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NPNF2-14. The Seven Ecumenical Councils
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Introductory Note.

From the fact that the canons of the Council in Trullo are included in this volume of the Decrees and Canons of the Seven Ecumenical Councils it must not for an instant be supposed that it is intended thereby to affirm that these canons have any ecumenical authority, or that the council by which they were adopted can lay any claim to being ecumenical either in view of its constitution or of the subsequent treatment by the Church of its enactments.

It is true that it claimed at the time an ecumenical character, and styled itself such in several of its canons, it is true that in the mind of the Emperor Justinian II., who summoned it, it was intended to have been ecumenical.  It is true that the Greeks at first declared it to be a continuation of the Sixth Synod and that by this name they frequently denominate and quote its canons.  But it is also true that the West was not really represented at it at all (as we shall see presently); that when the Emperor afterwards sent the canons to the Pope to receive his signature, he absolutely refused to have anything to do with them; and it is further true that they were never practically observed by the West at all, and that even in the East their authority was rather theoretical than real.

(Fleury.  Histoire Ecclesiastique, Livre XL., Chap. xlix.)

As the two last General Councils (in 553 and in 681) had not made any Canons, the Orientals judged it suitable to supply them eleven years after the Sixth Council, that is to say, the year 692, fifth indiction.  For that purpose the Emperor Justinian convoked a Council, at which 211 Bishops attended, of whom the principal were the four Patriarchs, Paul of Constantinople, Peter of Alexandria, Anastasius of Jerusalem, George of Antioch.  Next in the subscriptions are named John of Justinianopolis, Cyriacus of Cesarea in Cappadocia, Basil of Gortyna in Crete, who says that he represents the whole Council of the Roman Church, as he had said in subscribing the Sixth Council.  But it is certain otherwise that in this latter council there were present Legates of the Holy See.  This council, like the Sixth,340340    This statement of Fleury’s is contested by those who agree with Asseman in thinking that the Sixth Synod was held in Santa Sophia, vide Biblioth. Jur., Orient. Tom. v., p. 85. assembled in the dome of the palace called in Latin Trullus, which name it has kept.  It is also named in Latin Quinisextum, in Greek Penthecton, as one might say, the fifth-sixth, to mark that it is only the supplement of the two preceding Councils, though properly it is a distinct one.

The intention was to make a body of discipline to serve thenceforth for the whole Church, and it was distributed into 102 Canons.

To this statement by Fleury some additions must be made.  First, with regard to the date of the synod.  This is not so certain as would appear at first sight.  At the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the patriarch Tarasius of Constantinople asserted that, “four or five years after the sixth Ecumenical Council the same bishops, in a new assembly under Justinian II. had published the [Trullan] Canons mentioned,” and this assertion the Seventh Council appears to have accepted as true, if we understand the sixth session aright.  Now were this statement true, the date would be probably 686, but this is impossible by the words of the council itself, where we find mention made of the fifteenth of January of the past 4th indiction, or the year of the world, 6109.  To make this agree at all, scholars tell us that for iv. must be read xiv.  But the rest of the statement is equally erroneous, the bishops were not the same, as can readily be seen by comparing the subscriptions to the Acts.

The year of the world 6109 is certainly wrong, and so other scholars would read 6199, but here a division takes place, for some reckon by the Constantinopolitan era, and so fix the date at 691, and others following the Alexandrian era fix it at 706.  But this last is certainly wrong, for the canons were sent for signature to Pope Sergius, who died as early as 701.  Hefele’s conclusion is as follows:

(Hefele.  Hist. of the Councils, Vol. V., p. 222.)

The year 6199 of the Constantinopolitan era coincides with the year 691 after Christ and the IVth Indiction ran from September 1, 690, to August 31, 691.  If then, our Synod, in canon iij., speaks of the 15th of January in the past Indiction IV., it means January 691; but it belongs itself, to the Vth Indiction, i.e., it was opened after September 1, 691, and before September 1, 692.

As this is not a history of the Councils but a collection of their decrees and canons with illustrative notes, the only other point to be considered is the reception these canons met with.

The decrees were signed first by the Emperor, the next place was left vacant for the Pope, then followed the subscriptions of the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch, the whole number being 211, bishops or representatives of bishops.  It is not quite certain whether any of the Patriarchs were present except Paul of Constantinople; but taking it all in all the probability is in favour of their presence.341341    Cf. Hefele, l.c., Vol. V., 237.  On the other hand vide Asseman (l.c. Tom. V., pp. 30, 69), who thinks Alexandria and Jerusalem were vacant at the time!  Blank places were left for the bishops of Thessalonica, Sardinia, Ravenna and Corinth.  The Archbishop of Gortyna in Crete added to his signature the phrase “Holding the place of the holy Church of Rome in every synod.”  He had in the same way signed the decrees of III. Constantinople, Crete belonging to the Roman Patriarchate; as to whether his delegation on the part of the Roman Synod continued or was merely made to continue by his own volition we have no information.  The ridiculous blunder of Balsamon must be noted here, who asserts that the bishops whose names are missing and for which blank places were left, had actually signed.

Pope Sergius refused to sign the decrees when they were sent to him, rejected them as “lacking authority” (invalidi) and described them as containing “novel errors.”  With the efforts to extort his signature we have no concern further than to state that they signally failed.  Later on, in the time of Pope Constantine, a middle course seems to have been adopted, a course subsequently in the ninth century thus expressed by Pope John VIII., “he accepted all those canons which did not contradict the true faith, good morals, and the decrees of Rome,” a truly notable statement!  Nearly a century later Pope Hadrian I. distinctly recognizes all the Trullan decrees in his letter to Tenasius of Constantinople and attributes them to the Sixth Synod.  “All the holy six synods I receive with all their canons, which rightly and divinely were promulgated by them, among which is contained that in which reference is made to a Lamb being pointed to by the Precursor as being found in certain of the venerable images.”  Here the reference is unmistakably to the Trullan Canon LXXXII.

Hefele’s summing up of the whole matter is as follows:

(Hefele, Hist. of the Councils, Vol. V., p. 242.)

That the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nice ascribed the Trullan canons to the Sixth Ecumenical Council, and spoke of them entirely in the Greek spirit, cannot astonish us, as it was attended almost solely by Greeks.  They specially pronounced the recognition of the canons in question in their own first canon; but their own canons have never received the ratification of the Holy See.

Thus far Hefele, but it seems that Gratian’s statement on the subject in the Decretum should not be omitted here.  (Pars I. Dist. XVI., c. v.)

“Canon V.  The Sixth Synod is confirmed by the authority of Hadrian.

“I receive the Sixth Synod with all its canons.

“Gratian.  There is a doubt whether it set forth canons but this is easily removed by examining the fourth session of the VIIth [VIth by mistake, vide Roman Correctors’ note] Synod.

For Peter the Bp. of Nicomedia says:

“C. VI. The Sixth Synod wrote canons.

“I have a book containing the canons of the holy Sixth Synod.  The Patriarch said:  § 1. Some are scandalized through their ignorance of these canons, saying:  Did the Sixth Synod make any canons?  Let them know then that the Sixth Holy Synod was gathered together under Constantine against those who said there is one operation and one will in Christ, in which the holy Fathers anathematized these as heretics and explained the orthodox faith.

“II. Pars § 2. And the synod was dissolved in the XIVth year of Constantine.  After four or five years the same holy Fathers met together under Justinian, the son of Constantine, and promulgated the aforementioned canons, of which let no one have any doubt.  For they who under Constantine were in synod, these same bishops under Justinian subscribed to all these canons.  For it was fitting that a Universal Synod should promulgate ecclesiastical canons.  Item:  § 3. The Holy Sixth Synod after it promulgated its definition against the Monothelites, the emperor Constantine who had summoned it, dying soon after, and Justinian his son reigning in his stead, the same holy synod divinely inspired again met at Constantinople four or five years afterwards, and promulgated one hundred and two canons for the correction of the Church.

“Gratian.  From this therefore it may be gathered that the Sixth Synod was twice assembled:  the first time under Constantine and then passed no canons; the second time under Justinian his son, and promulgated the aforesaid canons.”

Upon this passage of Gratian’s the Roman Correctors have a long and interesting note, with quotations from Anastasius, which should be read with care by the student but is too long to cite here.

I close with some eminently wise remarks by Prof. Michaud.

(E. Michaud, Discussion sur les Sept Conciles Œcuméniques, p. 272.)

Upon the canons of this council we must remark:

1.  That save its acceptance of the dogmatic decisions of the six Ecumenical Councils, which is contained in the first canon, this council had an exclusively disciplinary character; and consequently if it should be admitted by the particular churches, these would always remain, on account of their autonomy, judges of the fitness or non-suitability of the practical application of these decisions.

2.  That the Easterns have never pretended to impose this code upon the practice of the Western Churches, especially as they themselves do not practise everywhere the hundred and two canons mentioned.  All they wished to do was to maintain the ancient discipline against the abuses and evil innovations of the Roman Church, and to make her pause upon the dangerous course in which she was already beginning to enter.

3.  That if among these canons, some do not apply to the actual present state of society, e.g., the 8th, 10th, 11th, etc.; if others, framed in a spirit of transition between the then Eastern customs and those of Rome, do not appear as logical nor as wise as one might desire, e.g., the 6th, 12th, 48th, etc., nevertheless on the other hand, many of them are marked with the most profound sagacity.


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