The use of councils was not unknown to the followers of the ancient religion of Zerdusht, whom we call Zoroaster. About the year 200 of our era, Ardeshir Babecan, king of Persia, called together forty thousand priests, to consult them touching some of his doubts about paradise and hell, which they call the gehen — a term adopted by the Jews during their captivity at Babylon, as they did the names of the angels and of the months. Erdoviraph, the most celebrated of the magi, having drunk three glasses of a soporific wine, had an ecstasy which lasted seven days and seven nights, during which his soul was transported to God. When the paroxysm was over, he reassured the faith of the king, by relating to him the great many wonderful things he had seen in the other world, and having them written down.
We know that Jesus was called Christ, a Greek word signifying anointed; and his doctrine Christianity, or gospel, i. e., good news, because having, as was his custom, entered one Sabbath day the synagogue of Nazareth, where he was brought up, He applied to Himself this passage of Isaiah, which He had just read: “The spirit of the Lord is on me, because He hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.” They of the synagogue did, to be sure, drive Him out of their town, and carry Him to a point of the hill, on which it was built, in order to throw Him headlong from it; and His relatives “went out to lay hold on Him,” for they were told, and they said, “that He was beside Himself.” Nor is it less certain that Jesus constantly declared He had come not to destroy the law or the prophecies, but to fulfil them.
But, as He left nothing written, His first disciples were divided on the famous question, whether the Gentiles were to be circumcised and ordered to keep the Mosaic law. The apostles and the priests, therefore, assembled at Jerusalem to examine this point, and, after many conferences, they wrote to the brethren among the Gentiles, at Antioch, in Syria, and in Cilicia, a letter of which we give the substance: “It has seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us, not to impose upon you any obligations but those which are necessary, viz., to abstain from meats offered up to idols, from blood, from the flesh of choked animals, and from fornication.”
The decision of this council did not prevent Peter, when at Antioch, from continuing to eat with the Gentiles, before some of the circumcised, who came from James, had arrived. But Paul, seeing that he did not walk straight in the path of gospel truth, resisted him to the face, saying to him before them all, “If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?” Indeed Peter had lived like the Gentiles ever since he had seen, in a trance, “heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet, knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth; wherein were all manner of four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter, kill and eat.”
Paul, who so loudly reproved Peter for using this dissimulation to make them believe that he still observed the law, had himself recourse to a similar feint at Jerusalem. Being accused of teaching the Jews who were among the Gentiles to renounce Moses, he went and purified himself in the temple for seven days, in order that all might know that what they had heard of him was false, and that he continued to observe the law; this, too, was done by the advice of all the priests, assembled at the house of James — which priests were the same who had decided with the Holy Ghost, that these observations were unnecessary.
Councils were afterwards distinguished into general and particular. Particular councils are of three kinds — national, convoked by the prince, the patriarch, or the primate; provincial, assembled by the metropolitan or archbishop; and diocesan, or synods held by each bishop. The following is a decree of one of the councils held at Macon:
“Whenever a layman meet a priest or a deacon on the road, he shall offer him his arm; if the priest and the layman are both on horseback, the layman shall stop and salute the priest reverently; and if the priest be on foot, and the layman on horseback, the layman shall dismount, and shall not mount again until the ecclesiastic be at a certain distance; all on pain of interdiction for as long a time as it shall please the metropolitan.”
The list of the councils, in Moréri’s “Dictionary,” occupies more than sixteen pages, but as authors are not agreed concerning the number of general councils, we shall here confine ourselves to the results of the first eight that were assembled by order of the emperors.
Two priests of Alexandria, seeking to know whether Jesus was God or creature, not only did the bishops and priests dispute but the whole people were divided, and the disorder arrived at such a pitch that the Pagans ridiculed Christianity on the stage. The emperor Constantine first wrote in these terms to Bishop Alexander and the priest Arius, the authors of the dissension: “These questions, which are unnecessary, and spring only from unprofitable idleness, may be discussed in order to exercise the intellect; but they should not be repeated in the hearing of the people. Being divided on so small a matter, it is not just that you should govern, according to your thoughts, so great a multitude of God’s people. Such conduct is mean and puerile, unworthy of the priestly office, and of men of sense. I do not say this to compel you entirely to agree on this frivolous question, whatever it is. You may, with a private difference, preserve unity, provided these subtleties and different opinions remain secret in your inmost thoughts.”
The emperor, having learned that his letter was without effect, resolved, by the advice of the bishops, to convoke an ecumenical council — i. e., a council of the whole habitable earth, and chose for the place of meeting the town of Nicæa, in Bithynia. There came thither two thousand and forty-eight bishops, who, as Eutychius relates, were all of different sentiments and opinions. This prince, having had the patience to hear them dispute on this point, was much surprised at finding among them so little unanimity; and the author of the Arabic preface to this council says that the records of these disputes amounted to forty volumes.
This prodigious number of bishops will not appear incredible when it is recollected that Usher, quoted by Selden, relates that St. Patrick, who lived in the fifth century, founded three hundred and sixty-five churches, and ordained the like number of bishops; which proves that then each church had its bishop, that is, its overlooker.
In the Council of Nice there was read a letter from Eusebius of Nicomedia, containing manifest heresy, and discovering the cabal of Arius’s party. In it was said, among other things, that if Jesus were acknowledged to be the Son of God uncreated, He must also be acknowledged to be consubstantial with the Father. Therefore it was that Athanasius, a deacon of Alexandria, persuaded the fathers to dwell on the word consubstantial, which had been rejected as improper by the Council of Antioch, held against Paul of Samosata; but he took it in a gross sense, marking division; as we say, that several pieces of money are of the same metal: whereas the orthodox explained the term consubstantial so well, that the emperor himself comprehended that it involved no corporeal idea — signified no division of the absolutely immaterial and spiritual substance of the Father — but was to be understood in a divine and ineffable sense. They moreover showed the injustice of the Arians in rejecting this word on pretence that it was not in the Scriptures — they who employ so many words which are not there to be found; and who say that the Son of God was brought out of nothing, and had not existed from all eternity.
Constantine then wrote two letters at the same time, to give publicity to the ordinances of the council, and make them known to such as had not attended it. The first, addressed to the churches in general, says, in so many words, that the question of the faith has been examined, and so well cleared up, that no difficulty remains. In the second, among others, the church of Alexandria is thus addressed: “What three hundred bishops have ordained is no other than the seed of the only Son of God; the Holy Ghost has declared the will of God through these great men, whom he inspired. Now, then, let none doubt — let none dispute, but each one return with all his heart into the way of truth.”
The ecclesiastical writers are not agreed as to the number of bishops who subscribed to the ordinances of this council. Eusebius reckons only two hundred and fifty; Eustathius of Antioch, cited by Theodoret, two hundred and seventy; St. Athanasius, in his epistle to the Solitaries, three hundred, like Constantine; while, in his letter to the Africans, he speaks of three hundred and eighteen. Yet these four authors were eye-witnesses, and worthy of great faith.
This number 318, which Pope St. Leo calls mysterious, has been adopted by most of the fathers of the church. St. Ambrose assures us that the number of 318 bishops was a proof of the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ in his Council of Nicæa, because the cross designates three hundred, and the name of Jesus eighteen. St. Hilary, in his defence of the word consubstantial, approved in the Council of Nice, though condemned fifty-five years before in the Council of Antioch, reasons thus: “Eighty bishops rejected the word consubstantial, but three hundred and eighteen have received it. Now this latter number seems to me a sacred number, for it is that of the men who accompanied Abraham, when, after his victory over the impious kings, he was blessed by him who is the type of the eternal priesthood.” And Selden relates that Dorotheus, metropolitan of Monembasis, said there were precisely three hundred and eighteen fathers at this council, because three hundred and eighteen years had elapsed since the incarnation. All chronologists place this council in the year 325 of our modern era; but Dorotheus deducts seven years, to make his comparison complete; this, however, is a mere trifle. Besides, it was not until the Council of Lestines, in 743, that the years began to be counted from the incarnation of Jesus. Dionysius the Less had imagined this epoch in his solar cycle of the year 526, and Bede had made use of it in his “Ecclesiastical History.”
It will not be a subject of astonishment that Constantine adopted the opinion of the three hundred or three hundred and eighteen bishops who held the divinity of Jesus, when it is borne in mind that Eusebius of Nicomedia, one of the principal leaders of the Arian party, had been an accomplice in the cruelty of Licinius, in the massacres of the bishops, and the persecutions of the Christians. Of this the emperor himself accuses him, in the private letter which he wrote to the church of Nicomedia:
“He sent spies about me,” says he, “in the troubles, and did everything but take up arms for the tyrant. I have proofs of this from the priests and deacons of his train, whom I took. During the Council of Nicæa, with what eagerness and what impudence he maintained, against the testimony of his conscience, the error exploded on every side! repeatedly imploring my protection, lest, being convicted of so great a crime, he should lose his dignity. He shamefully circumvented and took me by surprise, and carried everything as he chose. Again, see what has been done but lately by him and Theogenes.”
Constantine here alludes to the fraud which Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theogenes of Nicæa resorted to in subscribing. In the word “omoousios,” they inserted an iota, making it “omoiousios,” meaning of like substance; whereas the first means of the same substance. We hereby see that these bishops yielded to the fear of being displaced or banished; for the emperor had threatened with exile such as should not subscribe. The other Eusebius, too, bishop of Cæsarea, approved the word consubstantial, after condemning it the day before.
However, Theonas of Marmarica, and Secundus of Ptolemais continued obstinately attached to Arius; and, the council, having condemned them with him, Constantine banished them, and declared by an edict that whosoever should be convicted of concealing any of the writings of Arius instead of burning them, should be punished with death. Three months after, Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theogenes were likewise exiled into Gaul. It is said that, having gained over the individual who, by the emperor’s order, kept the acts of the council, they had erased their signatures, and begun to teach in public that the Son must not be believed to be consubstantial with the Father.
Happily, to replace their signatures and preserve entire the mysterious number three hundred and eighteen, the expedient was tried of laying the book, in which the acts were divided into sessions, on the tomb of Chrysanthus and Mysonius, who had died while the council was in session; the night was passed in prayer and the next morning it was found that these two bishops had signed.
It was by an expedient nearly similar, that the fathers of the same council distinguished the authentic from the apocryphal books of Scripture. Having placed them altogether upon the altar, the apocryphal books fell to the ground of themselves.
Two other councils, assembled by the emperor Constantine, in the year 359, the one, of upwards of four hundred bishops, at Rimini, the other, of more than a hundred and fifty, at Seleucia; after long debates, rejected the word consubstantial, already condemned, as we have before said, by a Council of Antioch. But these councils are recognized only by the Socinians.
The Nicene fathers had been so much occupied with the consubstantiality of the Son, that they had made no mention of the church in their symbol, but contented themselves with saying, “We also believe in the Holy Ghost.” This omission was supplied in the second general council, convoked at Constantinople, in 381, by Theodosius. The Holy Ghost was there declared to be the Lord and giver of life, proceeding from the Father, who with the Father and Son is worshipped and glorified, who spake by the prophets. Afterwards the Latin church would have the Holy Ghost proceed from the Son also; and the “filioque” was added to the symbol: first in Spain, in 447; then in France, at the Council of Lyons, in 1274; and lastly at Rome, notwithstanding the complaints made by the Greeks against this innovation.
The divinity of Jesus being once established, it was natural to give to his mother the title of Mother of God. However, Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, maintained in his sermons that this would be justifying the folly of the Pagans, who gave mothers to their gods. Theodosius the younger, to have this great question decided, assembled the third general council at Ephesus, in the year 431, and in it Mary was acknowledged to be the mother of God.
Another heresy of Nestorius, likewise condemned at Ephesus, was that of admitting two persons in Jesus. Nevertheless, the patriarch Photius subsequently acknowledged two natures in Jesus. A monk named Eutyches, who had already exclaimed loudly against Nestorius, affirmed, the better to contradict them both, that Jesus had also but one nature. But this time the monk was wrong; although, in 449, his opinion had been maintained by blows in a numerous council at Ephesus. Eutyches was nevertheless anathematized, two years afterwards, by the fourth general council, held under the emperor Marcian at Chalcedon, in which two natures were assigned to Jesus.
It was still to be determined, with one person and two natures, how many wills Jesus was to have. The fifth general council, which in the year 553 quelled, by Justinian’s order, the contentions about the doctrine of three bishops, had no leisure to settle this important point. It was not until the year 680 that the sixth general council, also convened at Constantinople by Constantine Pogonatus, informed us that Jesus had precisely two wills. This council, in condemning the Monothelites, who admitted only one, made no exception from the anathema in favor of Pope Honorius I., who, in a letter given by Baronius, had said to the patriarch of Constantinople:
“We confess in Jesus Christ one only will. We do not see that either the councils or the Scriptures authorize us to think otherwise. But whether, from the works of divinity and of humanity which are in him, we are to look for two operations, is a point of little importance, and one which I leave it to the grammarians to decide.”
Thus, in this instance, with God’s permission, the account between the Greek and Latin churches was balanced. As the patriarch Nestorius had been condemned for acknowledging two persons in Jesus, so Pope Honorius was now condemned for admitting but one will in Jesus.
The seventh general council, or the second of Nice, was assembled in 787, by Constantine, son of Leo and Irene, to re-establish the worship of images. The reader must know that two Councils of Constantinople, the first in 730, under the emperor Leo, the other twenty-four years after, under Constantine Copronymus, had thought proper to proscribe images, conformably to the Mosaic law and to the usage of the early ages of Christianity. So, also, the Nicene decree, in which it is said that “whosoever shall not render service and adoration to the images of the saints as to the Trinity, shall be deemed anathematized,” at first encountered some opposition. The bishops who introduced it, in a Council of Constantinople, held in 789, were turned out by soldiers. The same decree was also rejected with scorn by the Council of Frankfort in 794, and by the Caroline books, published by order of Charlemagne. But the second Council of Nice was at length confirmed at Constantinople under the emperor Michael and his mother Theodora, in the year 842, by a numerous council, which anathematized the enemies of holy images. Be it here observed, it was by two women, the empresses Irene and Theodora, that the images were protected.
We pass on to the eighth general council. Under the emperor Basilius, Photius, ordained patriarch of Constantinople in place of Ignatius, had the Latin church condemned for the “filioque” and other practices, by a council of the year 866: but Ignatius being recalled the following year, another council removed Photius; and in the year 869 the Latins, in their turn, condemned the Greek church in what they called the eighth general council — while those in the East gave this name to another council, which, ten years after, annulled what the preceding one had done, and restored Photius.
These four councils were held at Constantinople; the others, called general by the Latins, having been composed of the bishops of the West only, the popes, with the aid of false decretals, gradually arrogated the right of convoking them. The last of these which assembled at Trent, from 1545 to 1563, neither served to convert the enemies of papacy nor to subdue them. Its decrees, in discipline, have been scarcely admitted into any one Catholic nation: its only effect has been to verify these words of St. Gregory Nazianzen: “I have not seen one council that has acted with good faith, or that has not augmented the evils complained of rather than cured them. Ambition and the love of disputation, beyond the power of words to express, reign in every assembly of bishops.”
However, the Council of Constance, in 1415, having decided that a council-general receives its authority immediately from Jesus Christ, which authority every person, of whatever rank or dignity, is bound to obey in all that concerns the faith; and the Council of Basel having afterwards confirmed this decree, which it holds to be an article of faith which cannot be neglected without renouncing salvation, it is clear how deeply every one is interested in paying submission to councils.
Assembly, council of state, parliament, states-general, formerly signified the same thing. In the primitive ages nothing was written in Celtic, nor in German, nor in Spanish. The little that was written was conceived in the Latin tongue by a few clerks, who expressed every meeting of lendes, herren, or ricohombres, by the word concilium. Hence it is that we find in the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries so many councils which were nothing more than councils of state.
We shall here speak only of the great councils called general, whether by the Greek or by the Latin church. At Rome they were called synods, as they were in the East in the primitive ages — for the Latins borrowed names as well as things from the Greeks.
In 325 there was a great council in the city of Nicæa, convoked by Constantine. The form of its decision was this: “We believe that Jesus is of one substance with the Father, God of God, light of light, begotten, not made. We also believe in the Holy Ghost.”
Nicephorus affirms that two bishops, Chrysanthus and Mysonius, who had died during the first sittings, rose again to sign the condemnation of Arius, and incontinently died again, as I have already observed. Baronius maintains this fact, but Fleury says nothing of it.
In 359 the emperor Constantius assembled the great councils of Rimini and of Seleucia, consisting of six hundred bishops, with a prodigious number of priests. These two councils, corresponding together, undo all that the Council of Nice did, and proscribe the consubstantiality. But this was afterwards regarded as a false council.
In 381 was held, by order of the emperor Theodosius, a great council at Constantinople, of one hundred and fifty bishops, who anathematize the Council of Rimini. St. Gregory Nazianzen presides, and the bishop of Rome sends deputies to it. Now is added to the Nicene symbol: “Jesus Christ was incarnate, by the Holy Ghost, of the Virgin Mary. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate. He was buried, and on the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures. He sits at the right hand of the Father. We also believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father.”
In 431 a great council was convoked at Ephesus, by the emperor Theodosius II. Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, having violently persecuted all who were not of his opinion on theological points, undergoes persecution in his turn, for having maintained that the Holy Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, was not mother of God; because said he, Jesus Christ being the word, the Son of God, consubstantial with His Father, Mary could not, at the same time, be mother of God the Father and of God the Son. St. Cyril exclaims loudly against him. Nestorius demands an ecumenical council, and obtains it. Nestorius is condemned; but Cyril is also displaced by a committee of the council. The emperor reverses all that has been done in this council, then permits it to re-assemble. The deputies from Rome arrive very late. The troubles increasing, the emperor has Nestorius and Cyril arrested. At last he orders all the bishops to return, each to his church, and after all no conclusion is reached. Such was the famous Council of Ephesus.
In 449 another great council, afterward called “the banditti,” met at Ephesus. The number of bishops assembled is a hundred and thirty; and Dioscorus, bishop of Alexandria, presided. There are two deputies from the church of Rome, and several abbots. The question is, whether Jesus Christ has two natures. The bishops and all the monks of Egypt exclaim that “all who would divide Jesus Christ ought themselves to be torn in two.” The two natures are anathematized; and there is a fight in full council, as at the little Council of Cirta in 355, and at the minor Council of Carthage.
In 452, the great Council of Chalcedon was convoked by Pulcheria, who married Marcian on condition that he should be only the highest of her subjects. St. Leo, bishop of Rome, having great influence, takes advantage of the troubles which the quarrel about the two natures has occasioned in the empire, and presides at the council by his legates — of which we have no former example. But the fathers of the council, apprehending that the church of the West will, from this precedent, pretend to the superiority over that of the East, decide by their twenty-eighth canon, that the see of Constantinople, and that of Rome, shall enjoy alike the same advantages and the same privileges. This was the origin of the long enmity which prevailed, and still prevails, between the two churches. This Council of Chalcedon established the two natures in one only person.
Nicephorus relates that, at this same council, the bishops, after a long dispute on the subject of images, laid each his opinion in writing on the tomb of St. Euphemia, and passed the night in prayer. The next morning the orthodox writings were found in the saint’s hand, and the others at her feet.
In 553, a great council at Constantinople was convoked by Justinian, who was an amateur theologian, to discuss three small writings, called the three chapters, of which nothing is now known. There were also disputes on some passages of Origen.
Vigilius, bishop of Rome, would have gone thither in person; but Justinian had him put in prison, and the Patriarch of Constantinople presided. No member of the Latin church attended; for at that time Greek was no longer understood in the West, which had become entirely barbarous.
In 680, another general council at Constantinople was convoked by Constantine the bearded. This was the first council called by the Latins in trullo, because it was held in an apartment of the imperial palace. The emperor, himself, presided; on his right hand were the patriarchs of Constantinople and Antioch; on his left, the deputies from Rome and Jerusalem. It was there decided that Jesus Christ had two wills; and Pope Honorius I., was condemned as a Monothelite, i. e., as wishing Jesus Christ to have but one will
In 787, the second Council of Nice was convoked by Irene, in the name of the emperor Constantine, her son, whom she had deprived of his eyes. Her husband, Leo, had abolished the worship of images, as contrary to the simplicity of the primitive ages, and leading to idolatry. Irene re-established this worship; she herself spoke in the council, which was the only one held by a woman. Two legates from Pope Adrian V., attended, but did not speak, for they did not understand Greek: the patriarch did all.
Seven years after, the Franks, having heard that a council at Constantinople had ordained the adoration of images, assemble, by order of Charles, son of Pepin, afterwards named Charlemagne, a very numerous council at Frankfort. Here the second Council of Nice is spoken of as “an impertinent and arrogant synod, held in Greece for the worshipping of pictures.”
In 842, a great council at Constantinople was convoked by the empress Theodora. The worship of images was solemnly established. The Greeks have still a feast in honor of this council, called the orthodoxia. Theodora did not preside. In 861, a great council at Constantinople, consisting of three hundred and eighteen bishops, was convoked by the emperor Michael. St. Ignatius, patriarch of Constantinople, is deposed, and Photius elected.
In 866, another great council was held at Constantinople, in which Pope Nicholas III. is deposed for contumacy, and excommunicated. In 869 was another great council at Constantinople, in which Photius, in turn, is deposed and excommunicated, and St. Ignatius restored.
In 879, another great council assembled at Constantinople, in which Photius, already restored, is acknowledged as true patriarch by the legates of Pope John VIII. Here the great ecumenical council, in which Photius was deposed, receives the appellation of “conciliabulum.” Pope John VIII. declares all those to be Judases who say that the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son.
In 1122–3, a great council at Rome was held in the church of St. John of Lateran by Pope Calixtus II. This was the first general council convoked by the popes. The emperors of the West had now scarcely any authority; and the emperors of the East, pressed by the Mahometans and by the Crusaders, held none but wretched little councils.
It is not precisely known what this Lateran was. Some small councils had before been assembled in the Lateran. Some say that it was a house built by one Lateran in Nero’s time; others, that it was St. John’s church itself, built by Bishop Sylvester. In this council, the bishops complained heavily of the monks. “They possess,” said they, “the churches, the lands, the castles, the tithes, the offerings of the living and the dead; they have only to take from us the ring and the crosier.” The monks remained in possession.
In 1139 was another great Council of Lateran, by Pope Innocent II. It is said there were present a thousand bishops. A great many, certainly. Here the ecclesiastical tithes are declared to be of divine right, and all laymen possessing any of them are excommunicated. In 1179 was another great Council of Lateran, by Pope Alexander III. There were three hundred bishops and one Greek abbot. The decrees are all on discipline. The plurality of benefices is forbidden.
In 1215 was the last general Council of Lateran, by Pope Innocent III., composed of four hundred and twelve bishops, and eight hundred abbots. At this time, which is that of the Crusades, the popes have established a Latin patriarch at Jerusalem, and one at Constantinople. These patriarchs attend the council. This great council says that, “God having given the doctrine of salvation to men by Moses, at length caused His son to be born of a virgin, to show the way more clearly,” and that “no one can be saved out of the Catholic church.”
The transubstantiation was not known until after this council. It forbade the establishment of new religious orders; but, since that time, no less than eighty have been instituted. It was in this council that Raymond, count of Toulouse, was stripped of all his lands. In 1245 a great council assembled at the imperial city of Lyons. Innocent IV. brings thither the emperor of Constantinople, John Palæologus, and makes him sit beside him. He deposes the emperor Frederick as a felon, and gives the cardinals red hats, as a sign of hostility to Frederick. This was the source of thirty years of civil war.
In 1274 another general council was held at Lyons. Five hundred bishops, seventy great and a thousand lesser abbots. The Greek emperor, Michael Palæologus, that he may have the protection of the pope, sends his Greek patriarch, Theophanes, to unite, in his name, with the Latin church. But the Greek church disowns these bishops.
In 1311, Pope Clement V. assembled a general council in the small town of Vienne, in Dauphiny, in which he abolishes the Order of the Templars. It is here ordained that the Bégares, Beguins, and Béguines shall be burned. These were a species of heretics, to whom was imputed all that had formerly been imputed to the primitive Christians. In 1414, the great Council of Constance was convoked by an emperor who resumes his rights, viz.: by Sigismund. Here Pope John XXIII., convicted of numerous crimes, is deposed; and John Huss and Jerome of Prague, convicted of obstinacy, are burned. In 1431, a great council was held at Basel, where they in vain depose Pope Eugene IV., who is too clever for the council.
In 1438, a great council assembled at Ferrara, transferred to Florence, where the excommunicated pope excommunicates the council, and declares it guilty of high treason. Here a feigned union is made with the Greek church, crushed by the Turkish synods held sword in hand. Pope Julius II. would have had his Council of Lateran, in 1512, pass for an ecumenical council. In it that pope solemnly excommunicated Louis XII., king of France, laid France under an interdict, summoned the whole parliament of Provence to appear before him, and excommunicated all the philosophers, because most of them had taken part with Louis XII. Yet this council was not, like that of Ephesus, called the Council of Robbers.
In 1537, the Council of Trent was convoked, first at Mantua, by Paul III., afterwards at Trent in 1543, and terminated in December, 1561, under Pius VI. Catholic princes submitted to it on points of doctrine, and two or three of them in matters of discipline. It is thought that henceforward there will be no more general councils than there will be states-general in France or Spain. In the Vatican there is a fine picture, containing a list of the general councils, in which are inscribed such only as are approved by the court of Rome. Every one puts what he chooses in his own archives.
All councils are, doubtless, infallible, being composed of men. It is not possible that the passions, that intrigues, that the spirit of contention, that hatred or jealousy, that prejudice or ignorance, should ever influence these assemblies. But why, it will be said, have so many councils been opposed to one another? To exercise our faith. They were all right, each in its time. At this day, the Roman Catholics believe in such councils only as are approved in the Vatican; the Greek Catholics believe only in those approved at Constantinople; and the Protestants make a jest of both the one and the other: so that every one ought to be content.
We shall here examine only the great councils: the lesser ones are not worth the trouble. The first was that of Nice, assembled in the year 325 of the modern era, after Constantine had written and sent by Osius his noble letter to the rather turbulent clergy of Alexandria. It was debated whether Jesus was created or uncreated. This in no way concerned morality, which is the only thing essential. Whether Jesus was in time or before time, it is not the less our duty to be honest. After much altercation, it was at last decided that the Son was as old as the Father, and consubstantial with the Father. This decision is not very easy of comprehension, which makes it but the more sublime. Seventeen bishops protested against the decree; and an old Alexandrian chronicle, preserved at Oxford, says that two thousand priests likewise protested. But prelates make not much account of mere priests, who are in general poor. However, there was nothing said of the Trinity in this first council. The formula runs thus: “We believe Jesus to be consubstantial with the Father, God of God, light of light, begotten, not made; we also believe in the Holy Ghost.” It must be acknowledged that the Holy Ghost was treated very cavalierly.
We have already said, that in the supplement to the Council of Nice it is related that the fathers, being much perplexed to find out which were the authentic and which the apocryphal books of the Old and the New Testament, laid them all upon an altar, and the books which they were to reject fell to the ground. What a pity that so fine an ordeal has been lost!
After the first Council of Nice, composed of three hundred and seventeen infallible bishops, another council was held at Rimini; on which occasion the number of the infallible was four hundred, without reckoning a strong detachment, at Seleucia, of about two hundred. These six hundred bishops, after four months of contention, unanimously took from Jesus his consubstantiality. It has since been restored to him, except by the Socinians: so nothing is amiss.
One of the great councils was that of Ephesus, in 431. There, as already stated, Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, a great persecutor of heretics, was himself condemned as a heretic, for having maintained that, although Jesus was really God, yet His mother was not absolutely mother of God, but mother of Jesus. St. Cyril procured the condemnation of Nestorius; but the partisans of Nestorius also procured the deposition of St. Cyril, in the same council; which put the Holy Ghost in considerable perplexity.
Here, gentle reader, carefully observe, that the Gospel says not one syllable of the consubstantiality of the Word, nor of Mary’s having had the honor of being mother of God, no more than of the other disputed points which brought together so many infallible councils.
Eutyches was a monk, who had cried out sturdily against Nestorius, whose heresy was nothing less than supposing two persons in Jesus; which is quite frightful. The monk, the better to contradict his adversary, affirmed that Jesus had but one nature. One Flavian, bishop of Constantinople, maintained against him, that there must absolutely be two natures in Jesus. Thereupon, a numerous council was held at Ephesus in 449, and the argument made use of was the cudgel, as in the lesser council of Cirta, in 355, and in a certain conference held at Carthage. Flavian’s nature was well thrashed, and two natures were assigned to Jesus. At the Council of Chalcedon, in 451, Jesus was again reduced to one nature.
I pass by councils held on less weighty questions, and come to the sixth general Council of Constantinople, assembled to ascertain precisely whether Jesus — who, after having for a long period had but one nature, was then possessed of two — had also two wills. It is obvious how important this knowledge is to doing the will of God.
This council was convoked by Constantine the Bearded, as all the others had been by the preceding emperors. The legates from the bishop of Rome were on the left hand, and the patriarchs of Constantinople and Antioch on the right. The trainbearers at Rome may, for aught I know, assert that the left hand is the place of honor. However, the result was that Jesus obtained two wills.
The Mosaic law forbade images. Painters and sculptors had never made their fortunes among the Jews. We do not find that Jesus ever had any pictures, excepting perhaps that of Mary, painted by Luke. It is, however, certain that Jesus Christ nowhere recommends the worship of images. Nevertheless the primitive Christians began to worship them about the end of the fourth century, when they had become familiar with the fine arts. In the eighth century this abuse had arrived at such a pitch that Constantine Copronymus assembled, at Constantinople, a council of three hundred and twenty bishops, who anathematized image-worship, and declared it to be idolatry.
The empress Irene, the same who afterwards had her son’s eyes torn out, convoked the second Council of Nice in 787, when the adoration of images was re-established. But in 794 Charlemagne had another council held at Frankfort, which declared the second of Nice idolatrous. Pope Adrian IV. sent two legates to it, but he did not convoke it.
The first great council convoked by a pope was the first of Lateran, in 1139; there were about a thousand bishops assembled; but scarcely anything was done, except that all those were anathematized who said that the Church was too rich. In 1179, another great council of Lateran was held by Alexander III., in which the cardinals, for the first time, took precedence of the bishops. The discussions were confined to matters of discipline. In another great council of Lateran, in 1215, Pope Innocent III. stripped the count of Toulouse of all his possessions, by virtue of his excommunication. It was then that the first mention was made of transubstantiation.
In 1245, was held a general council at Lyons, then an imperial city, in which Pope Innocent IV. excommunicated the emperor Frederick II., and consequently deposed him, and forbade him the use of fire and water. On this occasion, a red hat was given to the cardinals, to remind them that they must imbrue their hands in the blood of the emperor’s partisans. This council was the cause of the destruction of the house of Suabia, and of thirty years of anarchy in Italy and Germany.
In a general council held at Vienne, in Dauphiny, in 1311, the Order of the Templars was abolished: its principal members having been condemned to the most horrible deaths, on charges most imperfectly established. The great Council of Constance, in 1414, contented itself with dismissing Pope John XXIII., convicted of a thousand crimes, but had John Huss and Jerome of Prague burned for being obstinate; obstinacy being a much more grievous crime than either murder, rape, simony, or sodomy. In 1430 was held the great council of Basel, not recognized at Rome because it deposed Pope Eugenius IV., who would not be deposed. The Romans reckon among the general councils the fifth Council of Lateran, convoked against Louis XII., king of France, by Pope Julius II.; but that war-like pope dying, the council had no result.
Lastly, we have the great Council of Trent, which is not received in France in matters of discipline; but its doctrine is indisputable, since, as Fra Paolo Sarpi tells us, the Holy Ghost arrived at Trent from Rome every week in the courier’s bag. But Fra Paolo Sarpi was a little tainted with heresy.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01