1902 Encyclopedia > Council


COUNCIL. Early in its history the Christian church gave outward expression to a sense of the mutual depen-dence of its members by summoning Councils, or Synods, where on common ground the spokesmen of the Christian community sought, w ith zeal and acumen, but often not with-out passion, prejudice, and diplomacy all too human, to dis-cover the mind of the Spirit. There prevailing practices were approved or reprehended, and the dim persuasions of the few or the many were sharpened into dogmatic state-ment binding on all. On the great movements of Chris-tian thought, much has ever been reserved for individuals to accomplish, the collective church gradually and unoffi-cially recognizing the indefeasible power of some one spiritual or ecclesiastical genius; but the councils have deeply left their mark on the doctrine and on the constitution of the church. The minor synods, forming a well-balanced system of regularly recurring assemblies, served as an important organ for the administration of ecclesiastical business; and the greater councils, summoned to meet pressing emergencies, often proved turning-points in the church's history. At them the pulse of the visible church beat high. The councils have not inaptly been called " the pitched battles of church history ;" but while they have at times caused the forces of the heretics to draw more closely together, and have more than once precipitated schism, or rendered it more determined and persistent, it is not the less true that the synods of the church universal have been her great legislative assemblies, when discussion and deci-sion, more or less full and deliberate, have restored into one channel the main stream of ecclesiastical life, and have brought home, alike to those within and to those without the pale, a sense of the church's corporate oneness.
It is characteristic of the church of Christ that it was left free to mould its constitution according to its circum-stances. The founders of Christianity left no detailed con-stitutional code. And as in other regards, so it was here ; neither Christ nor the apostles prescribed a synodal system for the infant church, or enacted when and where councils should assemble, how they should be constituted, and what they should determine. Much zealous labour has been spent in proving that the councils, even as a developed organiza-tion, are a divine institution,—a difficult task certainly, if it be necessary to agree that what is human is therefore not divine, but accidental and " invented." The most various Christian parties have with one consent sought the prototype of all Christian councils in that assembled at Jerusalem under the apostles; and from its scanty record in Acts xv. (the other apostolic assemblies reported in Acts i., vi., xxi., being passed by as irrelevant) the advocates of the most divergent systems have extracted precise rules for the con-vening and the guidance of ecclesiastical assemblies. But even if we fully accept the historical accuracy of the report, it is impossible to decide with certainty the relation of the apostles to the "presbyters," and of both to the "brethrenj" and the decree embodying the decision of the Jerusalem Council contains rather a practical compromise, the arrangement of a modus vivendi in the spirit of peace and mutual forbearance, than a final settlement on grounds of principle of the grave and long-lasting problem as to what should be the relations between the new Christian church and the old Jewish law. It points to temporary concession, not to the formulation of a permanent creed.
It is not till after the middle of the 2d century that we find the example of Jerusalem followed, and councils called to solve questions that threatened the unity and well-being of the Christian church and community. The earliest councils historically attested are those convened in Asia Minor against the Montanists ; though it is by no means unlikely that at a much earlier period the Christian Greeks gave scope, in ecclesiastical affairs, to their instinct for organization, for taking common action in regard to matters affecting the public good. Near the end of the 2d century again, varying views as to the celebration of Easter led to councils in Palestine, at Rome, in Pontus, Gaul, Mesopotamia, and at Ephesus. These councils were all specially called to consider particular questions. But before the middle of the 3d century, it seems that in Asia Minor at least the councils or synods had become a standing institution, and met yearly. About the same time we find councils in the Latin Church of North Africa. Before the end of this century there were councils meeting regularly in almost every province in Christendom, from Spain and Gaul to xlrabia and Mesopotamia; and by extension and further organization, there was soon formed a system of mutually correspondent synods that gave to the church the aspect of a federative republic.
The developing episcopal system suggested plainly enough a gradation of rank and functions for the various synods. A synod composed of all the clergy under one bishop, with their bishop as president, stood at the bottom of the scale, and is commonly named the diocesan synod. The metropolitan synod, or provincial council, met under the presidency of the metropolitan, and included all the bishops of his ecclesiastical province. Such metropolitan synods the Council of Nicaea recommended to be held twice a year. When all the bishops of a patriarchate met under the patriarch, or all those of a nation under its primate or first metropolitan, the council was patriarchal or na-tional or primatial (not infrequently termed concilium generate or plenarium). Occasionally the bishops of adjoining provinces met, the senior metropolitan presid-ing, for the consideration of matters common to a district of wider area than the one ecclesiastical province. The O-LVOSCH Ivo'rpxovcrai held at Constantinople by the metropolitan, who invited as many bishops to meet him as chanced to be then in the city, though not irregular, corresponded to no territorial division of the church. Concilia mixta, held chiefly during the Middle Ages in Germany, England, Spain, and Italy, were constituted not less of temporal than of spiritual princes, and resolved questions not solely ecclesiastical. General synod was usually the name for an assembly of the bishops from all portions either of the Western or of the Oriental division of the church. Such a synod was that of Aries, whither, in 314 A.D., Constantine summoned the bishops of the Western Church. But the minor councils were soon over-shadowed by the oecumenical councils, at which the whole of Christendom was held to be represented, and which by universal agreement came ultimately to be regarded as having authority for the whole church.
At the diocesan synods, presbyters were members as well as the bishop, but they had only a votum consultativum. The regular members of the higher synods were the bishops alone or their representatives, and exercised the votum decisivum. But other clergy, deacons, doctors of theolog and of canon law, and abbots, were invited to assist the bishops with their advice, and it seems that sometimes at least the abbots were permitted to gi'/e a decisive vote. Laics, especially emperors, kings, and their commissioners, were often present, and to some English councils even abbesses were admitted. Save at the Councils of Constance and Basel, the voting was by count of heads ; but at Con-stance the voting was according to nations, in order to counteract the numerical predominance of the Italian Bishops. A similar method was adopted at the Council of Basel.
It has never been settled beyond dispute which of the councils are to be regarded as truly and authoritatively re-presentative of the Christian oiKovpivrj. And of those that may fairly be called oecumenical, one differs widely from another not merely in its catholicity of spirit and in the abiding interest of the questions discussed, but in the width of area from which its members were drawn, and the extent of territory throughout which its authority was at the time recognized. At the earliest universal councils the represen-tatives of the Western Church were a small minority; at Nicsea hardly 10 of the 318 (?) bishops were of the Latin-speaking church. The council at Constantinople in 381 was at first only a general synod of the Oriental church; and it was not till the 6th century that it was recognized as oecumenical in the West. Some councils, such as those summoned to Pavia and Siena, were designed to be oecumenical, but led to no such result. The whole Greek Church acknowledges still but seven oecumenical councils. The English Church after the Reformation practically re-cognized the first five. The doctrinal definitions of the first four councils became the common property of the churches of the Reformation, but Protestant authors rarely refer to the later councils save polemically. The Latins even are not entirely agreed amongst themselves. The claims of the council at Sardica in 393 to universal authority have been asserted but seldom conceded. Some Catholics have protested against the cecumenicity of the synod in 1311 at Vienne, generally reckoned the 15th oecumenical. Most Catholics, including some of those most anxious to promote reforms, refused to admit the G albican claim in favour of the council summoned to Pisa in 1409 ; and its rank as a universal council has never been allow-ed by the most approved Catholic theologians. The Gallicans wished to have the Council of Constance recognized as oecumenical throughout ; good Catholics acknowledge only the sittings held after Pope Martin V. was chosen, or such earlier decrees as were afterwards sanctioned by this Pope. Some Gallicans regard the Council of Basel as oecumenical from beginning to end ; most insist on regarding it as legitimate only till it was transferred to Ferrara; many Catholics, amongst others Bellarmiue, decline to admit the cecumeni-city of any of its decrees. The Council of Ferrara-Florence, a Papal continuation of that at Basel, was at first protested against by the Gallican party, but is fully accept-ed by most Catholic theologians and canonists. The Gallicans were also slow to admit the binding authority of the 5 th Lateran synod, the 18th oecumenical council.
The question as to the number of councils is naturally of most consequence to the only section of the church that still assumes the right to summon councils and to call them oecumenical. The view that prevails in the Roman Catholic Church may best be shown by giving a list of the councils accepted as oecumenical by Hefele (Oonciliengeschlchte, 2d
ed. vol. i. pp. 59, 60).
1. The Council at Nicrea 325
2. The 1st Council at Constantinople... 381
3. The Council at Ephesus 431
4. The Council at Chalcedon 451
5. The 2d at Constantinople 553
6. The 3d at Constantinople (3S0
7. The 2d at Nicaea 787
8. The 4th at Constantinople 869
9. The 1st Lateran Council 1123

10. The 2d Lateran Council 1139
11. The 3d Lateran Council 1179
12. The 4th Lateran Council 1215
13. The 1st Council at Lyons 1245
14. The 2d Council at Lyons 1274
15. The Council at Vienne 1311
16. The Council of Constance (partially) 1414-1418
17«. The Council of Basel (partially) 1431-1438
176. The Council of Ferrara-Florence (a
continuation of that at Basel).... 143S-1442
18. The 5th Lateran Council 1512-1517
19. The Council of Trent... 1545-1563
20. Vatican Council 1869-1870
These oecumenical councils fall naturally into several groups or series. The first eight, including that at Con-stantinople in 869, were summoned by the emperors, all the later ones by the popes,—and this though the analogy of the inferior councils seems to demand that the represen-tative assemblies of the universal church should be summoned by the head of the church alone. Catholics always assert that no council can be oecumenical unless called by the Pope, or by a temporal prince with and by the Pope's assent obtained before or after ; and Catholic authors have been at pains to attempt a proof that, even at the councils undoubtedly summoned by the emperors, the bishop of Rome stood to the calling of them in a relation different from that of the other patriarchs. In the case of the 3d oecumenical council, for example, Hefele contends that the Pope did not merely, like the other bishops, passively assent, but actively sanctioned the summons.
The exclusive right of the popes to preside was unhesi-tatingly admitted at all the later councils ; but at the earlier ones, where manifestly emperors, empresses, or their commissioners were the formal presidents, Catholic canonists have persuaded themselves that such presidency was merely in regard to external matters, and that the true president was always episcopal. Even at the Council of Nicaea, they argue, Hosius and the two Roman presbyters who signed the decrees first must have done so as deputies of the Roman bishop, and as such must have been the true presidents.
The first eight councils differed from the rest in that, whereas all others met within the bounds of the Western Church, they were all held in the East. Further, the great majority of those who attended them were Greeks, and spoke Greek alone; and the chief subjects of debate at several turned on distinctions not safely translatable into the Western tongues. The first six of these eight councils were occupied mainly, though by no means exclu-sively, with aspects of the great trinitarian and christo-logical controversies, and their decrees are accordingly of high dogmatical interest.
Of councils held in the West a well-defined sub-group includes the 9th (the 1st Lateran) to the 15th (at Vienne in 1311). The first of these is significantly enough con-cerned with the dispute about the right of investiture ; and though some of this series of seven discussed or defined dogmas, as did the brilliant 4th Lateran Council, they were for the most part busied with matters pertaining to the rights and dignity of the popes and with questions con-cerning their election. Indeed several of them have less the aspect of free and independent councils than of assem-blies gathered for the official ratification of the proceedings of Pope and Curia.
The reasons for the calling of universal synods are of various kinds. When a serious heresy or schism has arisen, when it is doubtful which of two opposing popes is legitimate, when it is proposed to undertake some grand design against the enemies of the church, when the Popo is accused of heresy or other grave fault, when the cardinals will not or cannot elect a Pope, and when a root and branch reformation of the church is in view,—councils may or must be summoned. It was the last of these grounds for assembling the universal church that led to the 16th, 17th, and 18th oecumenical councils; and the 19th, that of Trent, though the sufficiency of the reforms agreed to by it was unanimously denied by Protestant reformers, must also be reckoned amongst the reforming councils.
The Vatican Council is the last of those claiming to be oecumenical; and in decreeing the infallibility of the Pope, it has appeared to many that the 20th council has shown cause why, for all essential purposes, there needs never bo another. The very institution of councils seems in itself an admission that apart from them there was no source of accessible and infallible authority on disputed points. . If the assembly at Jerusalem was really a council, then even where Paul and at least one of the original twelve apostles w ere present, the settlement of a question with vast doctrinal and practical issues was arrived at by means of open debate amongst the members of the synod. Unhesitating belief in frequent and miraculous manifestations of the divine will was universal for centuries; yet when the illumination of the Holy Spirit was most urgently needed for the establish-ment of Christian truth, recourse was had to the collective opinion of assembled representatives, to discussion more or less calm and candid, and to the counting of votes,—a most noteworthy feature in the development of the church. And it deserves to be remarked that thus, in times of all-embracing despotism, the church secured for the representa-tives of the Christian community one side of corporate and individual freedom, a measure of independence such as could not fail to keep alive a feeling hostile to the extension of imperial, though Christian, tyranny into at least one of the provinces of thought and action.
The infallibility of universal councils, ultimately admitted by the whole Catholic Church, was early claimed. " It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us," words occurring in the Jerusalem decree, could not but suggest to the successors of the apostles that the synods assembled under them were favoured by the special superintendence of the Holy Ghost; and this was distinctly asserted by Cyprian. Put the sanction of the Pope has always been held by modern Catholics as necessary to the infallibility of any council ; and the decrees even of the minor councils attain to infallibility if approved by the Pope and accepted by the church at large. A limitation of synodical authority that merely recognized the Pope as an integral part of the church might be agreed to even by those who asserted that oecumenical councils are superior to the popes, a theory long and vehemently contended for and against in the church. That the councils are above the popes was the view of the Councils of Constance and Basel, and was formulated as one of the four Gallican propositions; whereas at the 5th Lateran Council Pope Leo X. roundly asserted the authority of the Pope over all councils.
Yet the infallibility of universal councils was most con-fidently accepted by the very parties in the church which were least disposed to concede absolute authority to any other ecclesiastical institution,—notably by the Gallicans and by the German Reformers in the early stages of the Reformation. And the institution of councils, both of occasional councils called for special purposes and of those meeting statedly, was inherited by the Protestant churches. The Synod of Dort is an instance of a general council of churches adhering to the Reformed confessions; the West-minster Assembly was designed to be a national council. It is of course in the Presbyterian churches that councils have received their most systematic development, and, without claiming infallible authority, retain the most extended powers as legislative, administrative, and judicial. In the Church of Scotland the regular gradation of kirk sessions, presbyteries, provincial synods, and general assem-bly of representative ministers and elders supervises and regulates all the functions of the church, and forms a com-pact and balanced system of constitutional government. In non-presbyterian churches synods have various degrees of deliberative cr decisive authority. Even now the re-organization of the synodical system of the United Pro-testant Church of Prussia is regarded both by churchmen and by statesmen in Germany a3 one of the ecclesiastical questions of the day.
The chief collections of the Acts of the Councils of the Catholic Church are that by Hardouin, published at Paris in 1715 in 12 folios and the still more complete one by Mansi (Florence and
Venice, 1758-1799) in 31 folio vols, but extending only to the 15th
century. By far the most elaborate recent work on the Councils is
the Conciliengeschichte of Dr Hefele, bishop of Rotteuburg (7 vols.
1st ed. 1855-1874 ; 2d ed. 1873, sqq.). (D. P.)

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