Vol. 2, Chapter IV (Cont’d) – Councils


Best Collections of Acts of Councils by Harduin (1715, 12 vols.), and Mansi (1759, 31 vols.).

C. J. Hefele (R.C. Bishop of Rottenburg, and member of the Vatican Council of 1870): Conciliengeschichte, Freiburg 1855; second ed. 1873 sqq., 7 vols. down to the Council of Florence, a.d. 1447 (See vol. I., pp. 83-242). English translation by W. R. Clark and H. R. Oxenham ( Edinb. 1871, 2d vol. 1876, 3d vol. 1883).

E. B. Pusey (d. 1882): The Councils of the Church, from the Council of Jerusalem, a.d. 51, to the Council of Constantinople, a.d. 381; chiefly as to their constitution, but also as to their object and history. Lond. 1857.

A. W. Dale: The Synod of Elvira [a.d. 306] and Christian Life in the Fourth Century. Lond. 1882.

Comp. the article Council in Smith and Cheetham and Lect. VII. in Hatch, Bampton Lect. on the Organization of the Early Christian Church. Lond. 1881, pp. 165 sqq.

Councils or Synods were an important means of maintaining and promoting ecclesiastical unity, and deciding questions of faith and discipline. They had a precedent and sanction in the apostolic Conference of Jerusalem for the settlement of the circumcision controversy. They were suggested moreover by the deliberative political assemblies of the provinces of the Roman empire, which met every year in the chief towns. But we have no distinct trace of Councils before the middle of the second century (between 50 and 170), when they first appear, in the disputes concerning Montanism and Easter.

There are several kinds of Synods according to their size, diocesan, provincial (or metropolitan), national, patriarchal, and ecumenical (or universal). Our period knows only the first three. Diocesan synods consist of the bishop and his presbyters and deacons with the people assisting, and were probably held from the beginning, but are not mentioned before the third century. Provincial synods appear first in Greece, where the spirit of association had continued strong since the days of the Achaean league, and then in Asia Minor, North Africa, Gaul, and Spain. They were held, so far as the stormy times of persecution allowed, once or twice a year, in the metropolis, under the presidency of the metropolitan, who thus gradually acquired a supervision over the other bishops of the province. Special emergencies called out extraordinary sessions, and they, it seems, preceded the regular meetings. They were found to be useful, and hence became institutions.

The synodical meetings were public, and the people of the community around sometimes made their influence felt. In the time of Cyprian presbyters, confessors, and laymen took an active part, a custom which seems to have the sanction of apostolic practice. At the Synod which met about 256, in the controversy on heretical baptism, there were present eighty-seven bishops, very many priests and deacons, and “maxima pars plebis;” and in the synods concerning the restoration of the Lapsi, Cyprian convened besides the bishops, his clergy, the “confessores,” and “laicos stantes” (i.e. in good standing). Nor was this practice confined to North Africa. We meet it in Syria, at the synods convened on account of Paul of Samosata (264-269), and in Spain at the council of Elvira. Origen, who was merely a presbyter, was the leading spirit of two Arabian synods, and convinced their bishop Beryllus of his Christological error. Even the Roman clergy, in their letter to Cyprian, speak of a common synodical consultation of the bishops with the priests, deacons, confessors, and laymen in good standing.

But with the advance of the hierarchical spirit, this republican feature gradually vanished. After the council of Nicaea (325) bishops alone had seat and voice, and the priests appear hereafter merely as secretaries, or advisers, or representatives of their bishops. The bishops, moreover, did not act as representatives of their churches, nor in the name of the body of the believers, as formerly, but in their own right as successors of the apostles. They did not as yet, however, in this period, claim infallibility for their decisions, unless we choose to find a slight approach to such a claim in the formula: “Placuit nobis, Sancto Spiritu suggerente,” as used, for example, by the council of Carthage, in 252. At all events, their decrees at that time had only moral power, and could lay no claim to universal validity. Even Cyprian emphatically asserts absolute independence for each bishop in his own diocese. “To each shepherd,” he says, “a portion of the Lord’s flock has been assigned, and his account must be rendered to his Master.”

The more important acts, such as electing bishops, excommunication, decision of controversies, were communicated to other provinces by epistolae synodicae. In the intercourse and the translation of individual members of churches, letters of recommendation from the bishop were commonly employed or required as terms of admission. Expulsion from one church was virtually an expulsion from all associated churches.

The effect of the synodical system tended to consolidation. The Christian churches from independent communities held together by a spiritual fellowship of faith, became a powerful confederation, a compact moral commonwealth within the political organization of the Roman empire.

As the episcopate culminated in the primacy, so the synodical system rose into the ecumenical councils, which represented the whole church of the Roman empire. But these could not be held till persecution ceased, and the emperor became the patron of Christianity. The first was the celebrated council of Nicaea, in the year 325. The state gave legal validity to the decrees of councils, and enforced them if necessary by all its means of coercion. But the Roman government protected only the Catholic or orthodox church, except during the progress of the Arian and other controversies, before the final result was reached by the decision of an ecumenical Synod convened by the emperor.


55. The Councils of Elvira, Arles, and Ancyra

Among the ante-Nicene Synods some were occasioned by the Montanist controversy in Asia Minor, some by the Paschal controversies, some by the affairs of Origen, some by the Novatian schism and the treatment of the Lapsi in Carthage and Rome, some by the controversies on heretical baptism (255, 256), three were held against Paul of Samosata in Antioch (264-269).

In the beginning of the fourth century three Synods, held at Elvira, Arles, and Ancyra, deserve special mention, as they approach the character of general councils and prepared the way for the first ecumenical council. They decided no doctrinal question, but passed important canons on church polity and Christian morals. They were convened for the purpose of restoring order and discipline after the ravages of the Diocletian persecution. They deal chiefly with the large class of the Lapsed, and reflect the transition state from the ante-Nicene to the Nicene age. They are alike pervaded by the spirit of clericalism and a moderate asceticism.

1. The Synod of Elvira (Illiberis, or Eliberis, probably on the site of the modern Granada) was held in 306, and attended by nineteen bishops, and twenty-six presbyters, mostly from the Southern districts of Spain. Deacons and laymen were also present. The Diocletian persecution ceased in Spain after the abdication of Diocletian and Maximian Herculeus in 305; while it continued to rage for several years longer in the East under Galerius and Maximin. The Synod passed eighty-one Latin canons against various forms of heathen immorality then still abounding, and in favor of church discipline and austere morals. The Lapsed were forbidden the holy communion even in articulo mortis (can. 1). This is more severe than the action of the Nicene Synod. The thirty-sixth canon prohibits the admission of sacred pictures on the walls of the church buildings, and has often been quoted by Protestants as an argument against image worship as idolatrous; while Roman Catholic writers explain it either as a prohibition of representations of the deity only, or as a prudential measure against heathen desecration of holy things. Otherwise the Synod is thoroughly catholic in spirit and tone. Another characteristic feature is the severity against the Jews who were numerous in Spain. Christians are forbidden to marry Jews.

The leading genius of the Elvira Synod and the second in the list was Hosius, bishop of Corduba (Cordova), who also attended the Council of Nicaea as the chief representative of the West. He was native of Cordova, the birth-place of Lucan and Seneca, and more than sixty years in the episcopate. Athanasius calls him a man holy in fact as well as in name, and speaks of his wisdom in guiding synods. As a far-seeing statesman, he seems to have conceived the idea of reconciling the empire with the church and influenced the mind of Constantine in that direction. He is one of the most prominent links between the age of persecution and the age of imperial Christianity. He was a strong defender of the Nicene faith, but in his extreme old age he wavered and signed an Arian formula. Soon afterwards he died, a hundred years old (358).

2. The first Council of Arles in the South of France was held a.d. 314, in consequence of an appeal of the Donatists to Constantine the Great, against the decision of a Roman Council of 313, consisting of three Gallican and fifteen Italian bishops under the lead of Pope Melchiades. This is the first instance of an appeal of a Christian party to the secular power, and it turned out unfavorably to the Donatists who afterwards became enemies of the government. The Council of Arles was the first called by Constantine and the forerunner of the Council of Nicaea. Augustin calls it even universal, but it was only Western at best. It consisted of thirty-three bishops from Gaul, Sicily, Italy (exclusive of the Pope Sylvester, who, however, was represented by two presbyters and two deacons), North Africa, and Britain (three, from York, London, and probably from Caerleon on Usk), besides thirteen presbyters and twenty-three deacons. It excommunicated Donatus and passed twenty-two canons concerning Easter (which should be held on one and the same day), against the non-residence of clergy, against participation in races and gladiatorial fights (to be punished by excommunication), against the rebaptism of heretics, and on other matters of discipline. Clergymen who could be proven to have delivered sacred books or utensils in persecution (the traditores) should be deposed, but their official acts were to be held valid. The assistance of at least three bishops was required at ordination.

3. The Council of Ancyra, the capital of Galatia in Asia Minor, was held soon after the death of the persecutor Maximin (3l3), probably in the year 314, and represented Asia Minor and Syria. It numbered from twelve to eighteen bishops (the lists vary), several of whom eleven years afterwards attended the Council of Nicaea. Marcellus of Ancyra who acquired celebrity in the Arian controversies, presided, according to others Vitalis of Antioch. Its object was to heal the wounds of the Diocletian persecution, and it passed twenty-five canons relating chiefly to the treatment of those who had betrayed their faith or delivered the sacred books in those years of terror. Priests who had offered sacrifice to the gods, but afterwards repented, were prohibited from preaching and all sacerdotal functions, but allowed to retain their clerical dignity. Those who had sacrificed before baptism may be admitted to orders. Adultery is to be punished by seven years’ penance, murder by life-long penance.

A similar Council was held soon afterwards at Neo-Caesarea in Cappadocia (between 314-325), mostly by the same bishops who attended that of Ancyra, and passed fifteen disciplinary canons.


56. Collections of Ecclesiastical Law. The Apostolical Constitutions and Canons


I. Διαταγαί τῶν ἀγίων Ἀποστόλων διά Κλήμνετος, etc., Constitutiones Apostolicae, first edited by Fr. Turrianus, Ven. 1563, then in Cotelier’s ed. of the Patres Apostolici (I. 199 sqq.), in Mansi (Collect. Concil. I.), and Harduin (Coll. Conc. I.); newly edited by Ültzen, Rost. 1853, and P. A. de Lagarde, Lips. and Lond. 1854 and 1862. Ueltzen gives the textus receptus improved. Lagarde aims at the oldest text, which he edited in Syriac (Didascalia Apostolorum Syriace, 1854), and in Greek (Constit. Apostolorum Graece, 1862). Hilgenfels: Nov. Test. extra Canonem rec., Lips. (1866), ed. II. (1884), Fasc. IV. 110-121. He gives the Ap. Church Order under the title Duae Viae vel Judicium Petri.

Thos. Pell Platt: The Aethiopic Didascalia; or the Aethiopic Version of the Apostolical Constitutions, received in the Church of Abyssinia, with an Engl Transl., Lond. 1834.

Henry Tattam: The Apostolical Constitutions, or Canons of the Apostles in Coptic. With an Engl. translation. Lond. 1848 (214 pages).

II. Κανόνες ἐκκλησιαστικοί τῶν ἀγ. Ἀποστόλων, Canones, qui dicuntur Apostolorum, in most collections of church law, and in Cotel. (I. 437 sqq.), Mansi, and Harduin (tom. I.), and in the editions of the Ap. Constitutions at the close. Separate edd. by Paul De Lagarde in Greek and Syriac: Reliquiae juris ecclesiastici antiquissimae Syriace, Lips. 1856; and Reliquiae juris ecclesiastici Graece, 1856 (both to be had at Trübner’s, Strassburg). An Ethiopic translation of the Canons, ed. by Winand Fell, Leipz. 1871.

W. G. Beveridge, (Bishop of St. Asaph, d. 1708): Συνόδικον, s. Pandectae Canonum S. G. Apostolorum et Conciliorum, ab Ecclesia Gr. reliquit. Oxon. 1672-82, 2 vols. fol.

John Fulton: Index Canonum. In Greek and English. With a Complete Digest of the entire code of canon law in the undivided Primitive Church. N. York 1872; revised ed. with Preface by P. Schaff, 1883.


Critical Discussions

Krabbe: Über den Ursprung u. den Inhalt der Apost. Constitutionen des Clemens Romanus. Hamb. 1829.

S. v. Drey (R.C.): Neue Untesuchungen über die Constitut. u. Kanones der Ap. Tüb. 1832.

J. W. Bickell (d. 1848): Gesch. des Kirchenrechts. Giess. 1843 (I. 1, pp. 52-255). The second part appeared, Frankf., 1849.

Chase: Constitations of the Holy Apostles, including the Canons; Whiston’s version revised from the Greek; with a prize essay (of Krabbe) upon their origin and contents. New York, 1848.

Bunsen: Hippolytus u. seine Zeit., Leipz. 1852 (I. pp. 418-523, and II. pp. 1126); and in the 2d Engl. ed. Hippolytus and his Age, or Christianity and Mankind, Lond. 1854 (vols. V-VII).

Hefele (R.C.): Conciliengeschichte I. p. 792 sqq. (second ed. 1873). The Didache Literature (fully noticed in Schaff’s monograph)

Philoth. Bryennios: Διδαχή τῶν δώδεκα ἀποστόλων. Constantinople, 1833.

Ad. Harnack: Die Lehre der Zwölf Apostel. Leipz., 1884. Die Apostellehre und die jüdischen beiden Wege, 1886.

Ph. Schaff: The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, or the Oldest Church Manual. N. York, 1885. 3d ed. revised and enlarged, 1889.


Collections of Ecclesiastical Law

Several church manuals or directories of public worship, and discipline have come down to us from the first centuries in different languages. They claim directly or indirectly apostolic origin and authority, but are post-apostolic and justly excluded from the canon. They give us important information on the ecclesiastical laws, morals, and customs of the ante-Nicene age.

1. The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles is the oldest and simplest church manual, of Jewish Christian (Palestinian or Syrian) origin, from the end of the first century, known to the Greek fathers, but only recently discovered and published by Bryennios (1883). It contains in 16 chapters (1) a summary of moral instruction based on the Decalogue and the royal commandment of love to God and man, in the parabolic form of two ways, the way of life and the way of death; (2) directions on the celebration of baptism and the eucharist with the agape; (3) directions on discipline and the offices of apostles (i.e. travelling evangelists), prophets, teachers, bishops (i.e. presbysters), and deacons; (4) an exhortation to watchfulness in view of the coming of the Lord and the resurrection of the saints. A very remarkable book. Its substance survived in the seventh book of the Apostolical Constitutions.

2. The Ecclesiastical Canons of the holy apostles or Apostolical Church Order, of Egyptian origin, probably of the third century. An expansion of the former in the shape of a fictitious dialogue of the apostles, first published in Greek by Bickell (1843), and then also in Coptic and Syriac. It contains ordinances of the apostles on morals, worship, and discipline.

3. The Apostolical Constitutions, the most complete and important Church Manual. It is, in form, a literary fiction, professing to be a bequest of all the apostles, handed down through the Roman bishop Clement, or dictated to him. It begins with the words: “The apostles and elders, to all who among the nations have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with you, and peace.” It contains, in eight books, a collection of moral exhortations, church laws and usages, and liturgical formularies which had gradually arisen in the various churches from the close of the first century, the time of the Roman Clement, downward, particularly in Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome, partly on the authority of apostolic practice. These were at first orally transmitted; then committed to writing in different versions, like the creeds; and finally brought, by some unknown hand, into their present form. The first six books, which have a strongly Jewish-Christian tone, were composed, with the exception of some later interpolations, at the end of the third century, in Syria. The seventh book is an expansion of the Didache of the Twelve Apostles. The eighth book contains a liturgy, and, in an appendix, the apostolical canons. The collection of the three parts into one whole may be the work of the compiler of the eighth book. It is no doubt of Eastern authorship, for the church of Rome nowhere occupies a position of priority or supremacy. The design was, to set forth the ecclesiastical life for laity and clergy, and to establish the episcopal theocracy. These constitutions were more used and consulted in the East than any work of the fathers, and were taken as the rule in matters of discipline, like the Holy Scriptures in matters of doctrine. Still the collection, as such, did not rise to formal legal authority, and the second Trullan council of 692 (known as quinisextum), rejected it for its heretical interpolations, while the same council acknowledged the Apostolical Canons.

The “Apostolical Canons” consist of brief church rules or prescriptions, in some copies eighty-five in number, in others fifty, and pretend to be of apostolic origin, being drawn up by Clement of Rome from the directions of the apostles, who in several places speak in the first person. They are incorporated in the “Constitutions” as an appendix to the eighth book, but are found also by themselves, in Greek, Syriac, Aethiopic, and Arabic manuscripts. Their contents are borrowed partly from the Scriptures, especially the Pastoral Epistles, partly from tradition, and partly from the decrees of early councils at Antioch, Neo-Caesarea, Nicaea, Laodicea, etc. (but probably not Chalcedon, 451). They are, therefore, evidently of gradual growth, and were collected either after the middle of the fourth century, or not till the latter part of the fifth, by some unknown hand, probably also in Syria. They are designed to furnish a complete system of discipline for the clergy. Of the laity they say scarcely a word. The eighty-fifth and last canon settles the canon of the Scripture, but reckons among the New Testament books two epistles of Clement and the genuine books of the pseudo-Apostolic Constitutions.

The Greek church, at the Trullan council of 692, adopted the whole collection of eighty-five canons as authentic and binding, and John of Damascus placed it even on a parallel with the epistles of the apostle Paul, thus showing that he had no sense of the infinite superiority of the inspired writings. The Latin church rejected it at first, but subsequently decided for the smaller collection of fifty canons, which Dionysus Exiguus about the year 500 translated from a Greek manuscript.


57. Church Discipline

I. Several Tracts of Tertullian (especially De Poenitentia). The Philosophumena of Hippolytus (l. IX.). The Epistles of Cyprian, and his work De Lapsis. The Epistolae Canonicae of Dionysius of Alex., Gregory Thaumaturgus (about 260), and Peter of Alex. (about 306), collected in Routh’s Reliquiae Sacrae, tom. III., 2nd ed. The Constit. Apost. II. 16, 21-24. The Canons of the councils of Elvira, Arelate, Ancyra, Neo-Caesarea, and Nicaea, between 306 and 325 (in the Collections of Councils, and in Routh’s Reliq. Sacr. tom. IV.).

II. Morinus: De Disciplina in administratione sacram poenitentiae, Par. 1651 (Venet. 1702).

Marshall: Penitential Discipline of the Primitive Church. Lond. 1714 (new ed. 1844).

Fr. Frank: Die Bussdisciplin der Kirche bis zum 7 Jahrh. Mainz. 1868.

On the discipline of the Montanists, see Bonwetsch: Die Geschichte des Montanismus (1881), pp. 108-118.

The ancient church was distinguished for strict discipline. Previous to Constantine the Great, this discipline rested on purely moral sanctions, and had nothing to do with civil constraints and punishments. A person might be expelled from one congregation without the least social injury. But the more powerful the church became, the more serious were the consequences of her censures, and when she was united with the state, ecclesiastical offenses were punished as offenses against the state, in extreme cases even with death. The church always abhorred blood (“ecclesia non sitit sanguinem”), but she handed the offender over to the civil government to be dealt with according to law. The worst offenders for many centuries were heretics or teachers of false doctrine.

The object of discipline was, on the one hand, the dignity and purity of the church, on the other, the spiritual welfare of the offender; punishment being designed to be also correction. The extreme penalty was excommunication, or exclusion from all the rights and privileges of the faithful. This was inflicted for heresy and schism, and all gross crimes, such as, theft, murder, adultery, blasphemy, and the denial of Christ in persecution. After Tertullian, these and like offences incompatible with the regenerate state, were classed as mortal sins, in distinction from venial sins or sins of weakness.

Persons thus excluded passed into the class of penitents, and could attend only the catechumen worship. Before they could be re-admitted to the fellowship of the church, they were required to pass through a process like that of the catechumens, only still more severe, and to prove the sincerity of their penitence by the absence from all pleasures, from ornament in dress, and from nuptial intercourse, by confession, frequent prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and other good works. Under pain of a troubled conscience and of separation from the only saving church, they readily submitted to the severest penances. The church teachers did not neglect, indeed, to inculcate the penitent spirit and the contrition of the heart is the main thing. Yet many of them laid too great stress on certain outward exercises. Tertullian conceived the entire church penance as a “satisfaction” paid to God. This view could easily obscure to a dangerous degree the all-sufficient merit of Christ, and lead to that self-righteousness against which the Reformation raised so loud a voice.

The time and the particular form of the penances, in the second century, was left as yet to the discretion of the several ministers and churches. Not till the end of the third century was a rigorous and fixed system of penitential discipline established, and then this could hardly maintain itself a century. Though originating in deep moral earnestness, and designed only for good, it was not fitted to promote the genuine spirit of repentance. Too much formality and legal constraint always deadens the spirit, instead of supporting and regulating it. This disciplinary formalism first appears, as already familiar, in the council of Ancyra, about the year 314.


Classes of Penitents

The penitents were distributed into four classes: — 

(1) The weepers, who prostrated themselves at the church doors in mourning garments and implored restoration from the clergy and the people.

(2) The hearers, who, like the catechumens called by the same name, were allowed to hear the Scripture lessons and the sermon.

(3) The kneelers, who attended the public prayers, but only in the kneeling posture.

(4) The standers, who could take part in the whole worship standing, but were still excluded from the communion.

Those classes answer to the four stages of penance. The course of penance was usually three or four years long, but, like the catechetical preparation, could be shortened according to circumstances, or extended to the day of death. In the East there were special penitential presbyters, intrusted with the oversight of the penitential discipline.



After the fulfilment of this probation came the act of reconciliation. The penitent made a public confession of sin, received absolution by the laying on of hands of the minister, and precatory or optative benediction, was again greeted by the congregation with the brotherly kiss, and admitted to the celebration of the communion. For the ministry alone was he for ever disqualified. Cyprian and Firmilian, however, guard against the view, that the priestly absolution of hypocritical penitents is unconditional and infallible, and can forestall the judgment of God.


Two Parties

In reference to the propriety of any restoration in certain cases, there was an important difference of sentiment, which gave rise to several schisms. All agreed that the church punishment could not forestall the judgment of God at the last day, but was merely temporal, and looked to the repentance and conversion of the subject. But it was a question whether the church should restore even the grossest offender on his confession of sorrow, or should, under certain circumstances leave him to the judgment of God. The strict, puritanic party, to which the Montanists, the Novatians, and the Donatists belonged, and, for a time, the whole African and Spanish Church, took ground against the restoration of those who had forfeited the grace of baptism by a mortal sin, especially by denial of Christ; since, otherwise, the church would lose her characteristic holiness, and encourage loose morality. The moderate party, which prevailed in the East, in Egypt, and especially in Rome, and was so far the catholic party, held the principle that the church should refuse absolution and communion, at least on the death-bed, to no penitent sinner. Paul himself restored the Corinthian offender (1Co_5:1 sqq. Comp. 2Co_2:5 sqq).

The point here in question was of great practical moment in the times of persecution, when hundreds and thousands renounced their faith through weakness, but as soon as the danger was passed, pleaded for readmission into the church, and were very often supported in their plea by the potent intercessions of the martyrs and confessors, and their libelli pacis. The principle was: necessity knows no law. A mitigation of the penitential discipline seemed in such cases justified by every consideration of charity and policy. So great was the number of the lapsed in the Decian persecution, that even Cyprian found himself compelled to relinquish his former rigoristic views, all the more because he held that out of the visible church there was no salvation.

The strict party were zealous for the holiness of God; the moderate, for his grace. The former would not go beyond the revealed forgiveness of sins by baptism, and were content with urging the lapsed to repentance, without offering them hope of absolution in this life. The latter refused to limit the mercy of God and expose the sinner to despair. The former were carried away with an ideal of the church which cannot be realized till the second coming of Christ; and while impelled to a fanatical separatism, they proved, in their own sects, the impossibility of an absolutely pure communion on earth. The others not rarely ran to the opposite extreme of a dangerous looseness, were quite too lenient, even towards mortal sins, and sapped the earnestness of the Christian morality.

It is remarkable that the lax penitential discipline had its chief support from the end of the second century, in the Roman church. Tertullian assails that church for this with bitter mockery. Hippolytus, soon after him, does the same; for, though no Montanist, he was zealous for strict discipline. According to his statement (in the ninth book of his Philosophumena), evidently made from fact, the pope Callistus, whom a later age stamped a saint because it knew little of him, admitted bigami and trigami to ordination, maintained that a bishop could not be deposed, even though he had committed a mortal sin, and appealed for his view to Rom_14:4, to the parable of the tares and the wheat, Mat_13:30, and, above all, to the ark of Noah, which was a symbol of the church, and which contained both clean and unclean animals, even dogs and wolves. In short, he considered no sin too great to be loosed by the power of the keys in the church. And this continued to be the view of his successors.

But here we perceive, also, how the looser practice in regard to penance was connected with the interest of the hierarchy. It favored the power of the priesthood, which claimed for itself the right of absolution; it was at the same time matter of worldly policy; it promoted the external spread of the church, though at the expense of the moral integrity of her membership, and facilitated both her subsequent union with the state and her hopeless confusion with the world. No wonder the church of Rome, in this point, as in others, triumphed at last over all opposition.


58. Church Schisms

I. On the Schism of Hippolytus: The Philosophumena of Hippol. lib. IX. (ed. Miller, Oxf. 1851, better by Duncker and Schneidewin, Gött. 1859), and the monographs on Hippolytus, by Bunsen, Döllinger, Wordsworth, Jacobi, and others (which will be noticed in chapter XIII. § 183).

II. On the Schism of Felicissimus: Cyprian: Epist. 38-40, 42, 55.

III. On the Novatian Schism: Hippol.: Philosoph. l. IX. Cypr.: Epist. 41-52; and the Epistles of Cornelius of Rome, and Dionys. of Alex., in Euseb. H. E. , VI. 43-45; VII. 8. Comp. Lit. in § 200.

IV. On the Meletian Schism: Documents in Latin translation in Maffei: Osservationi Letterarie, Verona, 1738, tom. III p. 11 sqq., and the Greek fragments from the Liber de poenitentia of Peter of Alexandria in Routh: Reliquicae Sacr. vol. II. pp. 21-51. Epiphan.: Haer. 68 (favorable to Meletius); Athanas.: Apol. contra Arianos, § 59; and after him, Socr, Sozom., and Theod. (very unfavorable to Meletius).

Out of this controversy on the restoration of the lapsed, proceeded four schisms during the third century; two in Rome, one in North Africa, and one in Egypt. Montanism, too, was in a measure connected with the question of penitential discipline, but extended also to several other points of Christian life, and will be discussed in a separate chapter.

I. The Roman schism of Hippolytus. This has recently been brought to the light by the discovery of his Philosophumena (1851). Hippolytus was a worthy disciple of Irenaeus, and the most learned and zealous divine in Rome, during the pontificates of Zephyrinus (202-217), and Callistus (217-222). He died a martyr in 235 or 236. He was an advocate of strict views on discipline in opposition to the latitudinarian practice which we have described in the previous section. He gives a most unfavorable account of the antecedents of Callistus, and charges him and his predecessor with the patripassian heresy. The difference, therefore, was doctrinal as well as disciplinarian. It seems to have led to mutual excommunication and a temporary schism, which lasted till a.d. 235. Hippolytus ranks himself with the successors of the apostles, and seems to have been bishop of Portus, the port of Rome (according to later Latin tradition), or bishop of Rome (according to Greek writers). If bishop of Rome, he was the first schismatic pope, and forerunner of Novatianus, who was ordained anti pope in 251. But the Roman Church must have forgotten or forgiven his schism, for she numbers him among her saints and martyrs, and celebrates his memory on the twenty-second of August. Prudentius, the Spanish poet, represents him as a Roman presbyter, who first took part in the Novatian schism, then returned to the Catholic church, and was torn to pieces by wild horses at Ostia on account of his faith. The remembrance of the schism was lost in the glory of his supposed or real martyrdom. According to the chronological catalogue of Popes from a.d. 354, a “presbyter” Hippolytus, together with the Roman bishop Pontianus, the successor of Callistus, was banished from Rome in the reign of Alexander Severus (235), to the mines of Sardinia.

II. The schism of Felicississimus, at Carthage, about the year 250, originated in the personal dissatisfaction of five presbyters with the hasty and irregular election of Cyprian to the bishopric, by the voice of the congregation, very soon after his baptism, a.d. 248. At the head of this opposition party stood the presbyter Novatus, an unprincipled ecclesiastical demagogue, of restless, insubordinate spirit and notorious character, and the deacon Felicissimus, whom Novatus ordained, without the permission or knowledge of Cyprian, therefore illegally, whether with his own hands or through those of foreign bishops. The controversy cannot, however, from this circumstance, be construed, as it is by Neander and others, into a presbyterial reaction against episcopal autocracy. For the opponents themselves afterwards chose a bishop in the person of Fortunatus. The Novatians and the Meletians likewise had the episcopal form of organization, though doubtless with many irregularities in the ordination.

After the outbreak of the Decian persecution this personal rivalry received fresh nourishment and new importance from the question of discipline. Cyprian originally held Tertullian’s principles, and utterly opposed the restoration of the lapsed, till further examination changed his views. Yet, so great was the multitude of the fallen, that he allowed an exception in periculo mortis. His opponents still saw even in this position an unchristian severity, least of all becoming him, who, as they misrepresented him, fled from his post for fear of death. They gained the powerful voice of the confessors, who in the face of their own martyrdom freely gave their peace-bills to the lapsed. A regular trade was carried on in these indulgences. An arrogant confessor, Lucian, wrote to Cyprian in the name of the rest, that he granted restoration to all apostates, and begged him to make this known to the other bishops. We can easily understand how this lenity from those who stood in the fire, might take more with the people than the strictness of the bishop, who had secured himself. The church of Novatus and Felicissimus was a resort of all the careless lapsi. Felicissimus set himself also against a visitation of churches and a collection for the poor, which Cyprian ordered during his exile.

When the bishop returned, after Easter, 251, he held a council at Carthage, which, though it condemned the party of Felicissimus, took a middle course on the point in dispute. It sought to preserve the integrity of discipline, yet at the same time to secure the fallen against despair. It therefore decided for the restoration of those who proved themselves truly penitent, but against restoring the careless, who asked the communion merely from fear of death. Cyprian afterwards, when the persecution was renewed, under Gallus, abolished even this limitation. He was thus, of course, not entirely consistent, but gradually accommodated his principles to circumstances and to the practice of the Roman church. His antagonists elected their bishop, indeed, but were shortly compelled to yield to the united force of the African and Roman churches, especially as they had no moral earnestness at the bottom of their cause.

His conflict with this schismatical movement strengthened Cyprian’s episcopal authority, and led him in his doctrine of the unity of the church to the principle of absolute exclusiveness.

III. The Novatian schism in Rome was prepared by the controversy already alluded to between Hippolytus and Callistus. It broke out soon after the African schism, and, like it, in consequence of an election of bishop. But in this case the opposition advocated the strict discipline against the lenient practice of the dominant church. The Novatianists considered themselves the only pure communion, and unchurched all churches which defiled themselves by re-admitting the lapsed, or any other gross offenders. They went much farther than Cyprian, even as far as the later Donatists. They admitted the possibility of mercy for a mortal sinner, but denied the power and the right of the church to decide upon it, and to prevent, by absolution, the judgment of God upon such offenders. They also, like Cyprian, rejected heretical baptism, and baptized all who came over to them from other communions not just so rigid as themselves.

At the head of this party stood the Roman presbyter Novatian, an earnest, learned, but gloomy man, who had come to faith through severe demoniacal disease and inward struggles. He fell out with Cornelius, who, after the Decian persecution in 251, was nominated bishop of Rome, and at once, to the grief of many, showed great indulgence towards the lapsed. Among his adherents the above-named Novatus of Carthage was particularly busy, either from a mere spirit of opposition to existing authority, or from having changed his former lax principles on his removal to Rome. Novatian, against his will, was chosen bishop by the opposition. Cornelius excommunicated him. Both parties courted the recognition of the churches abroad. Fabian, bishop of Antioch, sympathized with the rigorists. Dionysius of Alexandria, on the contrary, accused them of blaspheming the most gracious Lord Jesus Christ, by calling him unmerciful. And especially Cyprian, from his zeal for ecclesiastical unity and his aversion to Novatus, took sides with Cornelius, whom he regarded the legitimate bishop of Rome.

In spite of this strong opposition the Novatian sect, by virtue of its moral earnestness, propagated itself in various provinces of the West and the East down to the sixth century. In Phrygia it combined with the remnants of the Montanists. The council of Nicaea recognized its ordination, and endeavored, without success, to reconcile it with the Catholic church. Constantine, at first dealt mildly with the Novatians, but afterwards prohibited them to worship in public and ordered their books to be burnt.

IV. The Meletian schism in Egypt arose in the Diocletian persecution, about 305, and lasted more than a century, but, owing to the contradictory character of our accounts, it is not so well understood. It was occasioned by Meletius, bishop of Lycopolis in Thebais, who, according to one statement, from zeal for strict discipline, according to another, from sheer arrogance, rebelled against his metropolitan, Peter of Alexandria (martyred in 311), and during his absence encroached upon his diocese with ordinations, excommunications, and the like. Peter warned his people against him, and, on returning from his flight, deposed him as a disturber of the peace of the church. But the controversy continued, and spread over all Egypt. The council of Nicaea endeavored, by recognizing the ordination of the twenty-nine Meletian bishops, and by other compromise measures, to heal the division; but to no purpose. The Meletians afterwards made common cause with the Arians.

The Donatist schism, which was more formidable than any of those mentioned, likewise grew out of the Diocletian persecution, but belongs more to the next period.