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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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sometimes denotes any kind of assembly; sometimes that of the sanhedrim; and, at other times, a convention of pastors met to regulate ecclesiastical affairs. It may be reasonably supposed that as Christianity spreads, circumstances would arise which would make consultation necessary among those who had embraced the Gospel, or at least among those who were employed in its propagation. A memorable instance of this kind occurred not long after the ascension of our Saviour. In consequence of a dispute which had arisen at Antioch concerning the necessity of circumcising Gentile converts, it was determined that "Paul and Barnabas, and certain others of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the Apostles and elders about this question."— "And the Apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter," Acts 15:6 . After a consultation, they decided the point in question; and they sent their decree, which they declared to be made under the direction of the Holy Ghost, to all the churches, and commanded that it should be the rule of their conduct. This is generally considered as the first council; but it differed from all others in this circumstance, that its members were under the especial guidance of the Spirit of God. The Gospel was soon after conveyed into many parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa; but it does not appear that there was any public meeting of Christians for the purpose of discussing any contested point, till the middle of the second century. From that time councils became frequent; but as they consisted only of those who belonged to particular districts or countries, they were called provincial or national councils. The first general council was that of Nice, convened by the emperor Constantine, A.D. 325; the second general council was held at Constantinople, in the year 381, by order of Theodosius the Great; the third, at Ephesus, by order of Theodosius, Junior, A.D. 431; and the fourth at Chalcedon, by order of the emperor Marcian, A.D. 451. These, as they were the first four general councils, so they were by far the most eminent. They were caused respectively by the Arian, Apollinarian, Nestorian, and Eutychian controversies, and their decrees are in high esteem both among Papists and orthodox Protestants; but the deliberations of most councils were disgraced by violence, disorder, and intrigue, and their decisions were usually made under the influence of some ruling party. Authors are not agreed about the number of general councils; Papists usually reckon eighteen, but Protestant writers will not allow that nearly so many had a right to that name. The last general council was that held at Trent, for the purpose of checking the progress of the reformation. It first met by the command of Pope Paul III, A.D. 1545; it was suspended during the latter part of the pontificate of his successor, Julius III, and the whole of the pontificates of Marcellus II, and Paul IV, that is, from 1552 to 1562, in which year it met again by the authority of Pope Plus IV, and it ended, while he was pope, in the year 1563. Provincial councils were very numerous: Baxter enumerates four hundred and eighty-one, and Dufresnoy many more.

2. Of the eighteen councils denominated "general" by the Papists, four have already been enumerated; and they with the next four constitute the eight eastern councils, which alone, according to the "Body of Civil Law," each of the Popes of Rome, on his elevation to the pontificate, solemnly professes to maintain. The fifth was convened at Constantinople, A.D. 556, by the emperor Justinian; the sixth, also at Constantinople, in 681, in which the emperor Constantine IV, himself presided; the seventh at Nice, in 787, by the empress Irene; and the eighth, at Constantinople, in 870, by the emperor Basilius. It is matter of historical record, and therefore cannot be denied, that the convening of all these councils appertained solely to the respective emperors; that they alone exercised authority on such occasions; that the bishop of Rome was never thought to possess any, although his power may be said to have been set up between the fifth and sixth general councils; nor did the bishop himself, pro tempore, think himself entitled to an authority of the kind. The other councils which the Romish church dignifies with the title of "general," are the ten western ones, which are here subjoined:—(9.) The first council of Lateran, held under Pope Calixtus, A.D. 1123; (10.) the second of Lateran, under Innocent II, in 1139; (11.) the third of Lateran, under Alexander III, in 1179, the decrees of which were intended to extirpate the Albigenses, as well as the Waldenses, who were variously called Leonists, or poor men of Lyons; (12.) the fourth of Lateran, under Innocent III, in 1215, which incited Christian Europe to engage in a crusade for the recovery of the Holy Land, and whose canons obtruded on the church the monstrous doctrines of transubstantiation and auricular confession, the latter being ranked among the duties prescribed by the law of Christ; (13.) the first of Lyons, under Innocent IV, in 1245; (14.) the second of Lyons, under Gregory X, in 1274; (15.) that of Vienne, under Clement V, in 1311; (16.) that of Florence, under Eugenius IV, in 1439; (17.) the fifth of Lateran, under the infamous Julius II; and (18.) the council of Trent, of which an account is given in the preceding paragraph, and which grounds its fame on its opposition to the progress of the reformation under Luther. Though, according to Bellarmine, these eighteen alone are recognised by the Romish church as oecumenical or universal councils, yet some of them did not deserve even the more restricted appellation of "general." For the council of Trent itself, in some of its sessions, could scarcely number more than forty or fifty ecclesiastics, and, of those, not one eminent for profound theological or classical knowledge. The lawyers who attended, says Father Paul, "knew little of religion, while the few divines were of less than ordinary sufficiency." Some of the other councils which are not acknowledged by the Papists to be "general" with respect to all their sessions, (as those of Basle and Constance,) are in part received by them, and in part rejected. Bellarmine and other celebrated writers of his church, are dubious about determining whether or not "the fifth of Lateran" was really a general council, and leave it as a thing discretionary with the faithful either to retain or reject it; if it be rejected, the only refuge which they have, is to receive in its place the council of Constance, held under John XXIII, in 1414, which is disclaimed by the Italian clergy but admitted by those of France, and which is rendered infamous in the annals of religion and humanity by its cruel and treacherous conduct toward those two early Protestant martyrs, John Huss and Jerome of Prague; "who went to the stake," says AEneas Sylvius, "as if it had been to a banquet, without uttering a complaint that could betray the least weakness of mind. When they began to burn, they sung a hymn, which even the crackling of the flames could not interrupt. Never did any philosopher suffer death with so much courage, as they endured the fire." But this acknowledgment of Constance as one of the eighteen is resisted vi et armis, by the crafty Cisalpine ecclesiastics, because one of the earliest acts of that council declared the representatives of the church in general council assembled to be superior to the sovereign pontiff, not only when schism prevailed, but at all other times whatsoever.

3. A general council being composed of men, every one of whom is fallible, they must also be liable to error when collected together; and that they actually have erred is sufficiently evident from this fact, that different general councils have made decrees directly opposite to each other, particularly in the Arian and Eutychian controversies, which were upon subjects immediately "pertaining unto God." Indeed, neither the first general councils themselves, nor those who defended their decisions, ever pretended to infallibility; this was a claim of a much more recent date, suited to the dark ages in which it was asserted and maintained, but now considered equally groundless and absurd in the case of general councils as in that of popes. If God had been pleased to exempt them from a possibility of error, he would have announced that important privilege in his written word; but no such promise or assurance is mentioned in the New Testament. If infallibility belonged to the whole church collectively, or to any individual part of it, it must be so prominent and conspicuous that no mistake or doubt could exist upon the subject; and above all, it must have prevented those dissensions, contests, heresies, and schisms, which have abounded among Christians from the days of the Apostles to the present time; and of which that very church, which is the asserter and patron of this doctrine, has had its full share.

The Scriptures being the only source from which we can learn the terms of salvation, it follows that things ordained by general councils as necessary to salvation, have neither strength nor authority, as the church of England has well said, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of Holy Scripture. It is upon this ground we receive the decisions of the first four general councils, in which we find the truths revealed in the Scriptures, and therefore we believe them. We reverence the councils for the sake of the doctrines which they declared and maintained, but we do not believe the doctrines upon the authority of the councils.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Council'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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