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p. 523


Gibbon thus describes the Seventh Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church:  “The decrees were framed by the president 507 Tarasius, and ratified by the acclamations and subscriptions of three hundred and fifty bishops.  They unanimously pronounced that the worship of images is agreeable to Scripture and reason, to the Fathers and councils of the Church; but they hesitated whether that worship be relative or direct; whether the godhead and the figure of Christ be entitled to the same mode of adoration. 508   Of this second Nicene Council the acts are still extant; a curious monument of superstition and ignorance, of falsehood and folly.”  (Decline and Fall, chapter xlix.)

And this has been read as history, and has passed as such in the estimation of the overwhelming majority of educated English-speaking people for several generations, and yet it is a statement as full of absolute and inexcusable errors as the passage in another part of the same work which the late Bishop Lightfoot so unmercifully exposed, and which the most recent editor, Bury, has taken pains to correct.

I do not know whether it is worth while to do so, but perhaps it may be as well to state, that whatever may be his opinion of the truths of the conclusions arrived at by the council, no impartial reader can fail to recognize the profound learning 509 of the assembly, the singular acumen displayed in the arguments employed, and the remarkable freedom from what Gibbon and many others would consider “superstition.”  So radical is this that Gibbon would have noticed it had he read the acts of the synod he is criticising (which we have good reason for believing that he never did).  There he would have found the Patriarch declaring that at that time the venerable images worked no miracles, a statement that would be made by no prelate of the Latin or Greek Church to-day, even in the light of the nineteenth century.

As I have noted in the previous pages my task is not that of a controversialist.  To me at present it is a matter of no concern whether the decision of the council is true or false.  I shall therefore strictly confine myself to two points:  1. That the Council was Ecumenical.  2. What its decision was; explaining the technical meaning of the Greek words employed during this controversy and finally incorporated in the decree.

1.  This Council was certainly Ecumenical.

It seems strange that any person familiar with the facts of the case could for a moment entertain a doubt as to the ecumenical character of the council which met at Nice in 787.

(a)  It was called by the Roman Emperors to be an Ecumenical Council.  Vide letter of Tarasius.

(b)  It was called with the approval of the Pope (not like I. Constantinople, without his knowledge; or like Chalcedon, contrary to his expressed wish), and two papal legates were present at its deliberations and signed its decrees.

(c)  The Patriarch of Constantinople was present in person.

(d)  The other Patriarchates were represented, although on account of the Moslem tyranny the Patriarchs could not attend in person, nor could they even send proctors.

(e)  The decrees were adopted by an unanimous vote of the three hundred and fifty bishops.

p. 524 (f)  They were immediately received in all the four Eastern Patriarchates. 510

(g)  They were immediately accepted by the Pope.

(h)  For a full thousand years they have been received by the Latin and Greek Churches with but a few exceptions altogether insignificant, save the Frankish kingdom.

In the face of such undisputed facts, it would be strange were anyone to doubt the historical fact that the Second Council of Nice is one of the Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church, and indeed so far as I am aware none have done so except such as have been forced into this position for doctrinal consistency.

Nor have all Protestants allowed their judgment to be warped in this matter.  As a sample I may quote from that stanch Protestant whom Queen Elizabeth appointed a chaplain in ordinary in 1598, and who in 1610 was made Dean of Gloucester, the profoundly learned Richard Field.  In his famous “Book of the Church” (Book V. chap. lj.), he says:  “These” [six, which he had just described] “were all the lawful General Councils (lawful, I say, both in their beginning and proceeding and continuance) that ever were holden in the Christian Church, touching matters of faith.  For the Seventh, which is the Second of Nice, was not called about any question of faith but of manners.  So that there are but Seven General Councils that the whole Church acknowledgeth, called to determine matters of faith and manners.  For the rest that were holden afterwards, which our adversaries [the Roman Catholics] would have to be acknowledged general, they are not only rejected by us but by the Grecians also, as not general, but patriarchal only, etc.”

Of course there are a number of writers (principally of the Anglican Communion), who have argued thus:  “The doctrine taught by the Second Council of Nice we reject, ergo it cannot have been an Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church.”  And they have then gone on to prove their conclusion.  With such writers I have no concern.  My simple contention is that the Council is admitted by all to have been representative of East and West, and to have been accepted for a thousand years as such, and to be to-day accepted as Ecumenical by the Latin and Greek Churches.  If its doctrines are false, then one of the Ecumenical Synods set forth false doctrine, a statement which should give no trouble, so far as I can understand, to anyone who does not hold the necessary infallibility of Ecumenical Synods. 511

Among those who have argued against the ecumenical character of the Seventh Council there are, however, two whose eminent learning and high standing demand a consideration of anything they may advance on any subject they treat of, these are the Rev. John Mason Neale and the Rev. Sir William Palmer.

Dr. Neale considers the matter at some length in a foot-note to his History of the Eastern Church (Vol. II., pp. 132–135), but I think it not improper to remark that the author ingenuously confesses in this very note that if he came to the conclusion that the council was ecumenical, “it would be difficult to clear our own Church from the charge of heresy.”  Entertaining such an opinion at the start, his conclusion could hardly be unbiassed.

The only argument which is advanced in this note which is different from those of other opponents of the Council, is that it had not the authentication of a subsequent Ecumenical Synod.  The argument seems to me so extraordinary that I think Dr. Neale’s exact words should be cited:  “In the first place, we may remark that the Second Council of Nicæa wants one mark of authority, shared according to the more general belief by the six—according to the opinions which an English Churchman must necessarily embrace by the first five Counp. 525 cils—its recognition as Ecumenical by a later Council undoubtedly so.”  But surely this involves an absurdity, for if it is not known whether the last one is ecumenical or no, how will its approval of the next to the last give that council any certainty?  If III. Constantinople is doubtful being the sixth, because there is no seventh to have confirmed it; then II. Constantinople, the fifth, is doubtful because it has only been confirmed by a synod itself doubtful and so on, which is absurd.  The test of the ecumenicity of a council is not its acceptance by a subsequent synod, but its acceptance by the whole Church, and this Dr. Neale frankly confesses is the case with regard to II. Nice:  “It cannot be denied,” he admits, “that at the present day both the Eastern and the Latin Churches receive it as Ecumenical” (p. 132).  He might have added, “and have done so without any controversy on the subject for nearly a thousand years.”

I do not think there is any need of my delaying longer over Dr. Neale’s note, which I have noticed at all only because of his profound scholarship, and not because on this particular point I thought he had thrown any new light upon the matter, nor urged any argument really calling for an answer.

Sir William Palmer’s argument (A Treatise on the Church of Christ, Pt. IV., Chapter X., Sect. IV.) is one of much greater force, and needs an answer.  He points out how, long after the Council of Nice, the number of the General Councils was still spoken of as being Six, and that in some instances this council is referred to as the “pseudo” General Council of Nice.  Now at first sight this argument seems to be of great force.  But upon further consideration it will be seen to be after all of no great weight.  We may not be able to explain, nor are we called upon to do so, why in certain cases writers chose still to speak of Six instead of Seven General Councils, but we would point out that the same continuance of the old expression can be found with regard to others of the General Councils.  For example, St. Gregory the Great says that he “revered the four Ecumenical Councils as he did the four Gospels,” but the fifth Ecumenical Synod had been held a number of years before.  Will anyone pretend from this to draw the conclusion that at that time the Ecumenical character of the Fifth Synod (II. Constantinople) was not recognized at Rome?  Moreover, among the instances cited (and there are but a very few all told) one of them is fatal to the argument.  For if Pope Hadrian in 871 still speaks of only six Ecumenical Synods, he omits two (according to Roman count), for this date is after the synod which deposed Photius—a synod rejected indeed afterwards by the Greeks, but always accepted by the Latins as the Eighth of the Ecumenical Councils.  Would Sir William pretend for an instant that Hadrian and the Church of Rome did not recognize that Council as Ecumenical and as the Eighth Synod?  He could not, for on page 208 he ingenuously confesses that that Council “had been approved and confirmed by that Pope.”

But after all, the contention fails in its very beginning, for Sir William frankly recognizes that the Popes from the first espoused the cause of the council and were ready to defend it.  Now this involved the acknowledgment of its ecumenical character, for it was called as an Ecumenical Synod, this we expressly learn from the letter of Tarasius to the other Eastern Patriarchs (Labbe, Conc., Tom. VII., col. 165), from the letter of the Emperor and Empress to the bishops throughout the empire (L. and C., Conc., Tom. VII., col. 53), and (above all) from the witness of the Council itself, assuming the style of the “Holy Ecumenical Synod.”  In the face of such evidence any further proof is surely uncalled for.

We come now to the only other argument brought against the ecumenical character of this council—to wit, that many writers, even until after the beginning of the XVIth century, call the Seventh a “pseudo-Council.”  But surely this proves too much, for it would seem to imply that even down to that time the cultus of images was not established in the West, a proposition too ridiculous to be defended by anyone.  It is indeed worthy of notice that p. 526 all the authors cited are Frankish, (1) the Annales Francorum (a.d. 808) in the continuation of the same (a.d. 814), in an anonymous life of Charlemagne, and the Annales written after 819; (2) Eginhard in his Annales Francorum (a.d. 829); (3) the Gallican bishops at Paris, 824; 512 (4) Hincmar of Rheims; (5) Ado, bishop of Vienne (died 875); (6) Anastasius acknowledges that the French had not accepted the veneration of the sacred images; (7) The Chronicle of St. Bertinus (after 884); (8) The Annales Francorum after the council still speak of it as pseudo; (9) Regino, Abbot of Prum (circa 910); (10) the Chronicle of St. Bertinus, of the Xth Century.  (11) Hermanus Contractus:  (12) the author who continued the Gestes Francorum to a.d. 1165; (13) Roger Hoverden (a.d. 1204); (14) Conrade à Lichtenau, Abbot of Urspurg (circa 1230); (15) Matthew of Westminster.

No doubt to these, given in Palmer, who has made much use of Lannoy, others could be added; but they are enough to shew that the council was very little known, and that none of these writers had ever seen its acts.

Sir William is of opinion that by what precedes in his book he has “proved that for at least five centuries and a half the Council of Nice remained rejected in the Western Church.”  I venture to think that the most he has proved is that during that period of time he has been able to find fifteen individuals who for one reason or another wrote rejecting that council, that is to say three in a century, a number which does not seem quite sufficient to make the foundation of so considerable a generalization as “the Western Church.”  The further conclusion of Sir William, I think, every scholar will reject as simply preposterous, viz.:  “In fact the doctrine of the adoration of images [by which he means the doctrine taught by the II. Council of Nice] was never received in the West, except where the influence of the Roman See was predominant” (p. 211).

Sir William is always, however, honest, and the following quotation which he himself makes from Cardinal Bellarmine may well go far toward explaining the erroneous or imperfect statements he has so learnedly and laboriously gathered together.  “Bellarmine says:  ‘It is very credible that St. Thomas, Alexander of Hales, and other scholastic doctors had not seen the second synod of Nice, nor the eighth general synod;’ he adds that they ‘were long in obscurity, and were first published in our own age, as may be known from their not being extant in the older volumes of the councils; and St. Thomas and the other ancient schoolmen never make any mention of this Nicene Synod.’  (Bell. De Imag. Sanct. Lib. II. cap. xxij.)”

2.  What the Council decreed.

The council decreed that similar veneration and honour should be paid to the representations of the Lord and of the Saints as was accustomed to be paid to the “laurata” and tablets representing the Christian emperors, to wit, that they should be bowed to, and saluted with kisses, and attended with lights and the offering of incense. 513   But the Council was most explicit in declaring that this was merely a veneration of honour and affection, such as can be given to the creature, and that under no circumstances could the adoration of divine worship be given to them but to God alone.

The Greek language has in this respect a great advantage over the Hebrew, the Latin and the English; it has a word which is a general word and is properly used of the affectionate regard and veneration shown to any person or thing, whether to the divine Creator or to any of his creatures, this word is προσκύνησις; it has also another word which can properly be used to denote only the worship due to the most high, God, this word is λατρεία.  When then the Council defined that the worship of “latria “was never to be given to any but God alone, p. 527 it cut off all possibility for idolatry, mariolatry, iconolatry, or any other “latry” except “theo-latry.”  If therefore any of these other “latries” exist or ever have existed, they exist or have existed not in accordance with, but in defiance of, the decree of the Second Council of Nice.

But unfortunately, as I have said, we have neither in Hebrew, Latin, nor English any word with this restricted meaning, and therefore when it became necessary to translate the Greek acts and the decree, great difficulty was experienced, and by the use of “adoro” as the equivalent of προσκυνέω many were scandalized, thinking that it was divine adoration which they were to give to the sacred images, which they knew would be idolatry.  The same trouble is found in rendering into English the acts and decrees; for while indeed properly speaking “worship” no more means necessarily divine worship in English than “adoratio” does in Latin (e.g. 1 Chron. 29.20, “All the congregation bowed down their heads and worshipped the Lord and the King” [i.e. Solomon]; Luke xiv. 10, “Then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee”), yet to the popular mind “the worship of images” is the equivalent of idolatry.  In the following translations I have uniformly translated as follows and the reader from the English will know what the word is in the original.

Προσκυνέω, to venerate; τιμάω, to honour; λατρεύω, to adore; ἀσπάζομαι, to salute; δουλεύω, to serve; εἰκών, an image.

The relative force of προσκύνησις and λατρεία cannot better be set forth than by Archbishop Trench’s illustration of two circles having the same centre, the larger including the less (New Testament Synonyms, sub voce Λατρεύω).

To make this matter still clearer I must ask the reader’s attention to the use of the words abadh and shachah in the Hebrew; the one abadh, which finds, when used with reference to God or to false gods its equivalent in λατρεύω; the other shachah, which is represented by προσκυνέω .  Now in the Old Testament no distinction in the Hebrew is drawn between these words when applied to creator or creature.  The one denotes service primarily for hire; the other bowing down and kissing the hand to any in salutation.  Both words are constantly used and sometimes refer to the Creator and sometimes to the creature—e.g., we read that Jacob served (abadh) Laban (Gen. xxix. 20); and that Joshua commanded the people not to serve the gods of their fathers but to serve (abadh) the Lord (Josh. xxiv. 14).  And for the use of shachah the following may suffice:  “And all the congregation blessed the Lord God of their fathers and bowed down their heads and worshipped (Hebrew, shachah; Greek, προσκυνέω ; Latin, adoro) the Lord and the King” (1 Chron. 29.20).  But while it is true of the Hebrew of the Old Testament that there is no word which refers alone to Divine Worship this is not true of the Septuagint Greek nor of the Greek of the New Testament, for in both προσκυνέω has always its general meaning, sometimes applying to the creature and sometimes to the Creator; but λατρεύω is used to denote divine worship alone, as St. Augustine pointed out long ago.

This distinction comes out very clearly in the inspired translation of the Hebrew found in Matthew iv. 10, “Thou shalt worship (προσκυνήσεις) the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve (λατρεύσεις ).”  “Worship” was due indeed to God above all but not exclusively to him, but latria is to be given to “him only.” 514

I think I have now said enough to let the reader understand the doctrine taught by the council and to prove that in its decree it simply adopted the technical use of words found in the Greek of the Septuagint and of the New Testament.  I may then close this introduction with a few remarks upon outward acts of veneration in general.

p. 528 Of course, the outward manifestation in bodily acts of reverence will vary with times and with the habits of peoples.  To those accustomed to kiss the earth on which the Emperor had trodden, it would be natural to kiss the feet of the image of the King of Kings.  The same is manifestly true of any outward acts whatever, such as bowing, kneeling, burning of lights, and offering of incense.  All these when offered before an image are, according to the mind of the Council, but outward signs of the reverence due to that which the image represents and pass backward to the prototype, and thus it defined, citing the example of the serpent in the wilderness, of which we read, “For he that turned himself toward it was not saved by the thing that he saw, but by thee, that art the Saviour of all” (Wisdom xvi. 17).  If anyone feels disposed to attribute to outward acts any necessary religious value he is falling back into Judaism, and it were well for him to remember that the nod which the Quakers adopted out of protest to the bow of Christians was once the expression of divine worship to the most sacred idols; that in the Eastern Church the priest only bows before the Lord believed to be present in the Holy Sacrament while he prostrates himself before the infidel Sultan; and that throughout the Latin communion the acolytes genuflect before the Bishop, as they pass him, with the same genuflection that they give to the Holy Sacrament upon the Altar.  In this connexion I quote in closing the fine satire in the letter of this very council to the Emperor and Empress.  St. Paul “says of Jacob (Heb. xi. 21), ‘He worshipped the top of his staff,’ and like to this is that said by Gregory, surnamed the theologian, ‘Revere Bethlehem and worship the manger.’  But who of those truly understanding the Divine Scriptures would suppose that here was intended the Divine worship of latria?  Such an opinion could only be entertained by an idiot or one ignorant of Scriptural and Patristic knowledge.  Would Jacob give divine worship to his staff?  Or would Gregory, the theologian, give command to worship as God a manger!” 515



Who was possibly at least not the president, vide Michaud, Sept. Conc. Œuméniques, p. 330.


Worship is “relative” or “absolute,” what Gibbon means by “direct” would be hard to say.  How entirely false the whole statement is, Gibbon himself would have recognized had he read the acts.


Dr. Neale complains that the acts display a painful lack of critical knowledge and that several spurious passages are attributed to the Fathers.  But I confess this does not seem to me either surprising or disgraceful.  The attributing of books, even in our critical days, to persons who were not their authors is not so uncommon as to make us wonder such a thing might have occurred in such stormy times, when learning of this sort must have suffered by the adversities of the Church and State, the Iconoclastic persecutions and the Moslem incursions.


“It is certain,” confesses Dr. Neale (History of the Holy Eastern Church, Vol. II., p. 113; in his attempt to overthrow the authority of this council) “that Politian approved (S. Theod. Stud. Ep. xviij.) although he was not present at the council of Nicæa; and the controversy, which had never much disturbed Africa, may henceforth be considered as terminated in the Diocese of Alexandria.”


As a sample of all that bigotry and dishonesty can do when writing on such a subject, the reader is referred to a little book by the Rev. F. Meyrick (a canon of the Church of England) published in Paris for the Anglo-Continental Society, 1877, entitled, Du Schisme d’Orient et de l’authorité du prétendu septième concile.


The true date is 825.


Vide Labbe and Cossart, Concilia, tom. vii., col. 59.


Vide the Synod’s Letter to the Emperor and Empress.


The treatise of St. John Damascene on The Holy Images has very recently been published in an English translation by M. H. Allies.  (London.  Thos. Baker, 1898.)

Next: The Divine Sacra Sent by the Emperors Constantine and Irene to the Most Holy and Most Blessed Hadrian, Pope of Old Rome.