Synods, Early Church

views updated


The words "synod" and "council" are interchangeable when they refer to the first centuries of the Church's history, although the ecumenical gatherings beginning with Nicaea in 325 are called councils, whereas gatherings of bishops from a province or region, as well as of the bishop and clergy of a diocese, are usually referred to as synods. The earliest recorded gathering of bishops to discuss doctrine and ecclesiastical policy was that of the Apostles and presbyters with SS. Paul and Barnabas in the so-called Council of Jerusalem in 54 (Acts 15:130).

There are indications in the letter of clement i of rome that the messengers sent to the Church in Corinth were to deal with a gathering of the presbyters or elders of the community, and St. ignatius of antioch spoke of the presbyters as the bishop's counsel. But the first recorded synodal gatherings of bishops took place in Asia Minor (c. 170) to deal with the heresy of montanism and the exclusion of enthusiasts from the Church. Likewise c. 177, apparently in consequence of a synod in Gaul, Irenaeus of Lyons, while still a priest, was sent to Rome to deal with Pope eleutherius regarding Montanism (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.16, 19).

Asia, Gaul, and Palestine. Consultations took place among the bishops of Asia, Palestine, and Gaul concerning the easter controversy; and Pope victor i (189198) most probably held a synod in Rome that received an appeal for moderation from Irenaeus before the pope condemned the quartodecimans (ibid. 5.24). Yearly synods were held in Cappadocia under firmilian of caesarea c. 250 and in other provinces of Asia to deal with the Modalist heresies of Beryllus of Bostra (ibid. 6.20), novatian, and paul of samosata (ibid. 7.2730).

A synod in Greece dealt with the canon of the Scriptures at the beginning of the 3d century (Tert., De pud. 10). In Alexandria in 231 or 232, as well as in Rome under Popes pontianus (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.23) and Fabian (Ruf., Apol. 2.20), the orthodoxy of Origen was discussed in synods. In 220 Pope callistus i ruled that only a group of bishops could depose a bishop for cause, and this right seems to have been exercised thereafter in local synods.

The absolution of the lapsi and rebaptism were subjects of synods in Africa under Bishop Agrippinus and St. Cyprian and also in Rome under Popes Hippolytus and Callistus. Synods are recorded to have been held at Carthage, Rome, and Narbonne between 255 and 260 for the condemnation of the Novatians and their dealing with the lapsi. In Antioch, the Hypnopsychites, who believed in the Resurrection but not in the immortality of the soul, were condemned in synods between 244 and 249 (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.37). These instances of frequent gatherings of bishops in synod indicate that in the mid-3d century, in almost all the established provinces of the Church, frequent, if not yearly synods were the rule.

Representation and Decisions. The bishops, however, were not the representatives of the people of their dioceses, but rather the bearers of the episcopal charism or grace and came to a decision with the aid of the Holy Spirit, who was considered as presiding over their meeting in the same manner as at the gathering of the Apostles in Jerusalem with St. Paul (Acts 15). Bishops decided issues in the name of the Church and frequently acted as complainant and judge. Decisions were reached by unanimous acclamation, and anyone not in agreement was excluded from the Church's communion. Their regulations were recorded as the Church's canons or laws.

At Nicaea in 325 prescriptions for a bi-yearly holding of synods were agreed upon (canon 5), and provincial or regional synods were acknowledged as courts of first instance for complaints from bishops, and of second instance for those of the clergy. In the Synod of Sardica (342) canons 3 to 5 recognize the right of appeal to Rome by bishops deposed by their metropolitans or patriarchs (Athan., Epist. 69), and there is evidence of a yearly synod at Rome to handle such matters. By the time of Pope Leo I it was incumbent on the bishops of the Vicarius Urbis (including southern Italy, Sardinia, and Sicily) to attend.

Synodos Endemousa. In Constantinople the Synodos endemousa, or standing synod, was made up of bishops from the surrounding provinces living or visiting in the capital; they could be called into session by the patriarch and their decisions were recognized as part of the Church's law. After Nicaea the Arian, Donatist, and Christological problems made the holding of synods, often of conciliar proportions, frequent (see arianism; donatism; christology, controversies on [patris tic]). The need to preserve integrity of faith and the observance of canonical and moral regulations as well as ecclesiastical unity occasioned the regular gathering of metropolitan, provincial, and regional synods throughout the oikumene, or universal territory of the Church.

In the provinces of East Syria, the bishops of the imperial province of Oriens were recognized as having the right to elect their patriarch in the Synod of Antioch (381), and in the Synod of Seleucia-Ctesiphon (510) the bishop of that city was recognized as the catholicos, or patriarch, of the Nestorian Church.

Bibliography: a. adam, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 3:154345. h. d. altendorf, ibid. 180003. h. hess, The Canons of the Council of Sardica (Oxford 1958). c. j. von hefele, Histoire des conciles d'après les documents originaux, tr. and continued by h. leclercq, 10 v. in 19 (Paris 190738) v. 13. p. joannou, Les Canons des synodes particuliers, v. 1.2 of Discipline générale antique (II eIX e s. ) (Codificazione orientale, Ponti; Rome 1962) 492550. j. gaudemet, La Formation du droit séculier et du droit de l'église aux IV eet V esiècles (Paris 1957).

[p. joannou]