1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Council
COUNCIL (Lat. concilium, from cum, together, and the root cal, to call), the general word for a convocation, meeting, assembly. The Latin word was frequently confused with consilium (from consulere, to deliberate, cf. consul), advice, i.e. counsel, and thus specifically an advisory assembly. Du Cange (Gloss. Med. Infim. Latin.) quotes the Greek words σύνοδος, συνέδριον, συμβούλιον as the equivalent of concilium. In French the distinction between conseil (from consilium), advice, and concile, council (i.e. ecclesiastical—its only meaning) has survived, but the two English derivatives are much confused. In the New Testament, “council” is the rendering of the Hebrew Sanhedrin, Gr. συνέδριον. The word is generally used in English for all kinds of congregations or convocations assembled for administrative and deliberative purposes.
The present article is confined to a history of the development of the ecclesiastical council, summoned to adjust matters in dispute with the civil authority or for the settlement of doctrinal and other internal disputes. For details see under separate headings, Nicaea, &c.
From a very early period in the history of the Church, councils or synods have been held to decide on matters of doctrine and discipline. They may be traced back to the second half of the 2nd century A.D., when sundry churches in Asia Minor held consultations about the rise of Montanism. Their precise origin is disputed. The common Roman Catholic view is that they are apostolic though not prescribed by divine law, and the apostolic precedent usually cited is the “council” of Jerusalem (Acts xv.; Galatians ii.). Waiving the consideration of vital critical questions and accepting Acts xv. at its face value, the assembly at Jerusalem would scarcely seem to have been a council in the technical sense of the word; it was in essence a meeting of the Jerusalem church at which delegates from Antioch were heard but apparently had no vote, the decision resting solely with the mother church. R. Sohm argues that synods grew from the custom of certain local churches which, when confronted with a serious problem of their own, augmented their numbers by receiving delegates from the churches of the neighbourhood. Hauck, however, holds that these augmented church meetings, which dealt with the affairs of but a single church, are to be distinguished from the synods, which took cognizance of matters of general interest. Older Protestant writers have contented themselves with saying either that synods were of apostolic origin, or that they were the inevitable outcome of the need of the leaders of churches to take counsel together, and that they were perhaps modelled on the secular provincial assemblies (concilia provincialia).
Every important alteration in the constitution of the Church has affected the composition and function of synods; but the changes were neither simultaneous nor precisely alike throughout the Roman empire. The synods of the 2nd century were extraordinary assemblies which met to deliberate upon pressing problems. They had no fixed geographical limits for membership, no ex-officio members, nor did they possess an authority which did away with the independence of the local church. In the course of the 3rd century came the decisive change, which increased the prestige of the councils: the right to vote was limited to bishops. This was the logical outgrowth of the belief that each local church ought to have but one bishop (monarchical episcopate), and that these bishops were the sole legitimate successors of the apostles (apostolic succession), and therefore official organs of the Holy Spirit. Although as late as 250 the consensus of the priests, the deacons and the people was still considered essential to the validity of a conciliar decision at Rome and in certain parts of the East, the development had already run its course in northern Africa. It was a further step in advance when synods began to meet at regular intervals. They were held annually in Cappadocia by the middle of the 3rd century, and the council of Nicaea commanded in 325 that semiannual synods be held in every province, an arrangement which was not systematically enforced, and was altered in 692, when the Trullan Council reduced the number to one a year.
With the multiplication of synods came naturally a differentiation of type. In text-books we find clear lines drawn between diocesan, provincial, national, patriarchal and oecumenical synods; but the first thousand years of church history do not justify the sharpness of the traditional distinction. The provincial synods, presided over by the metropolitan (archbishop), were usually held at the capital of the province, and attempted to legislate on all sorts of questions. The state had nothing to do with calling them, nor did their decrees require governmental sanction. Various abortive attempts were made to set up synods of patriarchal or at least of more than provincial rank. In North Africa eighteen such synods were held between 393 and 424; during part of the 5th and 6th centuries primatial councils assembled at Arles; and the patriarchs of Constantinople were accustomed to invite to their “endemic synods” (σίνοδοι ὲνδημοῦσαι) all bishops who happened to be sojourning at the capital. Papal synods from the 5th and especially from the 9th century onward included members such as the archbishops of Ravenna, Milan, Aquileia and Grado, who resided outside the Roman archdiocese; but the territorial limits from which the membership was drawn do not appear to have been precisely defined.
Before the form of the provincial synod had become absolutely fixed, there arose in the 4th century the oecumenical council. The Greek term σύνοδος οίκουμενική (1) (used by Eusebius, Vita Constantini, iii. 6) is preferable to the latin concilium universale or generale, which has been applied loosely to national and even to provincial synods. The oecumenical synods were not the logical outgrowth of the network of provincial synods; they were creations of the imperial power. Constantine, who had not even been baptized, laid the foundations when, in response to a petition of the Donatists, he referred their case to a committee of bishops that convened at Rome, which meeting Eusebius calls a synod. After that the emperor summoned the council of Arles to settle the matter. For both of these assemblies it was the emperor that decided who should be summoned, paid the travelling expenses of the bishops, determined where the council should be held and what topics should be discussed. He regarded them as temporary advisory bodies, to whose recommendations the imperial authority might give the force of law. In the same manner he appointed the time and place for the council of Nicaea, summoned the episcopate, paid part of the expenses out of the public purse, nominated the committee in charge of the order of business, used his influence to bring about the adoption of the creed, and punished those who refused to subscribe. To be sure, the council of Nicaea commanded great veneration, for it was the first attempt to assemble the entire episcopate; but no more than the synods of Rome and of Arles was it an organ of ecclesiastical self-government—it was rather a means whereby the Church was ruled by the secular power. The subsequent oecumenical synods of the undivided Church were patterned on that of Nicaea. Most Protestant scholars maintain that the secular authorities decided whether or not they should be convened, and issued the summons; that imperial commissioners were always present, even if they did not always preside; that on occasion emperors have confirmed or refused to confirm synodal decrees; and that the papal confirmation was neither customary nor requisite. Roman Catholic scholars to-day tend to recede from the high ground very generally taken several centuries ago, and Funk even admits that the right to convoke oecumenical synods was vested in the emperor regardless of the wishes of the pope, and that it cannot be proved that the Roman see ever actually had a share in calling the oecumenical councils of antiquity. Others, however, while acknowledging the futility of seeking historical proofs that the popes formally called, directed and confirmed these synods, yet assert that the emperor performed these functions not of his own right but in his quality as protector of the Church, that this involved his acting at the request or at least with the permission and approval of the Church, and in particular of the pope, and that a special though not a stereotyped papal confirmation of conciliar decrees was necessary to their validity.
In the Germanic states which arose on the ruins of the Western Empire we find national, and diocesan synods; provincial synods were unusual. National synods were summoned by the king or with his consent to meet special needs; and they were frequently concilia mixta, at which lay dignitaries appeared. Although the Frankish monarchs were not abolute rulers, nevertheless they exercised the right of changing or rejecting synodal decrees which ran counter to the interests of the state. Clovis held the first French national synod at Orleans in 511; Reccared, the first in Spain in 589 at Toledo. Under Charlemagne they were occasionally so representative that they might almost be ranked as general synods of the West (Regensburg, 792, Frankfort, 794). Contemporaneous with the evolution of the national synod was the development of a new type of diocesan synod, which included the priests of separate and mutually independent parishes and also the leaders of the monastic clergy.
The papal synods came into the foreground with the success of the Cluniac reform of the Church, especially from the Lateran synod of 1059 on. They grew in importance until at length Calixtus II. summoned to the Lateran the synod of 1123 as “generale concilium.” The powers which the pope as bishop of the church in Rome had exercised over its synods he now extended to the oecumenical councils. They were more completely under his control than the ancient ones had been under the sway of the emperor. The Pseudo-Isidorean principle that all major synods need papal authorization was insisted on, and the decrees were formulated as papal edicts.
The absolutist principles cherished by the papal court in the 12th and 13th centuries did not pass unchallenged; but the protests of Marsilius of Padua and the less radical William of Occam remained barren until the Great Schism of 1378. As neither the pope in Rome nor his rival in Avignon would give way, recourse was had to the idea that the supreme power was vested not in the pope but in the oecumenical council. This “conciliar theory,” propounded by Conrad of Gelnhausen and championed by the great Parisian teachers Pierre d'Ailly and Gerson, proceeded from the nominalistic axiom that the whole is greater than its part. The decisive revolutionary step was taken when the cardinals independently of both popes ventured to hold the council of Pisa (1409). The council of Constance asserted the supremacy of oecumenical synods, and ordered that these be convened at regular intervals. The last of the Reform councils, that of Basel, appoved these principles, and at length passed a sentence of deposition against Pope Eugenius IV. Eugenius, however, succeeded in maintaining his power, and at the council of Florence (1439) secured the condemnation of the conciliar theory; and this was reiterated still more emphatically, on the eve of the Reformation, by the fifth Lateran council (1516). Thenceforward the absolutist theories of the 13th and 14th centuries increasingly dominated the Roman Church. The popes so distrusted oecumenical councils that between 1517 and 1869 they called but one; at this (Trent, 1545–1563), however, all treatment of the question of papal versus conciliar authority was purposely avoided. Although the Declaration of the French clergy of 1682 reaffirmed the conciliar doctrines of Constance, since the French Revolution this “Gallicanism” has shown itself to be but a passing phase of constitutional theory; and in the 19th century the ascendancy of Ultramontanism became so secure that Pius IX. could confidently summon to the Vatican a synod which set its seal on the doctrine of papal infallibility. Yet it would be a misconception to suppose that the Vatican decrees mean the surrender of the ancient belief in the infallibility of oecumenical synods; their decisions may still be regarded as more solemn and more impressive than those of the pope alone; their authority is fuller, though not higher. At present it is agreed that the pope has the sole right of summoning oecumenical councils, of presiding or appointing presidents and of determining the order of business and the topics which shall come up. The papal confirmation is indispensable; it is conceived of as the stamp without which the expression of conciliar opinion lacks legal validity. In other words, the oecumenical council is now practically in the position of the senate of an absolute monarch. It is in fact an open question whether a council is to be ranked as really oecumenical until after its decrees have been approved by the pope. (See Vatican Council, Ultramontanism, Infallibility.)
The earlier oecumenical councils have well been called “the pitched battles of church history.” Summoned to combat heresy and schism, in spite of degrading pressure from without and tumultuous disorder within, they ultimately brought about a modicum of doctrinal agreement. On the one side as time went on they bound scholarship hand and foot in the winding-sheet of tradition, and also fanned the flames of intolerance; yet on the other side they fostered the sense of the Church's corporate oneness. The diocesan and provincial synods have formed avaluable system of regularly recurring assemblies for disposing of ecclesiastical business. They have been held most frequently, however, in times of stress and of reform, for instance in the 11th, 16th and 19th centuries; at other periods they have lapsed into disuse: it is significant that to-day the prelate who neglects to convene them suffers no penalty. At present the main function of both provincial and oecumenical synods seems to be to facilitate obedience to the wishes of the central government of the Church.
The right to vote (votum definitivum) has been distinguished from early times from the right to be heard (votum consultativum). The Reform Synods of the 15th century gave a decisive vote to doctors and licentiates of theology and of laws, some of them sitting as individuals, some as representatives of universities. Roman Catholic canonists now confine the right to vote at oecumenical councils to bishops, cardinal deacons, generals or vicars general of monastic orders and the praelati nullius (exempt abbots, &c.); all other persons, lay or clerical, who are admitted or invited, have merely the votum consultativum—they are chiefly procurators of absent bishops, or very learned priests. It was but a clumsy and temporary expedient, designed to offset the preponderance of Italian bishops dependent on the pope when the council of Constance subdivided itself into several groups or “nations,” each of which had a single vote. In voting, the simple majority decides; yet such is the importance attached to a unanimous verdict that an irreconcilable minority may absent itself from the final vote, as was the case at the Vatican Council.
The numbering of oecumenical synods is not fixed; the list most used in the Roman Church to-day is that of Hefele (Conciliengeschiehte, 2nd ed., I. 59 f.):
Constance (in part)
Basel (in part)
Ferrara-Florence (a continuation of Basel)
(Each of these and certain other important synods are treated in separate articles.)
By including Pisa (1409) and by treating Florence as a separate synod, certain writers have brought the number of oecumenical councils up to twenty-two. These standard lists are of the type which became established through the authority of Cardinal R. F. Bellarmine (1542–1621), who criticized Constance and Basel, while defending Florence and the fifth Lateran council against the Gallicans. As late as the 16th century, however, “the majority did not regard those councils in which the Greek Church did not take part as oecumenical at all” (Harnack, History of Dogma, vi. 17). The Greek Church accepts only the first seven synods as oecumenical; and it reckons the Trullan synod of 692 (the Quinisextum) as a continuation of the sixth oecumenical synod of 680. But concerning the first seven councils it should be remarked that Constantinople I. was but a general synod of the East; its claim to oecumenicity rests upon its reception by the West about two centuries later. Similarly the only representatives of the West present at Constantinople II. were certain Africans; the pope did not accept the decrees till afterwards and they made their way in the West but gradually. Just as there have been synods which have come to be considered oecumenical though not convoked as such, so there have been synods which though summoned as oecumenical, failed of recognition: for instance Sardica (343), Ephesus (449), Constantinople (754). The last two received the imperial confirmation and from the legal point of view were no whit inferior to the others; their decrees, however, were overthrown by subsequent synods. As the Protestant leaders of the 16th century held fast the traditional christology, they regarded with veneration the dogmatic decisions of Nicaea I., Constantinople I., Ephesus and Chalcedon. These four councils had enjoyed a more or less fortuitous pre-eminence both in Roman and in canon law, and by many Catholics at the time of the Reformation were regarded, along with the three great creeds (Apostles', Nicene, Athanasian), as a sort of irreducible minimum of orthodoxy. In the 17th century the liberal Lutheran George Calixtus based his attempts at reuniting Christendom on this consensus quinquesaecularis. Many other Protestants have accepted Constantinople II. and III. as supporting the first four councils; and still others, notably many Anglican high churchmen, have felt bound by all the oecumenical synods of the undivided Church. The common Protestant attitude toward synods is, however, that they may err and have erred, and that the Scriptures and not conciliar decisions are the sole infallible standard of faith, morals and worship.
Protestant Councils.— The churches of the Reformation have all had a certain measure of synodal life. The Church of England has maintained its ancient provincial synods or convocations, though for the greater part of the 18th and the first part of the 19th centuries they transacted no business. In the Lutheran churches of Germany there was no strong agitation in favour of introducing synods until the 19th century, when a movement, designed to render the churches less dependent on the governmental consistories, won its way, until at length Prussia itself fell into line (1873 and 1876). As the powers granted to the German synods are very limited, many of their advocates have been disillusioned; but the Lutheran churches of America, being independent of the state, have developed synods both numerous and potent. In the Reformed churches outside Germany synodal life is vigorous; its forms were developed by the Huguenots in days of persecution, and passed thence to Scotland and other presbyterian countries. Even many of the churches of congregational polity have organized national councils (see Congregationalism); but here the principle of the independence of the local church prevents the decisions from binding those congregations which do not approve of the decrees. Moreover, in the last decade of the 19th century a growing desire for a rapprochement between the Free Churches in theUnited Kingdom as a whole led to the annual assembly of the Free Church Council for the consideration of all matters affecting the dissenting bodies. This body has no executive or doctrinal authority and is rather a conference than a council. In general it may be said that synods are becoming more and more powerful in Protestant lands, and that they are destined to still greater prominence because of the growing sentiment for Christian unity.
Authorities.—General Collections: Collectio regia (Paris, 1644, 37 vols.) (the first very extensive work); P. Labbe (not Labbé) and G. Cossart, Sacrosancta concilia (Paris, 1672, 17 vols.), with supplement by Étienne Baluze (Baluzius), 1683 (based on above); J. Hardouin (Harduinus), Conciliorum collectio regia maxima (Paris, 1715), 11 tomi in 12 vols. (to 1714; more exact; indexed; serious omissions); enlarged edition by N. Coletus (Venice, 1728–1732), supplemented by J. D. Mansi, Sanctorum conciliorum et decretorum nova collectio (Lucca, 1748, 6 tomi). Convenient but fallible is Mansi’s Sacrorum conciliorum et decretorum nova et amplissima collectio (Florence, 1759–1767; completed Venice, 1769–1798, 31 vols.); facsimile reproduction by Welter (Paris, 1901 ff.), adding (tom. 0) Introductio seu apparatus ad sacrosancta concilia, and (tom. 17B and 18B) Baluze, Capitularia regum Francorum, and continuing to date by reproducing parts of Coletus and of Mansi’s supplement to Coletus, and furnishing (tom. 37 ff.) a new edition of the councils from 1720 on by J. B. Martin and L. Petit. A careful text of Roman Catholic synods from 1682 to 1870 is Collectio Lacensis (Acta et decreta sacrorum conciliorum recentiorum, Friburgi, 1870 ff.), 7 vols.
Special Collections: Great Britain: Concilia Magnae Britanniae et Hiberniae, ed. D. Wilkins (London, 1737, 4 vols.); Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents relating to Great Britain and Ireland, ed. by A. W. Haddan and W. Stubbs (Oxford, 1869 ff., 4 vols.); J. W. Joyce, Handbook of the Convocations or Provincial Synods of the Church of England (London, 1887); Concilia Scotiae (1225–1559), ed. Joseph Robertson (Edinburgh, Bannatyne Club, 1866, 2 tom.).
United States: Collectio Lacensis (Roman Catholic synods); The American Church History Series (New York, 1893 ff. 13 vols.) gives information on the various Protestant synods.
France.—Concilia aevi Merovingici, rec. F. Maassen (Hanover, 1893) (Monumenta Germaniae historia, Legum sectio iii., Concilia, tom. i.); Concilia antiqua Galliae, cur. J. Sirmond (Paris, 1629, 3 vols.); supplement by P. de la Lande (Paris, 1666); L. Odespun, Concilia novissima Galliae (Paris, 1646); Conciliorum Galliae tam editorum quam ineditorum, stud. congreg. S. Mauri, tom. i. (Paris, 1789). Synods of the Reformed Churches of France are contained in J. Quick, Synodicon in Gallia reformata (London, 1692, 2 vols.); J. Aymon, Tous les synodes nationaux des églises réformées de France (La Haye, 1710, 2 vols.); E. Hugues, Les Synodes du désert (Paris, 1885 f., 3 vols.). For the synods of other countries see Herzog-Hauck, 3rd ed., 19,262 f., and Wetzer and Welte, 2nd ed., 3809 f.
Less Elaborate Texts: Canones apostolorum et conciliorum saeculorum, iv.–vii., rec. H. T. Bruns (Berlin, 1839, 2 vols.) (still useful); J. Fulton, Index Canonum (3rd ed., New York, 1892) (3rd and 4th centuries); W. Bright, Notes on the Canons of the First Four General Councils (2nd ed., Oxford, 1892); Die Kanones der wichtigsten altkirchlichen Conzilien nebst den apostolischen Kanones, ed. F. Lauchert (Freiburg i. B., 1896); Enchiridion symbolorum et definitionum, quae de rebus fidei et morum a conciliis oecumenicis et summis pontificibus emanarunt, ed. H. Denzinger (7th ed., Würzburg, 1895); Bibliothek der Symbole und Glaubensregeln der alten Kirche, ed. by A. Hahn (3rd edition, revised and enlarged, Breslau, 1897), with variant readings; C. Mirbt, Quellen zur Geschichte des Papsttums und des römischen Katholizismus (2nd much enlarged ed., Tübingen, 1901); E. F. Karl Müller, Die Bekenntnisschriften der reformierten Kirche (Leipzig, 1903) (for all countries). These last five are elaborately indexed.
Translations: John Johnson, A Collection of the Laws and Canons of the Church of England [601–1519], 2 parts (London, 1720; reprinted Oxford, 1850 f., in the Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology); P. Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (New York, 1877, 3 vols.) (texts and translations parallel); Canons and Creeds of the First Four Councils, ed. by E. K. Mitchell, in Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History, published by the Department of History of the University of Pennsylvania, vol. iv. 2 (1897); H. R. Percival, The Ecumenical Councils (New York, 1900) (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, vol. xiv.; translates canons and compiles notes; bibliography in Introduction).
General Histories of Councils: C. J. von Hefele, Conciliengeschichte (Freiburg i. B., 1855); English translation of the earlier volumes to A.D. 787, from A.D. 326 on, based on the second German edition (Edinburgh, 1871 ff.); French, by Delarc (Paris, 1869–1874, 10 vols.). This first edition not entirely superseded by the second, made after the Vatican council, and continued by Knöpfler and by Hergenröther (Freiburg, 1873–1890, 9 vols.); a French translation, with continuation and critical and bibliographical notes, par un religieux bénédictin de Farnborough, tome i. 1re partie (Paris, Létouzey, 1907); Paul Viollet, Examen de l’histoire des conciles de Mgr Hefele (Paris, 1876) (Extrait de la Revue historique); W. P. du Bose, The Ecumenical Councils (New York, 1896) (popular); P. Guérin, Les Conciles généraux et particuliers (Paris, 1868, 3rd impression, 1897, 3 tom.); see also A. Harnack, History of Dogma (Boston, 1895–1900, 7 vols.); F. Loofs, Leitfaden der Dogmengeschichte (4th ed., enlarged, Halle, 1906).
Literature: Dictionnaire universel et complet des conciles, rédigé par A. C. Peltier, publié par Migne (Paris, 1847, 2 vols.) (Migne, Encyclopédie théologique, vol. 13 f.); Z. Zitelli-Natali, Epitome historico-canonica conciliorum generalium (Rome, 1881); F. X. Kraus, Realencyklopädie der christlichen Altertümer, vol. i.(Freiburg-i.-B., 1882) (art. “Concilien” by Funk); William Smith and S. Cheetham, Dictionary of Christian Antiquities (London, 1876–1880, 2 vols.) (erudite detail); Wetzer und Welte’s Kirchenlexikon, 2nd ed. by Hergenröther and Kaulen (Freiburg i. B., 1882–1903, 13 vols.) (art. “Concil” by Scheeben); La Grande Encyclopédie (Paris, s.d., 31 vols.) (numerous articles); P. Hinschius, Das Kirchenrecht der Katholiken und Protestanten in Deutschland, vol. 3 (Berlin, 1883) (fundamental and masterly); R. von Scherer, Handbuch des Kirchenrechtes, vol. i. (Graz, 1886) (excellent notes and references); E. H. Landon, A Manual of Councils of the Holy Catholic Church, (revised ed., London, , 2 vols.) (paraphrases chief canons; needs revision); Martigny, Dictionnaire des antiquités chrétiennes (3rd ed., Paris, 1889) (for ceremonial); R. Sohm, Kirchenrecht, vol. i. (Leipzig, 1892) (brilliant); A. Kneer, Die Entstehung der konziliaren Theorie (Rome, 1893); Realencyklopädie für protestantische Theologie und Kirche, begründet von J. J. Herzog, 3rd revised ed. by A. Hauck (Leipzig, 1896 ff.) (in vol. 19 Hauck’s excellent Synoden, 1907); F. X. Funk, Kirchengeschichtliche Abhandlungen und Untersuchungen (Paderborn, 1897); A. V. G. Allen, Christian Institutions (New York, 1897), chap. xi.; C. A. Kneller, “Papst und Konzil im ersten Jahrtausend” (Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie, vols. 27 and 28, Innsbruck, 1893 f.); F. Bliemetzrieder, Das Generalkonzil im grossen abendländischen Schisma (Paderborn, 1904); Wilhelm and Scannell, Manual of Catholic Theology (3rd ed., London, 1906, sect. 32); J. Forget, “Conciles,” in A. Vacant and E. Mangeot, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, tome 3, 636-676 (Paris, 1906 ff.), with elaborate bibliography; The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York, 1907 ff.). (W. W. R.*)