« Prev Councils Next »

§ 54. Councils.

Best Collections of Acts of Councils by Harduin (1715, 12 vols.), and Mansi (1759, 31 vols.).

C. J. Hefele (R.C. Bishop of Rottenburg, and member of the Vatican Council of 1870): Conciliengeschichte, Freiburg 1855; second ed. 1873 sqq., 7 vols. down to the Council of Florence, a.d. 1447 (See vol. I., pp. 83–242). English translation by W. R. Clark and H. R. Oxenham ( Edinb. 1871, 2d vol. 1876, 3d vol. 1883).

E. B. Pusey (d. 1882): The Councils of the Church, from the Council of Jerusalem, a.d. 51, to the Council of Constantinople, a.d. 381; chiefly as to their constitution, but also as to their object and history. Lond. 1857.

A. W. Dale: The Synod of Elvira [a.d. 306] and Christian Life in the Fourth Century. Lond. 1882.

Comp. the article Council in Smith and Cheetham and Lect. VII. in Hatch, Bampton Lect. on the Organization of the Early Christian Church. Lond. 1881, pp. 165 sqq.

Councils or Synods were an important means of maintaining and promoting ecclesiastical unity, and deciding questions of faith and discipline.245245    Concilium, first used in the ecclesiastical sense by Tertullian, De Iejun. c. 13, De Pudic. c. 10; σύνοδος , assembly, meeting for deliberation (Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Demosthenes, etc.), first used of Christian assemblies in the pseudo-Apostolical Constit. V. 20, and the Canons, c. 36 or 38. It may designate a diocesan, or provincial, or general Christian convention for either elective, or judicial, or legislative, or doctrinal purposes45 They had a precedent and sanction in the apostolic Conference of Jerusalem for the settlement of the circumcision controversy.246246    a.d. 50. Acts 15 and Gal. 2. Comp. also the Lord’s promise to be present where even the smallest number are assembled in his name, Matt. 18:19, 20. See vol. I. §64, p. 503 sqq46 They were suggested moreover by the deliberative political assemblies of the provinces of the Roman empire, which met every year in the chief towns.247247    On the provincial councils of the Roman empire see Marquardt,Römische Staatsverwaltung, I. 365-377, and Hatch, l.c. p. 164 sqq. The deliberations were preceded by a sacrifice, and the president was called highpriest.47 But we have no distinct trace of Councils before the middle of the second century (between 50 and 170), when they first appear, in the disputes concerning Montanism and Easter.

There are several kinds of Synods according to their size, diocesan, provincial (or metropolitan), national, patriarchal, and oecumenical (or universal).248248    That is, within the limits of the old Roman empire, as the orbis terrarum. There never was an absolutely universal council. Even the seven oecumenical Councils from 325 to 787 were confined to the empire, and poorly attended by Western bishops. The Roman Councils held after that time (down to the Vatican Council in 1870) claim to be oecumenical, but exclude the Greek and all evangelical churches.48 Our period knows only the first three. Diocesan synods consist of the bishop and his presbyters and deacons with the people assisting, and were probably held from the beginning, but are not mentioned before the third century. Provincial synods appear first in Greece, where the spirit of association had continued strong since the days of the Achaean league, and then in Asia Minor, North Africa, Gaul, and Spain. They were held, so far as the stormy times of persecution allowed, once or twice a year, in the metropolis, under the presidency of the metropolitan, who thus gradually acquired a supervision over the other bishops of the province. Special emergencies called out extraordinary sessions, and they, it seems, preceded the regular meetings. They were found to be useful, and hence became institutions.

The synodical meetings were public, and the people of the community around sometimes made their influence felt. In the time of Cyprian presbyters, confessors, and laymen took an active part, a custom which seems to have the sanction of apostolic practice.249249    Comp. Acts 15:6, 7, 12, 13, 23, where the "brethren" are mentioned expressly, besides the apostles and elders, as members of the council, even at the final decision and in the pastoral letter. On the difference of reading, see vol. I. 505.49 At the Synod which met about 256, in the controversy on heretical baptism, there were present eighty-seven bishops, very many priests and deacons, and "maxima pars plebis;"250250    Cyprian, Opera, p. 329, ed. Baluz. In the acts of this council, however (pp. 330-338), only the bishops appear as voters, from which some writers infer that the laity, and even the presbyters, had no votum decisium. But in several old councils the presbyters and deacons subscribed their names after those of the bishops; see Harduin, Coll. Conc. I. 250 and 266; Hefele I. 19.50 and in the synods concerning the restoration of the Lapsi, Cyprian convened besides the bishops, his clergy, the "confessores," and "laicos stantes" (i.e. in good standing).251251    Epp.xi., xiii., lxvi., lxxi.51 Nor was this practice confined to North Africa. We meet it in Syria, at the synods convened on account of Paul of Samosata (264–269), and in Spain at the council of Elvira. Origen, who was merely a presbyter, was the leading spirit of two Arabian synods, and convinced their bishop Beryllus of his Christological error. Even the Roman clergy, in their letter to Cyprian,252252    Ep. xxxi.52 speak of a common synodical consultation of the bishops with the priests, deacons, confessors, and laymen in good standing.

But with the advance of the hierarchical spirit, this republican feature gradually vanished. After the council of Nicaea (325) bishops alone had seat and voice, and the priests appear hereafter merely as secretaries, or advisers, or representatives of their bishops. The bishops, moreover, did not act as representatives of their churches, nor in the name of the body of the believers, as formerly, but in their own right as successors of the apostles. They did not as yet, however, in this period, claim infallibility for their decisions, unless we choose to find a slight approach to such a claim in the formula: "Placuit nobis, Sancto Spiritu suggerente," as used, for example, by the council of Carthage, in 252.253253    Cyprian, Ep. liv., on the ground of the ἔδοξε τῷ ἁγίῳ πνεύματι καὶ ἡμῖν, visum est Spiritui Sancto et nobis, Acts 15:28. So also, the council of Arles, a.d. 314: Placuit ergo, presente Spiritu Sancto et angelis ejus (Harduin, Coll. Concil. I. 262).53 At all events, their decrees at that time had only moral power, and could lay no claim to universal validity. Even Cyprian emphatically asserts absolute independence for each bishop in his own diocese. "To each shepherd," he says, "a portion of the Lord’s flock has been assigned, and his account must be rendered to his Master."

The more important acts, such as electing bishops, excommunication, decision of controversies, were communicated to other provinces by epistolae synodicae. In the intercourse and the translation of individual members of churches, letters of recommendation254254    Epistolae formatae, γράμματα τετυπωμένα.54 from the bishop were commonly employed or required as terms of admission. Expulsion from one church was virtually an expulsion from all associated churches.

The effect of the synodical system tended to consolidation. The Christian churches from independent communities held together by a spiritual fellowship of faith, became a powerful confederation, a compact moral commonwealth within the political organization of the Roman empire.

As the episcopate culminated in the primacy, so the synodical system rose into the oecumenical councils, which represented the whole church of the Roman empire. But these could not be held till persecution ceased, and the emperor became the patron of Christianity. The first was the celebrated council of Nicaea, in the year 325. The state gave legal validity to the decrees of councils, and enforced them if necessary by all its means of coercion. But the Roman government protected only the Catholic or orthodox church, except during the progress of the Arian and other controversies, before the final result was reached by the decision of an oecumenical Synod convened by the emperor.255255    This policy was inaugurated by Constantine I. a.d. 326 (Cod. Theod. 16, 5, 1). He confined the privileges and immunities which, in 313, he had granted to Christians in his later enactments to "Catholicae legis observatoribus." He ratified the Nicene creed and exiled Arius (325), although he afterwards wavered and was baptized by a semi-Arian bishop (337). His immediate successors wavered likewise. But as a rule the Byzantine emperors recognized the decisions of councils in dogma and discipline, and discouraged and ultimately prohibited the formation of dissenting sects. The state can, of course, not prevent dissent as an individual opinion; it can only prohibit and punish the open profession. Full religious liberty requires separation of church and state.55

« Prev Councils Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection