1902 Encyclopedia > Excommunication


EXCOMMUNICATION, the highest ecclesiastical censure, is the judicial exclusion of a baptized person from the fellowship of the visible church of Christ. As part of the discipline of the church it is based on the precept of Christ (Mat. xvi. 19, xviii. 15-18; John xx. 23), and on apostolic example (1 Cor. v. 5; 1 Tim. i. 20, &c). These and the other texts, however, bearing, or supposed to bear, on the subject of excommunication, have not by any means been uniformly interpreted; and the usages ostensibly based on them have differed accordingly. The praxis of Chris-tian discipline, moreover, has never been wholly inde-pendent of Jewish and pagan influences; and its variations cannot be adequately explained unless account be taken of several non-Christian analogues of excommunication. Among other pagan analogues may be mentioned the Greek _____ (Demos. 505, 14), with its consequences (Aesch., Choeph. 283; Fum. 625 f.; Soph., (Ed. Tyr. 236 ff.) ; the Roman exsecratio and diris devotio; the awful power which the Druids claimed of excluding from the sacrifices (Caes., B. &., vi. 13). But more influential than any of these has been the ancient Jewish practice. The word used in the New Testament to describe an ex-communicated person, _____ (1 Cor. xvi. 22 ; Gal. i. 8, 9 ; Rom. ix. 3), is the constant LXX. rendering of the Hebrew DID (see ANATHEMA). This word (herem), in its primary signification means simply any person or thing separated or set apart, a meaning which is still seen in the familiar Arabic word " harem." The connexion in thought between the notions separation from common use, dedication to God, and devotion to destruction is not very obscure, and it soon established itself in the Hebrew mind. In Lev. xxvii. 21, 28, 29, we read that no "devoted" person or thing was to be sold or redeemed; " none which shall be * devoted' from among men shall be redeemed, but shall surely be put to death." The Hebrew mohoram (devoted) was precisely in the same position as the Latin impius or sacer (Mommsen, Rom. Alt., ii. 50 ff.). In Num. xxi. 2, 3, Deut. ii. 34, iii. 6, vii. 2, we find whole cities or nations thus " banned," " excommunicated," or devoted to destruc-tion. We occasionally read of Israelites as well as of aliens falling under this ban (e.g., in Judg. xxi. 5, 11); indeed, the _extreme penalty of being "cut off," which is attached to so many sins, appears to have been carried into effect by the congregation only after the D^O had been duly pronounced by the competent authority (Ex. xxii. 19 [20]; Deut. xiii. 7-18 [6-17]; cf. Ewald, Altertk, pp. 101, 420). If in this D^n we already find the analogue of the major oexcommunication (called anathema) of the mediaeval church, we may perhaps look for the analogue of the minor in that temporary separation or seclusion (niddan) which was pre-scribed for ceremonial uncleanness. Scripture furnishes no distinct trace of the use of the deadly anathema in post-exile times; it is probable, however, that the right of sentencing by a D^D to capital punishment remained with the Jewish ecclesiastico-civil authorities to a very late period (Ezra vii. 25, 26). In Ezra x. 8, it ought to be observed, we read of an excommunication of a milder kind; its effect was that all the substance of the offender was " forfeited" (i.e., laid under a herein), but he himself merely " separated " from the congregation.

The Talmud recognizes two kinds of excommunication, SL minor and a major, called respectively niddui and herem. The niddui (from niddah, to drive away) could be pronounced at any time by any competent individual (cum periculo, of course); its validity continued for thirty days, during which period the subject of it was expected to go into mourning, absent himself from the synagogue, and _separate himself from all his fellows by a distance of not less than four ells. He was not excluded from the temple, but if he visited it he was required to enter by a separate door. If at the end of thirty days he showed impenitence or contumacy, the niddui might be renewed once and again ; and finally, in certain circumstances, the herein might be pronounced. A valid herem, which could only be pronounced by a court of not less than ten judges, had the effect of _excluding from the temple as well as from the synagogue, and from all association with the faithful. Some writers _have asserted that there was a still more terrible, because irrevocable, sentence called the shammatta; but the preponderance of evidence is against this statement. (See Buxtorfs Lexicon, p. 2466; and Selden, Be Jure Nat. et oGen., iv. 9.) Among modern instances of expulsion from the Jewish communion, that of Spinoza (16th July 1656) for contempt of the law has became famous. The text of the curse pronounced upon the culprit, which is similar to that given by Selden (as above, iv. 7), may be taken as a fair specimen of the formulae then in use. The Exemplar Humanae Vitae of Uriel d'Acosta may also be referred to.

As an authority upon Jewish usages the Talmud does not^go nearly so far back as to the beginning of the first _Christian century. It is to the New Testament alone that we must look for any little information that can be had on the contemporary practice of the Jewish courts. The sentence of exclusion from the synagogue is plainly indicated in Luke vi. 22, John ix. 22, xii. 42, and the more severe sentence seems to be hinted at in John xvi. 2. The question as to the period at which the Jewish synedrium ceased to have the power of giving full effect to the herem spoken of in Leviticus, has been much disputed. The Talmud itself says that the judgment of capital causes was taken away from Israel forty years before the destruction of the temple. But the point whether the synedrium which tried Jesus Christ could lawfully claim that power is still unsettled.

It has been already said that the use of excommunication as a part of Christian discipline, is based on the precept of Christ and on the apostolic practice, The general principles which ought to be observed can be easily gathered from the New Testament writings ; but the church appears to have been left, for most of the practical details, to the guidance of reason and experience. Mat. xviii. 17 leaves unsolved many questions which cannot fail to arise as to the occa-sion, nature, and effects of excommunication. Tit. iii. 10, which enjoins the "rejection" (comp. 1 Tim. iv. 7) of a " heretic " after two " admonitions," can hardly be called more explicit. The locus classicus is 1 Cor. v. taken in connexion with 1 Tim. i. 20. In the former passage, much importance has been attached to the apparent distinction between the _____ in vs. 2, 13, and the _____ in v. 5, the former being (it is alleged) within the competency of the congregation, and the latter a purely apostolic function. The _____, or " delivering over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh," has been the subject of much dispute (see Bingham, Antiq., xvi. 2, 15). The language may safely be assumed to have been borrowed from an older formula. Plainly it was intended as the highest censure, to be pronounced only on grave offenders. It is also manifest that it was not irrevocable, and that it was in every case meant to have a salutary disciplinary effect upon the soul.

The writings of the church fathers give sufficient evidence that two degrees of excommunication, the _____ and the _____, as they were generally called, were in use during, or at least soon after, the apostolic age. The former, which involved exclusion from participation in the eucharistie service and from the eucharist itself, though not from the so-called " service of the catechumens," was the usual punishment of comparatively light offences ; the latter, which was the penalty for graver scandals, involved " exclusion from all church privileges,"—a vague expres-sion which has sometimes been interpreted as meaning total exclusion from the very precincts of the church building (inter hiemantes orare), and from the favour of God (Bingham, xvi. 2, 16). For some sins, such as adultery, the sentence of excommunication was in the 2d century regarded as _____ in the sense of being irrevocable. Difference of opinion as to the absolutely " irrémissible " character of mortal sins led to the important controversy associated with the names of Zephyrinus, Tertullian, Cal-listus, Hippolytus, Cyprian, and Novatian, in which the stricter and more montanistic party held that for those who had been guilty of such sins as theft, fraud, denial of the faith, there should be no restoration to church fellow-ship even in the hour of death. On this point the provincial synods of Iliiberis (Elvira) in 305 and of Ancyra in 315 subsequently came to conflicting decisions. But the excommunication was on all hands regarded as being " medicinal " in its character. It is noteworthy that the word avaoefia had fallen into disuse about the beginning of the 4th century, and that, throughout the same period, no instance of the judicial use of the phrase _____ can be found.
A new chapter in the history of church censure may be said to have begun with the publication of those imperial edicts against heresy the first of which, Be summa trinitate et fide catholica, dates from 380. Till then exclusion from church privileges had been a spiritual discipline merely; thencefor-ward it was to expose a man to serious temporal risks. Excommunication still continued to be occasionally used in the spirit of genuine Christian fidelity, as by Ambrose in the case of Theodosius himself (390); but the temptation to wield it as an instrument of secular tyranny too often proved to be irresistible. In the formula used by Synesius (410), which is to be found in Bingham and in most other works of reference, we already find the attention of magis-trates specially called to the censured person. The history of the next thousand years shows that the magistrates were seldom slow to respond to the appeal. Even the hastiest survey of that long and interesting period enables the student to notice a marked development in the theory and practice of excommunication. One or two points may be specially noted. (1.) While it had been held as an un-doubted principle by the ancient church that this sentence could only be passed on living individuals, whose fault had been distinctly stated and fully proved, we find the mediaeval church on the one hand sanctioning the practice of excommunication of the dead (Morinus, De Pcenit, x., c. 9), and, on the other hand, by means of the papal interdict, excluding whole counties and kingdoms at once from every church privilege. The earliest well-authenticated instance of such an interdict is that which was passed (998) by Pope Gregory V. on France, in consequence of the contumacy of King Bobert the Wise. Other instances are those laid respectively on Germany in 1102 by Gregory VII. (Hildebrand), on England in 1208 by Innocent III., on Rome itself in 1155 by Adrian IV. (2.) While in the ancient church the language used in excommunicating had been carefully measured, we find an amazing recklessness in the phraseology employed by the mediaeval clergy. The curse of Ernulphus or Arnulphus of Bochester (cir. 1100), which has been made familiar to most students of English literature, is a very fair specimen of that class of composi-tion. With it may be compared the formula transcribed by Dr Burton in his History of Scotland (iii. 317 ff.). To the spoken word was added the language of symbol. By means of lighted candles violently dashed to the ground and extin-guished the faithful were graphically taught the meaning of the greater excommunication,—though in a somewhat mis-leading way, for it is a fundamental principle of the canon law that disciplina est excommunicato, non eradicatio. The first instance, however, of excommunication by " bell, book, and candle " is comparatively late (cir. 1190).

At the Reformation the necessity for church discipline did not cease to be recognized; but the administration of it in many Beformed churches passed through a period of some confusion. In some instances the old episcopal power passed more or less into the hands of the civil magistrate (a state of matters which was highly approved by Erastus and his followers), in other cases it was conceded to the presbyterial courts. In the Anglican Church the bishops (subject to appeal to the sovereign) have the right of ex-communicating, and their sentence, if sustained, may in certain cases carry with it civil consequences.

In the law of England sentence of excommunication, upon being properly certified by the bishop, was followed by the writ de excommunicato capiendo for the arrest of the offender. The statute 5 Eliz. c. 23 provided for the better execution of this writ. By the 53 Geo. III. c. 127 (which does not, however, extend to Ireland) it was enacted that " excommunication, together with all proceedings following thereupon, shall in all cases, save those hereafter to be specified, be discontinued." Disobedience to or contempt of the ecclesiastical courts is to be punished by a new writ de contumace capiendo, to follow on the certificate of the judge that the defender is contumacious and in contempt.

Sect. 2 provides that nothing shall prevent " any ecclesi-astical court from pronouncing or declaring persons to be excommunicate on definite sentences pronounced as spiritual censures for offences of ecclesiastical cognizance." No persons so excommunicated shall incur any civil penalty or incapacity whatever, save such sentence of imprisonment, not exceeding six months, as the court shall direct and certify to the Queen in Chancery.
In Scotland, three degrees of church censure are recog- nized—admonition, suspension from sealing ordinances (which may be called temporary excommunication), and excommunication properly so called. Intimation of the last- named censure is occasionally (but very rarely) given by authority of a presbytery in a public and solemn manner, according to the following formula :—" Whereas thou N. hast been by sufficient proof convicted of (here mention the sin) and after due admonition and prayer remainest obstinate without any evidence or sign of true repentance : Therefore in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and before this congregation, I pronounce and declare thee N. excom- municated, shut out from the communion of the faithful, debar thee from privileges, and deliver thee unto Satan for the destruction of thy flesh, that thy spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." This is called the greater excommunication. The congregation are thereafter warned to shun all unnecessary converse with the excommunicate. (See Form of Process, c. 8.) Formerly excommunicated persons were deprived of feudal rights in Scotland; but in 1690 all Acts enjoining civil pains upon sentences of excommunication were finally repealed (Burton's History, vii. 435). (J. s. BL.)

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