The First Ecumenical Council

Most Catholics are aware of something called Vatican II, or the Second Vatican Council; this was a gathering of the world's bishops in St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, during the years 1962-1965. They discussed various topics and ultimately set a new course for the Church in this modern era. Probably less well known is that Vatican II was the 21st such gathering of bishops in what is known as an Ecumenical Council. There were twenty such councils throughout history prior to Vatican II, the first held in 325 AD. Councils are normally convened when a new heresy arises causing confusion even among the bishops themselves. We believe that gathering the bishops together to discuss the issue will result in the help of the Holy Spirit; that is, the conclusions of such Councils are acts of the Holy Spirit, the Magisterium of the Church. They are infallible.

Although the Council of Nicea in 325 AD is normally counted as the first Ecumenical Council, we must consider another such council as truly the first: The Council of Jerusalem led by the Apostles themselves. Let’s look at this council, described in Acts, and see how it sets the stage for future Ecumenical Councils. The story begins with a description of the heresy.

At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, 2 a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God. 3 About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, "Cornelius." 4 And he stared at him in terror, and said, "What is it, Lord?" And he said to him, "Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5 And now send men to Joppa, and bring one Simon who is called Peter; 6 he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside." 7 When the angel who spoke to him had departed, he called two of his servants and a devout soldier from among those that waited on him, 8 and having related everything to them, he sent them to Joppa. 9 The next day, as they were on their journey and coming near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. 10 And he became hungry and desired something to eat; but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11 and saw the heaven opened, and something descending, like a great sheet, let down by four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him, "Rise, Peter; kill and eat." 14 But Peter said, "No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean." 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, "What God has cleansed, you must not call common." 16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven. 17 Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision which he had seen might mean, behold (Acts 10:1-17)

This Cornelius was a centurion, that is, he was a Roman, not a Jew. Although he is described as a devout lover of God, a Jew of his day would have considered him as religiously unclean. Here God sends him to Peter, while simultaneously teaching Peter, through a vision, that clean and unclean are fiats of God; He can declare clean what was previously declared unclean. The deeper meaning is that God will make the Gentiles clean, which is the novelty of the New Covenant. The story continues with Peter visiting Cornelius:

And on the following day they entered Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his kinsmen and close friends. 25 When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. 26 But Peter lifted him up, saying, "Stand up; I too am a man." 27 And as he talked with him, he went in and found many persons gathered; 28 and he said to them, "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me." 30 And Cornelius said, "Four days ago, about this hour, I was keeping the ninth hour of prayer in my house; and behold, a man stood before me in bright apparel, 31 saying, 'Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32 Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the seaside.' 33 So I sent to you at once, and you have been kind enough to come. Now therefore we are all here present in the sight of God, to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord." 34 And Peter opened his mouth and said: "Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him… 44 While Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47 "Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days. (Acts 10:24-35, 44-48)

Here is the detailed story of the first Gentiles baptized. To the apostles, the New Covenant was a new direction for Judaism. That it would involve the Gentiles wasn’t obvious. In the above narrative, God revealed to Peter His plan to extend the New Covenant to all people everywhere. Please note v. 45: “from among the circumcised.” This phrasing of Jews as “the circumcised” becomes the crux of the issue. We shall see that Jewish converts to Christianity later demanded that the Old Covenant law of circumcision be applied to Gentile converts; that is, they believed Christianity was still Judaism and converts must be Jewish. We shall also see that this belief was heresy.

Now the apostles and the brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, 3 saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" 4 But Peter began and explained to them in order… 15 “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, 'John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' 17 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?" 18 When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God, saying, "Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life." 19 Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to none except Jews. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number that believed turned to the Lord. 22 News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad; and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose; 24 for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a large company was added to the Lord. 25 So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul; 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church, and taught a large company of people; and in Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians. (Acts 11:1-4, 15-25)

We now hear of “the circumcision party” who criticized Peter. But, he tells them of Cornelius and they change their opinion. The Church in Jerusalem sends Barnabus and Paul beyond Judea to preach to the Gentiles. They do so with such effectiveness that to this day we call St. Paul ‘The Apostle of the Gentiles.’ But what of our council? It begins in Chapter 15:

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." 2 And when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. 3 So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, reporting the conversion of the Gentiles, and they gave great joy to all the brethren. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. 5 But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up, and said, "It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses." 6The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 7 And after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them, "Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will." (Acts 15: 1-11)

The ‘heretics’ were the converted Pharisees (no surprise there). They claimed circumcision was still necessary; other rejected that idea. There is conflict, and so “the apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter” – the first council. There was debate; then Peter (the pope) speaks and uses an interesting phrase, “by my mouth.” His mouth, the mouth of Peter, is uniquely essential to this council of apostles. The narrative goes on with more discussion, testimony, etc. Finally, the conclusion:

Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, 23 with the following letter: "The brethren, both the apostles and the elders, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greeting. 24 Since we have heard that some persons from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, 25 it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell." (Acts 15:22-29)

The apostles and the elders (i.e., the priests) first note that ‘persons from us’ have troubled the Gentile Christians with their words; that is, priests and missionaries sent by the apostles preached things that caused confusion. This was not an issue of the laity, but of the clergy. Second, through their gathering, they have ‘come to one accord;’ that is, the matter was then settled among the clergy and the Apostles. Last, and most important: “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” Here we see the teaching authority beautifully phrased – it is the work of God, the goodness of the Holy Spirit shared with the teachers.

We see here the formula for resolving future conflicts between the clergy. All of the bishops are gathered together, the issue is discussed from both sides, the opinion of the pope is unique and essential, the Holy Spirit leads them to resolution, and finally the conclusion is written down and shared with all the Faithful. The first use of this ‘protocol’ was nearly three hundred years later, when the bishops gathered at Nicea and discussed the heresy of Arius, who taught that Jesus was a creature, not the incarnation of God. Of interest is that although Nicea made a clear definition of the divine nature of Christ, not everyone accepted it. So it was with the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem – the ‘circumcision party’ lived on and plagued St. Paul often during his missionary travels. Councils clarify teaching, but not everyone believes.

FOOTNOTE: Click here to read about the Ecumenical Councils of the Church. I promise each Council's story is not long, but each story is very interesting. I also promise that by reading about them, your knowledge of Christian doctrine will be much improved as a result.