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§ 62. The Decrees of Councils on the Papal Authority.


Much more important than the opinions of individual fathers are the formal decrees of the councils.

First mention here belongs to the council of Sardica in Illyria (now Sofia in Bulgaria) in 343,579579   That this is the true date appears from the recently discovered Festival Epistles of Athanasius, published in Syriac by Cureton (London, 1848), in an English translation by Williams (Oxford, 1854), and in German by Larsow (Leipzig, 1852). Mansi puts the council in the year 344, but most writers, including Gieseler, Neander, Milman, and Greenwood, following the erroneous statement of Socrates (ii. 20) and Sozomen (iii. 12), place it in the year 347. Comp. on the subject Larsow, Die Festbriefe des Athanasius, p. 31; and Hefele, Conciliengesch. i. p. 513 sqq. during the Arian controversy. This council is the most favorable of all to the Roman claims. In the interest of the deposed Athanasius and of the Nicene orthodoxy it decreed:

(1) That a deposed bishop, who feels he has a good cause, may apply, out of reverence to the memory of the apostle Peter, to the Roman bishop Julius, and shall leave it with him either to ratify the deposition or to summon a new council.

(2) That the vacant bishopric shall not be filled till the decision of Rome be received.

(3) That the Roman bishop, in such a case of appeal, may, according to his best judgment, either institute a new trial by the bishops of a neighboring province, or send delegates to the spot with full power to decide the matter with the bishops.580580   Can. 3, 4, and 5 (in the Latin translation, can. 3, 4, and 7), in Mansi, iii. 23 sq., and in Hefele, i. 539 sqq., where the Greek and the Latin Dionysian text is given with learned explanations. The Greek and Latin texts differ in some points.

Thus was plainly committed to the Roman bishops an appellate and revisory jurisdiction in the case of a condemned or deposed bishop even of the East. But in the first place this authority is not here acknowledged as a right already existing in practice. It is conferred as a new power, and that merely as an honorary right, and as pertaining only to the bishop Julius in person.581581   So the much discussed canones are explained not only by Protestant historians, but also by Catholic of the Gallican school, like Peter de Marca, Quesnel, Du-Pin, Richer, Febronius. This interpretation agrees best with the whole connection; with the express mention of Julius (which is lacking indeed, in the Latin translation of Prisca and in Isidore, but stands distinctly in the Greek and Dionysian texts: Ἰουλίῳ τῷ ἐπισκόπῳ Ῥώμης, Julio Romano episcopo); with the words, ” Si vobis placet” (can. 3), whereby the appeal in question is made dependent first on the decree of this council; and finally, with the words, “Sancti Petri apostoli memoriam honoremus,” which represent the Roman bishop’s right of review as an honorary matter. What Hefele urges against these arguments (i. 548 sq.), seems to me very insufficient. Otherwise, either this bishop would not be expressly named, or his successors would be named with him. Furthermore, the canons limit the appeal to the case of a bishop deposed by his comprovincials, and say nothing of other cases. Finally, the council of Sardica was not a general council, but only a local synod of the West, and could therefore establish no law for the whole church. For the Eastern bishops withdrew at the very beginning, and held an opposition council in the neighboring town of Philippopolis; and the city of Sardica, too, with the praefecture of Illyricum, at that time belonged to the Western empire and the Roman patriarchate: it was not detached from them till 379. The council was intended, indeed, to be ecumenical; but it consisted at first of only a hundred and seventy bishops, and after the recession of the seventy-six Orientals, it had only ninety-four; and even by the two hundred signatures of absent bishops, mostly Egyptian, to whom the acts were sent for their approval, the East, and even the Latin Africa, with its three hundred bishoprics, were very feebly represented. It was not sanctioned by the emperor Constantius, and has by no subsequent authority been declared ecumenical.582582   Baronius, Natalis Alexander, and Mansi have endeavored indeed to establish for the council an ecumenical character, but in opposition to the weightiest ancient and modern authorities of the Catholic church. Comp. Hefele, i. 596 sqq, Accordingly its decrees soon fell into oblivion, and in the further course of the Arian controversy, and even throughout the Nestorian, where the bishops of Alexandria, and not those of Rome, were evidently at the head of the orthodox sentiment, they were utterly unnoticed.583583   It is also to be observed, that the synodal letters, as well as the orthodox ecclesiastical writers of this and the succeeding age, which take notice of this council, like Socrates, Sozomen, Theodoret, and Basil, make no mention of those decrees concerning Rome. The general councils of 381, 451, and 680 knew nothing of such a supreme appellate tribunal, but unanimously enacted, that all ecclesiastical matters, without exception, should first be decided in the provincial councils, with the right of appeal—not to the bishop of Rome, but to the patriarch of the proper diocese. Rome alone did not forget the Sardican decrees, but built on this single precedent a universal right. Pope Zosimus, in the case of the deposed presbyter Apiarius of Sicca (a.d. 417–418), made the significant mistake of taking the Sardican decrees for Nicene, and thus giving them greater weight than they really possessed; but he was referred by the Africans to the genuine text of the Nicene canon. The later popes, however, transcended the Sardican decrees, withdrawing from the provincial council, according to the pseudo-Isidorian Decretals, the right of deposing a bishop, which had been allowed by Sardica, and vesting it, as a causa major, exclusively in themselves.

Finally, in regard to the four great ecumenical councils, the first of Nice, the first of Constantinople, that of Ephesus, and that of Chalcedon: we have already presented their position on this question in connection with their legislation on the patriarchal system.584584   Comp. § 56. We have seen that they accord to the bishop of Rome a precedence of honor among the five officially coequal patriarchs, and thus acknowledge him primus inter pares, but, by that very concession, disallow his claims to supremacy of jurisdiction, and to monarchical authority over the entire church. The whole patriarchal system, in fact, was not monarchy, but oligarchy. Hence the protest of the Roman delegates and of Pope Leo against the decrees of the council of Chalcedon in 451, which coincided with that of Constantinople in 381. This protest was insufficient to annul the decree, and in the East it made no lasting impression; for the subsequent incidental concessions of Greek patriarchs and emperors, like that of the usurper Phocas in 606, and even of the sixth ecumenical council of Constantinople in 680, to the see of Rome, have no general significance, but are distinctly traceable to special circumstances and prejudices.

It is, therefore, an undeniable historical fact, that the greatest dogmatic and legislative authorities of the ancient church bear as decidedly against the specific papal claims of the Roman bishopric, is in favor of its patriarchal rights and an honorary primacy in the patriarchal oligarchy. The subsequent separation of the Greek church from the Latin proves to this day, that she was never willing to sacrifice her independence to Rome, or to depart from the decrees of her own greatest councils.

Here lies the difference, however, between the Greek and the Protestant opposition to the universal monarchy of the papacy. The Greek church protested against it from the basis of the oligarchical patriarchal hierarchy of the fifth century; in an age, therefore, and upon a principle of church organization, which preceded the grand agency of the papacy in the history of the world. The evangelical church protests against it on the basis of a freer conception of Christianity, seeing in the papacy an institution, which indeed formed the legitimate development of the patriarchal system, and was necessary for the training of the Romanic and Germanic Nations of the middle ages, but which has virtually fulfilled its mission and outlived itself. The Greek church never had a papacy; the evangelical historically implies one. The papacy stands between the age of the patriarchal hierarchy and the age of the Reformation, like the Mosaic theocracy between the patriarchal period and the advent of Christianity. Protestantism rejects at once the papal monarchy and the patriarchal oligarchy, and thus can justify the former as well as the latter for a certain time and a certain stage in the progress of the Christian world.



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