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CHRISTIAN organization was the means of expressing that which is behind and beneath all its details, namely the underlying and penetrating consciousness of the oneness of the Christian body and the Christian life. It was the process by which the separate charismata could be developed and differentiated, while at the same time the unity of the whole was safeguarded. Looked at in this light, the history of organization in the Christian Church is, in its main stream, the history of two processes, partly successive, partly simultaneous, but always closely related: the process by which the individual communities became complete in themselves, sufficient for their own needs, microcosms of the Church at large; and the process by which the communities thus organized as units proceeded to combine in an always more formal and more extensive federation.

But these two processes were not merely successive. Just as there never had been a time when the separate communities, before they became fully organized, were devoid of outside ministration or supervision, so there never came a period when the fully organized communities lived only to themselves: unity was preserved by informal means, till the growing size and number of the communities, and the increasing complexity of circumstances, made informal means inadequate and further formal organization imperative. And again, though the formal self-expression of the individual community necessarily preceded the formal self-expression of the federation of communities, yet the history of organization within the single community does not come to an abrupt end as soon as the community becomes complete in itself: all functions essential for the Christian life are henceforth there, but as numbers increase and needs and duties multiply, the superabundant vitality of the organism shows itself in the differentiation of new, though always subordinate, functions. And therefore, side by side with the well-known history of the federation of the Christian churches, it will be our business to trace also the obscurer and less recognized, but perhaps not less important, processes which were going on, simultaneously with the larger processes of federation, in the individual churches and especially in those of them which were most influential as models to the rest.

(A) In the early days of Christianity the first beginnings of a new community were of a very simple kind: indeed the local organization had at first no need to be anything but rudimentary, just because the community was never thought of as complete in itself apart from its apostolic founder or other representatives of the missionary ministry. ‘Presbyters’ and ‘deacons’ no doubt existed in these communities from the first: ‘presbyters’ were ordained for each church as it was founded on St Paul's first missionary journey; ‘bishops and deacons’ constitute, together with the ‘holy people’, the church of Philippi. These purely local officials were naturally chosen from among the first converts in each district, and to them were naturally assigned the duties of providing for the permanently recurring needs of Christian life, especially the sacraments of Baptism—St Paul indicates that baptism was not normally the work of an apostle—and the Eucharist. But the evidence of the earlier epistles of St Paul is decisive as to the small relative importance which this local ministry enjoyed: the true ministry of the first generation was the ordered hierarchy, “first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers”, of which the apostle speaks with such emphasis in his first epistle to the Corinthians. Next in due order after the ranks of the primary ministry came the gifts of miracles—“then powers, then gifts of healing”— and only after these, wrapped up in the obscure designation of “helps and governments”, can we find room for the local service of presbyters and deacons.

Even without the definite evidence of the Acts and the Pastoral Epistles and St. Clement of Rome it would be already clear enough that the powers of the local ministry were narrowly limited, and that to the higher ministry, the exercise of whose gifts was not confined to any one community but was independent of place altogether, belonged not only the general right of supervision and ultimate authority over local churches, but also in particular the imparting of the gift of the Spirit, whether in what we call Confirmation or in what we call Ordination. In effect the Church of the first age may almost be said to have consisted of a laity grouped in local communities, and a ministry that moved about from place to place to do the work of missionaries to the heathen and of preachers and teachers to the converts. Most of St Paul's epistles to churches are addressed to the community, the holy people, the brethren, without any hint in the title of the existence of a local clergy: the apostle and the Christian congregation are the two factors of primary account. The Didache shows us how right down to the end of the first century, in remoter districts, the communities depended on the services of wandering apostles, or of prophets and teachers, sometimes wandering sometimes settled, and how they held by comparison in very light esteem their presbyters and deacons. Even a well-established church, like that of Corinth, with half a century of history behind it, was able, however unreasonably, to refuse to recognize in its local ministry any right of tenure other than the will of the community: and when the Roman church intervened to point out the gravity of the blow thus struck at the principle of Christian order, it was still the community of Rome which addressed the community of Corinth. And this custom of writing in the name, or to the address, of the community continued, a relic of an earlier age, well into the days of the strictest monarchical episcopacy: it was not so much the bishop's headship of the community as the multiplication of the clergy which (as we shall see) made the real gap between the bishop and his people.

Most of our documents then of the first century show us the local churches neither self-sufficient nor self-contained, but dependent for all special ministries upon the visits of the superior officers of the Church. On the other hand most of our documents of the second century—in its earlier years the Ignatian letters, and an ever-increasing bulk of evidence as the century goes on—show us the local churches complete in themselves, with an officer at the head of each who concentrates in his hands both the powers of the local ministers and those also which had at first been reserved exclusively for the "general" ministry, but who is himself as strictly limited in the extent of his jurisdiction to a single church as were the humbler presbyter-bishops from whom he derived his name. When we have explained how the supreme powers of the general ministry were made to devolve on an individual who belonged to the local ministry, we have explained the origin of episcopacy. With that problem of explanation we have not here to deal in detail: we have only to recognize the result and its importance, when in and with the bishop the local church sufficed in itself for the extraordinary as well as for the ordinary functions of church government and Christian life.

In those early days of episcopacy, among the diminutive groups of Christian “strangers and sojourners” which were dotted over the pagan world of the second century, we must conceive of a quite special closeness of relation between a bishop and his people. Regularly in all cities—and it was in the provinces where city life was most developed that the Church made quickest progress—a bishop is found at the head of the community of Christians: and his intimacy with his people was in those primitive days unhindered by the interposition of any hierarchy of functionaries or attendants his flock was small enough for him to carry out to the letter the pastoral metaphor, and to “call his sheep by name”. If the consent of the Christian people had always been, as Clement of Rome tells us, a necessary preliminary to the ordination of Christian ministers, in the case of the appointment of their bishop the people did not consent merely, they elected: not till the fourth century did the clergy begin to acquire first a separate and ultimately a predominant share in the process of choice. Even though the “angel of the church” in the Apocalypse may not have been, in the mind of the seer, at all intended to refer to the bishop, yet this quasi-identification of the community with its representative exactly expresses the ideal of second century writers. “The whole number of you I welcome in God's Name in the person of Onesimus”, “in Polybius I beheld the whole multitude of you”, writes Ignatius to the Christians of Ephesus and Tralles: “be subject to the bishop and to one another” is his injunction to the Magnesians: the power of Christian worship is in “the prayer of the bishop and the whole church”. So too to Justin Martyr, “the brethren as we are called” and “the president” are the essential figures in the portraiture of the Christian society.

If it is true that in the first century the apostle-founder and the community as founded by him are the two outstanding elements of Christian organization, it is no less true that in the second century the twin ideas of bishop and people attain a prominence which throws all subordinate distinctions into the background. Even as late as the middle of the third century we see Cyprian—who is quite misunderstood if he is looked on only as an innovator in the sphere of organization—maintaining and emphasizing at every turn the intimate union, in normal church life, of bishop and laity, while he also recognizes the duty of the laity, in abnormal circumstances, to separate from the communion of the bishop who had proved himself unworthy of their choice: “it is the people in the first place which has the power both of electing worthy bishops and of spurning the unworthy”. Similar witness for the East is borne in the same century by the Didascalia Apostolorum, where bishop and laity are addressed in turn, and their mutual relations are almost the main theme of the writer.

But this personal relation of the bishop to his flock, which was the ideal of church administrators and thinkers from Ignatius to Cyprian, could only find effective realization in a relatively small community: the very success of the Christian propaganda, and the consequent increase everywhere of the numbers of the Christian people, made some further development of organization imperative. Especially during the long peace between Severus and Decius (211-249) did recruits pour in. In the larger towns at least there could be now no question of personal acquaintance between the president of the community and all its members. No doubt it might have been possible to preserve the old intimacy at the cost of unity, and to create a bishop for each congregation. But the sense of civic unity was an asset of which Christians instinctively availed themselves in the service of religion. If practical convenience sometimes dictated the appointment of bishops in villages, these were only common in districts where, as in Cappadocia, cities were few, and where consequently the extent of the territory of each city was unduly large for supervision by the single bishop of the city. Normally, even in days before there was any idea of the formal demarcation of territorial jurisdiction, the city or civitas with all its dependent lands was the natural sphere of the individual bishop's authority. And within the walls of the city it was never so much as conceivable that the ecclesia should be divided. When the Council of Nicaea was making provision for the reinstatement in clerical rank of Novatianist clergy willing to be reconciled with the Church, the arrangement was subject always to the maintenance of the principle that there should not be “two bishops in the city”. The very rivalries between different claimants of one episcopal throne serve to bring out the same result—witness the earliest instances of pope and anti-pope of which we have documentary knowledge, those of Cornelius and Novatian in 251, and of Liberius and Felix about 357. In the latter case Constantius, with a politician's eye to compromise, recommended the joint recognition of both claimants: but the Roman people—Theodoret, to whose History we owe the details, is careful to note that he has recorded the very language used—saluted the reading of the rescript in the circus with the mocking cry that two leaders would do very well for the factions at the games, but that there could be only "one God, one Christ, one bishop." Exactly the same reason had been given a century earlier in almost the same words, by the Roman confessors when writing to Cyprian, for their abandonment of Novatian and adhesion to Cornelius: “we are not unaware that there is one God, and one Christ the Lord whom we have confessed, one Holy Spirit, and therefore only one true bishop in the communion of the Catholic Church”. Both in East and West, in the largest cities as well as in the smallest, the society of the faithful was conceived of as an indivisible unit; and its oneness was expressed in the person of its one bishop. The parish of Christians in any locality was not like a hive of bees, which, when numbers multiplied inconveniently, could throw off a part of the whole, to be henceforward a complete and independent organism under separate control. The necessity for new organization had to be met in some way which would preserve at all costs the oneness of the body and its head.

It followed that the work and duties which the individual bishop could no longer perform in person must be shared with, or deputed to, subordinate officials. New offices came into being in the course especially of the third century, and the growth of this clerus or clergy, and its gradual acquisition during the fourth and fifth centuries of the character of a hierarchy nicely ordered in steps and degrees, is a feature of ecclesiastical history of which the importance has not always been adequately realized.

Of such a hierarchy the germs had no doubt existed from the beginning; and indeed presbyters and deacons were, as we have seen, older component parts of the local communities than were the bishops themselves. In the Ignatian theory bishop, presbyters, and deacons are the three universal elements of organization, “without which nothing can be called a church”. And the distinction between the two subordinate orders, in their original scope and intention, was just the distinction between the two sides of clerical office which in the bishop were in some sort combined, the spiritual and the administrative: presbyters were the associates of the bishop in his spiritual character, deacons in his administrative functions.

Our earliest documents define the work of presbyters by no language more commonly than by that which expresses the "pastoral" relation of a shepherd to his flock: “the flock in which the Holy Ghost hath set you as overseers to shepherd the Church of God”, “the presbyters I exhort .. . shepherd the flock of God among you ... not as lords of the ground but as examples of the flock, until the Great Shepherd shall appear”. But in proportion as the local organization became episcopal, the pastoral idea concentrated itself upon the bishop. To Ignatius the distinctive function of the presbyters is rather that of a council, gathered round the bishop as the apostles were gathered round Christ—an idea not unconnected perhaps with the position of the presbyters in the Christian assembly; for there is no reason to doubt that primitive tradition underlies the arrangement of the early Christian basilicas, where the bishop’s chair stood in the centre of the apse behind the altar, and the consessus presbyterorum extended right and left in a semicircle, as represented in the Apocalypse. So too in the Didascalia Apostolorum (Syriac and Latin) the one definite function allotted to presbyters is that of “consilium et curia ecclesiae”. Besides pastoral duties, however, the Pauline epistles bring presbyters into definite relation also with the work of teaching. If ‘teachers’ were originally one grade of the general ministry, they would naturally have settled down in the communities earlier than the itinerant apostles or prophets: ‘pastors and teachers’ are already closely connected in the epistle to the Ephesians: and the first epistle to Timothy shows us that ‘speaking and teaching’ was a function to which some at least of the presbyters might aspire. It is probable enough that the second-century bishop shared this, as all other functions of the presbyterate: St Polycarp is described by his flock as an ‘apostolic and prophetic teacher’: but, as differentiation progressed, teaching was one of the duties less easily retained in the bishop's hands, and our third-century authorities are full of references to the class known as presbyteri doctores.

If presbyters were thus the bishop’s counsellors and advisers where counsel was needed, his colleagues in the rites of Christian worship, his assistants and representatives in pastoral and teaching duties, the prototypes of the diaconate are to be found in the Seven of the Acts, who were appointed to disburden the apostles of the work of poor relief and charity and to set them free for their more spiritual duties of ‘prayer and ministering of the Word’. Quite similarly in the ‘servants’ of the local church, the bishop found ready to hand a personal staff of clerks and secretaries. The Christian Church in one not unimportant aspect was a gigantic friendly society: and the deacons were the relieving officers who, under the direction of the ‘overseer’, sought out the local members of the society in their homes, and dispensed to those who were in permanent or temporary need the contributions of their more fortunate brethren. From their district-visiting the deacons would derive an intimate knowledge of the circumstances and characters of individual Christians, and of the way in which each was living up to his professio: by a very natural development it became part of their recognized duties, as we learn from the Didascalia, to report to the bishop cases calling for the exercise of the penitential discipline of the Church. Throughout all the early centuries the closeness of their personal relation with the bishop remains: but what had been spread over the whole diaconate tends to be concentrated on an individual, when the office of archdeacon—oculus episcopi, according to a favorite metaphor—begins to emerge: the earliest instances of the actual title are c. 370-380, in Optatus (of Caecilian of Carthage) and in the Gesta inter Liberium et Felicem, (of Felix of Rome).

Originally, as it would seem, deacons were not ministers of worship at all: the earliest subordinate office in the liturgy was that of reader. We need not suppose that deacon in the New Testament means a distinct official in the Church any more than in the Synagogue: but the same phrase in Justin's Apology has more of a formal sound, and by the end of the second century the first of the minor orders had obviously an established place in church usage. While Ignatius names only bishop, presbyters, and deacons, Tertullian, contrasting the stable orders of Catholics with the unsettled arrangements of heretics, speaks of bishop, presbyter, deacon, and reader. And in remote churches or backwardly organized provinces the same four orders were the minimum recognized long after Tertullian, as in the so-called Apostolic Church Order (third century, perhaps for Egypt) and in the canons of the Council of Sardica (343, for the Balkan peninsula: the canon is proposed by the Spaniard Hosius of Cordova).

But the process of transformation by which the diaconate became more and more a spiritual office began early, and one of its results was to degrade the readership by ousting it from its proper functions. It was as attendants on the bishop that the deacons, we may well suppose, were deputed from the first to take the Eucharist, over which the bishop had offered the prayers and thanksgivings of the Church, to the absent sick. In Rome, when Justin wrote, soon after 150, they were already distributing the consecrated "bread and wine and water" in the Christian assembly. Not very much later the reading of the Gospel began to be assigned to them: Cyprian is the last writer to connect the Gospel still with the reader; by the end of the third century it was a constant function of the deacon, and the reader had sunk proportionately in rank and dignity.

But this development of the diaconate is only part of a much larger movement. In the greater churches at least an elaborate differentiation of functions and functionaries was in course of process during the third century. Under the pressure of circumstances, and the accumulation of new duties which the increasing size and importance of the Christian communities thrust upon the bishop, much which he had hitherto done for himself, and which long remained his in theory, came in practice to be done for him by the higher clergy. As they moved up to take his place, they in turn left duties to be provided for: as they drew more and more to the spiritual side of their work, they left the more secular duties to new officials in their place. Evidence for Carthage and Rome in the middle of the third century shows us that, besides the principal orders of bishop, presbyters, and deacons, a large community would now complete its clerus by two additional pairs of officers, subdeacon and acolyte, exorcist and reader, making seven altogether. The church of Carthage, we learn from the Cyprianic correspondence, had exorcists and readers, apparently at the bottom of the clergy; and it had also hypodiaconi and acoliti, who served as the bearers of letters or gifts from the bishop to his correspondents. Subdeacons and acolytes were now in fact what deacons had earlier been, the personal and secretarial staff of the bishop, while exorcists and readers were the subordinate members of the liturgical ranks. The combination of all these various officers into a single definitely graduated hierarchy was the work of the fourth century: but it is at least adumbrated in the enumeration of the Roman clerus addressed by Pope Cornelius, Cyprian's contemporary, to Fabius of Antioch in 251. Besides the bishop, there were at Rome forty-six presbyters, seven deacons, seven subdeacons, forty-two acolytes; of exorcists and readers, together with doorkeepers, there were fifty-two; of widows and afflicted over fifteen hundred: and all this “great multitude” was “necessary in the church”.

Promotion from one rank of the ministry to another was of course no new thing. In particular the rise from the diaconate to the presbyterate, from the more secular to the more spiritual office, was always recognized as a legitimate reward for good service. “They that have served well as deacons”, wrote St Paul, “purchase for themselves an honorable step”; though when the Apostolic Church Order interprets place of a presbyter or that of a bishop is meant. But it was a serious and far-reaching development when, in the fourth century, the idea grew up that the Christian clergy consisted of a hierarchy of grades, through each of which it was necessary to pass in order to reach the higher offices. The Council of Nicaea had contented itself with the reasonable prohibition (canon 2) of the ordination of neophytes as bishops or presbyters. The Council of Sardica in 343 prescribes for the episcopate a “prolixum tempus” of promotions through the “munus” of reader, the officium of deacon, and the ministerium of presbyter. But it was in the church of Rome that the conception of the cursus honorum—borrowed, we may suppose, consciously or unconsciously from the civil magistracies of the Roman State—took deepest root. Probably the oldest known case of particular clerical offices held in succession by the same individual is the record, in an inscription of Pope Damasus, of either his own or his father's career—there are variant readings "pater" and "puer", but even the son's career must have begun early in the fourth century—"exceptor, lector, levita, sacerdos". Ambrosiaster, a Roman and younger contemporary of Damasus, expresses clearly the conception of grades of order in which the greater includes the less, so that not only are presbyters ordained out of deacons and not vice versa, but a presbyter has in himself all the powers of the inferior ranks of the hierarchy. The earliest of the dated disciplinary decretals that has come down to us, the letter of Pope Siricius to Himerius of Tarragona in 385 (its prescriptions are repeated with less precision in that of Zosimus to Hesychius of Salona in 418), emphasizes the stages and intervals of a normal ecclesiastical career. A child devoted early to the clerical life is made a reader at once, then acolyte and subdeacon up to thirty, deacon for five years, and presbyter for ten, so that forty-five is the minimum age for a bishop: even those who take orders in later life must spend two years among the readers or exorcists, and five as acolyte and subdeacon. But the requirements of Siricius and Zosimus are moderate when brought into comparison with the pseudo-papal documents which came crowding into being at the beginning of the sixth century: of the apocryphal councils fathered on Pope Sylvester the one gives a cursus of 52 years, the other of 55, before the episcopate.

Two considerations indeed must be borne in mind which qualify the apparent rigor of the fourth and fifth century cursus. In the first place we have already traced the beginning of the depreciation of the readership. In days when liturgical formulae were still unwritten, the reader's office was the only one that was mechanical: what it had necessarily implied was a modicum of education, and all who had passed through the office had at least learned to read. Thus it came about, from the fourth century onwards, that the readers were the boys who were receiving training and education in the schools of the Church: according to the canons, for instance, of the Council of Hippo in 393 readers on attaining the age of puberty made choice between marriage and permanent readership on the one hand, celibacy and rise through the various grades of clerical office on the other. And the second thing to be remembered is that all these prescriptions of canons or decretals represented a theoretical standard rather than a practice regularly carried out. Canon Law in the fourth century could still be put aside, by bishop or people, when need arose, without scruple. Minor orders might be omitted. St Hilary of Poitiers wanted to ordain Martin a deacon straight off, and only made him an exorcist instead because he reckoned that Martin's humility would not allow him to refuse so low an office. Augustine and Jerome were ordained presbyters direct. Even the salutary Nicene rules about neophytes were on emergency violated: Ambrose of Milan and Nectarius of Constantinople were both elected as laymen (the former indeed as a catechumen), and were rushed through the preliminary grades without appreciable delay; St Ambrose passed from baptism to the episcopate in the course of a week.

But in spite of any occasional reassertions of the older freedom, it did nevertheless remain true that the curses and all it stood for was gradually establishing itself as a real influence: and it stood for a body continually growing in size, in articulation, in strength, in dead weight, which drove in like a wedge between bishop and people, and fortified itself by encroachments on both sides. Doubtless it would have been natural in any case that bishop and people, no longer enjoying the old affectionateness of personal intercourse, should lose the sense of community and imperceptibly drift apart: but the process was at least hastened and the gap widened by the interposition of the clerus. It was no longer the laity, but the clergy alone, who were in direct touch with the bishop. Even the fundamental right of the people to elect their bishop slipped gradually from their hands into the hands of the clergy. Within the clerical class a continual and steady upward pressure was at work. The minor orders take over the business of the diaconate: deacons assert themselves against presbyters: presbyters in turn are no longer a body of counselors to the bishop acting in common, but, having of necessity begun to take over all pastoral relations with the laity, tend as parish priests to a centrifugal independence. The process of entrenchment within the parochial freehold was still only in its first beginnings: but already in the fourth century—when theologians and exegetes were feeling after a formal and scientific basis for what had been natural, instinctive, traditional—we find presbyters asserting the claim of an ultimate identity of order with the episcopate.

Such are the summary outlines of the picture, which must now be filled in, here and there, with more detail. And the details will serve to reinforce the conclusion that the principal features of the history of church organization in the fourth and fifth centuries are not unconnected accidents, but are to a large extent just different aspects of a single process, the multiplication and development of the Christian clergy.


1. The people had originally chosen their bishop without serious possibility of interference from the clergy. Voting by orders in the modern sense was hardly known: in so far as any check existed on the unfettered choice of the laity, it lay in the hands of the neighboring bishops from whom the bishop-elect would naturally receive consecration. Cyprian, it is clear from his whole correspondence, was made bishop of Carthage by the laity against the decided wishes of his colleagues in the presbyterate. After the death of Anteros of Rome in 236, we learn from the story in Eusebius that “all the brethren were gathered together for the appointment of a successor to the bishopric”. And this was still the practice after the middle of the fourth century: the description of the election of St Ambrose in 374 by his biographer mentions the people only. Another biography, that of St Martin of Tours by Sulpicius Severus, depicts a similar scene about the same date: Martin was elected, in the face of opposition from some of the assembled bishops, by the persistent vote of the people. The laity too, at least in some churches, still selected even the candidates for the priesthood. Possidius, the biographer of St Augustine, relates how Valerius of Hippo put before the "plebs dei" the need for an additional presbyter, and how the Catholic people, "knowing Saint Augustine's faith and life," seized hold of him, and presented him to the bishop for ordination. In Rome however the influence of the clergy was already predominant. The episcopal elections, during the troubled decade that followed the exile of Liberius in 355, are described in the Gesta inter Liberium et Felicem: the clergy first pledge their loyalty to Liberius and then accept Felix in his place: the opposition, who clung all through to Liberius and after his death elected Ursinus as his successor, are represented as mainly a lay party—multitudo fidelium, sancta plebs, fidelis populus, dei populus—yet even in their electoral assembly the clergy receive principal mention, “presbyteri et diacones ... cum plebe sancta”. And though there are some indications that the party of Ursinus had strong support in the local episcopate, it was Damasus, the candidate of the majority of the clergy, who secured recognition by the civil power. At the end of the fourth century a definite place is accorded to the clergy in the theory of episcopal appointments. The eighth book of the Apostolic Constitutions distinguishes the three steps of election by the people, approval by the clergy, consecration by the bishops. Siricius of Rome, in his decretal letter to Himerius, puts the clergy before the people, “si eum deri ac plebis edecumarit election”: the phrase “cleri plebisque” became normal in this connection, and ultimately meant that it was for the clergy to elect and for the people to approve.

Fundamental as these changes were, no doubt each stage of them seemed natural enough at its time. Indirect election was an expedient unknown as yet: real election by the laity, in view of the dimensions of the Christian population, became more and more difficult, and the pretence of it tumultuous and unsatisfactory. The members of the clergy on the other hand were now considerable enough for a genuine electing body, yet not too unwieldy for control: and the people were gradually ousted from any effective participation. So far as the influence of the laity still continued to make itself felt, it was through the interference of the State. Under either alternative Christian feeling had to content itself with a grave deflection from primitive ideals.


2. The earlier paragraphs of this chapter have already given us reason to anticipate the developments of the diaconate in the fourth century. We have seen how the intimate relations of the deacons with the bishop as his personal staff caused the business of the churches to pass more and more, as numbers multiplied, through their hand; we have seen also how from their attendance on the bishop, in church as well as outside of it, they gradually acquired what they did not originally possess, a status in Christian worship. It is just on these two lines that their aggrandizement still proceeded. In Rome and in some of the Eastern churches (witness the last canon of the Council of Neocaesarea in Pontus, c. 315), the deacons were limited, on the supposed model of the Acts, to seven, while the presbyterate admitted of indefinite increase, "and the mere disproportion in numbers exalted the individual deacon" says Jerome bitterly. But if complaint and criticism focused itself on the affairs of the church of Rome, where everything was on a larger scale and on a more prominent stage than elsewhere, the indications all suggest that the same thing was in lesser measure happening in other churches.

The legislation of the earliest councils of the fourth century supplies eloquent testimony to the ambition of deacons in general and Roman deacons in particular. The Spanish canons of Elvira, c. 305, show that a deacon might be in the position of "regens plebem", in charge, no doubt, of a village congregation: he might (exceptionally) baptize, but he might not do what in many places the bishops of the Council of Arles, in 314, learnt that he did, namely "offer" the Eucharist. By a special canon of the same Council of Arles, the deacons of the (Roman) City are directed not to take so much upon themselves, but to defer to the presbyters and to act only with their sanction. Both these canons of Arles are combined and repeated in the 18th canon of Nicaea: but the reference to Rome is omitted, and the presumptions of the diaconate—we must suppose that existing conditions in the Eastern churches are now in view—take the form of administering the Eucharist to presbyters, receiving the Eucharist before bishops, and sitting down among the presbyters in church. Later on in the century we find the Roman deacons wearing the vestment called “dalmatic”, which elsewhere was reserved to the bishop: and one of them—probably the Mercury who is mentioned in one of Pope Damasus’ epigrams—had asserted the absolute equality of deacons and priests. Ambrosiaster, who may be confidently identified with the Roman ex-Jew Isaac, the supporter of the Anti-pope Ursinus, treats in the hundred and first of his Quaestiones de iactantia Romanorum levitarum: Jerome, in his epistle ad Evangelum presbyterum, appropriates the arguments of Ambrosiaster and clothes them with his own incomparable style. The Roman deacons, they tell us, arrogate to themselves the functions of priests in saying grace when asked out to dinner, and in getting responses made to themselves in church instead of to the priests: and this arrogance is made possible because of their influence with the laity and in the administration of ecclesiastical affairs. But the mind of the Church is clear: even at Rome presbyters sit, while deacons stand, and if at Rome deacons do not carry the altar and its furniture or pour water over the hands of the priest — as they do in every other church—that is only because at Rome there is a "multitude of clerks" to undertake these offices in their place. We do not know that these indignant remonstrances of Ambrosiaster and Jerome had any practical results: we do know that in the second half of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth century three deacons, Felix, Ursinus, and Eulalius, made vain attempts upon the papal throne—the successful rivals of the two latter were priests, Damasus and Boniface—while by the middle of the fifth century, as illustrated in the persons of St Leo and his successor Hilarius, the archdeacon almost naturally became pope.


3. As the deacon thus pressed hard on the heels of the presbyter, so the presbyter in turn put himself into competition with the bishop. Ambrosiaster and Jerome not only deny any parity of deacon and presbyter, but assert in opposition a fundamental parity of order between presbyter and bishop. Both were commentators on St Paul. Exegesis was one of the most fertile forms of that astonishing intellectual efflorescence, which, bursting out at the beginning of the fourth century in the schools of Origen and of Lucian, and in the West fifty years later, produced during several generations a literary harvest unequalled throughout the Christian centuries. And the two Latin presbyters found in the Pastoral Epistles just the historical and scriptural basis for the establishment of the claims of the presbyterate, that the instinct of the times called for. The apostle had distinguished clearly enough between deacons and presbyters or bishops: but he had used—so they rightly saw—the terms presbyter and bishop for the same order of the ministry, and it was an easy deduction that presbyter and bishop must be still essentially one. So Ambrosiaster (on 1 Timothy) and so Jerome (on Titus) explains that in the apostolic age presbyters and bishops were the same, until as a safeguard against dissensions one was chosen out of the presbyters to be set over the reste. The exegesis of Ambrosiaster and Jerome was undeniably sound: their historical conclusions were, if the picture given in the earlier pages of this chapter is correct, not so just to the facts as those of another commentator of the time, perhaps the greatest of them all, Theodore of Mopsuestia. No doubt the New Testament bishop was a presbyter: but “those who had authority to ordain, the officers we now call bishops, were not limited to a single church but presided over a whole province and were known by the title of apostles. In this way blessed Paul set Timothy over all Asia, and Titus over Crete, and doubtless others separately over other provinces ... so that those who are now called bishops but were then called apostles bore then the same relation to the province that they do now to the city and villages for which they are appointed”: Timothy and Titus “visited cities, just as bishops today visit country parishes”.

Uterque enim sacerdos est”. In these words lies perhaps the real inwardness of the movement for equating presbyters with bishops and of its partial success: “Priesthood” was taking the place of “Order”. In the first centuries, to St Ignatius for instance and to St Cyprian, the essential principle was that all things must be done within the Unity of the Church, and of that unity the bishop was the local centre and the guardian. That alone is a true Eucharist, in the language of Ignatius, which is under the authority of the bishop or his representative. No rite or sacrament administered outside this ordered unity had any reality. Baptism or Laying on of hands schismatically conferred, whether without the Church among the sects or without the bishop's sanction by any intruder in his sphere, were simply as though they had not been. Under the dominance of this conception the position of the bishop was unique and unassailable. But, as time went on, the single conception of Order, intense and overmastering as to those early Christians it had been, was found insufficient: other considerations must be taken into account, “lest one good custom should corrupt the world”. Breaches were made in the theory first at one point, then at another. Christian charity rebelled against the thought of wholly rejecting what was intended, however imperfectly, to be Christian Baptism: iteration of such Baptism was felt, and nowhere more clearly than at Rome, to be intolerable. As with Baptism, so, though much more gradually and uncertainly, with Holy Orders. The distinction between validity and regularity was hammered out: quod fieri non debuit, factum valet was the expression of the newer point of view. Augustine, in his writings against the Donatists, laid down the principles of the revised theology, and later ages have done little more than develop and systematize his work.

It is obvious that in this conception less stress will be set on the circumstances of the sacrament, more on the sacrament itself: less on the jurisdiction of the minister to perform it, more on his inherent capacity: less, in other words, on Order, more on Priesthood. We are not to suppose that earlier thought necessarily differed from later on the question, for instance, to what orders of the ministry was committed the conduct of the characteristic action of Christian worship, or as to its sacrificial nature, or as to the priestly function of the ministrants. But earlier language did certainly differ from later as to the direction in which sacerdotal terminology was most freely employed. In the general idea of primitive times the whole congregation took part in the priestly office: when a particular usage of "sacerdos" first came in, and for several generations afterwards, it meant the bishop and the bishop only. The phraseology in this respect of St Cyprian is repeated by a whole chain of writers down to St Ambrose. No doubt the hierarchical language of the Old Testament was applied to the ministry of the Church long before the fourth century: but it was either transferred in quite general terms from the one hierarchy to the other as a whole, or it was concentrated upon the bishop.

Thus in the Didascalia Apostolorum it is the bishops who inherit the Levites' right to material support, the bishops who are addressed as “priests to your people and levites who serve in the house of God, the holy catholic Church”, the bishop again who is “the levite and the high priest” (contrast the language of the Didache). But the detailed comparison of the three orders of the Jewish ministry and the Christian was so obvious that it can only have been the traditional use of sacerdos for the bishop that retarded the parallelism. We find levita for deacon in the egiprams of Damasus and in the de Officiis of St Ambrose: but the complete triad of levita, sacerdos, summus sacerdos for deacon, presbyter, and bishop meets us first in the pages of the ex-Jew Ambrosiaster. And while Ambrose employs the Old Testament associations of the levite to exalt the dignity and calling of the Christian deacon, Ambrosiaster contrasts the “hewers of wood and drawers of water” with the priests, and paraphrases the titles sacerdos and summus sacerdos as presbyter and primus presbyter. Summus sacerdos is freely used of bishops by Jerome, though the title was forbidden even to metropolitans by an African canon. But in any case the new extension of sacerdos to the Christian presbyter was too closely in harmony with existing and not to take root at once. It is common in both St Jerome and St Augustine: Pope Innocent speaks of presbyters as secundi sacerdotes: and from this time onward bishop and priest tend more and more to be ranked together as joint possessors of a common sacerdotium.

This new emphasis on the sacerdotium of Christian presbyters is perhaps to be connected with the new position which in the fourth and following centuries they were beginning to occupy as parish priests. It was the necessity of the regular administration of the Eucharist which dictated the commencements of the parochial system. While the custom of daily Eucharists was neither universal nor perhaps earlier than the third century—it arose partly out of Christian devotion, partly out of the allegorical interpretation of the daily bread—the weekly Eucharist was both primitive and universal, and the needs in this respect of the Christian people could ultimately be met only by a wide extension of the independent action of the presbyterate. Though in the larger cities it can never have been possible, even at the first, for the Christian people to meet together at a single Eucharist, the bishop, as Ignatius tells us, kept under his own control all arrangements for separate services, and the presbyters, like the head-quarters staff of a general, were sent hither and thither as occasion demanded. It may have been as definite localities came to be permanently set apart for Christian worship, that the custom grew up of attaching particular presbyters to particular churches.

Probably it was during the long peace 211-249 that ground was first acquired for churches within the walls at Rome: cemeteries were constructed by the ecclesiastical authorities as soon as the beginning of the third century, but the earliest mention of church property in the City is when the Emperor Alexander Severus (222-235), as we learn from Lampridius, decided a question of disputed ownership of land between the christiani and the popinarii in favor of the former, because of the religious use which they were going to make of it. Certainly by the time of Diocletian Christian churches throughout the Empire were of sufficient number and prominence to become, with the sacred vessels and the sacred books, a special mark for the edict of persecution in 303. And just as the restoration of peace produced an outburst of calligraphic skill devoted to the Bible, of which the Vatican and Sinaitic codices are the enduring monuments, so, too, the ruined buildings were replaced by others more numerous and more magnificent. Constantine erected churches over the graves of the Apostles on the Vatican hill and the Ostian Way, while inside the walls the Lateran basilica of the Savior and the Sessorian basilica of the Holy Cross testified further to the policy of the emperor and the piety of his mother. When Optatus wrote, fifty years later, there were over forty Roman basilicas, all of them open to the African Catholics and closed to the Donatists. But this number perhaps includes the cemetery churches, for the parish churches of the City appear to have been exactly twenty-five under Pope Hilary (461-468), in its life of whom the Liber Pontificalis enumerates a service of altar vessels for use within the City, one golden bowl for the “station” and twenty-five silver bowls (with twenty-five amae or cruets, and fifty chalices) for the parish churches, scyphus stationarius, scyphi per titulos. The station thus opposed to the parishes is the reunion, on certain days of the year, of the whole body of the Roman clergy and faithful under the pope at some particular church: it was a corrective to the growth of parochial separatism, like the custom of sending round every Sunday, from the pope's mass to the mass of every church within the walls, the fermentum or portion of the consecrated bread.

It was part of the same careful guard against the over-development of parochial independence, that, though there were parish clergy at Rome in the fourth and fifth centuries, there was as yet no parish priest. When Ambrosiaster wrote, it was the custom to allot two priests to each church. At a council under Pope Symmachus in 499, sixty-seven priests of the City subscribe, each with his title, “Gordianus presbyter tituli Pammachii” and so on: but the tituli are not more than thirty, some of them having as many as four or five priests attached to them. Indeed, thirty is perhaps too high a figure, for some tituli may appear under more than one name—an original name from the donor or the reigning pope, and a, supplementary name in honor of a saint. Of the fourth century popes Damasus had named a church after St Lawrence, and Siricius after St Clement: the basilica built under Pope Liberius became St Mary Major under Xystus III (432-440), and the two basilicas founded under Pope Julius (337-352) became in time the Holy Apostles and St Mary across Tiber.

But if the parochial system with its single rector was thus no part of Roman organization as late as the end of the fifth century, it was in full vigor at Alexandria two centuries earlier. Epiphanius tells us that, though all the churches belonging to the catholic body in Alexandria (he gives the names of eight) were under one archbishop, presbyters were appointed to each of them for the ecclesiastical necessities of the inhabitants in the several districts. The history of Arius takes the parochial system fifty or sixty years behind Epiphanius: it was as parish priest of the church and quarter named Baucalis that he was enabled to organize his revolt against the theology dominant at head-quarters under the bishop Alexander. The failure of the presbyter and victory of the bishop may have reacted unfavorably upon the position of the Alexandrine presbyters generally; the historian Socrates expressly tells us that after the Arian trouble presbyters were not allowed to preach there. At any rate it is just down to the time of Alexander and his successor, Athanasius, that those writers who testify to peculiar privileges of the Alexandrine presbyterate in the appointment of the patriarch suppose them to have survived. The most precise evidence comes from a tenth century writer, Eutychius, who relates that by ordinance of St Mark twelve presbyters were to assist the patriarch, and at his death to elect and lay hands upon one of themselves as his successor, Athanasius being the first to be appointed by the bishops. Severus of Antioch, in the sixth century, mentions that “in former days” the bishop was “appointed” by presbyters at Alexandria. Jerome (in the same letter that was cited above, but independent for the moment of Ambrosiaster) deduces the essential equality of priest and bishop from the consideration that the Alexandrine bishop “down to Heraclas and Dionysius” (232-265) was chosen by the presbyters from among themselves without any special form of consecration. Earlier than any of these is the story told in connection with the hermit Poemen in the Apophthegms of the Egyptian monks. Poemen was visited one day by heretics who began to criticize the arch­bishop of Alexandria as having only presbyterian ordination. Unfortunately the hermit declined to argue 'with them, gave them their dinner, and promptly dismissed them.

It is clear that an Alexandrine bishop of the fourth century slandered by heretics can be no one but Athanasius; and therefore this, the earliest evidence for presbyterian ordination at Alexandria, is just that which is most demonstrably false. For Athanasius was neither elected nor consecrated by presbyters: not more than ten or twelve years after the event, the bishops of Egypt affirmed categorically that the electors were “the whole multitude and the whole people” and that the consecrators were “the greater number of ourselves”. Yet this very emphasis on the part of the supporters of Athanasius reveals one line of the Arian campaign against him; and the conjecture may be therefore hazarded that it was by Arian controversialists that the allegations of Alexandrine presbyterianism were first circulated, and that their real origin lay in the desire to turn the edge of any argument that might be based upon the solidarity of the episcopate. If the Catholics called upon the bishops of the East not to champion a rebellious presbyter, their opponents would, on this view, "go one better" in their enthusiasm for episcopacy, and answer that Athanasius was no more than a presbyter himself. It is difficult for us, who have to reconstruct the history of the fourth century out of Catholic material, to form any just conception either of the mass of the lost Arian literature—exegetical and historical, as well as doctrinal and polemical—or of its almost exclusive vogue for the time being throughout the East, and of the influence which, in a thousand indirect ways, it must have exerted upon Catholic writers of the next generations. Jerome, writing amid Syrian surroundings, would eagerly accept the there current presentation of the Alexandrine tradition, though his knowledge of the later facts caused him to throw back the dates from the known to the unknown, from Athanasius and Alexander to Dionysius and Heraclas. Of course there is no smoke without fire; and presumably the Alexandrine presbyterate, in the generations immediately preceding the Council of Nicaea, must have possessed some unusual powers in the appointment of their patriarch. But it seems as likely that these were the powers which elsewhere belonged to the people as that they were the powers which elsewhere belonged to the bishops.

The explanation here offered would no doubt have to be disallowed, if it were true, as has sometimes been alleged, that Arianism all the world over stood for the rights of presbyters, while the cause of Athanasius was bound up with the aggrandizement of the episcopate. But the connection was purely adventitious at Alexandria, or at any rate local, and the conditions did not reproduce themselves elsewhere. There is no reason at all to suppose any general alliance between presbyters and Arianism, or between the episcopate and orthodox: on the contrary, all the evidence goes to show that in Syria and Asia Minor, and perhaps elsewhere, the bishops were less Catholic than their flocks. At Antioch, for instance, where Arian bishops were dominant during half a century, orthodox zeal was kept alive by the exertions of Flavian and Diodorus, originally as laymen, afterwards as priests. In so far as the doctrinal issue affected the development of organization at all, it must on the whole, both because of the general confusion of discipline and also because of the ill repute which the tergiversations of so many bishops earned for their order, have enhanced the tendency towards the emancipation of presbyters from episcopal control.

Whatever special conditions may have affected the course of development at Rome or Alexandria, it may be taken as generally true that, by the end of the fourth century the Christian presbyter's right to celebrate the Eucharist was coming to be regarded as inherent in his sacerdotium rather than as devolved upon him by the bishop. With this right went also the right to be served by deacons as ministri, and ultimately the right to preach. While the 18th canon of Nicaea still regards the deacons as ministers of the bishop only, later in the fourth century the eighth book of the Apostolic Constitutions speaks of “their service to both bishops and priests”, and Ambrosiaster is aghast at the audacity of trying to put presbyters and their servants on a par.

The right to preach had never been formally associated with any order of the Christian ministry: Ambrosiaster was certainly interpreting the documents on his own account. It is clear that in early times even a layman, like Origen, might at the bishop's request expound Scripture to the congregation. Nevertheless, though the right might be thus deputed, the sermon was part of the Eucharistic service, and Justin Martyr no doubt describes the normal practice when he makes the president of the assembly in person expound and apply the lections just read from Prophets or Gospels. In the fourth century it was treated as axiomatic that the right to preach, as part of the liturgy, could not even be deputed save to those to whom could also be deputed the right to offer the Eucharist itself. It is true that in many parts of the West the archdeacon did compose and pronounce a solemn thanksgiving once a year, at the lighting of the Paschal candle on Easter Even: but even this extraliturgical sermon de laudibus cerei was unknown at Rome, and Jerome, or whoever was the author of the letter addressed in 384 to a deacon of Piacenza (printed in the appendix to Vallarsi’s edition), finds in it a gross violation of Church order. Even the rights of presbyters in this respect were inchoate and still strictly circumscribed. In the Eastern churches it was customary for some of them to preach in the presence of the bishop and for the bishop to preach after them: and Valerius of Hippo was consciously introducing an Eastern use into Africa—he was himself a Greek, and therefore unable to speak fluently to his Latin flock—when he commissioned his presbyter Augustine “against the custom of the African churches” to expound the Gospel and preach frequently in his presence. To Jerome, familiar with the Eastern custom, it was pessimae consuetudinis that in some (doubtless Western) churches presbyters kept silence in the presence of their bishop: their right to preach attached directly to the pastoral office which they held, according to him, in common with the bishop.

But because presbyters might preach in the bishop's church, where he could note and correct at once any defects in their teaching, it does not necessarily follow that they might preach in the parish churches, and there does not seem to be any clear indication in the fourth and fifth centuries that they did in fact do so. For Rome indeed this is hardly surprising: we have seen how jealously parochial independence was there limited, and even at the bishop's mass, if we may believe the historian Sozomen, there were no sermons either by priest or bishop. In fact St Leo’s sermons—he became pope just about the time that Sozomen published his Church History—are the first of which we hear after Justin's time in Rome. But in Gaul too, and as late as the beginning of the sixth century, only the city priests, the priests, that is, who served in the bishop's church, had the right to preach: the second canon of the second Council of Vaison in 529 extends the right, apparently for the first time, to country parishes; if the priest is at any time unable to preach through illness, the deacon is to read to the people “homilies of the holy fathers”.

It is perhaps surprising at first sight to find that in the fourth and fifth centuries presbyters are establishing a new independence in face of the bishop, rather than bishops exerting a new and stricter authority over presbyters. The conclusion has been reached by direct evidence; but it is also the conclusion clearly indicated by the analogy of the whole upward movement which we have seen at work in respect both to the minor orders and to the diaconate.

But if this movement exerted so powerful an influence on the one hand upon minor orders and diaconate, and on the other hand upon the priesthood, we could not expect that bishops should be exempt from it. How and where it led in their case it will be part of our business, in the second half of this chapter, to trace. It was outside their own borders that the bishops of the great churches were tempted to look for a wider field of activity and a more commanding position. From the very first the bishop of each community had represented it in its relation to other Christian communities, had been, so to say, its minister for foreign affairs.

The Visions of Hermas were to be communicated to “the cities outside” by Clement, for that function belongs to him. The complex developments of this function, from the second century to the fifth, must now engage our attention.


So far we have been dealing only with the internal development of the individual Christian community. But there is an external as well as an internal development to trace; the separate communities were always in intimate touch with one another, and the common feeling of the mass of them formed an authority which, from the beginning, the law of Christian brotherhood made supreme. “If one member suffer, all the members suffer”, “we have no such custom, neither the churches of God”: the principles are laid down in our earliest Christian documents, and the organization of the Catholic Church was an attempt to work them out in practice. No doubt the result only imperfectly embodied the idea, and in the process of translation into concrete form the means came sometimes to appear of more value than the end.

The history of the second century shows how naturally the formal processes of federation grew out of what was at first the spontaneous response to the calls of membership of the great Society, the natural effort to express the reality of Christian union and fellowship. The Roman community, under the leadership of St Clement, writes a letter of expostulation when the traditions of stability and order are threatened by the dissensions between the Corinthian community and its presbyters.

St Ignatius addresses separate epistles to the churches of several cities in Asia Minor, on or near his road to Rome, exhorting them to hold fast to the traditional teaching and world-wide organization of the Christian Society. The church of Smyrna announces to the church of Philomelium the martyrdom of its bishop Polycarp: the churches of Lyons and Vienne send to their brethren in Asia and Phrygia an account of the great persecution of 177, and the confessors from the same cities intervene with Pope Eleutherus in favor of a sympathetic treatment of the Montanist movement. Correspondence was reinforced by personal intercourse: Polycarp journeyed to Rome to discuss the Easter difficulty with Pope Anicetus; Hegesippus, Melito and Abercius travelled widely among different churches; Clement of Alexandria had sat at the feet of half-a-dozen teachers. Never was the impulse to unity, the desire to test the doctrine of one church or of one teacher by its agreement with the doctrine of the rest, stronger than in the days when formal methods of arriving at the general sense of the scattered communities had not as yet been hammered out. The Christian statesmen of the age of the councils were only attempting to provide a more scientific means of attaining an end which was vividly before the minds of their predecessors in the sub-apostolic generations.

The crucial step in the direction of organized action was taken when the bishops of neighboring communities began to meet together for mutual counsel. Such concilia were no doubt, in the first instance, called for specific purposes and at irregular times. Tertullian alludes to decisions of church councils unfavorable to the canonicity of the Shepherd of Hermas, and makes special mention on another occasion of councils in Greece. The earliest notice of separate councils held simultaneously to discuss a pressing problem of the day is also the earliest indication of the sort of area from which any one of such councils would naturally be drawn; for when, about 196, tension became acute in regard to the attitude of the bishops of proconsular Asia, who refused to come into line with the Paschal observances of other churches, councils were held, as we learn from Eusebius, of the bishops in Palestine and in Pontus and in Gaul and in Osrhoene. During the course of the third century these local or provincial councils became more and more a regular and essential feature of church life and government. But there was as yet very little that was stereotyped about the system. It was Cyprian beyond all others who succeeded, during his brief ten years of episcopate, 248­258, in forging a very practical weapon for the needs of the time out of the conciliar movement: and of Cyprian's councils some represented (proconsular) Africa alone, some Africa and Numidia, some Africa, Numidia, and Mauretania combined; the meetings were more or less annual, but the extent of the area from which the bishops were summoned depended apparently upon the gravity of the business to be dealt with. Again, if the civil province was in ordinary cases the natural model to follow, there was no necessary dependence upon its boundary lines, where these were artificial or arbitrary. For reasons of State the senatorial province of proconsular Africa and the imperial province of Numidia were so arranged that the more civilized districts and the seaboard belonged to the one, the more backward interior to the other: but the Numidia of ecclesiastical organization was the ethnic Numidia, the country of the Numidians, not the Numidia of political geography. Perhaps it was just for this reason, because ethnic and ecclesiastical Numidia was shared between two civil provinces, that in assemblies of the Numidian bishops the president was not, as elsewhere, the bishop of the capital of the province, but the bishop senior by consecration.

Not the least important result of the new direction given by Constantine to the relations of Church and State was the authorization and encouragement of episcopal assemblies on a larger scale than had in earlier days been possible. Where difficulties, disciplinary or doctrinal, proved beyond the power of local effort to resolve, councils were planned of a more than provincial type. The Council of Arles in 314 was a general council, concilium plenarium, of the Western Church, summoned by Constantine as lord of the Western Empire, to terminate the quarrel in Africa between the partisans of Caecilian and the partisans of Donatus. Judgment went in favor of Caecilian, whose party, because they alone now remained in communion with the churches outside Africa, were henceforward the Catholics, while the others became a sect known after the name of their leader as the Donatists. The dispute between Alexander and Arius at Alexandria was in its beginning as purely local as that between Caecilian and Donatus, but the issue soon came to involve the comparison of the fundamental theologies of the two great rival schools of Alexandria and Antioch. From a council such as Arles it was but a step to the conception of a general council of the whole Church, where bishops from all over the world should meet for comparison of the forms which the Christian tradition had taken in their respective communities, for open ventilation of points of controversy, and for the removal of misunderstanding by personal intercourse. Constantine, now master of an undivided empire, organized the first ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325. The great experiment was not an immediate success: the Nicene council rather opened than closed the history of Arianism on the larger stage, and it was not till after the lapse of half a century that wisdom was seen to be justified of its works, though the very keenness of the struggle made the long delayed and hardly won triumph more complete in the end. No council ever fastened its hold on Christian imagination in quite the same way as the Council of Nicaea.

Not that there was ever any quarrel between the supporters and the opponents of the Homousion as to the rightness of the procedure which had been called into being. The weapons with which the council and the creed were fought were rival councils and rival creeds: the verdict of the court was to be set aside by renewed trials and multiplied appeals in the hope of modifying somehow the original judgment. Of all these supplementary councils none was strictly general, though on three occasions—at Sardica and Philippopolis in 343, at Ariminum and Seleucia in 359, at Aquileia and Constantinople in 381—councils representing separately the Greek and the Latin episcopate were held more or less at the same time in East and West. Others, like that of Sirmium in 351, were held, wherever the emperor happened to be in residence, by the bishops attached at the moment to the court: others again were local and provincial. The atmosphere of Rome was never perhaps quite congenial to councils: yet even the Roman Church was swept into the movement, and the pronouncements of Pope Damasus (366-384) came before the world under the guise of conciliar decisions.

The experience of the fifty years that followed the Council of Tyre in 335 taught the lesson that it was possible to have too much even of a good thing. Pagan historian and Christian saint from different starting-points arrived at the same conclusion. Ammianus Marcellinus, criticizing the character and career of the Emperor Constantius, noted caustically that he threw the coaching system quite out of gear because so many of the relays were employed in conveying bishops to and from their councils at the expense of the State. And Gregory of Nazianzus, in the year 382, refused to obey the summons to a new council, because, he says, he never saw “any good end to a council nor any remedy of evils, but rather an addition of more evil as its result. There are always contentions and strivings for dominion beyond what words can describe”.

Perhaps it was partly by a natural reaction against councils, in those districts especially where they had followed most quickly upon one another, that the tendency to aggrandize the important sees at the expense of other bishops—and at the expense therefore of the conciliar movement, since in a council all bishops had an equal vote—seems about this time to take a sudden leap forward. Valens the Arian and Theodosius the Catholic alike made communion with some leading bishop the test of orthodoxy for other bishops. A first edict of Theodosius on his way from the West to take up the Eastern Empire in 380 expresses Western conceptions by naming in this connection only Damasus of Rome and Peter of Alexandria: a later edict from Constantinople in 381 places Nectarius of Constantinople before Timothy of Alexandria, and adds half­a-dozen bishops in Asia Minor and a couple in the Danube lands as centres of communion for their respective districts.

Here then we must pause for a moment to take into account the second main element in the history of the federation of the Christian churches. Every federation has to face this primary problem—the reconciliation of the equal rights of all participating bodies with the proportional rights of each according to their greater or less importance. The difficulty which modern constitutions have tried to solve by the expedient of a dual organization, the one part of it giving to all constituent units an equal representation, the other part of it a proportionate representation according to population (or whatever other criterion of value may be selected), was a difficulty which lay also before the early Church. The unit of the Christian federation was the community, whose growth and development is described in the first half of this chapter; and that description has shown us that the necessary and only conceivable representative of the individual community was its bishop. But some communities were small and insignificant and unknown in history, others were larger in numbers, or more potent in influence, or more venerable in traditions: were the bishops of these diverse communities all to enjoy equal weight?

Such a question was no doubt not consciously put until the scientific and reflective period of Christian thought began, nor before the complex process of federation was approaching completeness: that is to say, not before the end of the fourth century. But in so far as it was put, it could receive but one answer. In the theory of Christian writers from St Irenaeus and St Cyprian onwards, all bishops were equal, for they were all appointed, to the same order and invested with the same powers, whether the sphere in which they exercised them were great or small; and this theory was given its sharpest expression in Jerome's assertion (in the same 146th letter) that the bishop of Gubbio had the same dignity as the bishop of Rome, seeing that both were equally successors of the Apostles. But in fact, and side by side with the fullest recognition of this theoretical equality, the bishops of the greater or more important churches were recognized, as the rules of the federation were gradually crystallized, to hold positions of privilege, so that the ministry of the Church came to consist not only of a hierarchy within each local community, at the head of which stood the bishop, but of a further hierarchy among the bishops themselves, at the head of which, in some sense, stood the bishop of Rome. The first steps towards such a hierarchy were on the one hand the traditional influence and privileges which had grown up unnoticed round the greater sees, and on the other hand the position acquired by metropolitans in the working out of the provincial system.

The canons of the same councils which first provide for regular meetings of the bishops of each province, reveal also the rapid aggrandizement of the bishop of the metropolis, who presided over them. If at Nicaea the ‘commonwealth of bishops’ is the authority according to one canon, by another the ‘ratification of the proceedings’ belongs to the metropolitan. The canons of Antioch, sixteen years later, lay it down that the completeness of a synod consists in the presence of the metropolitan, and, while he is not to act without the rest, they in turn must recognize that the care of the province is committed to him and must be content to take no step of any sort outside their own diocese apart from him. Traditional sanction is already claimed for these prerogatives of the metropolitan: they are “according to the ancient and still governing canon of the fathers”.

Things were not so far advanced in this direction, it is true, in the West. At any point in the first five centuries the Latin Church lagged far behind the pitch of development attained by its Greek contemporaries. Christianity had had a century's start in the East, and at the conversion of Constantine it is probable that if the proportion of Christians in the whole population was a half, or nearly a half, among Greek-speaking peoples, it was not more than a fifth, in many parts not more than a tenth, in the West. The Latin canons of Sardica in 343 show how little was as yet known of metropolitans. Although many of the enactments deal with questions of jurisdiction and judicature, the bishop of the metropolis is mentioned only once, and then in general terms. The name metropolitan is as foreign to these canons as to the earliest versions of the Nicene canons.

With this backwardness of development among the Latins went also a much smaller degree of subservience to the State: and it resulted from these two causes combined that their church organization in the fourth and fifth centuries reflected the civil polity much less closely than was the case in the East. The "province" of the Nicene or Antiochene canons is the civil province, its metropolitan is the bishop of the civil metropolis, and it is assumed that every civil province formed also a separate ecclesiastical unit. It followed logically that the division of a civil province involved division of the ecclesiastical province as well. When the Arian emperor Valens, about 372, divided Cappadocia into Prima and Secunda, it was with the particular object of annoying the metropolitan of Caesarea, St Basil, and of diminishing the extent of his jurisdiction by raising Anthimus of Tyana to metropolitan rank; and though Basil resisted, Anthimus succeeded in the end in establishing his claim. Before the end of the fourth century not only every province but every group of provinces formed an ecclesiastical as well as a civil unit: the provinces of the Roman Empire had by subdivision become so numerous that Diocletian had grouped them into some dozen dioeceses with an exarch at the head of each, and the Council of Constantinople in 381 forbids the bishops of one dioecese or exarchate to interfere with the affairs of "the churches beyond their borders." So wholly modeled upon civil lines was the ecclesiastical organization throughout the East, that in the middle of the fifth century the canons of Chalcedon assume an absolute correspondence of the one with the other. Every place which by imperial edict might be raised to the rank of a city, gained ipso facto the right to a bishop (canon 17). Every division for ecclesiastical purposes of a province which remained for civil purposes undivided was null and void—even if backed up by an imperial edict—the real metropolis being alone entitled to a metropolitan (canon 12). Civil and public lines must be followed in the arrangement of ecclesiastical boundaries.

This conception summed itself up in the claim put forward on behalf of the see of Constantinople at the councils of 381 and 451. The bishops of these councils, deferring, perhaps not unwillingly, to the pressure of the local authorities, civil and ecclesiastical, gave to the bishop of Constantinople the next place after the bishop of Rome, on the ground that Constantinople was New Rome, and that “the fathers had assigned precedence to the throne of Old Rome because it was the Imperial City”.

Nothing was better calculated than such a claim to bring out the latent divergences of East and West. Both in Church and State the rift between the Latin and the Hellenic element had begun to widen perceptibly during the course of the fourth century. Diocletian's drastic reorganization of the Imperial government gave the first official recognition to the bipartite nature of the Roman realm, and after the death of Julian in 363 the two halves of the Empire, though they lived under the same laws, obeyed with rare and brief exceptions separate masters. Parallel tendencies in the ecclesiastical world were working to the surface about the same time. The Latinization of the Western Churches was complete before Constantine: no longer clothed in the medium of a common language, the ideas and interests of Latin-speaking and Greek-speaking communities grew unconsciously apart. The rival ambitions of Rome and Constantinople expressed this antinomy in its acutest form.

The right of the civil government to be in its own sphere the accredited representative of Divine power on earth, the duty of the Christian Society to preserve at all costs its separateness and independence as the salt of mankind, the city set upon a hill—these were fundamental principles which could both appeal to the sanction of the Christian Scriptures. To hold the balance evenly between them has been, through the long centuries since Christianity began to play a leading part upon the political stage, the worthy task of philosophers and statesmen. That one scale should outweigh the other was perhaps inevitable in the first attempts, and it was at least instructive for future generations that the experiment of an over-strained allegiance to each of the two theories should have been given full trial in one part or another of Christendom.

To Byzantine churchmen the vision of the Christian State and the Christian Emperor proved so dazzling that they transferred to them something of the religious awe with which their ancestors had venerated the genius of Rome and Augustus. The memory of Constantine was honored as of a ‘thirteenth apostle’. The resentment of the native Monophysite churches of Syria and Egypt against such of their fellow-countrymen as remained in communion with Constantinople concentrated itself in the scornful epithet of Melkite or King’s man.

The Latins were more moved by the sentiment of the Roman name, and less by its incarnation in the Emperor. As Romans and Roman citizens, they felt the majesty of the Roman Respublica to attach to place even more than to person. If Rome was no longer the abode of emperors, it was in their eyes not Rome but emperors who lost thereby. The event which stirred men in the West to the depths of their being was not the conversion of Constantine but the fall of Rome. When Alaric led his Goths to the storm of the City in 410, there seemed to be need for a new theory of life and for revision of first principles. The great occasion was greatly met. St Augustine wrote his twenty-two books de Civitate Dei to answer the obvious objection that Rome, inviolate under her ancestral gods, perished only when she turned to Christ. True it was that the City of the World had fallen: but it had fallen in the Divine providence, when the times were ripe for a new and higher order of things to take its place. The reign of the City of God had been ushered in.

It was a natural corollary of the principles of Western churchmen that the Divine Society could not possibly be bound to imitate the organization of the earthly society which it was to supplant. Pope Innocent, in direct opposition to the practice of the East, wrote to Alexander of Antioch in 415 that the civil division of a province ought not to carry ecclesiastical division with it; the world might change, not so the Church. Pope Leo refused his assent to the so-called 28th "canon" of Chalcedon, not merely as an innovation, but because its deduction of the ecclesiastical primacy of Rome from her civil position was quite inconsistent with the doctrine cherished by the popes upon the subject since at least the days of Damasus .

Here then we have a bifurcation of Eastern and Western ideas, leading to a clear-cut issue, in which both sides appealed to the truth of facts. Which of them represented the genuine Christian tradition? Certainly the case of provincial organization favored the Eastern view, for it was taken over bodily from the State. But then it was relatively modern; a far higher antiquity attached to the privileged position of the greater sees, and it was upon the origin and history of their privileges that the answer really turned.

Of course there never had been a time when some churches had not stood out above the rest, and the bishops of those churches above other bishops. The Council of Nicaea, side by side with the canons that prescribed the normal organization by provinces and metropolitans, recognized at the same time certain exceptional prerogatives as guaranteed by "ancient custom. In Egypt especially, Alexandria eclipsed its neighbor cities to a degree unparalleled elsewhere in the East; and while it might not have been easy to sanction the authority of the Alexandrine bishop over the whole of "Egypt Libya and Pentapolis," if it had been quite unique in its extent, the Nicene fathers could shelter themselves under the plea that "the same thing is customary at Rome." A gloss in an early Latin version of the canons interprets the Roman parallel to consist in the "care of the suburbicarian churches," that is to say, the churches of the ten provinces of the Vicariate of Rome—central and southern Italy with the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. Over these wider districts the Roman and Alexandrine popes respectively exercised direct jurisdiction, to the exclusion in either case of the ordinary powers of metropolitans. The further prescription of the Nicene canon that “in the case of Antioch and in the other provinces” the churches were to keep their privileges, was understood by Pope Innocent to cover similar direct jurisdiction of Alexander of Antioch over Cyprus; and a version of the canons “transcribed at Rome from the copies” of the same pope defines the sphere of Antioch as “the whole of Coele-Syria”."

What was it then that had given these three churches of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch the special position to the antiquity of which the Nicene council witnesses? Roman theologians from Damasus onwards would have answered unhesitatingly that the motive was deference to the Prince of the Apostles, who had founded the churches of Rome and Antioch himself, and the church of Alexandria through his disciple Mark. But this answer is open to two fatal retorts: it does not explain why Alexandria, the see of the disciple, should rank above Antioch, a see of the master, and it does not explain why our earliest authorities, both Roman and non-Roman, so persistently couple the name of St Paul with the name of St Peter as joint patron of the Roman Church. Cyprian is the first writer to talk of the "chair of Peter" only.

Therefore we are driven back upon the secular prominence of the three cities as the obvious explanation of their ecclesiastical dignity. Yet if the appeal to history of the two councils which elevated Constantinople to the second place was thus not without a large measure of justification, their bald expression of Byzantine theory does not really, any better than the contemporary Roman view, cover the whole of the facts. If rank and influence in the ecclesiastical sphere depended, more than on anything else, on rank and influence in the civil sphere, it did not depend on it entirely. The personality and memory of great churchmen went for something. Carthage was no doubt the civil capital of the diocese of Africa, and Milan of the diocese of Italy: but it would be rash to assert that the inheritance which St Cyprian left to Carthage and St Ambrose to Milan was quite worthless or ephemeral. And if this was true of the great bishops of the third and fourth centuries, it was still more true of the apostles whom the whole Church united in venerating. Legends of apostolic foundation were often baseless enough, but their very frequency testified to the value set upon the thing claimed. Throughout the course of the long struggle with Gnosticism, the teaching of the apostles was the unvarying standard of Christian appeal: and evidence of that teaching was found not only in the written Creed and Scriptures but in the unwritten tradition of the churches and episcopal successions founded by apostles.

From the second century onwards a catena of testimony makes and acknowledges the claim of the Roman Church to be, through its connection with St Peter and St Paul, in a special sense the depository and guardian of an apostolic tradition, a type and model for other churches.

The pontificate of Damasus (366-384) has been more than once mentioned in the preceding pages as the period of the first definite self-expression of the papacy. The continuous history of Latin Christian literature does not commence till after the middle of the fourth century; the dogmatic and exegetical writings of Hilary in Gaul (c. 355) and Marius Victorinus in Rome (c. 360) are the first factors in a henceforward unbroken series. On the beginnings of this new literary development followed quickly the movement, of which we have already noticed symptoms in other directions, for interpreting existing conditions and constructing out of them a coherent and scientific scheme. These conditions had grown up gradually, naturally, and almost at haphazard: it now seemed time to try to put them on to a firm theological basis, and in the process much that had been fluid, immature, tentative, was crystallized into a hard and fast system. It fell to the able and masterful Damasus, in the last years of a long life and a troubled pontificate, to attempt what his predecessors had not yet attempted, and to formulate in brief and incisive terms the doctrine of Rome upon Creed and Bible and Pope. A council of 378 or 379, after reciting the Nicene symbol, laid down the sober lines of Catholic theology as against the various forms of one-sided speculation, Eunomian and Macedonian, Photinian and Apollinarian, to which the confusions of the half-century since Nicaea had given birth; and the East could do no better than accept the Tome of Damasus, as seventy years later it accepted the Tome of Leo. Another council in 382 published the first official Canon of Scripture in the West—the influence of Jerome, at that time papal secretary, is traceable in it—and the first official definition of papal claims. Roman primacy is grounded, with obvious reference to the vote of the council of 381 in favor of Constantinople, on “no synodal decisions” but directly on the promise of Christ to Peter recorded in the Gospel. Respect for Roman tradition imposes next a mention of “the fellowship of the most blessed Paul”; but the dominant motif reappears in the concluding paragraph, and the three sees whose prerogative was recognized at Nicaea are transformed into a Petrine hierarchy with its prima sedes at Rome, its secunda sedes at Alexandria, and its tertia sedes at Antioch.

St Augustine’s theory of the Civitas Dei was, in germ, that of the medieval papacy, without the name of Rome. In Rome itself it was easy to supply the insertion, and to conceive of a dominion still wielded from the ancient seat of government, as world-wide and almost as authoritative as that of the Empire. The inheritance of the imperial traditions of Rome, left begging by the withdrawal of the secular monarch, fell as it were into the lap of the Christian bishop. In this connection it is a significant coincidence that the first description which history has preserved to us of the outward habit of life of a Roman pontiff belongs to the same period, probably to the same pope, as the formulation of the claim to spiritual lordship. Ammianus was a pagan, but not a bigoted one. He professes, and we need not doubt that he felt, a genuine respect for simple provincial bishops, whose plain living and modest exterior "commended them to the Deity and His true worshippers." But the atmosphere of the capital, the ostentatio rerum Urbanarum, was fatal to unworldliness in religion. After relating that in the year 366 one hundred and thirty-seven corpses were counted at the end of the day in the Liberian basilica, on the occasion of the fight between the opposing factions of Damasus and Ursinus, the historian grimly adds that the prize was one which candidates might naturally count it worth any effort to obtain, seeing that an ample revenue, showered on the Roman bishop by the piety of Roman ladies, enabled him to dress like a gentleman, to ride in his own carriage, and to give dinner-parties not less well-appointed than the Caesar’s.

Some forty or fifty years after Damasus the Roman author of the original form of the so-called Isidorian collection of canons, incorporating in his preface the substance of the Damasine definition on the subject of the three Petrine sees, adds to Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch mention also of the honor paid, for the sake of James the brother of the Lord and of John the apostle and evangelist, to the bishops of Jerusalem and Ephesus. Mere veneration of the pillars of the apostolic Church is not enough to account for this modification of the original triad; the reasons must be sought in the circumstances of the day. If Ephesus is said to “have a more honorable place in synod than other metropolitans”, it may be merely that Ephesus, the most distinguished church of those over which Constantinople, from the time of St John Chrysostom, asserted jurisdiction, was a convenient stalking-horse for the movement of resistance to Constantinopolitan claims; but it is also possible that the phrase was penned after the ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431, where Memnon of Ephesus was seated next after the bishops of Alexandria and Jerusalem. If the bishop of Jerusalem is “accounted honorable by all for the reverence due to so hallowed a spot”, and nevertheless “the first throne”, sedes prima, “was never by the ancient definition of the fathers reckoned to Jerusalem, lest it should be thought that the throne of our Lord Jesus Christ was on earth and not in heaven”, we cannot help suspecting that at the back of the writer's mind hovers an uneasy consciousness that the apostolic traditions of Rome, which were so readily brought into play against Constantinople, might find an inconvenient rival in Jerusalem. Not that at Jerusalem, apart from a certain emphasis on the position of James the Lord's brother, there was ever any conscious competition with Rome: but it was true that, about the time that this canonical collection was published, the see of Jerusalem was just pushing a campaign of aggrandizement, carried on for over a century, to a triumphant conclusion.

The claims of Jerusalem were comparatively modest at the start, and it did not occur to Damasus for instance that they need be taken into serious consideration. Two initial difficulties hampered their early course. Although Jerusalem was the mother church of Christendom, and the home and centre of the first apostolic preaching, Aelia Capitolina, the Gentile city founded by Hadrian, had no real continuity with the Jewish city on the ruins of which it rose. The church of Jerusalem had been a church of Jewish Christians, the church of Aelia was a church of Gentile Christians, and for a couple of generations too obscure to have any history. A probably spurious list of bishops is all the record that survives of it before the third century. Then came the taste for pilgrimages—in AD 333 a pilgrim made the journey all the way from Bordeaux—and the growing cult of the Holy Places: Jerusalem was the scene of the most sacred of Christian memories, and locally at any rate Aelia was Jerusalem. From the time of Constantine onwards the identification was complete. The second difficulty was of a less archaic kind, and took longer to circumvent. Aelia-Jerusalem did not even dominate its own district, but was quite outshone by its near neighbor at Caesarea. Politically Caesarea was capital of the province: ecclesiastically it was the home of the teaching and the library of Origen, and the Origenian tradition was kept alive by Pamphilus the confessor and by Eusebius, bishop of the church at the time of the Nicene council. It was hardly likely that the council would do anything derogatory to the friend of Constantine, the most learned ecclesiastic of the age: and in fact all the satisfaction that the bishop of Jerusalem obtained at Nicaea was the apparent right to rank as the first of the suffragans of the province—like Autun in the province of Lyons, or London in the province of Canterbury. Local patriotism felt the sop thus thrown to it to be quite unsatisfying, and for a hundred years the sordid strife “for the first place” went on between the bishop of Jerusalem and the bishop of Caesarea. In the confusion of the doctrinal struggle it was easy enough for an orthodox bishop to refuse allegiance to an Arianising metropolitan: and Caesarea being in close relations with Antioch, it was natural for the bishops of Jerusalem to turn to their neighbors at Alexandria, nor, we may suppose, was Alexandria disinclined to favor encroachment upon the territory of its Antiochene rival. Western churchmen, with their profound belief in the finality of every decision of Nicaea, looked coldly on the movement, and it is one of the counts in Jerome's catalogue of grievances against John of Jerusalem. But at the first Council of Ephesus, with Cyril of Alexandria in the chair and John of Antioch absent, Juvenal of Jerusalem secured the second place, though he still failed to abrogate the metropolitical rights of Caesarea. At the Latrocinium of Ephesus in 449, again under Alexandrine presidency, he managed to sit even above Domnus of Antioch. The business of the Council of Chalcedon was to reverse the proceedings of the Latrocinium, and it might have been anticipated that with the eclipse of Alexandrine influence the fortunes of Jerusalem would also suffer. But a timely tergiversation on the doctrinal issue saved something for Juvenal and his see: the council decreed a partition of patriarchal rights over the "East" between the churches of Antioch and Jerusalem.

Very similar were the proceedings which established the "auto­cephalous" character of the island church of Cyprus. The Cypriots too began by renouncing the communion of the Arian bishops of Antioch: they too espoused the cause of Cyril against John at the Council of Ephesus, and were rewarded accordingly: and just as the Empress Helena's discovery of the Cross served the claims of the church of Jerusalem, so the discovery of the coffin containing the body of Barnabas the Cypriot, with the autograph of St Matthew’s Gospel, was held to demonstrate finally the right of the Cypriots to ecclesiastical isolation.

With this evidence before us, it is hard to deny that the history of the generations which first experienced the "fatal gift" of Constantine supplied only too good ground for St Gregory's complaint of contentions and strivings for dominion among Christian bishops. But though these contentions disturbed the work of councils, councils did not create them and Gregory was hardly fair if he laid on councils the responsibility for them: rather, in this direction lay the remedy and counterpoise, seeing that councils represented the parliamentary and democratic side of church government—stood, that is to say, in idea at least, for free and open discussion as against the untrammeled decrees of authority, and for the equality of churches as against the preponderance of metropolitan or patriarch or pope. No more grandiloquent utterance of these principles could indeed possibly be found than the words with which the Council of Ephesus concludes its examination of the Cypriot claim. "Let none of the most reverend bishops annex a province which has not been from the first under the jurisdiction of himself and his predecessors; and so the canons of the fathers shall not be overstepped, nor pride of worldly power creep in under the guise of priesthood, nor we lose little by little, without knowing it, that freedom which our Lord Jesus Christ, the Liberator of all men, purchased for us with his blood."

And councils really were, at any rate in two main departments of their activity, the organ through which the mind of the federated Christian communities did arrive at some definite and lasting self-expression, namely in the Creed and in the Canon Law. In both directions, it is true, East and West moved only a certain part of the way together : in both too, while the impulse was given by councils, the influence of the great churches added something to the completeness of the work: in the case of the Creed, what became a universal usage in the liturgy was at first only a usage of Antioch and Constantinople; in the case of the Canon Law the collective decisions of councils were supplemented by the individual judgments of popes or doctors before the corpus of either Western or Eastern Law was complete. Nevertheless it remains the fact that it was from and out of the conciliar movement that Church Law, as such, came into being at all ; that the canons of certain fourth and fifth century councils are the only part of this Law common to both East and West; and that again the only common formulation of Christian doctrine was also the joint work of councils, which for that very reason enjoy the name of ecumenical, Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon.

1. The origins of the Christian Creed or Symbolum are lost in the obscurity which hangs over the sub-apostolic age. We know it first in a completed form as used in the Roman church about the middle of the second century. From Rome it spread through the West, taking the shape ultimately of our Apostles' Creed; and one view of its history would make this Roman Creed the source of all Eastern Creeds as well.

But a summary statement of Christian belief for the use of catechumens must have been wanted from very early times, and it is possible that what St Paul "handed over at the first" to his Corinthian converts (1 Cor. xv. 3) was nothing else than a primitive form of the Creed. Anyhow, from whatever source it was derived, a common nucleus was expanded or modified to meet the needs of different churches and different generations, so that a family likeness existed between all early Creeds, but identity between none of them.

At the Council of Nicaea the Creed was for the first time given an official and authoritative form, and was at the same time put to a novel use. The baptismal Creed of the church of Palestinian Caesarea, itself a much more technically theological document than any corresponding Creed in the West, was propounded by Eusebius: out of this Creed the Council constructed its own confession of faith, no longer for baptismal and general use, but as the "form of sound words" by acceptance of which the bishops of the churches throughout the world were to exclude the Arian conception of Christianity. The example of the Creed of Nicaea on the orthodox side was followed in the next generation by numerous conciliar formularies expressing one shade or another of opposing belief. When the Nicene cause finally triumphed, the Nicene Creed was received all the world over as the expression of the Catholic Faith; and the Council of Ephesus condemned as derogatory to it the composition of any new formula, however orthodox.

The Council of Ephesus represented the Alexandrine position: at Constantinople, however, a new Creed was already in use, which was like enough to the Nicene Creed to pass as an expanded form of it, and was destined in the end to annex both its name and fame. This Creed of Constantinople had been developed out of some older Creed, probably that of Jerusalem, by the help of the test phrases of the Nicaenum and of further phrases aimed at the opposite heresies of the semi-Sabellian Marcellus and the semi-Arian Macedonius. It may be supposed that this Creed had been laid before the fathers of the council of 381: for at the Council of Chalcedon, where of course Constantinopolitan influences were dominant, it was recited as the Creed of the 150 fathers of Constantinople, on practically equal terms with the Creed of the 318 fathers of Nicaea. In another fifty years the two Creeds were beginning to be hopelessly confused, at least in the sphere of Constantinople, and the Constantinopolitanum was introduced into the liturgy as the actual Creed of Nicaea. In the course of the sixth century it became not only the liturgical but also the baptismal Creed throughout the East. In the West it never superseded the older baptismal Creeds—except apparently for a time under Byzantine influence in Rome—but as a liturgical Creed it was adopted in Spain on the occasion of the conversion of King Reccared and his Arian Visigoths in 589, and spread thence in the course of time through Gaul and Germany to Rome.

2. Canon Law, even more clearly than the Creed, Sowed its development to the work of councils.

The conception of a Church Law, ius ecclesiasticum, ius canonicum, was not matured till the fourth century, and then largely as a result of the new position of the Church in relation to the State, and in conscious or unconscious imitation of the Civil Law. Down to the close of the era of persecutions the discipline of the Church was administered under consensual jurisdiction without any written code other than the Scriptures, in general subordination to the unwritten or regula, the “rule of truth”, “the ecclesiastical tradition”. Primitive books like the Didascalia Apostolorum and the Apostolic Church Order give us a naive picture of the unfettered action of the bishop as judge with his presbyters as assessors. But as time went on the questions to be dealt with grew more and more complex; it became no longer possible to keep the world at arm's length, and the relations of Christians with the heathen society round them required an increasingly delicate adjustment; the simplicity of the rigorist discipline, by which in the second century all sins of idolatry, murder, fraud, and unchastity were visited with lifelong exclusion from communion, yielded at one point after another to the demands of Christian charity and to the need of distinctions between case and case. The problem became pressing when the persecution of Decius suddenly broke up the long peace, and multitudes of professing Christians were tempted or driven to a momentary apostasy. The Novatianist minority seceded rather than hold out to these unwilling idolaters the hope of any readmission to the sacraments: the Church was forced to face the situation, and it was obviously undesirable that individual bishops should adjudicate upon similar circumstances in wholly different ways. It was here that St Cyprian struck out his successful line: his first councils were called to deal with the disorganization which the persecution left behind it, and the bishops at least of Africa were induced to agree upon a common policy worked out on a uniform scale of treatment.

There is, however, nothing to show that at Cyprian's councils any canons were committed to writing, to serve as a permanent standard of church discipline. That crucial step was only taken fifty years later, as the persecution initiated by Diocletian relaxed and the bishops of various localities could meet to take common counsel for the repair of moral and material damage. During the decade 305-315 the bishops of Spain met at Elvira, the bishops of Asia Minor at Ancyra and at Neocaesarea, the Western bishops generally at Arles; and the codes of these four councils are the earliest material preserved in later Canon Law.

The decisions of such councils had however no currency, in the first instance, outside their own localities, and even the Council of Arles was a concilium plenarium only of the West; but the feeling was already gaining strength, and it was quite in accordance with the ecclesiastical policy of Constantine, that uniformity was desirable even in many matters where it was not essential, and an ecumenical council offered unique opportunities of arriving at a common understanding. So we find the Council of Nicaea issuing, side by side with its doctrinal definition, a series of disciplinary regulations, among which are incorporated, often in a greatly modified form, some canons of the Eastern Council of Ancyra and some canons of the Western Council of Arles.

These Nicene canons are the earliest code that can be called Canon Law of the whole Church, and at least in the West they enjoyed something like the same finality in the realm of discipline that the Nicene Creed enjoyed in the realm of doctrine. “Other canon than the Nicene canons the Roman church receives not, the Nicene canons alone is the Catholic Church bound to recognize and to follow,” writes Innocent of Rome in the cause of St Chrysostom. Leo does not exclude quite so rigorously the possibility of additions to the Church's code: but the Nicene fathers still exercise an authority unhampered by time or place.

The principle was simplicity itself, but it came to be worked out with a naive disregard of facts. On the one hand the genuine Nicene code was not accepted quite entire, and where Western tradition and Nicene rules were inconsistent, it was not always the tradition that went under: the canon against kneeling at Eastertide is, in all early versions that we can connect with Rome, entirely absent; the canon against the validity of Paulianist baptism was misinterpreted to mean that the Paulianists did not employ the baptismal formula. On the other hand many early codes that had no sort of real connection with the Nicene councils sheltered themselves under its name and shared its authority. The canons of Ancyra, Neocaesarea and Gangra, possibly also those of Antioch, were all included as Nicene in the early Gallican collection. The canons of Sardica, probably because of the occurrence in them of the name of Hosius of Cordova, are in most of the oldest collections joined without break to the canons of Nicaea: and a rather acrimonious controversy was carried on between Rome and Carthage in the years 418 and 419, because Pope Zosimus cited the Sardican canons as Nicene, and the Africans neither found these canons in their own copies nor could learn anything about them in the East. The original form of the collection known as Isidore’s was apparently translated from the Greek under Roman auspices at about this time: the canons of Nicaea are those quas sancta Romana recipit ecclesia, the codes of the six Greek councils Ancyra, Neocaesarea, Gangra, Antioch, Laodicea, and Constantinople follow, and then the Sardican canons. A Gallican editor of this version, later in the fifth century, combines the newer material with the older tradition in the shape of a canon proposed by Hosius, giving the sanction of the Nicene or Sardican council to the three codes of Ancyra, Neocaesarea, and Gangra.

We must not suppose that all this juggling with the name Nicene was in the strict sense fraudulent: we need not doubt the good faith of St Ambrose when he quoted a canon against digamous clergy as Nicene, though it is really Neocaesarean, or of St Augustine when he concludes that the followers of Paul of Samosata did not observe the ‘rule of baptism’, because the Nicene canons ordered them to be baptized, or for that matter of popes Zosimus and Boniface because they made the most of the Sardican prescriptions about appeals to Rome, which their manuscripts treated as Nicene. The fact was that the twenty canons of Nicaea were not sufficient to form a system of law: the new wine must burst the old bottles, and by hook or by crook the code of authoritative rules must be enlarged, if it was to be a serviceable guide for the uniform exercise of church discipline. In the fourth century the councils had committed their canons to writing. In the fifth century came the impulse to collect and codify the extant material into a corpus of Canon Law.

The first steps were taken, as might be expected, in the East. Somewhere about the year 400, and in the sphere of Constantinople-Antioch, the canons of half-a-dozen councils, held in that part of the world during the preceding century, were brought together into a single collection and numbered continuously throughout. The editio princeps, so to say, of this Greek code contained the canons of Nicaea (20), Ancyra (25), Neocaesarea (14), Gangra (20), Antioch (25), and Laodicea (59): it was rendered into Latin by the Isidorian collector, and it was used by the officials of the church of Constantinople at the Council of Chalcedon, for in the fourth session canons 4 and 5 of Antioch were read as canon 83 and canon 84, and in the eleventh session canons 16 and 17 of Antioch as canon 95 and canon 96. The canons of Constantinople were the first appendix to the code: they are translated in the Isidorian collection, and they are cited in the acts of Chalcedon, but in neither case under the continuous numeration. When Dionysius Exiguus, early in the sixth century, made a quasi-official book of Canon Law for the Roman church, he found the canons of Constantinople numbered with the rest, bringing up the total to 165 chapters: his two other Greek authorities, the canons of the Apostles and the canons of Chalcedon, were numbered independently. The earliest Syriac version adds to the original nucleus only those of Constantinople and Chalcedon, with a double system of numeration, the one separate for each council, the other continuous throughout the whole series. And in the digest of Canon Law, published about the middle of the sixth century by John Scholasticus of Antioch (afterwards intruded as patriarch of Constantinople), the “great synods of the fathers after the apostles” are ten in number--i.e. not counting the Apostolic Canons the councils proper are brought up to ten by the inclusion of Sardica, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon—and "besides these, many canonical rules were laid down by Basil the Great."


Two features in the work of John the Lawyer illustrate the transition from earlier to later Canon Law. In the first place the list of authorities is no longer confined strictly to councils, to whose decrees alone canonical validity as yet attached in the fourth and fifth centuries: a new element is introduced with the Canons of St Basil, and by the time we arrive at the end of the seventh century, when the constituent parts of Eastern Canon Law were finally settled at the Quinisextine council in Trullo, the enumeration of Greek councils is followed by the enumeration of individual doctors of the Greek Church, and an equal authority is attributed to the rules or canons of both. In the second place John represents a new movement for the arrangement of the material of Church Law, not on the older historical and chronological method, by which all the canons of each council were kept together, but on a system of subject-matter headings, so that in every chapter all the appropriate rules, however different in date or inconsistent in character, would be set down in juxtaposition. Three of John's contemporaries were doing the same sort of thing for Latin Church Law that he had done for Greek—the deacon Ferrandus of Carthage in his Breviatio Canonum, Cresconius, also an African, in his Concordia Canonum, and Martin, bishop of Braga in north-western Spain, in his Capitula. But the day of the great medieval systematisers was not yet: these tentative efforts after an orderly system seem to have met at most with local success, and the business of canonists was still directed in the main to the enlargement of their codes, rather than to the co-ordination of the diverse elements existing side by side in them.

Early Greek Church Law was simple and homogeneous enough, for it consisted of nothing but Greek councils: even the first beginnings of the corpus of Latin Church Law were more complex, because not one element but three went to its composition. We have seen that its nucleus consisted in the universal acceptance of the canons of Nicaea, and in the grafting of the canons of other early councils on to the Nicene stock. Thus, whereas Greek canon law admitted no purely Latin element (and in that way had no sort of claim to universality), Latin canon law not only admitted but centred round Greek material. Of course, as soon as the idea of a corpus of ecclesiastical law took shape in the West, a Latin element was bound to add itself to the Greek; and this Latin element took two forms. The natural supplement to Greek councils were Latin councils: and every local collector would add to his Greek code the councils of his own part of the world, Gallic, Spanish, African, as the case might be. But just about the same time with the commencement of the continuous series of councils whose canons were taken up into our extant Latin codes, commences a parallel series of papal decretals: the African councils begin with the Council of Carthage in 390 and the Council of Hippo in 393, the decretals with the letter of Pope Siricius to Himerius of Tarragona in 385. Such decretal letters were issued to churches in most parts of the European West, Illyria included, but not to north Italy, which looked to Milan, and not to Africa, which depended on Carthage. As their immediate destination was local, not one of them is found in the early Western codes so universally as the Greek councils; on the other hand their circulation was larger than that of any local Western council, and some or others of them are found in almost every collection. It would even appear that a group of some eight decretals of Siricius and Innocent, Zosimus and Celestine, had been put together and published as a sort of authoritative handbook before the papacy of Leo (441-461). Outside Rome, there were thus three elements normally present in a Western code, the Greek, the local, and the papal. In a Roman collection, the decretals were themselves the local element: thus Dionysius Exiguus’medition consists of two parts, the first containing the Greek councils (and by exception the Carthaginian council of 419), the second containing papal letters from Siricius down to Gelasius and Anastasius II. But even the code of Dionysius, though superior to all others in accuracy and convenience, was made only for Roman use, and for more than two centuries had only a limited vogue elsewhere. Each district in the West had its separate Church Law as much as its separate liturgy or its separate political organization; and it was not till the union of Gaul and Italy under one head in the person of Charles the Great, that the collection of Dionysius, as sent to Charles by Pope Hadrian in 774, was given official position throughout the Franklin dominions.