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A Hstory Of The Councils Of The Church Volumes 1 to 5 by Charles Joseph Hefele D.D.

THE first Christian Council, the type and model of all the others, was held at Jerusalem by the apostles between the years 50 and 52 A.D., in order to solve the question of the universal obligation of the ancient law. No other councils were probably held in the first century of the Christian era; or if they were, no trace of them remains in history. On the other hand, we have information of several councils in the second century. The authenticity of this information is not, it is true, equally established for all; and we can acknowledge as having really taken place only those of which Eusebius Pamphili, the father of Christian Church history, speaks, or other early and trustworthy historians. To these belong, first of all:—

SEC. 1. Synods relative to Montanism

Eusebius has given us, in his Church History, a fragment of a work composed by Apollinaris Bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia, in which the following words occur: “The faithful of Asia, at many times and in many places (πολλάκις καὶ πολλαχῇ τῆς Ἀσίας), came together to consult on the subject of Montanus and his followers; and these new doctrines were examined, and declared strange and impious.” This fragment unfortunately gives no other details, and does not point out the towns at which these synods were held; but the Libellus Synodicus of Pappus tells us that Apollinaris, the holy Bishop of Hierapolis in Asia, and twenty-six of his colleagues in the episcopate, held a provincial council at Hierapolis, and there tried and condemned Montanus and Maximilla the false prophets, and at the same time Theodotus the currier (the celebrated anti-Trinitarian). Further on he adds: “A holy and particular (μερική) synod, assembled under the very holy Bishop Sotas of Anchialus (in Thrace, on the Black Sea), and consisting of twelve other bishops, convicted of heresy the currier Theodotus, Montanus, and Maximilla, and condemned them.”

The Libellus Synodicus, to which we are indebted for these details, it is true, can lay claim to no very early origin, as it was compiled by a Greek towards the close of the ninth century. But this Greek derived his statements from ancient authentic sources; and what he says of the two synods agrees so perfectly with the statement of Eusebius, that in this passage it is worthy of all confidence. We read in Eusebius’ Church History (book v. cc. 16 and 19), that Apollinaris of Hierapolis, and Sotas of Anchialus, contemporaries of Montanus, zealously opposed his errors, and wrote and preached against him. Sotas even wished to exorcise the evil spirit from Priscilla, a companion of Montanus; but these hypocrites, adds Eusebius, did not consent to it.

The strong opposition which these two bishops made to Montanus makes it probable that they gave occasion to several of the numerous synods in which, according to the summaries of Eusebius, the Church rejected Montanism.

The date of these synods is nowhere exactly pointed out. The fragment which is given in Eusebius proves that they were held shortly after the commencement of the Montanist agitations; but the date of the rise of Montanism itself is uncertain. The Chronicle of Eusebius gives 172; S. Epiphanius 126 in one place, and 156 or 157 in another. He says, besides, that Maximilla died about A.D. 86. In this there is perhaps an error of a whole century. Blondel, relying on these passages, has shown that Montanus and his heresy arose about 140 or 141; and, more recently, Schwegler of Tübingen has expressed the same opinion. Pearson, Dodwell, and Neander, on the contrary, decide for 156 or 157; Tillemont and Walch for 171. As for our own opinion, we have adopted Blondel’s opinion (the year 140), because the Shepherd of Hermas, which was certainly anterior to 151, and was written when Pius I. was Pope, seems already to oppose Montanism. In this case, the synods with which we are occupied must have taken place before 150 of the Christian era. The Libellus Synodicus gives a contrary decision to this, although it attributes to the same synods the condemnation of the currier Theodotus, whose apostasy can only be fixed at the time of the persecution by M. Aurelius (160–180). In reality, Theodotus was excommunicated at Rome by Pope Victor towards the close of the second century (192–202). In allowing that sentence of condemnation had been pronounced against him before that time in certain synods of Asia Minor and of Thrace (he was living at Constantinople at the time of his apostasy), those synods which, according to the Libellus Synodicus, have also condemned Montanism could not have been held before M. Aurelius: they must therefore have been held under that Emperor. The supposition that Theodotus and Montanus were contemporary would oblige us to date these councils between A.D. 160 and 180; but to us it appears doubtful whether these two were contemporaries, and the conclusion that they were so seems to result from a confusion of the facts. In reality, the author of the ancient fragment given us by Eusebius speaks also of a Theodotus who was one of the first followers of Montanus, and shared his fate, i.e. was anathematized in the same synods with Montanus and Maximilla. He depicts him as a well-known man. The author of the Libellus Synodicus having read this passage, and finding that the ancient Synods of Hierapolis and Anchialus had condemned a Theodotus, easily identified the currier Theodotus with the Theodotus whom the author of the fragment declared to be celebrated in his time. If this is so, nothing will hinder our placing the rise of Montanism and the Synods of Hierapolis and Anchialus before A.D. 150.

SEC. 2. Synods concerning the Feast of Easter

The second series of councils in the second century was caused by the controversy regarding the time of celebrating Easter. It is not quite correct to regard the meeting of S. Polycarp of Smyrna, and Anicetus Bishop of Rome, towards the middle of the second century, as a synod properly so called; but it is certain that towards the close of the same century several synods were occasioned by the Easter controversy. Eusebius, in the passage referred to, only shows in a general way that these synods were held in the second half of the second century; but S. Jerome gives a more exact date, he says in his Chronicle, under the year 196: “Pope Victor wrote to the most eminent bishops of all countries, recommending them to call synods in their provinces, and to celebrate in them the feast of Easter on the day chosen by the Church of the West.”

Eusebius here agrees with S. Jerome; for he has preserved to us a fragment of a letter written by Polycarp from Ephesus, in which this bishop says that Victor had required him to assemble the bishops who were subordinate to him: that he had done so, but that he and all the bishops present at this synod had pronounced for the practice of the Quartodecimans or of S. John; that these bishops, the number of whom was considerable, had approved of the synodical letter which he had drawn up, and that he had no fear (on account of the threats of Victor), “because we must obey God rather than man.” We see from this fragment, that at the moment when the synods convoked at the request of Victor in Palestine pronounced in favour of the Western practice in Palestine, Pontus, Gaul, and Osrhoëne, a great synod of bishops from Asia Minor, held at Ephesus, the see of Polycarp, had formally declared against this practice; and it is precisely from the synodical letter of this council that we have the fragment given above.

Bishop Victor then wished to exclude the bishops of Asia Minor from the communion of the Church; but other bishops turned him from his purpose. S. Irenæus, in particular, addressed a letter to him on this occasion, in the name of the bishops of Gaul, over whom he presided; a letter in which, it is true, he defended the Western custom of celebrating Easter, but in which also he prayed Victor not to excommunicate “a great number of churches, who were only guilty of observing an ancient custom,” etc. This fragment has also been preserved to us by Eusebius; and we may consider it as a part of the synodical letter of the bishops of Gaul, since, as Eusebius makes him remark, Irenæus expressly declared “that he wrote in the name of his brethren of Gaul, over whom he presided.” It may be asked if the synod here spoken of is the same as that mentioned by Eusebius in another place, and which we mentioned above. If it be the same, it must be admitted that, at the request of Victor, there was at first a synod of the Quartodecimans in Asia Minor, and that it was only later on, when the result was known, that other councils were also assembled, and especially in Gaul. It may be also that S. Irenæus presided over two successive councils in Gaul, and that in the first he declared himself for the Western practice regarding Easter, in the second against the threatening schism. This is the opinion of the latest biographer of S. Irenæus, the Abbé J. M. Prat. The Synodicon (Libellus Synodicus) only speaks of one synod in Gaul, presided over by Irenæus, on the subject of the Easter controversy; and he adds that this synod was composed of Irenæus and of thirteen other bishops.

The Libellus Synodicus also gives information about the other councils of which Eusebius speaks, concerning the question of Easter. Thus:

a. From the writing of the priests of Rome of which we have spoken, and which was signed by Pope Victor, the Libellus Synodicus concludes, as also does Valesius in his translation of the Eccles: Hist. of Eusebius, that there must have been a Roman synod at which, besides Victor, fourteen other bishops were present. This is opposed by Dom Constant in his excellent edition of the Epistolæ Pontif. p. 94, and after him by Mosheim in his book De Rebus Christianorum ante Constant. M. p. 267, who remarks that Eusebius speaks of a letter from the Roman priests and Pope Victor, and not of a synod. But it has often happened, especially in the following centuries, that the decrees of the synods, and in particular of the Roman synods, have only been signed by the president, and have been promulgated by him under the form of an edict emanating from him alone. This is what is expressly said by a Roman synod held by Pope Felix II. in 485.

b. According to the Synodicon, two synods were held in Palestine, on the subject of the Easter controversy: the one at Jerusalem, presided over by Narcissus, and composed of fourteen bishops; and the other at Cæsarea, comprising twelve bishops, and presided over by Theophilus.

c. Fourteen bishops were present at the Asiatic Synod of Pontus, under the presidency of Bishop Palmas, whom the Synodicon calls Plasmas.

d. Eighteen bishops were present at that of Osrhoëne; the Libellus Synodicus does not mention who presided.

e. It speaks also of a synod held in Mesopotamia, on the subject of Easter, which also counted eighteen bishops (it is probably the same synod as that of Osrhoëne).

f. And, lastly, of a synod at Corinth, presided over by Bishop Bacchyllus; whilst Eusebius says expressly that Bacchyllus of Corinth did not publish any synodical letter on the subject of the celebration of Easter, but simply a private letter.

SEC. 3. Doubtful Synods of the Second Century

The anonymous author of the Prædestinatus speaks of three other synods of the second century. According to him,

a. In A.D. 125 a synod was held of all the bishops of Sicily, presided over by Eustathius of Libybæum and Theodorus of Palermo. This synod considered the cause of the Gnostic Heraclionites, and sent its acts to Pope Alexander, that he might decide further in the matter.

b. In 152 the heresy of the Colarbasians, another Gnostic sect, was anathematized by Theodotus Bishop of Pergamum in Mysia, and by seven other bishops assembled in synod.

c. In 160 an Eastern synod rejected the heresy of the Gnostic Cerdo.

The Libellus Synodicus mentions, besides:

a. A synod held at Rome, under Pope Telesphorus (127–139), against the currier Theodotus, the anti-Trinitarian.

b. A second synod at Rome, held under Pope Anicetus, upon the Easter question, at the time when Polycarp Bishop of Smyrna visited the Pope.

c. A third Roman synod under Victor, and which condemned Theodotus, Ebion, and Artemon.

d. A fourth Roman synod, also held under Victor, and which anathematized Sabellius and Noëtus.

e. Finally, a synod of the confessors of Gaul, who declared against Montanus and Maximilla in a letter addressed to the Asiatics.

These eight synods mentioned by the author of Prædestinatus and by the Libellus Synodicus are apparently imaginary: for, on one side, there is not a single ancient and original document which speaks of them; and on the other, the statements of these two unknown authors are either unlikely or contrary to chronology. We will instance, for example, the pretended Roman synod, presided over by Victor, which anathematized Sabellius. In admitting that the usual date, according to which Sabellius would have lived a full half-century later (about 250), may be inexact, as the Philosophoumena recently discovered have proved, yet it is clear from this document that Sabellius had not yet been excluded from the Church under Pope Zephyrinus (202–218), the successor of Victor, and that he was not excommunicated until the time of Pope Calixtus.

It is also impossible that Theodotus the currier should have been condemned by a Roman synod held under Telesphorus, since Theodotus lived towards the close of the second century. It is the same with the pretended Sicilian Council in 125. According to the information afforded to us by the ancients, especially S. Irenæus and Tertullian, Heracleon changed the system of Valentine. He could not then have flourished till after 125. As to Pope Alexander, to whom this synod is said to have rendered an account of its acts in 125, he died a martyr in 119.

It is also by mistake that we have been told of a synod in which Pope Anicetus and Polycarp both took part. The interview of these two bishops has been confounded with a synod: it is the same with the pretended Synod of Gaul, held against Montanus.

The author of the Libellus Synodicus has evidently misunderstood Eusebius, who says on this subject: “The news of what had taken place in Asia on the subject of Montanus (the synod) was known to the Christians of Gaul. The latter were at that time cruelly persecuted by Marcus Aurelius; many of them were in prison. They, however, gave their opinion from their prison on the matter of Montanus, and addressed letters to their brethren of Asia, and to Eleutherus Bishop of Rome.” It will be seen that the question here is not of a synod, but of letters written by confessors (the Libellus Synodicus also mentions confessors).

Finally, a ninth council, which is said to have conveyed to the Bishop of Seleucia a patriarchal right over the whole of Assyria, Media, and Persia, is evidently an invention; and the mention of a Patriarchate on this occasion is a patent anachronism, as has been proved by Assemani in his Bibliothèque Orientale.

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