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§ 65. The Synodical System. The Ecumenical Councils.


I. The principal sources are the Acts of the Councils, the best and most complete collections of which are those of the Jesuit Sirmond (Rom. 1608–1612, 4 vols. fol.); the so-called Collectio regia (Paris, 1644, 37 vols. fol.; a copy of it in the Astor Libr., New York); but especially those of the Jesuit Hardouin († 1729): Collectio maxima Conciliorum generalium et provincialium (Par. 1715 sqq., 12 vols. fol.), coming down to 1714, and very available through its five copious indexes (tom. i. and ii. embrace the first six centuries; a copy of it, from Van Ess’s library, in the Union Theol. Sem. Library, at New York); and the Italian Joannes Dominicus Mansi (archbishop of Lucca, died 1769): Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collection, Florence, 1759-’98, in 31 (30) vols. fol. This is the most complete and the best collection down to the fifteenth century, but unfinished, and therefore without general indexes; tom. i. contains the Councils from the beginning of Christianity to a.d. 304; tom. ii.-ix. include our period to a.d. 590 (I quote from an excellent copy of this rare collection in the Union Theol. Sem. Libr., at New York, 30 t. James Darling, in his Cyclop. Bibliographica, p. 740–756, gives the list of the contents of an earlier edition of the Councils by Nic. Coleti, Venet., 1728, in 23 vols., with a supplement of Mansi, in 6 vols. 1748-’52, which goes down to 1727, while the new edition of Mansi only reaches to 1509. Brunet, in the “Manuel Du Libraire,” quotes the edition of Mansi, Florence, 1759–1798, with the remark: “Cette collection, dont le dernier volume s’arrête à l’année 1509, est peu commune à Paris ou elle revenait à 600 fr.”  Strictly speaking its stops in the middle of the 15th century, except in a few documents which reach further.) Useful abstracts are the Summa Conciliorum of Barth. Caranza, in many editions; and in the German language, the Bibliothek der Kirchenversammlungen (4th and 5th centuries), by Fuchs, Leipz., 1780–1784, 4 vols.

II. Chr. Wilh. Franz Walch (Luth.): Entwurf einer vollstaendigen Historie der Kirchenversammlungen, Leipz., 1759. Edw. H. Landon (Anglic.): A manual of Councils of the Holy Catholick Church, comprising the substance of the most remarkable and important canons, alphabetically arranged, 12mo. London, 1846. C. J. Hefele (R.C.): Conciliengeshichte, Freiburg, 1855–1863, 5 vols. (a very valuable work, not yet finished; vol. v. comes down to a.d. 1250). Comp. my Essay on Oekumenische Concilien, in Dorner’s Annals of Ger. Theol. vol. viii. 326–346.


Above the patriarchs, even above the patriarch of Rome, stood the ecumenical or general councils,608608   The name σύνοδος οἰκουμενική(concilium universale, s. generale) occurs first in the sixth canon of the council of Constantinople in 381. The οἰκουμένη (sc. γῆ) is, properly, the whole inhabited earth; then, in a narrower sense, the earth inhabited by Greeks, in distinction from the barbarian countries; finally, with the Romans, the orbis Romanus, the political limits of which coincided with those of the ancient Graeco-Latin church. But as the bishops of the barbarians outside the empire were admitted, the ecumenical councils represented the entire Catholic Christian world. the highest representatives, of the unity and authority of the old Catholic church. They referred originally to the Roman empire, but afterward included the adjacent barbarian countries, so far as those countries were represented in them by bishops. They rise up like lofty peaks or majestic pyramids from the plan of ancient church history, and mark the ultimate authoritative settlement of the general questions of doctrine and discipline which agitated Christendom in the Graeco-Roman empire.

The synodical system in general had its rise in the apostolic council at Jerusalem,609609   Acts xv., and Gal. ii. Comp. my History of the Apostolic Church, §§ 67-69 (Engl. ed., p. 245-257). Mansi, l.c. tom. i. p. 22 (De quadruplici Synodo Apostolorum), and other Roman Catholic writers, speak of four Apostolic Synods: Acts i. 13 sqq., for the election of an apostle; ch. vi. for the election of deacons; ch. xv. for the settlement of the question of the binding authority of the law of Moses; and ch. xxi. for a similar object. But we should distinguish between a private conference and consultation, and a public synod. and completed its development, under its Catholic form, in the course of the first five centuries. Like the episcopate, it presented a hierarchical gradation of orders. There was, first, the diocesan or district council, in which the bishop of a diocese (in the later sense of the word) presided over his clergy; then the provincial council, consisting of the metropolitan or archbishop and the bishops of his ecclesiastical province; next, the patriarchal council, embracing all the bishops of a patriarchal district (or a diocese in the old sense of the term); then the national council, inaccurately styled also general, representing either the entire Greek or the entire Latin church (like the later Lateran councils and the council of Trent); and finally, at the summit stood the ecumenical council, for the whole Christian world. There was besides these a peculiar and abnormal kind of synod, styled σύνοδος ἐνδημοῦσα, frequently held by the bishop of Constantinople with the provincial bishops resident (ἐνδημοῦντες) on the spot.610610   It is usually supposed there were only four or five different kinds of council. But Hefele reckons eight (i. p. 3 and 4) adding to those above named the irregularσύνοδοι ἐνδημοῦσαι, also the synods of the bishops of two or more provinces finally the concilia mixta, consisting of the secular and spiritual dignitaries province, as separate classes.

In the earlier centuries the councils assembled without fixed regularity, at the instance of present necessities, like the Montanist and the Easter controversies in the latter part of the second century. Firmilian of Cappadocia, in his letter to Cyprian, first mentions, that at his time, in the middle of the third century, the churches of Asia Minor held regular annual synods, consisting of bishops and presbyters. From that time we find an increasing number of such assemblies in Egypt, Syria, Greece, Northern Africa, Italy, Spain, and Gaul. The council of Nicaea, a.d. 325, ordained, in the fifth canon, that the provincial councils should meet twice a year: during the fast season before Easter, and in the fall.611611   A similar order, with different times, appears still earlier in the 37th of the apostolic canons, where it is said (in the ed. of Ueltzen, p. 244):Δεύτεροντοῦ ἔτους σύνοδος γενέσθω τῶν ἐπισκόπων. In regard to the other synods no direction was given.

The Ecumenical councils were not stated, but extraordinary assemblies, occasioned by the great theological controversies of the ancient church. They could not arise until after the conversion of the Roman emperor and the ascendancy of Christianity as the religion of the state. They were the highest, and the last, manifestation of the power of the Greek church, which in general took the lead in the first age of Christianity, and was the chief seat of all theological activity. Hence in that church, as well as in others, they are still held in the highest veneration, and kept alive in the popular mind by pictures in the churches. The Greek and Russian Christians have annually commemorated the seven ecumenical councils, since the year 842, on the first Sunday in Lent, as the festival of the triumph of orthodoxy612612   This Sunday, the celebration of which was ordered by the empress Theodora in 842, is called among the Greeks the κυριακήτῆς ὀρθοδοξίας. On that day the ancient councils are dramatically reproduced in the public worship. and they live in the hope that an eighth ecumenical council shall yet heal the divisions and infirmities of the Christian world. Through their symbols of faith those councils, especially of Nice and of Chalcedon, still live in the Western church, both Roman Catholic and Evangelical Protestant.

Strictly speaking, none of these councils properly represented the entire Christian world. Apart from the fact that the laity, and even the lower clergy, were excluded from them, the assembled bishops themselves formed but a small part of the Catholic episcopate. The province of North Africa alone numbered many more bishops than were present at either the second, the third, or the fifth general council.613613   The schismatical Donatists alone held a council at Carthage in 308, of two hundred and seventy bishops (Comp. Wiltsch, Kirchl. Geogr. u. Statistik, i. p. 53 and 54); while the second ecumenical council numbered only a hundred and fifty, the third a hundred and sixty (a hundred and ninety-eight), and the fifth a hundred and sixty-four. The councils bore a prevailingly oriental character, were occupied with Greek controversies, used the Greek language, sat in Constantinople or in its vicinity, and consisted almost wholly of Greek members. The Latin church was usually represented only by a couple of delegates of the Roman bishop; though these delegates, it is true, acted more or less in the name of the entire West. Even the five hundred and twenty, or the six hundred and thirty members of the council of Chalcedon, excepting the two representatives of Leo I., and two African fugitives accidentally present, were all from the East. The council of Constantinople in 381 contained not a single Latin bishop, and only a hundred and fifty Greek, and was raised to the ecumenical rank by the consent of the Latin church toward the middle of the following century. On the other hand, the council of Ephesus, in 449, was designed by emperor and pope to be an ecumenical council; but instead of this it has been branded in history as the synod of robbers, for its violent sanction of the Eutychian heresy. The council of Sardica, in 343, was likewise intended to be a general council, but immediately after its assembling assumed a sectional character, through the secession and counter-organization of the Eastern bishops.

It is, therefore, not the number of bishops present, nor even the regularity of the summons alone, which determines the ecumenical character of a council, but the result, the importance and correctness of the decisions, and, above all, the consent of the orthodox Christian world.614614   Schröckh says (vol. viii. p. 201), unjustly, that this general consent belongs among the “empty conceits.” Of course the unanimity must be limited to orthodox Christendom.

The number of the councils thus raised by the public opinion of the Greek and Latin churches to the ecumenical dignity, is seven. The succession begins with the first council of Nicaea, in the year 325, which settled the doctrine of the divinity of Christ, and condemned the Arian heresy. It closes with the second council of Nice, in 787, which sanctioned the use of images in the church. The first four of these councils command high theological regard in the orthodox Evangelical churches, while the last three are less important and far more rarely mentioned.

The ecumenical councils have not only an ecclesiastical significance, but bear also a political or state-church character. The very name refers to the οἰκουμένη, the orbis Romanus, the empire. Such synods were rendered possible only by that great transformation, which is marked by the accession of Constantine. That emperor caused the assembling of the first ecumenical council, though the idea was probably suggested to him by friends among the bishops; at least Rufinus says, he summoned the council “ex sacerdotum sententia.” At all events the Christian Graeco-Roman emperor is indispensable to an ecumenical council in the ancient sense of the term; its temporal head and its legislative strength.

According to the rigid hierarchical or papistic theory, as carried out in the middle ages, and still asserted by Roman divines, the pope alone, as universal head of the church, can summon, conduct, and confirm a universal council. But the history of the first seven, or, as the Roman reckoning is, eight, ecumenical councils, from 325 to 867, assigns this threefold power to the Byzantine emperors. This is placed beyond all contradiction, by the still extant edicts of the emperors, the acts of the councils, the accounts of all the Greek historians, and the contemporary Latin sources. Upon this Byzantine precedent, and upon the example of the kings of Israel, the Russian Czars and the Protestant princes of Germany, Scandinavia, and England—be it justly or unjustly—build their claim to a similar and still more extended supervision of the church in their dominions.

In the first place, the call of the ecumenical councils emanated from the emperors.615615   This is conceded even by the Roman Catholic church historian Hefele (i. p. 7), in opposition to, Bellarmine and other Romish divines.“The first eight general councils,” says he, “were appointed and convoked by the emperors; all the subsequent councils, on the contrary [i.e. all the Roman Catholic general councils], by the popes; but even in those first councils there appears a certain participation of the popes in their convocation, more or less prominent in particular instances.” The latter assertion is too sweeping, and can by no means be verified in the history of the first two of these councils, nor of the fifth. They fixed the place and time of the assembly, summoned the metropolitans and more distinguished bishops of the empire by an edict, provided the means of transit, and paid the cost of travel and the other expenses out of the public treasury. In the case of the council of Nicaea and the first of Constantinople the call was issued without previous advice or consent from the bishop of Rome.616616   As regards the council of Nicaea: according to Eusebius and all the ancient authorities, it was called by Constantinealone; and not till three centuries later, at the council of 680, was it claimed that Pope Sylvester had any share in the convocation. As to the council of Constantinople in 381: the Roman theory, that Pope Damasus summoned it in conjunction with Theodosius, rests on a confusion of this council with another and an unimportant one of 382. Comp. the notes of Valesius to Theodoret, Hist. Ecel. v. 9; and Hefele (who here himself corrects his earlier view), vol. i. p. 8, and vol. ii. p. 36. In the council of Chalcedon, in 451, the papal influence is for the first time decidedly prominent; but even there it appears in virtual subordination to the higher authority of the council, which did not suffer itself to be disturbed by the protest of Leo against its twenty-eighth canon in reference to the rank of the patriarch of Constantinople. Not only ecumenical, but also provincial councils were not rarely called together by Western princes; as the council of Arles in 314 by Constantine, the council of Orleans in 549 by Childebert, and—to anticipate an instance—the synod of Frankfort in 794 by Charlemagne. Another remarkable fact has been already mentioned: that in the beginning of the sixth century several Orthodox synods at Rome, for the purpose of deciding the contested election of Symmachus, were called by a secular prince, and he the heretical Theodoric; yet they were regarded as valid.

In the second place, the emperors, directly or indirectly, took an active part in all but two of the ecumenical councils summoned by them, and held the presidency. Constantine the Great, Marcian, and his wife Pulcheria, Constantine Progonatus, Irene, and Basil the Macedonian, attended in person; but generally the emperors, like the Roman bishops (who were never present themselves), were represented by delegates or commissioners, clothed with full authority for the occasion. These deputies opened the sessions by reading the imperial edict (in Latin and Greek) and other documents. They presided in conjunction with the patriarchs, conducted the entire course of the transactions, preserved order and security, closed the council, and signed the acts either at the head or at the foot of the signatures of the bishops. In this prominent position they sometimes exercised, when they had a theological interest or opinion of their own, no small influence on the discussions and decisions, though they had no votum; as the presiding officers of deliberative and legislative bodies generally have no vote, except when the decision of a question depends upon their voice.

To this presidency of the emperor or of his commissioners the acts of the councils and the Greek historians often refer. Even Pope Stephen V. (a.d. 817) writes, that Constantine the Great presided in the council of Nice. According to Eusebius, he introduced the principal matters of business with a solemn discourse, constantly attended the sessions, and took the place of honor in the assembly. His presence among the bishops at the banquet, which he gave them at the close of the council, seemed to that panegyrical historian a type of Christ among his saints!617617   Euseb., Vita Const. iii. 15: Χριστοῦ βασιλείας ἔδοξενἄντις φαντασιοῦσθαιεἰκόνα, ὄναρτ̓εἷναι ἀλλ’ οὐχ ὕπαρ τὸ γινόμενον. This prominence of Constantine in the most celebrated and the most important of all the councils is the more remarkable, since at that time he had not yet even been baptized. When Marcian and Pulcheria appeared with their court at the council of Chalcedon, to confirm its decrees, they were greeted by the assembled bishops in the bombastic style of the East, as defenders of the faith, as pillars of orthodoxy, as enemies and persecutors of heretics; the emperor as a second Constantine, a new Paul, a new David; the empress as a second Helena; with other high-sounding predicates.618618   Mansi, vii. 170 sqq. The emperor is called there not simply divine, which would be idolatrous enough, but most divine, ὁ θειότατος· καὶεὐσεβέστατος ἡμῶνδεσπότης, divinissimus et piissimus noster imperator ad sanctam synodum dixit, etc. And these adulatory epithets occur repeatedly in the acts of this council. The second and fifth general councils were the only ones at which the emperor was not represented, and in them the presidency was in the hands of the patriarchs of Constantinople.

But together with the imperial commissioners, or in their absence, the different patriarchs or their representatives, especially the legates of the Roman bishop, the most powerful of the patriarchs, took part in the presiding office. This was the case at the third and fourth, and the sixth, seventh, and eighth universal councils.

For the emperor’s connection with the council had reference rather to the conduct of business and to the external affairs of the synod, than to its theological and religious discussions. This distinction appears in the well-known dictum of Constantine respecting a double episcopate, which we have already noticed. And at the Nicene council the emperor acted accordingly. He paid the bishops greater reverence than his heathen predecessors had shown the Roman senators. He wished to be a servant, not a judge, of the successors of the apostles, who are constituted priests and gods on earth. After his opening address, he “resigned the word” to the (clerical) officers of the council,619619   Eusebius, Vita Const. iii. 13: Ὁμὲνδὴταῦτεἰπὼν ̔ Ρωμαίᾳ γλώττῃ[which was still the official language], ὑφερμηνεύοντος ἑτέρου, παρεδίδουτὸνλόγοντοῖς τῆς συνόδουπροέδροις. Yet, according to the immediately following words of Eusebius, the emperor continued to take lively interest in the proceedings, hearing, speaking, and exhorting to harmony. Eusebius’whole account of this synod is brief and unsatisfactory. by whom probably Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, Eustathius of Antioch, and Hosius of Cordova—the latter as special friend of the emperor, and as representative of the Western churches and perhaps of the bishop of Rome—are to be understood. The same distinction between a secular and spiritual presidency meets us in Theodosius II., who sent the comes Candidian as his deputy to the third general council, with full power over the entire business proceedings, but none over theological matters themselves; “for”—wrote he to the council-, “it is not proper that one who does not belong to the catalogue of most holy bishops, should meddle in ecclesiastical discussions.” Yet Cyril of Alexandria presided at this council, and conducted the business, at first alone, afterward in conjunction with the papal legates; while Candidian supported the Nestorian opposition, which held a council of its own under the patriarch John of Antioch.

Finally, from the emperors proceeded the ratification of the councils. Partly by their signatures, partly by special edicts, they gave the decrees of the council legal validity; they raised them to laws of the realm; they took pains to have them observed, and punished the disobedient with deposition and banishment. This was done by Constantine the Great for the decrees of Nice; by Theodosius the Great for those of Constantinople; by Marcian for those of Chalcedon. The second ecumenical council expressly prayed the emperor for such sanction, since he was present neither in person nor by commission. The papal confirmation, on the contrary, was not considered necessary, until after the fourth general council, in 451.620620   To wit, in a letter of the council to Leo (Ep. 89, in the Epistles of Leo, ed. Baller., tom. i. p. 1099), and in a letter of Marcian to Leo (Ep. 110, tom. i. p. 1182 sq.). And notwithstanding this, Justinian broke through the decrees of the fifth council, of 553, without the consent, and in fact despite the intimated refusal of Pope Vigilius. In the middle ages, however, the case was reversed. The influence of the pope on the councils increased, and that of the emperor declined; or rather, the German emperor never claimed so preëminent a position in the church as the Byzantine. Yet the relation of the pope to a general council, the question which of the two is above the other, is still a point of controversy between the curialist or ultramontane and the episcopal or Gallican schools.

Apart from this predominance of the emperor and his commissioners, the character of the ecumenical councils was thoroughly hierarchical. In the apostolic council at Jerusalem, the elders and the brethren took part with the apostles, and the decision went forth in the name of the whole congregation.621621   Acts xv. 22: Τότεἔδοξετοῖς ἀποστόλοις καὶτοῖς πρεσβυτέροις σὺνὃλῃ τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ; and v. 23: Οἱἀπόστολοικαὶοἰπρεσβύτεροικαὶοἰἀδελφοὶτοῖς ... ἀδελφοῖς. κ.τ.λ. Comp. my Hist. of the Apostolic Church, § 69, and § 128. But this republican or democratic element, so to call it, had long since given way before the spirit of aristocracy. The bishops alone, as the successors and heirs of the apostles, the ecclesia docens, were members of the councils. Hence, in the fifth canon of Nice, even a provincial synod is termed “the general assembly of the bishops of the province.” The presbyters and deacons took part, indeed, in the deliberations, and Athanasius, though at the time only a deacon, exerted probably more influence on the council of Nice by his zeal and his gifts, than most of the bishops; but they had no votum decisivum, except when, like the Roman legates, they represented their bishops. The laity were entirely excluded.

Yet it must be remembered, that the bishops of that day were elected by the popular voice. So far as that went, they really represented the Christian people, and were not seldom called to account by the people for their acts, though they voted in their own name as successors of the apostles. Eusebius felt bound to justify, his vote at Nice before his diocese in Caesarea, and the Egyptian bishops at Chalcedon feared an uproar in their congregations.

Furthermore, the councils, in an age of absolute despotism, sanctioned the principle of common public deliberation, as the best means of arriving at truth and settling controversy. They revived the spectacle of the Roman senate in ecclesiastical form, and were the forerunners of representative government and parliamentary legislation.

In matters of discipline the majority decided; but in matters of faith unanimity was required, though, if necessary, it was forced by the excision of the dissentient minority. In the midst of the assembly an open copy of the Gospels lay upon a desk or table, as, a symbol of the presence of Christ, whose infallible word is the rule of all doctrine. Subsequently the ecclesiastical canons and the relics of the saints were laid in similar state. The bishops—at least according to later usage—sat in a circle, in the order of the dates of their ordination or the rank of their sees; behind them, the priests; before or beside them, the deacons. The meetings were opened and closed with religious solemnities in liturgical style. In the ancient councils the various subjects were discussed in open synod, and the Acts of the councils contain long discourses and debates. But in the council of Trent the subjects of action were wrought up in separate committees, and only laid before the whole synod for ratification. The vote was always taken by heads, till the council of Constance, when it was taken by nations, to avoid the preponderance of the Italian prelates.

The jurisdiction of the ecumenical councils covered the entire legislation of the church, all matters of Christian faith and practice (fidei et morum), and all matters of organization arid worship. The doctrinal decrees were called dogmata or symbola; the disciplinary, canones. At the same time, the councils exercised, when occasion required, the highest judicial authority, in excommunicating bishops and patriarchs.

The authority of these councils in the decision of all points of controversy was supreme and final.

Their doctrinal decisions were early invested with infallibility; the promises of the Lord respecting the indestructibleness of his church, his own perpetual presence with the ministry, and the guidance of the Spirit of truth, being applied in the full sense to those councils, as representing the whole church. After the example of the apostolic council, the usual formula for a decree was: Visum est Sprirtui Sancto et nobis.622622   Ἒδοξετῷπνεύματιἁγίῳ καὶἡμῖν, Acts xv. 28. The provincial councils, too, had already used this phrase; e.g. the Concil. Carthaginiense, of 252 (in the Opera Cypriani): “Placuit nobis, Sancto Spiritu suggerente, et Domino per visiones multas et manifestas admonente.” So the council of Arles, in 314: “Placuit ergo, presente Spiritu Sancto et angelis ejus.” Constantine the Great, in a circular letter to the churches, styles the decrees of the Nicene council a divine command;623623   Θείανἐντολήν, and θείανβούλησιν, in Euseb., Vita Const. iii. 20. Comp. his Ep. ad Eccl. Alexandr., in Socrates, H. E. i. 9 where he uses similar expressions. a phrase, however, in reference to which the abuse of the word divine, in the language of the Byzantine despots, must not be forgotten. Athanasius says, with reference to the doctrine of the divinity of Christ: “What God has spoken by the council of Nice, abides forever.”624624   Isidore of Pelusium also styles the Nicene council divinely inspired, θεόθενἐμπνευςθεῖσα (Ep. 1. iv. Ep. 99). So Basil the Great, Ep. 114 (in the Benedictine edition of his Opera omnia, tom. iii. p. 207), where he says that the 318 fathers of Nice have not spoken without the ἐνέργειατοῦἁγίουπνεύματος(non sine Spiritus Sancti afflatu). The council of Chalcedon pronounced the decrees of the Nicene fathers unalterable statutes, since God himself had spoken through them.625625   Act. i., in Mansi, vi. p. 672. We quote from the Latin translation: “Nullo autem modo patimur a quibusdam concuti definitam fidem, sive fidei symbolum, a sanctis patribus nostris qui apud Nicaeam convenerunt illis temporibus: nec permittimus aut nobis, aut aliis, mutare aliquod verbum ex his quae ibidem continentur, aut unam syllabam praeterire, memores dicentis: Ne transferas terminos aeternos, quos posuerunt patres tui (Prov. xxii. 8; Matt. x. 20). Non enim erant ipsi loquentes, sed ipse Spiritus Dei et Patris qui procedit ex ipso.” The council of Ephesus, in the sentence of deposition against Nestorius, uses the formula: “The Lord Jesus Christ, whom he has blasphemed, determines through this most holy council.”626626   ̓Ὁβλασφημηθεὶς παῤαὐτοῦκύριος Ἰης. Χριστὸς ωὝρισεδιὰτῆς παρούσης ἁγιωτάτης συνόδου. Pope Leo speaks of an “irretractabilis consensus” of the council of Chalcedon upon the doctrine of the person of Christ. Pope Gregory the Great even placed the first four councils, which refuted and destroyed respectively the heresies and impieties of Arius, Macedonius, Nestorius, and Eutyches, on a level with the four canonical Gospels.627627   Lib. i. Ep. 25 (ad Joannem episcopum Constant., et caeteros patriarchas, in Migne’s edition of Gr. Opera, tom. iii. p. 478, or in the Bened. ed. iii. 515): “Praeterea, quia corde creditur ad justitiam, ore autem confessio fit ad salutem, sicut sancti evangelii quatuor libros, sic quatuor concilia suscipere et venerari me fateor. Nicaenum scilicet in quo perversum Arii dogma destruitur; Constantinopolitanum quoque, in quo Eunomii et Macedonii error convincitur; Ephesinum etiam primum, in quo Nestorii impietas judicatur; Chalcedonense vero, in quo Eutychetii [Eutychis] Dioscorique pravitas reprobatur, tota devotione complector, integerrima approbatione custodio: quia in his velut in quadrato lapide, sanctae fidei structura consurgit, et cujuslibet vitae atque actionis existat, quisquis eorum soliditatem non tenet, etiam si lapis esse cernitur, tamen extra aedificium jacet. Quintum quoque concilium pariter veneror, in quo et epistola, quae Ibae dicitur, erroris plena, reprobatur,” etc. In like manner Justinian puts the dogmas of the first four councils on the same footing with the Holy Scriptures, and their canons by the side of laws of the realm.628628   Justin. Novell. cxxxi.“Quatuor synodorum dogmata sicut sanctas scripturas accipimus, et regulas sicut leges observamus.” The remaining three general councils have neither a theological importance, nor therefore an authority, equal to that of those first four, which laid the foundations of ecumenical orthodoxy. Otherwise Gregory would have mentioned also the fifth council, of 553, in the passage to which we have just referred. And even among the first four there is a difference of rank; the councils of Nice and Chalcedon standing highest in the character of their results.

Not so with the rules of discipline prescribed in the canones. These were never considered universally binding, like the symbols of faith; since matters of organization and usage, pertaining rather to the external form of the church, are more or less subject to the vicissitude of time. The fifteenth canon of the council of Nice, which prohibited and declared invalid the transfer of the clergy from one place to another,629629   Conc. Nic. can. 15: ὛΩστεἀπὸπόλεως εἰς πόλινμὴμεταβαίνεινμήτεἐπίσκοπονμήτεπρεσβύτερονμήτεδιάκονον. This prohibition arose from the theory of the relation between a clergyman and his congregation, as a mystical marriage, and was designed to restrain clerical ambition. It appears in the Can. Apost. 13, 14, but was often violated. At the Nicene council itself there were several bishops, like Eusebius of Nicomedia, and Eustathius of Antioch, who had exchanged their first bishopric for another and a better. Gregory Nazianzen, fifty-seven years later (382), reckons among statutes long dead.630630   Νόμους πάλαιτεθνηκότας, Carm. de vita sua, v. 1810. Gregory himself repeatedly changed his location, and Chrysostom was called from Antioch to Constantinople. Leo I. spoke with strong disrespect of the third canon of the second ecumenical council, for assigning to the bishop of Constantinople the first rank after the bishop of Rome; and for the same reason be protested against the twenty-eighth canon of the fourth ecumenical council.631631   Epist. 106 (al. 80) ad Anatolium, and Epist. 105 ad Pulcheriam. Comp. above, § 57. Even Gregory I., so late as 600, writes in reference to the canones of the Constantinopolitan council of 381: “Romana autem ecclesia eosdem canones vel gesta Synodi illius hactenus non habet, nec accepit; in hoc autem eam accepit, quod est per eam contra Macedonium definitum.” Lib. vii. Ep. 34, ad Eulogium episcopum Alexandr. (tom. iii. p. 882, ed. Bened., and in Migne’s ed., iii. 893.) Indeed the Roman church has made no point of adopting all the disciplinary laws enacted by those synods.

Augustine, the ablest and the most devout of the fathers, conceived, in the best vein of his age, a philosophical view of this authority of the councils, which strikes a wise and wholesome mean between the extremes of veneration and disparagement, and approaches the free spirit of evangelical Protestantism. He justly subordinates these councils to the Holy Scriptures, which are the highest and the perfect rule of faith, and supposes that the decrees of a council may be, not indeed set aside and repealed, yet enlarged and completed by, the deeper research of a later day. They embody, for the general need, the results already duly prepared by preceding theological controversies, and give the consciousness of the church, on the subject in question, the clearest and most precise expression possible at the time. But this consciousness itself is subject to development. While the Holy Scriptures present the truth unequivocally and infallibly, and allow no room for doubt, the judgment of bishops may be corrected and enriched with new truths from the word of God, by the wiser judgment of other bishops; the judgment of the provincial council by that of a general; and the views of one general council by those of a later.632632   De Baptismo contra Donatistas, I. ii. 3 (in the Benedictine edition of August. Opera, tom. ix. p. 98): “Quis autem nesciat, sanctam Scripturam canonicam, tam Veteris quam Novi Testamenti, certis suis terminis contineri, eamque omnibus posterioribus Episcoporum literis ita praeponi, ut de illa omnino dubitari et disceptari non possit, utrum verum vel utrum rectum sit, quidquid in ea scriptum esse constiterit; Episcoporum autem literas quae post confirmatum canonem vel scripta sunt vel scribuntur, et per sermonem forte sapientiorem cujuslibet in ea re peritioris, et per aliorum Episcoporum graviorem auctoritatem doctioremque prudentiam, et per concilia licere reprehendi, si quid in eis forte a veritate deviatum est; et ipsa concilia, quae per singulas regiones vel provincias fiunt, plenariorum conciliorum auctoritate, quae fiunt ex universo orbe Christiano, sine ullis ambagibus cedere; ipsaque plenaria saepe priora posterioribus emendari, quum aliquo experimento rerum aperitur quod clausum erat et cognoscitur quod latebat; sine ullo typho sacrilegae superbiae, sine ulla inflata cervice arrogantiae, sine ulla contentione lividae invidiae, cum sancta humilitate, cum pace catholica, cum caritate christiana.” Comp. the passage Contra Maximinum Arianum, ii. cap. 14, § 3 (in the Bened. ed., tom. viii. p. 704), where he will have even the decision of the Nicene council concerning the homousion measured by the higher standard of the Scriptures. In this Augustine presumed, that all the transactions of a council were conducted in the spirit of Christian humility, harmony, and love; but had he attended the council of Ephesus, in 431, to which he was summoned about the time of his death, he would, to his grief, have found the very opposite spirit reigning there. Augustine, therefore, manifestly acknowledges a gradual advancement of the church doctrine, which reaches its corresponding expression from time to time through the general councils; but a progress within the truth, without positive error. For in a certain sense, as against heretics, he made the authority of Holy Scripture dependent on the authority of the catholic church, in his famous dictum against the Manichaean heretics: “I would not believe the gospel, did not the authority of the catholic church compel me.”633633   Contra Epistolam Manichaei, lib. i. c. 5 (in the Bened. ed., tom. viii. p. 154): “Ego vero evangelio non crederem, nisi me ecclesiae catholicae commoveret auctoritas.” In like manner Vincentius Lerinensis teaches, that the church doctrine passes indeed through various stages of growth in knowledge, and becomes more and more clearly defined in opposition to ever-rising errors, but can never become altered or dismembered.634634   Commonitorium, c. 23 (in Migne’s Curs. Patrol. tom. 50, p. 667): “Sed forsitan dicit aliquis: Nullusne ergo in ecclesia Christi profectus habebitur religionis? Habeatur plane et maximus .... Sed ita tamen ut vere profectus sit ille fidei, non permutatio. Si quidem ad profectum pertinet ut in semetipsum unaquaeque res amplificetur; ad permutationem vero, ut aliquid ex alio in aliud transvertatur. Crescat igitur oportet et multum vehementerque proficiat tam singulorum quam omnium, tam unius hominis, quam totius ecclesiae, aetatum ac seculorum gradibus, intelligentia, scientia, sapientia, sed in suo dutaxat genere, in eodem scilicet dogmate, eodem sensu, eademque sententia.”

The Protestant church makes the authority of the general councils, and of all ecclesiastical tradition, depend on the degree of its conformity to the Holy Scriptures; while the Greek and Roman churches make Scripture and tradition coordinate. The Protestant church justly holds the first four general councils in high, though not servile, veneration, and has received their statements of doctrine into her confessions of faith, because she perceives in them, though compassed with human imperfection, the clearest and most suitable expression of the teaching of the Scriptures respecting the Trinity and the divine-human person of Christ. Beyond these statements the judgment of the church (which must be carefully distinguished from theological speculation) has not to this day materially advanced;—the highest tribute to the wisdom and importance of those councils. But this is not saying that the Nicene and the later Athanasian creeds are the non plus ultra of all the church’s knowledge of the articles therein defined. Rather is it the duty of theology and of the church, while prizing and holding fast those earlier attainments, to study the same problems ever anew, to penetrate further and further these sacred fundamental mysteries of Christianity, and to bring to light new treasures from the inexhaustible mines of the Word of God, under the guidance of the same Holy Spirit, who lives and works in the church at this day as mightily as he did in the fifth century and the fourth. Christology, for example, by the development of the doctrine of the two states of Christ in the Lutheran church, and of the three offices of Christ in the Reformed, has been substantially enriched; the old Catholic doctrine, which was fixed with unerring tact at the council of Chalcedon, being directly concerned only with the two natures of Christ, as against the dualism of Nestorius and the monophysitism of Eutyches.

With this provision for further and deeper soundings of Scripture truth, Protestantism feels itself one with the ancient Greek and Latin church in the bond of ecumenical orthodoxy. But toward the disciplinary canons of the ecumenical councils its position is still more free and independent than that of the Roman church. Those canons are based upon an essentially unprotestant, that is, hierarchical and sacrificial conception of church order and worship, which the Lutheran and Anglican reformation in part, and the Zwinglian and Calvinistic almost entirely renounced. Yet this is not to say that much may not still be learned, in the sphere of discipline, from those councils, and that perhaps many an ancient custom or institution is not worthy to be revived in the spirit of evangelical freedom.

The moral character of those councils was substantially parallel with that of earlier and later ecclesiastical assemblies, and cannot therefore be made a criterion of their historical importance and their dogmatic authority. They faithfully reflect both the light and the shade of the ancient church. They bear the heavenly treasure in earthen vessels. If even among the inspired apostles at the council of Jerusalem there was much debate,635635   Acts xv. 6: Πολλῆς συζητήσεως γενομένης; which Luther indeed renders quite too strongly: ” After they had wrangled long.” The English versions from Tyndale to King James translate: ” much disputing.” and soon after, among Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, a violent, though only temporary collision, we must of course expect much worse of the bishops of the Nicene and the succeeding age, and of a church already interwoven with a morally degenerate state. Together with abundant talents, attainments, and virtues, there were gathered also at the councils ignorance, intrigues, and partisan passions, which had already been excited on all sides by long controversies preceding and now met and arrayed themselves, as hostile armies, for open combat. For those great councils, all occasioned by controversies on the most important and the most difficult problems of theology, are, in fact, to the history of doctrine, what decisive battles are to the history of war. Just because religion is the deepest and holiest interest of man, are religious passions wont to be the most violent and bitter; especially in a time when all classes, from imperial court to market stall, take the liveliest interest in theological speculation, and are drawn into the common vortex of excitement. Hence the notorious rabies theologorum was more active in the fourth and fifth centuries than it has been in any other period of history, excepting, perhaps, in the great revolution of the sixteenth century, and the confessional polemics of the seventeenth.

We have on this point the testimony of contemporaries and of the acts of the councils themselves. St. Gregory Nazianzen, who, in the judgment of Socrates, was the most devout and eloquent man of his age,636636   Hist. Eccl. lib. v. cap. 7. and who himself, as bishop of Constantinople, presided for a time over the second ecumenical council, had so bitter an observation and experience as even to lose, though without sufficient reason, all confidence in councils, and to call them in his poems “assemblies of cranes and geese.” “To tell the truth” thus in 382 (a year after the second ecumenical council, and doubtless including that assembly in his allusion) he answered Procopius, who in the name of the emperor summoned him in vain to a synod—“to tell the truth, I am inclined to shun every collection of bishops, because I have never yet seen that a synod came to a good end, or abated evils instead of increasing them. For in those assemblies (and I do not think I express myself too strongly here) indescribable contentiousness and ambition prevail, and it is easier for one to incur the reproach of wishing to set himself up as judge of the wickedness of others, than to attain any success in putting the wickedness away. Therefore I have withdrawn myself, and have found rest to my soul only in solitude.”637637   Ep. ad Procop. 55, old order (al. 130). Similar representations occur in Ep. 76, 84; Carm. de vita sua, v. 1680-1688; Carm. x. v. 92; Carm. Adv. Episc. v. 154. Comp. Ullmann, Gregor. von Naz., p. 246 sqq., and p. 270. It is remarkable that Gibbon makes no use of these passages to support his summary judgment of the general councils at the end of his twentieth chapter, where he says: “The progress of time and superstition erased the memory of the weakness, the passion, the ignorance, which disgraced these ecclesiastical synods; and the Catholic world has unanimously submitted to the infallible decrees of the general councils.” It is true, the contemplative Gregory had an aversion to all public life, and in such views yielded unduly to his personal inclinations. And in any case he is inconsistent; for he elsewhere speaks with great respect of the council of Nice, and was, next to Athanasius, the leading advocate of the Nicene creed. Yet there remains enough in his many unfavorable pictures of the bishops and synods of his time, to dispel all illusions of their immaculate purity. Beausobre correctly observes, that either Gregory the Great must be a slanderer, or the bishops of his day were very remiss. In the fifth century it was no better, but rather worse. At the third general council, at Ephesus, 431, all accounts agree that shameful intrigue, uncharitable lust of condemnation, and coarse violence of conduct were almost as prevalent as in the notorious robber-council of Ephesus in 449; though with the important difference, that the former synod was contending for truth, the latter for error. Even at Chalcedon, the introduction of the renowned expositor and historian Theodoret provoked a scene, which almost involuntarily reminds us of the modern brawls of Greek and Roman monks at the holy sepulchre under the restraining supervision of the Turkish police. His Egyptian opponents shouted with all their might: “The faith is gone! Away with him, this teacher of Nestorius!” His friends replied with equal violence: “They forced us [at the robber-council] by blows to subscribe; away with the Manichaeans, the enemies of Flavian, the enemies of the faith! Away with the murderer Dioscurus? Who does not know his wicked deeds? The Egyptian bishops cried again: Away with the Jew, the adversary of God, and call him not bishop!” To which the oriental bishops answered: “Away with the rioters, away with the murderers! The orthodox man belongs to the council!” At last the imperial commissioners interfered, and put an end to what they justly called an unworthy and useless uproar.638638   Ἐκβοήσεις δημοτικαί. See Harduin, tom. ii. p. 71 sqq., and Mansi, tom. vi. p. 590 sq. Comp. also Hefele, ii. p. 406 sq.

In all these outbreaks of human passion, however, we must not forget that the Lord was sitting in the ship of the church, directing her safely through the billows and storms. The Spirit of truth, who was not to depart from her, always triumphed over error at last, and even glorified himself through the weaknesses of his instruments. Upon this unmistakable guidance from above, only set out by the contrast of human imperfections, our reverence for the councils must be based. Soli Deo gloria; or, in the language of Chrysostom: Δόξα τῷ θεῷ πάντων ἕνεκεν!



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