Oecumenical Council

Oecumenical Council is the name of an ecclesiastical convention of cardinals, bishops, and dignitaries of the Church of Rome called together by the pope to deliberate really on the interests of the Romish Churclh but, as it claims, on the interests of Christianity at large. The council is called œcumenical (i.e. an imperial gathering) from οἰκουμένη, or empire (technical meaning of the word, even in N.-T. Greek), because originally such councils were convened only by the emperor. Thus the Church of England teaches in its 21st of the Thirty-nine Articles that "general councils may not be gathered together but by the commandment and will of princes." This was clearly the assumption of the first œcumenical synod held, SEE NICAEAN COUNCIL, and of all the Eastern councils. "Not only no single bishop, but no single prince (unless we take the word in its most ancient sense), was sufficient to convene a general assembly from all parts of that vast territory; a council was part, as it were, of the original constitution of the Christian empire; and however much disputed afterwards — in the entanglements of the civil and ecclesiastical relation in the West, the principle has never been wholly abandoned. When the Western empire fell, the Eastern emperor still retained the inalienable right; and when the Eastern emperor became inaccessible to the needs of European Christendom, and a new holy 'Roman empire' was erected in the West, then the emperor of Germany (solely, or more properly, conjointly with his Byzantine brother) succeeded to the rights of Constantine" (Stanley, Lect. East. Ch. p. 159). With the establishment of the temporal power of the papacy the bishop of Rome assumed the prerogative of calling the synods of the Church, as its spiritual head and sovereign lord. In the article COUNCIL SEE COUNCIL we have already considered the general utility of such gatherings and their ecclesiastical authority. The conditions necessary to constitute an œcumenical council are a subject of much controversy among Romanists. As the subject is of less importance in Protestant divinity, it will be enough to explain here that a council is said by Roman Catholic divines to be œcumenical in three different ways, viz., in convocation, in celebration, and in acceptation. For the first, the summons of the pope, direct or indirect, is held to be necessary; this summons must be addressed to all the bishops of the entire Church. For the second, it is necessary that bishops from all parts of the Church should be present, and in sufficient numbers to constitute a really representative assembly: they must be presided over by the pope, or by a delegate or delegates of the pope; and they must enjoy liberty of discussion and of speech. For the third, the decrees of the council must be accepted by the pope, and by the body of the bishops throughout the Church, at least tacitly. The last of these conditions is absolutely required to entitle the decrees of a council to the character of œcumenical; and even the decrees of provincial or national councils, so accepted, may acquire all the weight of infallible decisions in the eves of Roman Catholics. It remains now only to name the councils regarded as œcumenical. Yet this is by no means an easy task. for Church historians are not agreed as to the total number of such synods hitherto held. The well-known mnemonic hexameter, "Ni Co E, Chal Co Co, Ni Co La, La La La, Ly Ly Vi, Flo Tri," standing for Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, etc., which counts but seventeen, is not accepted by all. While, e.g., the œcumenical council of Ephesus, in 449, had decided, not without the aid of "swords an sticks, and many monks' heels," that Eutyches's opinion about the nature of Christ was the orthodox one, another œcumenical council, held eleven years later at Chalcedon, decided that the decision of its predecessor was null and void;and that so far from being an œcumenical council, it was a council of brigands, "Latrocinium Ephesinum." Even so the Council of Basle was called "Basiliacorum speluncac œcumanumque caterva," because it rebelled against the pope, its master. (See Deutsch, Literary Reminiscences, ch. 11; McElhinney, The Doctrine of the Ch. p. 81-84.) SEE SYNOD. The Protestants have in recent times given the title œcumenical to their general councils convened by the Evangelical Alliance, but there seems to be no good ground for such a designation.

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