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Concise Lexicon of Christianity

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Teachings, worship, rites, sermons, and terminology

Angels Dancing on the Head of a Pin

We have all heard about the medieval theological debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. When did this debate take place?

There never was a debate about angels dancing on the head of a pin. It started out as a rhetorical illustration to demonstrate the futility of out-of-touch theological debates.

Now some information about all the councils, conferences, and synods in the question:

The Council of Nicæa (Nicæa in 325)

I haven’t written much here, because there is information about this extremely important council all over my website. The Council of Nicæa was the first world-wide meeting of Christian bishops. It debated Christology, defined Arianism as a heresy, and standardized the date of Easter. You can read more about it in a previous quiz question.

The Synod of Dort (Dordrecht, Netherlands, 1618-1619)

The Synod of Dort was a meeting of the Dutch Reformed Church to settle a theological issue within their church, which had been brought up by clergy who were called Remonstrants. (We would call them Arminians.) The Council formulated the Canons of Dort, which were adopted by the Dutch Reformed Church. .

There was also a major political struggle between two powerful leaders in Holland at the time, so the theological issues got tangled up in politics. The leaders were Maurice, who was on the Contra-Remonstrant (winning) side, and Oudenbarnevelt, who was on the Remonstrant (losing) side. After the Synod of Dort, Remonstrant clergy were defrocked, Remonstrant leaders were banished from the country. Oudenbarnevelt was executed for treason soon afterwards, but not by the Synod.

Arminius, the theologian who had written the original Remonstrance, died in 1609, ten years before the Synod of Dort. The Canons of Dort affirmed rigid predestination and what we call High Calvinism, which is important in Reformed theology as well as in most forms of contemporary Christian fundamentalism.

The Council of Constance (Constance, Germany, 1414-1418)

By the mid-fifteenth century, historical developments had deposited the Roman Catholic Church into a situation where there were three popes at the same time, and the main reason for the Council of Constance was to resolve that problem. The Council of Constance deposed all three existing popes and elected Martin V to be the sole pope. The Council of Constance also dealt with heresy. It invited Jan Hus to come and defend himself, granting him a guarantee of safe conduct to and from the Council.

Hus is widely regarded as a forerunner of the Reformation. He was a well-educated Roman Catholic priest and an immensely popular preacher in Bohemia (the area that is now the Czech Republic.) The Council of Constance tried him and found him guilty of heresy, and despite the guarantee of safe conduct, they burned him at the stake. They also voted to have Wycliffe’s body exhumed and burned.

The Second Vatican Council (the Vatican, 1962-1965)

The Second Vatican Council was unexpectedly called by Pope John XXIII. The Council recognized that other Christian bodies are made up of Christians and bear the marks of holiness, but affirmed that the fullness of the Christian faith is found only in the Roman Catholic Church. The Council affirmed Papal infallibility and affirmed the doctrinal authority of bishops. It confirmed earlier teachings about the Eucharist, the functions of priests, purgatory, prayers for the dead, and the invocation of the saints. It also encouraged Marian devotions. It affirmed Scripture and Tradition as twin authorities, and upheld the Church hierarchy is the final authority for biblical interpretation.

This was the first Council of the Roman Catholic Church to invite observers who were not Roman Catholics, who instead of being called ‘heretics’ were welcomed as ‘separated brethren.’ Some progressive Roman Catholic theologians who had previously been silenced were invited to attend and their previous status was restored. The Roman Catholic Church also began to form relationships with other Christian churches.

As a result of this Council, Roman Catholic church services are no longer held in Latin, but in the language of the people. The Council also led to greater interest the translation and study of the Bible and greater involvement in the Roman Catholic Church in social issues.

The Lambeth Conference (England, every ten years)

The Lambeth Conference is the decennial convocation of all the bishops in the Anglican Communion. The Anglican Communion includes the Church of England, the Episcopal Church of the USA, the Church of Southern African (Desmond Tutu’s church), the Church of Uganda, the Church of the Province of Kenya, the Church of South India, the Holy Catholic Church of Japan, the Episcopal Church of Brazil, just to name a few.