Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Councils, Scripture and Catholic Faith

Article XXI. Of the authority of General Councils.
GENERAL Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of princes. And when they be gathered together, forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and word of God, they may err and sometime have erred, even in things pertaining to God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of Holy Scripture.

This Article has been used as ammunition by Polemicists who think that it provides the "aha!" factor. They have decided that it proves that Anglicanism is built on a false foundation, because these C of E Reformers were obviously rejecting the authority of Ecumenical Councils. And, despite the fact that the See of Rome recognizes the full validity of the holy orders in oriental "Non-Chalcedonian" churches, the aforesaid polemicists derive from their assumption further "proof" of Anglican Absolute Nullity and Utterly Voidness. As much as it may seem desirable, at times, to restore the Elizabethan penalties upon "papists"- strictly for these polemicists (and my mother-in-law), but no one else- it would seem a bit difficult to enforce them. So, I guess we'll just have to use apologetics instead. Oh well.

First of all, it is self-evident that councils are not infallible unless ratified by the Universal Church, something rendered impossible after Nicea II due to the Great Schism between the two "One True Churches." Some councils in the first Millennium finished their work, only to have it either rejected immediately, or accepted only briefly before being finally rejected. These facts of history are well-known, and need no further elaboration. Some councils were considered authoritative in a few regions, but never accepted by the majority of the Church, and so they are not Ecumenical Councils.

Also self-evident is this simple fact: "
And when they be gathered together, forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and word of God, they may err and sometime have erred, even in things pertaining to God." Indeed, no Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox has any basis for disagreeing with this. Why, after all, were some councils not received by the Church? What about the Arian Council in 341?

Also self-evident is this fact: "Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of Holy Scripture." This is self-evident because the Ecumenical Councils arrived at their conclusions by this very method, examination of holy scripture; and because they received Ecumenical status on this basis also.

VIII. Of the Three Creeds.
THE three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius' Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles' Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed; for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.

Because these Articles invoke the authority of scripture, the polemicists (or self-appointed apologists for Rome- of the sort who seem never to have read the Catechism of the Catholic Church) find what they think is more ammunition against Anglicans, and more proof of just how absolutely null and utterly void we, your clergy, really are. After all, this must prove that our Church is a sola scriptura sect, because we invoke the authority of the same Bible concerning which Rome has said, "these books have God as their Author"1. Of course, when the pope says it, then it's Catholic. When the English Reformers said it, it was Protestant. The significance of this distinction is not by any means self-evident.

The problem with their argument is what I have stated above. The Conciliar method was examination of the contents of Scripture. The method of universal ratification leading to Ecumenical status for a Council was also based on careful examination of scripture. The Holy Catholic Church in the first millennium was far more Berean 2 than our polemicist friends appreciate.

In addition to things that are self-evident, the term sola scriptura was well-known before the Reformation. It came from St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274): Q
uia sola canonica scriptura est regula fidei. ("The reason is that only canonical Scripture is a measure of faith"). 3 The English Reformers kept this principle alive, and deduced from it those words known to every traditional Anglican: "Holy Scriptures containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation." This is in Article VI. Of the sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation.

It is true that the Universal Church infallibly interprets scripture, in fact, has infallibly interpreted scripture. This does not mean that the Church gives us a complete commentary verse by verse. It means that whenever interpretations contradict the clear teaching of the Church, those interpretations are to be rejected. A very-very-modern Evangelical concept of sola scriptura, on the other hand, is wrong; that is, subjecting the scriptures to private interpretation. That is because some people do not understand that the Bible is not only the Word of God, but is also the Book of the Church. God wrote these books, so to speak, with human instruments. The scriptures came first through the prophets of Israel and then through the Church of the Apostles. The Church knows what its book means.

The idea expressed by St. Thomas Aquinas is what the English Reformers meant by the words quoted above from Article VI. It is a Protestant concept by the terms of their day and age, which is why it is a Catholic concept. Perhaps defining the words "Catholic" and "Protestant" should be required of anyone who uses them as labels, who paints with them using a large brush.

The Thirty-Nine Articles were established in 1563. What was happening at that time? The Council of Trent was still a matter of "current events" rather than history. Article XXI explained why the Church of England was not participating (that is, from the English perspective), and why no one should be troubled by anything Trent would require of Christians. The Article did not reject "the Church with her authority," to use Richard Hooker's phrase. It taught the people of England that their consciences need not be troubled, nor their beliefs dictated, by any council that could not prove its conclusions from scripture (the degree to which the Council of Trent may or may not be in agreement with scripture is a topic for another day).

XIX. Of the Church.
THE visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure word of God is preached and the sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same. As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch have erred: so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of ceremonies, but also in matters of faith.

This Article deals with facts of history as well, stating that each of these churches had erred at some point, for example, the Monothelitism professed by the Patriarch of Constantinople in the time of St. Maximus the Confessor. Primarily, the Article refers to the Arian heresy, if only because emperors, especially Valens, forced it on the people, creating a new round of persecution. St. Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria, was forced into exile several times. In fact, the Bishop of Rome was appointed by Arian emperors in those years.

In a fiction novel called Father Elijah, 4 an apostate cardinal has a conversation with the pope. In it the pope tells this errant cardinal that it was the "Petrine Charism" that saved the Church from the Arian heresy. This is fiction within fiction, because the facts do not support it; it is worth mentioning because it is the popular mythology of some Roman Catholics. It was not the Bishop of Rome who saved the Church from the Arian heresy, whether he had "the Petrine Charism"or not. The first Ecumenical Council of Nicea was called by Constantine because he was aware of strife, and wanted to maintain peace; and it was also due to the urging of Archbishop Alexander of Alexandria. The Bishop of Rome did not call the Council, and he was not present at it either. With the other Patriarchs, he did ratify it after it was completed. Later, when Arianism gained the sympathy of emperors, the See of Rome was officially Arian.

Of course, just as with the condemnation of Pope Honorius I for heresy (Monthelitism) at the Third [Ecumenical] Council of Constantinople (680 AD), we are told that this doesn't count as a strike against papal infallibility. Fine. I will not argue that point. I will instead argue that what the Church of England set forth in the Articles does not amount to a rejection of the Faith of the Church, does not invalidate our claim to belong to the Holy Catholic Church, does not render our orders "absolutely null and utterly void," and does not replace Catholic faith with Protestant innovation.

These Articles were written to defend, clarify, and teach the Catholic Faith as all former generations of the Church, and the Fathers of the Church, defended, clarified and taught it.


1. Dominus Iesus
2. Acts 17:10,11
3.
Notandum autem, quod cum multi scriberent de catholica veritate, haec est differentia, quia illi, qui scripserunt canonicam Scripturam, sicut Evangelistic et Apostoli, et alii huiusmodi, ita constanter eam asserunt quod nihil dubitandum relinquunt. Et ideo dicit Et scimus quia verum est testimonium eius; Gal. I, 9: Si quis vobis evangelizaverit praeter id quod accepistis, anathema sit. Cuius ratio est, quia sola canonica scriptura est regula fidei. Alii autem sic edisserunt de veritate, quod nolunt sibi credi nisi in his quae ver dicunt. Thomas's commentary on John's Gospel, Super Evangelium S. Ioannis Lectura, ed. P. Raphaelis Cai, O.P., Editio V revisa (Romae: Marietti E ditori Ltd., 1952) n. 2656, p. 488.

"It should be noted that though many might write concerning Catholic truth, there is this difference that those who wrote the canonical Scripture, the Evangelists and Apostles, and the like, so constantly assert it that they leave no room for doubt. That is what he means when he says 'we know his witness is true.' Galatians 1:9, "If anyone preach a gospel to you other than that which you have received, let him be anathema!" The reason is that only canonical Scripture is a measure of faith. Others however so wrote of the truth that they should not be believed save insofar as they say true things." (St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John 21)

4. Michael D. O'Brien, Father Elijah, 1996 San Francisco, Ignatius Press

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the bit about "sola Scriptura" in the writings of St Thomas Aquinas. There it is, we have to deal with the fact that this concept, right or worng, did not originate in the feverish brains of schismatic Reformers in Wittenburg,
Zurich and Geneva.

The problem for this formula (which Aquinas avoided deftly) is that it is an incomplete sentence: "Scriptura" is "sola" for what purpose, in what sense?
This is commonly overlooked both by the critics and by the defenders of the concept. But it has different meanings for Baptists, for the Reformed, slightly different for Lutherans. For us, it means simply that Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation. There is indeed a sense in which even the RC's maintain Scriptura sola, as they stoutly prohibit liturgical readings from non-canonical writings. "Scriptura sola" for the Eucharistic lectionary!

As far as the Thomistic use of Scripura sola, Hans Kung gives a very long list of citations of "Fide sola" from pre-Reformation theologians.

So those who quickly, thoughtlessly and ignorantly dismiss the magisterial Reformers are in real danger of cutting themselves off from the great central tradition of Christian theology. The Reformers, to be sure, made plenty of mistakes, particularly in the area of sacramental theology. But they were frequently right about some important matters, such as Justification, Mariology, Purgatory, and Indulgences.
LKW

An Anglican Cleric said...

You're on a roll, Father Hart.

Anonymous said...

First of all, it is self-evident that councils are not infallible unless ratified by the whole Church, something rendered impossible after Nicea II due to the Great Schism between the two "One True Churches."

How can you write this with a straight face when you earlier acknowledge the existence of the non-Chalcedonian churches?

Fr. Robert Hart said...

The Melkites in Alexandria remained in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch (the Metropolitan) of Constantinople in 451. The Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria claims to be the genuine successor of of St. Mark, Apostle and Evangelist.

I respect the Copts, and understand that linguistic confusion caused their isolation. However, it is also worth noting that their ancestors made less than a full effort to understand what the Council of Chalcedon had actually said, and more or less went off in a huff.

Nonetheless, to be more accurate I have changed the wording to "Universal" rather than "whole." The ratification of Patriarchs and Archbishops representing the Church in each place was the standard. I do not wish to offend Copts, especially in light of their endurance of persecution from Muslims.

William Tighe said...

"The Melkites in Alexandria remained in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch (the Metropolitan) of Constantinople in 451. The Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria claims to be the genuine successor of of St. Mark, Apostle and Evangelist."

There were no Melkites, to speak of, in Alexandria for nearly a century after Chalcedon. That is to say, to be more specific, that after Dioscoros' successor as Patriarch, Proterius, was lynched in 457 after endorsing Chalcedon, there wasn't another Chalcedonian patriarch there for nearly a century: from then until the 530s successive patriarchs there either explicitly repudiated Chalcedon or else were willing to pass it over in silence, as neither accepted nor rejected (although they always rejected its definition as heterodox), in accordance with various imperially-mandated formulae,, such as the Emperpr Zeno's "Henoticon" (which was the standard of orthodoxy in the East from 476 to 518, although Rome [and Jerusalem] rejected it). Only in the reign of Justinian was an Orthodox line of patriarchs created in opposition to the anti-Chalcedonian, when in 536 the Emperor removed Patriarch Theodosius II -- whom the anti-Chalcedonians continued to reciognize as patriarch until his death in 567. Only when Theodosius II died, however, did the imperial authorities attempt to impose a Chalcedonian patriarch upon the Alexandrians, and successive Chalcedonian patriarchs were rejected unanimously by the Egyptian episcopate and by most of the monasteries, in favor of Theodosius II's successors. Likewise, the Armenian Church (none of whose bishops has been present at Chalcedon) rejected that council in both 506 and 552.

It is true that the Patriarchate of Antioch of the anti-Chalcedonian "Syriac Orthodox Church" originated in the 550s as a "counter hierarchy" to the Orthodox patriarchate, its bishops consecrated by the indefatigable anti-Chalcedonian evangelist and bishop Jacob Baradeus, but the case of the Copts (and the Ethiopians) is a more difficult one for "branch theorists" who wish to contend that no council can be considered ecumenical unless the "Church-as-a-whole" has "received" it. Or, as I sometimes put it in other contexts, "if Chalcedon, why not Florence" and "if not Florence, then why Chalcedon?"

Fr. Robert Hart said...

The case of Chalcedon, then, brings up three possibilities.

1. It appears that a majority of the patriarchs and bishops sufficed
to call Chalcedon "Ecumenical."

2. Adherence to doctrine that is established by the authority of scripture outweighed unanimity as a consideration (this is the view I would tend to favor).

3. Since heresy places a body outside of the Church, that body's consent or dissent has no weight.

Or, all of the above.

What we are told today, however, is that the so-called "Monophysites" did not understand the use of the word ὑπόστασις (or was it φύσις- or both?). Apparently they now believe the doctrine of Chalcedon, but still reject the authority of the Council.

This brings me to my actual point in what I wrote: "And, despite the fact that the See of Rome recognizes the full validity of the holy orders in oriental 'Non-Chalcedonian' churches, the aforesaid polemicists derive from their assumption further 'proof'..." This treatment is inconsistent.

Bill Tighe wrote:

Or, as I sometimes put it in other contexts, "if Chalcedon, why not Florence" and "if not Florence, then why Chalcedon?"

After the Great Schism, one Patriarch claiming to speak for the Universal Church fails to convince the Orthodox, and us. Furthermore, in some of the post 1054 Councils recognized only by Roman Catholics, we find points worthy of theological debate, not acceptance.

On that score, if it can't be demonstrated to have been taken out of scripture, it cannot be required of any man to be believed as necessary to salvation. In such cases the Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est test has failed.