« PreviousContinue »
cipline, they would hardly have been disputed. But it has been pretended that general councils, consisting of bishops assembled from all parts of the christian world, succeed to all the power of the apostles, and have even absolute authority in matters of faith. But an assembly of ever so many bishops, being only an assembly of fallible men, can have no just claim to infallibility; nor indeed was this a thing that was pretended to in early times. Our Lord did, indeed, promise that when two or three of his disciples were gathered together in his name, he would be in the midst of them; but this promise, whatever might be meant by it, was not made to bishops in particular, and might be claim. ed by two or three individuals, as well as by two or three hundred.
Besides, those general councils, the decrees of which have been urged as of the greatest authority, were in fact as. semblies of factious men; in whose proceedings there was not even the appearance of their being influenced by the love of truth. For they determined just as the emperors, or the popes who summoned them, were pleased to direct. Accordingly there are, as might be expected, many instances of the decrees of some councils being contrary to those of others; which could not have been the case if they had been all guided by the spirit of truth.
Though Arianism was condemned by the council of Nice, it was established at the council of Arminium, which was as much a general council as the other, and also in the councils of Seleucia and Syrmium. There is also a remarkable instance of the decrees of councils, in which the Popes themselves have presided, contradicting one another, in those of Chalcedon, and Constantinople, in 554. For the former absolved and justified Theodorit of Cyr, and Ibas of Edessa, and received them into their body, as orthodox bishops ; whereas the council of Constantinople, which is styled the fifth general council, and was approved by the Pope, condemned them as damnable heretics.
The council of Constantinople also decreed that images were not to be endured in Christian churches, whereas the second council of Nice not only allowed them to be erected, but even to be worshipped. In later times the Lateran council of Julius II. was called for no other purpose but to rescind the decrees of the council of Pisa ; and whereas the council of Basil had decreed that a council of bishops is
above the Popes, the Lateran council, under Pope Leo, decreed that a Pope is above a council.
Besides, there never has been in fact any such thing as a general council. Even the four first, which are the most boasted of, had no bishops from several whole provinces in the Christian world. And the council of Trent, the authority of which the papists make so much account of, was perhaps the least respectable of all the councils. The chief intention of the crowned heads who promoted this council, was to reform the abuses in the court of Rome. But the Pope himself, by his legates, presiding in it, pronounced the Protestants, who appealed to it, heretics before condemned by that council, and none were allowed to vote in it, but such as had taken an oath to the Pope and the church of Rome. There were hardly fifty bishops present in it, none being sent from several countries. Some that were there were only titular bishops, created by the Pope for that
purpose; and some had Grecian titles, to make an appearance of the Greek church consenting to it. It is also well known that nothing was decided in the council without the previ ous consent of the court of Rome, and the decrees conclụded with an express salvo of all the authority of the apostolical see.
In fact, the papists themselves have found a variety of methods of evading the force of general councils, whenever it has been convenient for them so to do; as, if their decisions depended upon a matter of fact, concerning which they were never pretended to be infallible ; also, if their proceedings were not in all respects regular, and if their decrees were not universally received, as well as if they had not been approved by the Popes. If we may judge concerning councils by the things that have been decreed in them, we shall be far from being prejudiced in their favor; their sanction having been pleaded for things the most repugnant to reason and the plainest sense of scripture, as has been sufficiently manifested in the course of this work.
Councils were most frequent in the times of the Christian Emperors at Constantinople, and of the Christian princes of Europe, from the fall of the Roman Empire till towards the end of the eighth century. But the publication of the forged decretals of Isidore at that period made a great change with respect to councils, the jurisdiction of bishops and appeals. For councils became less frequent when they could not be held without the Pope's leave; and the interruption of provincial councils was a great wound, says Fleury, to ecclesiastical jurisdiction.
The first who seems to have maintained the infallibility of councils is Barlaam, who exhorts one of his friends to return to the communion of the church of Rome, because a council at Lyons, being lawfully assembled, and having condemned the errors of the Greeks, he must then be considered as an heretic cut off from the church, if he did not submit to it. But Occam, who lived at the same time, viz. in the fourteenth century, speaks of it as the opinion of some doctors only, while others say this infallibility was the privilege of the college of cardinals, and others of the Pope himself. It was a question, however, that did not begin to be agitated till that time, and it was then disputed very calmly. It was more openly debated during the difa ferences between the Popes and the councils; when this council setting themselves up above the Popes, determined that themselves, and not the Popes were appointed by God to judge in the last resort concerning articles of faith. The council of Constance made no decision on this subject, but that of Basil did, saying that it was blasphemy to doubt that the Holy Spirit dictated their resolutions, decrees, and canons; while the Pope and the council of Florence, de. clared the contrary, and it is not yet determined which of these was a lawful council,
The most eminent of the catholic writers themselves have maintained different opinions on this subject, and have been much influenced by the circumstances in which they wrote: But this was most remarkable in the case of Æneas Sylvius, who had with great boldness maintained the authority of the council of Basil against Eugenius IV. but being made pope (by the name of Pius II.) he published a solemn recantation of all he had written upon that subject; declaring without shame or hesitation, that as Æneas Sylvius he was a damnable heretic, but as Pius II. he was an orthodox pontiff. At present the opinion of the infallibility of the Pope being generally given up by the Catholics, they suppose the seat of infallibility (for it is an incontrovertible maxim with them that there must be such a seat) to be in the councils.
The Protestants themselves had originally no dispute about the authority of truly general councils. Luther ap.
OF THE POWER OF THE CIVIL MAGISTRATE, &C.
plealed to a general council regularly assembled, and engaged to abide by its decision. Calvin maintained in express terms, that the universal church is infallible, and that God must annul his solemn promises if it be otherwise.
At present, however, it is not, I believe the opinion of any protestant, that any assembly of men is infallible. But it is thought by some to be lawful and convenient to call such an assembly of divines, to determine what should be the articles of faith in particular established churches, or such as should have the countenance of particular states. The synod of Dort, in Holland, made decrees concerning articles of faith, and proceeded in as rigorous a manner against those who did not conform to them, as any popish synod or coun. cil could have done. The time is not yet come, though we may hope that it is approaching, when the absurdity of all interference of power, civil or ecclesiastical, in matters of religion, shall be generally understood and acknowledged.
APPENDIX II. TO PARTS X. AND XI.
OF THE AUTHORITY OF THE SECULAR POWERS, OR THE CIVIL
MAGISTRATE, IN MATTERS OF RELIGION.
We have seen the daring attempts to introduce an arbitrary authority, so as to decide concerning articles of faith, as well as concerning matters of discipline, made first by the popes, who were nothing more, originally, than bishops of the single church of Rome, and afterwards, by councils, or a number of bishops and other ecclesiastical persons. This usurpation led the way to another, not indeed so excessive in the extent to which it has been carried, but much more absurd in its nature. The former usurpations were of the clergy, who might be supposed to have studied, and therefore to have understood, the christian system ; but the latter is by mere laymen, who cannot be supposed to have given much attention to religion, and consequently must be very ill prepared to decide authoritatively concerning its doctrines or rites. Of this nature is the ecclesiastical authority which, upon the reformation, was transferred from the popes to the secular powers of the different states of Europe,
and more especially that which was assumed by the king and parliaments of England.
The Roman emperors, when they became christians, did, indeed, interfere in the business of religion ; but it was either to confirm the election of bishops, or to convoke syn• ods, or general assemblies, when, as they apprehended, the peace of the state was in danger of being disturbed by her. esies, and factions in the church.
During the middle ages, the civil and ecclesiastical powers were much more intermixed. Though under the papal domination, it was not the state that encroached upon the church, but the church upon the state.
In England, when Henry VIII. shook off his dependence upon the pope in 1531, he was far from abolishing his usurped and antichristian power, but transferred it from the pope to himself, claiming the title of sole and supreme head of the church of England. He, Edward VI., Mary, Elizabeth, and Charles I. all published instructions or injunctions, concerning matters of faith without the consent of the clergy, in convocation assembled, and enforced them under severe penalties.
The House of Commons, which took up arms against Charles I. assumed the same authority in matters of religion that had been usurped by the preceding kings. And the presbyterians, of which sect they chiefly consisted, would have enacted some persecuting and sanguinary laws, if they had not been restrained by Oliver Cromwell, at the head of the Independents. These being the smaller number, would certainly have been suppressed by any act of uniformity; and it is not improbable, that, in consequence of being in this situation, they might sooner than any other sect in this country, hit upon the true christian principle of religious liberty, which entirely excludes the civil magistrate from interfering with it. At the restoration, the same church establishment, with the same powers in the king and in the parliament, was resumed; and every thing reverted into the same channel, or nearly the same, in which they had been in the reign of queen Elizabeth.
It is something remarkable, that this glaring impropriety, of merely civil magistratès deciding concerning articles of christian faith, which must necessarily be undertaken by all civil governors who presume to make any establishment of christianity (that is, of what they take to be christianity) in