Church Councils Before Constantine

The Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus. My photo.

Although, as stated before, I’m not overfond of speaking about the fourth century — either from the furore any opinions thereupon may provoke or from the vastness of the literature from and about fourth-century Christianity — I feel like voicing some dangerous opinions here today.

These opinions are thoughts I’ve had before, but Jean Gaudemet has helped to bolster them. I am reading Gaudemet’s fantastic smallish book Les Sources du Droit de l’Eglise en Occident du IIe au VIIe Siècle* at present, and have just completed his chapitre, ‘La législation conciliaire aux IVe et Ve siècles’. In the preceding chapters, Gaudemet deals with issues and sources of church discipline and the councils preceding the fourth century.

Now, popular opinion about these early ‘pre-Constantinian’ centuries seems to run thus: The Church in these centuries, hardliners like Irenaeus or Marcion notwithstanding, was somewhat fluid as to what she believed, and Jesus wasn’t really considered divine yet. Neither was there an accepted canon of Scripture. In this age of fluidity and freedom, heretics and heresies were not condemned or excommunicated in the harsh, oppressive manner that arose when Constantine turned the Church into an arm of imperial administration and decided that Jesus was god and that 27 particular books constituted the New Testament.

The abundance of errors in the above paragraph is a bit daunting, and I’m not dealing with them all by any means.

However, what we should realise first is that Nicaea is not unique for its actions but for its scope. It is the first ‘ecumenical’ or ‘general’ council precisely because it was the first council the Church was able to organise that went beyond the regional scope of the councils of preceding centuries.

And what did councils of preceding centuries deal with?

Well, sadly for scholars of canon law, they dealt little with church discipline and hierarchy. That part of the kanon, of the regula, they dealt with was, more often than not, heresy and the boundaries of orthodoxy:

They had entirely for their object the struggle against the heresies and the discussions undertaken about the fixing of the date of Easter. (34)

This comment is about second-century councils in the East and at Rome. However, Gaudemet discusses our evidence for other councils, noting the doctrinal bent of African councils in the second and third centuries and our knowledge of councils in Asia Minor, Arabia, and Egypt as well, whose objectif essentiel was the struggle against heresies (34-35).

These remarks also call to mind Paul of Samosata, who was deposed from his bishopric at Antioch by a synod of seventy (a fortuitous turnout!) bishops, priests and deacons in 268 for his Adoptionist Christology. For me, Paul of Samosata has always been keen evidence that prior to Nicaea the Church had a concern for maintaining the boundaries of orthodoxy regarding theology and the person of Christ.

And so we must come to terms with the fact that the Church prior to Constantine had her own order, had boundaries of belief, and had ways of maintaining those boundaries.

*Sources of Church Law in the West from the Second to the Seventh Century.