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In matters of discipline the majority decided; in matters of faith unanimity was required, though, if necessary, it was forced by the excision of the dissentient minority. In the midst of the assembly an open copy of the gospels lay upon a desk or table, as a symbol of the presence of Christ, whose infallible word is the rule of all doctrine. Subsequently the ecclesiastical canons and the relics of the saints were laid in similar state. The bishops-at last according to later usage-sat in a circle, in the order of the dates of their ordination or the rank of their sees; behind them the priests, before or beside them the deacons. The meetings were opened and closed with religious solemnities in liturgical style. In the ancient councils, the various subjects were discussed in open synod, and the Acts of the councils contain long discourses and debates. But in the council of Trent the subjects of action were wrought up in separate committees, and only laid before the whole synod for ratification. The vote was always taken by heads, till the council of Constance, where it was taken by nations, to avoid the preponderance of the Italian prelates.
The jurisdiction of the œcumenical councils covered the entire legislation of the church, all matters of Christian faith and practice, (fidei et morum), and all matters of organization and worship. The doctrinal decrees were called dogmata or symbola; the disciplinary canones. At the same time the councils exercised, when occasion required, the highest judicial authority in excommunicating bishops and patriarchs.
The authority of these councils in the decision of all points of controversy, was supreme and final.
Their doctrinal decisions were early invested with infallibility; the promises of the Lord respecting the indestructibleness of his church, his own perpetual presence with the ministry, and the guidance of the Spirit of truth, being applied in the full sense to those councils, as representing the whole church. After the example of the apostolic council, the usual formula for a decree was: "Visum est Spiritui Sancto et nobis." Constantine the Great, in a circular letter to the churches, styles the decrees of the Nicene Council a divine
command;-a phrase, however, in reference to which the abuse of the word divine, in the language of the Byzantine despots, must not be forgotten. Athanasius says, with reference to the doctrine of the divinity of Christ, "What God has spoken by the councils of Nice, abides forever." The council of Chalcedon pronounced the decrees of the Nicene fathers unalterable statutes, since God himself had spoken. through them. The council of Ephesus, in the sentence of deposition against Nestorius, uses the formula: "The Lord Jesus Christ, whom he has blasphemed, determines through this most holy council." Pope Leo speaks of an irretractabilis consensus of the council of Chalcedon upon the doctrine of the person of Christ. Pope Gregory the Great even placed the first four councils, which refuted and destroyed respectively the heresies and impieties of Arius, Macedonius, Nestorius, and Eutyches, on a level with the four canonical Gospels. In like manner Justinian puts the dogmas of the first four councils on the same footing with the holy Scriptures, and their canons by the side of the laws of the realm. The. remaining three general councils have neither a theological importance, nor therefore an authority, equal to that of those first four, which laid the foundations of œcumenical orthodoxy. Otherwise Gregory would have mentioned also the fifth council, of 553, in the passage to which we have just referred. And even among the first four there is a difference of rank; the councils of Nice and Chalcedon standing highest in the character of their results.
Not so with the rules of discipline prescribed in the canons. These were never considered universally binding like the symbols of faith; since matters of organization and usage, pertaining rather to the external form of the church, are more or less subject to the vicissitude of time. The fifteenth canon of the council of Nice, which prohibited and declared invalid the transfer of the clergy from one place to another, Gregory Nazianzen, fifty-seven years later, (382), reckons among statutes long dead. Gregory himself repeatedly changed his location, and Chrysostom was called from Antioch to Constantinople. Leo I. spoke with strong disrespect of the third canon of the second œcumenical council, for assigning to the bishop of
Constantinople the first rank after the bishop of Rome; and for the same reason he protested against the twenty-eighth canon of the fourth ecumenical council. Indeed, the Roman church has made no point of adopting all the disciplinary laws enacted by those synods.
Augustine, the ablest and the most devout of the fathers, conceived, in the best vein of his age, a philosophical view of this authority of the councils, which strikes a wise and wholesome mean between the extremes of veneration and disparagement, and approaches the free spirit of evangelical Protestantism. He justly subordinates these councils to the Holy Scriptures, which are the highest and the perfect rule of faith, and supposes that the decrees of a council may be, not indeed set aside and repealed, yet enlarged and completed by the deeper research of a later day. They embody for the general need, the results already duly prepared by preceding theological controversies, and give to the consciousness of the church, on the subject in question, the clearest and most precise expression possible at the time. But this consciousness itself is subject to development. While the Holy Scriptures present the truth unequivocally and infallibly, the judgment of bishops may be corrected, and enriched with new truths from the word of God, by the wiser judgment of other bishops; the judgment of the provincial council by that of a general; and the views of one general council by those of a later. In this Augustine presumed that all the transactions of a council were conducted in the spirit of Christian humility, harmony, and love; but had he attended the council of Ephesus in 431, to which he was summoned about the time of his death, he would, to his grief, have found the very opposite spirit reigning there. Augustine, therefore, manifestly acknowledges a gradual advancement of the church doctrine, which reaches its corresponding expression from time to time through the general councils; but a progress within the truth, without positive error. For, in a certain sense, as against heretics, he made the authority of Holy Scripture dependent on the authority of the Catholic church, in his famous dictum: "I would not believe the gospel, did not the authority of the Catholic church compel me
to." In like manner Vincentius Lerinensis teaches, that the church doctrine passes indeed through various stages, and becomes more and more clearly defined in opposition to ever rising errors, but can never become altered nor dismembered. The Protestant church makes the authority of the general councils, and of all ecclesiastical tradition, depend on the degree of its conformity to the Holy Scriptures; while the Greek and Roman churches make Scripture and tradition coördinate. The Protestant church justly holds the first four general councils in high, though not servile, veneration, and has received their statements of doctrine into her confessions of faith, because she perceives in them, though compassed with human imperfections, the clearest and most suitable expression of the teaching of the Scriptures respecting the Trinity and the divine human person of Christ. Beyond these statements the judgment of the church (which must be carefully distinguished from theological speculation) has not to this day materially advanced;-the highest tribute to the wisdom and importance of those councils. But this is not saying that the Nicene and the later Athanasian creeds are the non plus ultra of all the church's knowledge of the articles therein defined. Rather it is the duty of theology and of the church, while prizing and holding fast those earlier attainments, to study the same problems ever anew, to penetrate further and further these sacred fundamental mysteries of Christianity, and to bring to light new treasures from the inexhaustible mines of the word of God, under the guidance of the same Holy Spirit, who lives and works in the church at this day as mightily as he did in the fifth century and the fourth. Christology, for example, by the development of the doctrine of the two states of Christ in the Lutheran church, and of the three offices of Christ in the Reformed, has been substantially enriched; the old Catholic doctrine, which was fixed with unerring tact at the council of Chalcedon, being directly concerned only with the two natures of Christ, as against the dualism of Nestorians and the monophysitism of Eutyches.
With this provision for further and deeper soundings of
Scripture truth, Protestantism feels itself one with the ancient Greek and Latin church in the bond of oecumenical orthodoxy. But towards the disciplinary canons of the cecumenical councils its position is still more free and independent than that of the Roman church. Those canons are based upon an essentially Catholic, that is, hierarchical and sacrificial conception of church order and worship, which the Lutheran and Anglican reformation in part, and the Zuinglian and Calvinistic almost entirely renounced. Yet this is not to say, that much may not still be learned in the sphere of discipline, from those councils, and that, perhaps, many an ancient custom or institution is not worthy to be revived in the spirit of the evangelical church.
The normal character of those councils was substantially parallel with that of earlier and later ecclesiastical assemblies, and cannot therefore be made a criterion of their historical importance and their dogmatic authority. They faithfully reflect both the light and the shade of the ancient church. They bear the heavenly treasure in earthen vessels. If, even among the inspired apostles at the council of Jerusalem, there was much debate, and soon after among Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, a violent, though only temporary collision, we must of course expect much worse of the bishops of the Nicene and the succeeding age, and of a church already interwoven with a morally degenerate state. Together with abundant talents, attainments, and virtues, there were gathered also at the councils, ignorance, intrigues, and partisan passions, which had already been excited on all sides by long controversies preceding, and now met and arrayed themselves, as hostile armies, for open combat. For those great councils, all occasioned by controversies on the most important and the most difficult problems of theology, are, in fact, to the history of doctrine, what decisive battles are to the history of war. Just because religion is the deepest and the holiest interest of man, are the religious passions wont to be the most violent and bitter; especially in a time when all classes, from imperial court to market stall, take the liveliest interest in theological speculations, and are drawn into the common vortex of excitement.