Prof. Douglas Kuiper, professor of Church History and New Testament in the
Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary and member of Trinity PRC

How many ecumenical councils have been held?

The Roman Catholic church gives the number as twenty-one, the last being the Vatican Council (1962- 65). Protestants consider only the first seven to be ecumenical.

We come now to the Seventh Ecumenical Council. It was quite different from the first six in two ways. First, the issue it faced was very different. The first six councils dealt with doctrinal issues: Is Christ God? Is the Holy Spirit God? How can Christ be both human and divine? Is Christ one person or two? Does He have one nature or two? Does He have one will or two? The main issue at the Seventh Council was how God is to be worshiped.

In addition, the first six Ecumenical Councils developed truth by giving right answers to the questions. By contrast, the Seventh Ecumenical Council made wrong decisions. Councils can err.

The broad issue

The broad issue faced by the Seventh Council was whether God could be worshiped through artwork that depicted Jesus, such as paintings, mosaics, and statues. These art forms were called icons, a word derived from the Greek word for images.

That God could not be depicted by these art forms, the church understood. The second commandment prohibits making images of God. Because God is invisible, it is not possible to make an image of Him, nor can His glory be portrayed in an image. But depicting Jesus was another matter, the church thought; after all, Jesus was truly human.

This point—the humanity of the divine Son of God— is the point of connection between the Seventh Council and the first six. The first six Councils emphasized that Jesus was truly God, and therefore was to be worshiped. At the same time, He was truly man, and paintings, mosaics, and statues of Him represented Him as a man. So could God be worshiped by using pictures of Jesus?

Some said that to use such pictures in worship was certainly wrong. The second commandment forbids making images of God, and Jesus is God. Besides, the second commandment forbids the worship of God by images, icons, artwork. Some went so far as to destroy the icons in churches, or call for their destruction. These were called iconoclasts.

Others said that while most images could not be used in worship, images of Jesus were a different matter. The second commandment still applied, and its prohibition of the use of images in worship still meant that the church could not use images of creatures in worship. But Jesus was Himself the image of God! God had provided an image of Himself in Jesus Christ. For this reason, the church could use artistic depictions of Christ as a means to worship God. This group had two subgroups: some said that the images of Jesus could be used to teach, but should not be worshiped; others said that the images of Jesus could be worshiped, because in that image Jesus Christ was Himself present with His church.

Notable men

Opposing the practice of worshiping icons were Emperor Leo III (reigned 717-741) and his son, Emperor Constantine V (reigned 741-775). These were the highest political figures of the day. Their appeal to the second commandment suggests that they were godly men, concerned for truth. But was there more to it? As emperors, were they trying to control the church by dictating how she should worship?

Favoring the practice of worshiping icons were the Pope and the Patriarch, that is, the bishops of Rome and Constantinople. These were the highest ecclesiastical figures of the day. They differed from each other in one respect: the Pope and the churches in the West permitted three-dimensional depictions (statues), while the Patriarch and the churches in the East permitted only two-dimensional (paintings and mosaics).

John of Damascus (c. 675-749) was the leading theologian who defended the use of icons. He argued that Christ is the image of God, and Christians also bear the image of God. God had prohibited the use of images in Israel’s worship, because He had not yet provided the image they were to use. Now He had provided His image, so that image may be used in worship.

This set the stage for the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The emperors opposed images; the church favored their use, and theologians defended them. The matter was not only theological; people took sides on the issue, and it threatened the peace of the empire.

So the Seventh Ecumenical Council was called.