Did Gregory say that the four councils should have the same importance as the four gospels?

An interesting tweet online here, which reflects a common understanding on some Roman Catholic sites:

As Catholics, what weightage ought we to give sacred Scripture and sacred Tradition?

“I confess that I accept and venerate the four councils (Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon) in the same way as I do the four books of the holy Gospel.” – Pope Gregory I, 381 AD

That’s quite a quote, supposed to put the councils on a level with scripture.  But what did Gregory actually say, and in what context?

The quote is not directly from Gregory.  It comes from an English translation of a old German work by Reinhold Seeberg, his Lehrbuch des Dogmengeschicte, (online here) given the curious English title of Textbook of the History of Doctrines and printed in 1905 from the revised 1904 German edition.  In volume 2 (online at Archive.org here), page 18, discussing the theology of Pope Gregory I, we find the following:

Gregory knows himself to be upon these points in harmony with the doctrine of the church councils. He is orthodox, he holds, who accepts what sanctae quatuor universales synodi accepted, and rejects what they rejected (ep. vi. 66; opp. ii., p. 843). “I confess that I receive and venerate four councils, just as I receive and venerate four books of the holy gospel” (ep. i. 25, p. 515; also iii. 10; v. 51, 54; iv. 38). Thus the authority of the church is recognized as on a par with that of the Holy Scriptures. Gregory, indeed, sustained by the strictest theory of inspiration, sees in the Holy Scriptures the “foundation of divine authority” (divinae auctoritatis fundamentum, mor. xviii. 26. 39). …

That is our source for the quote, as we can see from the word “venerate”.  So let’s look up the reference in Gregory’s Letters.

The letters of Pope Gregory are collected in the Registrum Epistolarum, in 14 books.  This was printed in the Patrologia Latina vol. 77.  But Seeberg used the Monumenta Germanica Historia edition, in two volumes: vol 1 is here, vol 2 is here.

The first reference is in error: it is actually to book 1, letter 24, written to John, Patriarch of Constantinople and the other patriarchs.  (The reference given in Seeberg is “i.25 (p.515)”, which in fact is not referring to the MGH edition at all, but to the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers translation of selected letters, in which the letter is wrongly numbered as 25).  Here is the MGH text, and the NPNF translation from here.

Praeterea quia ‘corde creditur ad iustitiam, ore autem confessio fit ad salutem’, sicut sancti evangelii quattuor libros, sic quattuor concilia suscipere et venerari me fateor. Nicenum scilicet, in quo perversum Arrii dogma destruitur, Constantinopolitanum quoque, in quo Eunomii et Macedonii error convincitur, Efesenum etiam primum, in quo Nestorii impietas iudicatur, Chalcedonense” vero, in quo Euthychis’ Dioscorique pravitas reprobatur, tota devotione complector, integerrima approbatione custodio, quia in his velut in quadrato lapide, sanctae fidei structura consurgit, et cuiuslibet vitae atque actionis existat, quisquis eorum soliditatem non tenet, etiam si lapis esse cernitur, tamen extra aedificium iacet. Quintum quoque concilium pariter veneror, in quo epistola, quae Ibaey dicitur, erroris plena, reprobatur’, Theodorus personam mediatoris Dei et hominum in duabus subsistentiis separans ad impietatis perfidiam cecidisse convincitur, scripta quoque Theodoriti, per quaeb beati Cyrilli fides reprehenditur, ausu dementiae prolata refutantur. …

Besides, since ‘with the heart man believeth unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation’ (Rom.10.10), I confess that I receive and revere, as the four books of the Gospel so also the four Councils: to wit, the Nicene, in which the perverse doctrine of Arius is overthrown; the Constantinopolitan also, in which the error of Eunomius and Macedonius is refuted; further, the first Ephesine, in which the impiety of Nestorius is condemned; and the Chalcedonian, in which the pravity of Eutyches and Dioscorus is reprobated. These with full devotion I embrace, and adhere to with most entire approval; since on them, as on a four-square stone, rises the structure of the holy faith; and whosoever, of whatever life and behaviour he may be, holds not fast to their solidity, even though he is seen to be a stone, yet he lies outside the building. The fifth council also I equally venerate, in which the epistle which is called that of Ibas, full of error, is reprobated; Theodorus, who divides the Mediator between God and men into two subsistences, is convicted of having fallen into the perfidy of impiety; and the writings of Theodoritus, in which the faith of the blessed Cyril is impugned, are refuted as having been published with the daring of madness.

The next passage gives the same idea.  It comes from book 3, 10 – the letter to the subdeacon Savinus.  The NPNF translation is here.  The footnote states that the subject is the condemnation of the Three Chapters by the Fifth Council.


Exeuntes maligni homines turbaverunt animos vestros, non intellegentes neque quae loquuntur, neque de quibus adfirmant, astruentes, quod aliquid de sancta Chalcedonensi synodo piae memoriae Iustiniani temporibus sit inminutum, quam omni fide omnique devotione veneramur. Et sic quattuor synodos sanctae universalis ecclesiae sicut quattuor libros sacrib evangelii recipimus. De personis vero, de quibus post terminum synodi aliquid actum fuerat, eiusdem piae memoriae Iustiniani temporibus est ventilatum; ita tamen, ut nec fides in aliquo violaretur, nec de eisdem personis aliquid aliud ageretur, quam apud eandem sanctam Chalcedonenscm synodum fuerat constitutum. Anathematizamus autem, si quis ex definitione fidei, quae in eadem synodo prolata est, aliquid inminuere praesumit, vel quasi corrigendo eius sensum mutare. Sed sicut illic prolata est per omnia custodimus.  Te ergo, fili karissime, decet ad unitatem sanctae ecclesiae remeare, ut finem tuum valeas in pace concludere, ne malignus spiritus, qui contra te per alia opera praevalere non potest, ex hac causa inveniat, unde tibi in dic exitus tui in aditum regni caelestis obsistat.

X. Gregory to Savinus, &c.

Bad men have gone forth and disturbed your minds, understanding neither what they say nor whereof they affirm, pretending that in the times of Justinian of pious memory something was detracted from the faith of the holy synod of Chalcedon, which with all faith and all devotion we venerate. And in like manner all the four synods of the holy universal Church we receive as we do the four books of the holy Gospel. But concerning the persons with respect to whom something had been done after the close of the synod, there was something ventilated in the times of Justinian of pious memory: yet so that neither was the faith in any respect violated, nor anything else done with regard to these same persons but what had been determined at the same holy synod of Chalcedon. Moreover, we anathematize any one who presumes to detract anything from the definition of the faith which was promulgated in the said synod, or, as though by amending it, to change its meaning: but, as it was there promulgate, so in all respects we guard it. Thee, therefore, most dear son, it becomes to return to the unity of Holy Church, that thou mayest end thy days in peace; lest the malignant spirit, who cannot prevail against thee through thy other works, may from this cause find a way at the day of thy departure of barring thy entrance into the heavenly Kingdom.

The next two references, V.51 and 54, seem to be about simony and irrelevant.

The final reference is to IV.33, to Queen Theodelinae.  The NPNF gives this as “IV, 38”.  The NPNF is here.  I’ll skip the Latin for the introductory stuff.

Nos enim veneramur sanctas quattuor sinodos: Nicenam, in qua Arrius; Constantinopolitanam, in qua Macedonius; Ephesinam primam, in qua Nestorius atque Dioscorus; Calcedonensem, in qua Eutyches dampnatus est. Profitentes, quia quisquis aliter sapit quam hae quattuor synodi, a fide veritatis alienus est. Damnamus autem quoscumque damnant et quoscumque absolvunt absolvimus, sub anathematis interpositione ferientes eum, qui carundem quattuor sinodorum, maxime autem Calcedonensis, de qua quibusdamm imperitis hominibus dubietas nata est fidei addere vel adimere praesumit.

It has come to our knowledge from the report of certain persons that your Glory has been led on by some bishops even to the offence against holy Church of suspending yourself from the communion of Catholic unanimity. Now the more we sincerely love you, the more seriously are we distressed about you, that you believe unskilled and foolish men, who not only do not know what they talk about, but can hardly understand what they have heard; who, while they neither read themselves, nor believe those who do, remain in the same error which they have themselves feigned to themselves concerning us.

For we venerate the four holy synods; the Nicene, in which Arius, the Constantinopolitan, in which Macedonius, the first Ephesine, in which Nestorius, and the Chalcedonians, in which Eutyches and Dioscorus, were condemned; declaring that whosoever thinks otherwise than these four synods did is alien from the true faith. We also condemn whomsoever they condemn, and absolve whomsoever they absolve, smiting, with interposition of anathema, any one who presumes to add to or take away from the faith of the same four synods, and especially that of Chalcedon, with respect to which doubt and occasion of superstition has arisen in the minds of certain unskilled men.

There’s clearly something odd with the references here.  We can see that the English translation has interfered with the references, so it might be interesting to see what Seeberg actually wrote.  But I was unable to trace this in the various online copies in different editions without more labour than I thought it was worth.

The first reference makes clear that Gregory did say these exact words:

sicut sancti evangelii quattuor libros, sic quattuor concilia suscipere et venerari me fateor. – I confess that I receive and revere, as the four books of the Gospel so also the four Councils.

But it seems to me that Seeberg misleads us.  Gregory is not discussing the inspiration of scripture, and whether the councils should be considered on a par with it.  He is talking about the councils, at a time when their authority was very much under attack.  Everyone that he writes to accepts that the bible is inspired.  But he is addressing people who have very great doubts about the councils, whether they should be accepted at all!  His point is that he accepts them, just as he accepts the gospels.  The degree to which he accepts each is not discussed, nor in anybody’s mind.  It’s essentially a rhetorical flourish.

We ought to remember the times in which Gregory wrote.  The Roman state in the west had collapsed.  The partial reconquest of Italy under Justinian was also falling apart.  Gregory was trying to build whatever sources of authority he could, finding whatever common ground he could with the east.  At the same time the Eastern empire was engaged in its endless sickening theological witchhunts, ever creating new doctrinal quibbles in order to demonise and exclude others.  In this environment Gregory was mainly concerned to show his loyalty, and to keep things going somehow.  It is not fair to him to back-project onto him the counter-reformation attempts to put the church on a par with the bible.


4 thoughts on “Did Gregory say that the four councils should have the same importance as the four gospels?

  1. I don’t think that I want to have an argument about the inspiration of the councils here, which is what seems to be happening. I have taken down all the comments accordingly, including my own.

  2. Oddly enough, I’ve just been perusing the hymnody for Saint Theodosios (died 529; commem. 11 January), and one Troparion states that he proclaimed the Councils to be equal in mumber to the Gospels. So perhaps this was a common observation at that time, though obviously the hymnody was composed later. Theodosios was a staunch opponent of the Monophysites who rejected the 4th Council, and for this he was even imprisoned for a time.

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