught for Centuries and also to make sure that the wording of the creed was specific enough to exclude and condemn those who denied the full Deity of the Lord Jesus Christ.   As desired, the Nicene Creed accomplished both ends and preserved the truth. Upon completion of the Creed, the elders joyfully (and correctly) proclaimed that they had contended for what they had received:[2] “This is the faith of the fathers!  This is the faith of the Apostles!”  

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten (gennethenta), not made, being of one substance (homoousion, consubstantialem) with the Father.  By whom all things were made, both which be in heaven and in earth.  Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate and was made man. He suffered and the third he rose again, and ascended into heaven.  And he shall come again to judge both the quick and the dead.  And we believe in the Holy Ghost. And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not (hen pote hote ouk hen), or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence from the Father or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion —all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.”[3]

The Council at Nicea also demonstrated its zeal for the truth in many of its canons.  In the 2nd canon it prohibited new believers from entering into the ministry.  In defense of this important church court decision, the elders cited the “need of time and of a longer trial after baptism” for the catechumen (i.e., a new convert studying to be a communicant member). 

From this, we should understand two critical points: 

  1. The truth was so important to the early church that she made sure that her newly converted members received catechetical[4] training and also that they evidenced a genuine work of grace in their daily christian living, before they were recognized as full communing members;
  2. On the basis of this “need for time and instruction” (viz., instruction in the truth) with neophytes, the church had to be even more cautious with those who would seemingly aspire to the ministry of the gospel. After all, if much time and instruction were prerequisites for coming to the Lord’s table, how much more should time and much instruction be mandatory for those who would be teaching (and defending) the truth and administering the Lord’s Supper. The teachers had better be very well versed in the truth, before they entered the ministry of the word of God.  If careful attention was given to the knowledge and purity of all communicant members, how much more cautious should the church be in preserving the purity of the truth in her pulpits.

The church’s strong stand for the truth and against all error is also abundantly clear in the preface attached to the Nicene Creed: 

“The children of the church have received from the holy fathers, that which is from the holy Apostles, the faith to keep, and to hand down, and to teach their children.  To these children you belong, and I beg you to receive it and pass it on.  And whilst you teach your children these things and such as these from the holy Scriptures, cease not to confirm and strengthen them, and indeed all who hear you: tell them that this is the holy faith of the Holy Catholic Church, as the one holy Virgin of God received it from the holy Apostles of the Lord to keep: and thus every person who is in preparation for the holy laver of baptism must learn it: they must learn it themselves, and teach it expressly, as the one mother of all, of you and of us, proclaims it saying…” 


The Second General Council 

As specific as the Nicene Creed had been, however, further heresies arose.  These false teachings compelled the church to become even more exact in her testimony for the truth and against error.   Due to the lingering stench of Arianism and the abominable advance of other heresies, the Church called a Second General Council at Constantinople in A.D. 381.  At this Council the Church also zealously strove to safeguard the truth.  She reaffirmed and revised the Nicene Creed.   She confirmed the Biblical teaching of the Deity of the Holy Spirit and of the entire Trinity.  She also condemned Apollinarianism, a perverted hypothesis concerning the Deity and Manhood of the Lord Jesus Christ, and Macedonianism, which denied the Deity of the Holy Spirit. 

The 1st canon of the Council at Constantinople (A.D. 381) reflects the church’s earnest adherence to the truth and her fervent obedience to her calling as “the pillar and ground of the truth”: 

“The faith of the three hundred and eighteen fathers assembled at Nice in Bithynia shall not be set aside, but shall remain firm.  And every heresy shall be anathematized, particularly that of the Eunomians or Eudoxians, and Marcellians, and that of the Photinians, and that of the Apollinarians.”[5]

Even from this brief quote, it is abundantly clear that the Council not only bore a positive testimony for the truth, but it also set forth a clear, precise, and unmistakable witness against specific teachings contrary to the truth. 


The Third General Council 

In the 5th Century the church faced[6] another virulent heresy.  Pelagius, a scholarly monk from Britain, attempted to “Christianize” the pagan philosophy of free will.   At this critical juncture in the church’s history Augustine (and later Jerome) became the uncompromising champion of the truth.  Augustine continually combatted the toxic teachings of Pelagius and compelled his own brethren[7] to stand firm for the faith once delivered to the saints.  

Augustine’s knowledge of and love for the truth and his fortitude and firmness in his defense of it greatly emboldened his fellow elders “to keep”, “to hand down”, and “to teach” the faith that “they had received from the holy apostles.”  Consequently, in A.D. 431, at the Third General Council of the church, the elders resoundingly refuted and rejected the gospel-denying doctrine of free will.  The church also condemned Nestorius, his followers,[8] and his false teachings regarding the 2 natures of the Lord Jesus. 

When one studies the life of Augustine, he meets a very passionate, dogmatic zealot for the truth.  He was absolutely intolerant of schismatics.  In light of this, it never ceases to amaze this author that contemporary tolerationists attempt to justify their unbiblical compromise of the truth by citing and  corrupting Augustine’s “in all things charity” quote. Certainly, Augustine, as a man of God, would have endeavored not to impose his own personal predilections[9] upon other saints.  When, however, it came to compromising God’s truth (for example, the modern day toleration of the heretical Arminian teachings of free will, open-mindedness about heretical antinomian dispensationalism, or the countenancing of a Baptistic view of the sacraments), Augustine would have had no part in it.  

Augustine knew that God’s word was not yes, yes; no, no.  He knew that God’s word said something.  He knew that God’s word was not a useless book.  He knew that God’s word was the truth.  He did all he could to teach, defend, and preserve that truth.  He bought the truth and would not sell it (Proverbs 23:23).  He verily regarded the truth to be more precious than his very life.  To impose a 20th Century pluralistic slant upon Augustine’s famous saying, “in all things charity,” is to cast loathsome aspersion upon the character and integrity of this ardent advocate of the truth and valiant enemy of all false teaching. 

In regard to the 3rd General Council’s obedience to her mission as the “pillar and ground of the truth” and to her fervency for the truth, canon VII is quite noteworthy: 

“When these things have been read, the holy synod decreed that it is unlawful for any man to bring forward, or to write, or to compose a different (heteran) faith as a rival established by the holy fathers assembled with the Holy Ghost in Nicea.  But those who shall dare to compose a different faith, or to introduce or offer it to persons desiring to turn to the acknowledgment of the truth, whether from heathenism or for Judaism, or from any heresy whatsoever,[10] shall be deposed, if they be bishops or clergymen; bishops from the episcopate and clergymen from the clergy; and if they be laymen, they shall be anathematized.” 


The Fourth General Council 

The Fourth General Council at Chalcedon (A.D. 451) also convened “to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints, to hold fast the form of sound words.[11]  It gathered to combat heresy and to confirm the Scriptural and historical teaching regarding the 2 natures of Christ.  In this Council the church strove to formulate a very precise Biblical, historical statement, that would set forth the truth and anathematize specific errors.  A quote from the Council should demonstrate the church’s intense zeal in this crucial endeavor: 

“Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, when strengthening the knowledge of the Faith in His disciples, to the end that no one might disagree with his neighbor concerning the doctrines of religion, and that the proclamation of the truth might be set forth equally to all men, said, “My peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you.” But, since the evil one does not desist from sowing tares among the seeds of godliness, but ever invents some new device against the truth; therefore the Lord, providing, as He ever does, for the human race, has raised up this pious, faithful, and zealous Sovereign, and has called together unto him from all parts the chief rulers of the priesthood;[12] so that, the grace of Christ our common Lord inspiring us, we may cast off every plague of falsehood from the sheep of Christ, and feed them with the tender leaves of truth.  And this have we done with one unanimous consent, driving away erroneous doctrines, and renewing the unerring faith of the Fathers[13]…”

Further evidence of the 4th Council’s concern for the promulgation and preservation of the truth can be seen in some of her canons.  Canon V decidedly depicts this earnest: 

“Concerning bishops or clergymen who go about from city to city, it is decreed that the canons enacted by the holy fathers shall still retain their force.” 

In this canon the Council is making sure that all preachers, wherever they might be, and however long they might be there, must preach pure doctrine.  No teacher had the prerogative to teach anything but the truth for any reason whatsoever. 

Canon XIII also points out the church’s ardor for the safeguarding of the truth: 

“Strange and unknown clergymen without letters commendatory from their own bishop, are absolutely prohibited from officiating in another city.” 

The essence of this canon is that a preacher must have the credentials and approbation of the church in order to teach.  Why was this so important?  If the man did not have the hearty endorsement of the church, then his doctrine was altogether suspect.  If the church was not assured of the thorough soundness of a man’s firm, consistent, inflexible, orthodox beliefs and teachings; then she (the church) definitely should not and could not give him any audience.[14]

In a letter to Polycarp Ignatius warned: 

“I exhort you therefore – yet not I, but the love of Jesus Christ – take ye only Christian food, and abstain from strange herbage, which is heresy: for these men do even mingle poison with Jesus Christ…Be ye therefore on your guard against such men…Be ye deaf therefore, when any man speaketh to you apart from Jesus Christ…Howbeit I watch over you betimes to protect you form wild beasts in human form – men whom not only should ye not receive, but, if it were possible, not so much as meet them…Let not those that seem to be plausible and yet teach strange doctrine dismay thee [i.e., Polycarp].  stand thou firm.[15]

Speaking against any fellowship with the Arians, the Council of Sardica (4th Century) proclaims: 

“Let them therefore be anathema to you, because they have adulterated the word of truth.  Charge your people that no one hold communion with them, for there is no communion of light with darkness; put away from you all these, for there is no concord of Christ with Belial. And take heed, dearly beloved, that ye neither write to them nor receive letters from them; but desire rather, brethren and fellow-ministers, as being present in spirit with our Council, to assent to our judgment by your subscriptions, to the end that concord [viz., concord in the truth] may be preserved by all our fellow-ministers everywhere.”

[1]  In obedience to the 2nd Commandment the church sang nothing but the Psalms of Scripture in her public worship until the close of the 4th Century.  It is also imperative to note that the reformed church also sang the Psalms exclusively in her public worship.

[2] Viz., the truth, the Biblical\historical faith.

[3] Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Philip Schaff, Vol.xiv, p.3

[4] katecheo is the Greek word for “instruct” or “train.”  The church instructed new converts in the true christian religion for years before they admitted them to the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  This Biblical practice was also rigorously employed in the 16th and 17th Century reformed churches.

[5] The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume xiv (The Seven Ecumenical Councils), p.172.

[6] And, tragically, still does face—Arminianism.

[7] I.e., Augustine’s brothers in the true faith.

[8] Specifically citing their names;[8] so that the whole church would be careful to avoid them—Prov.19:27; Jer.23:16; Ezek.13:20, 22.

[9] E.g., his favorite color, flower, foods.

[10] It is critical to remember that this very Council condemned the teaching of free will as heresy. What does this say about the modern day toleration of free will Arminian preaching?

[11] E.g., Jude 3 and 2Timothy 1:13.

[12] E.g., Isa.66:21; Matt.23:34; 28:18-20; Acts 20.

[13] I.e., the Apostles.

[14] E.g., Jer.23:16; Ezek.13:20, 22; Prov.19:27; John 10:1-6; Gal.1:8, 9.

[15] The Apostolic Fathers, Ed., J. B. Lightfoot, Baker, pp.149-160.


Rev. Fred Di Lella is pastor of Covenanted Reformation Church in TX which is part of The Biblical Reformed Synod of Christ the King.

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