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.
De auctoritate Conciliorum Generalium
Generalia Concilia sine iussu et voluntate principum congregari non possunt. Et ubi convenerint, quia ex hominibus constant, qui non omnes Spiritu et verbo Dei reguntur, et errare possunt, et interdum errarunt, etiam in his quae ad normam pietatis pertinent. Ideoque quae ab illis constituuntur, ut ad salutem necessaria, neque robur habent neque auctoritatem nisi ostendi possint e sacris literis esse desumpta.
Fr. Laurence Wells
Now we come to the “lost article.” In our American Prayer Book, since the Articles were adopted after some hesitation and debate in 1801, we find only the statement “The Twenty-first of the former Articles is omitted; because it is partly of a local and civil nature, and is provided for, as to the remaining parts of it, in other Articles.” But because it is part of the original document, we need to examine it. This article embraces two issues, in which the distinction is clear enough for us, but was less so when this Article was written as one of the Forty-Two Articles in 1553. Those two issues are (1) whether a General Council can be called by anyone other than a Prince, and (2) how the authority of a Council is related to the authority of Scripture.
In our time, the first of these issues might seem like a quaint and unprofitable debate. We enjoy the blessing of separation of church and state, in which the Christian community (or should we say communities?) is at liberty to call a Council if we find it necessary, even if anything like a true “General Council” is well nigh impossible to arrange. Even with this disadvantage - the disadvantage of Christian disunity -there is no civil ruler on earth anyone would trust to call even a local Church council. (I can think of one possible exception, but she would never dream of attempting such a thing.) If the opening clause seems charmingly archaic, it is jarring to read the final sentence of the entire article in its first draft, happily expunged before adoption: “Kings and pious magistrates can, without waiting for the decision or gathering together of General Councils in their own State according to the word of God, decide about matters of religion.” At this point we must remind ourselves that for all their excellencies, the Articles were written in another historical context with occasional rhetorical salvos which we may safely dismiss. This is not the only instance of such a sally.
The immediate historical context for Article XXI was that it was written while the Council of Trent was in progress. Henry VIII and Continental Protestants alike had demanded the convening of a Council. Now a Council had finally been called, not by a Christian Prince or pious magistrates but by the Pope. This Council was not going as they had hoped. So an objection was introduced, which seems hard for us to defend: No Prince had called this Council.
But with the second issue, how the authority of a Council might be related to the Scriptures, we find ourselves on firmer ground and might wish that the article had been written in words like these:
“General Councils, in ancient times called by Emperors and civil authorities, may come together when the Christian community deems it expedient, and forasmuch as they may be an assembly of men….”
Many who have great zeal (sometimes a zeal which outruns knowledge) for the authority of the “Seven Ecumenical Councils of the ancient undivided Church” are put off by the Article’s statement that General Councils “may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God.” However, the council in view here was not
Nicaea, or any of those
Seven which the mainstream of Christianity has found consistent with canonical
Scriptures, but the Council of Trent.
It must be recalled that the Seven were only a few of many Councils held
in ancient times, some of which regarded themselves as true General Councils. The infamous Latrocinium (“Robber Synod”),
whose decisions were reversed at Chalcedon ,
or the Iconoclastic gathering of AD 754, over-ruled by the Seventh Ecumenical
Council in AD 787, were surely erroneous
“even in things pertaining unto God.” Chalcedon
There is a helpful distinction (which possibly the author of this Article was not conscious of, but nonetheless helpful) between true Ecumenical Councils (that is the famous Seven) and General Councils in a wider sense. This Article cannot be fairly accused of impugning the doctrinal accuracy of the Seven, since the classical doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are vigorously asserted in other Articles. At the same time this Article helpfully prevents us from attributing any autonomous authority to even Ecumenical Councils apart from the Scriptures. It was amazing recently to read a flippant statement from an individual who allowed that he does not care what the Scriptures teach, since he knows what the Councils said. The Fathers who gathered at
all the other five would surely have said, “Madman, away with him,
Anathema!” Not even Arius would have
said such a thing. Chalcedon
To give context to this Article on this point (a touchy subject in certain quarters), the contemporary REFORMATIO LEGUM ECCLESIASTICORUM is helpful. There we read, “Even if we freely defer vast honor to the Councils, chiefly to those called General Councils, nevertheless we judge that that they all must be placed far beneath the dignity of the canonical Scriptures. And what is more, we place a great difference among the Councils themselves. For certain of them, such as peculiarly those four, Nicene, Constantinople I,
Ephesus and , we embrace and
accept with great reverence.” Chalcedon
Some, indeed, will be nervous about the omission of the three subsequent Councils. But common sense should tell us that within the Seven (which is no magic number) some Councils are more important than others. Even Pope Gregory the Great held up the first four as analogous to the four Gospels, but without prejudice to the others.
The point of the Article is not to dishonor or minimize the true Ecumenical Councils or to suggest that they have erred. The point was rather to exalt the Scriptures as the ultimate court of appeal, the highest and only infallible authority. Why? Because this was the very thing which the Councils and ancient Fathers insisted upon. One does not have to flip many pages in Percival’s The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church to discover that the Councils themselves appealed to the Scriptures regularly. At
and possibly at other Councils, the Book of the Gospels was placed on the
Altar, establishing then and there that Holy Scripture is (in Calvin’s happy
phrase) “the scepter by which Christ rules in His Church.” The same custom was observed at Vatican II. Nicaea
Fr. Robert Hart
Fr. Wells has stated the case so well, and so plainly, that my task in this chapter is quite easy. By mentioning various General Councils that were overturned later by Ecumenical Councils, he has driven home the point that Article XXI cannot be used to accuse Anglicans of rejecting the Catholic Tradition of the ancient or
It is anyone who denies the truth of this Article who is flatly denying as well
the authority of the Ecumenical Councils. It is the ruling of the genuine
Ecumenical Councils that earlier councils “sometime
have erred, even in things pertaining to God.”
Furthermore, that this Article was written to deflate the Council of Trent is simply historical fact. It was the pastoral responsibility of the English bishops to prepare the people of their church for whatever may come out of
That preparation was to remind them that the Church must weigh all doctrine
against the clear teaching of the Holy Scriptures. The people of the Church of
England were thus taught not to fear the Roman ecclesiastical authority of
their own generation; for the bold claims made by the See of Rome do not hold
water anyway. Trent
The belief that only princes may call General Councils fits the Eastern model. This idea was raised as an objection to the Papal claim, a claim fairly new in terms of the entire history of the Church, that General Councils were to be called by the Pope. And, like many innovations of
idea became, in their logic, the custom or tradition of the Church
retroactively to the beginning. In fact, neither the Eastern model nor the
newly minted (but somehow retroactive) doctrine of Rome should be seen as absolute and necessary,
since neither was founded on any revelation in Scripture. Indeed, if we must
choose one or the other as harmonious with Scripture, though not required as
absolutely necessary by anything Scripture commands or teaches, the Roman model
fits better the Proto-Council in Acts chapter fifteen. It was not called by Caesar,
obviously, but by the Apostles themselves. Rome
But, the opening of Article XXI does show clearly and obviously that the direct concern of the English Reformers was a Council already begun and that was contemporary to their own age, the Council of Trent rather than any of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. If any council puts forward teaching not found in Scripture, it may not be required of anyone to believe it; and should it contradict Scripture, it cannot be the “teaching of the Church,” but rather error. And, the Ecumenical Councils themselves establish this same principle, a principle, they meant to say very clearly, by which to weigh whatever
might come up with as doctrine. Trent
Today one school of thought among modern Roman Catholics is a rather convenient version of John Henry Cardinal Newman’s theory of Doctrinal Development. His original theory, as an Anglican before his conversion to Roman Catholicism, is that true teaching must at least exist in embryonic form in Scripture, even if it was only clarified by the Church later, so as not to be vague and uncertain in meaning. When pressed, however, the advocates of Newman’s theory of Doctrinal Development reveal that what they have come to believe is really a notion of “Progressive Revelation.” Frankly, the difference is indistinguishable between what Newman meant and what they done to it, inasmuch as the teaching of Scripture really is clear enough to be understood, and so believed the ancient Fathers of the Church.
The Ecumenical Councils followed the pattern of the Proto-Council in Acts chapter fifteen, the Council of Jerusalem. That Council defended clearly established Apostolic doctrine as set forth in chapters ten and eleven of that book. And, the Ecumenical Councils, beginning with Nicea I in 325 A.D., defended the clear teaching of Scripture, in which all Apostolic Doctrine has been recorded. The Fathers at Nicea, etc., did not sit around like a group of Quakers waiting for inspiration, nor like Pentecostals looking for prophetic revelation. They weighed heresies against the clear teaching of Scripture. By “clear” I do not mean simplistic, or even easy. But, the teaching is clearly there for any but a lazy or rebellious mind. The only correct way to teach from Scripture is exegesis, drawing the meaning out; and never eisegesis, pouring some meaning in.
But, the advocates of Newman’s Theory of Doctrinal Development present a false history of the Councils and of doctrine. In their zealous approach to be advocates for Newman’s theory, they have created a false view of history consistent with the propaganda of “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” in which the basic doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and of the Holy Spirit as a Person equal to the Father and the Son, were not known before specific Councils somehow “developed” the Church’s doctrine. But, the fathers of the Church argued in favor of those doctrines by a clear appeal to Scripture; and, of course, they did so consistently with how Scripture actually had been understood from the earliest times.
And, frankly, once Newman’s theory of Doctrinal Development comes to the full end of its own logic, we are left with “Progressive Revelation” in which nothing, finally, can be known, and nothing can be understood which cannot be overthrown, “corrected” and replaced by newly discovered doctrines. Of course, all of these would no doubt also have retroactive status as the teaching of the Church from earliest times, no matter how obviously new they are. The precedents already exist for that.
Article XXI clearly teaches and defends the genuine Catholic Tradition. Practically speaking, that means it teaches and defends the authority of Scripture. Anyone who reads the Fathers instead of merely invoking them, knows that defending the truth with the Scriptures in which it is taught, actually was the Patristic method.