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9. Of Councils

Antiquities of the Christian Church
XVII. Of the Discipline of the Ancient Church

9. Of Councils 

Origin of ecclesiastical councils. Roman Catholic writers derive their authority for ecclesiastical councils from the example of the church at Jerusalem, as recorded in Acts 15. They regard that as the first ecclesiastical council; and from the deliberations and decisions of that body, they deduce the several conclusions following.

  1. That the appropriate mode of settling questions relating to religious subjects is by council.
  2. That the laity should be excluded from such councils; and yet the whole church took part in the deliberations at Jerusalem, Acts 15:22, 23.
  3. That the duty devolves upon the successor of St. Peter to preside in such councils.
  4. That the results of such councils are to be communicated throughout the churches.
  5. From the expression, "It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us," Acts 15:28, they infer the infallibility of these decrees of councils,
  6. From the authoritative command of this council, they assert the duty of unreserved submission to the synodical decrees.

In answer to these arrogant pretensions it is sufficient to say, that no council is known to have been held for near one hundred and fifty years after this time. They then began to be held in Greece and Asia Minor. But they were only provincial synods, local and limited in their jurisdiction; though bishops and presbyters of other provinces were allowed to have a seat in them. These councils made no appeal whatever to divine authority, or apostolic usage in vindication of their right of jurisdiction over the churches. They were composed only of the clergy, of whom merely the bishops are distinctly mentioned. They deliberated respecting the important affairs of the church, altiora quaeque; and prepared themselves for the public deliberations by watching and fasting. All this is fairly inferred from the incidental mention of these councils by Tertullian, who is the earliest writer that takes notice of them, De Jejunio, c. 13, written near the end of the second century. The passage is given in the note below. 

About the middle of the third century, Firmilian, bishop of Caesarea, wrote to Cyprian an epistle in which he takes occasion to say that "the bishop, and elders annually assembled to deliberate upon ecclesiastical matters committed to their charge, that the most important of these might be adjusted by mutual consultation," which confirms the account of Tertullian relative to this subject.

An ecclesiastical council may be defined to be a synod, composed of a number of representatives from several independent christian communities, convened together to deliberate and decide upon matters relating to the welfare of the church.

Such councils began to be held in Asia Minor, and the neighboring province of Thrace, towards the latter part of the second century; particularly from the year 160, to 173. We know not indeed the particular reasons for which these councils were held, but we have every reason to suppose that the occasions were wholly incidental and temporary. As soon as any connection began to be formed between different independent churches, they might naturally be expected to form associations of this kind, to deliberate upon their common interests. Such a confederation was first formed among those very churches which were the first to unite in council.

The clergy, again, who were most in harmony with one another might be expected soonest to form associations for mutual deliberation; and such harmony of views it is well known prevailed especially among the clergy of those provinces. In such communities, where all had severally a right to bear a part in such deliberations, the council must, of necessity, have been composed of representatives from each. It is impossible that all could have convened collectively in council; as the representatives of their respective churches, the bishops and presbyters would of course be chiefly selected.

In this manner, what was at first done by common consent would, in time, become an established usage, and a right confirmed by common consent. The deacons may have remained at home, or they might have attended in council as members themselves of the clergy, or as amanuenses of the bishops. No mention is made of them in the accounts of these early councils. It is therefore to be presumed that their attendance or non-attendance was a matter of no special interest.

Such being the state of things, the crafty bishops would easily have seen that, by constant and uniform attendance in council, they acquired increasing consideration and respect. Such councils being frequently held, the primate, or metropolitan bishop would of course V have the prerogative of convening and presiding over them.

The political form of government which prevailed in the Grecian states, no doubt had an influence in shaping the administration of their ecclesiastical affairs. The famous council of the Amphyctions were accustomed to assemble semi-annually from all the Grecian states. Something like this, we may easily suppose, would have obtained in the administration of their church government. In the absence of direct historical testimony to this effect, it is at least remarkable that both the council of Nice, and the Apostolical Constitutions direct that ecclesiastical councils be held semi-annually, and at the same seasons of the year when the Amphyctionic council were wont to convene. The council of Nice only conformed to the established usage in settling upon these stated seasons for the convening of their body. This circumstance would show, beyond doubt, the influence of their political institutions in their ecclesiastical affairs, did not the letter of Firmilian above quoted, speak of their councils as being held annually, per singulos annos.

These councils of the Grecian states must, for a considerable length of time, have been circumscribed within very narrow limits. Tertullian knew nothing of them. Towards the beginning of the third century they began to be better known. The controversy between the Eastern and Western church relating to Easter, threw the whole christian world, with the exception perhaps of Africa, into commotion, and brought them together in opposing councils. Such councils were now held at Caesarea, or Aelia, and at Rome; in Pontus, and France; in proconsular Asia, in Mesopotamia, and probably in Achaia. Within the third century, councils began also to be held in Africa.

But without pursuing the history of these councils further, we will confine our attention to the following inquires relating to them.

  1. What was the extent of their jurisdiction?
  2. What was their peculiar organization?
  3. Who were appropriately the constituent members of them?
  1. What was the extent of their jurisdiction? At first they were, without doubt, provincial synods. This conclusion is fully implied from the fact, that nothing is said relating to this subject. Had their jurisdiction extended beyond the limits of their own provinces, it must have been mentioned. The synods of Asia Minor must be understood, therefore, to have been restricted to their own provincial limits; such as that of Hierapolis in Phrygia, which was chiefly inhabited by the Montanists. Those of Anchiolus were probably limited in their jurisdiction to Thrace, but if not, they were only an exception to the prevailing custom. The councils which were held in many places respecting the controversy on the subject of Easter, were assuredly provincial synods. Such were also the synods which were held in Arabia in the third century, A. D. 243 and 246. The same is true also of the synod of Rome held by Cornelius in the year 251; and of the synod of Antioch, A. D. 252 against the Norvatians, and again at Rome, A. D. 260. Three provincial synods were also held at Antioch, from the year 264 to 269, against Paul of Samosata. Still it is not to be presumed that all these were organized on precisely the same principles; the clergy from neighboring provinces may have had a seat and a voice in some of them. Men of great weight of character, and whose counsels were highly respected, were particularly desired to attend from other places, and the convening of the council was, at times, delayed in order to secure their attendance. Origen, in this capacity, attended the council in Arabia, and, by his learning and talents, settled the point in dispute to the satisfaction of the council. The bishops of Antioch also were so much embarrassed by the learning of Paul of Samosata, whom they would convict of heresy, that they invited the attendance of certain bishops from the Grecian provinces in Asia, including Palestine and Egypt. The metropolitan of Alexandria excused himself by reason of his great age;. but many bishops from those provinces attended the council, – Firmilian from Cappadocia, Gregory and Athenodorus from Pontus, Plelenus of Tarsus, Nicomas of Iconium; and the archbishops Hymenaeus of Jerusalem, and Theotecnus of Caesarea, together with the bishop Maximus, from Arabia. Paul, however, by his talents withstood them all; and the council dispersed without gaining any advantage over him. Foreigners, in like manner, attended both the second and third councils which were held for the same purpose. In the last council, a presbyter, Malchion, bore a conspicuous part, and was the principal agent in putting an end to the discussion.

    About the same period of time other councils were held which were sometimes more and at others less than provincial synods. The council of Iconium, A. D. 235, consisted of bishops from Phrygia, Galatia, Cilicia, and other neighboring provinces. Another council was also held in opposition to this in a neighboring town, Synnada, of which we know only that it had little or no influence against the first at Iconium. But this is sufficient to show that no established system of ecclesiastical jurisdiction at this time prevailed, even in the states of Greece, where such councils were first held.

    In Africa, there was much less of system in these matters than m the Grecian states. Cyprian informs that he thought it necessary to convene a council of many of the clergy, to deliberate respecting the common good, in which council many topics were proposed and discussed. But he adds, "I am aware that some will never change their minds, nor give over a cherished purpose; but however harmonious their colleagues may be, they will persist in the support of their own peculiar views. Under these circumstances it is not my business to attempt, by constraint, to give laws to any one; but, in the administration of the church, to leave to every one to the freedom of his own choice who must answer unto God for his conduct." Ep. 72.

    The first ecclesiastical council of Africa cannot be said to have been either provincial or general. Under Galba this country had been divided into three provinces. Constantine divided it into six. And yet it appears from Cyprian, Ep. 45, that the former division of Galba was still observed in the organization of the council, and that one even of these provinces was not represented; but for what reason does not appear. All, however, by common consent appear to have accorded to Cyprian at Carthage the right of convening a general council at his pleasure. This is the more probable from the fact that in the year 255, several bishops who apparently composed a provincial synod, appealed to him for the settlement of certain subjects of discussion among them.

    The other councils in Africa were, for the most part, provincial in their character. Such was the council which was held before the time of Cyprian, the date of which is not distinctly known. So also were the councils held by Cyprian in the years 249, 251, 252, 255 and 256.

    From all which it appears, that most of the councils which were held in Africa were limited in their jurisdiction, and provincial in their character. Some, however, were more general; and such was generally the character of the councils which were held in that country after the third century.

  2. What was the appropriate organization of the regular provincial synods? In general, the ecclesiastic within the province, whether bishop, metropolitan, or patriarch, presided in these councils. The popular character of these assemblies would indeed have permitted any one to be elevated to the office of moderator. But the gradations of the priesthood, and the jealousy of the several orders were such that none but he that was highest in official rank could have been placed in the chair to the mutual satisfaction of all Classes. The presbyters would have claimed precedence of the deacons, the bishops of the presbyters; and so on until none should be found to dispute the claim with the highest dignitary of the province. The greatest number of the members of the council would also come from the diocese of the highest functionary, which circumstance would give him the strongest party in the election. And there are many other ways in which this seat might have been secured to him.

    The results or decrees, of the councils were usually published in the name of the moderator. There are some instances in which the names of the attending bishops accompany the decree. Such, however, was not the usual custom. The metropolitans were jealous of their rights, and strove earnestly for a controling influence in the councils. For the same reason they insisted that the result should be published under the sanction of their authority, and in their name. They usually had the address to cause their own opinions to prevail; and few had the independence to dispute them. Thus the metropolitan of Alexandria had the influence to cause his synod to banish Origen, A. D. 230. Cornelius effected the excommunication of three bishops at Rome, A. D. 251, in the same arbitrary manner. By such strides did the principal ecclesiastics advance their spiritual hierarchy; and so tamely did the subordinate members of their councils suffer the most esteemed men in the church to suffer unjustly under this spiritual despotism. The councils were merely the organ of the metropolitan to execute his arbitrary decrees.

  3. Who were appropriately members of these councils? This inquiry is involved in much darkness and uncertainty. There is however satisfactory evidence that bishops and presbyters were entitled to bear a part in the deliberations of these assemblies. The letter of Firmilian, in the middle of the third century, makes distinct mention of presbyters, seniores. Origen, as a presbyter, attended the council of Arabia; and Malchion acted in the same capacity in the three councils of Antioch. Besides, there were very many churches under the care of presbyters, which, if represented at all in council as they evidently were, must send presbyters as their delegates.

    Whether the laity were permitted to take a part in the deliberations of these councils as constituent members of them is an interesting and important inquiry. This is discussed at length by Walch, p. 121. He is clearly of opinion that the laity of the place where the council was held had this right. Others are of opinion that, in the absence of their bishops, laymen of the province where the council was held were delegated to attend in their place. And yet it seems most probable that the laity did not enjoy the right of acting as members of these councils. One may indeed presume that, as representatives of the churches to which they belonged, they would be entitled to a place in the council; but on this point history is silent. Had they exercised this right, it must have been a circumstance of such interest to the clergy that we can hardly suppose that it would have been passed over in silence, especially in the earliest periods of the history of ecclesiastical councils. Party spirit would, at times, have appeared among them, and their influence manifested itself on one side or the other. It seems, therefore, that care was taken that the deliberations of the council should not be disturbed by the presence of the laity.

    The councils were usually held in the churches, or in buildings adjacent, and belonging to them; and were open to the attendance of any as spectators.

    A scribe or recorder is first mentioned as having attended the second council of Antioch against Paul of Samosata. They are also mentioned by Eusebius, 7. 29. Such clerks became common in the fourth century, who recorded at length the discussions and debates of the council.

    We close this view of the early ecclesiastical councils by recapitulating the conclusions to which it has conducted us.

    These councils were not formed after the model of that at Jerusalem which is described in Acts 15; but took their origin and character from the peculiar circumstances of the church in those primitive times.

    They were first held in the Grecian states; and the political organization of these states probably had much influence in the formation of their peculiar constitution and organization.

    They were convened at the call of the metropolitan, who also acted as the presiding officer of the assembly, and exercised a controling influence over their deliberations and decisions.

    The several orders of the clergy, bishops, presbyters, and deacons, were regular members of these councils; but the laity were not entitled to a seat in them.

    They were unknown in Africa in the time of Tertullian; but soon after his death they became common, not only in Africa, but also in Spain, France, and Italy. Their organization, however, was less regular and systematic than in the Grecian states.

    Both in the Eastern and Western churches they were, for the most part, merely provincial synods. (Ecumenical councils were of a later date under the christian emperors.

    The practical effect of these councils, from the beginning, was to give increasing consideration and influence to the clergy; which continually increased until it finally ended in the full establishment of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. 

    After the conversion of Constantine, the councils of the church fell under the influence of the Byzantine emperors; and at a still later period they submitted to the presidency and dictation of the bishop of Rome.

    The celebrated council of Nicaea, A, D. 325, is distinguished as having been the first which pronounced a decision respecting a christian doctrine, or article of religious faith; as well as the first over which a temporal prince presided. It is also usually reckoned as the first general council; but it was, in fact, a council of only the Oriental church; the Spanish bishop Hosius, and two Roman presbyters, were the only ecclesiastics from the West by whom it was attended. All the particulars respecting this remarkable and important council are given by the authors who are mentioned in the index 

    The number of oecumenical or general councils is variously reckoned by different churches.

    The orthodox Greek church enumerates seven, namely:
    A. D.
    The First of Nicaea325
    The First of Constantinople381
    The Second of Constantinople553
    The Third of Constantinople680
    The Second of Nicaea787

    The church of Rome recognizes eighteen general councils, sanctioned by the pope, of which the council of Trent is the last. But Romish writers are not quite agreed upon this subject. A list set up in the Vatican, by command of Sixtus V, enumerates the following:
    A. D.
    The First of Nicaea325
    The First of Constantinople381
    The First of Ephesus431
    The Second of Constantinople553
    The Third of Constantinople680
    The Second of Nicaea787
    The Fourth of Constantinople869
    The First Lateran1122
    The Second Lateran1139
    The Third Lateran1179
    The Fourth Lateran1215
    The First of Lyons1245
    The Second of Lyons1274
    The Fifth Lateran1512

    It appears from this list that the councils of Pisa, A. D. 1409, of Constance, A. D. 1414, and of Basle, A. D. 1431, which are commonly regarded as general councils, are not recognized as such at Rome.

    Protestants, for the most part, recognize four general councils, namely:
    A. D.

    Some receive also:
    The Second of Constantinople553
    The Third of Constantinople680

Ziegler's Vers, einer kritisch pragnmt. Darstellung des Ursprungs der Kirchensynoden und der Ausbildung der Synodalverf. in den ersten drei Jahrh. in Henke's neuem Magaz. für Religions. Philos. bd. i. St. i. p. 125: Schrockh Thl, iii. p. 143–149. Thl. V. p. IIJ: Schone's Geschichtsforschungen 1 r. bd. p. 367–372. 3 r. bd. p. 340–378: Freimuthige Gedanken iider Synoden der alien und neuesten Zeit. In der Jenaer Oppositionschr. i. 4. p. 565. flf.: J. Cp. Greiling über die Urverfass. der apost. Christensem. oder bibl. Winke fur die evang. Synoden. Halberst. 1819. 8: K. H. Sack de optima ecclesiae christ. constitutione. In sein. Commentatt. ad hist. eccl. Bonn. 1822. 8: Bretschneider und R. J. Meyer, ob die Kirchenverfass. z. Z. der App. e. demokrat. od. e. aristokrat. od. welche sonst gewesen sei u. In Allg. Khz. 1833. Nr. 103–106, 182. vergl. Schlatter ebendas. 1834. Nr. 47: G. B. Schultze Darstell. der Form des Kirchenregiments ira apost. Zeitalter u. In Allg. Kirchenzeit. 1833. Nr. 94. ff. vergl. Nr. 148.
(No tag #1 appears in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)

Euseb. V. 16.

Can. Apost. iii.: Concil. Nic. v.

Euseb. vii. 27.

Euseb. vii. 28.

Tillemont, Hist, du Concile CEcumenique de Nicee, in his Memoires: Natalis Alexandri Dissertationes de Nicoeni Concilii convocatione, and De Praeside Nicoeni Concilii: in Thesaur. Theol. Venet. 1762.

From Siegel's Handbuch, vol. IV. pp. 406–425.

Aguntur praeter ea per Graecias ilia certis in locis concilia ex universis ecclesiis, per quae et altiora quaeque in commune tractantur et ipsarepresentatio totius nominis christiani magna celebratione veneratur. Et hoc quam dignum fide auspicante congregari undique ad Christum? Vide quam bonum et jucundum habitare fratres in unqm! Hoc tu psallere non facile nosti, nisi quo "tempore cum compluribus coenas. Conventua autem isti stationibus prius et jejunationibus operari, dolere cum dolentibus et ita demum congaudere gaudentibus norunt.

For the sake of illustrating the manner in which these ancient councils were held, we have transcribed the following: record of the third council of Carthage, held A. D. 25(>; or rather it is but an abstract of the debates of that council, for it was attended by no less than eighty-seven bishops, who were convened to decide whether or not baptism administered by heretics should be regarded as \alid. It is found in C3'prian's Works, p. 329, ed. Baluz.

Cum in unum Carthagine convenissent Kalendis episcopi plurimi ex provincia Africa, Numidia et Mauritania, cum presbyteris et diaconis praesente etiamplebis maxima parte et lectae essent literae Jubajani aJ Cyprianum factae, item Cypriani ad Jubajanum rescriptae de haereticis baptizandis, quidque postmodum Cypriano Jubajanus idem rescripserit, Cyprianus dixit: Auddistis collegae dilectissimi, quid mihi Jubanus Coepiscopus noster scripserit, consulens m,ediocritatem, nostram de illicito et profano Haereticorum baptismo, et quid ego ei rescripserem, censens scilicet, quod semel atque iterum et saepe censuimus haereticos ad ecclesiam venientes ecclesia baptismo baptizari et sanctificari oportere. Item lectae sint nobis et aliae Jubajani literae, quibus pro sua sincera et religiosa devotione ad epistolam nostram rescribens non tantum consensit, sed etiam instructum se esse confessus, gratias egit. Superest, ut de hac re singuli quid sentiamus,proreramus,neminem judicantes, aut a jure communionis aliquem, si diversum senserit, amoventes. Neque enim quisquam nostrum episcopum se esse constituit, aut tryannico terrore ad obsequendi necessitatem collegas suos adigit, quando habeat omnis episcopus pro licentia libertatis et potestatis suae arbitrium proprium, tumque judicari ab alio non possit, quara nee ipse potest altcrum judicare. Sed exspectemus universi judicium Domini Jesu Christi, qui unus et solus habet potestatem et praeponendi nos in ecclesiae suae gubernatione et de actu nostro judicandi. Caccilius a Bilta dixit: Ego unum baptisma in ecclesia solum scio et extra ecclesiam nullum. Hie erit unum, ubi spes vera et fides vera.

Castus a Sicca dixit: Qui contemta veritate praesumit consuetudinem sequi, et circa fratres invidus est et nialignus, quihus Veritas revelatur, aut circa Deum ingratus, cujus inspiratione ecclesia ejus instruitur.

Zosimus a Tarassa dixit: Revelatione facta veritatis cedat error veritati, quia et Petrus, (jui prius circumcidebat, cessit Paulo veritatem praedicanti.

Pvdencianus a Cucculi dixit: Novitas episcopatus effecit fratres dilectissimi, ul sustinerem, quid majores judicarent. Num haereses nihil habere nee posse manifestura est. Atque ita, si qui ex eis venerint baptizari, acquissime statutum est.

Item alius Lucius ab Avizia dixit: Secundum motum animi mei etSpiritus SanctijCum sit unus Deus, et unus Christus, et una Spes, et unus Spiritus, et una ecclesia, unum debet esse baptisma.

Victor ab Octavo dixit: Quod et ipsi scitis non olim sum episcopus constitutus et ideo expectabam praecessorum consilium. Hoc itaque existimo ut, quicunque ex haeresi venerint, baptizentur.

Natitis ab 0ea dixit: Tarn ego praesens, quum Pompejus Sabratensis, quam etiam Dioga Leptimagnensis, qui mihi raandaverunt, corpore quidem absentes, spiritu praesentes, censemus, quod el collegae nostri, quod haeretici communicationem habere non possunt nisi ecclesiasticc baptismo baptizati fuerint. – Non oportet episcopos, qui vocantur ad Synodum, negligere. – Sed abire et docere et doceri ad eccqrrectionem ecclesiae et reliquorum. Si quis autem neglexerit, is se ipsum accusabit, praeterquam si propter intemperiem et aegritudinem non venerit.)

Cyprianus Cartliagine dixit: Meam sententiam plenissime exprimit epistola.quae ad Jubajauum, collegam nostrum scripta est, haereticos secundum evangelium et apostolicam contestationem et adversarios Christi et antichristos appellatos, quando ad ecclesiam venerint, unico ecclesiae baptismo baptizandos esse,ut possmt fieri de adversaries amici etde antichristts christiani.


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